Book club week 2

This week, we read part 1, chapters 1, 2, and 3 of Lab Girl. Here’s some notes and links from our discussion:

  • Hope’s discussion of growing up in a Scandinavian family (and later, working with Bill, but both of them mostly independent) led to a discussion of our own experiences with working alone vs. working with others in lab. Science requires a lot of thought and reflection, but also communication and collaboration. Different communication styles also play a role.

Science, gender, and feminism:

  • On pages 16-17, Hope describes how, as a young child, she developed a concept of gender and her identity as a scientist. Being both a girl and a scientist seemed impossible (on her book tour, she also discussed the feeling of needing to leave the realm of women behind to become a scientist). Though there are more women in science now, our culture’s dominant idea of a scientist is still male.
    • Additionally, while being a woman in science is more accepted, expressing femininity in science is often met with a negative response. We drew some parallels to second/third/fourth-wave feminism and their views on gender and gender expression (here’s wikipedia on the history of feminism; if anyone has a better reference, feel free to share!).
      • Books that came up in our conversation: Women, Race, and Class by Angela Davis; Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
      • Are there any good references discussing feminism in science from more intersectional perspectives? Or based in feminist theory but focused on science?
      • For most of her life, Hope didn’t really consider herself an active feminist, but recently she decided she had to speak up for women (starting around 18:00 in her book tour interview, she explains the particular incident that made her realize this, where religious protesters on campus were harassing a female student and Hope had the opportunity to defend her but was too afraid to speak up).

Bias in science:

  • Science in general is so concerned with objectivity that it often refuses to consider the possibility that it might have bias – but there are huge biases that affect the way science is done.
    • One example: clinical trials have mostly been conducted on men, but there are important, medically relevant differences between men and women. This has been discussed more lately (here’s a Nature article from just this week, with links to a few other studies and examples) but is still a problem.
    • Another example: the study where they figured out that mice reacted differently to being handled by male vs. female researchers, which was something that no one had previously considered or controlled for. Here’s an article in Nature.
    • Here’s another article with a whole bunch of examples about how many products are designed mostly by certain people without considering differences in how they fit or are usable by other types of people.

Scientific writing and telling the stories of how science is done:

  • The focus on objectivity and scientific authority also often doesn’t leave space for expression of personality or emotion. This also ties into Hope’s reflection on scientific writing, and how the papers she publishes leave out the failed attempts, problem-solving, and emotional energy that went into them.
    • Pretending that failure doesn’t exist makes science more intimidating and less accessible. There’s also been a push for publishing negative results, because they’re still informative and the information could prevent other researchers from spending their time on things that won’t work.
    • Communication between scientists at group meetings and conferences fills in some of these gaps, but most papers and presentations focus on telling a good scientific story, which often doesn’t match the process of doing the science.
    • The Baran group’s blog consists of posts by grad students and postdocs talking about the actual process of doing the research that led to their papers, which is pretty cool.
    • #OverlyHonestMethods makes fun of some of these qualities of scientific papers.
    • As science gets more competitive, scientists tend to avoid showing signs of weakness (admitting failure, phrasing proposed explanations in a tentative way) or even personality in their writing.

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