Keeping the Conversation Going – Sexism, Sexual Harassment and the Abuse of Power

If you haven’t been following, there has been a lot of buzz in the science writing community this week regarding sexism, racism, and sexual harassment, which was all spurred by a couple of disturbing events. Although most topics have already been covered, I wanted to recount the events for myself to sort it all out, but like others, I feel that this sort of info should be shared widely to raise awareness.

It all started last Friday with this.  Danielle Lee, author of Urban Scientist at Scientific American, was offered a position as a guest blogger for Biology Online.  When she learned that the position would be unpaid, she respectfully declined. She was answered with this: “Are you an Urban Scientist or an Urban Whore.”

Obviously this is unacceptable – sexist, disrespectful, and unprofessional.  Yet, after Lee published a post describing the incident, it was promptly removed from the Scientific American site.  The editor, Mariette DiChristina, tweeted and later published a hand-wavy apology at best. Due to the community’s overwhelming response (#IstandwithDNLee), the post was reinstated, and Mr. Smalltime Editor, “Ofek” as Lee referred to him, was fired.

Justice served?

Well, it gets more complicated. In this case Mr. Smalltime Editor was, rightfully, given the ax.  Yet unfortunately, firing one Ofek doesn’t rid the world of sexism – case in point, Mr. Bigtime Editor…

During SciAm’s blunders with the Ofek situation, Monica Byrnes, a writer and playwright, updated a year-old blog post about a sexual harassment experience; she altered it to name her assailant – none other than SciAm’s blog editor, Mr. Bigtime, Bora Zivkovic (see his apology).

It took while for the #scicomm community to digest this.  Many see Zivkovic as an inspiration, a friend, and an important mentor.  Many folks wondered if Byrne did the right thing naming Zivkovic, citing that he shouldn’t be thrown under the bus for one minor slip up, especially since he had apologized. Yet many, including myself, suspected that this was likely not an isolated incident and were angered that Mr. Bigtime was being held to different standards than Mr. Smalltime.

In solidarity many other bloggers came forward with their stories of sexism and harassment, and in what Hannah Waters describes as “the hardest thing I’ve ever had to write,” she came forward to tell her story of the discomfort imposed on her by Zivkovic.  Her post started the #ripplesofdoubt tag, in which many science writers are now reevaluating their career trajectories based on Zivkovic’s influence (or lack there of).

Although Zivkovic acknowledged his mistakes, the situation remained open. Then yesterday, much to the satisfaction of the community, ScienceOnline announced that Zivkovic resigned.  Later, word was spread at SciAm that Zivkovic’s would be taking leave.

Justice served?

Probably not.  Many were left with a sense of disillusionment, a sense of “so now what?” Then in an absolutely gut-wrenching post, Kathleen Raven came forward with yet another account of harassment by Zivkovic. More questions were raised: How long had this predator been allowed to prey on young women?  How many will still come forward? Or worse, how many won’t?

Later today, Zivkovic fully resigned from SciAm.

And so what’s to come?  Maybe this experience has brought new awareness to the mentor-mentee power dynamic; maybe Laura Helmuth’s mantra of “Don’t be a creep” will hold more weight given the circumstances; maybe skeptics will be more aware of “gaslighting;” maybe people will become stronger allies; maybe things will go back to the way they were.

Regardless, the role of the communicators involved has been expanded – it has become apparent that we need to make it our job to bring more awareness to the forms and effects of harassment.  Ladybits is leading this front and has now set up a page specifically for people to share, vent, and grieve about their stories.  Hopefully with this awareness will come empowerment.

Let’s keep the conversation going.

Reporting in Japan


I got to do some sightseeing too. This is me at Kinkakuji, the Golden Pavillion.

Two weeks ago, I travelled to Kyoto to report on the Materials Research Society-Japan Society of Applied Physics joint symposium.  What an amazing experience!  I had never reported on a live event before, so I was immediately over my head.  But by the end of the conference, however, I had finally gotten my bearings and was holding my own.

What I noticed was that I use a different kind of listening when I go to a talk as a reporter compared to when I go as a scientist. Usually, as a scientist, I go to talks within my field and await the presentation of a new, but not entirely unexpected result.  I understand the techniques and the approach, and I look for accuracy and novelty. As a reporter, I was attending talks that I didn’t fully understand, so I needed to catch every detail, record every result, and note what the speaker found most important.  Since the majority of  material was foreign, I was especially forced to rely on my notes so that I could revisit the details I didn’t understand before writing up the report. Although this was a challenging experience, it was also rewarding – it was amazing to see the information I could absorb in such a short amount of time!

I often question the need to pursue a PhD with the desire to go in to writing, but this experience solidified the reason – I can sit through a talk full of graphs and equations and pull out the important information, even if it’s not in my field.  Equally, I often question whether science communication is the right career choice, but after I enjoyed producing 1200-1400 words daily, covering a broad variety of physics (not chemistry) topics, I feel like my query was answered.

The trip was funded by the apprentice science reporter award I received from the International Society for Materials Research.  My reports from the meeting were published in the MRS Meeting Scene newsletter.  You can find them here.

A role model woman in science

Coincidentally, following my post “Talking About Smart Women,” I was recruited to write an article for the MRS Bulletin about the recent invention of this year’s L’Oreal-UNESCO laureate from Europe.  Of course, I jumped at the opportunity.

Prof. Pratibha Gai from the University of York won the Women in Science award for her development of the Environmental Transmission Electron Microscope (E-TEM). The original Transmission Electron Microscope (TEM) was designed in the 1930’s by Max Knoll and Ernst Ruska, and Ruska later won a Nobel prize for it’s invention.* This microscopy technique allows the operator to view single atoms, features a quarter of a nanometer in size (or 10,000,000,000th of a meter). The instrument is capable of this fine resolution because instead of using light as the probe like a classical microscope, it uses electrons. This is necessary since the wavelength of the probe must be smaller than the the object being investigated: since electrons are fractions of the size of atoms (remember electrons are part of atoms), atomic-scale features can be observed. Light has a wavelength of about 400 nanometers, so it is incapable of focusing in on atoms.

The problem with a normal TEM is that it requires the sample to be at cryogenic temperatures (think liquid nitrogen and Terminator) and in ultra high vacuum (essentially the vacuum of space). These conditions are required to freeze out any molecular motion and to ensure sample cleanliness (you can’t have a dirty sample if there is no atmosphere!). The problem is that, if you want to study a chemical reaction, you need to be at real-life, ambient conditions.

This is where Prof. Gai comes in. Her E-TEM is capable of imaging single atoms under “environmental” (ambient) conditions, which she achieved by creating a tiny area above the sample where gas is controllably flowed. This modification was very difficult because the sample still needs be accessed by the electrons, which are dissipated by gas. The design has now been commercialized and is being used world-wide.

Not only did Prof. Gai develop an amazing new scientific tool, but she is very positive about the role of women in science. She met me for the first time as I interviewed her, but when she found out I am also a scientist, she encouraged me to stay in the field. She noted that since women make up half of the population, it is important that they make up half of the scientists too.

You can find my article about Prof. Gai and her newest E-TEM work here.

*Ruska actually shared the prize with Binnig and Rohrer for their invention of the scanning tunneling microscope, the instrument I work on.

Out of the Safety Zone

This spring, Nature ran their Careers Columnist Competition in which young writers vied for their chance to write for the Nature Careers section and their blog.  I was one of the finalists for the competition, but I didn’t make the final cut.  Since I was writing about science communication, I thought I would share my entry here.

Make connections.  Network.  These are recommendations graduate students hear often enough.  But what about doing these things out of your comfort zone?  Since I am interested in alternative scientific careers, particularly science policy, my attempt at addressing the former pieces of advice was to join the planning team of my university’s annual energy conference.  The school of public policy hosts the event, attracting high-profile speakers such as Gov. Bill Richardson, Gov. Michael Dukakis, and Congressman Ed Markey, and I thought that planning the conference would give me an unprecedented view of the policy world and the opportunity make connections along the way.  It did.  But more importantly, I ended up with a newfound perspective on communicating science that I could have only obtained by explaining my work to professionals outside of my field, by taking a leap outside of my familiar realm of physical chemistry.

Although my research is far from applied – I use microscopy to understand catalytic systems in ultra-high vacuum at cryogenic temperatures – it falls under the renewable energy umbrella.  I jumped into the conference as the content co-director, with the naivety that energy policy would be easily accessible to me based on my background.  I had certainly participated in energy-focused symposia at scientific conferences; I thought, “How different could it be?” However, as I began working closely with a number of students and professors of the policy world, I quickly realized how far outside my comfort zone I had plunged.  I began to understand what they judged as hot topics: energy efficiency in China, exporting natural gas, and developing of arctic resources, among others.  In fact, renewable energy, although part of the discussion, took a backseat to energy access and security.

Of course, this perspective was not new or entirely unexpected to me, but I had previously reserved these opinions for older, more experienced decision makers.  It was humbling to see members of my own generation with these big-picture viewpoints. I began to see the irony of my role as one of the conference’s content directors, since I investigate molecular-scale interactions on a daily basis. What was even more thought provoking about my nascent policy insights was that I began to see how I could contribute to these students’ perspectives by making science easily accessible to them.

Many of the other conference planners reacted with the all-too-familiar knee jerk when I told them my field, and I began to rethink my strategy for discussing my research with non-scientific audiences.  I wanted to be ready to deliver an intelligible elevator talk to anyone that attended the event. I am not unfamiliar with this territory – I have done science presentations for high school students – but some of the expected attendees had not taken high school chemistry in 20 years. So, I kept rehearsing my research summary, and with each iteration, I took another step back and widened the scope. By the time I had finished, I was hardly talking about my research at all, merely touching upon the most important points and focusing more on the broader impacts.  And then the light bulb turned on: this is why scientists must go in to policy.  We need explain the “boring” details in a way that is exciting and within the context of global issues.

I’m not sure from my first attempt that I captivated all of my audiences when discussing my research, but I did share some ideas with a few interested folks. It’s also no surprise that I made the best connections with the people to whom I gave the most refined elevator talks, since they understood me the best. More importantly, I found that I really enjoyed trying to look at science from this macroscale lens, solidifying my desire to seek out a non-traditional career. Regardless of my employment interests, however, I would have never learned these important communication skills, which are vital for landing any job, if I hadn’t taken that initial leap out of the safety zone of science.

Talking About Smart Women

On July 9, Natalia Hawk at Mamamia wrote an article highlighting the 4 newest female additions to NASA’s astronaut team.  She notes that these women weren’t chosen due to a diversity quota, but simply because they were the best candidates for the job.  She asserts that we should be talking about these women, and that ladies of this caliber should be as prominent in our popular culture as, say, Kim Kardashian.

I couldn’t agree more.  The media’s coverage of celebrity antics (both male and female) is absurd, especially when there are real-life, intelligent role models to report on.  More so, when a scientific breakthrough does manage to sneak into the media, the work is usually spearheaded by a man.  A classic example of this is the story of Rosalind Franklin, who’s groundbreaking x-ray crystallography techniques played a crucial role in deciphering the structure of DNA; two gentlemen, Watson and Crick, are usually the only researchers credited with this discovery.

So here is my attempt to start talking about smart women.  I have compiled a few websites dedicated to highlighting the important role and ground breaking work of women in STEM fields.

If you haven’t heard of Rosalind Franklin, these lists by Smithsonian Magazine and Encyclopedia Britannica are great places to start learning about historic female scientists.

Here is a great recent effort by the Department of Energy to highlight the women in their labs: Women @ Energy

The L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women in Science Program provides yearly awards to women who are making doing performing important research in science.  Each year 15 young researchers (doctoral/post-doctoral) in the life sciences are awarded fellowships, and 5 eminent women in science are also recognized.  Their profiles are on the website.

Finally, the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy has a page of resources available about administration’s push to engage girls in STEM fields.

Let’s talk about smart women!