Category Archives: Speakers

Dealing with Controversy: Science Communication to Nonscientists

Joy Delyria talked to us about easing the difficulties that scientific controversy presents. As a scientist, we are not here to change an individual’s mind using one conversation. I mean, if we do, that is awesome! However, realistically, that is usually not the case. Instead, each conversation is about portraying the science and exposing the common myths. 

When starting this type of conversation, she first suggests to access one’s audience. How are they currently standing on the issue? Are they venters, on the fence, or on board? Talking to each different type of individual requires a different approach. Based upon the response, we are then able to establish frames of reference for audience. 

The second major subject is the potential traps that need to be avoided. A story about cute critters, for example, tries to invoke empathy by creating a narrative. However, this story solely focuses on a tiny aspect of the issue at hand and makes the audience feel as if they are being manipulated. Another important trap to avoid is the crisis or doom and gloom stories that tend to overshadow the subtle message of the talk and to explain the issue at matter too complicated and too difficult to understand. This type of trap also mainly focuses on incidents and accidents as evidence, which does not support scientific discussions.

While these conversations are occurring, some things are to be advised. Most importantly, it is vital to listen to what they are saying, and making comments that assure that. This usually means that the audience is more willing to listen rather than shutting down the argument immediately. Secondly, scientific concepts need to be clarified using good metaphors. Typically, scientists would show the effects of CO2 as part of the green house gases that would heat up the earth whereas a simple example of a blanket would suffice and be more relatable to layman. Creating more CO2 gas is like a blanket; the more layers you put on it, the hotter it gets. Secondly, addressing their values is important in this conversation. Do they personally feel responsible for the environment? Or do they feel more responsible for the community? Addressing these values of responsible management and stewardship would encourage a more positive conversation about the environment.

In conclusion, Joy reminds us that it is not up to us as individuals to change one’s opinion. What we can do, however, is to collectively show them our scientific perspective on these controversial issues in a positive manner. And this by itself is considered success.

 

 

 

2017 WCS Lecture recap

Last week, WCS held our third annual WCS lecture (here’s our recap of the first, and of the second)! This time, we hosted Dr. Geri Richmond, from the University of Oregon. Geri has had an amazing scientific career, focusing on the spectroscopy of molecular processes at liquid surfaces, and is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. She has also been actively involved in science policy (serving on the National Science Board and also as the president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science) and supporting the careers of women in science and engineering through COACh, a grass-roots organization that provides professional development workshops and networking opportunities for women around the world.

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Two upcoming events: mindfulness and politics

Managing with Mindfulness: Meghann Gerber, PsyD and licensed psychologist, will be giving Women in Chemical Sciences an introduction to mindfulness meditation on Friday, July 29, at 10:00 AM in CHB 239. Mindfulness meditation is a practice that involves cultivating attention to the present moment in a nonjudgmental manner. Over time this practice strengthens attention and promotes an open attitude that is particularly helpful for responding to life’s challenges. Please come and enjoy a relaxing wind-down from your week!

Women in Science & Politics: Women in Chemical Sciences will host a talk by UW Chemistry alumna Jennifer Brookes (PhD ’15). As a SPIE/OSA Arthur H. Guenther Congressional Fellow, Dr. Brookes spent the last year in Washington, D.C. working as a special legislative assistant for Congresswoman Louise Slaughter (D–NY). She will talk about her experience as a scientist working on public policy issues around gender in science and education, and how her work is more broadly connected to the underrepresentation of women and their voices in Congress. The talk will be held on Monday, August 1, at 5:00 pm in 261 Bagley Hall, and all are welcome to attend.

Recap: Dan Grunspan, UW Anthropology, on Gender Bias amongst Undergraduates in STEM Courses

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Hi folks! Happy Memorial Day. Here’s my take on Dan Grunspan’s talk, titled “Old Boys’ Club Starts Early: Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms.” After I give my two cents, I’ll provide some cool links! Some notes: Dan’s research differentiated between people using the words “male” and “female.” In order to stay true to his analysis, I will do the same (even though gender is a spectrum and male and female are technically references to “biological sex,” whatever that is).

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Thursday 5/26 at 5:30 in CHB 102: discussion of gender in undergraduate biology classes with Dan Grunspan, UW Anthropology

Please join us on Thursday, May 26th at 5:30 pm in CHB 102 for “Old Boys’ Club Starts Early: Males Under-Estimate Academic Performance of Their Female Peers in Undergraduate Biology Classrooms” with Dan Grunspan. Dan is a UW anthropology graduate student and author of a recent study investigating how gender influences students’ perceptions of their peers in undergraduate biology classes at UW.

Here’s the abstract for Dan’s talk; you can also check out the whole paper here.

Women leave STEM fields at a higher rate than their male peers. Inequitable social environments in undergraduate classrooms may contribute to this gap in retention rates. We examine how gender influences student perceptions of one another in undergraduate Biology courses by asking students to list peers they feel are strong with the course material. We asked this question eleven times over three iterations of the same large introductory Biology course. We find that males are more likely than females to be listed by their peers as strong with the course material. Social network models which control for students’ grade, whether they were outspoken, and the course structure, reveal that this bias is driven by males under-nominating their female peers, and over-nominating their male peers. Females, on the other hand, nominated equitably based on student performance and outspokenness. The most renowned students in all three classes are male. The results of this survey may reflect differences in the social environments faced by male and female students, which could influence self-confidence, and ultimately persistence in this STEM discipline.

This event will be a great way to learn more about gender in STEM education and how it affects us as students, teachers, and scientists. Special thanks to Women in Genome Sciences for hosting a similar discussion last month in their department; we’re excited to bring this conversation to chemistry. Hope to see you there!

Dr. Allison Campbell – Recap and Write-Up

(This is being posted on behalf of James Gaynor, second year graduate student in Munira Khalil’s group.)

Speaker: Dr Allison Campbell – Acting Associate Laboratory Director for Earth and Biological Sciences at  PNNL, President-Elect of the American Chemical Society

Thursday, February 25th, 4:00 PM, Bagley Hall 154

“Let me tell you what I would have liked to have known when I was younger,” began Dr Allison Campbell during the opening of the second annual Women in Chemical Sciences Lecture delivered by Allison on Thursday, February 25th, at the University of Washington’s Bagley Hall. In her lecture, entitled “Advice to my Younger Self: Tips and Lessons for Driving Your Career in Science,” Allison toured the audience through her childhood in Lake Oswego, OR., and her upbringing as a chemist while illustrating her evolution into her current position as Acting Associate Laboratory Director for Earth and Biological Sciences at PNNL, as well as her new role as the President-Elect of the American Chemical Society.

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Second Annual WCS Lecture

We are excited to announce that the second annual WCS lecture will take place on Thursday, February 25th at 4:00 pm in Bagley 154. This year’s speaker is Dr. Allison Campbell, Acting Associate Laboratory Director for Earth and Biological Sciences at PNNL and president-elect of the American Chemical Society. Her talk is entitled “Don’t be a passenger:  Tips and advice for driving your career in science”; the abstract is below.

“A career in science can be both highly rewarding and highly challenging – often at the same time.  Challenges include external factors such as both real and perceived biases, work life balance, stereotypes, and hostile work environments, and internal factors such as imposter syndrome,  self-image, and self-confidence.  Rewards include scientific discoveries, new innovations, advancement of scientific knowledge, mentoring, collaborating, and participation in something bigger than yourself.  Navigating the challenges can be difficult and frustrating.  Here, I discuss my personal experiences, lessons learned the hard way, observations, and general philosophy based upon my 25 years in science.”

The WCS lecture series goes beyond chemistry at UW to highlight inspirational women in STEM and their accomplishments and experiences. You can read about the inaugural WCS lecture, featuring Harvey Mudd President and Microsoft board member Dr. Maria Klawe, on our blog here.

WCS members will also have the opportunity to attend an informal Q&A session with Dr. Campbell before her lecture. Stay tuned to the WCS mailing list for more details!

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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.

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.