Sunday, November 9, 2014

Women in Science, Revisited

This post is here because earlier today someone asked me to think of a reason to build a scholarship. I thought of Jessie.

Jessica Justice was a dishwasher that became a scientist.  This is what I wrote about her, and it was published on April 7, 2010 on Skepchick.  Make sure you read the next post tomorrow.  If this moves you at all, tomorrow will bring tears.

The topic is important today as it was then, and your note is still priceless Jessie.

Science Needs Women
Kevin M. Folta
In three weeks I will put on the cap-and-gown professor outfit I bought on Ebay and witness something that probably never should have happened: the graduation of a self-described dumb blonde. Jessie came to my laboratory looking to make some extra cash as a dishwasher. Little did she know that she would be remolded, repackaged and refocused by a cadre of women that identified a change that needed to happen, then took the initiative to make it so.
In my laboratory the ratio of X to Y chromosomes is traditionally skewed to about twelve to one. The reason is not clear, but the majority of the technicians, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates in my program are female, and it has always been that way. One residue of the phenomenon has been that I get to observe the powerful influence that strong women have in shaping the career, and sometimes personal, choices of young women entering science.
It happens every semester, but Jessie was the most stunning example. She would take on simple tasks like dishwashing and lab maintenance with a certain care and precision not seen in most twenty year olds. But when I asked her if she’d like to take on a laboratory project all she would say is, “I probably can’t do it, I’m not smart enough.”
That sentiment was echoed every time she was assigned a task. She had self esteem that was so low it defied accurate analogy. Yet every time I would show her a technique, computer program or protocol she would execute it flawlessly after a flurry of “I probably can’t do it” and “I’m not smart enough.” I don’t know why she was so eternally self-deprecating, but it was sad to see her downplay, if not completely discount, her inherent talents and abilities.
The women in my lab took special notice of this situation. At the time there was a technician and three graduate students, all balanced, opinionated and strong. Most of all they were complete, with good relationships overlaid with conspicuous hint of glamour. They were maybe four years older than Jess, making their influence especially strong. They dug one layer deeper into Jessie than I would want to; discovering her dysfunctional relationships with males, her horrendous daily decisions and the penetrance of her miserable self perception that negatively impacted many facets of her life.
Leading by example, they showed her that women could drive science and lead a high-powered research team. They cultured her talents, supported her good decisions and taught her flawless execution of advanced scientific tests. Their influence would escape the walls of the lab, as they’d reprimand her when she’d talk about the dopes she’d date and the poor decisions she’d make at home. Soon, the growth was visible and rapid. The self-described ugly duckling was changing.
After a year in my lab with Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma, Jessie left to pursue advanced training within her major. She wrote up her work, turning in a graduate-level synopsis of the literature and her results. She had a visible sense of confidence, a new maturity and poise that contrasted so starkly against that of the “dumb blonde” that started in my lab only a year before.
Last week, years after she left my lab, I received a tiny card in my university mailbox buried amongst the junk mail. Inside was an invitation to a graduation. From Jessie. Adjacent to the time, date and event details was a handwritten note. “Thank you for teaching me how to think critically.”

One of the most important messages I ever received.

Sure, maybe I had a hand in it, but the best thing I did was mentor four stellar women scientists that took the initiative to guide her.
The rare success of a grant funded, a scholarly paper accepted, or putting the hood on a new Ph.D. are all wonderful, memorable moments in the life of an academic scientist. However, this victory was especially sweet. I folded that card inside-out, permanently wedged it into the frame of my office bulletin board, and then sent congratulatory emails to the four women that changed Jess’s thinking, influenced her decisions, and maybe even saved her life.
****  This post was first online in April of 2010.  In January 2012 we would suffer a tremendous loss. The next post details that tragedy ***


Anonymous said...

Pure ignorance, greed, navel-gazing, and our failing education system (because of professors like yourself) are to blame for the current culture war on food.

The absolutist, saviour complex of the you and the status quo is flabbergasting.
The long-term effects of GMOs have just started to be researched. The current industry-led science ignores that we are 90% bacteria (like plants) and only 10% human cells. Big Ag research ignores this and only observes our cells reactions to Roundup/Glysophates. Well… like plants, our stomach bacteria, needed to process our nutrients, is disrupted. All the new gut (Microbiome) science that is being mapped, realizes the important pathways our flora is to our whole health.
Obvious to most… BUT... the industry and it’s huge supply chain have a lot to lose. So there are many reason for them to be employing the social engineering that has created this culture war.
The industry continue to discredit multi-disciplinarian thinkers (Taleb, Seneff, Shiva, now Nye etc.) that are looking at the broader genetics of our ecosystems and understand the most influential science in our current food system… POLITICAL.
Big Ag is spending millions paying politicians and other mouthpieces (Mark Lynas) to read a teleprompter and to change their minds about GMOs. Read these leaked documents outlining the plan (w/script) years before Mark Lynas made his public charade in the EU.
And we need all this for what? For higher yields, profits, dirty paychecks, and papayas without spots? We have a surplus of GMOs and the much of the world does not want their economies destroyed by our smut imports?
Have we not learned from history? There have been many times in the history of science where correlation is causation. Rachel Carson’s correlation on Monsanto’s DDT in the 60s had scientists calling her a crackpot. How could Nobel prize winning science be wrong everyone asked?!?!? It takes mavericks like Taleb and Seneff that are looking at broader systems through correlation because science is not available to give us causation.
I’m going to look at our current health crisis, trust my gut, and eat organic.
Excerpt from wiki on Correlation as Scientific Evidence: “Since it may be difficult or ethically impossible to run controlled double-blind studies, correlational evidence from several different angles may be the strongest causal evidence available.[20] The combination of limited available methodologies with the dismissing correlation fallacy has on occasion been used to counter a scientific finding. For example, the tobacco industry has historically relied on a dismissal of correlational evidence to reject a link between tobacco and lung cancer.[21]”

Victoria said...

Where is the next post? What happened to Jessie? Wait. I don't think I want to know. Never mind. I choose to believe in PhD's and grants and publications.

I, too, was hired to wash glassware as an undergraduate. I, too, had a relentless mentor. Unlike Jessie, though, I never struggled with confidence and I was first published as a sophomore at age 19. The world is a far better place thanks to people like you and Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma. I thank all of you.

Kevin M. Folta said...

I have no idea what this has to do with the essay above. Do you support women in science?

synsei said...

What a load of hogwash you're preaching here!