Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Archive for August, 2010

The Drawbacks of the Deficit Model

Posted by Athene Donald on August 31, 2010

Following on from my recent post, and my remarks about not being a shrinking violet, let me take up the theme of the ‘deficit model’ discussed in a recent post by my erstwhile colleague and WiSETI project officer Esther Haines on her own blog.  The deficit model and the interventions used to overcome the resulting problems were described by Carol Muller as follows:

“… interventions have been characterized as efforts that focus on a “deficit” model, in which it is assumed that these individuals lack something—ability, experience, interest, inspiration, motivation—that they need in order to succeed. In this model, attention is paid to mitigating that deficit, typically by providing programs—summer camps, internships, remedial courses, special study groups, mentoring programs, social opportunities, seminars, evening programs, etc.”

This has the danger of making women feel they are the problem, rather than the problem lying in the culture that expects everyone to be the same i.e. in this case, male.  By being told I am ‘not a shrinking violet’ I hear the statement both that I ought or am expected to be one, and that I stand out, for the wrong reasons, by not being one.  To my mind that is a trivial example of the deficit model: if I were male I would be ‘forceful’ and that would be OK.

Positive actions to overcome the perceived deficit can indeed be constructive: workshops to build up confidence may be helpful and WiSETI runs some locally, as do many groups.  (Although positive action itself can have a negative side to it, and can be perceived as getting dangerously close to positive discrimination.  As last week’s THE pointed out, there is something of a backlash against any such actions ongoing from white males).  But the organization itself needs to change structurally, from the top, so that differences between the genders – or race, or whatever it might be – do not per se form a criterion on which judgments are made. This is what mainstreaming is all about, and again locally we are pursuing this path.

Let me give a small, but significant example. In the university’s promotion forms we have traditionally had a place for people to give details of what were known as special circumstances. Typically, this was to permit people to say they had taken time out for childbirth/maternity leave, though it also made it possible for other circumstances such as long term sickness to be declared. The University is changing the wording this year to additional circumstances. So, you no longer need to feel you are somehow different and need special treatment simply because you’ve had a baby, or a career break, and it will probably also help men to feel more comfortable declaring their own caring responsibilities. These are events that happen on top of one’s work, but they don’t need to imply you will be singled out for careful scrutiny because you are ‘special’.  The new wording should make such declarations feel less threatening.  We will see.

I have been horrified to hear, from women within my university, that in the past they have been explicitly advised by line managers including heads of department that they should simply not fill in the box at all, not admit to having had a baby/time out. I find this astonishing and unhelpful as a straightforward explanation of why there may be a hiatus in publishing seems to me to be much more constructive than a visible but unexplained hiatus which will be interpreted as someone having an ‘off’ period in their research.  As ever, actions that help everyone are likely to help women proportionately more, but by widening what is admissible I hope that parenting more generally will be seen as normal and work-life balance considerations will no longer be off the radar. But then, maybe I’m an optimist.

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Posted in Equality, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Physics Meets Biology

Posted by Athene Donald on August 30, 2010

I am off to the Institute of Physics’ Physics Meets Biology meeting in Oxford later this week, organised by the Biological Physics Group, whose committee I have chaired for the last 3 years. We held our first meeting (with the same name and also in Oxford) 2 years ago, and I enjoyed it immensely. I would like to think it was a sparkling success; it certainly succeeded in bringing physicists and biologists together, and showcasing the many different strands that make up the field. I am hoping this years’ conference will be just as exciting and stimulating and, looking at the cast of international speakers we have, kicking off with Frank Jülicher, I am very optimistic. These meetings are wonderful opportunities to hear about work away from one’s immediate area and to meet people who share the same basic philosophy but work on different systems or use different tools. I hope we have a good turnout, despite the financial gloom!

The BPG was formed about 3 1/2 years ago, and has managed to get off to an excellent start in bringing the UK community together. Nevertheless, it is hard to reach all the people one wants – who may not be in Physics departments or members of the IOP, and so may not be aware of what we are up to. Aside from organising meetings  (which have ranged from this, our showcase event every 2 years, to  joint meetings with other groups in the IOP, to joint meetings with other organisations, and to simple 1 day events simply for our own members) we have other ongoing activities. One, very much driven by the IOP, is to try to prepare some teaching material to help those departments who don’t have staff who are confident to teach biological physics in any form. The lack of staff in many departments was an issue highlighted by the International Review of  Physics in 2005, and was one of the drivers for our group being set up. Another is to keep dialogue going with the research councils, notably the EPSRC and BBSRC, to make sure our discipline doesn’t fall through the cracks between the research councils, something our members are extremely concerned about. In the spring we were delighted when the EPSRC broadened the Physics remit explicitly to include Biological Physics.

Interdisciplinary meetings are a great pleasure and they each have their own particular slant.  There are various groupings in the UK which ostensibly cover some of this field, loosely termed biophysics (which I would distinguish from Medical Physics). The British Biophysical Society – who celebrated 50 years of existence earlier this summer with a major conference here in Cambridge – have their emphasis in a rather different place from BPG, and their meeting stressed biochemistry and structural biology much more than I would expect to see in Oxford. Each community needs its own focus, but it is important we maintain dialogue between the organisations, as indeed we try to do. Nevertheless I am sure that BPG has its own unique space and community, and I look forward to its continued growth and success. I have thoroughly enjoyed chairing the BPG committee for the last 3 years, and have found it a very rewarding task, but will now be passing the baton on after the elections at our AGM.

Posted in Biological Physics | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

What does Delusions of Gender tell us?

Posted by Athene Donald on August 28, 2010

Delusions of Gender is a book that is clearly going to stir up a lot of interest from both sides of the nature-nurture debate. Are girls’ brains hardwired differently from boys at birth, due to the testosterone surge at 8 weeks in the womb, or are the perceived differences all due to the way male and female children are treated as they grow up? A quick look at reviews on the web shows the predictable spread of reactions from the ultraconservative to the more measured. Starting at the ultraconservative end of the spectrum we find Australian Oz dismissing the author Cordelia Fine as ‘It turns out that she is a feminist with standard, orthodox ideas about autonomy’ and by implication can’t be taken seriously . The article goes on to say ‘Feminists sometimes claim that they are all for choice for women. But Cordelia Fine is yet another feminist who ends up pushing one option alone. Because she sees autonomy as the great prize, and careers as the way to get autonomy, she treats the motherhood option as an inferior, low-status pursuit associated negatively with oppression and inequality.’

The more measured tones of the Guardian says ‘In short, our intellects are not prisoners of our genders or our genes and those who claim otherwise are merely coating old-fashioned stereotypes with a veneer of scientific credibility.’ But what got me stirred up to write this post was the rather desperate and miserable young female scientist blogger who says ‘In it, the author throws down a gauntlet, taking particular aim at studies claiming that gender differences in ability are primarily biological. I’m glad to see books like this, in the sense that I think there are far too many people (okay, mostly men) out there who need convincing. However, I’m not sure that they’ll be convinced by anything like this….But for those who don’t have an open mind about the question, I’m not convinced that battling it out is going to help anyone. I’m so tired of fighting all the time….’

There are so many issues tied up in the nature-nurture debate, so many issues about ‘good’ parenting, that it looks as if people will simply take what they want from this book and use it to support their own position. Reading yet another review which focused on whether there are or are not sex differences in the corpus callosum structure reminded me of the furious debate between Owen and Huxley on just how substantial difference were – or were not – between human and gorilla brains (see Nicolaas Rupke’s extensive discussion in ‘Richard Owen: Biology without Darwin’) – and ultimately it was a matter of definition more than fact. It would appear that if human brains (or parts thereof) are so hard to size in a statistically meaningful way to tell just how different the male and female brains actually are, this will prove fertile ground for argument for a long time to come. And, as has frequently been said in many contexts, does size really matter anyhow?

But how do we move forward to anywhere fruitful, when many of the issues that youngfemalescientist feels she is fighting against are nothing to do with the size or wiring of the brains per se. It is what people do with those brains in recognizing what underlies their take on things that matters. Too often women find themselves at the end of unconsciously demeaning remarks (youngfemalescientist in that particular blog was complaining about the way people assumed, as a woman, she might be content to be a professor’s right hand person, running their lab but without independence, and she couldn’t imagine that position being proposed for a male in her position). And it is the fact that the speaker was unconscious of the offence being caused which makes this such a hard problem to solve.

It happens all too frequently. Most women, in science and beyond, will have phrases that stick in their mind as being offensive, while knowing simultaneously that offence was not really intended, as in that example above. My own particular hate is ‘you’re not a shrinking violet’. I find it offensive because it implies that actually, as a woman, I was expected to be exactly that – a shrinking violet. Is there a male equivalent? I asked a good colleague, a male, and he said the equivalent would be wimp, but it is hard to see a man being told after a committee meeting ‘well you weren’t a wimp’. Somehow I imagine the conversation would be more likely to go along the lines of ‘you were very forceful’ or ‘that was a strong argument’. In other words the positive is stressed, rather than the idea that you weren’t something that, actually, you didn’t want to be anyhow. Who wants to be a violet, shrinking or otherwise? But for the time being women such as youngfemalescientist may have to continue fighting to be allowed not to be one.

Posted in Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

What is required for successful interdisciplinary working?

Posted by Athene Donald on August 26, 2010

Yesterday I cycled over to the Addenbrookes Site for a meeting with Maria Spillantini of the Brain Repair Unit. She is particularly interested in Parkinson’s Disease, and we were discussing the nature of protein aggregation in Lewy Bodies – abnormal filamentous deposits. In disease, these are located in some nerve cells which are believed to degenerate as a result. Alpha-synuclein is the major component of the Lewy Bodies and the filaments do not stain with Congo Red, unlike the typical amyloid fibrils of diseases such as Alzheimer’s Disease.  To what extent my physicist’s approach to such protein aggregation may be helpful in unraveling the make-up of the Lewy Bodies is what we were discussing: they have complex morphologies, with a clear central region which stains differently (and is clearly visible in transmission electron micrographs too) from the outer regions, but a detailed understanding of what these different regions are or why they form is lacking.  It was a fascinating discussion and we explored possible ways to take the work further.

Once back in my office I was trying to type up my notes when I realized how many basic facts about the deposits, their location and what is known about the relevant pathways I had neglected to ask.   These weren’t research-type questions; they were probably ‘Parkinson’s Disease 101’ type questions, but my education had not included exposure to that material. And this exemplifies a well-known problem in trying to tackle interdisciplinary research. Sometimes it is jargon or nomenclature one lacks knowledge of, sometimes as in this case it is simply basic facts, but there is always a large amount of groundwork to do for truly interdisciplinary collaborations to take off.  It takes time and effort to forge good collaborations and to learn sufficient background to interpret what the other party is saying.

Some years ago I attended a meeting at the Royal Society discussing how best to prepare for interdisciplinary working. The question was asked was it preferable to be educated in a specialist subject (physics, zoology etc), or should one be educated at undergraduate level in a little bit of all the subjects, so that one was ‘interdisciplinary’, or perhaps better ‘multidisciplinary’ from the start of one’s  higher education? The consensus then, and I would still agree with it, was that it was better to be thoroughly and rigorously trained in a single subject, to become an expert in it, and then to learn what one needs to interact with other disciplines as required later – by which time you know what topics you need to cover. From my own past work on food, which exposed me to food scientists and their degree courses, I think it is clear that for many of them did not have the tools to address some fundamental questions because they were necessarily in the jack-of-all trades mould. This approach is very useful for some situations, and may certainly prepare food science graduates for work in their industry, but it does not necessarily facilitate tackling novel research.

Posted in Biological Physics, Interdisciplinary Science | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Bad – and maybe some Good – Science

Posted by Athene Donald on August 26, 2010

This week’s THE has an article about mainstream science reporting (Trial by Error) and the quality, or lack thereof, has been the subject of many recent discussions on many blogs and in the mainstream press.  It also ties into issues about Scientific Literacy , in other words what we can expect the average member of the public to understand.  However the issue about science reporting is slightly different from simple literacy, in that the former is both about what the journalist is able to grasp (and therefore to report accurately), and about what the drivers for their reporting may be; these drivers are not solely about accuracy but rather forcibly tied into selling newspapers.  For some newspapers the two may mesh (as Mark Henderson of the Times says in the THE article, “There are some newspapers that are very concerned about getting things right as far as possible while still presenting accessible reporting for a general audience – which is entirely possible to do – and there are other media outlets that may take a different approach as to how they attempt to sell themselves.” ), but not for all. The Times is a much more responsible organisation on this front than some other newspapers one could name, for which the two drivers may be poles apart.

I am a late convert to the idea that scientists cannot simply avoid talking to the media because they are worried their science may be misrepresented (see my recent comments on Hilary Sutcliffe’s blog), having previously been personally burnt by bad experiences. But I now realise that this isn’t a good enough excuse not to try to engage.  And I also accept the arguments in the THE article that the unremittingly negative tone of Ben Goldacre’s writing is by now backfiring, however instructive his deconstruction of much of the Bad Science he reports may be.  However, one of the challenges is to find ways of celebrating good science in ways that aren’t immediately spun as the sort of hype that we see so often as ‘scientists find X cures cancer ‘.  Perhaps my recent experiences have been fortunate in that I am now interviewed as a female scientist, not a scientist. This seems to allow me to talk about the broader context of  my science , and to be allowed to specify I am doing underpinning science rather than discovering the Answer to Everything.  Or maybe I really learnt something from media training!  Nevertheless it has given me an opportunity to explain why I enjoy science as well as why the science I do may be useful.  Opportunities  to demonstrate that scientists are people, and not dangerous nerds who can’t be trusted , is to be seized in my view.

Posted in Communicating Science | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »