Tuesday, August 21, 2012

How to market science?

What is the best way to market science to girls?

A friend shared this video with me awhile ago, and I've been sitting on it. Trying to decide what I think of the whole mess.

1,011,929 views; 1,276 likes, 8,576 dislikes (7:08pm PST, Aug 20, 2012) = 12.95% positive

Many people have shared their concerns about the stereotypes, particularly perpetuating expectations that women must be thin and beautiful. A member of the advisory panel for the project discusses her shock at the  representation of "sexy girl science on the one hand and real guy science on the other". The website itself features a tube of lipstick in the title, but also  features profiles of women in science, and highlights various STEM careers.

I also saw many people link to other videos that were, in their opinions, more appropriately geared towards actually recruiting women to the sciences, like this one:

54,376 views; 852 likes, 18 dislikes (7:08pm PST, Aug 20, 2012)  = 97.93% positive

I personally prefer the second video, because it is witty, funny, and more representative of what I actually do in the lab. But, even though the second video has a hugely positive rating (almost 98% positive responses) and the first is poorly received (~13% positive), I can't help but notice that the first one has 20 times more views. So, even though youTube viewers don't like it, it is getting wild exposure. Maybe it's like a train wreck, you can't help but look.

But really, I've waited to chime in because I wanted to think of how I perceived the options for a career in STEM growing up, and what could have, or did, encourage me to pursue a career in science, and what didn't. Okay, okay, I graduated 10 years ago, so I'm pretty much a dinosaur to today's middle school and high school students, but many of my experiences have stuck with me.

Given that this is my blog, the experiences I'm going to share are uniquely mine. I'm sure many girls had different experiences and different circumstances, but here are mine.

Some background: I love math. I've always loved math. I didn't realize this was a problem until high school, when people started telling me how hard it is for women in Mathematics. Oh, really? But, I really like my classes, and my math teachers were awesome (or maybe I was just on the same nerdy vibe). Uh, okay. But, I still went to class, participated in the Math Club, and attended Math Day at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL).

I loved Math Day! I loved getting to do math for the sake of doing math, and competing with my peers, and spending time with other math geeks. Sure, there tended to be more guys than girls there, but I remember just being super-inspired by all the smart people. It was a rush to try to solve things faster than everyone else.
Lesson 1: Large scale Math days and competitions = A good way to increase interest in math.

After high school, I decided to pursue a Math major in college. The Mathematics department at Creighton was (and I'm sure still is) a fantastic place. The professors were supportive but challenging. The classes were small and I got to know all of my classmates. I love how pure math is. Things flow logically, and there isn't the same level of ambiguity as in other STEM fields. Of my major courses, all of the upper-division courses were taught by men. They inspired me and encouraged me, more than the one female math professor I had (who I think really didn't like me much). Sure, it would have been nice to have a female professor, and I definitely think there are barriers to women in academia that go beyond basic gender discrimination that should be addressed, but that isn't the issue now. I'm just thinking about, would it have mattered to have female math professors? Perhaps in a department that wasn't as inclusive or just plain awesome as the one I was lucky enough to find myself in. But, as it was it was so much more important to me to have patient, genius, math geeks - people who really got into the theorems, and weren't afraid to made mistakes, and get chalk all over their pants, and pushed me to learn alongside them instead of letting me memorize equations. 
Lesson 2: Geekdom and a general lack of jackassness in professors = A good way to increase interest in science and math. 

With the encouragement of my advisor and friend, I applied for a summer Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) at UNL in Mathematical Biology. I know, applied math (I can feel the collective cringe of the pure mathematicians now). But wait... someone will pay me... to do research... for the whole summer?!?! This was the best summer job ever! Who knew, you could get up, eat breakfast, go to work, and spend all day thinking about and working on super-awesome questions? A little nerd speak for you: We built a stochastic model for tumor growth up until the point of metastasis, incorporating different kinds of treatments. I also got to learn about the other groups, including some fundamentals of game theory and population dynamics, and discrete and continuous calculus. I learned how to learn. I learned how to play bridge. And, I learned that I wanted to do research for the rest of my life.

Lesson 3: Exposure to research experiences = A good way to increase interest in STEM. 

From here, I applied to grad school, decided to pursue a PhD in Bioinformatics & Genomics at Penn State, and am now I am a postdoctoral fellow at UC Berkeley. I'll go into those later, because by this point, I was already hooked.

When I was growing up, I didn't need someone to tell me that it's okay to be pretty in Science. I didn't need a person who identifies as female to show me that it is okay for me to like Math, and want to do Science. I needed creativity, and competition, and wonder, and to be allowed to explore the full awesomeness of doing research. And reinforcement.

I really think the question should be, "What is the best way to market Science?". Emphasizing that it has to be "for girls" not only excludes boys, but it can, in my experience, make girls wonder (or made me wonder), what is it about me that I need someone to market specifically to me? And what about trans people? This doesn't in any way mean we shouldn't include diversity in our marketing (in gender, in ethnicity, skin pigmentation, physical abilities, etc). But, as a girl looking at science, I just wanted to see the Science, to be a scientist. I didn't want to be reminded that I was a "girl scientist".

Now, the whole issue of being a female in science, the difficulty of finding a support network through grad school and beyond, and the loneliness of actually being a female researcher is a whole different issue. But by this point, I'm stuck. I've been sucked into the world of research, and I don't want to get out. It seems like there are some pretty strait forward and attainable ways to get girls into science - and wowzers, they seem like they'd work for everyone!

It's keeping them that's the problem.


Anne said...

Melissa - great blog post. I think Lesson 2: Geekdom and a general lack of jackassness in professors = A good way to increase interest in science and math is probably one of the most important lessons. Unfortunately its just not the male professors that can have jackass properties, some female professors do too.

mathbionerd said...

Anne, I completely agree! I have been most inspired by the scientists and mathematicians who share their love of the field, and are genuinely interested in facilitating understanding in others. Alternatively, there are professors/researchers who seem to be more interested in showing how much more they know than in actually making progress. Generally these people are also quite smart, but we all already knew that. That isn't to say that we (as perpetual students) need to be coddled, or that questions and criticisms aren't valid. But there are effective ways to promote knowledge, and there is slamming the door in someone's face.

In my experience, these qualities exist independent of gender-affiliation.