Not just superMAN, but superMEN and superWOMEN

it’s EVERYONE.

A good education is luck?

I am slightly behind the times in that I finally had the chance to watch Waiting for Superman. But seeing that our education system has not drastically improved in the last year since this movie came out, I believe that I have seen it well within what would be considered “in time” to take action. If you have not seen this movie, you need to put this in your Netflix queue; but as a warning: it is an incredibly difficult movie to sit through. It is perhaps one of the most depressing documentaries I have seen. I do not recall what type of reviews this movie got when it came out, and if or if not what I have just mentioned was the consensus about the movie.  But the movie does dramatically illustrates the fact that the American school system is not adequately preparing a majority of the children that go through it for sustained employment in their future.

Specifically what I wanted to investigate more was the brief introduction of Michelle Rhee’s summer 2008 radical proposal of offering a choice to teachers to be able to earn up to twice as much if he/she gave up tenure. It was just a brief feature of the proposal, showcasing the potential for reform if it worked, and in the director’s opinion, the devastating event that the proposal was deemed so threaten that it was not even put to a vote.  This proposal was incredibly intriguing for me because earlier in the movie it mentioned some interesting statistics on the number of teachers who have lost their teaching credentials to doctors and lawyers who lose their licenses. The numbers were 1 in 57 doctors, 1 in 97 lawyers and 1 in 2500 teachers who have lost their credentials for malpractice. So with these numbers, why not have a proposal to take another look at teacher contracts?  But let me poke some holes in the proposal.

1. I do not know how the worst teachers (who probably know that they are the “lemons”, and probably would choose tenure) get eliminated by this system/proposal?

2. The extra funding is provided by private sources which is not sustainable.

3. There does not seem to be a solid assessment process for those who choose to give up tenure for their “merit-based” raises.

Perhaps a better proposal is to change how K-12 teachers get tenure. What if K-12 teachers went through the rigorous process of academics for tenure? Should K-12 work like the ivory tower? hm, imagine for a moment what that would look like. just briefly: pros – incredible innovation not just out of universities but also high schools? cons – Only a small percentage are deemed “qualified”. In 2006, only 15% of PhDs hold tenure track positions. But like Rhee’s proposal, it does not eliminate current poorly performing teachers. It is quite interesting and fascinating that even the potential to earn six figures as a teacher was no where close to being competitive to having tenure.  Ms. Slyvia, “Don’t as me to give up tenure, not even for a moment.”

* I do have to note that I believe that every single one of the kids that are featured in the movie have the chance to be successful. **spoiler: just because a few of them do not get into their charter school of choice, it is not the end for them as the movie might imply. But it is a movie and directors do have cinematic freedom to captivate an audience. But I also do not think that the drama dilutes the take home message: there needs to be a be a better way of educating children in the US so that we can be as competitive and innovative as we can be as a nation.

Josh Eidelson’s blog post (from back in Feb 2011) that also asks a lot of very good questions about the movie.

Advertisements

Be CURIOUS

Over Thanksgiving weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the NASA Tweetup for the launch of the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity. And I am definitely thankful for this opportunity. Those of you who do not know what a NASA Tweetupis and you tweet, I would highly recommend you check out the website I have linked. It is definitely a very creative and amazing way for an agency to get the word out about their programs. It is beyond the agency just having a twitter account, but it is actively using the masses or your followers who have twitter account to also help with outreach.This was my first NASA Tweetup and participants ranged from K-12 educators, artists, hobby astronomers, entrepreneurs, computer programmers and of course a few engineers. Everyone was a (space) nerd in one way or another, but very few (at least of the people I ran into) were engineers which was a bit surprising to me. But that really goes to show how approachable this program is, scientists are not the only ones who are drawn to this opportunity.

NASA has a range of tweetups from meeting former astronauts to rocket launches that place participants as close as the press gets to be.The most popular of the tweetups were probably those that surrounded the Space Shuttle launches, and sadly STS-135 (the final launch) was is when I first heard about the opportunity. Naturally, as a child who launched 2L bottle rockets and created PVC pipe model rockets stuffed with those single use cardboard rocket motors, I desperately wanted to be picked in order to have an excuse to go down to Cape Canaveral to see the launch of a NASA rocket. But additionally, I specifically choose this tweetup because it was the launch of the Atlas V rocket that would carry the Mars Science Laboratory: Curiosity on it’s 9 month trip to Mars.
Curiosity will be the largest rover we have sent to Mars and will have an extraordinary suite of analytical chemistry instruments. Instruments tasked to further explore the minerals on Mars for signs of prior or present life forms. The rover has 80 kg of instrumentation and one specific instrument, the CheMinwill analyze the chemical composition of the planet’s soil and rocks for signs of a past Martian environment that could had supported life.  CheMin is a powder X-ray diffraction instrument also capable of X-ray Fluorescence. ChemMin is using x-rays because minerals have characteristic diffraction patterns and enables us to identify of the crystalline structure of the materials the rover will see. CheMin is about the size of a shoebox, which is amazing as our lab PXRD is the size of a large armoire.  Therefore, I had to ask our guests the question: how did you make it so small?! Here’s how: the samples are vibrated (by a tuning fork) on a platform and are therefore suspended to allow all incident angles to be scanned. Rather than sweeping the incidence angle as we do in our lab PXRD, the sweep comes essentially from the rotation of the sample. Dr. Conrad said that this miniaturization of the instrument was actually very difficult, but it now has been commercialized and a PXRD the size of a suitcase can be purchased!

The highlight of this experience is seeing a rocket launch, but also a wonderful part of the program of a NASATweetup is the opportunity to hear scientists talk about their involvement with the project and to ask questions about being a scientist at NASA. The speakers for the science instrumentation on Curiosity were Pan Conrad (deputy principal investigator, SAM instrument, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center) and Ashwin Vasavada (MSL deputy project scientist at JPL). They did a great job presenting the excitement surrounding instrumentation being sent to Mars and the important implications for future Martian explorations in the discoveries. In addition to the amazing PXRD, the cameras and SAM instrumentation are actually able to inhale the martian atmosphere, providing real time, and year-round insight on the thermal, chemical, radiation and solar composition of the environment for future manned spaceflight to Mars. A key point that Dr. Conrad made was to not take the data that we will get back from Curiosity and compare it to what we see on Earth, but to think about how it fits with the data they have on Mars from other missions.

The Altas V successfully launched the Mars Science Laboratory, Curiosity on November 26, 2011 at 10:02 am. Seeing a rocket launch for the first time was absolutely an amazing experience. What I was thinking at the moment: it is moving a lot slower than I thought nearly 900,000 lbs of thrust would be able to move a rocket. But my favorite was the complete silence until about the time the Atlas V was to hit the clouds. Ah, how slow sound travels. Seeing a launch really is something that you cannot tell someone about, there are not quite words, except, to tell that person: you need to go see one yourself. And if you sign up for a NASA Tweetup, you will be as close as the press.

But most importantly, a NASA tweetup is how you can be involved, it is how you can see what type of science your taxes are going to and then you go out to tell your friends and followers what you saw. As much as I wish I could bring people to my lab to tell them one of the ways that NSF funding is being used, it is not as exciting as space exploration, but the basic science is the same. The software to navigate Curiosity to avoid sand dunes (Spirit’s demise) was not build from scratch but perhaps was based on a graduate student’s thesis. The instrumentation I use in my lab will have a cousin, Curiosity, on Mars, that is built with the same underlying theories for analysis. Support in science leads to new markets, and an example is the suitcase PXRD. Government science does support industry* and will pave way for a successful future. On the second day of the tweetup, Lori Garver (NASA Deputy Administrator) gave the advice: talk to your congressmen. get more congressmen to believe in the investment of science, that missions like this provide data that will better our lives, bring new technologies that will open new markets and help us to prosper.

All images from: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/images/

Interesting Links:Sign up for upcoming NASA Tweetups http://www.nasa.gov/connect/tweetup/index.html

#MSL #NASATweetup on NASATelevision http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/18736965

Youtube video of Will.i.am, Leland Melvin, Bill Nye the Science Guy and Lori Garver presentation on Why Support Science? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHaYKkxvyns
* at the start of the Q/A (about 11:30 min mark) someone asks Lori Garver if NASA supports commercial space flight: basically, yes! NASA does support commercial space flight, and has always.

Official NASA video of the MSL Launch http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jEXoMpmfJcM

Another piece of extraordinary instrumentation I did not talk about, the ChemCam:
http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/mission/instruments/spectrometers/chemcam/

Animation of Curiosity’s cruise state, entry, descent, landing, and surface operations: http://marsprogram.jpl.nasa.gov/msl/multimedia/videos/index.cfm?v=23

Another Idea for Empowering Women

Ok, I know, I know I was going to take a hiatus, but I couldn’t resist. I decided to use my Friday evening to do a bit of catching up on Twitter/Blogs. And the uproar about Womanspace caught my attention. As I do have the desire to encourage more women into STEM fields, it might be good to join the conversation and to means in which we think about empowering women. I perhaps have another vantage point than the blogsphere, but I want to propose another way of considering the feature.

Personally, I thought the story was somewhat of clever yet approachable way of complementing women. The men were portrayed as lazy and not capable of completing anything. (guys? are you offended?) “…these otherwise unemployed elderly men…not having to listen to us blather on about just where to pitch the book, and what to put in it.”  These men were not the ones bringing home the bacon! There is no indication that the wife wasn’t a scientist! The exact opposite: “which smacked of desperate snatching at straws to excuse incompetence, to the astrophysics-qualified wife.”

Basically, I thought it was a cute tongue-and-cheek way of including us women into the sci-fi sphere where we are most often left out. And as a sci-fi nerd, I was happy to be included and thought of highly as to be given the ability to travel through parallel universes as our male counterparts had absolutely no ability to. not even to get a pair of knickers.

But what I wanted to address in the blog post more specifically is whether it is helpful to point out that this essay/futures is something to be angry about or to complain about. Yes, I agree, it does have some domestic stereotyping, but I see this “stereotyping” as a means of bringing an obscure concept of “crossing parallel universes” into the realm of “believable”. or as a means of a story arc, setting up that our female powers of crossing parallel universes and being qualified astrophysicists are the norm.  Why not bring out the strength of the wife being the lead. She tells and instructs the men with a task. and not hone in on the fact that she’s doing something “domestic”.

I am not sure how or at what point the lack of females around me strengthened me, but whenever I realize that I am the only woman in the room, that is exactly what encourages me to find a way to be better than all those men. Not cower away. Yes, I do believe the data on inferiority stereotyping but why not find a way to counter inferiority stereotyping? Find a way to tell girls “hey, so you are one of the few girls in this room, go you!” how did it get into their heads in the first place that this is a problem? A part of me just thinks that attacking a story as being too “stereotyping in that it has a woman in a domesticated role” when it includes women as the dominating role in a sphere normally not open to women (scifi) is not a way to counter the problem of lack of women in government, business and science.

Perhaps broadly this is the stance of “why tell me that I am hitting a glass celling?”. “I would rather not know where the glass celling currently stands.”

I personally don’t want to go against NPG for this reason. Futures is the one feature I actually look forward to reading every month.

PS: this summer I saw an EXCELLENT image that would go great with this post. It was a cartoon vintage poster? that was of a little girl in a bubble helmet climbing into a spaceship and a little boy following her lead. The blogger had mentioned that this type of poster was rare for the time period because 1.) there was even a girl in the picture 2.) she was the lead. If a reader has seen this, please please bring this to my attention! I cannot for the life of me find this image. In which this dilemma actually makes me sad that in real life I do not have parallel universe jumping capabilities to be able to find the image I am searching for.

Listen to Rep Price and Rep Holt!

It is exciting to read the efforts of many who are trying to make sure that the super committee is wise in what they cut and are aware that science is an important investment.

Here are a few important links to take a look at:

The two best Congressmen leading the effort to continue to fund science

You can take action here, solidarity with other Grad Students

But, basically I wanted to write a note here saying that I will now be buckling down to work on the data mtg. I will be back briefly for my very first NASATweetup and the MSL launch. Hopefully I will also write a post about that amazing experience of being present at the Atlas V launch of the next Mars Rover. (I am especially excited to learn how NASA can get ordinary people so excited and involved in their program. Their outreach is truly and example for all science fields. I ask this same question all the time: why is chemistry not more popular?! Great post by SeeArrOh.)

What would convince you that funding science is worthwhile?

Now that we are seeing some of the final FY 2012 appropriations being passed in both the House and Senate, I thought that it would be good to do a budget post. There were many Calls For Action last week to scientists, encouraging them to call/write to their Representative in the Senate to support the FY 2012 NSF budget at a level of little over $6.8 billion. I believe that the Senate did pass a series of appropriations that included the FY 2012 NSF budget, by a vote of 69 to 30.This year, perhaps more than any other year, there has been an incredible amount of discussion surrounding the Federal Budget. But I do not want to go into rehashing those events.Federal Funding for scientific agencies fill a significant detriment in the country as more and more companies are cutting their R&D departments. The Federal Government has the ability to encourage more R&D by creating aspiring mandates, such as the Fuel Efficiency Standards  announced in July in which current technology will not reach those goals, requiring companies to be innovative in order to comply with the mandates.  The funding appropriated to agencies in turn provide the Federal Government with the knowledge and research for feasible and high-achieving mandates that can in turn develop new markets and encourage innovation. Larger R&D departments = more jobs, better economy.A part of me wonders, why it is not an easy decision to continue to fund agencies like the NSF? $6.8 billion sounds like a lot of money, but it only comes out to, on average, $22/year/person. Is it the need to know what scientists are using the funds for? Does the tax-payer not want to support appropriations to these agencies because there is no accountability? I realize that this past spring, when the Senate report, The National Science Foundation: Under the Microscopecame out, much of the media focused on the “absurdity” of robots folding laundry. But in that anecdote they failed to recognize the importance of studying computer simulated unordered tasks. The report fails to understand the process of science and its outcomes. The reason that I bring this report up is that although the report claims that a lack of accountability justifies cutting the agency’s budget, it is not clear to me that more accountability would fix the problem. Thus, I want to ask: would the public like access to publications as a means of accountability?Currently, a majority of peer-reviewed research is published in journals that require a license for access. These licenses are very expensive and institutions pay a significant amount of money for access to these publications. Currently, the Office of Science and Technology Policy has put out a call for input on allowing public-access to publications and it will be very interesting to see the responses.

In case you haven’t seen this yet: Jon Stewart parody, what are we scientists up to?! 🙂

What are some other means to better illustrate that funds towards scientific research is worthwhile?

Excellent post in Science Progress: In defense of the NSF

*edit 11.09.11: New initiative unveiled by NSF that will allow some proposals that will not go through the traditional review process. This new initiative is perhaps a means to address Congress’ criticism of NSF not funding “transformative research”? CREATIV 

 

 

 

Incentives for Academic Chemical Safety

Hi ChemJobber,

Your suggestions are great! I expanded on them in my post, suggesting methods of prodding. But as you concluded, the problem with policy is that it often makes me I wonder: are these too pie-in-the-sky?! Will they ever work? But I think policies are where students also can “take back the lab”, so to say. In having conversations about improve chemical laboratory safety makes them more aware perhaps of the deficiencies in their own lab.

I looked into the C&EN article that one of your comments referred to; on Yale’s changes in machine shop policies after Dufault died when her hair was caught in a lathe back in April 2011. Yale has implemented a lot of really great policies such as a hierarchical system of users and a defined buddy system. But what I find most valuable is that they decided to make their policies public so that other schools could implement them and provide feedback on what worked and what didn’t work as each campus is unique. A forum and discussion about policies is probably one of the best ways to formulate policy as well as a means for researchers to be reminded that accidents do happen and the best way to keep them from being lethal are to know how to be smart and quick.

ACS-Approved Institutions Requiring a Safety Practicum
Along the lines of knowing how to react, I like your idea about developing modules that have students learn to identifying a dangerous situation and discuss the appropriate way to step in. Everyday, we place an exorbitant amount of trust in our labmates. I trust that they will know what do if I happen to get into trouble, and I trust that they are cautious and aware of the hazards of their own chemistry.  In order to make sure that safety courses/modules are consistent and well covered, I would find a means to have them accredited and mandated. Perhaps to have a safety practices practicum be a part of the curriculum for an ACS-approved degree in chemistry. Universities do love to tout their ACS-approved degrees. ACS can say: “we will take it away if you don’t have a means of creating a culture that Safety is Important”. Funding: If it gets picked up as a requirement for accreditation, I can see it being funded through education initiatives. These would also fund activities such as Safety Fairs.

Screenshot of JoVE video: Microarray Analysis for Saccharomyces cerevisiae

Publishing Videos of Excellent Safety Techniques
Another great teaching avenue for chemical safety and proper preps would be to publish in the Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVe).  Here is a chance for a publication! After watching a few of the videos, this seems like a wonderful way to show the handling of a hazardous or (even difficult) procedures in the context of actual research that was carried out for a publication. These are peer reviewed journal articles that are presented in video format in order to bridge the complexity of translating what’s actually done at the bench into a written prep. From my quick perusal, there does not seem to be too many chemistry related videos, only lots and lots of biology/biochemistry related contributions (none of them are particularly dangerous procedures).  Plus, it is dogma that publication=funding, right? There is a potential incentive. If a video of me carrying out the prep accommodated my publication, you’d bet I’d make sure I had good technique.

But a video publication speaks to something that we have not mentioned or discussed yet, is there is room to incentivize safety? We have talked about the difficulty in forcing PIs to be responsible for proper mentoring, but what if there was a means for them receive an award if say, they submitted to the JoVE, created a video on how to properly handle the synthesis of azide derivatives, and it was viewed over 1,000 times.  Could it turn into an H-index-type measurement on safety and technique?

Authoritative Environmental, Health and Safety Personnel
Another policy suggestion would be to employ safety personnel who have the authority to fine or demerit laboratories. These individuals would be trained and accredited, perhaps by ACS and hired by the University, to audit laboratories and assess safety. Perhaps TTU modified its organization structure so that the Environmental, Health and Safety Director now reports to the Vice President for Research who also oversees the Chemistry and Biochemistry Department Chair and PIs, as a means of increasing the authority and leverage of EH&S personnel.  One can only hope. Funding: Well, we technically already have this personnel, they just don’t seem to have a lot of authority over departments, and it does not seem any amount of funding can change this. It would have to be the University’s mandate that laboratories be audited and those audits taken seriously.

Perhaps one suggestion of mine is a bit out of the box (JoVE), but after watching a few of the high quality videos, I realized that for those who don’t get the proper mentoring, videos like these have the opportunity to be invaluable in teaching proper chemical technique and handling of hazardous reagents.

Best,
STEM_Wonk

Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber

Hi Chemjobber,Thanks for the opportunity to do this little exchange about academic lab safety and to see if we can develop feasible policies to improve upon academic chemical safety. I completely understand your response to the CSB video. I found myself cringing and gnawing at my nails when the animated Brown returned to the lab bench without his safety goggles just before the graphic explosion.

One of the many posters that decorates our lab.

My thoughts on the incidents at UCLA and TTU are very similar to what you and much of the chemical community discussed at the time, to sum up:

  • where lies the responsibility of the PI in all of this?
  • we all have been naive* at one point or another (*perhaps even reckless to gain “productivity”)

but more importantly, what can be done so that we can continue to learn and carry out meaningful research that is not at the expense of our safety?

In both cases at UCLA and TTU, I strongly agree that there seems to be lack of responsibility placed on the PI to carefully train their students to be able to “accurately identify and address hazards in the laboratory…a skill that [does not] come naturally…and must be taught and encouraged through training and ongoing organizational support” (NRC, 2011, p.7). The CSB’s Investigation of the TTU incident does not mention any repercussions for the PIs having not properly mentored the students.  I believe that what is clearly missing from the CSB’s recommendations is for universities to establish consequences for a PI that does not enforce safety protocols, endangering students’ lives.

Why is that? Why is there no pointing of fingers at the PIs? You mentioned that you thought Professor Harran (UCLA incident) should also share responsibility, but why do you think it seems as though he has been “protected”? The CSB Investigation of TTU is riddled with examples (although they do not say this, I do) where the PIs would be the individuals most aware of the risks and yet they are not reprimanded. Examples such as: instructing and ensuring that students read and understand in the protocols on handling explosives, such as policies outlined in the DOE Explosive Safety Manual. (*yes, yes, students don’t listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.)

This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more responsibility should be placed on the PI:

At academic institutions, the research of individual PIs can differ significantly; consequently, the hazards of research can vary widely among different laboratories. Even within the same laboratory under a single PI, students commonly work on different projects that can pose diverse safety hazards. This indicates a need for guidance on various hazard evaluation methodologies and instruction on how and when each should be used within an academic laboratory  research work environment. Detailed examples for multiple methodologies would help researchers determine the most effective way to evaluate the hazards of their work, whether they are due to routine procedures, modifications to current research, or entirely new endeavors.

How can anyone else other than the PI know about all the hazards of so many projects?

The indented quote also illustrates the variety of research that funding agencies have to deal with and why I believe that it would be difficult for a funding agency to be able to outline safety provisions to their grantees. Even though this is a recommendation of the CSB.

However, after muling over the surprisingly immediate action of the Office of University Programs in DHS after the TTU incident and the specific changes they have made to their Requests (RFP), I see these actions as attempts to have PIs be more responsible. Is this what you glean from section 8.2 of the case study? From the bulleted points in the CSB report, it seems as though RFPs (Request for Proposals) may require the grant requester to assess and be aware of the safety risks and physical hazards of a project along with the anticipated science. Yet, knowledge of these dangers during grant writing does not ensure the appropriate amount of mentoring and relaying of this information to the students.

Am I too harsh on PIs?!  Idk, would grad school be a better world if PIs trained their students to be safe rather than just gather results? “Prior to the incident, weekly group meetings between students and PIs were held, but the focus was primarily on experimental results, not actually research activities and the safety implications of the work.” – CSB TTU Case Study

Best,
STEM_Wonk

Hi readers! Chemjobber has given me a chance to do a bit of back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. See his first response here and he will respond to my post on his blog on Thursday.  Chemjobber has been one of my favorite blogs for quite some time, and I am very honored for the conversation on this topic of lab safety.

Oil from Plastic Waste

One of my many interests is to read about alternative processes that turn waste into meaningful/reusable materials. For example: dog poop into methane to light a lamp. or turning plastic into fuel. In an earlier post I outlined a few attributes as to why perhaps we cannot completely do away with plastic. But what we can do is to find a means to have it not sit in landfills forever. Therefore, naturally, this article in the NYTimes about Reaping Oil From Discarded Plastic caught my attention. An Oregon-based start-up, Agilyx, has a system that can turn plastic into crude oil. They only have a small prototype system at the moment and are looking to start selling commercial systems soon.  From the descriptions of the article, we figured that polyethylene was undergoing an incomplete combustion, then the resulting vapor (H2 and CO) is converted into hydrocarbons that can then be converted to diesel, jet fuel or other forms of oil. Pretty cool, right?! Well, we did some calculations with the numbers that were in the article and although a very good idea, it only about 64% efficient by weight. Which is comparable to other processes and actually might work, considering the input source is, in essence, free, if it is in fact coming from the local waste management. This process could perhaps be a way for municipal waste to fuel their own fleet. If they had the $5 million upfront to invest in the system.

* Special thanks to my labmate for the helpful discussion and unit conversion reminder. (thanks to article for not having easily interchangeable units.)

yeah, yeah, i know, too many sig figs. (I was taught to carry more than enough through the calculations then round) so technically, since the article only gave me 1 SF, it should be 60% efficiency

Chemistry Carnival!

All of the Chemistry Carnival – My Favorite Reaction posts have been compiled in a really great post here! Check them out! David Kroll, blogger for C&EN and a pharmacology professor, did a great job categorizing them. Comment on which one is your favorite!

A couple of my favorites were: An important reaction that you probably carry out everyday in your very own kitchen: the Maillard reaction by ScienceGeist, or Ever wonder what goes into a perm? Check out Christine Herman’s, blogger for Just Another Electron Pusher, post on mixing ammonium thioglycolate, hydrogen peroxide, and keratin.

Happy IYC 2011! Enjoy!

Carnival Booth

Artwork : Photo by Stu Seeger, used under the Creative Commons 2.0 license.

Why is it so hard to have a work/life balance in the sciences?!

or so it seems.

I was really excited earlier this week when the White House and NSF announced a Foundation-wide initiative termed the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative”. Some parts of this initiatives include postponing grants for child birth/adoption or suspending grants to cover parental leave.  It is refreshing to finally see some action from the highest levels addressing the mountains of research that has indicated a gap in the pipeline (that although women are receiving almost 50% of the PhDs only about 30% are tenure-track faculty).

But an interesting question is: will this work? A recent study by the National Academies might shed light on what women who have reached those critical career transitions have done. One of the conclusions they drew in conducting two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, was that:

“both male and female faculty utilized stopping-the-tenure-clock policies – spending a longer time in the uncertainty of securing tenure – but women used these policies more”. But, most importantly: “…stopping the tenure clock did not affect the probability of promotion and tenure; it just delayed it about 1.5 years.”

This result was surprising to me. Women (and men) are already beginning to take advantage of opportunities to delay tenure. Therefore these new NSF policies may in fact continue to make it more acceptable for faculty to consider these opportunities. The National Academies also make an note that in their study women are just as successful if not more than their male counterparts in obtaining tenure. So the question becomes, how to increase the number of women faculty who get to that point?

There is a gap in the study if the key transition for women turns out to be between receiving her PhD and applying for that tenure-track position, and these new NSF policies perhaps do not address the considerations that happen at that point in a researcher’s career. Although an interesting observation noted in the NAS study is that although institution and departmental strategies for increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool were not accurate at predicting the number of women applying,

“The percentage of women on the search committee and whether a woman chaired the search committee, however, did have a significant effect on recruiting women”

This finding somewhat supports a recent discussion in Nature Chemistry about the culture of science and not that the field of science is unwelcoming to female scientists but that it is rather inadvertently being hostile.  I highly recommend this article as it has an excellent comparison/illustration of gender biasing to chromatography. But it might just be because I’m an organic chemist. Basically the article presents the viewpoint that perhaps there might not be a key transition point (undergrad to grad, PhD to post-doc, postdoc to applying for tenue-track position) when women decide or not decide that academia is not for them but that it might be the small things that make her think that she does not fit. *Sidenote and speaking of inconvenient bathrooms for women (read the Nature article): a reminder that just this year the House put a female bathroom that was adjacent to the House floor. (men had one but women had use the one through Statuary Hall put built for them in 1962.)

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009

Great program at Argonne National Lab: Science Careers in Search of Women. Strong mentorship has also been attributed to having a significant positive influence on female faculty.

There is a lot of really excellent data on the existence of the gender gap in the science pipeline and it is exciting to see some policy action addressing the gap. However, as the end of the NAS report indicates there still needs to be significant research into what are the barriers at key transitions and what types of policies will be effective? I would also look to fields that have a more even distribution of men and women. What is different about the culture/policies in those fields that attracts both men and women equally?

More reading:

The Conversation: so seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

The numbers at Wired – Convergence: number of women among National Academy members.