The Miss America pageant is often judged to be somewhat of an insult to women. So I was once surprised to learn that the Miss America Organization is the world’s largest provider of scholarship assistance to younger women. A total of $45 million in cash and scholarships was given out last year by MAO and its affiliates, per the organization’s web site, assisting some 12,000 women and girls. Wow. That’s wonderful, and also a bit confusing. It’s as if there’s no escaping those unattainable beauty standards.

Here’s another sizable purse for women and it also comes from the beauty industry the L’Oreal USA Fellowships For Women in Science (administrated recently by the American Association for the Advancement of Science). This award is less confusing. The program awards five U.S.-based women post-doctoral researchers with up to $60,000 apiece. That would’ve more than tripled my average annual income in graduate school. It can cost so little to advance a researcher s work.

The fellows were chosen by an inter-disciplinary panel of scientists that based selections on applicants academic records and references, intellectual merit and clearly articulated research proposals that had potential for scientific advancement.

Christina Agapakis

Synthetic biologist and SA blogger Christina Agapakis at the L'Oreal For Women in Science fellowships award ceremony on September 13, 2012. Credit: Robin Lloyd

Christina Agapakis, a synthetic biology post-doctoral research fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles, was one of the five fellows this year, announced last week at a festive event at the Morgan Library in Manhattan. She blogs at The Oscillator, part of Scientific American s blog network.

At the dais, she gave an eloquent, gracious speech about the fact that platitudes and encouragement, such as “girls are the best and the smartest,” feel good but only go so far in advancing women’s careers in science. Agapakis noted that she attended Harvard during the 2000s era when the institution s then-president Lawrence Summers made ill-conceived comments that linked women s under-representation in science with a lack of aptitude at the high end.

Agapakis then read the passage below from Evelyn Fox Keller s Reflections on Gender and Science (Yale University Press, 1996), a feminist analysis of science and how we think about women s brains, as well as a call for gender-free science.

“[We should] seek a science named not by gender, or even by androgyny, but by many different kinds of naming. A healthy science is one that allows for the productive survival of diverse conceptions of mind and nature, and of correspondingly diverse strategies. In my vision of science, it is not the taming of nature that is sought, but the taming of hegemony.

The passage and the thinking that Keller has inspired since likely helped to set up one of the nine-year-old L Oreal prize s strengths: it promotes women in science not as something separate, something different, but as scientists in general, as Agapakis said.

Agapakis co-fellows this year include physicist Lilian Childress at Yale University, geneticist Joanna Kelley at Stanford University, anthropologist Erin Marie Williams at George Washington University and biochemist Jaclyn Winter at the University of California, Los Angeles, pictured below.


L'Oreal For Women in Science fellows, 2012

Biochemist Jaclyn Winter, anthropologist Erin Marie Williams, geneticist Joanna Kelley, biologist Christina Agapakis and physicist Lilian Childress at the L'Oreal For Women in Science fellowships awards ceremony on September 13, 2012, in Manhattan. Credit: Robin Lloyd