Category Archives: Reflections

Bone Love

Until recently, I didn’t give much thought to my forearm. And I’m guessing that you haven’t either. Consider it with me for a moment. Take a minute to appreciate the engineering marvel that is your arm.

Roll up your sleeve and extend your right arm out straight in front of you, with the palm of your hand facing in, your elbow  tucked to your side. Now run your left forefinger up the length of your forearm from wrist to your elbow. That is the radius bone –flared at the thumb-end and  shaped like the head of a nail at the elbow end. That’s one bone, but there are actually two in there.

Now, keeping your arm out in the same position, run your left fingers along the bottom side of your arm from the wrist to the elbow. That is the ulna – bone #2.  Your ability to grasp, rotate, pronate, turn, deliver all comes from the intricate interactions between these two slender osteo companions living in your forearm. Encircle your right wrist, with the fingers of your left hand and then turn your right arm to the left and right and you’ll see what I mean. The ulna is actually a fixed bone but the radius capers over and around it, twirling, like Ginger Rogers around a steadfast Fred Astaire, working together in a well-choreographed tango that allows you to do everything from turning a screwdriver, to opening a jar, to picking up an infant.

Yes, that arm of yours is an engineering marvel. Except when it’s not. When broken, your bones must be held perfectly still in order for bone-building cells to do their work and lay down new bone. Spongey, like tofu (I was told), at first then gradually, over weeks, to something harder and more stable. Like wet cement, it must be allowed to stiffen overtime, undisturbed. That’s where the cast comes in. It is only when you have a harder-than-steel fiberglass cast on your forearm that you fully realize how magical the movements of your ulna and radius are. Without their intricate gliding and swooning, your arm and hand become a robotic cudgel, capable of only the most primitive moves. Pushing, blocking, and just laying there. You have no grasping power. You can’t squeeze, pinch, or turn.  Not only that, but your two hands can’t work in concert together.

You’d be amazed by the number of quotidian tasks that require the sophisticated enterprise of two functional arms working, ahem, hand-in-hand. Zipping your pants, tying your shoes, driving, buttoning, cutting vegetables, and basically any form of multitasking – period

I have growing superstitions over the pending removal of this cast. Once they cut this sheath off my arm, what will happen? Will the quivering lump of bone, sinew, and skin be able to return to all of those crazy functions? Will my ulna and radius resume they’re well-rehearsed choreography and glide over each other in rhythm? Will the reconstituted bone hold up to the rigors of my daily life? Will I be able to lift boxes, type, carry grocery bags, turn the steering wheel hand-over-hand, support a downward-facing dog?

And what if I fall again? Will that delicate patch of bone hold my weight? Has the word gone out to the other 205 bones  – she’s breakable!




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“This is a…global tel-link, prepaid call from…Adnan Syed…an inmate at… a Maryland correctional facility.  This call will be monitored and recorded…”  

That’s the opener for the new NPR podcast program, Serial.  One story, told week by week. The series follows a single story, a murder and its aftermath, over an entire season, spooling out the details, piece by piece, in hour-long audio segments.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Adnan Syed, taken in his high school years.

Here’s the basic plot.  In 1999, the body of a young woman named Hae Min Lee was found strangled and buried in a shallow Baltimore grave.  Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was arrested for the murder, convicted, and sentenced to life plus 30 years for the crime.  He has currently served 14 years of his sentence, claiming, as he has from the start, that he is innocent of the crime.

If you haven’t yet listened to Serial.  Do.  This is good stuff.  Excellent, thoughtful, long-form journalism and a fascinating glimpse at what well crafted audio programming can accomplish. First off, Sarah Koenig (an ex-Baltimore Sun reporter and am experienced producer from This American Life), at the helm of this podcast series, is incredibly gifted. She is a solid journalist, a really good interviewer, and a wonderful storyteller. I’ve grown quite fond of her Terri-Gross type interviewing style – compassionate, well spoken, and ever curious about each detail.

Sarah Koenig, Serial's producer.

Sarah Koenig, Serial’s producer.

Under Koenig’s leadership, the show’s creators do so many things right here – the use of music to build tension and weave connective tissue between episodes, Koenig’s conspiratorial (just you an’ me) voice, the story pace, and the well-placed use of actual recordings (phone conversations, tapes from the two trials, sound effects).

I really like the way that Koenig figures out the story along with you. Nothing is sewn up and tidy, she hands out the evidence, the discoveries, the phone logs, the interviews as she makes her way through them.  It’s like you’re on a slow drip, experiencing the story right along with her.  Often, as I’m listening, I find myself shouting to my iPhone, “But why didn’t Adnan’s lawyer show that evidence in the trial?!”  And sure enough, like she heard me, Koenig will chase that question down.  She’s relentless, pouring through evidence, teasing out the truth, talking with everyone remotely connected with the case (which, remember, happened 14 years ago), and expressing her skepticism, her confusion, her fears as she goes.  You ride along with her.

The obvious main draw of the serialized story is the ultimate question – is Adnan guilty?  Did he do it?  Is this guy wrongly convicted and sitting in prison, unjustly, for 13 years?  And what of Jay (the prosecution’s chief witness) – is he a liar? Who do we believe?  While the whodunnit nature of the show keeps you hooked, it’s also a fascinating procedural vantage point into journalism.  How exactly does it work?  What do journalists do, what do detectives do when they investigate a crime?  And if all of that isn’t interesting enough for you, consider the intriguing challenge of telling this story in an audio-only format (with no visuals).  Pretty tall order when you have to track timelines, maps, calendars.

But it’s not just the characters in this true life story that have me gripped, it’s the human elements, put on display so effectively.  The people in the story are oh so painfully flawed. They have unreliable memories. They rationalize and tell lies at every turn. They are completely unreliable narrators. How could so many aspects of the story be so confused? What Koenig teases out, time and time again, is that we don’t remember much that would be useful in a criminal trial from an average day. The day that Hae’s life was taken was, in fact, for most of the people in this story, just an incredibly average, oh-so normal day. Because of that, they really can’t remember – did you leave school at 2:15 or 2:30?  Did you go to the Best Buy before or after track practice?  What time did you place that phone call?

The podcast is extremely successful (1.5 million listeners, and counting). It has its own website (complete with original documents, photos, links), there’s a Reddit thread to follow, reviews in many major papers, and Slate magazine has spawned a podcast (a spoiler special) about the podcast itself (how meta). Recognizing how many people were listening to Serial, hashing it over, debating it, and questioning it Slate decided to bring those follow-on conversations to the air. They post their own interpretive podcast after each Serial episode.  It’s a perfect combination to first listen to an episode of Serial, then follow it with the companion Slate spoiler special.  It’s like seeing a controversial movie and then sitting down with Siskel and Ebert to hash it over.

I’m up to Episode 6 of Serial now.  Four more to go.  And they’ve announced they will do a second season – a new story presumably.  I can’t wait.

Additional stuff found online since:

Photos of the kids, the high school, maps of the area from the Huffington Post

Stephen Colbert’s interview with producer, Sarah Koenig.

Sarah Koenig interviewed on Fresh Air by Teri Gross.

Funny or Die parody of the last episode.

SNL’s paraody of Serial.


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Our Gender Bias

genderbiasWhen I first read the NYT headline, “Academic Science Isn’t Sexist” in the Sunday Review this weekend, I thought it was a joke. Or maybe an ironic goad to draw the reader in? But no. The authors, Wendy Williams and Stephen Ceci (both researchers at Boston University and Cornell, respectively) were completely serious.  They’ve just published a paper, Women in Academic Science: A Changing Landscape, with their colleagues, in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. That paper, summarized in the NYT op-ed piece, claims that there is no sexism in the science academy and that the under-representation of women in math-intensive science fields are “rooted in pre-college factors and the subsequent likelihood of majoring in these fields, and future research should focus on these barriers rather than mis-directing attention toward historical barriers that no longer account for women’s underrepresentation in academic science.”  The authors claim that it is all about personal choices that young girls make, opting for life sciences or other fields. In their published paper, they discuss the reasons why females make these choices and talk about the “perception” among new female PhDs and post docs that tenure track positions are not compatible with family formation.  The main thrust of the NYT piece is to say to these women – good news! science departments are great places to be as a woman and the whole gender-bias thing is over.

I did a double take. And then I quickly flipped back to the paper’s front page because, yes, in fact there was a front page article about sexism at Yale. Right there. In the same newspaper. A sexual harassment case that’s been unfolding at Yale Medical School for the last five years. Cardiology Chief, Michael Simons, made unwanted advances to a student Annarita Di Lorenzo (18 years his junior) that went on for years, undermining her career as well as her then-boyfriend’s.  Despite formal filings with the University-Wide Committee on Sexual Misconduct, Simons is still there and, though he admits that he made “an error in judgement by pursuing a junior colleague”, he claims that he has never abused his position of authority or leadership. Riiiight. Academic science departments are a great place to be as a woman. I’ve got to think that the NYT editors had a frisson of delight over the juxtaposition of these two articles. But I take little comfort from the fact that the Williams/Ceci article is an opinion piece and the Simons story is hard, cold fact. Gender inequality and bias are alive and well.

Shall we take a look at a few gems from the world of gender bias research?

Science Faculty Subtle Gender Bias Favors Male Students

Blind Orchestra Auditions Better for Women

Gender Bias in JAMA’s Peer Review Process

Bibliometrics:  Global Gender Disparities in Science

or, one of my personal favorites, Female Hurricanes are Deadlier Than Male Hurricanes.

One of the leaders in this area is the MIT researcher, Nancy Hopkins. From 1995-97, Dr. Hopkins chaired a committee at MIT that studied inequalities experienced by women science and math faculty as a result of unconscious gender bias. The summary report from that committee – known as the Report on Women Faculty in Science at MIT – is credited with launching a national re-examination of equity for women scientists.

In January 2005, at an NBER meeting in Cambridge, MA on the topic of how to address the under-representation of women and minorities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields, Dr. Hopkins rather famously walked out in protest during a talk given by then-Harvard University President, Larry Summers. In his address, Summers proposed that one reason for the very small number of high achieving women in science and engineering fields might be their lesser “intrinsic aptitude” for these subjects, relative to men. Subsequent news articles and reports about Summer’s speech set off a national discussion on gender discrimination, which ultimately was one factor leading to Summers’ resignation as the President of Harvard. Have we already forgotten the Larry Summers story?

Have a listen to Dr. Hopkins’ 2014 BU commencement address. Wendy Williams, were you there in the audience that day?

The sad fact is that gender bias is sneaky.  Sometimes it is overt and obvious (like Simons at Yale or Summers at Harvard) but often it’s hidden and sneaks up on us. Thoughts and impulses that are so deeply rooted they are outside our awareness – and often our control. Doubt your own gender bias?  Try taking the gender bias test at Project Implicit (Mazahran Banaji’s, Harvard University, amazing work).

Since Sunday, thoughtful science bloggers have taken deeper dives into the original paper by Ceci et al. and shared their analyses. This by Jonathan Eisen (UC Davis) (along with his nicely done Storify piece) and this by Emily Willingham who takes a close look at the data provided in the published article, reaching very different conclusions. Then there’s this, from Slate, published this morning. I’ve got to say, I’m looking forward with relish, to see what Letters to the Editor the NYT will publish as follow-ons.

It’s also interesting to note that Ceci et al only examined data with regard to women in math-intensive academic fields. By far and away more women (and men) who major in science enter jobs in industry, where gender bias rages with intensity and larger numbers – salary inequities, promotional dead-ends, sexual harassment, and an alarming paucity of women in leadership positions.

I can’t resist concluding this post with a pair of viral videos that add zest to the story and an important reminder that sexual harassment is all about power and control. The first, produced by Hollaback, shows excerpts from video recorded of a young woman, walking around the streets of New York City for 10 hours:

The second, from Funny or Die, a send-up of the first, with a man doing the same.  Click on the photo to travel to the video.

From Funny or Die.  Click to see the video.

From Funny or Die. Click to see the video.


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David Hockney, A Bigger Exhibition

David Hockney at the DeYoung.

David Hockney at the DeYoung.

If you live anywhere in the Bay Area and haven’t yet been to see the David Hockney exhibit, A Bigger Exhibition, currently at San Francisco’s DeYoung Museum, stop reading this right now and go.  It’s absolutely wonderful. And for those of you not fortunate enough to live in the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s plenty here to read about and explore online.

The exhibit includes 400 of his more recent works in many mediums, leveraging many methods – oils, cameras, water colors, charcoal, video, and iPads. Portraits of friends and family, portraits of museum guards, landscapes, and nature scenes from his childhood home in Yorkshire.

His use of multiple digital cameras and iPads is remarkable. Hands-down, my favorite part of the exhibit was a room hung with large iPad replicas. On the screens were various pictures Hockney created using the iPad app, Brushes. On some of the screens you watch as the image emerges (as if on fast forward), layer by layer, color by color.  I watched a bowl of peaches grow from a rough sketch to a fully dimensional, bowl of glowing orangey-yellowey-red orbs, so real I felt I could reach out and eat one.  I must have watched that progression through six times, studying the way the picture progressed – color applied, color removed, color blended or smudged, jumping from one part of the painting to another, testing and retrying, layering.  It was absolutely fascinating. When do you ever get to watch, time-lapse fashion, the creation of art from blank canvas to finished piece? As you can see in this photo, my fellow museum goers were similarly fascinated.  A thick knot of people stood for the longest time – rapt.

Congestion at the iPad display

Congestion at the iPad display

As you gaze at these recorded pictures, it becomes clear that Hockney works very quickly. In this Spencer Michael’s interview with the artist, Hockney says “any draftsman knows about speed, you can see the speed in Rembrandt’s drawings.  I think most painters paint faster than they will tell you.”  He calls the iPad a “terrific new medium – much better than Photoshop or other digital tools.  You can be very fast on an iPad, faster than watercolor.”

I was particularly struck by Hockney’s full command of the technology.  Not only did he master the printing methods of high-resolution imagery, multi-camera videos, and printing (many of the iPad creations were printed out on huge sheets of paper and put together like puzzles), but his full command of the Brushes application.  For instance, in one iPad painting of Yosemite, he seemed to create a stippling effect and then capture (save?) it and re-use it, much like a stamp, thereby creating a forest of pine trees here, here, and here. Quite apart from how impressive and beautiful the paintings were, the 76-year old Hockney dispels any thoughts we might harbor about digital tools being only for younger generations.

The Great Wall

The Great Wall

When you’re there, don’t miss the portion of the exhibit on the main floor (the exhibit is divided in two parts).  Here you’ll find one of the more fascinating artifacts of his research and work – the Great Wall. Created originally in his studio, it’s been recreated here for us to wander and absorb. On the wall, they’ve pinned 100’s of high-resolution, color print outs of classic paintings, hung in order of their creation, from Byzantine art to Van Gogh – a sort of painting timeline. Hockney created the wall in order to sit back, scan and absorb centuries of western painting in one go. To see them juxtaposed and collected. He crafted an order to the collection – Northern European paintings at the top, Southern Europe at the bottom – and looked for patterns. As he studied the timeline, an order began to emerge. He realized that at about 1420, there was a big change in western painting. At that point, it appears that artists could “suddenly” draw better. The images were clearer, more exact, with strong contrasts, more three dimensional. One could even say, the paintings had more of a photographic look. Hockney’s explanation for this sudden change is that artists began to use optic lenses to create their images.

An Unknown Couple, by Lorenzo Lotto

An Unknown Couple, by Lorenzo Lotto

One of the paintings on the Great Wall (by Lorenzo Lotto c.1545 – hanging in The Hermitage), shown here, gave clues to the artist’s use of a lens to create his painting.  Note the elaborate red cloth in the foreground, with a geometric design. When examined closely, Hockney noted an area of the cloth that is out of focus. A physicist friend of Hockney’s, Charles Falco, was able to use the size of the out-of-focus area to confirm that a lens had been used and to calculate the focal length and diameter of that lens. By using a lens to create the realistic looking cloth, the artist has to contend with a problem of geometric optics. When the focus moves from foreground to background, the scale changes.  Placed together, the two halves don’t match and so the artist is forced to paint that area of mismatch out of focus.

Camera Lucida app.

Camera Lucida app.

Hockney used this information to support his speculation that these 15th century painters made use of optics to create more realistic, life-like paintings.  But of course high quality large lenses weren’t available in this period of history. Falco explained that curved mirrors could serve as a lens – and curved mirrors were certainly available.  As you use the mirror to focus the sun’s rays, you form an image.  And if that image is aimed at a surface upon which the artist will draw, the artist will see the scene and the drawing surface simultaneously, allowing them to duplicate the key points of the scene and accurately render the precise perspective and detail. Interestingly, the size of the sweet-spot  image produced by a curved mirror is roughly 30 cm square – and that’s about the size of many of early Netherlands portraits at that inflection point.  This sort of optical device is know more commonly as a camera lucida.  Interestingly, there is now a Camera Lucida app for the iPad and the iPhone (I wonder if Hockney knows about that?).

In 2006, Hockney wrote a book, that later became a BBC television series, called Secret Knowledge in which he delves into this theory in great detail. Of course, the theory is not without controversy.  Some art historians take issue with Hockney’s explanation, claiming that the use of optical lenses has little value in explaining the overall development of western art. But it doesn’t seem that is Hockney’s claim. Using optical lenses of any variety would only be useful aids to someone who already was a skillful artist and would only be one tool in their impressive toolbox, relatively useless without the other skills they would need to render a breathtaking work of art. Besides, isn’t it delightful to contemplate the beautiful union of art and science implied by the idea?

All in all, a thoroughly satisfying exhibit.  Well worth a trip.

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My 2013 List of Lists

Banksey's "The Sirens of the Lambs"

Banksey’s “The Sirens of the Lambs”

One of the things I love most about this time of year is the irresistible crop of “best of” lists.  Such an indulgence. It’s fun to cast your mind back over the last year and reflect on books, movies, music, news events, plays, food… and indulge in a little comparison and evaluation.  Good stuff.

So, in a meta-sort-of-moment, here are my favorite “best of” lists….my 2013 list of lists.

National Public Radio’s Best Books of 2013.  With handy roll-overs to give you a helpful quote from a review of each book.

The Huffington Post presents the ten best Saturday Night Live skits of 2013.  Too bad the Paul Rudd & Vanessa Bayer skit when they can’t stop themselves from  dancing to a Fleetwood Mac ringtone couldn’t be put online – musical rights problems.

The Daily Beast presents the best art exhibits of 2013 and Design Boom’s choices for top ten art exhibits. Terrific photos.

I’ve become a big fan of NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert series, so for music, here is their 2013 in Tiny Desk Concerts and their 50 favorite albums of 2013 (with a song from each to play), and Billboard’s top 20 Critic’s Picks.

For the movies….here are the ten best films of 2013 according to Salon, Richard Brody’s picks (from the New Yorker) – he goes well past ten, and the top ten movie performances of the year.

Can’t have a list of lists without getting some of the more bewildering, offensive, and, well, just wrong things in there.  So here, thanks to Salon, are Fox News’ five most cringe-worthy moments of 2013.

Here are television’s most eye-popping moments of 2013, thanks to The Wrap.  Gotta love that roller dancing video with Stephen Colbert and Bryan Cranston.

The Associated Press’s top ten news stories of 2013 and The Independent’s news timeline of 2013.

How about SproutSocial’s top seven social media stories.  Interesting choices.

Ten funniest YouTube videos and the top viral videos of 2013.

Top ten gadgets from TechLand.

How about a look at Flowing Data’s best visualizations of 2013 (eye candy if there ever was some).

The editors of the science journal, Nature, picked these best science feature stories of 2013.

Wired Magazine always has intriguing collections.  Here’s their list of the top 13 Wired stories of 2013.

The Lives They Lived, a wonderful short profile series of intriguing people who died this year.

For a tasty treat, have read through the Year in Food – 15 stories of culinary innovation.

And let’s wrap this list up with the New York Times breathtaking Sunday Review’s Year in Pictures.


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Letter To Myself, 20 Years On

Letter to the future me.

Letter to the future me.

At 55, I am writing this post to my 75-year-old stuff.  If I make it to that age, I hope to remember that I wrote this and listen to me carefully.

Now that I’m edging into the far end of my life, I pay a lot more attention to the elderly. I listen carefully to my parents and elderly friends as they face difficult financial and medical decisions,  I attend to issues that sprout as they begin to stutter and fail, and I am keenly aware of the impact of decay on our everyday interactions and attitudes. While I’m still relatively spry and of sound mind, I want to lay down a marker for myself.  A reminder of the 40-50 year old perspective (the age of family members I’ll be most likely to interact with). I want to remember what makes it hard for them to be around the future me and what they most likely will want to hear.

Try not to talk so much about your health, ok? While it’s understandable – what with so many burgeoning conditions causing pain and so much of your days taken up with medical appointments – hearing about it really gets old. Unfortunately, there’s not much that your family and friends can do about your physical health, so don’t burden them with endless catalogues of what ails you, the medications you’re taking, the procedures you’ve undergone, or the symptoms that blossom. It’s not that you should lie about it – just try not to dwell on it.

Ask questions and be interested in the answers. Maybe it’s due to hearing loss or maybe it’s just that the elderly have more stories to tell but it seems to me that older people tend to tell long, rambling stories (most often based in the past) with few inlets for conversation or exchange. A little bit of that is ok, just don’t make a steady diet of it, future-me. Ask questions of the young people in your circle.  Find out what makes them tick, what are they reading, what music do they listen to, what are their hobbies, what’s hard about the work they do, what are their fears?

I hope you’ve nurtured your sense of humor, future self. Don’t take yourself or anyone else too seriously and have a laugh as often as you can.

Avoid revisionist history at all costs. There is nothing more tiresome than an older person explaining to a younger person why something was “so much better” when they were a kid. People weren’t more considerate, entertainment wasn’t more enriching, food didn’t taste better, and wars weren’t good. Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that “new” is worse than anything that’s come before it. It’s fine for you to remember your past fondly, but don’t make the mistake of robbing the current generations’ pleasures by comparing them to an inaccurate vision of your past, colored by the rosy glasses of time.

But mostly, future me, give those younger people around you some reasons for hope.  Some positive perspective on their future. They’re all worried about what it’s like and what lies in store for them. Reassure them and tell them its going to be ok. Even if you have to lie a little.


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Standing Together


The recent uproar in the science blogging community has gripped my attention and held it there.  There is so much to reflect on here; so much for all of us to learn and apply. Let me begin this post with a brief recap.

Scientific American has an impressive blog network – scientists who regularly blog about their work, sharing ideas, lines of inquiry, and research with the larger science community. Bora Zivkovic is the Blogs Editor for Scientific American. I’ve never met him but have heard of him. A very charismatic guy, high energy, talented – someone who really captured and leveraged the power of online communities for doing good in science. In addition to the blogging community he built an extremely popular and successful conference, ScienceOnline, designed to …”cultivate the way science is conducted, shared, and communicated online.”

Well, the uproar started about two weeks ago with a post from a woman named Danielle Lee who writes a regular blog for Scientific American called “The Urban Scientist”. On October 11, she posted an entry about being asked to blog for a different organization called  Lee asked the editor about the terms for the work. She opted to turn down the offer and the editor, assuming Lee declined because there would be no compensation for the work, asked her if she was “an urban scientist or an urban whore?”.  He actually asked her that. So Danielle created this pitch-perfect video response:

Scientific American took Danielle’s post down within an hour (!).  There was an outcry. Scientific American put it back up again three days later, tepidly claiming that they took it down in order to “verify the facts”.

Other women began blogging about similar treatment. Monica Byrne weighed in with an important update to an earlier blog entry about protracted sexual harassment that she’d originally posted without naming names. In the update she provided the name of the man who harassed her:  Bora Zivkovic. Zivkovic posted this apology, claiming that this was “not behavior that I have engaged with before or since.”  Really?

Then other women scientists started posting about their experiences with Zivkovic. Like this from Kathleen Raven. And this from Hannah Waters. And this summary article in Slate by Laura Helmuth. 1000’s of hits, Twitter came alive with it, science discussion groups on fire. And finally, weeks later, Zivkovic “resigned” his position at Scientific American. [10.23.13 update, the conversation has now made it to the New Yorker.]

I’ve been chewing on this all week, reading the commentary, trying to sort out my feelings and get some perspective.  While digesting, I’ve talked with many women friends and nearly all of them has a similar story to tell of harassment in their workplace or in school.  If you read the comments on the blog posts linked above, you’ll read similar stories of even more women. Each recounts some version of a power differential abused, a mentor relationship perverted, a predator zeroing in on his prey. And all of this happening on the heels of the excellent New York Times magazine piece, “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” dated October 6th.

I can’t help but think of Nancy Hopkins (a molecular biologist and cancer researcher at MIT) and her amazing work, advocating for women in science. After documenting a startling array of inequities and discrimination, Hopkins was appointed Chair of the Committee on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT in 1995.  The committee published a summary of their findings in 1999, which paved the way for much-needed reforms at MIT – and beyond [this video of a talk Nancy gave at University of Chicago on the subject is well worth watching]. Nancy acknowledges that women in STEM fields still encounter the same problems today, because (as she puts it) “you can not quickly change the thinking of every person who STILL undervalues women to men for equal work.” Still. So, I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that these young women scientists are telling a story that sounds so much like MIT in 1995. And so much like mine from 30 years ago.

Reading their accounts, I quickly coughed up the memory from my undergraduate experience.  I had a work-study job in my male-dominated science department office where I was harassed for months by a senior faculty member in the department. There was no touching, no violence, no threats…but there was a constant stream of inappropriate storytelling.  How unhappy he was in his marriage, how sexually frustrated he was, how misunderstood he felt.  He recounted embarrassing details of sex with his wife and waxed on about how much more he wanted from a sexual partner. I felt powerless to diffuse his approaches and instead, channeled my efforts into avoiding him or making sure I was never alone with him. When the department secretary had to leave the office, I would lock the door. When an errand required a stop at his office, I would ask someone to come with me. Like the stories of these women scientists, I felt completely powerless to do anything about it. It was indeed the insidious power of “not-quite-harassment”, as Hannah Waters put it so well. Nothing he did to me was illegal, there was no touching or violence, but it was wrong, wrong, wrong.  And even though I knew that it was wrong, I didn’t tell him to stop and I didn’t march to an authority and call him out.

Why?  Just as with the women in these blogs, the reasons are deep and complex. Let’s start with the obvious one for me:  30 years ago there was no credible “authority” to march to. Where would I go? What person in authority at my university would have taken me seriously and considered this faculty member’s action anything more than a harmless flirtation? I was operating in a completely male-dominated culture. There were no female faculty members in my department and often I was the only woman in my classes. From there, let’s move to the more nuanced and timeless reason behind the silence – the men in these stories are powerful and the women are less so.  Tenured professors to undergraduates, blog editors to bloggers, managers to employees.  Typically there’s  an age differential ….he is usually older and experienced while she is young, gullible, and uncertain.  He is credible, she is not.

In my situation, I know that there was one more thing.  At root, I thought that I was somehow at fault.  Each time he cornered me in the office, got waaay too close to me, or told me some sexual dissatisfaction story, I became more and more complicit. I just knew that if I complained to someone they would look at me askance – what had I done to encourage him?  Why hadn’t I said anything earlier?  And the longer it went on, the fewer options I felt I had. Complicating my situation was the unlikely fact that I felt sorry for him.  Even though he had me caught in this intractable bind, I knew he was pathetic and stunted. And that made it all the worse. This ongoing harassment impacted my own self respect and vision of myself. I started to doubt my own judgment (just who was pathetic, him or me?). In the long run, I know that this experience caused me to suspect that whatever progress I’d made was not based on my work or my abilities but on my perceived value as a sexual object, an adornment. And it took me many years (and a change in profession) to clear that up.

The thing is that these things happen all the time and no one talks about them.  It’s a rare thing for people to speak up when they’ve been victimized. The perpetrators are not called on their behavior and, therefore, patterns can not emerge and action to fix what’s broken is not taken. Are you as struck as I am by the similar patterns in these stories of abuse?  So many of them involve men talking inappropriately and graphically about their sexual dissatisfaction, as if over-sharing their deepest frustrations will unlock the heart (or other body part) of their victim.  The cunning way the perpetrator lures in the victim – a light flirtation, a confession, the allure of pointing out that you’re the only one who understands and then, whammo, before you know it, you’re ensnared in the whole nasty business (and they’re counting on that). And how about the harasser’s refusal to own it – even after he’s been outed? Denial. Blame shifting. A misunderstanding. Discounting. Only this one aberration. I would venture to bet that, even now, Zivkovic thinks that this is all a tempest in a teapot or perhaps he’s even gone so far to conclude that he is the victim. Or maybe he is learning. One hopes.

I suspect that nearly all women have had similar experiences (and not just in science) and I encourage them to speak out.  The most horrible damage done is the blow to the victim’s confidence.  The fear that she will not be taken seriously. Do I have this job only because I’m perceived of as a sexual object? Do my contributions really matter? And the best way to combat that damage is to hear, to understand, and to recognize the pattern in the stories of others. Hearty kudos to these brave women for speaking up in such a balanced, constructive way.  It’s not easy to sort this out. How do we define behavior borders? What makes for harassment? And what do you do when you encounter it?  Danielle, Monica, Kathleen, and Hannah – I value your stories, respect your courage, and will pass along your wisdom to everyone I know. And while I’m being grateful, let me also thank the internet – for the blogs, for Twitter, for the networked communities that made it possible to share and amplify the conversation so effectively.

Onward. Can we arrive at a way of being where we respect and honor each other? Complimentarity. Where our interactions, regardless of a power divide, are additive. An indivisible whole.

10.28.14 Update:  Nature posts an editorial on the subject.


Filed under Reflections