Girls & Science: a quietly fierce love

Beach rocks

Montana de Oro State Park, San Luis Obispo County

I am a scientist and a lawyer. I’ve written hundreds of patents on inventions such as super-sweet apples, antidepressants, and ways to sequester toxic waste.

When people ask me why I became a scientist, I tell them that I was always a quiet girl ­– I was the kid poking wet leaves with a stick in the woods or reading Stephen King novels during class. Sometimes, I relay the joy of winning a science fair ribbon for training flatworms to abandon their instincts. When the worms tried to hide in the dark zones of a maze that I built from a pie pan and Plaster of Paris, I shocked them with a train transformer. My plan was to chop the smart worms into bits and feed them to untrained peers. I’d read that the naïve worms would incorporate the negative lessons and fall in line. I never got around to that part. I still wonder.

Sometimes, people ask me why I became a lawyer. I tell them that I was a quiet girl who worried about bullies and wrote letters to the editor. Sometimes, I channel the thrill of Constitutional Law, and how my classmates’ energy drew me out of my shyness and into the world. I don’t talk about the Physics professor who tried to prove to me that his penis was bigger than the penises of the black men on the Pacific island where he had been a Peace Corps volunteer. I omit the part about my Torts professor asking me to be his research assistant because I had blonde hair and blue eyes, just like his previous research assistant, who had quit after he showed up at her apartment drunk and tried to climb into her window while shouting that he wanted to fuck her. I say nothing about those shameful things. I am still that quiet girl.

Sometimes, people ask me why I think more girls don’t go into science. “That’s a tough one,” I say. I tell them that, in fact, girls do go into science. A recent report by the National Science Foundation found:

Women have earned…about half of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees since the late 1990s. … The proportion of women is lowest in engineering, computer sciences, and physics.” (NSF 2017)

I tell them that the better question is: why don’t more girls don’t go into engineering, computer science, and physics?

I believe the answer has something to do with quiet girls who prefer the woods and the back of the classroom. Those girls are suited for the solitude of engineering, computer science, and physics but are easily lost in the chaos of overpopulated schools, objectifying media, sexual violence, and scientifically-proven grading bias. Most of the time, quiet girls fade into the background, unnoticed by parents, teachers, coaches, and bosses. They don’t speak up and they don’t lean in. It’s not their fault. They’re quiet girls.

I wonder: how many more girls would pursue science if encouraged? How many girls have had their natural love for science squelched by family turmoil, educational access problems, and discrimination?

The relatively new fields of cognitive science and data analytics can answer those questions. Technology such as computers, the internet, and functional magnetic resonance imaging allow us unprecedented access to human thought and behavior. The intersection of these data sets provides insight into our decision making. With sufficient funding, girls’ motivations, access, and outcomes can be mapped. Science can tell us what is happening to quiet girls and how to help them contribute to a field they naturally enjoy.

Unfortunately, too few policy makers look to science for solutions. They trust their “gut instincts” or “common sense” instead. It isn’t working.

Our planet is dying from pollution and our communities are dying from obesity. As a scientist, the answers seem easy – carbon in, carbon out. Simple math. When I think about how society can influence the variables, I hear the deep voice of the narrator in The Six Million Dollar Man saying, “We have the technology. We can rebuild…”

One problem is that most people don’t understand a basic concept of physics: acceleration. Acceleration is not simply fast movement; acceleration is faster and faster change of movement. Robotics technology, climate devastation, and population growth are accelerating. Accelerating change in our economy, communications, and social fabric is outpacing our ability to make decisions based on gut instincts or common sense. This faster rate of change makes scientific and analytical skills essential for predicting how governance will affect our communities.

What we need now are caring policy makers with sharp critical thinking skills. People who understand experimental design and statistics. Data scientists to analyze historic facts, calculate risks, and direct future actions. Engineers who thrive at the intersection of calculus, infrastructures, and human behavior. We need readers and ponderers and dissectors and skeptics. We need people who marvel at the beauty of a leaf because they see capillary action, carbohydrate synthesis, and phototropism. Citizens who think that a presidential candidate’s genomic and fMRI data would be far more interesting than their tax returns.

In short: we need quiet girls. And they need us.

Categories: Activism, Civil Rights, Opinions, Politics, Storytelling, Uncategorized

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