Women in Science

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The World Science Festival was launched this week in NYC. Having already missed the opening night gala where Alan Alda presented his play about Marie Curie, (with the help of some Broadway friends) I was committed to getting my act into gear. So last night my Rockefeller buddy and I sped downtown to pick up our tickets for our first choice on the program: Women in Science.

Apt you might say? You would be right. We were under the impression, despite the event being held under the Brooklyn Bridge, Brooklyn side, we were supposed to pick up our ‘will call’ tickets from the NYU box office off Washington Square Park. So, in the heat of the rush hour, we powered down on the F train to avoid missing the closing deadline of 6pm. We made it just in the nick of time and decided now, since we had time to spare, we should enjoy the evening sun with a peanut butter sandwich and a small bag of carrots in the Park.

As we strolled towards the fountain to select a place to pause, we spotted a young student sat on a stool behind a beautiful mint-coloured typewriter. His sign read “Poems while you wait”. L and I just could not resist. First, we sat on a bench under the burnt yellow glare of the setting sun, munching on our peanut butter themed dinner and counted our cents. We imagined, you see, that he probably didn’t accept debit cards. Mustering up a respectable round $10, we felt this was enough of an offer for a poem dedicated to us on this sunny Thursday evening. Marching back fully satisfied by our fare we put forward our collection and requested if he could write us a poem while we waited? He was happy to oblige. Keen to get an angle he tried to get to know us a little. We explained our reason for living in the city and that we were en route to Brooklyn to attend an event discussing women in science, of which we both were. With this brief explanation and eager to leave him to his creative process we sat a little away from our poet and pondered, philosophically, on our evening ahead.

Minutes later Alan had completed a poem. Having first made a carbon copy for himself he handed over his art. Thanks Alan.

Delighted with his words we skipped happily towards the subway and on to Brooklyn’s Main Street and our destination: the Galapagos Art Space. Arriving in good time to pick a prime spot we were presented with a dimly lit venue attempting to imitate the Galapagos Islands (complete with surrounding moat). Each round table was linked to a central walkway, each ‘island’ surrounded by dark pools. In the muted light it was easy to mistake the still water feature for a deep pit, the lucid reflection as if we were suspended.

I, of course, always try to make an entrance and sat myself so firmly down on my lower-than-expected stool that I accidentally fed the body of water with my playbill. Honestly, I can’t take me anywhere! However, once the guilty sheet had been successfully rescued from its soggy fate the show was about ready to start.

First up, Jean Berko Gleason jumps aboard the ‘floating’ stage. Each scientist was tasked with trying to present their career from both a personal level and also a more professional overview of what their research involves. Professor Gleason is a child language specialist and the mother of the field of psycholinguistics. She invented the Wug test to investigate how children deal with language rules and how they apply them to form plurals, for example, or create the past tense of verbs they are meeting for the first time. Jean teaches us that it is always better to “experiment on other people’s kids” (good advice) but also that children do not simply master language by copying their elders. In fact they are able to acquire rules and apply them to new words they hear. On a more personal level, Jean began her studies in the 1950s, reading history and literature at Radcliffe College (which was strictly Harvard but since women could not be admitted formally at that time they were affiliated members of this ‘other’ college). She was living in a world where women were not able to enter the Harvard library, for fear of distracting the men, and she was even discouraged from following a career at all, unless of course she chose the path of secretarial work. That was the most appropriate profession for a woman. She ignored both and followed her heart soon becoming an academic herself and pursuing her love of linguistics (in the meantime dressing up as a man and sitting in the library until she was thrown out with her comrades). Against all odds, Professor Gleason was determined to study something she loved and despite the issue of women in science still being relevant today she promised us we have come a long way since then.

Next up was a cosmologist who maps dark matter in the universe (and publishes poetry on the side). Priyamvada Natarajan is a Professor in the Departments of Astronomy and Physics at Yale who is fascinated by the so-called ‘exotica’ of the universe: dark matter, dark energy and black holes. Growing up, she tells us, she was an avid armchair explorer. She had dreams of journeying to far off places revealing new worlds through her love of maps. Since then, her dislike of long voyages and her fear of scurvy soon curbed that pursuit. However, she has not abandoned her love of maps in her chosen line of research. Encouraged by Einstein’s work, she and others are able to use the distorted light from far off galaxies to chart the pattern of dark matter that constitutes over 90% of the universe and through its strong gravitational pull is able to warp the path of light from galaxy to Earth.

Next we heard from a Columbia University neuroscientist, Jo Hirsch, who has published pioneering work breaking down how the brain understands and processes different emotions. She admits she was “terrified” about presenting her personal story, finding it much more agreeable to simply talk science for hours. However, spending some time thinking about how she came to be in academia, she attributed her passion for this difficult scientific frontier to her genes and her heritage of spirited females. Her great grandmother had been a sharp shooter with a rifle and was enlisted to protect a wagon carrying families across North America over a century ago, while her grandmother had been a political activist helping to change laws for the rights of women in two states. Professor Hirsch was confident in her field and, just like the others, no male dominance was going to halt her pursuit of the answers that motivated her life’s work. And then we meet the cryptographer Tal Rabin who through the medium of ‘Where’s Waldo” (Wally in the UK) demonstrated how IBM is able to ensure privacy on the internet and provide a public security service. She highlighted the plight of women in her field. This world of cryptography and computer science desperately needs more women. And we were entrusted with passing on her plee.

Finally up on stage was the youngest of tonight’s speakers, a Junior Mathematics Fellow at Harvard University. Corina Tarnita is a Romanian born mathematician who was influenced by strong female role models. Her mother is a mechanical engineer and her grandmother, who raised her, was always in charge of the financial side of the farm on which they lived. She was unaware of the stigma associated with women in science and it was not until she started competing in Mathematics Olympiads in her country and beyond that she noticed a disparity in the male to female ratio. She attended Harvard for her B.A and Ph.D in Mathematics and now applies her skills to biological problems working with the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and winner of the National Medal of Science, Professor Edward O. Wilson. A famous naturalist E. O. Wilson is a leading researcher on ants and Dr Tarnita has been joining forces with him to better understand the evolutionary successes of this elegant organism through the power of mathematical modelling.

At this point I sense a tidy link to the start of the show. Dr Tarnita tells us that after presenting an accessible summary of her detailed 50-page mathematical proof to the 81-year old non-mathematician Professor Wilson, she received a call the next day asking her to take him through it step by gruelling step.

Now we can document the path of women in science over the last century. In the 1950s, Professor Gleason was not allowed to step foot in the Harvard library or call herself a Harvard scholar let alone tutor a man in her scientific expertise. Now, just over 60 years later, a young female mathematician is studying alongside her male peers, she is competing and winning awards against the other men in her field and she is even able to teach a renowned scientist her mathematical proof, and he will listen.

We still have a long way to go but there is nothing like an evening of inspiring women to point you back in the right direction.

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