Happy Birthday to Emmy Noether

As you may have seen on Google’s page, this March 23rd marks what would have been Emmy Noether’s 133rd birthday. If you hadn’t heard of Emmy Noether before, you’re not alone (I hadn’t either); it just goes to show how easy it is for scientists to be lost to time even when their discoveries aren’t. So let’s take a look at Emmy Noether’s contributions to science/math.

Emmy Noether was born in Germany on March 23rd, 1882. As a child, she was not noted for being academically gifted, although family friends remarked on her talent for solving logic puzzles. She studied at the University of Erlangen, which, in addition to only having 2 female students out of almost a 1000 total, only allowed her to audit classes. In spite of this, Dr. Noether would eventually successful complete a dissertation in mathematics in 1907. After being introduced to the work of David Hilbert, she began her first forays into abstract algebra. David Hilbert went on to get her a teaching position at his university, although the school would not pay her and only referred to her as his assistant. She eventually received recognition of her status of a professor, along with a small salary. Unfortunately, as in too many histories of German scientists, the rise of the Nazi party in Germany came with the expulsion of Jewish professors from their posts. Although Dr. Noether continued to meet with students to discuss mathematics, she eventually left Germany for a paid position at Bryn Mawr College, where she worked until her death in 1935.

Much as it pains me to admit, I cannot hope to properly explain Emmy Noether’s contributions to the field of abstract algebra, particularly non-commutative algebra (where the commutative property no longer applies). Suffice to say, her contributions to mathematics and theoretical physics helped theoretical mathematics to become a field of study, and are still being used today. So happy 133rd birthday to Dr. Noether!

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WCS Q&A with Jill Cornell Tarter

As part of her visit to campus for the Danz lecture last week, Jill Cornell Tarter spent some time answering questions and discussing science and her experiences with WCS members. Here are a few of the interesting and thought-provoking things we learned about Dr. Tarter and SETI:

Dr. Tarter’s favorite color is blue, her hobbies include flying small planes and samba dancing, and her favorite element on the periodic table is silver. If she could visit any other planet (without concern for environmental or technological restrictions), she would visit Mars to look for signs of life in its subsurface aquifers. Her second-favorite movie is Awakenings, which tells the story of Oliver Sacks and his work with a drug that could awaken catatonic patients. She is currently reading the book What If? by Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic.

While she’s had an accomplished career and is very well-respected in her field, Dr. Tarter faced a lot of challenges during her undergraduate and graduate education. She was the only woman in her class of 300 engineering majors at Cornell. Since the women’s dorms were locked from 10 pm to 6 am, she had to do all of her problem sets alone while her classmates were working together in the men’s dorms. She received a generous scholarship from Procter & Gamble, but when she got married, her scholarship was cancelled, as they assumed she would leave college to start a family. Instead, she was already planning to go to graduate school for astronomy (the administration at Cornell advocated for her, and she got her scholarship back). When she started graduate school, someone told her and the other two women in her class that they were “lucky” to be there because all the smart men had been drafted for Vietnam. However, she persisted and was able tok

Dr. Tarter spoke very highly of the movie Contact, whose main character was based on her. Carl Sagan, who was on the board of SETI and knew a lot about its research, wrote the original film treatment as well as the novel (published before the film was actually made). The most significant mistake in the film is when Ellie Arroway says “You know, there are four hundred billion stars out there, just in our galaxy alone. If only one out of a million of those had planets, and just of out of a million of those had life, and just one out of a million of those had intelligent life; there would be literally millions of civilizations out there.” – the math just doesn’t work out. Other than that, the movie was very realistic in its portrayal of science and SETI. Jodie Foster, who played the protagonist and worked closely with Dr. Tarter to get her character right, said that her goal wasn’t to teach the audience about science, but to show them that scientists are real people.

I also learned a lot about the way SETI does science. Its goal is not specifically to find extraterrestrial intelligence, but to answer the question of whether or not it exists. Dr. Tarter was careful to make this distinction, refusing to make assumptions about possible alien life and emphasizing that she doesn’t know the answers to many related questions. SETI scientists have to be very rigorous when it comes to investigating any signal. They must consider all potential explanations, including the possibility of a hoax conducted by someone trying to fool them. Dr. Tarter is also very aware of the potential implications of her work, and what finding a signal would mean for human civilization.

It was inspiring to be able to spend some time talking to Dr. Tarter about her life and work, in contrast with the big-picture, meaning-of-life (but also inspirational) tone of her public lecture.

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Photos from the Danz lecture and Q&A with Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter

Photos from the 2015 Danz lecture, featuring Dr. Jill Cornell Tarter of SETI, cosponsored by WCS. All photos by Jeffrey Buenaflor.

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Photos from Echo Lake Science Night

Jeffrey, Rae, Caitlin, and Heidi presented at Science Night at Echo Lake Elementary School in Shoreline. We did a nanotechnology activity where we made rainbow thin films from clear nail polish (more information here).

All photos by Jeffrey Buenaflor.

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What I learned from STEM Career Day at Hazel Wolf K-8 School

Recently, Sarah and I participated in a STEM Career Day event at Hazel Wolf K-8 School in Seattle. We were asked to explain to a group of middle school students what we do and why we do it.

While “grad student” is not technically a career (although some people try to make it into one), I liked having the opportunity to explain what grad school is. When I was in middle school, I had a vague idea that there was more school after college and that you could somehow be a “doctor” in a non-medical field, but that was about it. I didn’t know that I could get paid to be in a chemistry Ph. D program or that I would be a student for five years despite only taking classes for one year. Even in college, when I did undergraduate research and talked to grad students, I didn’t really know how grad school worked until junior year, after attending an info session hosted by my department. I hope the students we talked to will be more informed than I was.

I also wanted to emphasize the difference between experiments done in science classes and in research labs. In classes, you’re using hands-on activities to gain a better understanding of some concept, but your teacher and textbooks already know the right answer. In research labs, it’s often the case that no one in the world knows the right answer or has done your experiment before, and you’re creating new knowledge instead of learning stuff that’s already known. The Illustrated Guide to a Ph D, by Matt Might, provides a great visual description of this idea. This is one of the things I love about science, but sometimes I lose sight of it because I’ve been bogged down in the day-to-day challenges. Sometimes, taking a step back helps me remember why I’m here.

After explaining what grad school is for, we talked about how we got into chemistry in particular. This was fascinating (maybe more so for me than for the students…) because it prompted me to reflect on my own interests and motivations. I didn’t have much of a relationship with chemistry growing up – I remember taking a summer class where we made slime and burned colorful metal salts, and I remember learning about the periodic table and being assigned to do a project on holmium (I wanted a more exciting element, or at least one that I could actually get a sample of). But I liked all of my classes, and my interests were all over the place. It wasn’t obvious that I would end up in chemistry, or even in science – although now, I can’t picture myself doing anything else.

At the beginning of our presentation, we asked the students what they thought of when they heard the words chemistry (mixing things, explosions, potions class in Harry Potter), nanotechnology (really small), and solar energy (solar panels). We returned to these concepts later to talk about what we do in our research. Sarah discussed her work with flexible solar cells and nanocrystal inks, while I told the students about quantum dots and using light and color to learn about the energy of materials. We showed them a flexible solar panel built into a bag, nanocrystal inks for printing CZTS solar cells, and luminescent solar concentrator films. I know that I was really interested in solar energy and the environment when I was their age, and I hope we sparked their interest as well. It’s also exciting to think about how far the field has developed in the past decade or so, and how far it will advance by the time these students would be in grad school (just look at the NREL efficiency chart for different types of solar cell technologies!).

I enjoy doing outreach activities like this not only because I get to share my knowledge of science with people who are excited about learning, but also because it helps me gain perspective on my research and career.

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Next Week: Professor Jennifer Ross, (UMass Amherst) “Mentoring Grad Students and Postdocs to Achieve in Academic Science”

January 13th 2:00-3:00pm, UW Health Sciences G-328
Following Prof. Ross’ PBio seminar in the same room.
Associate Physics Professor at UMass Amherst and mentoring aficionado Jennifer Ross will be holding the discussion session “Mentoring Grad Students and Postdocs to Achieve in Academic Science” on January 13th from 2:00-3:00pm in Health Sciences G-328 following her PBio seminar in the same room from 1:00-2:00. She’s ready to chat about a range of topics in mentoring and academia. As she puts it, “There are a lot of things people don’t say about how to do this job!”.
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A few good days for computing and astronomy

Happy birthday on the 9th, 10th, and 11th of December to Grace Hopper, Ada Lovelace, and Annie Jump Cannon, respectively!

Grace Hopper: Born December 9, 1906 in New York City, Grace Hopper was said to always be curious. At the age of seven, after deciding to figure out how alarm clocks worked, she systematically dismantled seven alarm clocks in her house before her mother caught on. She graduated from Vassar College in 1928 with degrees in mathematics and physics before gaining her Ph. D. in mathematics from Yale in 1930. She taught mathematics at Vassar College until 1943, when she joined the US Navy Reserve WAVES program. Assigned to the Bureau of Ships Computation Project in 1944 under Howard Aiken, she would co-author three papers on the developing Mark I computer over the next 5 years. In 1949, she began working on the UNIVAC I. During this project she also produced one of the first working compiler, the A compiler, in 1952. Although initially no one believed her, by 1954 she was appointed the first director of automatic programming.

In 1959, Hopper became the technical assistant in charge of developing the COBOL programming language, one of the first to use English-based code and be machine-independent. COBOL is still in use today. During the 70s, Hopper pushed for the creation of standards to test computer systems, components, and programming languages. These Navy standards led to significant convergence of programming languages used in computers and in the 80s were officially acquired by the National Bureau of Standards, now the National Institute of Standards and Technology. By her retirement in 1966, Hopper had been promoted to a Naval Reserve Commander, eventually achieving the rank of commodore by special Presidential Appointment. Over her life, she was made to retire from the Naval Reserve three times, although that never stopped her from continuing her work. Perhaps the best accomplishment of Rear Admiral Hopper, even according to her, was her commitment to training young people. Grace Hopper died in 1992.


Ada Lovelace: Born on December 10, 1815 as Augusta Ada Byron, she was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron. Byron separated from his family soon after Ada was born. Her mother, Anne Byron (who by some accounts was also an intelligent mathematician) encouraged her daughter to study mathematics and logic in part to curb the insane romaticism she worried Ada had inherited from her father. This talent for mathematics led her to a friendship with Charles Babbage, and their working relationship led to Ada Lovelace collaborating on Babbage’s Analytical Engine. In 1842 and 1843, her work with Luigi Menabrea’s article on analytical engines culminated in what many consider the first computer program. While Babbage focused on the number-crunching capabilities of his engine, Ada Lovelace suggested that these machines could go much further into other fields of science. Ada Lovelace died at age 36 from uterine cancer. Possibly more so than any other scientist discussed thus far, I encourage everyone to read more about Lovelace’s work, and the controversy that still surrounds her contributions to science. Or, for something lighter, you could check out Kate Beaton’s Hark A Vagrant comic on Ada Lovelace, available online.


Annie Jump Cannon: As you may see in the Google Doodle, December 11 marks Annie Jump Cannon’s 151st birthday. Born in Dover, DE to a Delaware state senator, Cannon was taught about the stars from an early age by her mother. In 1884 she graduate from Wellesley College with physics and astronomy degrees. After two additional years studying solely astronomy at Radcliffe College, she was hired as an assistant at the Harvard Observatory in 1896. Hired to be one of “Pickering’s Women” (named after then observatory head E.C. Pickering) she work to empirically classify stars in the southern hemisphere. Her star classification system was created from two already known models into the now-universal O, B, A, F, G, K, M system. Between 1881 and 1924, Cannon classified more than 225,000 stars. In 1911, when she became curator of astronomical photographs, it was said she could classify as many as three stars a minute. In 1925, she became the first woman to receive an honorary doctorate from the University of Oxford. She was given the Henry Draper Gold Metal by the National Academy of Sciences, and was the first female officer of the American Astronomical Society. Cannon retired in 1940, and died a year later, still living in Cambridge, MA.

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Maria Klawe Lecture

Maria Klawe earned her B. Sc. And Ph. D. in mathematics from the University of Alberta. From there, she worked at the University of British Columbia from 1988 to 2002, and then at Princeton University from 2002 to 2006. Dr. Klawe also has experience in industry, working first for IBM and now on the board of directors for Microsoft. Marie Klawe became president of Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in 2006, the first woman president in the college’s then 51 year history.1 As president at HMC, Dr. Klawe has been instrumental in guiding the school to a 1:1 male-to-female ratio from a previous ratio of 2:1. As of 2013, the percentage of female students in the computer science program is 40%, compared to a national average of 12% in 2010-2011.2

Her talk on December 4th was divided roughly into two parts. In the first part, Dr. Klawe described how she went about making HMC a more gender equal campus, and what methods could be employed at UW. During the second part, she took questions, which largely continued the discussion of how to increase diversity, particularly faculty diversity, in the chemistry department.

Obviously, Dr. Klawe’s focus was primarily on improving computer science (CS) at HMC, which was largely dominated by male undergradates. Dr. Klawe attributes the especially dramatic changes in this department to one professor, who in 2005 began pushing to make the department more open to women undergraduates. For ideas, Dr. Klawe drew from example programs at Carnegie Mellon University and University of British Columbia. Unlike other programs, including chemistry, computer science is not a recommended or required high school course. Thus, the range of expertise of students in an intro CS class is large. An integral part of her plan became redesigning the introductory CS courses. The intro CS at HMC is now divided into three skill levels, with students assigned to a level based on a placement test. The names of the programs do not reflect whether the class is for beginner, intermediate, or advanced, which keeps students from despairing of their CS skills before the semester even starts. A second component of the plan was to encourage faculty to mentor students and encourage their growth in CS. If a student was already skilled in computer science, faculty were advised to encourage their interest through individual meetings.

Dr. Klawe then discussed was ways to use these lessons to increase the number of female chemists who apply to academic positions at school like UW. Interestingly, female computer scientists and chemists move on inverse trajectories down the academic pipeline. Although women in CS are less common as undergraduates, their numbers increase at the graduate level; the percentage of female CS academics is higher still. Meanwhile, although men and women chemists are in almost equal numbers as undergraduate and graduate students, the number of male chemists in academia far outweighs the number of female chemists. It has been argued that this difference between fields is because in chemistry the “most desirable jobs” are in academia, while in CS the best jobs are in industry, implying that women are found in lower numbers in the jobs with the most prestige.  Regardless of implications, the fact still remains that we have yet to balance faculty gender ratio in chemistry, especially at UW (currently, 5 out of 38 listed faculty members are female).3 This is largely due to the exceedingly low percentage of women who apply for professorships in our department, only 15-20% of all applicants. Since we are a public school, we are supposed to hire men and women in rough proportion to the percentages that apply, and to not give extra advantages to either gender. However, we can try to make UW a more welcoming environment for female professors in chemistry, without needing extra benefits from the department. One example, something that many departments discuss but rarely implement, is emphasizing mentoring skills and teamwork in prospective faculty search profiles. Finding new faculty with these traits will only increase the openness of our department to diversity. Additionally, we can encourage faculty to find a greater work-life balance in their lives, and create a culture that embraces taking time off to start a family. Both of these policies would benefit men and women by creating an open and flexible work environment, and lack of these department policies/ department cultures is oftentimes mentioned as a reason that women leave chemistry academia for industry. Although these don’t seem like high impact changes, if our experience is anything like Dr. Klawe’s then we could use them to significantly change our department environment within the next decade.

The aspect of the talk that I most appreciated was Dr. Klawe’s interest in engaging her audience in a dialogue about women in STEM. Throughout the talk she tried to get contributions from the UW faculty and even the students. As Dr. Klawe stated, the situation for women in chemistry is different from her background in computer science, and she seemed eager to treat her talk as a conversation and a place to generate ideas. She even actively sought out former Harvey Mudd students who were at UW to learn about their experiences as graduate students here. It’s that openness and curiosity, I believe, that has contributed to her success as president at HMC, and makes her advice about expanding diversity extra valuable.



  1. Harvey Mudd College Biography of Maria Klawe
  2. Computing Degree and Enrollment Trends”, 2010-2011 CRA Taulbee Survey. The Computing Research Association.
  3. Numbers measured using UW Chemistry Faculty Directory
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First Annual WCS Lecture, featuring Maria Klawe, Thursday 12/4 at 5:30 in BAG 154

Women in Chemical Sciences will be holding its first annual lecture this Thursday, December 4 (tomorrow!) from 5:30-6:30 pm in BAG 154. This will be the first in an annual series that goes beyond chemistry at UW to highlight inspirational women in STEM and their achievements. For our inaugural lecture of this series, we are excited to be hosting Maria Klawe, President of Harvey Mudd College and board member of Microsoft. Maria is an accomplished computer scientist and advocate for women in STEM. She will be sharing her story as well as thoughts on the world today.

We hope to see you tomorrow!

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Social Justice in Action: Small Steps Leading to Change

Yesterday, WCS hosted a workshop entitled “Social Justice in Action: Small Steps Leading to Change” and led by Dr. Caprice Hollins of Cultures Connecting. Dr. Hollins is a very engaging speaker, and she made a point of introducing herself to everyone in the room and remembering all of our names. She began by telling us about her family and background, helping to set a context for our discussion and providing frequent examples of how she recognizes and applies these ideas in her own life.

One topic we discussed was how developing self-awareness can be a starting point for improving your interactions with people from other cultures and groups. If I start by considering my own story and motivations, I can better understand how I react to other people, interpret situations, and make assumptions. I can also acknowledge the contexts where I have privilege as a member of a dominant culture, and admit when I have biases about people of other cultures. Although most people want to believe that they’re fair and unbiased, we’re still all susceptible to unconscious bias (remember the study where male and female professors rated male applicants more highly than female ones?). And I can’t do anything about my own biases if I don’t admit that they exist.

Dr. Hollins also mentioned the importance of admitting how your assumptions about others affect your interactions with them. As an example, she told us about a time when she approached someone and realized he was in a wheelchair; she felt self-conscious and tried to act like she hadn’t noticed, which just made the conversation awkward. Trying to ignore others’ differences (in race, ability, or any other area) can make them feel like their experiences are invalid. These differences can have a huge impact on someone’s life, and acknowledging that is necessary for engaging with them – even if it also forces you to acknowledge your assumptions, which makes you uncomfortable.

Another point we discussed was the difference between equality and equity. While equality is giving everyone the same resources or treating everyone the same, equity is leveling the playing field and helping everyone have a positive outcome. Dr. Hollins used this image to sum up the difference:

The difference between equality and equity (source unknown)

Finally, someone asked for advice on what to do when you’re on the other side of the conversation – when you feel offended or discriminated against. Dr. Hollins outlined two common types of responses, which many of us could identify with: predatory listening (finding points to argue and being confrontational) and avoidance (waiting and venting to someone else rather than addressing the problem directly – I definitely do this one). She then advised us to get good at asking questions. It can be challenging to find real, curious, non-snarky questions that actually open up dialogue and engagement, but it is a worthwhile strategy to practice. Instead of treating someone as an enemy, I can help them learn, grow, and change.

Overall, Dr. Hollins led a really interesting discussion and gave us all a lot to think about. I’ll definitely be more aware of my own biases and their effects. on myself and on others, from now on.

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