Janet is here to tell us about perceptions and misconceptions about women in science, and why female scientists can inspire great stories. Take it away, Janet!
Marie Curie, one of the only woman scientists people can ever seem to name off the top of their heads.
I’m glad to be at the home of adventures in science and storytelling today. Thank you Katie.
What do students expect a woman scientist to be?
During my years as a professor in the biological sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, many students admitted to me that I was not what they expected. When I asked what they expected, they always stuttered. These were the points that they admitted; I suspect the points they didn’t admit would be more interesting. They expected me to:
• Be gray-haired and to look dumpy,
• Not always have a Diet Coke can or two on my desk and a bag of cans ready for recycling in the corner,
• Be more proper, less frank, in my comments.
What is the public’s image of scientists?
My students’ comments made me think. Does the general public have preconceived images of scientists? Do scientists in fiction reflect these popular images? Or does popular fiction affect the image of scientists among the general public? Or all three?
From the 1880’s through the 1970’s, Drs. Frankenstein, Jekyll, and Strangelove characterized the images of scientists in movies and novels. Scientists were aging, un-athletic, males with anti-social tendencies. Comic strips changed the image of scientists to be handsome, male superheroes with big egos (like Batman and Iron Man). Now TV shows (like CSI, Bones, and NCIS), feature attractive, young women as scientists.
Facts on women in science
To a certain extent, the changes in the images of scientists in fiction reflect reality. Women held 4.5% of the full professorships in science and engineering in 1973 (when I became an assistant professor) and 17.9% of the full professorships in those fields in 2003. So we’ve made progress but have a long way to go.
Why is the image of women in science important?
* Recruiting students into science is always a challenge. Unrealistic images only make it harder to attract students, especially women and minorities to science majors.
* Scientific discoveries offer great ideas for novels, and not just science fiction novels. I tried to include bits on epidemiology, virology, and science policy in my novel Coming Flu. I tried to infuse the feel of a medical school (the blend of clinics, research labs, brilliant investigators and wannabes) into Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight.
* Many strong-willed heroines can be found among the women scientists of the twentieth century. I want to introduce you to three of them, whose careers occurred prior to 1980.
Rosalind Franklin (1920-1958) helped to define the fine molecular structures of DNA with her meticulous X-ray crystallography (a way of picturing the location of atoms in molecules). Many wonder whether she would have shared the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine with Watson and Crick in 1962 if she had not died at 37 in 1958.
Elizabeth McCoy (1903 -1978) was a microbiologist. In 1946 the New York Times ran this headline “Wisconsin University Girl Wins Patent on an Industrial Solvent.” At that time, the “girl” was 43 years old and was only the second woman (outside those in nursing or home economics) to achieve a full professorship at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. No one reported her response, but she was known for her salty vocabulary. She was fiercely independent and shoveled snow from her long driveway in her seventies. (If you haven’t lived in the upper Midwest, you may not appreciate this feat.)
Hellen Linkswiler (1912 -1984), a nutrition professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was more ladylike than McCoy, even though her background was probably rougher. As a child, she ate moldy bread because there was no other food in Oklahoma during the dust bowl years. In 1960, a banker refused her a mortgage for a home, even though she was full professor, unless a man cosigned the loan. So her father (whom she supported) signed the loan. Although highly professional, she had a domestic side. She was an avid gardener, a great cook, and rated painting (walls not art) as her favorite pastimes.
I hope they inspire you to include a woman scientist in your nest novel or to “stick it out” in pursuing a career in science.
JL Greger has been a scientist, professor in the biological sciences, textbook writer, and university administrator. Now as a writer of fiction, she inserts glimpses of scientific breakthroughs and tidbits about universities into her medical mystery/suspense novels.
In Coming Flu, epidemiologist Sara Almquist is trying to stop two killers: the Philippine flu, which is rapidly wiping out everyone in a walled community in New Mexico, and a drug kingpin determined to break out of the quarantined enclave. Coming Flu (paperback and Kindle formats) is available on Amazon.
In Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight, Linda Almquist, Sara's sister, is scrutinizing a "diet doctor" for recklessly endangering the lives of his obese research subjects. Soon she finds her research entwined with a police investigation of two murders. Murder: A New Way to Lose Weight is now available on Amazon or from Oak Tree Books.