#PrettyCurious is pretty sexist

On Tuesday I became aware of EDF Energy’s new campaign to “inspire girls’ curiosity about science, technology, engineering, and maths”. Sounds great, right? Unfortunately – very unfortunately ­– the campaign is called Pretty Curious (#PrettyCurious). Here’s how I reacted on Twitter:

The next day, I got an email from Chris Woolston who writes the Social Selection column in Nature. He said he’d be writing about #PrettyCurious for his next column, and was considering quoting my tweet. He asked me to elaborate on my “beef” (as I put it) with #PrettyCurious and also, what positive things I saw in the initiative.

I replied to Chris at some length, explaining my “beef”, and the next day, his piece went live.

Screenshot 2015-10-04 11.57.49Here’s the bit with my quote:

James said in an interview that the idea behind the initiative seems misguided. “The assumption that all or even most girls are into pretty things and want to be pretty, and that it’s a potential mechanism to interest them in STEM, is sexism,” she says.

Because only one sentence of my email was quoted (not that I’d expect more) and more importantly because the paraphrase leading into my quote didn’t do a great job representing my position, I thought I would share my full email to Chris Woolston here:

I’m glad to hear this might be covered in Nature. It’s an important topic, that is, this inexplicable string of poorly (harmfully?) executed projects intended to help women in science but failing so blatantly, for example, the EU Commission’s “Science: It’s a Girl Thing!”.

Anyways, here’s my ‘beef’ with EDF Energy’s #PrettyCurious campaign:

The name of the campaign is very clearly a play on words, that is, the dual meaning of ‘pretty’: 1) to a moderately high degree, 2) attractive, usually said of a girl or woman. That the campaign is about ‘inspiring girls’ curiosity about science, technology, engineering and maths’, it becomes clear that the idea is the campaign thinks ‘pretty’ describes, and/or appeals to, girls.

The assumption that all or even most girls are into ‘pretty’ things and want to be pretty, and that it’s a potential mechanism to interest them in STEM, is sexism. Gender stereotypes like ‘girls like “pretty” things and want to be “pretty”’ are both wrong and harmful. By reinforcing these stereotypes, the campaign adds to the constant messages that girls receive that they should be pretty, and should want to be pretty, and it connects prettiness to girls’ career aspirations.

The intent and much of the content of the campaign is great (‘events for girls will learn how to code, use 3D printers, and laser pointers to create technological solutions’, ideas for hands-on with science at home, etc.), which is why it’s such a shame their branding is so problematic. It would be easy to fix: ‘pretty’ is only used in the campaign’s title and literally nowhere else on the campaign’s web page. My hope is that EDF Energy will act on this early criticism and change their campaign title.

In addition to the ‘pretty’ thing, EDF’s selection of role models is problematic. Before I explain let me be very clear that from what information I have access to, the four women EDF have selected so far as #PrettyCurious role models are admirable, strong scientists, excelling in their fields and blazing new career trails, and, on an individual basis, they do indeed seem like great role models for young women. But it simply cannot be an accident that two of the four role models selected by EDF are working in fashion and makeup, which fits oh-so-nicely with the ‘pretty’ thing. A third role model is a TV presenter which is also a job for which, at this time, still tends to be occupied by conventionally attractive people. As such, the selection of role models reinforces the problematic aspects of the campaign’s name. That said, I want to reiterate that I think the name of the campaign is the primary problem. If they changed that, the selection of role models wouldn’t be much of an issue, in my opinion.

I still hope EDF Energy might be willing to change the name of their campaign (and also that they might consider supporting (i.e. funding) existing grassroots projects that are already doing the kind of good work they clearly think is needed). Unfortunately, they seem to be digging in and conveniently ignoring the fact that “pretty” hurts.

Note: I would have liked to assemble the literature on the harm done by gender stereotypes, the all-kinds-of-wrong that is gender essentialism, and stereotype threat for this post, but I’m facing some big grant deadlines so I just don’t have time today. Please do share relevant links in comments if you are so inclined, though.

A working list of top women of color in biology

Every summer, as part of the MDI Biological Laboratory‘s year-round seminar series, we have two named, endowed lectures: the Kinter Lecture, named in memory of Dr. William B. Kinter, who did environmental toxicology research at the Laboratory, including seminal work on DDT and crude oil, and the Cserr Lecture, named in memory of Dr. Helen F. Cserr, who studied the blood-brain barrier at the Laboratory for twenty summers.

The Cserr Lecture is traditionally given by a woman, in part because Professor Cserr was part of the 1974 class-action lawsuit against Brown University, “charging sex discrimination in hiring, promotion, renewal of contracts, and granting of tenure”. It was one of the pioneering academic discrimination cases of the 70s. For more on this and other cases, check out Margaret Rossiter’s Women Scientists in America (Volume 3): Forging a New World since 1972.

If you follow me on Twitter know, you know I’m vocal about the importance of diverse participation in science and society. As a member of the seminar committee, then, I decided to get together a list of women of color to suggest for the Cserr lecture. First I needed to educate myself more about women of color working at the highest levels (i.e. tenured professor or equivalent) in the relevant fields, which include but are not limited to molecular and cellular biology, neurobiology, physiology, and genetics.

A tall order, you say? Apparently not tall enough to stop the tweets from rolling in. Here, then, is a working list of women of color working at the tops of their fields, of molecular/cellular biology, neurobiology, and genetics. It’s a “working list” because I hope it will grow; if think of more, please tweet or leave a comment. Self-nominations welcome.

Update: This post was originally titled “A working list of eminent women of color in biology” but as Terry McGlynn rightly notes, my use of the word eminent “practices exclusivity, countering the main goal”.

Pseudonymity, privilege, and me

Note: This post also appears on #HOPEJAHRENSURECANWRITE as part of a group post entitled Real-Life Identity and The Internet with contributions from Hope Jahren, DNLee, Jeremy Yoder, and Terry McGlynn.

Hope Jahren asked me to share my thoughts about my choice to write online under my real name. Actually, she didn’t ask so much as bribe me with papaya seeds and nail polish, but I would have done it anyways because I think it’s important. This post is about why I think it’s important.

I’ve been blogging off and on (more off, lately) since 2007 at the HMS Beagle Project Blog and a few other places, and tweeting since 2008. I have always used my real name, except for the first year or so, when I called myself ‘Nunatak’ because I didn’t know what I was doing and the pseudonym made me feel less scared about clicking ‘publish’. I was Nunatak for less than a year. Just for fun I went back and re-read my coming-out post. *yawns* It is so not revelatory, I’m not even going to link to it.

To briefly unpack why clicking ‘publish’ scared me then (as it still sometimes does), it was a combination of worrying what my postdoc employer might think and the fact that this was my first real encounter with the immediacy of online publishing. I take that immediacy for granted now, but it sure was creepy those first few times. Importantly, I was not scared because I felt vulnerable speaking truth (or LOL) to power as a young woman scientist, but that’s only because I was not planning to speak truth to power, not because I wouldn’t have felt vulnerable if I were. On reflection, I did, increasingly, speak truth to power, but it was gradual, and I was already non-pseudonymous, so I just went with it.

But this post isn’t about why I flirted with pseudonymity five years ago; it’s about the impact of not being pseudonymous since then, and how that speaks to the larger ongoing discussion of online pseudonymity.

For me, as a scientist and science communicator, the choice I made in 2008 to be myself – Karen James – online has turned out to be a net positive. I say ‘net‘ because there have been some negatives. I’ve noticed that the negatives fall into two categories. First, there’s your typical Sagan-effect stuff. For example, once, after being interviewed on BBC Radio 4 about Charles Darwin, a colleague called me a ‘media tart’. It may have been a joke, but if so, it was only funny because there were people out there who would actually think that. I’ve been on the receiving end of a fair number of these sorts of ‘jokes’ about my online activities, but they have always seemed less about platform and more about communicating outside of the ivory tower or not conforming to some sort of ‘serious scientist’ stereotype.

Second, there’s the I’m-better-than-blogs-and-Twitter-so-I’m-better-than-you stuff, also known as throwing shade. I’ve seen lips curl into a snarl around the word ‘Twitter’, and eyes roll following any mention of blogs or blogging. Science is a serious endeavor, yo, and blogging and tweeting are totes not serious, obviously, or, worse, are attempts to rise up through the scientific hierarchy prematurely (which is more of a problem in Europe than in the US, in my experience). My boss at a previous job once told me in an annual performance review, ‘you promote yourself too much’; he was referring to my blogging. I couldn’t help wondering if he would have said that to a male colleague, but I digress.

But what do these negatives have to do with the choice I made to use my name as opposed to a pseudonym? When you use your name, anyone – even people you don’t think pay any attention to social media – can look you up, and associate any negative opinions they may have about what you write or do specifically, or just being active online generally, with your name. That might sound paranoid, but I’ve found there are a lot of lurkers out there, that is, people who check in on me and read my stuff, but don’t engage. I know this because people I had no idea were reading my writing online have said things to me like, ‘what happened to your helmet?’ (referring to the time I changed my Twitter avatar from a picture of me wearing a ski helmet to one of me not wearing it), or, ‘am I the person you were referring to in that tweet about being frustrated with [issue X]?’

Why does it matter? It matters because these people who now have a negative opinion of you might be on your hiring or tenure committees, or reviewers on your grant proposals or manuscripts, or even… you know… an editor at Nature. *coughs*

One of the most unsettling tests of my online identity is happening right now. Recently I became the unofficial curator of a social media movement called Ripples Of Doubt. The Twitter hashtag #ripplesofdoubt was, for a little while, a safe space for women and men to share how sexual harassment ripples out into their professional and personal lives and communities. It provided support and solidarity, and demonstrated both the frequency and surprisingly wide range of impacts of sexual harassment in science and science communication.

Unfortunately a troll invaded the hashtag and began using it to intimidate genuine contributors. Though I’ve blocked the troll, they subtweet me, sometimes referring to me by my name or collecting my tweets into one of their creepy Storify stories. This is a worry in relation to my non-pseudonymity because, if it should escalate, I won’t have that additional layer of privacy to protect me.

‘Worry’ is a key word here. So far, nothing terrible has happened to me as a result of choosing to be Karen James online, but I worry that it could. For example, on Friday I co-signed an open letter to Nature editor Philip Campbell by Acclimatrix at the excellent pseudonymous blog Tenure, She Wrote. I signed it with my real name, because I can (more on this below), and because I believe that adds a certain weight of conviction and support to the post, but I also worry a little bit that there could be negative consequences. What if I submit a manuscript to Nature and the editor holds a grudge? And there are even more worrisome worries – worries about my physical and psychological safety should I become a troll’s target, or make a really stupid mistake, or become embroiled in something extremely controversial.

Still, for me, on balance, the positive has outweighed the negative. In 2010, I was selected to serve as a scientist guide to four UK students and their teachers on a trip to the Galapagos Islands. Both the opportunity and the project that resulted required me to be Karen James online. Without a connection between my online and real life personas, I  doubt I would have collaborated with NASA, received a phone call from space, or applied to become an astronaut. My job description as a staff scientist at MDIBL includes 30% effort in outreach. This fact speaks to two benefits: 1) that my past outreach activities were admired by my new employer and presumably helped me get my job, and 2) that I get to do outreach as part of my job. Snoopydance. In November, following the advent of #ripplesofdoubt, I was invited to write about it for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae website. That piece is now on my CV.

And so there you have it: the not-particularly-exciting story of my non-pseudonymity. What does it add to the ongoing discussion about pseudonymity?

Here’s what: too often blog posts like this one end with, ‘and that, my friends, is why you should be yourself online!’ Not this post. If choosing to write online under your own name is a net advantage, as it has been for me, then choosing not to may be a net disadvantage. And the thing is, not everyone has a choice. It is a combination of luck and privilege – including but not limited to white privilege, heterosexual privilege, and class privilege – that has permitted me the choice to be Karen James online. It is not strength of character, commitment to transparency, courage, or any other sort of superior crap certain foes of pseudonymity might suggest.

And that, my friends, is why you should be yourself online, if you can, and if you want, but it’s also why you should be vigilant and fight against those things – human and otherwise – that take the choice away from others.

What counts as ‘citizen science’?

I haven’t been blogging much of late… okay, at all. But this post by Adam Stevens (and a little nudge from the Blogfather) was enough to wake me from my long blog slumber and post.

Adam* takes issue with Zooniverse, a truly impressive collection of citizen science projects ranging from its namesake Galaxy Zoo to new projects in not only astronomy but climate change, biology, even humanities. He argues that Zooniverse participants’ activities don’t count as ‘science’, but are just ‘data crunching, plain and simple’. He says such crunching is ‘what happens before the science starts’ (his emphasis) and that ‘looking at these images, clicking, sorting, categorising, isn’t the science. The science is in the interpretation that happens afterwards.’

Me, skiing and mulling over what citizen science is.

Me, skiing and mulling over what citizen science is.

What happened next was… I went cross-country skiing. While I was out there, huffing and puffing up uphills, rattling down icy downhills and mulling it over, Justin Starr posted a response that said several things I was planning to say, including that we should take Adam at his word that he not mean to be patronizing to Zooniverse participants and that his error lies in his definition of science.

Also while I was out skiing, people left comments on Adam’s post, many of them noting quite rightly that actually there are opportunities in Zooniverse projects to go beyond data crunching and interpret data.

The question becomes, then, what can I add?

First, I think that whether or not Adam intended to be patronizing towards Zooniverse participants, his post… well, it was. Adam was (as I am) writing from a position of privilege. We are professional scientists with the luxury of being identified by the world as such. When one of us says that while Zooniverse participants should be invited to do science, what they are doing doesn’t count as science, it is, by the very definition, patronizing.

Second, if anyone gets to decide what ‘science’ is and whether Zooniverse participants are doing it, it’s not Adam Stevens. And it’s not me, either. Who is it, then? It is, first and foremost, the participants themselves, and second, those who run Zooniverse and its projects. Why does it matter if anyone else doesn’t think what they’re doing is ‘science’? Who does it hurt? No-one. This is not to say that Adam’ suggestions for more opportunities to understand the meaning of and interpret data are not good ones. But to preface those suggestions by calling the current projects ‘not science’ and to call them instead ‘patronizing slave labour’ is not helpful to anyone.

Digression: One could argue that even if Adam’s suggestions were adopted, interpretations made by participants might not be used by the the professional scientists who are partnering on the project and who are presumably interpreting the data ‘for real’. In other words, even if you provide widgets to help participants understand the meaning of the data they are collecting and processing, they may still not be doing ‘science’ a la Adam.

Third and finally, I’d like to add some insights that I’ve gained from developing my own citizen science project. I was recently awarded a grant from the National Science Foundation to pilot a new framework for citizen science called ‘BioTrails’. In the process of writing the proposal, I learned a lot from my reading and from my collaborators and evaluators.

One of the most important things I learned was about the many different ways that people practice citizen science and how those different practices translate to learning and other positive outcomes for participants. Here’s a quick run-down. As you’ll see, this runs somewhat counter to what Adam wrote in his post about what ‘citizen science’ is and should be.

In 2009, the Center for Advancement of Informal Science Education (CAISE) published a study of existing citizen science projects and programs. The report identifies three project types (excerpted below exactly as listed in the report summary):

  • Contributory projects designed by scientists, with participants involved primarily in collecting samples and recording data
  • Collaborative projects in which the public is also involved in analyzing data, refining project design, and disseminating findings
  • Co-created projects are designed by scientists and members of the public working together, and at least some of the public participants are involved in all aspects of the work

The important take-home here for the purposes of this blog post is that all three of these kinds of projects ‘count’ as citizen science. It’s true that each type of project can deliver different kinds of experiences for participants, and result in different learning outcomes. But they count!

So, what are some of these ‘learning outcomes’? In Surrounded by Science: Learning Science in Informal Environments Marilyn Fenichel and Heidi Schweingruber identify six strands of informal science learning:

  1. Sparking Interest and Excitement
  2. Understanding Scientific Content and Knowledge
  3. Engaging in Scientific Reasoning
  4. Reflecting on Science
  5. Using the Tools and Language of Science
  6. Identifying with the Scientific Enterprise

Looking at this list, it is obvious that whether or not Zooniverse participants interpret the data they collect or process, they can benefit from several of these kinds of learning. There is a lot more to say – and a lot more that has been said – about citizen science and how it can lead to learning. My point here is simply to highlight the breadth of what may ‘count’ as ‘citizen science’ and some of the many learning outcomes that can result, and to applaud the Zooniverse for their very significant contributions to the field and, most importantly, to their participants.

*On initial posting, I had ‘Dr. Stevens’ throughout, but he kindly informed me he hasn’t received his PhD yet, hence ‘Adam’.

‘Biodiversity’ and ‘DNA barcoding’ explained using only the thousand most common words

This is my contribution to the #upgoerfive meme in which we are challenged to use this text editor to ‘explain a complex topic using only the 1,000 most common English words’. Like many other contributors, I am writing about my work. Here goes…

‘Biodiversity’ and ‘DNA barcoding’ explained using only the thousand ten hundred (see?) most common words

We love animals and green things and we need them for food, houses, to make sick people better, to clean the air and water, to hold down the ground, to know things and to be happy outside. For all of these things, lots of different kinds of animals and green things are better than only a few kinds. So we’re scared because the animals and green things are not safe from some of the things we do, like when we cut trees down, put bad smells in the air, take good things out of the big water (or put bad things in) and make the air around our rock in space get hot too fast.

But how do we know about all the different kinds of animals and green things? And how do we know which places have the most kinds, and which of those need our help right away, and which can wait? To find out, we need to go outside and look at what lives where. The “what” part is really hard. We need to be able to look at different animals and green things and know their names so we can find them again in other places and other times (like after the air gets hot or after we cut down trees, or put new ones in the ground), and also so we can talk to each other about them.

Here’s the problem:

Knowing the names of the animals and green things is really, really hard! Only a few people know how to know them, not nearly enough to actually find out what lives where, and when. We need lots more people to help… we need YOUR help. But if you are not one of the few who already knows how to know the names of the animals and green things, you can’t help without learning how, and that takes too long and is also really hard, and you probably already have a lot of good things to do in your life.

So how about this?

The long stuff inside the cells of animals and green things is sort of like a name, but on the inside. We found out what this long stuff was in 1953, and then in 1977 we learned how to read it (it’s like a book with really long words made of only four letters), and in 2003 we learned that some of these words are always the same in the same kind of animal or green thing, but different in different kinds of animals or green things. So maybe, just maybe, instead of knowing how to know the names of animals and green things, we can read the long words on the inside of their cells. Then lots of people (like you) might be able help find out what animals and green things live where, and when, without having to learn how to know their names. You could just take little pieces of animals and green things off the ground, or out of the trees, air or water (when you are at home, or when you are visiting pretty places with lots of animals and green things) and then send them to the places where people know how to read the long words inside. Then we might finally have enough people to study what lives where, when, and try to make the different kinds of animals and green things safe from some of the things we do.

Hello world II

I’m reviving this WordPress blog to serve as my website (again). iWeb just wasn’t sticky enough, I guess. *ba dum tisk*

Here I will post news about me, should anyone be interested in following my doings. For those rather more interested in my thinkings, see my tweets and my ‘real’ if infrequent blog posts at The Beagle Project Blog, Data Not Shown, The Guardian and Scientific American.

Back to doings. To make up for lost time, here are some of the highlights since my last news post over *coughs to mask embarrassing number* years ago:

For more, before, during and since, see my CV.