Popular Science Books on My Reading List

When I first started this blog (2 years ago, can you believe it?!), I wrote a blog post about 5 popular science books that I recommend to anyone who dares to ask me about the subject. That post had a really good response, and since then I’ve been reviewing books on this blog individually after I’ve read them. I’ve been reading lots recently, but more fiction than non-fiction, which has left me with a pile of popular science books that I still need to get to. I’m not sure which I want to tackle first – I just want to read them all, so I figured I’d list them here, and then if any of you have read and enjoyed them you can let me know.

Invisible women: exposing data bias in a world designed for men by Caroline Criado Perez

From the inside cover:
“Imagine a world where your phone is too big for your hand, where your doctor prescribes a drug that is wrong for your body, where in a car accident you are 47% more likely to be seriously injured, where every week the countless hours of work you do are not recognised or valued. If any of this sounds familiar, chances are that you’re a woman.”

This. Sounds. Incredible.

(and rage inducing)

I preordered this book a few months ago and totally forgot about it. When it landed on my doorstop I did a little squeal of excitement, but now I’ve seen eeeeeeeveryone talking about it on Twitter and I’m nervous that it’s not going to live up to my expectations. Does anyone else get that?

The only woman in the room: why science is still a boys’ club by Eileen Pollack

This is another book that looks like it’s going to make me rage – there’s a theme beginning to form here..

I bought this book when I went to Powell’s City of Books in Portland last year, and despite carrying it all the way across the Atlantic Ocean, it’s been tucked away on my bookshelf since then. It looks like a book I’ll love (and again, rage as a result of), and I’m excited to get to this one. It was named one of the notable non-fiction books of 2015 by the Washington Post, and it focusses on Eileen Pollack’s quest to find out why, even now, relatively few women pursue careers in what she calls ‘the hard sciences’. I really dislike that dichotomy of ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ sciences, because it implies that there’s a difference in quality, rigour and as a result, respect for and value of. To be clear, I don’t think that there is; so-called soft sciences should be equally as valued as so-called hard sciences – both can be done badly, and both can be done well. Poor phrasing won’t stop me reading this though – I’ll just be mindful of Pollack’s potential biases when I’m reading it.

The war on science: who’s waging it, why it matters, what we can do about it by Shawn Otto

This is another book I carted home with me from Portland, and at 514 pages it’s not the lightest.. I think it’s size is the reason why I haven’t read it yet – it weighs a tonne and the quotes on the back emphasis how ‘well researched’ it is, which is a good thing, but it’s making me hesitate to pick it up in case it’s really dry and full of jargon. Given the subject matter, I really hope that’s not the case!

I’ve never seen anyone talk about this book either. It doesn’t have many reviews on Amazon or GoodReads, but the reviews that are there seem good.
Have any of you read it? I think I need someone to rave about it to finally convince me to start reading.

A guide to making science matter: Escape from the ivory tower by Nancy Baron

I ordered this book after speaking to Jim Handman; science journalist, Executive Director of the Science Media Centre in Canada and former senior producer of science radio show Quirks and Quarks. Jim is kind of a big deal when it comes to science journalism, so when he recommended this book I bought it straight away.
Nancy Baron is a communications coach with an incredible track record, and I am SO excited to read this. From the back, “No one understands scientists the way Nancy Baron does. This book helps connect the worlds of science, journalism, and policy in very entertaining and insightful ways. If you care about linking science with action, this is the book to read.” (Pam Matson, Scientific Director of the Leopold Leadership Program, Woods Institute for the Environment and Dean of the School of Earth Sciences Stanford University).

I already feel like I’m recommending this book before I’ve read it. This is on my April reading pile so expect a review relatively soon.

The state of medicine by Margaret McCartney

Another of Margaret McCartney’s books, ‘The Patient Paradox: Why Sexed Up Medicine is Bad for Your Health’ was included in the 5 science books blog post I mentioned earlier, and this is McCartney’s newest book. Released in 2016, this looks at the NHS – in my opinion, the best thing about the UK.
The back of the book claims that ‘the NHS is the closest thing the UK has to a national religion’, the reason behind that being that it unites people across social and class divides. This book isn’t an ode to the NHS though, it’s about the financial strain that the service is under, and the political decisions that have led to the situation we now find ourselves in.
I love Margaret McCartney, I’ve fangirled about her on this blog before, and I know this book will not disappoint.

If there are any of these books that you’d like to see me review, let me know and I’ll try to make those a priority!

‘Science Has No Gender!’ …But Does It Have a Race?

Today, February 11th, is International Day for Women and Girls in Science. Today is a day to promote full and equal access to and participation in science for women and girls. I’ve talked about women in science on this blog before, and honestly, I wasn’t planning on writing a blog post at all today. I figured I’d just be repeating myself, and at the same time I’m sort of thinking that I’m preaching to the converted – most of the people that read this (as far as I know), are pretty happy with initiatives to improve working environments and opportunities for women in science.

(A note before I start – when I refer to ‘women in science’, I mean every person that identifies as a woman, whether that’s the gender they were assigned at birth or not. To be honest, celebrating and encouraging non-binary people in science should be included in the International Day… title too, but I don’t think the world (i.e. the UN and UNESCO) have come that far yet. That’s a fight for another blog post, but know it’s something that we as a community should be aware of.)

So, why am I writing this blog post at all? Well, today I had a bloody brilliant day. I went to We’re The Furballs – the dog petting cafe that I mentioned in a blog post a few days ago. I was feeling pretty happy with myself because yesterday I did lots of cool science/art related exploration for my Fellowship, and today was a break day that featured a corgi called Waffles, a toy poodle called Lulu, and a sausage dog called Slinky. I also went book shopping, and found the local Sephora – all in all an excellent Monday. That being said, I stopped for ice cream on the way home from the dog petting cafe, and checked Twitter. At the top of my timeline was a post from Hana Ayoob (if you’re not following her, I suggest you remedy that immediately – she also has a wonderful Etsy store) drawing attention to this:

Does anything about UNESCO’s tweet look a little off to you?

No, I’m not talking about spelling errors or unfortunate hashtags, I’m talking about the fact that every single woman in their graphic is white. This made me really, really frustrated. So frustrated in fact that I pretty much forgot about the whole dog petting cafe thing for about 10 minutes.

The whole “we need more women in science” thing is one thing that irritates me on a consistently low level – telling women that we need them in science is not going to make them build a career in science. When I was a teenager choosing my options for subjects at school, the fact that I might be selecting subjects that would push me into a field where there would be less women than men did not encourage me to choose STEM subjects. I wanted to know that women in science were given the same opportunities as men, and the fact that there was (and still is) a shortage of women in science did not fill me with confidence on that front.

ANYWAY. Back to the issue with the graphic above. It’s terrifying that I feel the need to say this, but all women are not able bodied slim white women. This fact should not come as a shock.

If the 7.5 billion people in the world was represented by just 100 people:

50 would be women
50 would be men

60 Asians
16 Africans
14 people from the Americas
10 Europeans

1 would be dying of starvation
11 would be undernourished
22 would be overweight

So if we’re going by what the world looks like, even 1 out of the 5 women in the graphic being white would be an over-representation.

The representation of women in science in the media needs to change. It’s really not that hard – look at the image below.

Image credit: Intersectional Rosie the Riveter Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Every single young girl should be able to find someone that she identifies with, and that she can look up to.

If you’re asked to name a woman in science, only being able to name Marie Curie, Rosalind Franklin or Ada Lovelace, isn’t a good thing! All of the women in science that I’m seeing being held up as champions and ‘inspirations’ to get girls interested in science are white. That’s not ok.

I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white women just like I don’t want to work in an environment that is full of white men. I want to work in an environment that is multicultural, heavily diverse, and full of passionate people of all genders, shapes, hues and sizes, feeling supported in the work that they are doing.

I’ve just written 300 words to explain why working in diverse environments is good for science, but I’ve deleted them because we should not be pushing for diversity because it’s good for science. We should be doing it because it’s human decency. As a cisgender able bodied white woman, I am absolutely done trying to explain the advantages of diversity to other privileged people; opening science up to everyone is just fucking ethical.

From UNESCO’s website: “This Day is a reminder that women and girls play a critical role in science and technology communities and that their participation should be strengthened. The celebration is led by UNESCO and UN-Women, in collaboration with institutions and civil society partners that promote women and girls’ access to and participation in science.

UNESCO, here’s a reminder that all women and girls play a critical role in science, not just the slim able bodied white women that you have used your sizeable platform to highlight. Do better.

Image credit: Nevertheless We Persist Print from Tyler Feder’s Roaring Softly Etsy store

Why I Think Scientists Should Take Inspiration from the Likes of Kylie Jenner

I have been gently simmering about this for over a week, so I’m getting my thoughts out – be warned, this is a long blog post. It may not be the most coherent piece of writing I’ve ever done (if anything, I hope it isn’t – that award should go to my PhD thesis – yep, still talking about it!) but I hope it gives people something to think about.

A few weeks ago the New York Daily News Twitter account shared this tweet:

People were not happy. I don’t follow New York Daily News on Twitter, but I was aware of this tweet because people that I do follow (colleagues, scientists, academics, people I think are brilliant (highlights include Louis Theroux and Stacey Dooley), and lots of PhD students) were retweeting it or responding to it. The majority of these responses were from PhD students and scientists describing what they are doing with their lives in increasingly condescending and belittling ways. I’m paraphrasing, but a lot of the responses that I saw were along the lines of:

  • “I’m in grad school working to try and find a cure for cancer.”
  • “I’m getting my PhD at X institute, and my research aims to improve quality of life for people with X disease.”
  • “I do research for X charity which is aiming to improve treatment for X disease, X many people die from it every year.”

Alongside this weird moral one-upmanship, a lot of the responses critiqued the post’s use of the term ‘self-made’.
If you don’t know who Kylie Jenner is, she isn’t someone who has grown up with nothing – she is the half-sister of media giant Kim Kardashian, and she’s featured on the show Keeping Up With The Kardashians for years. Kim Kardashian was first made ‘famous’ by the release of a sex tape in 2007. Since then, Kim Kardashian (now Kim Kardashian West – she married Kanye West in 2014) has launched various businesses, accrued 58.5million Twitter followers, published a book made entirely of selfies, been on the front cover of Vogue magazine, and lots more. It’s fair to say that Kylie Jenner has had a very privileged upbringing.

The responses that really frustrated me though, included jibes about her half-sister’s sex tape, the fact that Kylie posts revealing photographs on Instagram, and that she’s had cosmetic procedures like lip fillers.

What exactly has it got to do with us (as scientists) if she’s showing what is considered ‘too much’ on Instagram? Personally, I think it’s completely up to her, and if she feels comfortable with her body then why shouldn’t she flash a little side boob every now and again?! I don’t do that on my own social media profiles, but it’s got literally nothing to do with me what Kylie Jenner posts. In the same vein – so what if she’s had lip fillers? She was insecure about an aspect of her appearance (which likely came from years of being dragged by the media), she was an adult, and she made the decision to change that. The key bit here is that it’s her decision. Her decision has nothing to do with anyone else.
The reference to Kim Kardashian’s sex tape is troubling because initially it was leaked, she never released it herself. She initially sued the company that had it to prevent its release – she later settled out of court, but this essentially started out as a case of revenge porn. That’s not something that anyone wants, ever. Who are we to question what Kim Kardashian (and the rest of her family) then did to capitalise on it? Plenty of people have had sex tapes released to the public; very, very few of them are now as a successful as Kim Kardashian and co. Their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

In addition to this, Kylie has made the majority of her money from her own cosmetics line; Kylie Cosmetics. Many of those same people (overwhelmingly PhD students and early career researchers) that were tweeting their moral superiority in comparison to Kylie Jenner, also regularly take part in campaigns to support women in science, to prove that women in science are just as entitled to hold prominent roles in scientific disciplines as men are, and to break stereotypes about the ‘type’ of person that a scientist is.
This time last year there was a big Twitter campaign to try and get cosmetics company Benefit to change an advertising campaign that suggested that girls should ‘skip class, not concealer’. I wrote about my thoughts on that campaign here (spoiler alert: what a dumb marketing move, girls are perfectly capable of wearing makeup (or not) and going to class as well). In response to that campaign, people tweeted their makeup filled selfies (myself included: below) and discussed how their looks are not linked to their intelligence. So, why are those same people bashing Kylie Jenner for everything she does? I understand that the wording of the original tweet that started this post wasn’t great ‘What are you doing with your life?’ is not a useful or fair quip, but the responses demonstrate that people are not just against what the New York Daily News started, they’re calling Kylie out for simply doing what she wants to. They’re being unfair and condescending to Kylie’s intelligence just as the Benefit Cosmetics campaign was condescending to women and girls that chose to wear makeup.

This constant bashing of media stars like the Kardashians and Kylie and Kendall Jenner isn’t cool. They are a family of strong and powerful women, and they have created an entire empire based on one family member’s sexual encounter with a guy I’m betting you’ve only heard of in conjunction with Kim Kardashian. I’m not saying that I’m a fan of the Kardashians or Jenner and her sister – I don’t want Keeping Up With The Kardashians, I don’t follow any of them on social media, and I care very little about what they do or say. In fact, sometimes the things that they do and say actively annoy me; I’ve previously written about how Kendall Jenner’s pushing of so-called detox teas is shite, the whole Kardashian crowd have been known to advertise vitamin gummy bears, and recently Kim Kardashian advertised the use of ‘appetite suppressant’ lollipops. None of those things are good, and the fact they regularly pedal poor science is damaging, but the backlash against the Kylie Jenner tweet wasn’t about that – scientists and PhD students were using it as a way to show their moral superiority. In the process, I argue that they lost any moral high ground they may have had.

So, instead of calling Kylie out for how she makes money, I think that there are things that scientists and researchers can and should learn from her and the rest of the Kardashian family; their success is not simply down to a leaked sex tape 10 years ago, it is down to well crafted business deals and knowing how to use the media to your advantage.

Using the media to your advantage is something that, in general, I don’t think scientists are very good at. Talking as a scientist, I think we’re too close to our research, too precious about the way that details are reported, and I think we find it difficult to let go of the fact that the public do not need (and often don’t want) to know every minute detail about what we do – often, they want a story, some emotion, and an outline of what we do that they can understand and repeat to their mates. I don’t say that in a belittling way; when I go to science engagement events that’s exactly what I want – I don’t care about how many chemicals you used or how the powder you used had to be weighed in a special container, I want to know what that should mean to me, and how your work could impact on my life.

The Kardashians and Jenners show us how to turn any situation into an opportunity, they demonstrate how women should be confident and proud of their bodies, they teach us about feminity and gender by taking ownership of their sexuality, and perhaps most importantly they are marketing magicians. Science needs more of that.

To close on a lighter note. Some responses to the Kylie Jenner tweet were brilliant, this was a personal highlight:

 

Women in STEM: Events, Challenges – and Why?

I haven’t touched on any political or religious topics on this blog, I haven’t spoken about money or what I think of Donald Trump, and largely I think people believe that feminism belongs in that same pile of topics you-just-don’t-talk-about. I don’t agree.

Feminism is important, and the process of explaining my views, beliefs and actions to help support other women, especially in the scientific community, is necessary. So this week’s blog post is going to be a bit of a brain dump of thoughts inspired by events and conversations over the past week – the week of International Women’s Day. I hope it ends up being a cohesive piece about why supporting women in STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) is a positive and useful thing to do, rather than the feminist rant that’s in my head.

Let’s start with some nice news:

This week I was told I’ve been accepted to take part in Soapbox Science‘s Edinburgh event this July. In their own words: “Soapbox Science is a novel public outreach platform for promoting women scientists and the science they do. Our events transform public areas into an arena for public learning and scientific debate; they follow the format of London Hyde Park’s Speaker’s Corner, which is historically an arena for public debate. With Soapbox Science, we want to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy, learn from, heckle, question, probe, interact with and be inspired by some of our leading scientists. No middle man, no powerpoint slide, no amphitheater – just remarkable women in science who are there to amaze you with their latest discoveries, and to answer the science questions you have been burning to ask.

I’m going to be talking about clinical trials – why take part in a trial, how participation might be beneficial, and what happens if not enough people take part in clinical trials. It’s not designed to be a propaganda piece, or a talk to try and get people to take part in trials; just an opportunity for me to talk about the work I do and the reasons why I think it’s important, and a chance for members of the public to ask questions and take part in a discussion. There’ll be 11 other women scientists there talking about their own work, and I’m really looking forward to learning about what they do too.

And an online engagement activity for women in STEM:

This month, The STEM Squad are running a photo a day challenge on Instagram – take a look at their Instagram account here. In their own words, they are “An inclusive community of femme-identifying STEM professionals and enthusiasts“. The challenge involves people posting a photograph each day for the whole of March (including #WEARESTEMSQUAD), with the aim of showing the many sides of women in STEM. As I write this it’s currently day 10 and I’ve managed to keep up, I’ve really enjoyed seeing everyone’s posts and following what they get up to each day. It’s so cool to see what every does, how different each career is, and what we all like to do outside of the labs/offices/fields that we’re in day-to-day.

The themes covered in the Instagram challenge are in the picture above, so take a look at the hashtag and join in if you haven’t already!

I was talking to a friend earlier on in the week about the Soapbox Science event and The STEM Squad challenge, and she (very innocently) said, ‘Why is it just for women though? That seems a bit unfair.’

My initial response was to be a bit stroppy – why does every event that involves only women get the whole ‘why not men?’ argument thrown back at it, why can’t we just do stuff as a group of women supporting each other?! The more I thought about it, the more I calmed down. Maybe women in STEM get this weird backlash because people don’t understand the point of why we’re doing these events, these public engagement activities and challenges online. I figured this was a good place to talk about it (Twitter was out because of that time I tweeted about a BBC Three documentary called Men At War and got trolled for at least a fortnight ).

Women are not represented equally in the STEM workforce, in fact the percentage of women in science professional occupations dropped from 50% in 2015 to 41% in 2016. That gives a slightly skewed picture though; 41% isn’t so bad, right? Perhaps, but that 41% isn’t consistent across the board:

  • Only 18% of people in ICT professional occupations are women
  • Only 8% of people in Engineering professional occupations are women
  • Only 14% of people in management positions in Science, Engineering and Technology are women

Being a woman in STEM is not easy – personally I’ve people who are shocked when I say I’m doing a PhD, ‘but you’re blonde!’ like, really? I’m pretty sure that my hair colour has no relationship with my intelligence (feel free to correct me with a methodologically-outstanding randomised trial). Largely though, I haven’t experienced any sort of discrimination at all, just a whole host of supportive and brilliant colleagues with a view weird comments thrown in.

For others though, being a woman in STEM is really tough, and the comments and discrimination women receive puts them off being in STEM altogether, there’s a genuine gender wage gap, and there’s even research to show that women who work in male-dominated workplaces experience heighted levels of interpersonal, workplace stressors.

It’s important to even this gender imbalance out and create equal opportunities for both men and women. Doing events and drawing attention to the problem is one way to try and push that process forward. Creating a positive and welcoming environment for people to learn, ask questions, and actually see what women in STEM look like (see also #actuallivingscientist and #dresslikeawoman), can make a real difference for the next generation of STEM workers.