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Science: The Best Thing that Ever Happened to Me

It’s new-semester’s eve—the night before classes begin at the university where I teach. As I stand on the precipice of academic year 2016-2017, looking with hopeful eyes toward an always-uncertain semester, my mind wanders back to the beginning of my foray into the world of science. Tonight, my message is tailor made for the young women out there who might find themselves in a science class that they don’t want to be in. I know, it kind of sucks.

My guess (and it is an educated one) is that most of you are taking my class because 1) you have to take a science class, and 2) either your advisor told you this class fits your schedule, or you heard from someone that the class is not too hard.

There might be a handful of you who are somewhat intrigued by geology—earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis, landslides, and other natural disasters may have caught your attention via a show on the Discovery Channel, or some personal experience growing up in a hazard-prone location (AKA, California)

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion May, 1980.

Mt. St. Helens ash explosion – May, 1980. Isn’t it sexy?

For others, you may have no idea what geology is, but you figure it is easier than chemistry, physics, or biology and so why not give it a shot?

To all of you in any of these categories, I say proudly that I WAS YOU! My scientific career began the day I wandered into Geology 101 at Syracuse University, a cranky freshman English major determined to hate the class and just get through it with a decent grade. I sat in the back row in my Doc Marten combat boots, sulked, and tried not to fall asleep. (We didn’t have smart phones then so I didn’t have many options)

I wanted to be a dancer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

I wanted to be a dancer or a writer. Science was never part of the discussion when I was a kid.

Much to my surprise, I found myself intrigued. Images of mountains and valleys and rivers and volcanic eruptions all invaded my non-science-y brain and refused to let go. It scared me a little. I thought to myself, “I might like this stuff but there is no way I can be a science major. I am not good at math or science. Science is too hard for me.”

And there it was—the phrase that creeps into the minds of bright little girls everywhere and begins to unfairly degrade their confidence:

Science is too hard.

Look, I am a scientist and I can confirm that science is hard. It is really freaking hard. But it is not TOO hard. What does that even mean, really? If it were too hard, nobody would be able to do it.

But people do it. Even people like me do it, and I was not the ideal candidate for a science program. I had always been a writer. I was interested in literature and poetry. My parents weren’t professors or engineers or even teachers. My dad was a musician and my mom was a housewife. Neither of them went to college. I always liked school, but I struggled with math and science. In high school I took advanced placement English and opted out of pre-calculus. Instead, I took “modern” math, which was a mixture of probability and statistics and other stuff that didn’t hurt my brain too much. So when I went to college I knew exactly where I was headed: I would be a writer, and to hell with math and science.

They were too hard.

Here’s the tragedy of all of this: my story is not unique. It is a well established fact that young girls are just as interested in math and science as boys are in elementary school, but somewhere around middle school girls are far more likely to utter that dreaded phrase, “science is too hard,” or its equally crappy counterpart, “math is too hard,” than boys are.

What the actual fuck.

It is just one more example of why we, as women, have to work that much harder to put this kind of nonsense to rest. We, as strong, smart, capable, unique, thinking women have to do even more to prove that we can do everything men can do, and better.

So here is my plea to all of the young women who will set foot in my sacred hall of learning this semester—

Come to crush it. Come ready to rock the hell out of some science. Come ready to show the boys what you are made of.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Me after crushing a five-day excursion in a snowy Tibet valley, doing geology for my PhD research.

Now I know most of you will not end up pursuing science as a career. That is irrelevant. Having basic knowledge of the scientific process is absolutely invaluable to the overall impact you can have on the world around you. Understanding how data is gathered and analyzed, being able to read and decipher a graph, and engaging in critical thinking, are all skills that will make you a better, deeper, more intelligent person. Period.

And ladies, in this critical time in our nation’s evolution toward being a more equal and just place, you cannot underestimate the importance of using your voice, your brain, and your free will. This is the time to push yourselves to the boundaries of your comfort zones and beyond.

Ladies, this is the time.

I wasn’t born destined to be a scientist, but science was the best thing that ever happened to me. It took me well beyond my comfort zone and forced me to work harder than I ever had, think more deeply that I ever had, and fight harder than I ever had to gain recognition and respect in a field dominated by men. And you know what?

Doing science was hard. Becoming a scientist was the most difficult thing I ever did. But it was also the most rewarding.

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Seventeen Years Since Tibet

It has been almost seventeen years since my feet touched terra firma at 11,450 feet elevation, on the outskirts of Lhasa, Tibet. My first time at “high” altitude was both exhilarating, and utterly terrifying. I was embarking on an adventure that was meant to be no nonsense research for my PhD studies, but unbeknownst to me would end up being so much more. In short, it would shake me to my core. It forever changed, at least in part, who I am as a scientist, a woman, and a person.

Let’s start with the science. If you know anything about geology you have probably heard of a little thing called plate tectonics. It is pretty much the unifying theory of how the Earth works, and explains such trivial things as earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, mountain formation…you get the picture. The basic idea is that the Earth’s rigid, outer shell, called the lithosphere, is broken into several large plates that move around and interact at their edges, kind of like big, moving puzzle pieces. At the plates’ edges, or boundaries, is where the action is! Rumbling earthquakes, explosive volcanic eruptions, and rocks being buckled, folded, and thrust toward the sky, all happen at plate boundaries. They are by and large the premier locales for geologic mayhem.

Earth's plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries.

Earth’s plates. The bold black lines indicate the plate boundaries (continents are green).

The Tibetan Plateau, covering an area of 965,000 square miles at an average elevation of over 15,000 feet (that’s 2,500,000 square kilometers and 4,572 meters, respectively, in geek speak) is the biggest, highest, bad-assest plateau on the planet. Tectonically speaking, Tibet is on the Eurasian side of the Indo-Asian collision, where two continents collide. This collision is famously responsible for the formation of the Himalayas. You know, the Himalayas – the highest mountains on Earth? Home to Mt. Everest? Yeah, those Himalayas. The Himalayas and Tibet are the result of processes related India smashing into Asia over 50 million years ago. By the way, India is still pushing her way into Asia to this day, making this place the ONE real-life, in real time, natural laboratory for continental collision. Needless to say, Tibet is a geologist’s playground, a dream come true for fieldwork.


The Tibetan Plateau (in red box), with India to the south and Eurasia to the north. The Himalayas are the arcuate mountain range on the southern edge of the plateau.

Before I started my PhD at UCLA, I completed a masters degree at Vanderbilt University, under the kind and gentle tutelage of Dr. Calvin F. Miller. We did field work together in southern Nevada in a sweet little mountain range called the El Dorado Mountains. The highest peak, Ireteba, is just over 5,000 feet high (did I mention Mt. Everest sits at 29,028 feet, and the average elevation on the Tibetan plateau is 15,000 feet?). The El Dorado Wilderness covers roughly 40 square miles (121 square kilometers), and would basically look like a pimple on the ass of the great Himalayas. My perspective on fieldwork was quite limited pre-Tibetan plateau. Don’t get me wrong, the work I did in Nevada was fun, interesting, and a great learning experience. But I would not have called myself a seasoned field geologist after spending a total of about four weeks of my life, spread over several trips, in the El Dorados, camping at designated campgrounds with restrooms and showers, shopping for food at the local Vons, and just generally being a spoiled suburban girl with only a slight taste for adventure.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

My rock drawer at Vanderbilt. It is still there today, full of El Dorado granitoids.

And then, there’s the science. The science of the Himalayas and Tibet is on a scale that is hard to explain. For those who study the geology of this place, a lifetime of work is still not enough to fully understand the mysteries. Many geologists have spent years, decades even, doing their best to unravel the primary question, “When did India collide with Eurasia?” Some of the first ideas date back to the 1920s. In the 1980s an age of about 55 million years ago was proposed as the timing of contact between the continent of India and the southern edge of Eurasia, and almost 40 years later the evidence still largely supports this age. But the intricacies of what went on before, during, and after collision are too numerous, and too complicated, to have yet been fully understood. Even the Earth’s climate was not immune to the effects of the growth of the Himalayas. In other words, for a geologist, Tibet is a compelling opportunity as well as a seemingly untenable problem. How can one little lady from upstate NY, land of no topography except that left behind by moving ice, contribute anything of scientific value to this vast, overwhelming, excessively complicated geologic puzzle? And how could I do it all while keeping up with the some of the brightest minds (and toughest bodies) in Tibetan geologic studies?  I didn’t think I could.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many a class field trip. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow graduate students, who worked in Tibet.

Before going to Tibet, I went on many class field trips. This is fall 1998, on a trip to the California coast, chilling with my future husband Paul, one of my fellow UCLA graduate students, who also worked in Tibet.

After much debate between my advisor and the advisor of my fellow graduate students working in Tibet (who were both male), I was granted the opportunity to accompany them on their field expedition. Yes, that is what it felt like. Not that I was going to Tibet to conduct field studies of my own, but instead, more like, please don’t slow the guys down as they drag your sorry ass all over the Tibetan plateau. “If you get sick,” said their advisor, “they will send you back to Lhasa alone on a bus.” And the ever so confidence boosting, “Even big, strong guys get sick in Tibet.” I was convinced I would be the ball on the end of their chain, the molasses in their gas tank, the scarlet “A” emblazoned on their fleece jackets (“A” for asshole). I contemplated throwing in the towel, wiping the superficial smile off of my face, and revealing that I was petrified that I would die over there. Instead, I went.

Paul and me right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real 'roughing it' happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

Me and Paul, right after landing in Lhasa on my very first trip to Tibet (1999). We were both students at UCLA, and less than a year into our relationship. This is before any real ‘roughing it’ happened. Notice the big, hopeful smile. I had no idea what I was in for!

The project had started out as me dating some rocks that had been collecting dust for six years in my advisor’s office. The rocks had been collected in 1992 from the Nyainqentanglha Range in southern Tibet. It is a bitch of a mountain range, with ice-covered peaks that reach over 19,000 feet elevation, and raging ice-fed rivers slicing through its northern and southern faces. It generates its own shitty weather, often spitting snow and rain out of its rugged canyons into the adjacent valley, with ferocity and no regard for a skinny girl’s desire to hike into its depths and unlock its secrets. I had surveyed geologic maps of the area prior to my journey, noting that they showed the range as basically one huge body of 50-60 million year old granite. Of course, the rocks I had been analyzing were apparently not tuned in to that story, and they revealed ages ranging from as old as 200 million years to as young as 8 million. This mountain range had hidden in it more than those who had mapped it from afar could have known.

Me after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background - we had recently exited that canyon into the mild weather of the valley.

Me, after a week-long expedition (on foot, with yaks toting our gear) into the heart of the Nyainqentanglha range. Notice the dark storm clouds in the background – we had recently exited that canyon into the milder weather of the valley.

In Tibet, my goal was to dig deeper into the story those rocks were beginning to tell. On my first trip, in 1999, I learned what it meant to abandon normal life and live in the field. I left civilization and all contact with my world back home and went off the grid for more than 100 days. It was a crash course in integrating mapping, large-scale observations, sampling, and physical ability. I began to see the beauty of big-picture science. Going from a map of a mountain range, to a fist-sized sample of rock from that mountain range, harvested with nothing but my own strength and a heavy rock hammer, to tiny crystals separated out of that rock sample, hand-picked under a microscope and mounted in epoxy, to age information zapped out of those crystals with a 20 micron diameter oxygen beam, telling us when those rocks were nothing but magma deep in the Earth – now THAT is the power of science. That is nothing short of miraculous. That is the result of hard-working people pursuing the advancement of knowledge. Being a part of that process made me feel like a real scientist. It was an education far beyond what a classroom can deliver. It changed the way I see the world.

Me and my all-male pack - my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

Me and my all-male pack – my family for over 100 days of roughing it on the Tibetan plateau. [Left to right: Lou Sang (Tibetan driver), Paul, Mike Taylor (UCLA graduate student), Me, Doje (Tibetan Driver), Zhou Young (Chinese colleague)]

And, I didn’t get sick. (Well, not sick enough to slow anyone down). They didn’t have to send me back to Lhasa alone on a bus. And along the way, I learned a lot more than when those rocks had formed, and how that mountain range had grown, and how it all fit into the bigger picture of Tibetan tectonics. I learned about my own strength, and my own abilities (and lack thereof). Squatting on the side of a scree-covered slope, belly rumbling from hunger, rain pissing down on my soggy rain jacket, trying to locate myself on an unfamiliar topographic map, I found a side of me that I never knew existed. Like that old geologic map with only one age for the mountains, what I knew about myself up to then was only part of the story.

Stay tuned…

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An Open Letter To My Students, On The Eve Of A New Semester.

It’s the night before we will begin our short adventure together. Like some of you, I have first day jitters. Not because I am nervous about teaching in front of a group of more than 200 strangers (I have done this many times), but because each new semester carries such promise – the potential to inspire, excite, and engage so many bright young minds. As a teacher, nothing feels better than connecting with the people who will move us forward into a bright future, filled with new ideas, innovations, and ground breaking discoveries. Yes, you are the people of whom I speak. You are the ones who will take us into the next wave of exploration.

For some of you, science has always been on your radar. Maybe you started collecting rocks as a kid, or love the discovery channel, or went to space camp. Maybe you grew up near the beach and dreamed of being a marine biologist. For others, science is boring. Geeky. Nerdy. Uninteresting. Maybe it is even scary. And some of you believe that science is “too hard.” Well, check this out – I WAS YOU! I never wanted to pursue science. I was quite happy to be a writer and leave the science to the uber-nerds. I didn’t believe I could do it.

But here’s the thing: I was wrong about science. Science is so freaking cool! It isn’t just cool, it is the way we ask and answer all of the important questions of our world. Science is how we will solve the grandest challenges we will face in the next 10-20 years, and believe me, they are grand. Lack of clean drinking water, the need for clean energy, climate change, disaster relief, overpopulation, hunger, and disease – ALL of these issues are real, and have already begun. Guess what will help us with these problems? Prayer? Nope. War? Don’t think so. Smart, hard-working people coming together to do science and figure this all out? YOU GOT IT!

For me, being a scientist wasn’t always easy. In fact, some of it downright sucked (General Chemistry, anyone?). But I have never once regretted becoming a scientist.

Now, I know not all of you will become scientists. I respect that we all have different interests, strengths, and talents. In fact, I am envious that you have your entire lives ahead of you to choose your path and follow your dreams! It is such an exciting time. Regardless of your plans today, I ask you for this small favor: come to class with an open mind, a courteous heart, and the willingness to learn something new. For only in this way do we become better people. Every bit of new knowledge you gain, every new skill you master, makes you a deeper individual. It makes you stronger. Knowledge is power! I promise as your instructor to do my very best to keep it interesting, and answer your questions to the best of my ability. Will you, as my students, promise to simply give it a chance, respect our time together, and maybe even try to learn a little something? Oh, and promise to ask questions when you want to know more. I love that.

Now ladies, this is a special part just for you. You have no idea how important this time in history is for us women. Well, maybe you do, but I want to reiterate. The time for women to rise up is now. The time for us to be, do, and say EVERYTHING we can is now. The time for equality is now. Science is not just for old, white men. Science is for everyone. It is for you.

Women are bringing it big time, in all sorts of ways. And not just in science – whatever you choose to pursue, bring it! Bring your A game. Push yourself to the very brink of your ability. Then push farther. You are strong. You are smart. You are valuable. You have what it takes.

Oh and by the way, you can be a scientist AND be a girly girl if you want. You can wear high heels, do your hair, wear make up, and still be an archaeologist digging in the dirt, or a physicist doing thought experiments. How about a professional athlete, or a doctor, or a stay at home mother, or an astronaut on the first mission to Mars. Don’t let anyone tell you your clothes, your hair, your sense of style, or anything else makes you less of a valuable resource, a serious contributor, or an independent person.

So ladies, my special request to you is to bring your very best to class. Show everyone what you are made of. Because in this time of change, this time when women are rising up, speaking up, and taking charge, you are an important part of the process. Don’t just be the pretty girl in the back row with 1,000 Facebook friends and perfect hair – be the kick ass woman who will run the next groundbreaking company, find the cure for cancer, or write the next great American novel. Or maybe even answer one of our biggest scientific questions.

Welcome to my class. Let’s rock the hell out of some science.


Dr. Jessica Kapp – scientist, teacher, mother, wife, runner, guitar player, girly girl.

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Mountain Woman Excerpt Featured on FindingEcstasy

The fabulous author Rebecca Pillsbury’s latest blog post features an excerpt from my memoir, The Making of a Mountain Woman: Lessons From the Tibetan Plateau, which will be out in 2015.  As part of her feature, which she calls Voices of Inspiration, Rebecca asked me some thoughtful and interesting interview questions.  You can read all of my interview responses, and see an exclusive excerpt from my memoir, by clicking the link below:

This is the very first time I have shared any of my memoir.  It is a very small sneak peek, but one I hope you will enjoy!  Don’t forget to check out Rebecca’s blog and book while you’re at it! She is one to watch.

As always, I say to you, do what you love, find your passion, and push past your comfort zone.  Amazing things can happen when you go where you never thought you could go.

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The Goldilocks Syndrome Dichotomy

The Big Bang Theory (the sitcom, not the theory about the birth of the universe) premiered tonight.  The women on the show are an interesting mix that pretty much sum up our stereotypical views about women – Penny, the pretty ditz who isn’t too bright and wants to be an actress. Amy Farrah Fowler, the brilliant, frumpy, geeky scientists who can’t get a boy to kiss her. Then there’s Bernadette.  Thank goodness for Bernadette, the buxom blonde, super smart scientist who is both girly and opinionated. As far as role models go, that could be just right.  The Goldilocks female role model?

Look, it is a great time to be a woman. The zone of feminine domain has been utterly redefined over the last century. Once upon a time, the idea of womanhood was intimately tied to pursuits of the home. It was unusual for women to step out of that comfort zone and push the boundaries of the human experience. When a woman did show the audacity to journey beyond the usual womanly ways, she was an oddity of such magnificence that she became famous purely for the fact that she did something outside the female norm. Marie Curie. Amelia Earhart. Sally Ride. Joan Rivers. These women did things that other people (men) were doing at the time. Don’t get me wrong, these chicks rocked! But it is interesting to consider that doing something men already do, when you have a vagina, somehow makes it spectacular. It still happens today. We hear about the first women to do all sorts of things that men have been doing forever, and somehow we are compelled to gasp and comment and discuss. Humans are still fascinated when a woman dares to do something outside the confines of our comfortable view of what women do.

Now I ask you this: Why don’t we gasp, and comment, and discuss the fact that women are STILL being judged on their exterior attributes more than their intellect and abilities? The double standard for women is alive and well. I have seen it and heard about it from more women than seems reasonable in a modern society where women can vote, and hold political office, and run their own businesses, and anything else they damn well please. The idea that you should be pretty but not too pretty, sweet but not too sweet, tough but not too tough – Jesus Christ, the rules for how to succeed at ANYTHING when you are a woman are just downright confusing and often completely unreasonable. This Goldilocks standard for women is a real problem. Not too much of anything. Just the right amount of everything. Fuck that. I don’t care if you think I am too hard, too soft, too hot, too cold, or just goddamn right. I am who I am. Deal with it.

When I started as a lecturer at the University of Arizona I was pretty young (31 to be exact). I have always looked young for my age, and a couple of my male colleagues told me that I should dress up when I was teaching, to make sure the students took me seriously. I had already planned on doing this, since I enjoy dressing up, I like being girly, I like heels, and wearing dresses, etc. But out of curiosity I asked a few of my male counterparts if they had ever worried about dressing professionally when teaching. I asked my husband, who is slightly younger than me, if he was given the same advice when he started teaching at UA a couple of years before. Not one of the males I asked had ever been told to consider dressing professionally for teaching. Not one. I don’t know if any of you have ever taken a geology course, but chances are your instructor (probably a white male) was wearing shorts, sandals, hiking boots, jeans, a fleece vest, a baseball hat, or something in that vein of attire. Even the female faculty in geology (and many other science) departments tend to be less frilly and more no nonsense in their attire. My male colleagues teach in all manner of dress, from dress pants and button downs (my husband), to jeans, Hawaiian shirts, and Teva sandals. They are always taken seriously. Furthermore, if they are strict as instructors they are considered tough, smart, serious, and rigorous. However, if I am strict in my class I am considered a bitch. That’s it. Not smart. Not rigorous. Not, “Wow, she is amazing, she has really high standards and I want to exceed them because she might know a thing or two.” Just a bitch. It has happened to me so I know of what I speak. I have fist hand knowledge of this phenomenon. A male colleague of mine from the astronomy department told me about this double standard a few years into my UA appointment. He is strict, and a hard ass, and pretentious as hell, and the majority of his students love him for it. But he warned me that if I chose to try running my classroom as he did I would be asking for a bitch designation. I experimented in my classroom, and tried some of his techniques after watching the well-oiled machine that was his classroom. It worked so well for him in part because there was a healthy dose of fear amongst his students. Fear that they would be kicked out of class. Fear that they would feel stupid. So I tried some of his techniques in the hopes of running a similarly well-oiled machine. And they failed. Miserably. My teaching evaluations suffered that semester, and I had students write negative comments about me for the first time in all of my years of teaching. Negative comments about me, not just about the class. Me, a.k.a., The bitch. I postulate that as a woman, students expect me to be a kind and nurturing mother hen in the classroom, but they expect their male professors tough and strong. Gender stereotypes, anyone?

Now on to something somewhat related that is just too damn good not to draw your attention to. The video below is John Oliver raging about pageant competitions, in particular, the Miss America pageant. Perpetuation of gender stereotypes, anyone? Ladies, listen up…we CANNOT expect this double standard on women to ever change, we CANNOT ever expect women to be taken just as seriously as men in the workplace (or anywhere), if we continue to put ourselves into positions in which we are judged on our looks alone. Yes, we put ourselves in this situation. We choose to allow someone to spray-glue a bikini bottom onto our butts and traipse it around in front of a bunch of people who judge us worthy or unworthy of a title, a crown, and maybe a scholarship. It is so damn dangerous to the forward progress of women’s equality. I have already said on many occasions that I like dressing up pretty and doing my nails and wearing heels, so it is not at all about that. I even enjoy a nice compliment every now and then about my clothes or shoes or how I look. Who doesn’t? There’s nothing wrong with that. It is not about being less womanly. Or being less girly. Or downplaying your looks. Hell, I am all about loving yourself and dressing it up nice! It is about strutting around in a bathing suit and pretending that is what makes you worthy of positive judgment.  It is about being ogled because of your body, and then told you are valued for your mind, or your talents, and buying into that shit. Let’s be real – it is all about what you look like in these pageants. They are called beauty pageants for a reason.

Watching a woman stand on stage and proclaim to the millions of viewers of the Miss America pageant that they offer $45 million in scholarship money annually, when in actuality they pay out less than half a million, is disgusting. She should be ashamed of herself. She is perpetuating this culture of downplaying the value of women as a force in society. A force not because they can turn heads with their boobs, but because they have thoughts in their pretty little heads that are quite possibly meaningful. I know. Shocking.

I put the onus on women to expose this crap for what it is. Don’t tell me for one second that the women on that stage are there for any other reason than to be crowned most beautiful, gorgeous, hot princess of ‘Merica and walk around waving at their admirers and wearing a sparkly tiara. I don’t buy it. Please forgive me if you are reading this and happen to be a strong, smart woman who chose to participate in a beauty pageant simply for the academic opportunities. If you truly subjected yourself to a beauty pageant simply to gain access to an academic opportunity and nothing else, who are you and what is your story? But I am skeptical that it could be so. Mainly because we still live in a world where women are primarily judged by their looks before all else, and even women value this type of judgment. Really? It has nothing to do with the title? It has nothing to do with feeling oh so pretty? It does. Period. Women are judged on their pretty packaging, and men are judged on their brains and/or balls. (Not what their balls look like, but the size of their cojones) The first impression of a woman is intimately tied to her looks whether we like it or not.  What if Amy Farrah Fowler was doing yoga in tight pants in her apartment one episode while Penny sat in a frumpy, dumpy brown skirt reading scientific articles, wearing no make up, and donning huge glasses?  What if that was how they introduced these characters?  Would we still watch the show?

And here’s the kicker. As a woman you cannot really win, especially as a woman in science. If you are too pretty, people might judge you as ditzy or not serious. But if we want to encourage young girls to go into STEM fields, one of the ways we can do it is to show them that real, girly women can also be smart scientists. The Pennies of the world can be scientists, not just the Amy Farrah Fowlers.  This is one of the barriers we face today to getting more girls in science – not enough female role models who look like the girly girls these young girls want to be. Wait…but if I dress too pretty I am a ditz and won’t be taken seriously. But, as Donald Trump says to the reporter in the video, “You wouldn’t have your job if you weren’t beautiful.” What. The. Fuck.

If you are trying to make your way in the difficult world of science, being too pretty can be a disadvantage. But being yourself, whatever that means to you, is so much more important than bending into the perceived picture of a scientist, or doctor, or professional hockey player, or anything else.  Picture this: We, as women, who want to model a positive sense of womanhood to our daughters, stop telling our daughters that the ultimate score in life is to be a princess. We, as women, stop putting ourselves on display for judgment purely defined by our looks while trying to justify it by saying it is for scholarship opportunities.   We, as women, are ourselves in any situation, whether that is tough, emotional, girly, outdoorsy, intellectual, bubbly, serious, or anything else we truly are, and expect that we will be taken seriously because of our merits and abilities. We, as women, EXPECT this. Imagine if we all did.

Imagine. How pretty would that be? I think it would be pretty damn beautiful.





Women of Science, Speak Up!

A couple of years ago I launched an informal campaign on my personal Facebook page to celebrate influential people in science and their amazing contributions to advance our understanding of the world. My inspiration was a book I had picked up called The Scientific 100 by John Galbraith Simmons, which is his ranking of the most influential scientists from the past and present.   He researched over 2,000 years of incredible scientific work and came up with this veritable “Who’s Who” of science. At the time I was so in awe of all of the stories in that book that I posted wantonly about these influential figures and the unfathomable things they had done to move forth progress in fields such as medicine, chemistry, mathematics, and astronomy. ButI failed to notice the lack of scientific women who were recognized in the ranking.

One person I took the time to write about, who didn’t make the list, was Henrietta Leavitt, an American astronomer whom almost nobody knows about. Even if you’re not an astronomer, I bet you have heard of Edwin Hubble, namesake of the Hubble telescope, no? Of course you have heard of Hubble. Hubble is famous. Maybe not, like, Madonna famous, or Brad Pitt famous, but most of us have heard, at some point in our lives, something about the Hubble telescope. Hubble’s biggest contribution to science, arguably, was his determination of the age of the universe. He suggested that the universe had a beginning, and it was about 14 billion years ago. Yes, that is billion with a B. The universe is really freaking old, okay. Wrap your head around that one if you can! Prior to 14 billion years ago, the idea is, there was nothing. No space. No time. No matter. Nothing. This is remarkable, but what most of us did not know was that Hubble could not have ascertained the age of the universe without the work of Henrietta Leavitt that was going on behind the scenes.

Here’s some interesting stuff about Henrietta. She lost her hearing when she was about 25 years old. She loved astronomy. She volunteered as a research assistant in the Harvard College Observatory for seven years before being hired for $0.30 an hour. Edward Pickering, an astronomer, who was the director of the observatory, hired her and he kept her from doing much more than caring for the telescopes, as he didn’t think women should pursue the rigorous theoretical work that he was directing. But did that hold Ms. Leavitt back? Not really. One of her duties was to peruse the photographic plates collection of the observatory, and she figured some shit out. First, she devised a way to gage a star’s brightness, something none of the men had been able to do. Her method became the international standard, yo. She also discovered that by studying a type of stars called variable stars (stars that basically expand and contract), she could determine the distance to stars. This is what ultimately led Hubble to be able to calculate the age of the universe, by knowing something about how far away different stars are from us (and a few other things such as how fast they are moving away from us). In a very simplistic view, he basically ran the movie of the expansion of our universe backward to a point in time at which everything was in the same place, and thus determined how long our universe has been expanding. This was only possible because of Leavitt’s work on variable stars. When she died from cancer at the age of 53, she had discovered half of all the variable stars that were known about at the time.

Now, why doesn’t anybody know about the work of Henrietta Leavitt, but everyone knows about good ol’ Edwin Hubble? Why isn’t there a Leavitt telescope flying around Earth taking images of deep space? I don’t know. Being part of the scientific community, I suspect it is related to the fact that science has long been a male dominated field, one in which many women have been reluctant to be outwardly vocal about their ideas and findings. The good news is, that is starting to change. Over 50% of the students in my geology department are women, so a day is coming when the research findings of women will be commonly discussed in every media venue known to man. But another interesting thing about The Scientific 100 is the percentage of this 100 that are women. It’s three. The single digit…3. Three women out of 100 scientists. Three percent. I understand that the ranking was based on a review of actual groundbreaking scientific discoveries, and it just so happens that the majority of them have been made by men, or have at least been accredited to men. I don’t blame the author for featuring fewer women. It is clear that men have dominated the history of scientific advancement. I also realize that it wasn’t as common for women to pursue careers in scientific fields as men until quite recently, so that skews the numbers. But the story of Henrietta Leavitt makes me wonder how many other women have been behind the scenes, in laboratories and observatories all over the world, making astute, important observations that get swept into the pile of important observations used to bolster the credibility of a male scientist’s research findings. That is not to say that I doubt the abilities of male scientists, nor the importance of their work. But we have all heard the statement, “Behind every good man there’s a good woman.” Hmmmm. How many great male scientists have had women behind them, doing the dirty work so to speak, grinding through the nitty gritty of the scientific method day after day, only to be lost in the shuffle when it is time to expose extraordinary discoveries? If Henrietta is a virtual unknown, how many more are there? And is it a function of women being less apt to claim ownership of their scientific work than men? Are women just better at sharing? Are we less prone to pissing on our territory, figuratively speaking? Or are we just less accomplished in science than men?

So who are the three women who graced the line up of The Scientific 100? Can you guess? The first is someone I am sure you have heard of, Marie Curie, queen bee of radioactivity. She is number 26 on the list which is pretty damn good. Listen, this woman had all sorts of shit to fight through, including growing up in a place (Poland) and at a time (the late 1800s) when women were often denied access to higher education. Regardless, Marie was the first woman to receive a degree in physics from the Sorbonne and got a degree in math a year later. This woman was unstoppable. She won two Nobel Prizes. She was an unapologetic feminist. Her notebooks are still highly radioactive to this day due to the excessive amount of time she spent studying her radioactive samples.  She died of cancer associated with radiation poisoning, something that wasn’t understood prior to her work. She was no less accomplished than any of the higher-ranking men on the list.

The other two are women I had never heard of before reading the book. Lynn Margulis, and Gertrude Belle Elion. Lynn Margulis, number 80, first proposed the symbiotic theory of the origin of the cell in 1967. Symbiosis is defined as a relationship of mutual dependence or benefit. She was an extremely controversial figure for many reasons, including her contention that all organisms larger than bacteria are symbiotic systems, which had implications for how evolution is thought to occur. She was also a proponent of the Gaia hypothesis, which describes the Earth as a whole to be a living system, and made grand statements about the species Homo sapiens (that’s us) being arrogant and ignorant! I think I would have liked her.

Gertrude Belle Elion, number 85, was instrumental in developing one of the first effective drugs to combat leukemia. Too bad she was only 16 when Marie Curie was dying of leukemia in 1934. She, too, fought adversity before finding great success, and was once passed over for a job because her physical attractiveness might distract other workers. In the late 1970s she developed acyclovir, the first antiviral medication safe and potent enough to combat herpes infections. She won the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1988, in spite of her distracting physical attractiveness. That employer that passed her over was likely one of the stupidest human beings on the planet, who clearly underestimated her abilities. I bet this still happens today.

So three there are, and fierce they be! They live on forever among the ranks of the likes of Isaac Newton (ranked number 1), Albert Einstein (2), Charles Darwin (4), Sigmund Freud (6), Galileo (7), Stephen Hawking (54), Noam Chomsky (71), Archimedes (100), and many others. I admire all of these men and women and the mind-boggling work they did. But the work of these three women is strong evidence that women have just as much potential as men to do revolutionary work in science. I suspect, as time rolls on and women continue to find their voices and their strength, more of them will push beyond the traditional, the accepted, and the sometimes male dominated, and we will see a day when a ranking of The Scientific 100 will have to be expanded to The Scientific 200. And more than 50% of that list will be the names of smart, plucky women who refused to twiddle the knobs or categorize the photos or organize the data for brilliant men, but led the rigorous intellectual work that brought us scientific advancements for a new, ever changing world.

A world in which groundbreaking scientists can rock red lipstick!



You’ve Got Pluck

I am a woman of extremes. I pretty much go balls to the wall with anything I do. That is not to say I am an Olympic level runner (I run), or an award winning scientist (I do science), or a best selling author (I write). It just means that if I say I am going to do something I freaking do it. If I need something done, I do it. I might bitch and moan about it at times, or take a minute or two to wallow in the realization that nobody else is going to make shit happen for me. But when the rubber meets the road I put my big girl panties on and get shit done. This approach to life isn’t inherently negative, in and of itself, but it can be stressful, and some would say I am just controlling and need to let go, that good things will come to me if I put good energy into the universe. Well, sitting around beaming sunshine through my pores and believing something is going to happen to me just isn’t my jam. I believe in making things happen. I also believe that I have been fortunate in my opportunities. But the older I get, the less inclined I am to buy into “luck” as some puppeteer driving my success, and more inclined to recognize that hey, I worked my ass off to get to where I am and I deserve all of the associated accolades, rewards, and perks. It hasn’t always come naturally to me to feel proud of my successes. I have often found myself thinking, “How did I get here? When will they wise up to the fact that I am utterly under qualified for this gig and boot my ass out the door?” I think most of us have felt this way at some point in our lives, and it probably means we have a healthy sense of humility.

There have been incidents in my past that go beyond healthy humility, and have fueled my thoughts of self-doubt. There have even been people in my past that have validated these feelings by flat out confirming their truth. Case in point. In 1999 I was a young, unsure, terrified PhD student in a world class graduate program in a kick ass earth science department, and someone very influential in my life at the time said these words to me: “You’re not that smart.” Wait…WHAT? What in the fuck do I do with that? I am not that smart. Wow. I am not that smart. I mean, I didn’t think I was Stephen freaking Hawking or anything but, shit, I am not that smart. Imagine someone telling you straight, “You’re not that smart.” Just roll those words around on your tongue for a few minutes. Say them out loud. Would you say those words to a friend? A colleague? Your child? Someone you believed in? Those words are loaded. It reminds me of the Sex and the City episode when Miranda, overhearing two women chattering on the street about why a date didn’t call back, tells them confidently, “He’s just not that into you.” The women react with disgust and disbelief, and they proceeded to chastise Miranda for saying what was undoubtedly the truth, albeit a truth they did not want to hear.   She prefaced her statement by saying what she was about to tell them would save them a whole lot of time and trouble. In other words, come on ladies, face it…he’s just not that into you. Or, in my case, come on dumbo, face it…you’re just not that smart. When this bitter little nugget of truth was unleashed on me, I immediately started down the dark path to fear and self doubt, believing that this person, who was brilliant in his field, must know something that I didn’t know and I should probably take heed. It was a beautiful example of all the things I want to push women to rage against – someone else defining your worth, or convincing you that you are less than you are. It was an unexpected bomb dropped on me on a warm California afternoon, while sipping tea with a trusted advisor in his sun-filled office. In what world does this actually happen?

But here’s the part of the conversation I haven’t told you about yet. “You’re not that smart,” was only the first part of that sentence. “You’re not that smart,” was the only part of the sentence that stayed with me for many years afterward. But believe it or not, that sentence was one of the kindest, most complimentary sentences I had ever had the good fortune to hear. Because here is the punch line of that seemingly awful joke. The second part of the sentence went like this: “…but you’ve got pluck.” Pluck. At the time, all I heard was, “you are a dumb ass who has no business being in this field.” In reality, I was being told that regardless of my mental acumen (or lack thereof), I could thrive in this field that I felt so utterly adrift in. I was being given a compliment, but I couldn’t see it through my haze of hysteria.

If you look up the word plucky in the dictionary you will find synonyms such as courageous, determined, spunky, and spirited. I cannot think of four words I would rather have used to describe me than courageous, determined, spunky, and spirited. What an absolutely generous compliment, especially from someone who intimidated the hell out of me and was a world-renowned expert in his field. “You’ve got pluck.” Well shit. Ain’t that something.

In the years since that core shaking incident I have come to accept (i.e., not give a shit) that I am not as smart as most of my colleagues in the scientific community. It is a community inundated with people of particularly powerful perspicacity (that is smart speak for intelligence – take that!). I live with a man who is a geological genius. I work at a world-class research institution where scientists have designed machines that can fucking land on Mars! I will never win a Nobel Prize in physics, or chemistry, or any other scientific field. But I know how to survive in a field that is male dominated and full of beautiful minds. I am brave, and spunky, and spirited, and I wouldn’t have it any other way. I hope my sons, regardless of their level of traditional intelligence, grow to appreciate the value of being able to find their strengths and use them to excel in whatever passion they want to pursue. I hope for all the young girls out there, who will undoubtedly come up against someone, somewhere, who doubts their ability to do something, that they can be brave, and spunky, and spirited, and find their pluck and push on through. We have no control over whether or not we have genius IQ’s. But we can choose whether to let someone else’s assessment of our abilities hold us back, or to quit whining, put on our big girl panties and get shit done. Do I wish science came easier to me? Hell yes. Do I wish I didn’t have to pause, think real hard, and use my fingers when adding up simple numbers? You bet. Would it be nice to have people think of me as the world expert in something, anything, scientific? Yeah, that would be cool.

Is it even more amazing to be my plucky self? You bet your smart ass.