The blogosphere is exploding this morning with snarky commentary on a new video released by the European Commission’s campaign “Science, It’s a Girl Thing,” which aims to attract girls and women to science. I learned of it when my friend and fellow science writer Amber Dance posted the video to Facebook with the comment “The European Commission proves it knows nothing about either science or girls.”
The video is so over-the-top bad that it’s actually kind of hilarious: “Girls” are represented by young women twirling about in decidedly lab-inappropriate skimpy outfits and open-toed shoes, and by close-up shots of exploding cosmetics. (Eyeshadow, incoming!) “Science” is represented by a lot of dry ice fog coming out of some beakers and by a studly dude brooding over a microscope. None of it bears even the vaguest resemblance to the labs where I earned a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and a PhD in nutrition. (Where was the shot of a frustrated grad student hunting through the recesses of the -80 freezer wearing giant orange gloves that made her hands look like Big Bird’s feet?)
The video did, however, cause me to recall a few moments with the fantastic female scientists who attracted me to science and mentored me through the long years of school:
- Early in the 10th grade, my high school chemistry teacher insisted that we learn and use the correct name for every piece of lab equipment. No shouting “Hand me the thingy!” when you needed a buret or an Erlenmeyer flask. Science demanded precision, she insisted. More than that, it was a challenge to rise to. Later, when I nervously presented a term project on diabetes to my classmates – one that included a live demo of a blood sugar test in which I pricked my own finger, squeezed out a drop of blood onto a glucometer borrowed from the local hospital, and thereby gave several classmates the vapors – this same teacher returned my evaluation form with the words “You show great compassion for diabetic patients” on it. It was a small signpost toward the work I do now, melding science with patients’ experiences into medical stories.
- Midway through undergrad, I dropped in on my favorite nutrition professor during office hours and found her hunting in frustration through stacks and stacks of tiny slides spread all over her office. (PowerPoint hadn’t quite taken hold; faculty still made physical slides for scientific talks.) “I know I have the slide I need here somewhere!” she said, chagrined. I was still, at 19 or so, naive enough to be surprised that my adored professor, a brilliant scientist, had to deal with such a banal job as hunting for a slide. But it was a good moment – a chance to realize “Oh, scientists are just regular people.”
- In grad school, another favorite nutrition professor looked over a particularly daunting list of tasks and said “Well, I guess it would be worse to have a boring job.” Her remark still comes back when I’m feeling overwhelmed and reminds me how grateful I am to have found the intellectual stimulation of science.
- Late in graduate school, I told my (male) PhD supervisor that I wanted to hurry up and finish school because I was eager to have a family. He gave me a reply that felt like a brush-off, and I ended up sitting in a frustrated heap in the office of a female faculty member on my advisory committee. When I told her what had happened, her normally calm features tightened in frustration, and, I think, a bit of rage. She sat up very straight, and said firmly “Well, *I* have a scientific career and a family. It is possible to combine them.” That was all, but it was one of the most encouraging things anyone has said to me ever, in any context.
If, instead of these great mentors, my pull to science had depended on a love of dancing lipsticks and disco lighting, I never would have made it. I hope the EC’s campaign grows into something with a bit more substance. (They do have a slightly-more-promising Facebook page that includes some nice interviews with young women scientists – that’s a good sign.)
Previously: Doc McStuffins: A pint-sized inspiration for girls of all colors, She’s a Barbie girl, living in a Barbie world (that discourages careers in science) and Pre-teens, in all their “giggly glory,” promote science on PBS show