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I am science … or am I?


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Kevin Zelnio kicked it off on Twitter with a hashtag, and then wrote a blog post that shared the details of his personal journey with science. Lots of folks have followed suit and shared their stories, too — so many that I can’t even begin to link them without leaving something wonderful out. (Search the blogs and Twitter for #iamscience and you’ll find them.)

I’ve been trying to figure out the best way to tell my own “I am science” story, but it’s complicated. Thus, I’m preemptively declaring this my first pass, and reserving the right to come back at it from a different angle (or two, or three) later.

One of the things I mentioned in my story at the ScienceOnline 2012 banquet is that I have always loved science. As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to understand how the pieces of my world work. I have thrilled at utility (and fun) of the problem-solving strategies that are part of a scientific approach to the world. I have contemplated the different observational, experimental, and conceptual tools different scientific disciplines bring to the table (and the ways that directing these different toolboxes to the same phenomena can give us starkly different understandings of just what is going on).

I wanted to learn science. I wanted to do science. But I lived in a culture that took pains to make it clear that girls and women were not supposed to be into science, so I should just cut it out.

Luckily for my love of science, well-behaved was not really a tool in my personal toolbox, at least when it came to edicts that got in the way of goals that mattered to me.

I probably got by with the normal ration of sexist crap. For example, I had the junior high math teacher who was convinced (and did not hide this conviction from his students) that Girls Just Cannot Do Math. Finishing geometry in one quarter so I could get the hell out of his classroom (for the matrix algebra class at the high school) was not just liberatory, but it let me give him a metaphorical poke in the eye. It did not, however, change his conviction about girls and math. I had the guidance counselor who was concerned that I was overloading with “hard” (i.e., math and science) courses when maybe it would be better if I took some home ec., or even a study hall.


As I went to a women’s college, I actually skipped the bulk of the classroom sexism I heard about from peers at other universities. None of my chemistry or physics professors started with the assumption that it was weird to have women in the classroom or the lab, which was nice. I did find out later that at least one of the professors had made offhand comments that chemistry majors at my alma mater probably weren’t “up to” graduate programs like the one I went to. Unless this professor was thinking that the graduate school experience should be all margaritas and hot stone massages, I have no idea what this impression was based on; in my graduating class, I was a fair to middling chemistry major (as some of the comments in my lab notebooks attest) — not one of the stars by any stretch of the imagination — and I was sufficiently “up to” the graduate program that I earned my Ph.D. in just over four years.


Of course, I got to bask in the sexism provided by students of a nearby technical school, which my boyfriend at the time happened to attend. Said boyfriend had taken to posting photocopies of each of my grad school acceptance letters on his door, proclaiming to the world (or at least to the frat) what a glorious geek his girlfriend was. After acceptance number 5 (out of 5 applications, to top-10 schools) was posted, a frat-brother said, “Wow, she must have applied to a lot of schools.” When told that the number of acceptances equalled the number of applications, he replied, “Ohh — affirmative action.”


Because clearly, how else could a chick (from a women’s college, no less) get into top graduate programs in chemistry?


And you know, that view was shared by at least some of the men in the graduate program I attended. Because nearly a quarter of our incoming class was female, it was clear to them that affirmative action had been in high gear during the admissions process. (Meanwhile, I was looking at the numbers and thinking, “Where the hell are the rest of the women?”) Women who did very good research, who got publishable results (and publications), and who got their Ph.D.s in four or five years (rather than six or seven or eight) were frequently looked upon with suspicion. They must be getting extra breaks from the system. Or maybe it was that their research focus was not very … significant. (There were never any reasoned arguments to back up the claims that a particular research focus was trivial; it just must be, because … well, she’s doing it.)

Meanwhile, of course, female TAs (in classes like thermodynamics) were treated with contempt by undergraduates. In instances where problem sets and solution sets disagreed about an answer, the fact that the solution set was prepared by a female was treated as reason enough to question its correctness.

Because women don’t really understand physical chemistry as well as men do (even, apparently, men who have not yet taken physical chemistry).

The fact that all of this garbage was clearly recognizable as garbage at the time didn’t make dealing with it any less tiresome. Some days there was barely enough energy just to do my own homework, grade the stacks of problem sets, and try to get things in the lab to function as they should. Keeping myself from punching the noses of the people who treated me as an interloper in science because I was a woman took up energy I could have used for other things.


Sexist crap not withstanding, I made it through. I got my Ph.D. in physical chemistry.

And then, things took an unexpected turn.

I was trying to write an NSF proposal to get funding for a post-doc I had lined up. I was very interested in the research in the lab in which I was planning to work. Indeed, I had been pretty enthuisiastic about the whole thing while I put together an NIH proposal to fund postdoctoral research in that lab. I could definitely imagine three years worth of learning about systems and measurment techniques that were new to me, and I could see it building on (and drawing upon) the things I had learned in my doctoral program in interesting ways.


But the NSF proposal I was writing was such that I could not describe the research project I was planning to undertake as a post-doc. Rather, the task was to describe the first project I envisioned undertaking as a principal investigator. In other words, tell us what you’ll contribute when you are officially a grown up scientist.


Now, I could think of lots of projects I would be qualified to pursue. I could even work out interesting projects in my general area of expertise that would be fundable. But, I was having trouble putting my heart into any of them. Imagining myself setting up a lab of my own to pursue any of these lines of research made me … sad.


I tried to ignore the sad feeling. I tried to put it down to slothful avoidance of the thinking and writing involved in the NSF proposal. But then, every time I’d try to make myself think past the few years of the impending post-doc, I got the same sad, empty feeling.


I knew I was still fascinated by science and its workings, still moved by the elegant model or the clever experiment. But it was becoming clear to me that in my heart I didn’t want to do science for the rest of my life. Serious reflection got me to the reasons: Doing science (i.e., being able to get funding to do science) would require that I focus my attention on the minutiae of a particular system or a particular problem; this is the approach that seems most effective in yielding the data and insight that solves scientific problems. But, the questions that kept me up at night were much broader questions about how, more generally, experiments tell us anything about the deep structure of the universe, how different methodological assumptions make the same phenomena tractable in different ways, what balance of hard-headed skepticism and willingness to entertain speculative hypotheses scientists needed to get the job done …


These were questions, clearly, that I would get into trouble for making the focus of my research were I working in a chemistry department. They had the smell of philosophy all over them. So I had to choose between being kept up at night by questions I couldn’t pursue professionally and pursuing questions I was not so interested in for a living, or admitting that my interest in science was primarily driven by an interest in philosophical questions and get myself the necessary training as a philosopher to pursue them. In some ways living a lie would have been the path of least resistance, but given how little I enjoyed being with me as I contemplated a loveless marriage to a scientific career, I figured I’d probably me cutting myself off from fellowship with other humans as well. So, I made the entirely selfish decision to do what I thought would make me happy.

Here, believe me when I tell you that it felt like a selfish decision in the time — not like a luxurious self-indulgence, but out and out selfishness. I leaked out of the pipeline. I could have improved the gender balance in science by one, and I didn’t. Instead of helping the sisters, I pursued my own individual happiness.


This is the thing I hate most about pervasive sexism. It makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. It’s hard not to feel that I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists, or that I have handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.


None of which is to say that my relationship with science is over.

My professional life as an academic philosopher is tied up with understanding how science, and the community that does science, works. If anything, I feel more connected to the intellectual enterprise as a whole, and its connection to other aspects of human flourishing, than I did when I was in the trenches working as a chemist. As an educator, I have an opportunity I might not have had if I were teaching primarily chemistry majors to help folks who fear science understand it better. As it happens, I also have the opportunity to teach lots of science majors (in my “Ethics in Science” course) how ethics matter to scientific knowledge-building, and to the project of sharing a world with non-scientists. Since I’m tickled to be paid to think about the questions that keep me up at night, I have enthusiasm and energy I might not be able to muster otherwise to call shenanigans on misrepresentations of the scientific enterprise, whether by policy makers or science teachers.

Science has my devotion as a philosopher; as a chemist, chances are I would have just been going through the motions.

I may have left the lab bench, but I haven’t left the conversation.

Occasionally, though, I have to grapple with the question of whether I’m in the conversation as an insider or an outsider. Do I really count in the tribe of science? If I don’t do science anymore, how can it make sense to claim that science is part of who I am?

I don’t know what I can say to that except that my love for science, my inclination towards scientific ways of navigating through my world, the formation of myself as a competent scientist as I was figuring out how to become an adult — these are things I cannot separate from my identity. These are features of myself I cannot turn off. If you deal with me, these are some of the facets you are likely to encounter.

Am I science? It sure feels that way to me.

Janet D. Stemwedel About the Author: Janet D. Stemwedel is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at San José State University. Her explorations of ethics, scientific knowledge-building, and how they are intertwined are informed by her misspent scientific youth as a physical chemist. Follow on Twitter @docfreeride.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Qrystal 5:47 pm 02/15/2012

    Oh, wow. This: “…pervasive sexism…makes your personal choices important to others in a way that they wouldn’t be if you were just an ordinary human being. It’s hard not to feel that I have let down people I have never even met by leaving the sparse ranks of women scientists, or that I have handed myself over to the pundits: one more example of a woman who couldn’t, or wouldn’t, hack it in science.”

    I feel this too.

    The difference in my story is this: I am not terribly upset about my decision to leave academia. I think it’s the perfect decision for me and what I want to achieve.

    However, since I am about half done what I need to do to get my PhD, I’m worrying about leaving too early. But in whose eyes will this “failure” be? My own, or the other females who I hope to inspire, or even just the statistical record of female accomplishment? And how much does this matter?

    I keep hoping there’s something in this PhD process that is FOR ME, to keep me pushing forwards for MY OWN reasons. Some days, what keeps me going is the sheer joy of seeing a gleam of clarity emerge from the mathematical physics I am exploring and explaining. Other days, I am wallowing in how far away I am from the pursuits I originally alluded to in the grant applications.

    I guess in my case, my problem is unlike yours in that there isn’t a conflict between my own interests and the ones expected of me in my work: I do get to pursue far-fetched goals. I just don’t like the uncertainty in having no idea how well the work is going or how long it will take to get to the end goal, what with the unforeseen roadblocks along the way. And I’m okay with deciding this path is not for me… but I’m not okay with the uncertainty about whether to stay on the path until the next junction, or to head back to the previous one to make my exit.

    All that said, I’d like to congratulate you on making your decision for yourself, and pursuing your passion despite it not following the ivory-lined path that is sometimes lauded as being “The Way”. I say yes: you ARE science, and since academia itself cannot actually support as many of us as they create, there will be an increasing number of us who will get to enjoy BEING science without being on the forefront of DOING the “official” “science work” “in the lab” (pardon my excessive quotation marks, but I felt that each part was said somewhat tongue-in-cheek).

    Cheers~!

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  2. 2. ejwillingham 6:36 pm 02/15/2012

    “I may have left the lab bench, but I haven’t left the conversation.” I think that answers your question, “Do I really count in the tribe of science?” Yes, you do.

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  3. 3. heather_goldstone 1:21 pm 02/16/2012

    Your story really struck a chord with me. I decided at the ripe old age of 12 that I wanted to become a marine biologist. I pursued that dream with a vengeance, all the way to a Ph.D. from M.I.T and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. But somewhere along the way, I fell out of love with ‘doing science.’ But, despite the fact that I’d never really suffered the kind of overt sexism you describe (my mom says I just fail to register it), the idea of becoming a statistic, of being one more woman who’d ‘left science’ weighed heavily on me. It took the birth of my first son to make me realize that there are some things more important than saving professional face. I followed my heart and left the lab to become a full-time science writer. I know that I have disappointed certain male mentors from my past, but I have never once been disappointed with my decision. Still, I have wondered if #IAmScience. Wonderful posts like yours suggest I am. Thanks!

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