In which I receive a gift

What do you buy the female scientist who has everything?

A few days ago I noticed a news clip in the London Evening Standard, mentioning that a new line of Lego featuring women researchers had sold out within hours of being offered for purchase online.

Women Scientist Lego hits news

These are glad tidings, given that Lego has previously sustained complaints for sexist stereotyping in its toys. I myself felt physically ill the last time I passed one of Lego’s horrid pink and purple collections aimed at little girls. Having grown up with Lego back when it was just primary-colored bricks and I could play at architect instead of bikini-clad sunbathing bimbo, I felt that the company had left me, and probably many kids, far behind.

Joshua, enjoying some old-fashioned Lego bricks acquired circa the year 2000.

While all is not totally forgiven, I was cheered by this news. I also secretly wanted to own the collection, but assumed it would be too difficult to get a hold of.

This evening, as a wedding anniversary present, Richard surprised me (after a long, dispiriting and existentially tenuous day at work) with my very own box!

Women Scientist Lego Box

And it’s no exaggeration to say that I was as excited as an undergraduate lab intern trying on her first white coat. I can’t wait to assemble them all – a chemist, a paleontologist, and an astronomer. And I am especially excited by the accessories – check out these itty-bitty Gilson pipettors!

Women Scientist Lego Accessories

It was Richard who first noticed one of the best features of this ingenious set: the scientist heads are reversible, so you can have them display either a studious/benevolent expression, or one that is considerably vexed at the nonstop vicissitudes of the scientific life. Just pulled an all-nighter, only to drop your beaker on the floor in the morning from sheer exhaustion? Just found out that your grant application was rejected – for the fifth time – or that Nature wants you to do so many revisions that it would take approximately thirty years to satisfy the referees? No problem – there’s a scowl for every occasion.

And for that rare Eureka moment? A slightly skeptical twitch of a smile that almost dares not linger, lest the whole intellectual edifice come crashing down.


Note added after publication: These Lego researchers have their own Twitter account! Thanks to Hans Zauner for kindly pointing this out.

Posted in Silliness, Stereotypes, The profession of science, Women in science | 8 Comments

In which I heart academia

Say what you will against life in the upper echelons of higher education. By all means complain about the low pay, the long hours, and the increasingly desperate funding situation. Above all, rail against the crushing career insecurity, and the sad truth that no matter how far up the ladder you are, there is only an ephemeral membrane between you and the night shift at McDonald’s.


Impromptu math

Where else can you sit down at a lunch table and hear such incredible conversation? Today, instead of being regaled with the latest football scores or celebrity gossip, we were dazzled an impromptu fifteen minute lecture about the Fibonacci sequence, the inevitability of hexagonal honeycombs, and the real reason why apples fall at precisely the right time – complete with kitchen towel diagrams and equations. Round it off with a debate about whether such things evolved or whether instead there are only a limited number of physical manifestations of matter, and that’s academia in a nutshell.

Posted in The profession of science | 4 Comments

In which everyday sexism depresses me

Today, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, reshuffled his Cabinet in preparation for next year’s General Election. There was a lot of speculation that he would up the number of women in his inner circle, as he’s previously promised, and this is exactly what he did.

The media, desperate to stir up controversy whenever it can, and having spent the previous weeks muttering that Cameron wouldn’t have a good enough pool of women to choose from to be able to follow through, was probably disappointed that he succeeded in the end. Deprived of feasting on a failure of this sort, it was forced to stir things up by intimating that the women chosen might have been just for show. We really can’t win. Either we are too crap to appoint, or – if appointed – we must only have appointed to fulfill a quota. Of course there is no way that we women could actually have been chosen for our abilities.

Today’s coverage in the London Evening Standard was shocking. The male subjects who were profiled had standard bios – career highs and lows, nothing about their personal lives. Michael Gove was said to have “one of the most acute political brains of his generation”, while Philip Hammond apparently has “a hard edge” and set up his own companies at a very young age.

The profiles of the three women who’d been promoted, although containing factual and some complimentary descriptions, all mentioned their marital status and how many children they had. The unmarried woman – Esther McVey – was singled out for special treatment. In the West End final version of the paper, there were not one but two photos of her, one as a young TV presenter in a revealing crop-top and skin-tight satin trousers, and the other as she was this morning, the wind blowing up her otherwise respectable business skirt such that the slit parted and revealed a bit of thigh. In the text, of all the thousands of phrases she’s ever uttered in her time on GMTV, the journalist chose one in which she mentioned sex, and readers are also helpfully informed that she once flashed her underwear on air. Most disturbingly, she has an entire paragraph about her relationship status that would not be out of place in a gossip column. In it, we learn that although she’s “unmarried”, she’s been “linked” with two prominent men, one of whom proposed marriage. (One cannot help suddenly picturing her as a feisty Lizzy Bennet, spurning not only Mr Collins’ advances, but Mr Darcy’s as well!) Coyly, the piece concludes that she “shares a flat” with a male MP, and allows readers to draw their own conclusions.

Now, I occasionally write copy for magazines and papers, and I know that every word matters. You whittle down the essence so that only the most important information makes the cut. Devoting two of five paragraphs to sex, knickers and which men she’s sleeping with is not an accident: the editor wanted dirt, and got it.

Okay, so they need to sell papers. Fine. But if you’re going to have tawdry irrelevances in your political news coverage, why don’t the men get the same treatment? I’m sure we’re all dying to hear more about whether Mr Gove wears briefs or boxers, and who Mr Hammond may or may not have snogged at the last Christmas party.

Come on, Evening Standard. Up your game.

Posted in Politics | 20 Comments

In which I become Justin Bieber

Sometimes the comment thread is the best part about blogging for The Guardian:
The ultimate accolade

The ultimate accolade.

Posted in Silliness, Stereotypes | 5 Comments

In which my language becomes everyone’s – for a moment

Following on from my piece in the Guardian this week about the chickenpox vaccine, my friend Buffy clued me in to this clever little number in the Onion that had been published the day before.


It’s too gloriously sunny and warm outside to write a serious post, so I thought I’d just point it out in case you missed it, and mention that it’s really great to see actual, hard-core science in such a popular venue. Does this mean, just possibly, that science is becoming just that bit more acceptable to the world at large? I do hope so.

When interviewed, many mothers described quality time spent gathered around the kitchen table, with the whole family helping to grind recombinant proteins with mortars and pestles while a supervising adult helps purify the mixture through chromatography and ultrafiltration. Others reportedly do prep work ahead of time on Sundays so that during the week they can simply come home from work, stir in any necessary adjuvants or stabilizers, and have an inoculation ready to go.

“Enough people were complimenting my measles vaccine that I now make a couple extra vials on purpose,” said Theresa Berman, a Fresno, CA mother of two, who revealed that her “secret ingredient” is a pinch of ginger. “It may not be as flashy as MMRV ProQuad, but it has the exact same WI-38 human diploid lung fibroblasts and MRC-5 cells as the brand-name variety.”

Posted in LabLit, Scientific thinking, Silliness | 4 Comments

In which I grapple with my Inner Imposter

I’ve been thinking a lot about Imposter Syndrome this past week. It’s no surprise why: several funded positions have come up in the department recently, and the process of applying for science-related personal funding always brings out the worst feelings of inadequacy in me. All I have to do is read the ideal candidate description, with its lists of essential and desirable qualities, and the uncertainties surge up inside.

No matter how well qualified I am, I tend to feel as if the words must be aimed at someone else – someone better. In my mind’s eye, that someone is usually a brash thirty-something with a male face (even though I know from my colleagues that youth and a Y chromosome are no immunization against Imposter Syndrome). Worse, I feel a deep sense of uneasiness as I go about the process of spelling out exactly how and why my skills and experiences precisely fit the bill. It is, in fact, about the only writing task that drives this prolific writer to avoidance tactics like getting up to make a cup of tea. Penning a scientific manuscript, a ten-page research proposal – even a novel – is a doddle in comparison.

How very un-American of me, you might be thinking. And it’s probably true that I’ve been in Britain for so long that I’ve lost the ability to feel comfortable when unabashedly blowing my own horn, even under circumstances where it is definitely warranted. But there is something deeper afoot, I suspect. Some well-buried wiring in my brain – perhaps linked to an evolutionary caution against standing out, against sticking one’s head above the underbrush (only to get spotted and summarily munched by a passing tiger).

My friend, a prominent mid-career male scientist in academia, recently shared his top tip for overcoming Imposter Syndrome. He had read a few studies, like the one here, reporting that a confident posture can boost self-confidence. A bit worried about how nervous he tended to be under harsh scrutiny, and always a keen experimentalist, he decided to give the method a go during acute circumstances: an interview for a highly prestigious lectureship. Just before reporting for the interview at the relevant university, he went to a nearby loo, locked himself in a stall and tried out what looked to be the most evidence-based successful posture: standing boldly with feet wide, shoulders flung back, head high and hands on hips. After holding the pose for about five minutes and glaring defiantly at the door, he reported for the interview.

The results were remarkable. Normally quite understated, self-deprecatory and not prone to hyperbole of any sort, he told me afterwards that he was frankly surprised by the words that had come out of his own mouth. They were glib, assured and confident, and he hardly thought before he spoke. So far so good, right?

Except – some of what came out of his mouth, he confessed, was unabashed bullshit.

“Bullshit,” I asked, “in sort of an exaggerated way – like making your data sound perhaps slightly more solid than they actually are?”

“No, I mean, I have a feeling I actually made up a few things on the spot. I can barely remember what I said – it was as if I was on drugs.”

My friend was mortified at how the exercise had affected him, and vowed to never use the technique again. Even when it transpired that he had got the job. I’m not so sure, though…it sounds like a winner to me, provided that you somehow manage to rein it in properly and not spout off fibs. There must be some happy medium whereby a postural technique can impart confidence without turning you into a purveyor of fine fiction. Perhaps the dose was just too high, and a minute or two of the stance might suffice.

Somewhat coincidentally, my podiatrist recently had similar advice for me. I’m suffering from chronic postpartum foot pain, and he thought that improving my posture and gait might help alleviate some of the symptoms.

“When you walk,” he said, “imagine that you are striding down the red carpet and all the cameras are flashing. Stand tall and declare over and over in your mind, I’m Doctor Rohn!

Just before I sent off my most recent application last night, I texted “I’m Doctor Rohn!” to my friend in all caps, stood in The Killer Bullshit Stance for exactly two minutes, and then re-read my statement. Did it, on reflection, actually look a bit wishy-washy in places? After a bit of thought, I bolstered a few of the sentences to make them sound more assertive and self-possessed. (Don’t worry, I didn’t add any fictional Nature papers to my CV.) The confidence exercises actually did seem to make a difference.

All this is just fine and dandy, but for one niggling notion. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you, goes the saying. Equally, just because you suffer from Imposter Syndrome doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re good enough, either. Ultimately, it’s almost impossible to walk the line between self-confidence and bullshit. I just think that some people are better at it than others.

Posted in Careers, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science, Women in science, Writing | 16 Comments

In which the season turns

London is in the throes of springtime, and everything is in bud.


Last year this time, my belly was swelling ever bigger in pregnancy. Now, my son – nearing the seven month mark – grows so fast that he seems almost to lengthen in real time. The milestones storm by: going without a feed through the night; recognizing his name; starting solid foods; rolling from front to back and then back to front (and then halfway across the living room floor before you’ve realized what happened); sitting up; putting toes in the nose. Clothes he once swam in now become too tight to snap up; wave after wave of tiny, over-laundered outfits are carefully folded up and retired forever, with a little niggle of sadness.


I have had the week off, most of which has been spent catching up on sleep after so many deprived months. In the back of my mind, it’s hard to completely let go of the habitual churn of low-level anxiety about my career. Two less congenial milestones approach: discovering whether I’ve made the interview stage of a prestigious fellowship that will save my bacon, and – at the end of August – the termination date of my most recent short-term contract. We’ve been here so many times before, haven’t we, dear reader? This time there are some glimmers of hope and a few schemes under development to keep me in post, so I am not actually as worried as I have been on other occasions. Still, it’s a big unknown and there are no guarantees.

For now, I’m just going to enjoy the promise and endless vitality of this new spring, and all of its wonders, for as long as it lasts.

Posted in Careers, Domestic bliss, Staring into the abyss, The profession of science | Comments Off

In which outrage finds focus: petition about the Daily Mail Peiris/Aderin-Pocock affair

Most of you have probably heard about the crass article that appeared in everyone’s favorite working mum- and immigrant-bashing rag (that’s me firmly in its sights, then, for embodying both evils simultaneously), the Daily Mail.

Which one, you ask? Because there are so many.

I’m referring, dear reader, to the columnist who took issue with BBC Newsnight having had as their guests two (gasp) women scientists, neither of which were (shocked double-take) white. Although chosen for their expertise, the columnist stated that it was only their gender and race that had scored them the high-profile punditry stint commenting on the big gravitational wave discovery.

Or in journalist Ephraim Hardcastle’s own charming words:

So, two women were invited to comment on the report about (white, male) American scientists who’ve detected the origins of the universe – giggling Sky at Night presenter Maggie Aderin-Pocock and Sri Lanka-born astronomer Hiranya Peiris.

The whole gaff has been amply covered elsewhere, and in an open letter, the scientists’ university (my own academic home, UCL) reminded the Mail about the scientists’ legitimate credentials:

[Peiris] is a world expert on the study of the cosmic microwave background…[and] Aderin-Pocock is a highly-qualified scientist and engineer with an exceptional talent for communicating complex scientific concepts in an accessible way.

This whole thing is a bit of joke. The number of women and people of color who appear in broadcast and print media as science pundits is vanishingly tiny. Having two at once may well be conspicuous because of how incredibly unusual it is, but to imply that they were chosen solely for these attributes is just silly considering how every other time, it’s almost always white guys in the chair. If it had been deliberate, we’d see more of it, and we just don’t.

Besides, it’s obviously very insulting to the scientists in question, no doubt having spoiled for them what should have been a deeply exciting moment. It’s also insulting to the women and non-white members of the gravitation wave teams whose work contributed to the discovery – to have the Mail just airbrush them from the picture is astonishing. (Has good old-fashioned fact checking gone out the window along with any semblance of respect or human dignity?)

Anyway, I just wanted to alert you all to a petition that’s gone live from University College Union member and fellow UCL colleague Dr. Rachele De Felice, demanding that the Mail issue a formal apology to the two scientists. I just had a peek and it’s got over 1500 signatures already, which is great for its first day. If you feel as strongly about this as I do, sign the petition and spread the word!

Posted in The profession of science, Women in science | 6 Comments

In which satellite models trump circumspection: the case of MH370

The strange disappearance of Malaysian Airlines flight MH340 has captivated the world, myself included. In an era of instant information, it’s sobering that an entire Boeing 777 could just vanish. I am sure I am not the only one who will be uneasy the next time I board a plane for a routine journey – especially if its itinerary lies over water. Such a tragedy could literally happen to any of us, at any time.

In the course of the last few days, the main protagonists in the search effort have been the multinational ad hoc fleet of aircraft and ships scouring the surface of the vast oceans for telltale flotsam. We have been gripped by grainy images of white, green and orange objects as the search parameters narrowed inward towards the southern corridor of the Indian Ocean some 1,500 miles southwest of Perth, Australia.

But yesterday, UK science took center stage, when the Malaysian authorities announced that the plane was shown to have crashed into the sea leaving no survivors, with the airline adding that it was beyond any reasonable doubt.

I assumed, on seeing this headline, that a bit of flotsam had finally been positively ID’d. But no – it turned out that the authorities had pinned their certainties on a cutting-edge model based on the interpolation of satellite imagery by Inmarsat and information from the UK’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch. Not just data, but a computer model – and one that apparently has never been used in this way before.

At first, I was baffled that everyone seemed to accept this verdict – even the relatives, one of whom was quoted as saying, “We accept the news of the tragedy. It is fate.” Such is the power of being blinded by science – and perhaps, by the gravitas of a high-profile press conference. This morning, however, there’s been a backlash that I find a bit more understandable, and the relatives are again engaging in protests. How rigorous is this model, and on what is it based? Is it truly solid enough to draw such a firm conclusion about something that is so very important to the victims’ relatives? From my own work with computer models, I know that they can give good indications but are seldom “beyond reasonable doubt”. With the stakes as high as they are, and the tempers as frayed, I am surprised that the authorities had so much faith in science that they felt able to draw such definitive conclusions.

Posted in Scientific method, Scientific thinking | 10 Comments

In which we feel the force

It’s amazing what you can buy off the internet these days.

Posted in Silliness | 5 Comments