Anyone can Science, step 1: get your education on

Co-written by Dr. Irene Grimberg, Affiliate Associate Research Professor at Montana State University.


Science may seem like an exclusive club, what with the complicated technical jargon, quirky inside jokes that only seem funny to science people, daunting entrance and exit exams, and years of study and self-improvement.  And it doesn’t help that many scientists would rather hole up in their lab than give a public presentation or figure that “social media thing” out.  But we scientists get coffee stains on our lab coats and use spell-check just like everyone else.  And as with ice cream, science comes in a tremendous variety of flavors and sizes of commitment.  So, let’s talk about some ways that you can involved today!

Education

Getting acquainted with the vast field of science seems daunting, but it’s actually easy and fun.  There are hundreds of museums out there that are eagerly waiting to broaden your perspective on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), and will let you give it a try with hands-on activities.  Wikipedia has conveniently made some lists on science museums in the US and around the world.  In fact, there are organizations like the American Alliance of Museums and the Association of Science-Technology Centers that can help to get you connected to the museum that catches your eye.  Many US National Parks also have strong science education programs and information in the visitor centers or around the park (at least, as of January 19th, 2017 they did).

All colleges and universities host daily talks (seminars) on current research and they are open to the public, they just aren’t advertised widely in local media.  If you search online for your local university and “seminar”, you can find public presentations for nearly every department or subject, not just the STEM ones.  Some presentations are available as webinars and can be found online to watch remotely in real-time so that you can ask questions, or can be replayed later at your leisure.  There are many outreach STEM programs sponsored by non-profit organizations, sometimes in collaboration with universities.  For example, Farm Days or Field Days are public presentations at university research facilities on issues related to local and national agriculture, food production, and food safety.  In fact, most university farms and greenhouses are open to the public and offer free tours and other events on a regular basis.  There are also “ask an expert” shows on local public radio and TV in which viewers can call in and ask questions to university researchers.  Or you can simply email your questions and get connected to someone in a relevant field.  Even NASA has a program in which you can ask questions to an astrophysicist!

Other educational options include science festivals, robotic competitions and shows, Science Olympiads, The National Chemistry Week, and programs that specifically aim to recruit girls to science, such as Expanding Your Horizons and Girls for a Change.  As an undergraduate at the University of Vermont, I participated in a service-learning course in spring of 2008 in which we designed a public presentation at the ECHO Center in Burlington, VT.  The purpose of the all-day workshop was to educate kids and adults on wolf ecology and potential reintroduction into New England.  Our Wolfwise presentation was incredibly fun to host, and it was a huge hit: we were invited to come back and present again the next weekend!

 

If leaving the house isn’t your thing, there are an overwhelming amount of resources available online.  An increasing number of scientific and research journals are available free of charge online, known as open access.  Over 26 million journal articles are available through PubMed, a database for medically-relevant research studies which is curated by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI).  Science News hosts a huge variety of STEM articles compiled from the most prestigious science journals, as well.  And any subject under the sun (or inside the sun) has an educational video out there somewhere.  There are science shows on TV, a dedicated cable channel, and documentaries including several outstanding educational series with high-definition video footage from around the globe (Plant Earth, Life, and The Blue Planet).  There are podcasts, such as Science, Star Talk Radio, and many others that allow you to listen to recorded audio shows on your own time.  You can find interactive websites to learn a variety of things, both academic and practical.  Or teach yourself computer coding in C++, Java, Ruby, Python, or Perl.

Just be sure that you are getting your information from a credible source.  Many online bloggers or websites sound great, but they often have no formal training in what they peddle, or are heavily sponsored by companies to promote an unsubstantiated lifestyle or discredit scientific work.  A good rule of thumb is to look for qualifications, citations, and motivations.  Does this person or organization have formal education or training?  Do they cite their sources for information?  And what is their reason for doing this?  Here are my qualifications, you’ve seen how much I enjoy citing sources, and since I am (and have always been thus far) federally-funded through different grants, I consider it part of my job to share my work and my experiences free of charge.

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Field bindweed study sampling

Field bindweed (Convolvulus arvensis) is an invasive plant related to morning glories.  Their winding vines grow into a tangled mass which can strangle other plants, and a single plant can produce hundreds of seeds.  The plants can also store nutrients in the roots which allow them to regrow from fragments, thus it can be very difficult to get rid of field bindweed.  It will return even after chemical or physical control (tilling or livestock grazing), but it does not tolerate shade very well.  Thus, a more competitive crop, such as a taller wheat which will shade out nearby shorter plants, reduce the viability of bindweed.

First seen in the US in 1739, Field bindweed is native to the Mediterranean. By 1891, it had made its way west and was identified in Missoula, Montana.  As of 2016, it has been reported from all but two counties in Montana, where it has been deemed “noxious” by the state department (meaning that it has been designated as harmful to agriculture (or public health, wildlife, property).  In the field, this can be visually striking, as pictured below.  In the foreground, MSU graduate student Tessa Scott (lead researcher on this project) is standing in a patch of wheat infested with bindweed. Just seven feet away in the background, undergraduate Lazarro Vinola is standing in non-infested wheat, with soil core samplers used for height reference.
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In agricultural fields, bindweed infestations severely inhibit crop growth and health.

 

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Last week, Tessa, Lazarro, and I went to several farms in and around Big Sandy and Lewistown, Montana in order to sample fields battling field bindweed. To do so, we harvested wheat, field bindweed, and other weed biomass by cutting all above-ground plant material inside a harvesting frame.  These will be dried and weighed, to measure infestation load and the effect on wheat production.

The sampling locations are consistent with previous years to track how different farm management practices influence infestations.  This means using GPS coordinates to hike out to spots in the middle of large fields.

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It also means getting very dirty driving and walking through dusty fields!

Where are the women in STEM?

The “Women in Science” debate has been raging on in a variety of ways, from wondering why there aren’t more of us to whether or not a mixed-gender lab is too distractingly sexy.  The amount of women in science, the pay gap, and career advancement potential varies wildly by country and research field. So does public opinion about whether or not there is an actual problem, what might be causing it, and what we might do about it. In 2011, women only earned about 18% of undergraduate computer science degrees, down from its peak of 37% in 1985. The percentage of women earning graduate-level degrees has been slowly increasing since 1970, with 28% of the masters degrees and 20% of the doctoral degrees (Ph.D ,s) being earned by women in 2011. Women make up roughly 41% of total STEM doctoral degrees earned; however, women only fill 24% of STEM jobs in the US, and only 25% of STEM managers are female. Universities are only slightly better, with 28% of tenure-track faculty positions being held by women in the US, but only 12% worldwide.

This debate isn’t just specific to science in academia, but a lack of diversity in the educational system can have interesting effects.  First, a lack of female (or other demographic) role models means that female children are less likely to go into that field: if they don’t see anyone paving the way, then the idea that they might also become a physicist doesn’t occur to them or doesn’t sound like an attractive career.  While boys and girls are taking math and science in equal numbers in grade school, this doesn’t translate into the same number of men and women in math or science undergraduate fields, where women only earn 18% of undergraduate  computer science degrees, down from 37% in 1985, and only 11.5% of software developers are female.  Part of this is the perception that men are better than women at math and science, even though women have been shown to be better at writing computer code than men, but only when reviewers did not know the coder was female.  Science faculty, regardless of their own gender, were more likely to hire a male applicant over an identical female applicant, and offered them several thousand dollars more starting salary for the same position. The male applicant was perceived as more competent, more hirable, and more in need of mentoring than the identical female applicant.

Another problem is that women are less likely to have people sponsoring or advocating for them in the work place (available here and discussed here).  People with sponsors were 30% more likely to be promoted or given raises.  As of 2014, only 23% of Americans polled preferred a female boss, which is and has always been lower than the number of respondents preferring a male boss, which may account for the lack of support women find in climbing the ladder.  Surprisingly, women were 13% more likely to want a male boss, which may be a reaction to fierce competition to become the “token woman” at a company or working group, as women or other minorities who advocate hiring another woman or minority are rated poorly.  There is also the perception among women that a female boss is less likely to promote you over herself, as she doesn’t want competition, known as Queen Bee Syndrome.  This too, has been refuted, as women are shown to be more likely to mentor and develop female employees lower down on the ladder (discussed here).

Finally, one of the reasons that women are not found in some fields or levels of management, which no one really wants to discuss, is the disparaging levels of sexism and harassment we may face.  For female graduate students, post-docs, or new professionals, sexual harassment at work can increase attrition rates.  Due to the close nature of the working relationship of graduates/post-docs with their advisors, many students feel they can’t report inappropriate behavior (of any nature) for fear of losing their position in the program.  As a student, you need your advisor to approve everything, from the courses you have taken to manuscripts before publishing, and a poor relationship with your advisor can make it nearly impossible for you to complete your work.  Tenured faculty who have been accused of harassment also seem to be acting with impunity, as it can be difficult, time-consuming, and costly to fire a tenure professor (in the absence of proven criminal activity).  In field situations, sexual harassment can take on a more sinister tone, as you may be the only female in a group and depending on your abuser to keep you alive.

So what can we do about this?  Because this isn’t just a woman’s issue.  That’s what I discussed here because I have some expertise with being a woman, but in general, diversity in society is a hotly contested issue.  It really shouldn’t be, increasing the diversity in a group can increase performance and improve decision making (discussed here).  Having a diverse group of people (in terms of gender, race, sexuality, education, economic status, birth order, pets owned, places lived, live experiences learned from..) gives the group a wider range of previous experience to lean upon when solving problems.  It’s why we evolved into a social society in the first place- it was better for survival.

The first step to solving our diversity issues is to let go of preconceived notions about yourself or others.  Stop thinking about life-related obstacles to your career trajectory, such as whether you want kids or having to relocate your family, and stop assuming that others might be better or worse at their job because they have chosen a certain family dynamic.  Stop thinking you might not get a job because of what the employer might thinking about women as bioinformaticians, and in turn stop stereotyping applicants based on your ideas of who they are and of what they are capable.

The second step is to be a role model, and to actively engage the next generations of computer scientists, astronauts, microbial ecologists, astrophysicists, and educators.  As a woman in science, it’s important to me to encourage other women and girls in science, because I would not be here today without the positive female role models I have had.  It’s important to support programs that encourage different minorities to achieve in fields where they are underrepresented, because it benefits all of us.

And the third step, perhaps the most difficult. is to have an open conversation about the difficulties and prejudices facing women, or anyone, in different science fields.  Often people can fall back on stereotypes or be sexist or racist without realizing it, and it’s important to speak up and have a conversation with them to come to a better understanding of how to get along.  When someone’s words or actions are creating a hostile work environment, tell them directly, as well as their supervisor or relevant reporting agency as needed.  If we don’t address the problem on an individual basis, then individuals will never amend their actions.  In addition, it’s important to validate the feelings of and listen to someone who has been the victim of harassment or a crime (of any nature), because it’s important to make them feel safe and believed.  Often, victims of sexual harassment state that not having their reports believed or treating seriously by supervisors was worse than the harassment itself.  And personally, I have plenty to do on a daily basis without having to deal with casual or institutional sexism.  Working women are simply too busy quietly doing well at ours jobs to deal with men’s feelings about us.

 

 

 

Improving a child’s life is as easy as wearing a paper turkey-hat.

Encouraging girls to go into STEM fields is really important; studies show that female STEM high-school teachers and even online mentors increase the probability of female students following a STEM education.  Moreover, any child benefits academically and psychologically from having positive role models in their life, especially when they were role models that they interacted with as opposed to celebrity role models.  And the benefits don’t just extend to children, adults benefit from positive role models, too.  Certainly I have benefited from strong female role models in my life, from high school art teachers, to undergraduate lecturers, to family (happy birthday, Mom!).

This past fall I started putting my money where my mouth was- I started mentoring an elementary school-aged girl in Bozeman, MT through the Thrive Child Advancement Project (CAP).  So far, we have mostly been making art projects and talking about archaeology.  But we have been talking about trying to learn the Java programming language together!

There are lots of opportunities to mentor kids, either through CAP programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, Girls and Boy Scouts, etc., just a quick internet search brings up dozens of local options.  For less of a time commitment, you can also volunteer for community workshops, like the Girls for a Change summit in Bozeman or the Girls-n-Science in Billings.

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Not in my backyard!

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Today I spent a few hours picking trash out of some steams bordering my housing development. It’s very windy on the plains of Montana, and wind storms contribute to pollution by spreading trash. These steams are home to ducks, fish, musk rats, snakes, and frogs, and they link to larger water systems which run through local farms and provide water to cattle. Since the water table isn’t very deep here, any pollution can have far reaching effects. In just two and a half hours, I managed to pull all this out using only a ski pole, proving that one person can make a difference. As an environmental scientist, it’s important to me to give back. Next time you’re looking for something to do, why not try some green up?