Mad, But Hopeful

Aaaaand we’re back! After a long time away spending most of my time trying to navigate in another language (thanks study abroad!) I finally return. And I’m mad. 

Earlier this week, I read an article by Kate Marvel that can be found here. She was not the one to make me angry. What did was how much that article rang true. Marvel describes a hostile environment for women in science that I have recently had the luxury to (mostly) forget about. I am lucky to attend a university whose astronomy department is inclusive and doesn’t feel threatening. But reading this article has reminded me that I am going to have to leave this bubble eventually. And I’m mad.

I’m mad that as soon as I read this article I remembered every time a man – qualified or unqualified – implied or outright told me I shouldn’t be a scientist. The PE teacher who told me to be a tour guide instead. The physics teacher who warned me that another girl was applying to the same kind of summer science program I had asked for a recommendation letter for, and that she was really smart, even though I had an A in his class. Both semesters. The countless men who heard my choice of major and were surprised, condescending, unkind. I think about the fact that as insulated as I am by the astro department, a guy in my physics class invited me to join his study group last week and only briefly made the effort to meet my eyes instead of my chest.

I’m angry that even though my physics professor is happy when I ask clarifying questions in class about his derivations (“Shouldn’t that x be negative? Didn’t you define that variable differently only two steps ago?”) I find myself worrying that the men in my class will mistake it for a lack of understanding. I understand what’s being done. I just want to be sure the math is done right. I feel a pressing need to be perfect, to do no wrong, to understand everything instantly. I can’t be led astray by a misplaced negative.

I’m angry that even in a department where I feel included and treated equally, I am still uncomfortable answering a question unless I am 100% sure my answer is correct. I’m angry that I feel like one wrong answer will tip some invisible scale and I’ll be that girl who doesn’t know what she’s doing, that girl who doesn’t belong here. I’m angry because I know I belong, but that’s not enough. Unless everyone else agrees, I won’t get anywhere. I’m angry that “after four years I start to forget the nasal whine of a hostile question and the blood sport of talks to aggressive audiences” feels so familiar. The number of people who question me – outright or with subtlety – about my major outside of my safe university bubble is too vast.

I am angry, but I am hopeful. I am hopeful that the other women who have gone through this – astronomers or biologists or doctors – will help lift us up. Last month, my doctor asked me what I was studying. When I told her I was an astronomy and physics major, she responded without the shocked and confused pause I’m so used to hearing after I say those words. Instead, she smiled and asked “so, you’re going for a PhD then?”

I don’t know if she knew what that meant to me. The support of my family and friends aside, she was the first stranger that treated my choice of major like it was normal. Of course I was studying science. Obviously I’d be getting my PhD. There was no question. No statement that my choice was “unusual for a girl.” No moment of doubt. It was one woman who had worked hard, studied science, battled through and got her degree, looking at another and saying, “you are valid” without ever speaking those words aloud.

Women supporting other women is powerful. I carry my “vaccine” from Dr Urry close at hand, knowing that I have been inoculated against the idea that I don’t belong, that just because everything doesn’t always come to me instantly, the people around me struggle to learn just as I sometimes do. It is comforting to know that when I feel doubtful and uncertain, there is an army of white blood cells who have seen this disease before and remain ready for battle. I look at my mother, unwilling to let anyone treat her with disrespect, unwilling to let anyone assume she is any less than the intelligent, kind, strong woman she is, and know I too can demand my respect. I look at the respect given to Professor Hughes, our department’s only female faculty member, and I see proof that even though science sometimes feels like it’s against you, you can come out on top. There is a way to make it my own, and feel only the quiet peace I experience when I look up at the stars on my walk home.



The Importance of Representation Part 2: Middle and High School

This is part two of the importance of representation. Read part one here.

Now, on to middle school, widely regarded as the time most people would love to completely forget about. Am I a huge fan of middle school me? Not really. I’m definitely in the camp of people that would love to forget their embarrassing middle school selves. However, I will never look back with anything but happiness on the school itself.

I was lucky enough to attend an all-girl’s middle school called Julia Morgan School for Girls, or JMSG. Since being there, I have recommended it to any parent I meet who’s trying to decide where to send their daughter to middle school, and for good reason. The type of encouragement I was given to succeed and pursue my interests is one that I had not received from teachers before. Past teachers told me to follow my dreams and always try hard, but it was said to my whole class, not me directly. It was said without any acknowledgement of what difficulties I might face. It was a blanket statement given to every student. At Julia Morgan, we had small classes, which meant more direct attention and involvement, and we were encouraged to strive for our goals, even though they might be difficult. No one tried to pretend that my gender wasn’t going to make things harder. In 7th grade, my best friend was in a club that sent a letter to Senator Dianne Feinstein about the Equal Rights Amendment. We watched those Dove Real Beauty PSAs about how photoshop changes women’s bodies into unattainable ones. There was an acknowledgement that gender inequality still existed and would work against us. We were told about these things and showed these things, and then told “but you can still make it. You can still do what you want, if you work at it.” They addressed problems with self-esteem and self-respect. They had “four C’s” that they encouraged every girl to be: Confident, Capable, Caring, and Compassionate.

Aside from general encouragement to work hard, going to an all-girls school does wonders for in-class participation. Middle school tends to be the time where being the smart girl suddenly becomes a social faux pas. Where boys are praised for being smart and participating, the girls are told to be quiet. I was in public middle school for 6th grade, and I saw this firsthand. If people didn’t avoid you for being the nerd, they would try and convince you to let them copy your homework. The other girls in my class had already learned that it was better for them to be quiet. The boys were all loud and rowdy and participatory. In a 6th grade math class, one of my friends in the class started to feel like she was horrible at math and couldn’t do well. She talked to my teacher about it, near tears, and instead of offering her help, he suggested she ask me for help because I was a “smart chick.” While teachers gave male students direct help when they were confused, they largely ignored female students, or helped them grudgingly. Female students gave up on asking my teacher for help and came to me, knowing I not only understood the material but also the fact that if I didn’t help them, no one would. Some studies have even shown that teachers have a greater tendency to call on male students even into their college years. In a class full of girls, that wasn’t a problem. We were encouraged to participate and ask questions, and that became the environment. The staff while I was there was also almost all female, with only one exception. For girls looking for representation, we had someone in every field. They had projects that made STEM the fun thing to do. In 8th grade, about 10 other students and I stayed late after school for a few weeks to work on a robot so that we could participate in the LEGO robotics competition. We built the robot from a set starting base, and used a simplified application to program it to move. There was a map with objectives that were each worth different points. We scored well enough to make it through to the second competition. Every academic pursuit we showed interest in was encouraged.

This did not remain exactly the same in high school. My teachers were majority male, especially in STEM. You may remember that little anecdote in my first post about a teacher telling me I should be a tour guide instead of an astrophysicist. In my junior year, I applied to a summer science program through the UC system called COSMOS. I would spend four weeks at UC Irvine learning astrophysics from university professors, using the telescope, and doing a final project that involved observing and analyzing data. It was a dream. When I asked my (male) physics teacher to write one of my recommendation letters, he said, “Oh, COSMOS! Another kid in my class is applying to this, and they’re really smart,” and raised his eyebrows as if to suggest that I couldn’t compete with this mystery student. I went from a world where my pursuits were supported to one where it was implied that I wasn’t smart enough, and for no good reason. I ended my physics class with an A-, and I had showed an interest in science all year. And yet when I asked for this recommendation, it was implied that I wasn’t going to be good enough. Thankfully, the support I’d received at home and in middle school had stuck, and I knew better than to listen to these men who thought I couldn’t do it. I was accepted to the COSMOS program. Letter in hand, I walked to my physics classroom and told my physics teacher that I so appreciated him writing me a recommendation, because I had been accepted. I wanted him to know that even though he didn’t think I could get in, I had. I think all I got in response was “oh, that’s nice.” It wasn’t the answer I’d been hoping for, but I was still proud to be able to stand there with proof that I was capable. I had been confident in myself because of the representation I had. At home I had parents who supported me. My middle school was full of girls who loved science unapologetically. Without these things, I might have deflated when my teacher implied I wasn’t smart enough. Representation matters. COSMOS was my self-assigned litmus test. I knew I liked astronomy in theory, but I had never actually had to do it. I needed to know if I would like it, and if I would be good at it. Without COSMOS, I might not have decided to study astrophysics, and without the representation I had leading up to the time I applied, I might never have applied at all.

The Importance of Representation Part 1: The Early Years

This post is the beginning of a four part series on the importance of representation as a woman in science. Part one will cover general childhood, part two will discuss middle and high school, part three will discuss college, and part four will be all about grad school and beyond! A lot of parts one through three will be personal experiences, but ones that I either feel are similar to those experienced by other women, or that I have heard other women talk about too. With that introduction, let’s get into the early years of representation.

As much as I know she’s going to be modest and humble (and maybe a little embarrassed) reading this, one of the most beneficial representations of women in science for me has always been my mom. I grew up in a family where both of my parents had their PhDs, and it wasn’t presented as unusual. In my household, women being in science was completely normal. I sat at dinner tables where science was discussed among equals, and both of my parents always spoke to my brother and I as though we were adults. When I didn’t understand something, they never talked down to me or made me feel dumb for not understanding immediately, whether it was a science concept or some other aspect of my life. They never treated my younger brother and I any differently from one another. They encouraged exploration and experiments. I had kid’s science kits as a child, with little containers that had magnifying glass lids so that I could look closer at the bugs I caught in them. When I asked questions, they encouraged me to think first and see if I could figure out the answer myself. They are both people who think scientifically and work things out, and they always encouraged that in my brother and I as well. Just like they spoke to my brother and I as equals, they spoke to each other that way too.

Although my mom stopped working in the lab shortly after I was born, she and my dad still often discussed (and still discuss) all manner of scientific concepts, and there was never an imbalanced dynamic there. I grew up in a household where women doing science were seen as just as competent as men. It wasn’t questioned, it was accepted. I never felt like my parents didn’t want me to enjoy science. I once asked my mom a simple yes or no question, just to make sure I had correctly understood the difference between mitosis and meiosis. I got my answer – yes – as well as a half-hour explanation of why.

I’ve also always thought of my mom as smart, because she is. It’s clear from just one conversation with her that she’s sharp as a tack. Science topics aside, she thinks things through, and her conversations with me and with others are intelligent and thoughtful. She does the New York Times crossword every day. In pen. She challenges herself to learn new things and use her brain, and that’s clear to everyone who meets her. She’s also not afraid to stand up for herself. We were once having a conversation together about someone – who shall remain unnamed – who has a tendency to talk down to everyone they know. They spoke as though they were the most intelligent person there, and it could make you feel like they thought you were an idiot. My mom agreed with my frustration, and said something along the lines of, “they always talk to me like they think I need them to explain everything! It’s infuriating. I’m not an idiot. Sometimes I just want to swat them with my PhD!” My mom has never been the type to actually hit someone, but having a mom who wasn’t afraid to say she was intelligent and could stand up for herself was hugely beneficial in a world where women calling themselves smart can be seen as braggy, bossy, or conceited.

That’s not to say that my dad wasn’t helpful to me, either. Growing up in a family with two parents with doctorates meant I was constantly surrounded by science, and he encouraged me to work hard just as much as my mom did. But it’s always nice to have a female role model to look at and say, “she got a doctorate. She did it. So can I.” (I know I’ve totally embarrassed you with attention now, Mom, but it’s in a good way. Plus, it’s sorta my job to do that).

So what’s the takeaway here? Why is this important? Simple. From as early as elementary school, young girls are discouraged to pursue science. In a previous post, I referenced the fact that girls tend to be graded more harshly by teachers, but that’s not the only issue. The implicit bias towards more “feminine” careers is present even at an early age, as is the implicit bias against women in STEM. This comic from XKCD says it quite well:



The experience I had growing up meant that these things didn’t get to me nearly as much as they might have otherwise. If I ever felt discouraged, or not smart enough, I had someone to look at to prove me wrong. Any feelings of discouragement I felt at school were immediately eliminated when I got home. Positive female science role models and a positive environment for girls who like science are more beneficial than one might realize. So if you’re a parent with a daughter who thinks she likes science, make sure to encourage her. And if you’re a girl, a young woman, or anyone who likes science, look out for female scientists that you can look back on when you feel like you can’t do it. And if you can’t find one, just know that my mom is still getting letters addressed to Dr. Atcheson.


The Finkbeiner Test

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Yesterday, a friend of mine sent me a link to the wikipedia article about “The Finkbeiner Test.” This test is a checklist of things NOT to include when writing an article about a woman in science, created by Christie Aschwanden and named after Ann Finkbeiner. Finkbeiner had been asked to write a profile of a female astronomer “just before the magazine announced publicly that it needs to redress its problem with a gender balance that favors males.” She reportedly said “I honestly don’t care. What I won’t do, however, is write about this astronomer as a woman.” The Finkbeiner test is sort of the Bechdel test of science coverage. Here is the list of things you should not mention:

  • The fact that she’s a woman
  • Her husband’s job
  • Her child care arrangements
  • How she nurtures her underlings
  • How she was taken aback by the competitiveness in her field
  • How she’s such a role model for other women
  • How she’s the “first woman to…”

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Women in Science: Dr. Meg Urry

meg urry

Dr. Meg Urry is currently the President of the American Astronomical Society, was formerly on the Hubble space telescope faculty, and was chair of the Department of Physics at Yale University from 2007 to 2013. She double-majored in physics and mathematics at Tufts University, and then earned both an M.S. and a PhD in physics from Johns Hopkins. She then conducted a postdoctorate at M.I.T.’s Center for Space Research. She is a strong and active advocate for women and minorities in science, especially in astronomy. Dr. Urry studies Active Galactic Nuclei (AGN), and the relationship of normal galaxies to AGNs. Approximately two years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to meet her while she was giving a lecture at Wesleyan University (see my previous post about that), and talking to her again for this blog was an incredible experience.

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Vaccination: The First Time I Met Dr. Meg Urry

So I want to tell a story of the first time I met Dr. Margaret (Meg) Urry, President of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), Physics Chair at Yale, and one of my heroes. I did a Women in Science interview with her, which I’m typing up now (its a 45 minute interview, so it’s taking a while), and it was incredible.

I first met Dr. Urry when I took my tour of Wesleyan University. She was there to give their annual Sturm Lecture, and there was a meet and greet afterwards. At the time, she had just been elected as the next President of the AAS, and I was so excited that I would get to meet her that I think my hands were shaking. When I told her I was going to be an astronomy and physics major, she gave me nothing but encouragement. Then, she told me she was going to vaccinate me against something she thought I’d probably encounter at some point. I told a friend the same thing recently, and I think it’s good for every woman pursuing a career in STEM to hear.

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Yan Ping: An Awesome Woman in Science

Hey guys!

Most of you have probably heard about New Horizons successfully making it to Pluto. (YAY)! What you may not know is that the person responsible for designing the trajectory was Yan Ping, an amazing woman in science! Not only did the fly-by make it to Pluto, but it was only 70 seconds off of its projected flight time. A flight time that was 9 years, and covered a span of 3 billion miles. She is incredible!

Also, 25% of the New Horizons team is female! Go ladies!