Tag Archives: biology

More young scientists: 8-Year-Olds Publish Scientific Bee Study

This one’s from last month, but it was sent to me after my last quick hit and I couldn’t resist the urge to share another story of young folk doing ground-breaking science work:

Figures from the paper "Blackawton bees" showing the pattern of coloured dishes and the test results

“We discovered that bumblebees can use a combination of colour and spatial relationships in deciding which colour of flower to forage from,” the students wrote in the paper’s abstract. “We also discovered that science is cool and fun because you get to do stuff that no one has ever done before.”

The paper itself is well worth reading. It’s written entirely in the kids’ voices, complete with sound effects (part of the Methods section is subtitled, “”the puzzle’…duh duh duuuhhh”) and figures drawn by hand in colored pencil.

One of the things that’s awesome about this article is the fact that they aren’t worrying about pushing the kids towards science as a career. I’ve often found it infuriating how school curricula is becoming increasingly career-oriented and there was much talk of streaming when I was in public school and not nearly enough time for learning things because they’re interesting. (I learned violin anyhow, but missed out on world history.)

Strudwick says the project has completely changed the way Blackawton Primary School approaches science education, and that the students have a much more positive view of science now than three years ago. The students’ scores on Britain’s national science exams are well above average, too.

Misha Lotto, now 10, says his view of science changed thanks to the bees.

“I thought science was just like math, really boring,” he said. “But now I see that it’s actually quite fun. When you’re curious, you can just make up your own experiment, so you can answer the question.”

Some of the students now want to be scientists when they grow up, but some still want to be soccer players and rock stars. That’s okay, Lotto says.

“If they don’t turn out to be scientists, that’s not a big deal,” he said. “The hope is that this kind of program doesn’t just create data and information and little scientists. Being uncomfortable with uncertainty, in fact being excited about not knowing — that’s really what we’re trying to foster through science.”

You can read the whole article on wired or check out their published paper in Biology Letters.

Re-post: How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

In anticipation of a December/January slowdown, we’re reposting some older writing for the benefit of new (and nostalgic!) readers. This piece originally appeared on Oct 17, 2009.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.

Re-posting notes: one of the most common complaints about this slideshow was that the graphs aren’t perfect. You may wish to read this comment about the design choices I made when preparing this slide show. I periodically toy with the idea of putting together a follow-up presentation including some more recent research ideas regarding what causes the gap (e.g. recent research into stereotype threat) so if you have recent links to neat ideas, please pass them along!

Wednesday Geek Woman: Rachel Carson

This is a guest post by L. Minter. L. Minter is a feminist biology student and a blogger at Feminist Book Club.

Rachel Carson was born on a farm in Pennsylvania where she was an avid reader and had her first story published when she was eleven. She attended Pennsylvania College for Women (now known as Chatham University) where she started an english degree but later switched to biology. She continued her studies of Zoology and Genetics at Johns Hopkins University. She earned her Master’s degree and intended to obtain a doctorate’s but was forced to quit school due to family and financial situations.

She became the Junior Aquatic Biologist (and only the second women to be hired full time) at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries. During this time she featured several articles in the Baltimore Sun and in 1941, published Under the Sea Wind, which received excellent reviews. She continued to publish articles for Sun Magazine and Nature. In 1950, she published The Sea Around Us, which became a bestseller and award-winning documentary. After the success of The Sea Around Us, she re-released Under the Sea Wind, which also became a bestseller.

It was also during this time that she became interested in DDT, a new pesticide that had undergone very few tests. Because of the success of her two bestselling books, she became a full time writer and published At the Edge of the Sea, which describes coastal ecosystems, particularly along the Atlantic.

Arguably, her most influential piece of work was the book Silent Spring, where she recounts the ecological horrors caused by the indiscriminate spraying of pesticides. Silent Spring was so moving and so successful (as well as controversial), that it led to the ban of DDT and is widely credited with sparking the environmental movement.

During her last year, although battling cancer, she gave many speeches at receptions and dinners held in her honor and received many awards for her lifetime achievements, including: The Audubon Medal from the National Audubon Society, the Cullum Medal from the American Geographical Society, and was inducted into the National Academy of Arts and Letters.

Her philosophies about the environment and how we treat it are not only still very relevant, but her work is still widely used and valuable in the science and environmental community.

Wikipedia: Rachel Carson

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The links are strong with this one (4th December, 2010)

  • Valerie’s Conference anti-harassment policy is under discussion at LWN and Hacker News (‘ware: both sites well known for faily comments, although as of writing LWN is doing mostly OK). LWN’s article will be de-paywalled in a few days, before that, go via Valerie’s free link.
  • The Mistress of the Lash Wears Chains: I began to wonder just what drove the [game design] obsession with these matriarchies. I then realised that this was the flip side of “male fantasy’- which is “male nightmare.’
  • The Importance of Allies: Ever since I started working towards the goal of increasing the number of women participating in the free software community, I’ve had men say some variation of the following to me, I didn’t know it was this bad. Is there anything I can do? The answer is yes!
  • A series of questions in photographic form. This ongoing body of work explores the power dynamics inherent in the questions asked of transgender, transsexual, genderqueer, gender non-conforming, and gender-variant people.
  • Reinventing the Outreach Program Wheel: Why, oh why do I have to be hatin’ on the good works that SciCheer wants to do for the young girls of our nation?
  • Becoming Einstein’s cousin: profile on Cathy Foley, an international expert in superconductivity, the first woman to become president of the Australian Institute of Physics, and president of Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies.
  • Wake up, LOPSA members., or, Sexism in LOPSA, part 3
  • Women in Web Development: Do The Numbers Really Matter?: The failure isn’t the industry or its hiring practices. It’s in education, summer camps, parenting, and all the other places young girls could be coming into contact with coding, development and engineering but aren’t.
  • Gertrude Rothschild, Dies at 83: Important geek engineer who improved LED displays; defended her inventions against patent infringement. (In contradistinction to copyright infringement, which poorly serves IP interests in 3D objects and processes).
  • Finally, a quick thought from @heathermg: … the head of NASA Astrobiology AND the lead researcher who discovered this lifeform are both women.

You can suggest links for future linkspams in comments here, or by using the geekfeminism tag on delicious or the #geekfeminism tag on Twitter. Please note that we tend to stick to publishing recent links (from the last month or so).

Thanks to everyone who suggested links.

Wednesday Geek Woman: Rosalind Franklin

This is a guest post by L. Minter. L. Minter is a feminist biology student and a blogger at Feminist Book Club.

Rosalind Franklin was a British scientist who made significant contributions, but whose work is often overlooked. Franklin was responsible for producing the X-Ray diffraction images that Crick and Watson used to describe the double helical structure and size of DNA. She essentially discovered the shape of DNA, and wrote many papers which were never published. When her work was published as a series of three DNA articles, it was published last, giving most of the credit and attention to Crick and Watson’s work (the first two articles). This is one of the reasons why Franklin is brushed over in the history of DNA discovery.

Another reason why she is neglected from history, is that during her research she developed ovarian cancer (at the young age of 37) and died before the Nobel Prize was awarded to Crick and Watson for their collective work. Nobel Prizes are not awarded posthumously. It is widely believed that her work on DNA using X-Rays was a major cause of her cancer.

Despite her contributions not only to DNA discovery, but also to Tobacco Mosaic Virus, RNA, and the Polio Virus, Franklin put up with a considerable amount of sexism at King’s College as well as patronizing attitudes from Crick and Watson themselves. She is an example to all young aspiring female scientists not to be discouraged from pursuing important research.

Wikipedia: Rosalind Franklin
People and discoveries profile of Rosalind Franklin.

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Menstrual geeking: getting started

I was surfing around on Vagina Dentata which I stumble across periodically (most recently in our last linkspam) but have not quite got to feed-reader-adding yet. This is poor form I admit — I’ll go right off and add it after writing this — but does mean that I can enjoy a number of posts at once. Today I spent some time on periods. Periods. PERIODS. P.E.R.I.O.D.S. and Time to talk periods and thought other folks of the menstruating kind and/or the geeky kind might enjoy a bit of related geekery.

My official menstrual cycle education essentially boiled down to, if I recall correctly, that there was a time when one bled, a longer time when one didn’t and that at some point during the longer time ovulation occurred. And there were was certain amount of practical information regarding pads and tampons, which largely came down to a few diagrams and “beware Toxic Shock Syndrome”. Only in my mid-twenties, looking only to fill, I think, idle geek time, I found out about the follicular phase and the luteal phase, about fertilisation taking place in the Fallopian tubes and implantation occurring only around a week later, about the fairly short lifespan of the ovum and the fairly large corpus luteum cysts that ovulating women develop each cycle. (I had an early ultrasound of my current pregnancy, while the cyst was still presumably secreting progesterone, and it was a fairly big black circle on my ovary.) As best I understand, and I’m very much a layperson when it comes to the science of menstruation, Wikipedia’s article on the menstrual cycle is a good place to start reading for your menstrual geeking initiation.

I learned this when on the recommendation of another woman geek I picked up Toni Weschler’s book Taking Charge of Your Fertility. It’s a Fertility Awareness guide, about using a combination of basal body temperature, cervical mucus and cervical position to identify fertile times in your menstrual cycle in order to either get pregnant or avoid it. (This is not necessarily a religiously inspired practice, and it’s more effective as a contraceptive than you’d expect: much of the dubious reputation of cycle-based methods of contraception comes from use of strictly calendar based methods. Fertility Awareness requires a fairly good working knowledge of the signs and the use of either barrier methods or abstinence at fertile times though, with failure modes you can imagine.) I can’t get as excited about the idea of taking my temperature every morning of my fertile life as Weschler can, and I’ve never charted a cycle to the extent that would satisfy a Fertility Awareness educator, but I have tracked my temperature through a couple of cycles in order to observe the basic signs. I’d recommend this book if you’d like to do some serious observing of your menstrual cycle from, as it were, the outside.

Vagina Dentata also has a promising pointer to the re: Cycling blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle research, and you might be interested in (note: photos of cervixes at link… as you’d expect) the Beautiful Cervix photos taken throughout various people’s cycles.

If you have a geeky interest in menstruation and related things, what are the coolest facts you know, and what are your favourite sources of info?

Someone is going to make a bingo card about my notes to commenters some day, aren’t they? Today’s note is: remember that not all women menstruate, and not all people who menstruate are women.

How does biology explain the low numbers of women in computer science? Hint: it doesn’t.

It comes up a lot in discussions of women in computer science, women who write code, women in open source. Eventually, someone brings up the fact that women score slightly lower on math tests. Clearly, they claim, this biological inferiority must explain why there are fewer women in math heavy fields.

It sounds like a compelling reason, and it gets a lot of play. Except, you know what? It’s a lie.

I’m a mathematician. I’ve looked at those numbers, I’ve read some papers. The research into biologically-linked ability is fascinating, but it simply isn’t significant enough to explain the huge gender gap we see in the real world. I used to do this presentation on the back of a napkin for people who tried to spout this misconception to my face, and I finally put it online:

Love it? Hate it? Learn something? Catch the Mathnet reference? Let me know.