Photos from the Shoreline STEM Festival

Photos from the Shoreline STEM Festival on May 9th, where we taught students and their families about nanotechnology by making rainbow thin-film bookmarks. All photos by Jeffrey Buenaflor.

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Why have women entered some STEM fields more than others? A discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan

Yesterday, WCS and Women in Genome Sciences hosted a discussion with Professor Sapna Cheryan of the UW Department of Psychology. This event left me with a lot to think about, and was definitely worth the trek over to Foege Hall!

We talk a lot about underrepresentation of women in STEM fields, but this is a broad and complicated topic. Looking at the demographics of students taking AP exams and getting undergraduate degrees in different STEM disciplines, some fields (biology, chemistry, and math) are now close to 50% female at this level, while others (physics, computer science, engineering) have a much more significant disparity. By looking at differences among these fields, Professor Cheryan hopes to untangle and understand different causes of women’s underrepresentation in STEM. She emphasized that she investigates different aspects of STEM fields rather than focusing on qualities of the women who enter or leave these fields, which I thought was an important and beneficial distinction to make.

Professor Cheryan and her group just finished a large-scale review of studies on gender and STEM, focusing on the STEM participation of students in the US and seeking to find which factors have the biggest impact. They considered a variety of individual (early hands-on experience, self-efficacy, math performance) and societal (stereotypes of the field, negative stereotypes of women, presence of female role models, discrimination) factors that have been cited for the lack of women in these fields. Their conclusions were that the difference in demographics between bio/chem/math and physics/engineering/computer science is primarily due to two factors: the gender imbalance in early hands-on experience (toys, projects, classes, media), and women’s perception of the field or how they relate to it.

Before this review, Professor Cheryan’s research has mostly focused on women in computer science. In one study, non-CS-major undergraduates were brought to Stanford’s computer science building and given a questionnaire on their interest in the subject. Some of the students were in a room containing several stereotypically CS-related items (Star Trek poster, sci-fi books, lots of Coke cans) while others were in a more generically decorated room. While male students demonstrated the same level of interest in computer science regardless of the room decor, female students were substantially less interested when they were in the stereotypical computer science room. Emphasizing the stereotypes influenced their perception of the field, which affected their interest (this reminded me of our discussion of Whistling Vivaldi in last summer’s book club – stereotypes can be really powerful!).

There are a variety of stereotypes related to computer science that can turn off women’s interest in the field. The stereotypical programmer is socially awkward, stays up all night coding and drinking energy drinks, and is into video games and Star Trek. Success in computer science is perceived to be related to innate genius or brilliance, rather than hard work (a recent Science paper explored this effect among different fields). And it’s not seen as a people-oriented area – computer scientists don’t work with people, and their work isn’t focused on helping society. (I realized that this last point played a role in my decision not to major in computer science. It was challenging and interesting, but I wanted to make an impact on the world with renewable energy or biomedical science.) However, computer science stereotypes can vary a lot across cultures – in some countries, typing code on a computer is seen as a logical extension of being a secretary, a traditionally female job; these countries are generally much closer to gender parity in computer science.

Fortunately, there are many other ways to counter these stereotypes and make STEM fields more welcoming. A twelve-year-old girl recently surveyed a set of popular apps and found that most of them offered male characters as the default or only option. This creates the impression that these games (and the industry that creates them) are not for girls, but it would be easy for developers to offer more female characters in games. At the undergraduate level, some colleges and universities are redesigning their computer science curricula (Harvey Mudd is the most prominent example) and creating more open-ended or interdisciplinary majors to emphasize the different applications of computer science, encouraging students to move beyond their existing perception of the topic.

In our discussion of ways to encourage girls to get into computer science, Professor Cheryan also pointed out how some of these methods tend to enforce the same stereotypes that prevent many girls from developing an interest in the field. Many people and programs emphasize that girls can be nerds too (Microsoft runs camps for girls where they learn about CS in relation to sci-fi movies and video games) or that you can be a nerd while still being feminine (computer engineer Barbie has pink glasses, a binary t-shirt, and a pink laptop). But maybe we’d be better off teaching girls that not all computer scientists are nerds. This reminded me of the Seattle Expanding Your Horizons conference, where some of us told our audience of middle-school girls that you don’t have to be a nerd to do science, while others wanted to emphasize that being a nerd is awesome and nothing to be ashamed of. When trying to make STEM fields more diverse, we need to think not only in terms of gender and demographics but also in terms of personalities, interests, and perspectives. This is definitely something I’ll try to be aware of in the future when doing outreach and talking to the public.

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Body Language Workshop Wrap-up

Last week, WCS partnered with Monica Cortes Viharo, an actor and PhD student in the Drama department, to host a workshop on body language and communication. The turnout was awesome, with a diverse group of individuals at different career stages and from departments around campus ready to learn about presenting. We talked briefly about specific issues that affect how we speak, ranging from uptalk to overzealous hand gestures, before beginning the active part of the workshop.

Apparently, a significant portion of people’s problems with public speaking stem from anxious tension. In order to relax everyone, Monica had all of us stand and try consciously breathing. When people get nervous they tend to breathe shallowly and from their chest, which activates the fight or flight response. This has a counterproductive effect of actually increasing stress and isn’t ideal for projecting a calm, confident demeanor. Monica’s number one piece of advice was to take a few deep breaths from your diaphragm before speaking. These breaths tell your body to calm down and can help stop shaky hands, something that happens to me during presentations.

We then started to stand up straight, since it turns out pretty much everyone slouches constantly. Since the workshop I’ve been trying to maintain proper posture and it requires a surprising amount of effort. As an added bonus, it’s an ab workout! While standing nice and straight, we all proceeded to look ridiculous while stretching our facial muscles and attempting various tongue-twisters. These loosened up our facial muscles to allow for easier and clearer enunciation, all while being fun and silly.

At the end Monica took some time to address specific questions people had about their own presentation skills. If you couldn’t make it to the workshop, or just have a big presentation coming up, she suggested getting some free help from the UW Speaking Center ( I know that I feel more confident about my next presentation and plan on using these resources for my next talk!

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Next workshop: Body Language and Public Speaking

We’re hosting a workshop this week, “Body Language and Public Speaking,” on Thursday, April 16 from 12:30-1:30 pm in CHB 439. The workshop is hosted by Monica Cortes Viharo, an actor and PhD student in the Drama department.  She will focus on ways to use your body as a better instrument for communication, as well as public speaking fears, body language, and the qualities of a strong speaker.  Get ready to prepare for your next academic presentation or job interview!  And come hungry, because there will be free pizza!!


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Seattle Expanding Your Horizons Wrap-Up

March 14th brought young women and volunteers from around the area to Seattle University for another year of Seattle Expanding Your Horizons (SEYH). During 50 minute workshops, groups of middle school girls could try anything from designing planes to extracting their own DNA. This year, WCS ran last year’s CSI workshop as well as a new workshop on astrochemistry and the Mars rover. In our workshops, girls used qualitative chemistry tests and physical observations to figure out answers to two questions: who dumped toxic waste into the Puget Sound, or could any of the rocks collected at a crater site have come from Mars?

One of the best things about our organization, is the opportunity not only to participate in outreach programs but also to develop our own projects. When it was first mentioned that we had enough people interested in SEYH to develop a second workshop, I knew I wanted to work on a Mars rover workshop, but didn’t have any ideas where to begin. But with the help of some incredibly cool and very inventive members (a huge shout out to VP Heidi, who guided me through the whole process and was generally the best co-leader), we pulled together a great workshop that not only let the girls do science experiments but also tied those experiments to real tests that Curiosity did on Mars. And, much like real science, we designed a workshop that didn’t have a correct answer, which let everyone draw their own conclusions about which rock could be from Mars.

I think the fun we had making the workshop definitely came through in the final result. As a member of the astrochemistry workshop, I got to talk about lasers and flame tests all morning. I heard a lot of “whoa”s, “cool”s, and even “shiny”s that day (it helped that one of the rock samples sprinkled rock glitter over your hands even time you touched it). Even if they learned nothing else that day, I hope we showed  people that science comes in many different forms, most of them pretty fun.

So thanks to Brigit Miller, Kimberly Davidson, Kimberly Hartstein, Kalkena Sivanesam, Olivia Lenz and Jessica Wittman, who all volunteered with the CSI workshop, and Heidi Nelson, Zuzana Culakova, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Beth Mundy, Scott Rayermann, and Addie Kingsland for their work designing and/or running the Mars rover workshop.

The Mars Rover workshop presentation team. (L to R: Rae Eaton, Addie Kingsland, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Heidi Nelson, and Zuzanna Culakova)

The Mars Rover workshop presentation team. (L to R: Rae Eaton, Addie Kingsland, Kira Hughes, Katie Corp, Heidi Nelson, and Zuzanna Culakova)


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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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