I was recently at dinner with a friend. I had polished off a plate of lentil stew, while she and her partner, with some help from my husband, had demolished a generous portion of pork leg. When the bone was mostly clean, my friend looked at it. Gesturing with her hand, she pointed to the various features of the bone, “the diaphysis [shaft of bone] has not yet fully fused to the epiphysis [end of bone]. Between these two parts is the long bone growth plate from which vertical growth takes place”. That meant that the three of them had just eaten the leg of an adolescent pig because “once the individual achieves the species’ expected size, accounting for individual variation, the two parts are fused and growth stops”. My friend is one of the many women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) but there still are not enough.
There is a certain passion for their discipline that scientists evince, even at the dinner table. These individuals devote their entire lives to discovery. One researcher, Dr. Mike Jetten, has created a most wanted bacteria list, which are bacteria that he believes must exist based on results in the natural world. Ciprian Manolescu is responsible for the discovery of “untriangular” in spaces that have five dimensions or more, in the mathematical field of topology. Dr. Jonathon Feng and his team at the University of California are postulating that there is a fifth force in the universe, joining gravity, electromagnetism, and strong and weak nuclear forces (think, electrons and protons – not nuclear power) – they are unsure what the new force is yet but all previous experiments in the field support its existence.
Women in STEM
As evidenced by my dinner companions, women are no less passionate about the discipline than men. And they make ground breaking discoveries, just like their male counterparts. From Ada Lovelace creating the first programming language, to Marie Curie’s discovery of radium, to Mary Anning’s pioneering discoveries in marine paleontology, and Rosalind Franklin’s discovery of the double helix structure of DNA. From the earliest sparks of scientific discovery, women have always been on the leading edge with men, just in fewer numbers.
We have seen some of the most recent and amazing discoveries made by women at the TEDxVienna – Out There conference. Dr. Catherine Freese and her colleagues postulate that there are “dark stars” in the universe, powered not by nuclear fusion like our own sun but by the ever-elusive dark matter. Fei Ann Ran brought the realities of Jennifer Doudna’s development of the CRISPR technique to life for our Vienna audience. Holley Moyes’ routinely explores dark places to understand ancient civilizations and their decision-making process.
All these discoveries, made by both men and women, represent giant steps forward in their respective fields. The difference here is that these women are shattering the very brittle glass barriers between them and success within the field. And despite the success, there are fewer women entering the STEM field than there are men.
The slogan for the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, is “if she can see it, she can be it”. So, where do young girls see women scientists on film and television? While looking for an answer, a website popped up called Discov-Her which “[showcases] women making science happen”. They have aggregated some of the films and television shows where you can see women scientists. However, the list when compared to men is woefully short, and most of the television shows are crime dramas which may not be appropriate for the five-year-old in your home. Which leaves you with story books and toys – and there are not that many of those directed at young women and girls. The Lego figurines below were painstakingly constructed in the shop and it took us over an hour.
So, I decided to ask my friends what inspired them to study science. Nina Maaranen is currently studying for her PhD in Bioarcheology. This means the assessment of skeletal remains at dig sites and laboratories. However, in the week she spent visiting me, it meant taking pictures of a lot of teeth.
“My being in bioarchaeology is the result of a series of happy accidents. My background is in Egyptology, which is separate from archaeology in the University of Helsinki, where I did my undergrad,” Maaranen reminisces when I asked her about her career choice. “I didn’t even consider anything else. As a child, I was obsessed with ancient Egypt and drew hieroglyphs and mummies everywhere.”
However, it is a significant jump from the history and culture of the ancient world to the study of skeletons buried for centuries. “Even in Egyptology my interest was in human remains. I heard about osteology by accident in a conversation and became curious.”
Maaranen is excited to talk about her career, “my job is to examine human skeletal remains and contextualise them, to provide an interpretation of the life of the individual by integrating the physical skeletal evidence with socioeconomic and environmental factors. It is complex and interdisciplinary and very exciting.”
Sarah Harrison studies animal behavior, more specifically, she studies crickets. I sat down with Harrison over white wine spritzers on a sunny day in Stadtpark to ask her what inspired her to study the life sciences. “I think my mom was my inspiration to pursue a career in biology. Growing up, I can remember her frequently getting excited about finding some interesting bug, mushroom, animal, bird, or plant.” Harrison reminisced.
Harrison says that “growing up with this sort of daily activity resulted in my developing a fascination with the natural world, so studying biology was simply a no-brainer. I’m currently a biology PhD student studying animal behavior, and my mom is presently engaged in fostering a bunch of baby turtles.”
Science is a life-long passion that some women are fortunate enough to foster. However, we need to do a better job of encouraging young women to maintain this drive and interest so that it is never about luck.
Lego Figurine Photography by Aneta Pawlik