Wednesday, 22 May 2013

ScienceZest is moving!

I'm now offering lectures and courses in Creative Science Writing. See menue above (or here).

I'm now blogging for:

The English Version:

About the Blog: This blog is, in large parts, about the history of science. As both, science and history, are quite dramatically influenced by humans, their fancies, and mistakes, this blog will remain sceptic with a tad of humour, while trying to assemble a best guess of what actually transpired.

Die Deutsche Version:

Über das Blog: Annelie Wendeberg ist eigentlich Umweltmikrobiologin. Doch eines schönen Wintermorgens klappte sie die Augen auf und dachte sich "ich schreib mal was". Seither versucht sie ihre Leidenschaft Forschung leicht verständlich und spannend in kurzen Blogartikeln zu vermitteln. Meistens schreibt sie über alles Mögliche was irgendwie mit Forschern, Biologie, Umwelt, Ökologie und vor allem Mikrobiologie zu tun hat.
Des Nachts bringt Annelie Wendeberg Leute um. Auf dem Papier. Für den KiWi Verlag. Aber das kannst du ja hier nachlesen:

Monday, 8 April 2013

I’m a sexist and I know it

I’m part of a very small minority: I’m a woman, a scientist, an adjunct professor, a mother of two, and wife to a lovely husband who gave up his science career to support his family. Some people may think I’m a role model, but I’m the opposite. People like me usually don’t exist.

I love science. As a PhD student and young postdoc (sans kids) all I did was work in the lab, think of science, discuss science, and occasionally party my brain out. It’s an expensive brain, considering all these years of studying, experimenting, reading, and Google-ing. One shouldn’t use beer and red wine as excessively as many young scientists do. But we usually feel extra brilliant when slightly (or severely) intoxicated and then come up with crazy new projects that surely will result in Earth shattering publications. Sadly, the following mornings I never remembered what precisely these brilliant ideas had been.
These were the intense days of brain masturbation, when nothing seemed too complicated, too novel, or too risky. If we could think it up, we could at least try it.

My life changed. I’m a mom and realised that each day will always be 24 hours short, that sleep deprivation turns the fastest brain into a glutinous mass of slow grey matter, that time spent with my children is much more important and rewarding than publishing in Nature, and that parties with young and sexy PhD students are really not my thing anymore. Yes, call me old (I’m 37).

But I also learned with shocking clarity, that I am a sexist. When I look at successful female scientists, part of me doubts their quality as mothers, not so with my male colleagues. When I see a successful male scientist who always leaves work at 5pm to be with his wife and small kids, I think “wow, what a good dad”, but when a woman does the same, I’m not impressed.

Writing an EU proposal while nursing Lina.
Being a woman, being able to get pregnant and give birth to a child is quite a sexist thing, because men can’t have that and miss the most amazing experience a sexually reproducing mammal can possibly come across. Which brings us to breastfeeding: That, too, is quite sexist. Women have boobs, most men don’t. Newborns expect to be breastfed and have no idea that mom has a career; they simply want to latch on and not let go for the next 12 months (or so it sometimes felt). I breastfed my kids for 2.5 years, that’s 5 years in total, approximately 1.500 litres of milk, and pretty much exactly 1.825 nights of little to no sleep, not including the nights they have been sick after they were weaned.

If you don’t have kids, your day is still 24 hours short, minus 6-8 hours of sleep and the time needed to get dressed, eat, and vacuum the dust bunnies. A great science career will demand most of the time that’s left. There is always a report to write, an email to answer, a paper to review, a bunch of PhD students to supervise
Most women in the western industrialised world have their first child at the age of 30, that’s precisely when our science career kicks off and we are giving it all to get that darn professorship. There, first major conflict.
Biologically, women are the first to be demanded when it comes to tiny offspring, and this is fine. Traditionally, mothers are still #1 even if the kids are 30-something. And this is what still shapes our thinking today (on average). We are the daughters of mothers who had a full time job additional to the entire household work. I have rarely seen a husband cleaning the dishes back then. Have you? That’s what they called feminism 30 years ago.
Today it’s different but some of the old thinking patterns remained - if you are a successful scientist, surely you should also be a great mum. If you are a great scientist and a great dad - holy cow! - you must be superman and your wife must be some kind of… (pick whatever depreciative term you fancy).

We judge the quality of a scientist by the number of his/her publications, how often they have been cited, and how much project money she/he brings in. Depending on the field of research, the stress to accomplish these things can range from high-pitched heart attack like (biomedical research) to quite stimulating and nice (environmental research), which doesn’t imply the latter would be dull and the former more important.

I did, in a way, discriminate myself (yes, that’s possible). I did not want to see a dip in my wonderful science career but also I wanted to be the perfect mom for my kids. I am not an over-accomplisher nor am I particularly brilliant. Writing a major EU proposal and being the head of a research group while taking care of a newborn is insane and I cannot recommend it to anyone. If you think this is role model behaviour, I must disappoint you. It is the behaviour of someone who wants it all. But didn’t we learn from our parents that we cannot have it all? Yet, we still try and it is a good thing to do this, but it is also good to acknowledge that one person has a limited amount of energy.

So is that the reason for brilliant female scientists to drop out of science? Do women represent far less than a quarter of the European senior faculty because they can’t take the extra workload of job and family? Female scientists - better not replicate? Nope. I think the problem is far more complex.

Wasn’t the field of science an exclusively male domain for hundreds of years? Aren’t the hierarchies and structures male inventions? I wonder how science would have developed if women had always been allowed to enrol at Universities, practice medicine, do research, and to be part of everything men were allowed to be part of, and vice versa. If being a mother while having a science career would have been normal for centuries, would it be OK to take a leave of absence of a year or even five years? Would it be OK to be a professor and only work part time so mothers could spend more time with their kids? And here you see the sexist view again - would we allow dads the same thing without making them feel like they are (A) losers because they are away from work so much and cannot accomplish as much as their child-less colleagues, or (B) superman because they spend time with their kids??

Science is a competitive business and one has to be pushy (and kind of intelligent) to get to the top. Girls are raised to be “nice” (as in “not pushy”) while pushy boys will grow into “real men”. This is so engrained in our culture that we don’t really see it and that makes most of us sexists.
No, not the “I club you on the head and pull you into my cave” kind of sexist, but the quiet version, the undertone that we don’t see but practice every day.

I don’t think that the low number of women in leading positions are solely a gender/sexism problem, or that quotas could help to solve it; in fact they can only prettify a symptom. 

We created a society that values competitive people the most. We discriminate against the gentle kind, the non-elbowing version of Homo sapiens and with that lose countless brilliant minds and hands that could make our society much more beautiful and kind.

Stop being women friendly. Start being friendly instead. Stop promoting more women into leading positions. Instead, promote more men and women who are not pushy, offer more jobs to people who stayed at home for years to take care of their children, sick partners or parents. And stop telling young scientists (male and female) that they can have it all. It’s bullshit and you know it.

PS: Female scientists still earn less than their male colleagues for doing the same job; they also receive less third-party funding. I’d like someone to explain that one to me.


Wednesday, 27 March 2013

The Prank that Changed the Face of Medicine

October 1847
The dean and faculty of Geneva Medical College are facing a dilemma: a woman applied for matriculation. Her name is Elizabeth Blackwell (1821-1910). All other medical schools she had applied to rejected her, reasoning that she is a woman and thus intellectually inferior; and even if she would prove to be of equal intelligence to men, she would represent an unacceptable competition for her male fellow students.

The Geneva Medical College, however, did not give Elizabeth an upfront yes or no. They put the issue up for vote under the stipulation that if but one student voted against her, she would not be admitted. This reads a little like an attempt to show her how very unwelcome she was, and possibly to humiliate her even further. What student in his right mind would vote for a woman to have access to a medical school?

Source: Wikipedia
The students, however, believed it to be a ludicrous joke and decided to have some fun: all one-hundred fifty men voted for Elizabeth.
It was as if the world had been tipped - a female student was to be allowed into the all-male medical domain!

As Elizabeth arrived at the Geneva Medical College, all those boisterous male students suddenly behaved like gentlemen. All that smoking, elbowing, laughing and talking stopped, and students listened attentively. Despite the fact that lectures changed to the better by simply having Elizabeth present, most of her lecturers despised her. She represented a threat to a very old tradition.

Elizabeth Blackwell graduated in 1849 and became the first woman in America’s history to have earned a medical degree. Strangely, she never wanted to be a medical doctor. She wrote that she “hated everything connected with the body, and could not bear the sight of a medical book.”
But Elizabeth yearned for a life independent of husband and children and she was quite provocative in nature. Before pursuing a career in medicine she said, “The idea of winning a doctor's degree gradually assumed the aspect of a great moral struggle, and the moral fight possessed immense attraction for me.”

Elizabeth Blackwell had a profound influence on the history of women in science. Although met with resistance almost everywhere, she set up a practice for women, founded the Women’s Medical College, published books and paved the way for the next generation of female medical doctors (and scientists).


 This post was featured on National Geographic and Neatorama

Friday, 15 March 2013

Fooling the world for half a century

July 25th, 1865
In one swift move, Sophia Bishop pulls the sweaty blanket off the frail figure. She is a charwoman and responsible to lay out the body of the recently deceased. But she has no patience to consider the man’s final wish - that under no circumstances should he be changed out of the clothes in which he had died. After all, the man had had dysentery and he needs to be washed before his burial. Sophia, with washbowl, soap and washcloth at the ready, pulls off his nightshirt and, with a cry of astonishment, reveals a fifty year old secret.
Dr James Barry, one of the most highly respected surgeons of his days, was in fact a woman.

Dr. Barry Source: Wikipedia
Margaret Ann Burkley hatched form her mother’s womb into the beautiful city of Cork, Ireland, at the end of the 18th century. She was a bright child who soon expressed the wish to be a doctor. But how could she ever study medicine? Her parents were but simple green grocers and did not have the funds to support their daughter. The situation worsened, as Margaret’s father was sent to prison when he could not pay his debts. But even if Margaret’s parents had been rich, she was only a girl and would not be allowed admission at a medical school.

And yet, she managed to enter the school of medicine at Edinburgh University in 1809 at the age of fourteen. But she did so under the name of James Miranda Stuart Barry, an identity she would keep until her death.

As Sophia Bishop pulled off Margaret’s night shirt, a life-long secret was revealed that embarrassed the British Military so much, they refused to publish an obituary and placed a 100 year embargo on Dr Barry’s military records.
What a shame, that it was a woman who had given 50 years of loyal and distinguished service, who won great acclaim as a surgeon and was the first to perform a Caesarean section in which both mother and child survived (the grateful parents named the boy James Barry Munnik Herzog, who later became South Africa’s Prime Minister).

Margaret was an extraordinary doctor with a fierce personality who successfully fooled the world for fifty years. 

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

The forgotten Genius

Émilie du Châtelet was a brilliant and provocative scientist with a major flaw - she was a woman. Raised in Paris in the 1710s, she appalled her mother by not sitting still and chatting about fashion with the other girls. Instead, she listening intently to the well-educated guests of her parent's household.

Émilie’s father loved his daughter so much that he prevented her mother from sending Émilie to the convent - fate of many girls that did not fit in. He hired tutors to teach her Latin, Greek and mathematics. Émilie was what we would call a geek - she used mathematics to win at cards and then used the money to buy books, not dresses.

Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, marquise du Châtelet

In her late 20s, she met Voltaire and he was swept away by her youth and intelligence.
Why did you only reach me so late? What happened to my life before? I’d hunted for love, but found only mirages,” he wrote to Émilie.

Their passionate and tumultuous relationship lasted for fifteen years, with the two living in an isolated chateau, sharing ideas, discussing scientific phenomena and entertaining leading thinkers and scientists. Émilie was a skilled theoretician and competitive for a woman of her time, while Voltaire was a poet and philosopher but not much of a scientist. She questioned the mathematical physics of Sir Isaac Newton, much to the dismay of her lover. She came up with insights on the nature of light that set the stage for the future discovery of photography and infrared radiation, and even developed hypotheses that would lead later researchers to the idea of conservation of energy fundamental to all subsequent physics.

The contrast in intellect was humiliating for Voltaire and one of the reasons the couple broke up. 
Émilie’s insights remained in the scientific world and lead to many modern concepts - the most notable being Einstein’s E=mc2

But the idea that a woman had created those hypotheses was considered too odd at the times. Even scientists, who used her concepts, forgot who had originated them. 

"a great man whose only fault was being a woman" wrote Voltair later.

See also The Guardian
Image: Wikipedia

Friday, 22 February 2013

History of Women in Science - Jakoba Felicie

This post has been featured by Maggie Koerth-Baker (NYTmag columnist & science editor at BoingBoing)

It is rather complicated to find accurate historical accounts in the internet. While searching for information on Jakoba Felicie, I noticed that the majority of articles about her where obtained with a well known combination of keys [CTRL + C inevitably followed by CTRL + V].
Only after digging deeper did I find an article by Monica Green from the Arizona State University
This blog post is derived mainly from her work and from the translations of the Latin trial record by McLaughlin and Ross.

Although often referred to as the woman who disguised herself as a man to practice gynaecology and midwifery, Jakoba (or Jacqueline) Felicie was most likely a general practitioner and never pretended to be a man.

In November 1322 she and another five medical practitioners (two men, three women) were excommunicated and fined sixty Parisian livres. The trial records are exceptionally detailed and show that she has never been accused of causing harm to her patients. Eight witnesses testified that she had cured them after university-trained (male) physicians have given up. And that is where she had touched a sore spot, it seems. Jakoba’s trial is not the simple story about suppression of female practitioners, but rather demonstrates the increasing power and influence of the Faculty of Medicine in Paris.

In the later Middle Ages, the professionalization of medicine took on new dimensions. Jakoba’s case might mark a turning point in the history of medicine, where university-trained physicians (all male) would be the only ones allowed to practice medicine. Until then, women legally worked as midwifes and “unlearned” healers, utilizing the power of medical plants and their own observations. It appears the exclusively male medical establishment just realized that women can be categorically prohibited from this profession by (A) not allowing them to enrol at universities, and (B) forbidding them to practice the traditional healing they have done for millennia.

However, Jakoba (or her lawyer) might have suspected this, as she claims that: "it is better and more becoming that a woman clever and expert in the art should visit a sick woman, and should see and look into the secrets of nature and her private parts, than a man, to whom it is not permitted to see and investigate the aforesaid, nor to feel the hands, breasts, belly, and feet, etc., of women."

There was a flaw in her argument, though: Her patients were men and women.

What happened to Jakoba after the trail is unknown.

[this is a blog post series that is also available in German on my science blog for the Leipzig Daily Newspaper

Thursday, 21 February 2013

History of Women in Science - Part 1

Women have been scientists for a very long time. Known as the wise women, they knew about the healing powers of medical plants, how to set bones, how to help a child out of a mother’s womb. Their skills were essential and had been highly respected among women, but rarely among men.
The first woman, who had to stand trial, because she masqueraded as a man to practice medicine, was Agnodice in the late 4th century BCE. Only her female patients knew she was a woman. She had to reveal her gender to them so they would allow gynaecological examinations. It were her patients - several of them high ranking women - that intervened with the trial and had the law repealed.
(note: Agnodice's existence has never been proven beyond doubt) 

[this is a blog post series that is also available in German on the science blog of the Leipzig Daily Newspaper]