June 12, 2014 | 6
At a time when we are still seeing subtle and not-so-subtle opposition to fostering young girls’ interest in STEM disciplines and to women’s mobility in professional science, it’s encouraging to see this ad from Verizon asking parents to not squelch their daughters’ natural curiosity. Take a look at it.
The ad follows a narrative that might be depressingly familiar to female scientists; well-meaning parents (or teachers) tell their daughter not to waste too much time on a school science project, well-meaning parents tell their daughter not to get her clothes dirty poking around in a stream, well-meaning parents tell their daughter not to handle a drilling tool because it’s too dangerous (and then ask her to hand it to her brother). The ad ends with the girl choosing lipstick over participation in a school science fair.
What’s striking to me is how subtle and supposedly well-meaning the parents’ actions are. But the result is a gradual erosion of natural curiosity; it’s the death of curiosity by a thousand benevolent cuts. The reason the ad resonated with me is that, in spite of being a man, I could actually identify very similar situations from my own childhood where my parents could have potentially discouraged my curiosity but instead chose to channel my interest in science. When I started bringing beetles and other bugs home my mother, instead of asking me to throw them out and looking disgusted, lent me her jam jars to house them and study their life cycle. When I started keeping bread out in the open to observe the growing mold – and at one point even brought home some mold growing on dog poop – my parents did not scold me or recoil but instead bought me a microscope and encouraged other, more constructive ways to indulge my interest in microscopic life forms. When I tried to perform a potentially dangerous experiment to electrolyze saline solution and isolate sodium (in the intellectual tradition of Humphry Davy), my dad bought me an electronics set that could achieve the same goal with lower voltages. My parents turned almost every opportunity they could find to potentially criticize or scold me into constructive endeavors instead.
And then there were all the books. When my dad found out I was interested in microbiology he pointed me to Paul DeKruif’s famous book “Microbe Hunters” that charted the heroic efforts of scientists like Pasteur and Koch in defeating disease. Even at a young age he made his extensive collection of science books available to me, some of which dealt with aspects of human anatomy that might have been considered by other parents to be a little too, well, “advanced” for such a young boy. Those books in turn led to my interest in biomedical research, an interest that led me on to the professional path which I currently tread on. A similar attitude by her parents led my wife to pursue a graduate degree in computer science at MIT; from what she recalls, her parents treated her and her brother’s curiosity about mechanical gadgets in exactly the same way.
The result of my parents’ behavior was that I could let my intellectual curiosity roam wherever I wanted it to, but the key point is that I did not possess some special inborn scientific capability that was just waiting to be set free. Instead my curiosity was as natural as that of the girl in the video. Children are natural scientists who simply want to find out more about the world. I wanted to catch beetles when I saw them and I wanted to try to repeat experiments by great scientists when I read about them. But unlike the parents in that Verizon video, mine did not worry that I would bring home dirt or disease or blow up stuff. Instead they realized that this was the best possible way to let me learn science by myself, and they nonchalantly nurtured or at least tolerated this interest and led it in productive directions. Hopefully parents and teachers will take a look at that ad and consider doing the same for their kids, and especially for their daughters who already have the deck stacked against them by traditions and culture.
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