Status Update

Once again I must beg your forgiveness for not posting much recently.  My lab is up against a very hard deadline, and we experienced a significant setback last week.  Several people (myself included) are out of town for a few more days, so starting Sunday evening, I’m going to be working ridiculous hours to try to help get things going again.

This unfortunately means that the next post I wanted to do – a final response to last month’s shootings in California – will have to wait a bit longer.  I’m hopeful that it will be posted sometime next week, but working in experimental physics means a lot of unpredictability.

In the meantime, I try to post interesting tidbits on my Twitter feed (@AgainstThePull), Facebook page, and reddit (/u/againstthepull), so keep an eye out!


#NotAllMen Are Horrible

First off, let me say that I do not believe that all men are horrible, or even that most men are.  Yes, I’ve had a few bad experiences with men, but also some with women.  But I chose today’s post title for a reason.

In response to the shootings in Santa Barbara the Friday before Memorial Day, a Twitter hashtag #YesAllWomen was everywhere; in response, men (and some women) started using the hashtag #NotAllMen.  There was then a backlash, saying that men always try to make excuses for men, etc., etc.  I ignored it.  Angry, (pardon my language), bitchy feminism is not my feminism; in fact, I tend to think it hurts feminism to be seen that way, but that’s another story.

Today’s post isn’t so much a response to the shooting as it is a response to something I read in an article about one of the survivors, shared by one of our commenters (thank you!).  If you read down past the second picture, there’s a short section about a young man named Kyle Sullivan, who brought police to one of the victims and then stayed with her to comfort her.   Sullivan said he was just doing “what came naturally”, and I realized it’s a sad thing that a young man helping a victim is newsworthy.  Don’t get me wrong – he deserves recognition for what he did, but…it’s also an act at the basic level of human decency.

Sometimes I think that the feminism movement isn’t so much about empowering women as it is beating down men (please don’t shoot me for that – just my opinion, and not even all the time).  I happen to work with some truly awesome guys, guys who I know would have my back if they saw me getting unwanted attention at a conference or something.  One of them even said that if he ever saw a guy forcing himself on a woman, he’d probably punch his lights out (and this guy is not violent by any means).  He wouldn’t do it because he doesn’t think women can’t take care of themselves – our adviser is women, and believe me, he wouldn’t be in the group if he thought women were weak – but because he wants to step up and do what’s right.

I firmly believe that #NotAllMen are awful, female-bashing monsters, and I think it’s time that we stop trying to make them into some sort of monsters.  Yes, some men are horrible and do horrible things, but so are some women.  If we’re going to level the playing field, do it for everyone.

Hidden Sexism: Update

Now that final grades are in and the semester is officially over, I wanted to post a quick update on the situation with the professor I talked about here.

I didn’t have any other issues with the professor, partly because I minimized contact and partly because I wasn’t in a few of the last classes due to research obligations (group member defending his thesis, etc.).  I actually ran into him the day of my group member’s defense – I was wearing a casual dress for the occasion, and inwardly cringed at what I was sure he was going to say.  Instead I was very pleasantly surprised.  He simply commented that I looked very nice, or something along those lines, and then we went on our separate ways on the staircase.

While some people may say that such a statement has no place in a professional setting, I would disagree.  I think everyone – male or female – likes to get compliments now and then, and this one seemed to be utterly genuine, with no overtones or undertones or what-have-you.  It still doesn’t make me want to have any more contact with this professor, but at least not all of our interactions outside of class have been bad.

I won’t be able to avoid him completely – my adviser’s office is very close to his, and both my boyfriend and a close friend work for him, so I’ll definitely be seeing him in passing and likely in department social settings – but thankfully he has no further influence on my academic career.

Accepting Praise Where Praise Is Due

Today I want to talk about something I constantly struggle with – accepting compliments.  Several months ago, my adviser sent me an email with something she had read that made her think of me – it was a conversation between friends who worked in marketing, one male, one female; every time the man would try to give his friend a compliment, she would belittle herself.  Then, back in February, I read this article and saw myself in every example they gave.  It’s something I’ve been working on with, I thought, some small degree of success.

Well, maybe not.

On Thursday, I was sitting in the lab with a colleague and friend, basically baby-sitting the lab equipment while it was running.  A senior grad student, also a very good friend, came in; we all started talking about another grad student who is scheduled to defend his Ph.D. on Monday.  I had proofread his thesis for him – I’m one of those people who proofread for fun, believe it or not – and was a bit worried that he was basically going to hate me.  It was an awful mess when I got the document, and I tried to be as nice as possible when editing, but…sometimes there’s no polite way to phrase things.

My senior grad student friend said, “No, he’s very grateful for your help; the fact that you have an eye for that sort of thing is really helpful.”  My response?  Something along the lines of “don’t you mean I’m a bit obsessive about grammar?”  I was joking, or at least I thought I was, but both of my friends – both male – called me on it.  Immediately.  And I realized that I really haven’t improved at accepting compliments.

Why?  Well, I think it’s very much about a point raised in the Huff Post article – I don’t want to stand out.  I’m still relatively new to the group, and I’m only now starting to feel like I belong there.  The other grad students and my adviser are wonderful, but I came to physics late and have always had a slight hesitation that I’m actually cut out to be a researcher.

Now I need to keep reminding myself that I do belong there, and work harder at accepting compliments.  Standing out is a good thing in research, and it’s about time I realized that.

Hidden Sexism

My apologies for once again being gone for longer than intended, but I am back now and ready to write!

Today I’m going to talk a little bit about one of the main reasons that I finally started this blog – a professor in my department who just barely toes the line between sexism and awkward social interactions.

Without going into details, he has a past record of being sexist – he is no longer allowed to evaluate a female colleague on her in-department reviews, and he has had a couple of complaints filed with the NSF for unequal hiring practices for research on their grants.  It’s never gone higher than that to my knowledge, but…it’s unsettling to know, to say the least.

My own interactions with him are somewhat more complicated.  When I began grad school, he was assigned as my temporary adviser; as such, when my personal life took a nosedive halfway through my first semester, I told him what was going on.  After asking permission to give me a hug (which I gave – I’m a huggy person in general), he gave me a way-longer-than-is-normal hug.  There were a couple more of those over the course of the semester, and any time he saw me in the hallway, he would grab my hand to see how I was doing (and I still have no idea how he could tell that from grabbing my hand).  The next semester I was in his class, and there were no problems, really, until final exam time rolled around.  My grandfather was lingering in the hospital, on the verge of dying, and so I took an incomplete in his course.  I completed the work barely 3 weeks later – I handed everything in on Memorial Day – but it took 6 months to get it graded and my final grade posted.  If he had been a few weeks later, it would have been a failing grade; it was only after I got the graduate program coordinator involved that anything got done.

I am once again in his class, taking the last elective I need to ultimately get my Ph.D.  It has turned out to be an utterly useless course, and a complete waste of time, but I put the effort in to study for our midterm.  When we got it back, he told us to hand it in later, corrected, as homework, and so two friends of mine – who also both work for this professor – and I broadly discussed the exam.  I noticed a possible bias (read: sexism), but I couldn’t be sure because he made no comments.  I sent him an email asking for clarification on the grading, and said I was trying to see where I lost points; his response was that he dropped them down a flight of stairs.  I was absolutely apoplectic with rage for well over a day.  When I discussed it with the graduate director the next day, he said it wasn’t really enough to make a fuss about it, even with the 6-month wait for my last grade, but apologized profusely on behalf of the department and said that there will be a closed-door discussion with this professor about how to treat students.

The program director then said if there was anything else that had been a problem with this professor, it might be enough to actually do something official, but I didn’t tell him about the awkward contact.  It wasn’t blatantly inappropriate, although it certainly wasn’t acceptable, and I’m not ready to take on a tenured professor with such shaky claims.  I did promise myself, however, that if there is one more incident if any kind with this professor, I will raise holy hell. (Pardon my strong language – this guy really gets my temper going.)

Does anyone have any experience with something like this, or any advice?

Caroline Herschel: The First of Many

First off, I have to apologize for not updating in a while.  It’s the time of year when fellowship applications are due and annual review papers and talks need to be written (and midterm exams, too, of course), and the last week or so has seen me buried in paperwork.  But I’ve emerged – albeit temporarily – to pay homage to a very important female scientist.

Today is March 16, and it’s not just the day before St. Patrick’s Day; it’s also the birthday of Caroline Herschel, the first woman to be paid for her contributions to science, to discover a comet (in fact, she discovered may – one is even named for her), to receive a Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society (United Kingdom), and (at the same time as another woman) to become a member of the Royal Astronomical Society.

She originally began working as an assistant to her brother, who was the King’s Astronomer to King George III, but he encouraged her to start making measurements and working on her own.  She discovered her first comet in 1786, and the following year was given an annual salary of 50 pounds stirling, although this was for her was as her brother’s assistant.  While women had been performing scientific experiments and observations for some time, Caroline Herschel opened the door for countless women to receive compensation and recognition for their work.

So why am I talking about a historical figure instead of current issues facing women in physics?  There are a few reasons – I love the history of science, and I feel that the more people who know about the people (men and women alike) who contributed to the field the better, but I’m mostly writing about these women because sometimes I need to.  I need the reminder that women have done this before, that it is possible to be a woman and a successful scientist.

Right now, I’m waiting to see if I’ll be able to work on the project that I want (and that my adviser said I’d be working on), and struggling to not be upset that I don’t have a project yet while someone who technically came into the group after me does.  I’ve hit a bit of a rut because of it, and I’m looking forward to finding inspiration in the stories of other women.  So all I can do is ask that you bear with me while I intersperse current affairs with old stories, and hope that you find these women as fascinating as I do.

Why I Study Physics

When someone finds out that I’m studying physics, about 90% of the time I get a very shocked look followed by one or both of the following questions: “Why physics?” and “What are you going to do when you’re done with school?”

I hate that people think it’s such a horrible thing to study…I mean, yes, the hours can be ridiculous in grad school, but is is really so far-fetched that someone might want to study something that’s not easy?  With most of the people I get that reaction from, I don’t believe they are shocked because I’m a woman – if they think anything about that, I know it’s that they’re proud – but that reaction persists.  I hope people can learn from science role models like Bill Nye and Neil deGrasse Tyson (heck, even the MythBusters crew!) that science isn’t scary.

On to the questions.  Why physics?  Because I love it.

Ok, so that’s not the most fleshed-out answer I’ve ever given, but it’s true.  I love physics.  I love learning how to understand the world around me, I love learning how people figured out how to learn those things, and I love the hands-on approach (yes, I’m an experimentalist).

And what about what I’m going to do when I’m done with school?  I generally use some variation of “Well, I’m going to go back to school!”

I want to teach and do research at a university.  Why?  Because I love physics, and I love the university atmosphere.  Of course there are departmental politics, but there are politics elsewhere, and being around the incredibly diverse group of people I’ll find in a physics department makes it worth it.  I also have a strong liberal arts background, and universities feed the creative side of me, too – I enjoy the “college town” atmosphere.  Mostly though, my answer depends on the “because I love physics”.  I love research, and I love teaching physics.  I never wanted to teach until I started studying physics, but as soon as I did, I knew that’s what I wanted to do.  Seeing a kid’s face light up when they see a physics demo and the way it’s explained makes sense?  I live for moments like that.  Being able to explain physics, being able to get people to love it, is what I want to do with my life.

There’s another answer to both of the questions I get asked, but it’s not one I generally give: Because I want to be a role model.  Why shouldn’t I study physics?  And if I do it, the people I know will tell their other friends, and eventually a girl somewhere hears about this cousin’s-sister’s-friend who does physics and thinks, “hey, I can do that too.”  And when I’m done with school, when I have that Ph.D., I can pay forward all the inspiration that my professors – male and female – have given me over the years.  If I can encourage more women to study physics for a career, that’s absolutely wonderful.  But what I mostly want is to make a difference in one student’s life – any one student.  Anything beyond that is just a bonus.