Monday, July 21, 2014

Why So Few? Spatial Skills

The 2010 report entitled, Why So Few? Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics, by the American Association of University Women (AAUW), investigates the area of spatial skills learning. One of the largest and most persistent gender gaps in cognitive skills is found in the area of spatial skills, where boys and men consistently outperform girls and women on average. Spatial skills are thought to be critically important for success in fields such as engineering, and many people believe that they are innate and, therefore, some believe that the gender difference in spatial skills explains why there are so few women in engineering, for example.

Research highlighted in the report, however, shows that spatial skills are not fixed and can improve dramatically in a short time with training. This picture shows a sample question on mental rotation, one example of spatial skills. Do you know the right answer? It is D.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Associate Professor of Physics at a Small Liberal Arts College

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with an astronomer turned Associate Professor of Physics. S/he is the only astronomer in her/his department within a small liberal arts college. In the profile below, s/he discusses the enjoyable aspects as well as the challenges of her/his position. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.



Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Elite Male Faculty Employ Fewer Women

MIT 2011My title has removed the words "in the Life Sciences" from the title of an article published June 30 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.  While I do not have statistics to demonstrate the universality of this conclusion, I do have some relevant experience and connections to the work to share.



In their article, MIT biology graduate student Jason Sheltzer and physics graduate Joan C. Smith showed that senior male professors in biology, especially those who have prestigious awards or are members of the National Academies, train a significantly smaller percentage of female graduate students and postdocs than their female or junior colleagues.  The most prestigious labs, led by men and offering many of the best career development opportunities, are the least likely to train women.  The data are convincing, and the effect is clear: women are less likely than men to get either the professional development opportunities or the top letters of recommendation from these prestigious labs.  It’s no wonder that only 36% of assistant professors in biology are women, even though half of the PhDs in biology go to women.

I have a very personal perspective on this study.  Joan C. Smith was an undergraduate physics major at MIT while I was the Physics Department Head.  We worked together to organize the 2011 Northeast Conference for Undergraduate Women in Physics, a national conference of great importance to our field (a photo of which is at the head of this blog entry).  She is also a superb experimental physicist, programmer and engineer.  I am thrilled that she turned her statistical and data analysis talents to shine such a clear light on a major problem of the professoriate.

It’s personal too

But it’s not just the biologists who should ask, “Have I done everything I can to identify, encourage and advance talented individuals applying to my research group?”  You see, Sheltzer and Smith were led to this study when they heard a physics graduate student at a dinner party mention she was the first female student her advisor had graduated in 20 years.  I couldn’t help but wonder, was it my graduate student they spoke with?  So I looked up my record and found an 18-year gap between my PhDs awarded to women, 2 out of 16 total.  Ouch.  As I spoke with pride of my students and their successes over the years, I never stopped to think about how I was shaping the future face of the profession.

In recent years my research group has been gender balanced; by including undergraduates, that is easy to achieve even in theoretical astrophysics at MIT.  However, we must ask not what is easy, but what is right.  Unless "elite male faculty" recruit, mentor and promote more women and others from underrepresented groups, science will suffer from our failure to adequately draw talent from more than half the population.

I encourage other faculty members, male and female, to take this matter personally, too.

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Painting is Worth Three Hundred and Eleven Words

Hiring statistics, harassment, bias, glass ceiling, discrimination, ….   All important topics to discuss and address to improve our world.  But I have a more cheery subject on my mind today, namely art.  Scientific American had an on-line article in March on art depicting women in STEM fields.  The pages were filled with interesting paintings and discussions of the scientists depicted.  See
http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/15-works-of-art-depicting-women-in-science/

The author, Maia Weinstock, comments on the importance of art and design in science and technology and morphs STEM into STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math).  Pictures and paintings of scientists have historically concentrated on male subjects.  Since pictures have such an important effect on our perception and memory, it is important to highlight the few works of art that depicted women scientists … and to create more of them!

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I particularly like the painting of Marie Curie holding a test tube with the outline of a snake around it.  It is “Marie Curie"  painted by Jeff Fenwick.  Her eyes are locked quizzically on the tube seemingly pondering the nature of the radioactive material it contains.  Is the snake meant to be a sinister hint of the radiation dangers of her research that eventually led to her death?  Or, as the author Jeff Fenwick points out, does it represent the Rod of Asclepius symbol of medicine which greatly benefited from the discover of radioactive materials?



Other paintings and drawings include those of scientists such as chimpanzee expert Jane Goodall, discoverer of the Cepheid luminosity-period relationship Henrietta Swan Leavitt, X-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin, and astronauts Mae Jemison and Sally Ride.  They are of different styles and quite interesting to view.

The author will be the guest curator of an exhibition of a selection of these art works at the Art Science Gallery in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.  It would definitely be worth a visit.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Career Profiles: Astronomer to Head of Bioinformatics

The AAS Committee on the Status of Women in Astronomy and the AAS Employment Committee have compiled dozens of interviews highlighting the diversity of career trajectories available to astronomers. The interviews share advice and lessons learned from individuals on those paths.

Below is our interview with Alicia Oshlack, an astronomer turned Head of Bioinformatics for Murdoch Children's Research Institute at the Royal Children's Hospital. She is very satisfied with her job and the family friendly environment. If you have questions, suggestions, advice to share, etc. about this career path, please leave a comment below.

For access to all our Career Profile Project interviews, please visit http://aas.org/jobs/career-profiles. We plan to post a new career profile to this blog every Thursday.