Archive for: October, 2012

10 things to remember when writing about autism science

Oct 22 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

[This post is a slightly amended version of a post that first appeared on my personal blog.]

Many popular science books have a narrative that may not necessarily stand up to precise scientific scrutiny. Indeed, a criticism leveled at many such books is this lack of care in qualifying scientific results and interpreting them with caution and caveats. It's an understandable instinct. Think about the good storytellers you know. How much care do they exercise in avoiding hyperbole or sins of co-mission and omission in telling a "good" story? Some writers of popular science books commit these sins to tell a good story, too. Others do not, yet their work is popular and well received. It is possible to be accurate and cautious and still tell a rousing tale.

The problem with writing about science, though, is that science isn't just a story. It's about facts and open questions, and it's almost never defensible to write as though a door has closed, a box has been checked, or a mystery has been completely solved. We owe it to readers to avoid simplification to the point of a sin of omission and to avoid overinterpreting to the point of hyperbole.

When it comes to writing stories about health and medicine, the stakes climb. With these stories, we're not writing only about scientific findings. What we write is also about people. Many writers seek a narrative hook, a personal story that frames the rest of the piece. I can't even count the number of autism-related stories that open with a (very real) tale of woe featuring an overwhelmed or traumatized parent talking about the grief and horror of having a child with autism. This tactic catches the reader--and happens to be one that the largest autism nonprofit in the United States also employs--successfully tugging at heart and purse strings and attracting mouse clicks. But this tugging and this narrative approach are so frequent in such stories as to be near-cliches, and they do few favors for the autistic people these stories are really about.

The presentation of autism as a monster to battle or a stalker out to destroy your life has repercussions that some autistic adults argue go beyond an unfair and painful characterization of what they believe is Who They Are. News stories about autistic people whose parents and caregivers have murdered them often carry a clear attitude of "autism is so hard, no wonder they got killed." When every news story you read describes autism as a horrific affliction and all of those with it as suffering, when mainstream news organizations persist in focusing only on what parents have to say about autism rather than talking to autistic people, when stories focus on preventing autism--with worms, no less--autistic people, real, living, breathing people, feel pain and get angry and argue that even if they are nonspeaking, they can be perfectly capable of communicating for themselves.

If you are someone who writes about health and medicine and who covers a story related to neurobiology--particularly autism--please consider the following 10 suggestions. They might help you avoid the pitfalls of hyperbole and poor interpretation and causing pain to autistic people.

  1. Interview an autistic person for insight whenever possible. If you need suggestions for leads, feel free to contact me. If you were writing a piece about any other human condition, would you talk only to parents or relatives of people with that condition if the people who have it could communicate for themselves?
  2. If a researcher claims to have "solved" autism, please exercise healthy skepticism and follow up with someone who doesn't have a dog in the hunt. Of all of the neurobiological conditions, autism may be the most variable. It's extremely unlikely that any one research path or group or hypothesis will explain all autism. Don't ride that wave with them.
  3. Don't generalize. Stick with what the findings say, not what the discussion or the conclusions or the authors or the news releases say. Have an ear for when someone is overgeneralizing. Example generalization: "X causes autism." What causes autism has not been established, and the causes themselves--and how they work--are likely going to form a very long list. We are still very early in formulating that list, much less what the items on that list do.
  4. Don't mistake correlation for cause. When a study reports a "link," that term usually means a mathematical relationship: When X was more frequent, autism was more frequent." That doesn't mean that X causes autism. It doesn't even mean that X has anything to do with autism.
  5. Don't overstate the meaning of risk. Risk is a scary word, although we all live with the 100% risk of dying someday, regardless of what other risks we face. When a study result refers to "increased risk," look at the numbers. If they say that the presence of factor X was associated with a relative risk of 2.1, for example, then the population with factor X had twice the autism compared to the group without that factor. If the average risk of having a child with autism in the absence of that factor is 1%, then this particular factor was associated with about a 2% risk. And relative risk applies only for that study--it does not tell you what the actual risk is. 
  6. Keep in mind that even these links don't imply a true causal relationship. They're just math associations. A famous example of how these relationships can end up being misinterpreted is the protein CRP and heart disease. Because of a mathematical association between the presence of this protein and the occurrence of heart disease, researchers thought for a pretty long time that CRP might cause heart disease, and drugs were even targeted to lowering its levels. Turns out, it doesn't cause heart disease, so the drugs were no use. Instead, it's either a side effect of heart disease (reverse causality) or just higher because of some indirect influence. Now, take any recent X factor you've heard is "linked" to or "causes" autism and substitute it and autism into the above story to understand how unpromising correlation can really be.
  7. Be aware of how you write about autism and of the fact that autistic people may read what you're writing. How you describe autism is, for those readers, describing themselves, their very being. Please try to avoid lapsing into the parlance of affliction, suffering, disease, desperation for a cure, war, and despair or comparisons of "low" and "high" function. A good science geek knows that function is often a matter of environment, not a constant measure. Although some autism parents may disagree, one key to making this world a better place for autistic people is for society not to see or treat them as unhearing, nonverbal, illiterate rocking obsessives who don't understand what people are saying about them. Unlike neurodegenerative or fatal diseases, autism is not universally perceived or lived as a negative condition, and it's important to remember that.
  8. If the study in question is about mice, never talk about how the results will lead to a therapy or a cure or write about the mice as though somehow, they are just tiny humans with tails. Mice have misled us before. They are only a way to model what might happen in a mammal sorta kinda related to us. They are not Us, otherwise we'd live in tiny, crowded places, having 10 children at once and ignoring them when they grow fur, and this autism thing wouldn't be an issue.
  9. Don't use phrases like "gene that causes autism" or "gene that is linked to autism" or "faulty gene" or "defective gene." What you really want to say is "gene variant" or "version of the gene." There isn't an "autism" gene; there are gene changes that might be linked to autism.
  10. Also avoid referencing "environmental factors" without providing some specific examples. Those examples should not be "chemicals" or "toxins," which are vague, meaningless, and stupid. Established environmental risk factors for autism include parental age and extreme prematurity. Try those, but handle with care.

Finally, I know deadlines are tight, but never take a paper author's interpretation as The Final Word. Try to find someone not connected with the work and get their comment. Journalism 101, I know, but it's surprising how often articles do not include this kind of balance. By balance, I don't mean "gives the other side." I just mean, "possibly modulates enthusiastic author's overinterpretation or overselling of results and their significance." 

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STEMinist Profile: Christine Clarke, Research Associate, Microbiology

Oct 12 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Christine Clarke, Research Associate (Microbiology)

Taxon Biosciences

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Both of my parents are scientifically-minded – my father has a degree in biochemistry and my mother has hers in kinesiology – and they did a good job of instilling my siblings and me with a sense of wonder about the natural world. Not only a sense of wonder, but a sense that there were answers: answers that we were equipped to find ourselves. Equipped with those mental tools, it became irresistible to try and find the answers.

As soon as I took high school biology, everything clicked with me and I knew that was what I had to study. Nothing was more inspiring or more meaningful to me, so I knew it was my calling. Luckily, biology is still as exciting and fulfilling to me today as it was when I was a child.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project that I have worked on has been a microbial ecology study. Science has become very interdisciplinary these days, so don’t be surprised when I say that we were using next gen genetic sequencing techniques to study microbes on the community-level (rather than on the individual species level) in order to better understand the geology of the area. Microbes have an ecology going on just like the traditional “a lion eats a zebra” example.

We used the microbial community to sense what was happening in the environment both chemically and geologically, because geology affects microbes while microbes affect geology. Using next gen sequencing, we were able to identify certain core “consortia” of microbes which always seemed to co-occur (they all seemed to need each other to survive).

Using targeted isolation techniques, we were able to find and grow all the species in one such consortium under laboratory conditions, and then study their metabolisms both individually and as a community. We were able to produce a carbon-flow model of what happens in the environment, and how those microbes interacted to produce some of the mineralization we observe and by-products they produce.

The study of biogeochemistry is becoming very important, especially now as we learn more about things like the nitrogen cycle and the methane cycle, both of which are driven by microbes but have global-scale effects.

Role models/heroes:
Melissa Jurica is one of my major role models. She is a brilliant woman who has been able to start a family and stay in academia – no small feat. It is true that in the USA, STEM women tend to leave academia for industry if they want to have a family and/or children because industry is more accommodating towards maternity. This shouldn’t be the case, but it is.

A few more of my heroes include: Dorothy Hodgkin because, really, X-ray crystallography is intense and never fails to impress me; Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Dawkins for their work in evolutionary biology and for helping the public and non-specialists to understand and conceptualize the major points of their field; Margret Sanger for helping forward birth control advocacy and sexual rights; and Betty Dodson for helping women accept and embrace their sexuality.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in STEM because it gives me a chance to explore the world around me and make discoveries about life itself. It is a very gratifying experience to contribute to new data and discoveries, and I think it gives me a healthy sense of self-worth and pride in my abilities.

When months or years of work suddenly starts to fall into place and you start making sense of all your meticulously-collected data: that is the greatest feeling in the world. I also love that it forces me to keep learning new things every day, and that I am always finding new things that amaze me or blow my mind.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you get bogged down by the day-to-day drudgery of STEM work, take some time to step back and look at the big picture and remind yourself of the big questions you are asking. Sometimes STEM work can feel tedious, especially since there are times when you must focus so much of your brainpower onto a tiny (yet crucial) portion of your work, and that can get both mechanically tedious and mentally exhausting.

If you find yourself in that situation, taking a short break to reflect on these things will give you a better perspective, and instead of feeling stuck you can recognize that your work has not been mundane. Much of the progress in STEM builds up slowly over time, which is why looking back is helpful.

I will also say that you should really work on building a solid foundation in math and computers. This might seem obvious but a lot of people (men and women) shy away from math and computers, especially in some of the biological disciplines. However, those fields actually do use a lot of math and computers on a daily basis, so if you beef up your mathematics, you will stand out as being very valuable in your field. Don’t assume that you won’t need mastery of math or computers for any STEM job you want to pursue.

I can guarantee that no matter which field you want to work in, both skills will help you succeed and advance. For example: yes, an ecologist needs to be very good at ecology, but everybody else working in ecology does amazing ecology work as well – that’s why they’re in that field. But if you’ve also taken a class in programming, are familiar in Linux, and are not scared of using mathematics; you’ve got an edge. You’re valuable.

Favorite website/app:
I have two apps that are very impressive and absolutely indispensable:

Sigma-Aldrich’s “Substructure Search” is invaluable to me, and also free to use (they want it to help you buy chemicals from them). They have brought together MarvinSketch, JME Molecular Editor, and ChemDraw (all amazing) in one applet. You can “sketch” an organic molecule, and then have the applet calculate the IUPAC name for what you have just drawn (and vise-versa). IUPAC naming is a good method of standardization, but it can get tricky.

Common names are easier to remember, but are not standardized (and often result in 10 different names for one molecule). This does lead to trouble sometimes! That’s why we all remember our O-Chem professors giving extra credit problems on our homework with a drawing of a very huge and ugly molecule, with the deceptively simple instructions “Give the IUPAC name for this molecule.”

I use this applet for my work all the time, but I can imagine that if I had this as a child, I would have loved to spend hours drawing the weirdest molecules possible, trying to “stump the program.” I think this is a natural tendency kids have, but in the process they would still learn a lot about molecular naming and be entertained by discovering that this atrocity they have just drawn actually has a name.

The ARB Project is another free program that I could not do without. If you have a Linux computer, you can download it and start making phylogenetic trees (the image on their homepage is a good example) at home. You don’t even need to generate your own genetic data to get started, you can download some reference trees of genetic sequences submitted by other scientists from then start playing with them in ARB. You learn a lot about taxonomy and phylogeny just by playing around with trees in ARB.

Website and Twitter: My personal Twitter account is @Steenaire, and my personal website is I mostly blog about personal things or post silly doodles, but recently I have decided to try my hand at science reporting that is accessible and interesting to non-specialists. After reading far too many “evolutionary narratives” in popular science reporting, I decided that if I really wanted anything to change then I should be contributing.

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STEMinist Profile: Carla Fair-Wright, Software Engineer

Oct 11 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Carla Fair
Carla Fair-Wright, Software Engineer
Optimal Consulting LLC

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My high school math teacher Sister Donna Blaul. She always encouraged me to do my best and be authentic. Unfortunately, her life was ended by a tragic event before I could thank her. However, I recently found out about a scholarship that was created in her name.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I was a rebel growing up. I joined the military after a year in Biomedical Engineering at Boston University against family wishes. While I was on active duty in the US Air Force, I worked in war planning. It was extremely complex work and very challenging. Every day was different. I don't miss the pace, but do sometimes miss the challenges.

Role models/heroes:
Betty Shanahan, executive director and CEO for the Society of Women Engineers; Madeleine Albright - First woman to become the United States Secretary of State; Dr. Thelma Estrin - a pioneer in biomedical engineering.

Why do you love working in STEM?
The career opportunities are limitless. You are bound by your imagination and your will to succeed. Being a Software Engineer and Project Manager, I get to work on all types of projects across every industry. My current software project is for one of the largest law enforcement agencies in the US. Prior to taking on this project, I worked for British Petroleum on the Spill Response effort in the Gulf.

Before that, I worked in the automotive industry. I could never be the kind of person that worked for 30 years for a company doing the same job. Owning my own company, seemed like a natural choice for me. I encourage my daughter, who is an actress, to be independent and fiscally aware. At sixteen, she is starting a small theatre workshop for elementary children. I already applied for a spot on the popular TV show Shark Tank for her to pitch her business!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Heed the lesson of Rosalind Franklin. Franklin discovered the helical structure of DNA. Nobel Prize winners Watson and Crick admitted they could not have discovered the structure of DNA without her work. But, Rosalind preferred to work alone and lives in the shadows of history. To be successful and reach your full potential you must learn to work with others. To quote Ursula Burns, mechanical engineer and now CEO of Xerox, "If You Don't Transform, You're Stuck."

Favorite website/app: Twitter

Website: Technological Women Blog
Twitter: @TeknoWomen

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STEMinist Profile: Alexandria DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center lead

Oct 10 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Alex Dewolfe_Steminist Profile
Alexandria DeWolfe, MAVEN Science Data Center Lead

Laboratory for Atmospheric & Space Physics (LASP), University of Colorado

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I've been interested in science ever since I was little, thanks to my wonderful parents and some excellent teachers. My dad was a very early computer programmer - he taught me BASIC on a home-built Sinclair in 1982 - so it's no surprise that I've found myself in a computing job. When I was in high school I took physics and loved it, and decided to major in astronomy in college. I went to Wellesley College, which is a women's college and a great place to do science.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
MAVEN! It's NASA's next Mars mission, launching in November 2013. Ten months later, it'll go into orbit around Mars to collect data about the current and past state of the Martian atmosphere. I manage the Science Data Center, which is kind of like the centralized data library for the mission, where the entire MAVEN team can get all the latest data for doing science. Needless to say, it involves a lot of computing power: we don't have a huge data volume, but everything has to be carefully backed up, and accessible to the team but secured against unauthorized access.

It's really exciting to work on a planetary mission, especially since I joined the mission a couple years ago and will be able to take the data center from the initial design through implementation to daily operations during the mission. Also, I can't wait to go to Kennedy Space Center and watch the launch! Follow @maven2mars on Twitter for more info.

Role models and heroes:
Ada Lovelace, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Sally Ride.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I love working in the space program and feeling like my work is part of something really important and exciting. I actually took a break from STEM work for a few years and went to graduate school to study ancient Middle Eastern languages, which was really interesting, but I'm glad to be back in a field with more job opportunities, and I like being able to work on something completely new and innovative.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Working in science is great! There are so many opportunities out there for you if you study a STEM field.

Favorite website or app:
Goodreads and Ravelry, supporting my hobbies.

Twitter: @rocketshipmom - so named when I asked my then-three-year-old son what he thought my job was and he said "Rocketship girl."

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STEMinist Profile: Maria McKavanagh, Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

Oct 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Maria McKavanagh

Post Graduate Research Associate, Wireless Sensor Networks

The University of Manchester, UK

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I have always loved mathematics and physics from a very young age. I liked how logical they were and how I could always see why I was right or wrong. My brother, who is now a software architect, gave me a book called "Java in 24 hours" when I was 12. This was my first taste of computer programming and I loved it!

When I went to grammar school there were many "Insight into Engineering" days and I went to all of them. My love for problem solving just grew and grew and so a degree in Electronic Systems Engineering was an obvious choice.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
My coolest project would have to be the one I worked on in the third year of my degree. It was a colour reader for blind and visually impaired people. I have always wanted to help people, and teachers at school suggested I become a doctor, however the sight of blood makes me faint so it didn't seem like the career choice for me!

The outcome of this project was something that had the potential to seriously improve the quality of some people's lives and I thrived on that. The realisation that being an engineer still allowed me to help people reaffirmed that it was the career for me.

Role models/heroes:
I watched a TED talk a short time ago by Sheryl Sandberg, the COO of Facebook. It was called "Why we have too few women leaders." I found it extremely inspiring. I would also have to say my mother. Despite never having worked as one, she is one of the best engineers I know. She can solve any problem and I've seen her fix everything from a shelf to an extractor fan. She is determined and will stop at nothing to solve a problem.

One day I witnessed her saw off a door frame to move a piano from one room to another, and have it glued back on and repainted before my father got home! When she decides she is going to do something, she will always find a way, no matter how long it takes to learn how to do it—I definitely have her to thank for where I am today.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Working in STEM makes me feel like I can change the world! That may sound silly, but in my research I may just discover something that no one else has before. Every single day is different which keeps me motivated. Working in a university means I cross paths with some of the best in the field of electrical engineering and I find them fascinating to talk to.

Advice for future STEMinists?
If you are considering a STEM career DO IT! It is challenging but there are big rewards. For those embarking on their career I would say work hard and have confidence in your ability. STEM is still male dominated which can sometimes be a bit intimidating, particularly early in your career, but women bring skills to STEM that men can't.

We are lateral thinkers which means we can sometimes come up with very innovative solutions to problems. I have heard many men in the profession say that women bring a whole new aspect to their team and so industry is crying out for more of us to join.

Favorite website/app:
I love Appy-geek. It is an app for Android and iPhone which gives you all the latest technology news in one place. It has an alerts feature so when an article on something you are interested in becomes available you know about it straight away.

Twitter: @IgorinaJP

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STEMinist Profile: Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher

Oct 08 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Jarita C. Holbrook, Researcher
Women and Gender Studies at UCLA

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
My career is really two stages if not three. I hold degrees in physics, astronomy, and astrophysics through my doctorate. At that point in time, I wanted to be an astrophysicist but by the time I finished my PhD, I had changed my mind.

The next stage of my career has been as a social scientist focused on the links between humans and the night sky: Cultural Astronomy. To make the transition from physical science to social science was not easy! I had to learn a new language and way of approaching and analyzing data.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The third stage of my career is that I am a filmmaker! When I am making documentary films I focus on minority astronomers and astrophysicists. Being a cultural astronomer takes me to amazing places and I talk about the sky and gather information about the sky from everyone I meet; when I am making a film I follow astronomers to cool places and focus on them and their research.

Role models/heroes:
I have many great mentors but role models is more difficult: Anthony Aveni added respectability to Cultural Astronomy and his work is amazing. I love the work of filmmaker Julie Dash, but I have never met her. Angela Davis is my role model for how to always be gracious no matter how famous.

Anthropologist Brackette Williams taught me how to undermine my opponents because they are predictable. Finally, former dean of the UA business college Ken Smith taught me some tricks to being an effective academic leader. All of them I consider to be my role models.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I like being able to develop a hypothesis, design a research project to test it, and then to look at my results to see if my original hypothesis was correct. This step 1, step 2, step 3 that you can always fall back on. What I absolutely love is when I am looking for one thing and I discover another thing!

Advice for future STEMinists?
Being an interdisciplinary scientist is difficult because the academy is rigid so everyone wants to fit you into somebody else's box. However, I think that the most exciting work is occurring in the spaces between disciplines.

Career-wise, I have had to compromise and occupy places where I do not fit intellectually, however I have always learned things important to my research from my colleagues in every situation. I have occupied history of science, applied anthropology, Africana studies, and now women and gender studies not to forget physics and astronomy, too.

Favorite website/app:
I have always been a movie person so nothing beats IMDB and their app.

Twitter: @astroholbrook

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STEMinist Profile: Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer, Ph.D. Candidate in Neuroscience

Oct 05 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer_Steminist Profile
Mónica I. Feliú-Mójer

Ph.D. candidate in Neuroscience at Harvard Medical School and vice-director of Ciencia Puerto Rico

My Ph.D. program is based at Harvard Medical School and my laboratory is in Massachusetts General Hospital. Ciencia Puerto Rico is the non-profit I co-direct as a volunteer.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I grew up in Vega Alta, a small town in northern Puerto Rico, where nature was my playground, so I was always curious about how the world around me worked, what the biological basis for events that surrounded me was. While I never really had a scientific role model as a child, my parents were always very encouraging of my interest in science.

When I was 11 years old, someone very dear to me was diagnosed with a mental disorder and upon seeing how that person's behavior was changed as a result of this affliction, I began to develop an interest in learning how the brain works and how it leads to behavior.

At the beginning I thought I would become a physician, because I didn't think there were any other career options in science, until my General Biology professor (the very first scientist I ever met) encouraged me to try a summer research program. After that first research experience I was hooked, and I knew that was what I wanted to do: be a researcher.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I have ever worked on is Ciencia Puerto Rico, the non-profit I've volunteered for during the last 6+ years. Ciencia Puerto Rico is a resource and expert network for anyone interested in science and Puerto Rico. Through its online collaborative platform, Ciencia Puerto Rico brings together members of the greater Puerto Rican scientific community and leverages their knowledge to give back to Puerto Rico and help advance science, research and science education in the archipelago.

Ciencia Puerto Rico has given me the opportunity to give back to Puerto Rico; to connect with scientists and individuals with shared interests, background and experiences; and to mentor younger students (from grade school to college) interested in STEM. Moreover, this project has helped me realize the impact of science beyond the bench and the importance of public engagement with science.

Role models and heroes:
There are many people that fit in this category. I would say that everyone that has taken the time to mentor me at different steps of my career and my life. The best advice I ever got is to have multiple mentors, figure out what they do best and how they do it, and learn from that. The support and advice from my mentors has helped me achieve my goals, and they are the reason I want to pay it forward by mentoring others.

Amongst these people, I have to give a special mention to my undergraduate research mentors, Carlos Jiménez-Rivera and Rafael Vázquez Torres, who really helped shape my scientific interests, gave me the first opportunity to think independently, and to explore my capabilities as a scientist to the fullest.

They were always demanding, but loving and encouraging, and frankly made me fall in love with scientific discovery. My Ph.D. advisor, Josh Kaplan, has also been very supportive of my academic and non-academic interests, and has allowed me to grow and mature as a graduate student and a scientist.

I also have to single out the Ciencia Puerto Rico volunteer team. They are a group of professionals highly committed to the organization's mission and to each other. They are a great source of advice, ideas and inspiration, both at the personal and professional level. We are like a family to me and working with them is a privilege.

Last but not least, my family. They have been a constant source of inspiration, support and encouragement.

Why do you love working in STEM?
Nothing compares to the thrill of discovery and of contributing to the advancement of knowledge. Working in STEM has encouraged me to be curious and think outside the box, something that is definitely helpful in the lab and in life. Also, being a scientist has allowed me to meet people from diverse backgrounds and expertise, and that diversity has enriched my life.

Advice for future STEMinists?

  1. Be passionate about what you do.
  2. Keep open to new directions and think outside the box.
  3. Be a leader.
  4. Have multiple mentors.
  5. Don't be afraid to network. You'd be amazed at the unexpectedly great opportunities that arise from networking.
  6. Believe in yourself and be confident.
  7. Don't let people say you can't or that it is too hard to do it, particularly because you are woman. I was once part of a panel and someone asked me if I ever felt at disadvantage because I was a double minority in science (a woman and Hispanic). My response: No, because I never let that define me. I've never seen myself as a Hispanic woman scientist; I am a scientist that happens to be a Hispanic woman. The way I see it, being a Hispanic woman is an advantage rather than a disadvantage, because of the diverse set of skills, experiences and knowledge that I can bring to the table.
  8. Work hard.
  9. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
  10. Always be curious.

Favorite website or app:
My email! It is an important tool for work, to stay in touch, network. Twitter is my one-stop for news about science, current affairs and issues that I care about. Facebook allows me to keep in touch with family and friends.

Twitter: @moefeliu

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STEMinist Profile: Arielle Duhaime-Ross, Science Writer and Blogger

Oct 04 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Arielle Duhaime-Ross
Arielle Duhaime-Ross

Science, Health and Environmental reporting masters student, Science Writer and Blogger
New York University,

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
Very early on, I developed a fascination with animals, especially amphibians and reptiles. As a child, I devoured books about the world's most poisonous snakes, and always clamoured for the television to be tuned into shows like the "Crocodile Hunter" on the Discovery channel. I would proclaim to anyone who would show an interest that I was destined to become a herpetologist. Of course, I would later realize that I was better suited to writing about science as opposed to actually performing scientific experiments, but my fascination for all things STEM continues to grow.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
I did my undergraduate degree at the University of Guelph in zoology. For my honours thesis, which I am hoping to publish soon, I studied the sensory determinants that guide the behaviour of the red-backed salamander (Plethodon cinereus) during conspecific interactions. I tried to determine if and how olfactory cues interact with visual cues to provoke a territorial response in the salamanders during their interactions with each other. It was pretty amazing to get to know the behaviour of this amphibian on such an intimate level, especially given its well-documented territoriality.

Role models/heroes:
I am especially appreciative of the work of the prominent science writers of our time. I find journalists like David Dobbs, who wrote a wonderful piece entitled "The Science of Success" for The Atlantic in 2010, and Deborah Blum, who is the author of many a popular science book, especially inspiring.

But in truth, the person that has inspired me the most throughout my life is my grandmother, Mariette Dessureault-Duhaime. Thanks to her, the word "feminist" and all its implications were always cast in a positive light in my household. She taught all her grandchildren that fighting for gender equality was a worthwhile and critical battle to wage, and she did so joyfully throughout her life.

Why do you love working in STEM?
I never wanted to stop learning, and being a science writer means that I will never have to. The feeling I get from reading a study about, say, a faster way of DNA barcoding various plants and animals, or a new HIV treatment is indescribable. The only way I can find tranquility is by putting that excitement (or skepticism) into words, and sharing it. Discovering new concepts and ideas every single day is a fantastic way to go through life, and that's why I love what I do.

Advice for future STEMinists?
I am still at the very beginning of my career, so I feel rather strange about giving advice. That being said, I think that perseverance is a virtue. The scientific method allows, and even plans for, failure, so you should never let that faze you.

Favorite website/app:
I am a big fan of Knight Science Journalism at MIT Tracker Website. This site is dedicated to peer-reviewing science journalism. It is a great resource for anyone wishing to exercise a more critical eye when reading about new scientific discoveries in the mainstream media.

Twitter: @ArielleDRoss

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STEMinist Profile: Carolyn Dougherty, Project Engineer

Oct 03 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Carolyn Dougherty, Project Engineer
Tata Steel Projects

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
When I was finishing my BA at Berkeley and planning to go into international relations, I stumbled across a serialised version of Harry Harrison's novel Tunnel Through the Deeps. For whatever reason, that book got me interested in civil engineering; I wrote papers on the subject as an undergraduate, then had the epiphany, 'I could write papers about building railways, or I could actually go and BUILD some railways.' When I finished my BA I immediately started university over again, in a couple of years completing a master's degree in civil engineering at Berkeley.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to thank Harry Harrison for inspiring me to become a civil engineer; who knows, if I'd stuck with my original plan to be a diplomat I might be stamping passports in Outer Mongolia by now.

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The restoration of Hardwick Park, an 18th century landscape garden near Sedgefield. I was brought in to manage the completion of the work because it had gone over budget and was in danger of not keeping its commitment to the Heritage Lottery Fund. I was able to sort things out and get the restoration work completed; the project and county staff did a beautiful job and the restoration won the Georgian Society award for landscape in 2009.

The park is a fascinating example of a mid 18th century circuit walk garden—its design gives visitors who walk the circuit a very specific emotional experience that resembles going to the theatre, reading a novel or seeing a film. While working on the park I learned a great deal about 18th century landscape design, which opened up a whole new field of knowledge for me; since then I've visited several other similar parks (none as nice as Hardwick!), and I gave a paper on the design of Hardwick at the British Society for Eighteenth Century Studies conference in January 2012.

Role models/heroes:
None, I'm afraid—it would be crass to say 'I did it all on my own' since my parents paid for my first degree and supported me sporadically for some time afterward, but my career and my choices have been almost entirely of my own devising, without inspiration from role models or support from mentors. Not recommended!

I will, though, admit some admiration for I. K. Brunel. I'm amazed at how successful he was at talking people into things.

Why do you love working in STEM?
One thing I think is true in STEM that is not, at least not necessarily, true in other kinds of work is that we all understand the importance of interaction and collaboration. I like working in an environment where people routinely help each other, aren't afraid to make (or acknowledge) mistakes, and are accustomed to working as teams.

There are two reasons why engineering offices are like this, I think—first, the kind of work we do is so risky that we just can't afford to cover up or ignore errors—we have to be open and honest about them, while at the same time acknowledging that mistakes are part of the human experience and not criticising or belittling people who make them. Second, there's still a strong apprenticeship/collegial tradition in engineering, and people are used to the experience of routinely and casually teaching and being taught.

Also, being an engineer has provided me all sorts of opportunities that most other jobs wouldn't have—particularly the opportunity to obtain EU citizenship though I was born in California.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Don't sell yourself short—you don't have to be perfect to be successful. Spend time with people who appreciate and value what you're interested in and what you do.

Favorite website/app:
I'm going to plug Sydney Padua's Lovelace and Babbage comics here, I think, as of possible interest to readers:

Twitter: @CarolyninYork

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STEMinist Profile: Suzie Sheehy, Research Fellow

Oct 02 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

Dr. Suzie Sheehy
Research Fellow

I work in the Intense Beams Group of the Accelerator Science and Technology Centre (ASTeC) based at STFC Rutherford Appleton Laboratory where I am supported by a Royal Commission for the Great Exhibition of 1851 Research Fellowship.

What inspired you to pursue a career in STEM?
I find it hard to narrow it down to one particular moment. Lots of people say "it was my teacher" or "I looked through a telescope for the first time and just knew!" but it isn't like that for me. I don't remember the point when I knew I wanted to pursue a career in STEM, I had a lot of interests when I was younger and I was as interested in musical theatre as I was in science! My careers advisors in high school told me I could do anything I wanted for a career—in a way, that was quite empowering.

My choice of subjects at university (where I started out doing a double degree in both Engineering and Science) was based on what I was good at and what I thought would leave as many doors open as possible. Only in second year Physics did I realise that I might be able to pursue a career in research—I still remember when one day I asked a lecturer a question about what he'd shown us and he said "we don't know, actually—that's my research, I'm trying to figure it out." I had some great lecturers who encouraged me to pursue that curiosity. So I guess it was when I realised that physics doesn't have all the answers that I finally got interested!

What is the coolest project you have worked on and why?
The coolest project I've worked on is called 'EMMA', which stands for the Electron Machine for Many Applications. It's a new type of particle accelerator which I refer to as a 'rock-star accelerator' because the way it is designed breaks a couple of really important rules that accelerator experts like to stick to.

I think it's a cool project because it's the first of this kind in the world and many people in the field doubted it would work. During my PhD I got to control the machine hands-on during experimental shifts (not many people can say they've run a particle accelerator, even a small one!) Oh, and it really does work!

Role models/heroes:
Dame Jocelyn Bell-Burnell is definitely a role model for me, she is one of the most respected physicists of our time and meeting and getting to know her a bit during my PhD in Oxford was really inspiring. I also have to say that a number of the London 2012 athletes are also my role models, Mo Farah, Jess Ennis, and loads of others who have proven that if you put in the hard work and have the right support you will see results.

I'm a runner too and training for my first half marathon earlier this year taught me a lot about hard work and dedication, which is now crossing back over into my life as a scientist. If I'm stuck with a problem I now tell myself "if you can run for over 20km you can do this too!", it's very motivating!

Why do you love working in STEM?
There are so many things to love about it! One of my old high school friends recently summed it up nicely for me when she said "While the rest of us sell people things they don't need or spend our lives doing something which will be easily forgotten, you spend your days pushing back the boundaries of human knowledge. In my job I might make a difference to a few people's lives but imagine the difference you can make—it's practically limitless. You have the most amazing job." I was totally humbled.

Advice for future STEMinists?
Do what inspires you and play to your strengths. If you're anything like me you probably have lots of different interests – so don't forget you can combine them in surprising ways! For example, I'd always had an interest in theatre and as a scientist I use my stage presence and vocal techniques all the time when giving public lectures and science shows for schools.

Also, don't be afraid of doing things differently. I approach my research in a slightly different way to the rest of my research group and it took me ages to realise that it's OK, in fact, it's really valuable to have members of a team with different approaches!

Favorite website/app:
I'm a little bit obsessed with Pinterest at the moment—I've been using it to put together ideas for decorating my new house, finding yummy things to cook and even, occasionally, ideas for science demonstrations or interesting bits and pieces.

I'm also loving RunKeeper—it's where I store all my running data so I can check out the statistics like my pace and heart rate and see my improvement, it keeps me motivated.

Twitter: @suziesheehy

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