Three weeks ago, the European Commission launched “Science: It’s a girl thing!”, a campaign trying to get more girls interested in Science careers. The site looks good enough, but originally it included a teaser video which was taken down due to outrage explosion on the interwebs (it can still, however be found, for instance, here). I was in a middle of a lot of things then and apart from following it on Twitter for a while and bookmarking some excellent blog posts, didn’t spend much time on it.
But now I’ve got a bit of time for introspection and I’ve been reading those blog posts (for instance, here and here) and clicking various links in them has taken me to some unexpected and fascinating places (more on that hopefully in future posts). All these people talking about how science obviously doesn’t need prettying-up to appeal to girls. That made me think / try to remember what made me interested in science.
I don’t actually have one distinct memory of how I got interested in science. But as far as I can remember, I’ve always loved knowing stuff and understanding things. I loved studying and learning. And science is the ultimate studying, because you try to learn things that no one has learnt before.
I remember my first scientific “ambition” as a 12-year-old was to become an archaeologist, go to Australia, find fossils no one found before and determine why dinosaurs went extinct. You’ll have to forgive my 12-year-old self for not knowing the difference between an archaeologist and a palaeontologist.
Then I started Physics, Biology and Chemistry classes. I was mostly unlucky with Physics teachers (I think my class had like 3 or 4 of them), but my Dad, who is a MSc in Astrophysics, would always help me with my homework. I was completely in awe with explanations he would give to stuff that happens around us. He would often stray a bit too far into background information or reminiscing about how they taught him things at University and, while that meant taking much longer with my homework than was necessary, I loved those stories and thought that studying in Physics department had to be the most fun thing to do.
There was also Biology. We got a teacher my whole class was very afraid of, I still remember how part of the class delegated me to ask her how meiosis works because we couldn’t get it and it took me half a recess to work up the courage. To be clear, she wasn’t a Snape-, but rather a McGonagall-type teacher, and as I got older we got on very friendly terms (I like to go talk to her whenever I visit my school). She was also probably the first mentor-type person I had. Her strict requirements, I think, was what made me look into everything deeper asking why, how does that work, why is this just the way it is? For example, even such seeming trivialities as why we need toothpaste that’s alkaline as opposed to acidic. I discovered secrets and connections all around and in my own body. I was mostly fascinated with the latter (though moss and lichen came in close second), so I worked for 3 of my high-school years towards Med school (in my country, one can apply for Med school right after high-school, it takes 6 years, then intern-ship and residency).
But before my senior year, I was made to reconsider. I came to realise I didn’t really want to practice Medicine. I mostly just wanted to do research, I didn’t even question it much, that was just something I wanted to do and I couldn’t imagine myself doing anything else (well, apart from, you know, piloting a jet or directing the next best film of all time). There was also the stress of Med school and practising Medicine in general. I decided I didn’t need an MD to do research. Biology was my passion and Physics was my fascination. So, natural conclusion was Biophysics. I didn’t know much about it, but despite a bumpy start it turned out to be almost exactly what I wanted, and when it wasn’t, I would just put some effort to turn it my way.
So, circling back to the infamous video campaign, I guess even the 12-year-old me wouldn’t have been a target audience for it, because I was already interested in science because it is interesting, because it’s fun trying to solve puzzles and figure out things. Also, part of the appeal was the fact that all that mattered was your brain, your thoughts. One can wear whatever and like whatever they want, and it’s only one’s thinking that matters. Some bloggers (including Skepchick article I linked to above) actually expressed the idea (backed up by some studies, of course) that the overtly feminine girls in the video might actually have a negative effect and make girls like the 12-year-old me think that they can’t achieve science because you suddenly have to be both smart and pretty. I’m not sure if I summarised this well, just go and read the Skepchick article or this piece at NewScientist. It’s difficult to dig up the 12-year-old me, but I can definitely see that she wouldn’t be thrilled about such images of a “female scientist”. I think there’s no need to present science in any pretty way. I mean, in my opinion, children of either sex who could potentially get interested in science would be smart enough to see the fun themselves; someone should just help awaken their curiosity (I realise now that is what both my Dad and my Biology teacher did in their different ways).
Also, maybe this is a bit of a cultural thing, this thinking that there are too few females in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM), and something must be done to encourage them. I mean, sure in the graduating Physics class at my University this year there was 1 girl for every 10 or so guys, but in my class of the Faculty of Natural Sciences (which includes Biology, Molecular Biology, Biophysics, Ecology, Geology, Hydrology, Geography, Genetics) the situation was reversed with probably 1 guy for every 10 girls, and the faculty is probably about equally distributed between genders (I’ll have to go through the directory to count, I’m really curious now). And my Biophysics class was actually equally distributed. Admittedly, that’s just a one year sample, but looking around the University corridors it seems like a representative sample.
I could’ve got into Physics, but I didn’t want to, I liked studying the part of Nature that replicates and I was better at understanding Biological processes than Physical ones (I mean, come on: both wave and particle at the same time?!). My point is that everyone should be allowed to choose whatever they like. Sure, it seems that there are more boys than girls choosing Physics, but there are more girls choosing Biology and nobody is starting campaigns to get more boys into Biology. I do, however, agree that encouragement should be provided if a situation comes up when a young girl is very good at, say, Physics but she has fears of getting into it just because she’s afraid of having to work with or compete against all the boys or something else that has nothing to do with her disliking the actual subject or liking anything else better.
And yes, I understand that there’s also the problem of girls sticking with Science after graduation, but this particular campaign clearly wasn’t marketed at college students or recent college graduates and this post is getting too long, and I need to go get Daddy to help me with my Physics homework,
P.S. I have now went and counted male and female members of the faculty of Natural Sciences. I counted 149 females and 133 males. There are obviously different distributions within different departments, say, Hydrogeology has more male faculty, Biochemistry & Biophysics more female, Zoology is about equally distributed. However, out of 10 departments, only 2 currently have female department heads. I guess that says something, as well. Physics faculty is overwhelmingly male, with only a few females at most in the biggest departments.