So, I’ve got this bumper sticker, which has sort of become my little badge of fame, “Flirt harder. I’m a physicist.” I love it — I’ve had motorists pull up beside me, motion to roll down my window, and yell “What kind of physicist?” I once saw the driver of the car behind me taking a picture of it while we were both stopped at a stoplight. I’ve had numerous pedestrians stop to ask me about it. Several don’t get it, like this blogger:

the confusing ones say “flirt harder. i’m a physicist.” i really don’t get that one. do i have to be a physicist to understand it? i’ve only taken high school physics so i have no idea what flirting has to do with anything physics related.

I’ve had some guess that it means that physicists are more desireable, so you should flirt harder to get one (I don’t mind that interpretation). But Jen Oullette gets it:

One of my favorite physics buttons/bumper stickers reads, “Flirt Harder — I’m a Physicist.” There’s a certain degree of truth to this stereotype, although it must be said, most physicists, computer geeks, etc., seem to end up married or in relationships at some point, so they can’t be as clueless as they’re generally believed to be.

The reason I love this bumper sticker, for myself, is partially its irony (I’m known to be an incurable flirt, and certainly not among the clueless when it comes to picking up on romantic signals). I’ve also often wondered how much of people’s confusion about its meaning comes from the fact that it’s on a woman’s car. The stereotyped clueless physicist/geek is a guy — women aren’t generally known for being socially inept. The opposite — we’re supposed to be the ones holding the fort together. So, is it a bit of cognitive dissonance to think “geek” along with “woman”? The two words hold some conflicting stereotypes.

Which brings me to the real reason for this post, which is to comment on a very interesting thread over at Cocktail Party Physics on what happens for women occupying the overlapping states of smart & sexy? This was in response to the 81 (and counting!!) varied comments on Phil Plait’s posting about Nerd Girls. Jennifer says:

Phil Plait is taking some heat from commenters over at Bad Astronomy after posting about the Nerd Girls: a Website, blog, and collection of curricula aimed at celebrating “smart-girl individuality” and challenging “stereotypes and myths about women in science and engineering.” … Apparently this site is controversial because it depicts smart women who are pretty, have a sense of style, and like to wear heels and a nice dress in the evenings when they go out dancing (at least a couple of them do). … The audacity! How dare smart women engage in such frivolous matters! They’re supposed to be dour, humorless, scruffy dressers, I guess, in keeping with their seriousness of purpose, so they can prove to the world that they don’t care what people think of them. Or something. Who knew that wearing makeup and wanting a pair of nice shoes automatically made you shallow and a slave to our appearance-obsessed society, no matter what your other brainy accomplishments

In graduate school, I worked in a lab full of other women.  I wanted to put up a website called “chicks in science” and have us all wearing short little lab coats with plunging necklines, posing coquettishly with erlenmeyer flasks.  I was the only one who seemed to get a kick out the idea.  (Now, of course, it sounds like the Nerd Girls site capitalized on a great idea).

I personally have always liked romping in this fun little playspace between girly and geeky. I certainly revel in all things science, and play up that part of my personality. And I wore my hear in pigtails for years, and had fuzzy little pigtail holders with stars on them. I use glittery nail polish. My cell phone case (which drew a gasp from my ex) has little blue and pink hearts on them. I like a good manicure, though I’ve also had sort of wimpy tomboy tendencies since I was a kid. I have a giggly bubbly side to me, and often times I get that sort of wide-eyed “really?” when folks find out that I’m a physicist. Of course, that’s not necessarily gender specific (plenty of physicists, male and female, are too familiar with the “hush in the conversation” that follows the admission of one’s profession).

But guys (of course, I surround myself with nerdy guys) are generally not dismayed to find out the “smart + sexy” equation applies to me — there’s generally this sort of “hey cool, that’s hot” look that passes over their face. But one thing that strikes me is that my smartness seems to play second fiddle. I can’t think of a single time when a man has looked deeply into my eyes and said breathlessly, “Stephanie, you’re so smart!” But they have said that I’m beautiful. Plenty of times. I look at them all googly-eyed and croon about how smart they are. Why this seeming double standard, even among men who value the fact that I’m smart? I’m with Phil Plait on this one — how can we expect ourselves to “rise above” millions of years of evolution? Men are attracted to me for the traits that we’ve been bred to be attracted to — those which signify fertility and health. You know, big hips, rosy lips, symmetric facial features, etc. I’m attracted to them because it seems they can outsmart the antelope. We’ve got these big ponderous brains that let us think about the nature of consciousness, the universe, and gender differences. But that doesn’t mean those brains can completely override those gender differences, even if we’re aware of them.

The unfortunate result is that I’m much more confident of my looks than my brains. I accept compliments about my appearance much more gracefully than those about my smarts, where I tend to minimize, “Oh, I don’t really know physics that much.” Internally, I know I attribute my successes in science to extrinsic factors (“the exam was easy,” “I talked my way into graduate school,” or even “They let me in because I’m a woman”) than to intrinsic factors (“I’m smart”), though I do admit that I worked hard. I don’t see guys do this. I’m not blaming them (or anyone), it just seems a shame. I do feel angry that I’ve gotten so much more positive feedback (interpersonally) over my life for being cute than for being smart. I even know that being cute has probably helped my career (research shows that attractive women have many advantages in career, as do tall men.)

Jennifer’s post continues:

The mistake many people make, however, is to over-compensate too far in the other direction, wherein anything remotely “girly” is somehow exerting undue pressure on young girls, with no thought to the possibility that maybe some girls genuinely like this stuff. Maybe this is part of who they are. Maybe they also like science and math. Ergo, we are putting a whole different kind of peer pressure on them that also squelches their individuality, by insisting they simply can’t be both interested in science and in clothes and makeup. (“Accessorizing is evil and will turn you into a bubblehead! Put down that Coach handbag and back away slowly! Do it for science!”)

That attitude is showing up a lot in Phil’s comment thread; I’ve heard it before. Danica MacKellar was sharply criticized when Math Doesn’t Suck was published last year for using math problems involving, say, shopping for school clothes.

I’ve seen this too, this “girly stuff is demeaning” attitude. It bothers me. A lot. Because “boyish” stuff, like trains and hunting and barbeques, doesn’t have that same negative connotation. To me, the embarrassment we’ve got about girly stuff has to do with our negative attitudes towards women. Period. We think that handbags and high-heels don’t belong in a textbook (or anywhere serious) because they’re related to women, and we don’t value women.   I don’t usually state such strong opinions, but there it is!

Back to guys’ interest in the “sexy+smart” coincidence. One thing that’s curious is that they often seem to cling to this hope that I’ll “get” them, that I “speaka their language.” Which, to some degree, I do. I speak geek. I like talking about this stuff. But to a large degree, I DON’T understand guys any more than any other girl. Stereotypically speaking, I have a woman’s desire to talk deeply about how I feel, to examine issues from many sides, to seek connection and to listen and to build community and all that crud. And I still have all the communication problems with men than most other women do. And yet, men talk about topics that I find much more interesting, in general. I straddle these two worlds — of nail polish and emotional conversations, versus differential equations and debunking astrology.

Where’s a geekgirl to call home?

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800px-tisb_academic_block.JPGOne thing that’s been on my mind a lot lately is the special place called academics. I was very happy at the Exploratorium, because I could see the results of my work every day. I was working directly with teachers and giving them tools that they needed, and that felt good. Now, I am doing much more meta-level work: I am studying the practices that make teaching more effective.

So, what I’m doing may eventually assist teachers (and thus students) but it’s certainly not as “fun” as being out there in the trenches, figuring out the conductivity of play-doh.

I find myself wondering — am I having an impact? It takes SO long to create knowledge. That is the case in all science. It takes years to learn to crystallize a certain molecule. It will take me years to come up with evidence regarding how students grapple with concepts in this one course (electricity and magnetism) that I’m studying. So, it will take years to discover information about how people think about this one topic.

Will this information help teachers, and thus, eventually, students? I would be curious to hear from any educators on this topic. Do you read the results of education research? I have not seen much evidence, so far, of active outreach on the part of education researchers, to disseminate their findings among K-14 teachers. I would be interested to know of any such efforts!

When I first came into this position, one of the professors in the department realized that I was an activist. And suggested that this position will help make me an informed activist. At the least, I feel that that’s true.

Earlier this week I had the experience of being in a lecture again, in a junior-level Electricity & Magnetism class (I will be studying this class as part of my new job). The contrast between the structure of a university class and the Exploratorium workshops was dramatic. In the university class, the material was presented in the abstract, with formulas and references to the “E-field” and an example problem. In the Exploratorium workshops, the focus is on the phenomenon, with almost no math, and the explanations are given like a story (eg., “electrons are stripped off of one material, and that charge pushes on the balloon…”).

The goal of the different workshops is different, of course — the university class is training students to solve problems and pass a test. The Exploratorium workshops are training for conceptual understanding. But can’t the two intertwine a little bit more?

In speaking with the professor for the university course, he made the distinction between theoretical/mathematical understanding and conceptual understanding. He is teaching students for theoretical understanding, not concepts. I respect this, as I do the conceptual emphasis at the Exploratorium. But, what I would like is to see more of a marriage between the two.

Many scientists argue that “popularization” of science is not useful because you can’t really get across the essence of the science, only the big ideas. The true essence of the science requires an understanding of complicated, indirect relationships, and a mathematical description of the world. That mathematical description of the world is what these young physicists are getting in their classes, and what I got in mine. Some of my deepest insights into the world were gained through understanding of these equations and what they said about the laws of nature.

However, my other deepest insights into the world were gained through a simple explanation of a phenomenon, which drew on my physics knowledge and told me what the equations were really saying.

So, the two methods of teaching certainly have their place, but I would like to see more overlap between the two. I don’t think you can truly understand the world without a good grasp of both the mathematics and the concepts, though the emphasis must change depending on the learner’s goals.

nprgirl.jpgI promised a post on my oddball career path, because many people find it interesting. It’s certainly been a bit of a random walk and I’m thrilled to find myself here! Here is an interview with me about my career through the American Physical Society.

I’ve often likened myself to a bacteria. Bacteria tend to be named for what they like — heat-loving bacteria are “thermophilic”, or acid-loving bacteria are “acidophilic.” But a thermophilic bacteria on one end of the petri dish doesn’t have a satellite map of the whole petri dish so that it can make a beeline for where it’s hottest. Instead, it senses the local changes in heat, and just heads in the direction where it senses it’s a little warmer. Then it senses which direction to go from there. In math terms, it’s following a “gradient.” So it doesn’t go from point A to point B directly, but gets there by wandering around, “sniffing out” the directions that get it closer to what it wants.

I certainly haven’t gone from point A to point B. I don’t think there is a point B, point B keeps changing. I just kind of sniff around and go in the direction that feels good. That’s how I got here. Sometimes I worry that I should try to do things that “build a career.” But life’s too short to do things just because you have to. I’ve gotten along very well by doing things that I enjoy, and because I enjoy them, I end up being valuable.

So, my undergraduate degree is in social psychology — I studied women in the workplace, but my true love was understanding how people interact in groups and just trying to get some insight into the mystery of how people work. I took a lot of physics and math while I was in college, though, and was taking 2 physics courses my senior year while completing my senior project. I got tired of the imprecision of psychology, though it was clearly applicable to everyday life, and thought perhaps I’d like to go to graduate school in physics. Physics made me feel good.

But I took a bunch of time off (5 years) and worked in San Francisco, and then went to Peace Corps in Guinea, West Africa. In Guinea I taught science for the first time, explaining the existence of invisible things like germs and HIV to villagers. That was where I understood that many people have alternative explanations for why things happen — explanations that don’t rely on science. That was also where I met my first science writer — a woman visiting a Peace Corps volunteer who was also a writer for Science magazine. I thought, wow, there’s a great career — I love writing, love learning science, it’s perfect. So, I kept that in my back pocket.

When I came back, I entered graduate school in physics at UC Santa Cruz. It had been 5 years since I’d been in school and 7 years since my last calculus class. It was very, very hard. But I did it, and 5 years later had a degree in physics. I somewhat regret sticking it out to the PhD, because it was not an enjoyable experience for me. I could have gotten the expertise and fun that I wanted with an MS. On the other hand, the doctoral degree opens a lot of doors for me.

While I was in graduate school I began freelance science writing and (through a lot of hard work) got several dozen publications in newspapers, magazines, press releases, and the web. That culminated in me getting the AAAS Mass Media Fellowship at National Public Radio’s Science Desk in DC. What a great job! I fell in love with radio (which I really hadn’t listened to that much before).

After my dissertation, I found the postdoctoral fellowship at the Exploratorium and that was the best thing that ever happened to me. The Exploratorium has been a creative hotbed, full of great people and great ideas and I’ve learned a lot from my mentor, Dr. Paul Doherty as well as the other amazing people in the Teacher Institute where I work. This job has made my career, and everywhere I look now, people are interested in hiring me.

So that’s me, from psychology to physics to writing to the Exploratorium, and now on to education research in Boulder.

This past weekend I was invited to speak at the Ecological Society of America for a workshop on communicating science. A bunch of ecologists wanted to know how to talk about their research to a broader audience. This is a huge issue nowadays, in part because of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) new “Broader Impacts” portion of their grants, which stipulates that researchers have to indicate how they will bring their work to the public. There are currently no reward systems in place for academics to talk to the public about their work (they get kudos for publications, not public lectures), and they’re not trained to explain their work in short, simple sentences.

I spoke about my own career path (which I’ll post on later), and one student mentioned this was useful because it shows you don’t have to walk the straight and narrow path (boy, I’ll say). I also talked a lot about blogging, even though I’m not the world’s expert, and about podcasting too and how to get your message across by talking clearly and using examples that are familiar to your listeners.

One thing I was struck by was that the ecologists were concerned that it was difficult to explain their science because it was esoteric and not directly related to people’s lives. And then they talked about waterways running dry, endangered species and the disruption of ecosystems, and trees. What the heck are you complaining about!? In physics we’re trying to talk about neutrinos, dark matter, and superconductors. And they’re worried about talking about trees? Give me a break. 🙂 However, it is true that all science faces many of the same challenges in communication. In physics and chemistry, though, we’re often discussing things people have no direct experience with at all, and their only relationship to these things is through curiosity.

Now, that said, many people say you have to show how science is directly related to someone’s life in order to draw them in. I disagree. It certainly helps if you can answer the question “how does this relate to me?” but people do also have a natural curiosity about the world and how it works. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have all the popular stuff like Bill Nye, NOVA, and Mythbusters.

The other challenges that ecologists faced, that we physicists often don’t, were that the relationships and correlations they discuss are often indirect, and changes happen slowly over time, and many of the findings are nuanced or depend on context. This is a huge challenge, especially in trying to alert the public to climate change or endangered species. The public wants simple, quick, and dire messages, which the complexities of ecosystems do not lend themselves to. Al Gore spoke to the American Geophysical Union last year and urged the scientists there to find a few messages and stick to them — repeat them over and over until they become part of the public consciousness (that’s what the administration does after all). I think the same could be said of ecologists. What a massive undertaking, but necessary.

Here is a link to my talk on my website: http://www.exo.net/~drsteph/conference.html

cutecrop.jpgI have a new job! My postdoc at the Exploratorium ends next week, and I will be taking off for the mountains. I have a fixed term position as Senior Teaching Fellow at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I’ll be doing research on physics education — studying how students learn and offering suggestions to restructure their upper division undergraduate courses (quantum and electricity & magnetism). If there are any teachers reading this, I would be really curious to hear what they think of education research and whether it’s helpful at all to them.

It will be quite a change from the buzzing pace of the Exploratorium. I’m very excited about the job — I’ve always found it interesting to understand how people learn and think about things. We usually think that other people learn how we do, by default, but it’s not true. “Metacognition” (or thinking about how we think) has always helped me as a learner — I tend to know what it is that I don’t understand, which helps me ask the right questions. Or, it used to. Before I was a “Dr” I asked much better questions. Now that I feel I’m supposed to know the answers I’m more shy about asking questions, which is a real shame.

I admit to some trepidation in returning to academia. I didn’t enjoy my graduate experiences, but the physics department at Boulder seems very friendly. Still, you walk into the halls of a physics department, and there is still certain quietness. After being near thousands of yelling and wide-eyed children, it will be a change. The other thing that is different about academia is the pace of life. At the Exploratorium, we have to create things that are pretty great, but there are a dozen other things waiting behind it, so we have to do it quickly. In academia, the standards are higher, the products must be much more meticulously polished. Will I have the patience to return to the slower pace after the fast-paced efficiency of the Exploratorium?

So, stay tuned!

I want to point out a neat-o blog, Cocktail Party Physics by Jennifer Ouellette. This blog has a lot of prolific material about physics, and is very popular. She recently visited San Francisco and here is her post about the Exploratorium.

That post concludes, “where everyone was encouraged to discover more about the topic at hand, pursue their own lines of inquiry, question assumptions and stereotypes (including their own ingrained biases, per that toilet drinking fountain), and test their theories in a hands-on fashion — so that their opinions actually have some substantial basis in fact. We need more places like this in the world, to counter all the ignorance-is-bliss-and-science-is-suspect Neanderthals out there. So this is my love letter to the Exploratorium, and every other science museum laboring to bring the light of knowledge to the masses. Your efforts are appreciated.”

Yay! Thanks Jennifer! Not that I can take much of the credit…