Why Do Women Leave Science? Eileen Pollack’s Memoir Has Answers

Eileen Pollack was the first woman to graduate with a B.S. in physics from Yale. In many of her physics courses, she was the only woman in the room. Constantly doubted, discouraged, and underestimated, Pollack struggled to find her place in the world of physics. Instead, recognized for her talent as a writer, she decided to turn away from physics entirely and pursue a graduate degree in writing. The Only Woman in the Room is her attempt to understand why.

Pollack’s raw and vulnerable memoir is like a cold white light shining illuminating the harsh realities many women pursuing STEM careers have experienced. Her memoir rings true because it isn’t just her story. She’s addressing the elephant in the room: the real reasons that many talented, intelligent women ultimately turn away from STEM.

Source: Uprising Radio

In one scene, Pollack recalls bringing a cooking pan, spoon, aluminum foil and a battery to her junior high science class. Her teacher gave the failed experiment a disappointing  grade. But without an adult’s guidance, she had struggled to complete the assigned experiment. Pollack argues that this is just one example of how young women are not encouraged to go into sciences — if she had been a boy, an adult would have been more likely to guide her through the experiment safely and successfully. Without this crucial source of mentorship and encouragement, the young and bright Eileen was left behind — all while her male peers received the resources and support they needed to pursue science.

“A child needed more than a copy of the World Book Encyclopedia to pull off a project like the one I attempted,” writes Pollack. “Even the brightest kid needs a sympathetic grown-up.”

Pollack’s memoir is powerful because her recollection of these seemingly small childhood occurrences — ones that many women can relate to — pieces together the full picture of her frustrating experience trying to pursue science. The mosaic shows sexism, stereotypes, and unjust expectations that the young Pollack desperately tries to overcome and ignore. But with all of her mental energy spent on competing with boys, standing up for herself, and trying to prove something, the idea of doing that through a graduate degree (and for the rest of her life) makes her sick to her stomach.

Physicists are expected to dedicate their life to their work. Men in physics during Pollack’s time didn’t need to wash dishes, do laundry, or take care of children. And Pollack was attracted to many of the young physicists she met — what if she married one, she wondered, who would take care of the children then? While a male physicists could get away with having a wife to take care of him, who would have dinner ready for her when she came home from the lab? These seemingly insignificant details build up to form the wall that many women, instead of trying to climb over and get into to the sciences, end up turning away from. Pollack is a gifted writer and has done great things with her life outside of physics. But her memoir isn’t a success story.

Her experience is like that of many other women who tried to pursue physics and felt put off by the environment, their male peers, and the way they were treated. Nautilus has an illuminating essay called The Parallel Universes of a Woman in Science by Kate Marvel that also addresses this issue. While reading it recently, I was struck by how much she reminded me of Pollack. If Marvel’s essay and beautiful writing fascinates you, it’s worth taking the time to read The Only Woman in the Room and explore the topic more in depth. Again, this kind of memoir-writing addresses the elephant in the room — why women leave science. And we need to talk about it.

The Parallel Universes of a Woman in Science

“In high school, my physics books had been composed of words, while the same chapters in my college textbook were filled with diagrams and equations. Rather than see this as a warning — not only had I not learned the material in this book, I had not learned the material I would need to learn the material — I couldn’t wait to confront the first real academic challenge I had ever faced,” writes Pollack. But later, “[t]hat excitement turned to alarm as [the professor] raced across the stage, weaving equations I couldn’t unravel and telling jokes the humor of which eluded me. I hadn’t understood anything he said the spring before, but I figured I had arrived at the movie late, and if I came in at the beginning, I would understand everything I had missed. The truth is, if you don’t know the language in which a movie is being shown, you won’t have any better grip on the plot if you come in at the beginning than at the end.” Worst of all, the boy to her left leaned back and muttered, “Jesus…we covered this shit in high school.”

Pollack’s book explores the fear she feels from perceiving herself as behind her male peers. But as she comes to find out later, her lack of confidence stems from incorrectly perceiving of her abilities. She’s behind her male peers because she’s been denied the same learning opportunities they’ve been freely given.

The Only Woman in the Room shines in the final chapters. Pollack’s writing is vulnerable, honest, and logical. It’s unclear whether she set out to touch her reader or better understand herself, but she seems to have achieved both by the end of the book. It’s worth reading whether or not you studied science in college. It’s worth reading whether you are a man or a woman. And it’s absolutely worth reading if you are a lost, anxious college student like myself, worrying about whether I am making the right choices.

Eileen Pollack’s memoir is one that will withstand the lengths of time as one of the most important accounts of women’s experiences in science.

3 Censored Science Books for Banned Books Week

This week celebrates literary freedom, and it’s important to consider the science that has been censored by banning books. I wanted to include a few books on evolution that have been banned or challenged, so that you can #readmorescience during #bannedbooksweek. Evolution is a hugely controversial theory, and these books were banned from my own household while growing up. Without them, some children may not realize they love science, or have the chance to learn about our world. Censoring science harms education. Fight back by reading these classics on evolution! Better yet, go buy copies at your local bookstore to help bookstores keep them on shelves by making them in demand. Happy banned books week!

1. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin


Charles Darwin’s classic book on evolution and natural selection was banned in 1895 for contradicting Christian beliefs.

2. Our Family Tree: An Evolution Story by Lisa Peters


This beautifully illustrated children’s book was challenged for promoting evolution, which again conflicts with Christianity’s belief in creationism.

3. In the Beginning by Isaac Asimov


This book was requested to be removed from my hometown of San Diego’s schools for challenging the Bible.

If you’re interested in exploring science censorship throughout history more in depth, here’s an excellent article about banned science and philosophy books. In the meantime, I will leave you with a quote by Isaac Asimov which is my own personal reading motto:

16667.jpg“Any book worth banning is a book worth reading.”


Sara MacSorley Introduces Readers to Super Cool Scientists in New Book

Sara MacSorley published the second Super Cool Scientists coloring book this month, which celebrates “a diverse cohort of dynamic women” working in a wide range of STEM careers. Through diverse representation, she aims to help young people envision themselves in STEM careers. She hopes that every reader will find a scientist they connect with in her books.

The coloring books are beautiful and well-done. They feature illustrations of female scientists alongside biographies about their life and work. Their most unique characteristic is that they focus on today’s female scientists — real women making an impact on their field. Sara makes an effort to include scientists who represent women from all backgrounds. In addition, both books include a list of resources for women interested in science as well as a glossary of scientific vocabulary used throughout the biographies. These books make an excellent gift for an aspiring young scientist or college student who loves coloring books, and they’re perfect for both kids and adults.

I reached out to Sara to learn more about her efforts to represent diversity and inclusion in STEM, and to get copies of BOTH Super Cool Scientists coloring books into the hands of one lucky reader for this month’s Read More Science book giveaway. Sign up for the Read More Science Book Club, my monthly newsletter for readers, and you’ll have a chance to win the Super Cool Scientists coloring books. You’ll also be automatically entered to win other exciting new science books in upcoming giveaways!

Sara MacSorley

Congratulations on publishing the second Super Cool Scientists coloring book! Making STEM more inclusive is a big problem to tackle. How do you foresee your books making a difference?

Thank you! Diversity and inclusion in STEM is a layered issue for sure. I see it as having three main parts. One, representation. Representation is where we recognize and celebrate the diverse women already existing in the STEM space who are doing amazing work. Two, recruitment. Recruitment is where we get young people exposed to, excited about, and interested in STEM careers and setting them up on that path. This part is the fun stuff – science is super cool so it’s easy to get young people interested. Three, retention. Retention is the most challenging work. Retention is where we work to change environments and cultures (long ingrained cultures of sexism, racism, ableism, etc.) to create adapted, truly inclusive spaces where everyone has a sense of belonging.

In all areas, we also have to remember the intersectionality that exists. Not all women are the same. We all have different experiences, different perspectives, and different challenges. It is important to remember when talking about diversity and inclusion that we can’t approach this work and do it well by grouping all women in the same box. There are layered issues that come along with being a black woman in STEM, or a LGBTQ+ woman in STEM, or a disabled woman in STEM.

The Super Cool Scientists books showcase a diverse cohort of women doing super cool work. My hope is that the books show some of that intersectionality to young people because representation matters. I also hope that the books provide extra recognition to today’s women in STEM. I want the featured scientists to know that they are role models for what they do everyday and that their stories are part of the narrative of what scientists look like.

Did you encounter any surprises or challenges while working on book #2? 

Life is full of surprises. For starters, I initially hoped to fund the second book with another crowdfunding campaign. However, some professional and personal transitions happened for me during the same time frame as the funding campaign. I didn’t have a much time as I had planned to spend on promoting the project so ultimately that was an unsuccessful round of fundraising.

Challenges are also opportunities (though it’s easier for me to say that than to always believe it when I’m facing challenges myself). It worked out that the original book was so successful that I was able to use those sales to fund the production of the second book.

Were there any “super cool scientist” ladies who initially inspired you to start book #2? 

All the super cool scientists from the original book along with all the other super cool supporters of the project inspired me to create a second volume. Creating the original book was such a fun experience that I wasn’t ready to give that up. The feedback was so overwhelmingly positive that I knew people would want more so the idea for a second version got moving pretty quickly.

I have many super cool ladies in my life (some of them, but not all, are scientists). They are my cheerleaders, my consultants, my shoulders to lean (or cry) on, my rocks. I couldn’t have done this without my girls.

fig 2.jpg
Illustration from Super Cool Scientists #2

What’s the most important message you want readers of the Super Cool Scientists books to walk way with?

The goal of the project from the very beginning was to have every reader who picked up a copy of one of the books find a connection to at least one of the featured scientists. Being a coloring book, there are multiple ways to find connection points – either through the narrative story or the story told through the illustration. I wanted young people to be able to picture themselves in these types of careers and also understand the wide range of careers that exist in STEM. That is why it was so important for us to include many types of jobs in lots of fields and a diverse cohort of dynamic women. The books include women of color, women with disabilities, women who wear hijab, women who are community college graduates, women who are entrepreneurs, women who are mothers, women who are athletes, and so much more.

The message is that science is for everyone – regardless of what you look like, where you come from, or what challenges you have encountered.

Do you have any favorite science books you want to recommend, or other coloring books you enjoy/are inspired by? 

I’ve always enjoyed reading so it’s tough to think of favorites. For my own coloring, I tend to like books that have a lot of geometric patterns or mandalas. For science books, I recently finished and would recommend Lab Girl by Hope Jahren (plus the Super Cool Scientists website has a list of resources – including books!). I enjoy anything by Carl Zimmer or Richard Preston. Right now, I’m reading Spineless: The Science of Jellyfish and the Art of Growing a Backbone by Julie Berwald.

If you could have the whole world read one book, what would it be? 

There are so many amazing books out there. I like reading books that help me think about how I’m living my life and reflect on how I can continue to grow as a person. In recent years, I’ve read several of Pema Chodron’s books including Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change. I’d have the whole world read a book that speaks to them in that way. For some that may be a religious text, for others it could be a memoir that speaks to a certain set of experiences. It could be any book that makes us all reflect a little bit more on our own experience and how that relates to the experience of others.

fig 4.jpg
Illustration from Super Cool Scientists #2

Thank you for the thoughtful answers, Sara!

Itching to get your hands on a copy of these beautiful coloring books? You can purchase both Super Cool Scientists books at www.supercoolscientists.com. You can also follow @SuperCoolSci on Twitter and @SuperCoolScientists on Instagram for updates and more from the coloring book creators.

Scientist Sam Cooley Collects History’s Most Bizarre Science Experiments

Dr. Sam J. Cooley is a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society and a research fellow at the School of Sport, Exercise and Rehabilitation Sciences at University of Birmingham. His work in the fields of sport and exercise psychology is in an applied setting, “using pragmatist philosophy to investigate real world issues”. You can follow him on Twitter at @SamJoeCooley and read more about his work at his website, www.samjoecooley.com.

His new book The Museum of Bizarre and Extreme Science: A Collection of the Most Outlandish Experiments in History is available for purchase through Amazon. You can enter to win a copy of his book this month by signing up for the Read More Science Book Club, a monthly newsletter for readers of popular science books.

Welcome to the Museum

Are you ready for a journey through the scientific macabre?


Like a tour-guide, Cooley walks his readers through a collection the most outlandish experiments throughout history. In each chapter, he provides a brief introduction to the study, why it captured his interest, and mentions background information and facts about the research. Cooley is a curator of disturbing science — and he has designed for readers a stunning collection of some of the strangest scientific studies ever performed.

“My search criteria for the experiments to be included in this book was pretty simple,” Cooley writes in the first chapter. “First, there were two ways an experiment could be classed as outlandish: either by testing a hypothesis that, with the luxury of hindsight, now seems utterly bizarre; or through being downright unethical and extreme in the approaches used.”

“Secondly, I needed to be able to get my hands on the original scientific report, preferably published in a credible source such as a peer-reviewed academic journal,” he continues. “After establishing my search criteria, I went on an adventure through historic library archives, blowing off the cobwebs of journals some 200 years old.”

The depth to Cooley’s research is obvious: he’s pieced together studies nearly lost to history alongside the strange ones we still hear about today, such as that of the scientist who minced animal testicles and injected himself with their testosterone in order to feel young again. It’s also difficult to read about some these experiments without feeling somewhat disturbed and slightly sick to your stomach, yet fascinated nonetheless.


Yet Cooley has not compiled these horrifying studies simply to shock his readers. They ask an important question: were these studies justified for the sake of scientific discovery, or were they “driven by the distorted desires of mad scientists”? By providing the original articles accompanied with his introductions, Cooley hopes his reader will draw their own conclusion from the evidence.

As he explains in the first chapter, uncovering these macabre experiments was sometimes challenging: “I hit many dead ends during this endeavor, usually the result of tracing an experiment back to nothing more than a brief mention in someone else’s tale. But each time I came across a hidden gem it made it all worthwhile.”

The experiments are definitely hidden gems. Cooley’s book is unique in that he includes the original studies — he wants readers to see the evidence for themselves. It also makes his book feel more authentic.

It helps that his commentary is amusing, interesting, and authentic as well. Cooley is curious and aims to better understand the obscure experiments he’s dug up. Although this book is his first and, at times, can seem amateur, it deserves recognition for having used a novel approach to examine a unique subject. His book is an amusing attempt to better understand the strangeness of antique science. I could see it expanding into a larger volume, complete with vintage photos or modern illustrations of the strangest experiments. It already deserves a place alongside Ripley’s Believe it or Not.


Not all of the experiments in the Museum of Bizarre and Extreme Science have been lost to antiquity. “Some of the experiments featured are still making headlines today, whilst many others have faded from memory over the course of time,” writes Cooley. “This book is about reliving and preserving these artefacts.”

If anything, Cooley’s book is sure to inspire bemusement and intrigue in enthusiasts of antique science.

Daniel Stone and the Adventurous Botanist Who Changed What We Eat

One day, botanical writer Daniel Stone found himself in the living room of the eighty-one-year-old granddaughter of explorer David Fairchild. He was the man who first brought to America many of the fruits we now know today. An insatiably curious traveler, he had once taken long drives with his granddaughter Helene Pancoast from Miami to Nova Scotia.

Stone writes that when he asked Helene whether her grandfather would still have found questions in a world full of answers, she looked him square in the eye: “He used to say, ‘Never be satisfied with what you know, only with what more you can find out’.”

It’s in the spirit of curiosity — the pursuit of finding more questions in a world full of answers — that Stone sets out in his debut, The Food Explorer. And it doesn’t take much more than the author’s note in the introduction to make you salivate for fruit. Stone’s book is a delightful, satisfying read.

As a reviewer, this was an excellent book to follow Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad with because they are both set around the turn of the twentieth century. The infamous Secretary James Wilson makes an appearance in both, although it could be argued that Stone does not make out Wilson as a villain to the same extent. Still, the secretary is a looming figure.

But Stone focuses more of his attention on Barbour Lathrop, the eccentric millionaire adventurer who funds Fairchild’s expeditions and vexes him to no end. Lathrop adds a comedic side to the story; his strange behavior, whims, and surprising interactions with other characters draw you in as if Stone is writing a novel instead of retelling history. But Lathrop is not the only character that seems to leap from the page: David Fairchild shines in Stone’s writing.

Fairchild’s insatiable passion for botany is tangible as Stone recounts his many adventures around the world in search for new plants to bring back to America’s farmers. Grapes from Italy to grow in California’s Mediterranean-like climate, pumpkins and cucumbers from Egypt, mangoes from Philippines to grow in Florida, and rices from China to grow in the Carolinas. Along the way, he put himself and his companion Lathrop at risk of catching diseases and being beaten, robbed, or killed by unfriendly locals. But despite the risks of traveling during the time period, Fairchild continued to visit remote parts of the world to collect seeds and cuttings from plants that could prove valuable to the United States.

Stone’s writing is not technical — he’s a master storyteller, and The Food Explorer reads like an enchanting historical novel full of adventure, rivalry, and romance. It’s a bit like a mix between Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire and Deborah Blum’s The Poison Squad — and it feels as if Stone was destined to be the one to chronicle Fairchild’s life story.

David Fairchild (right) and Barbour Lathrop. Source

Honestly, the only disappointment I felt while reading this book was finishing the last page. I hope to see another book by Daniel Stone in the future.

Deborah Blum Takes Readers Into the Fight for Food Safety During the Twentieth Century

In June of 1899, the city of Omaha reported a health crisis affecting local children. The culprit was “embalmed milk”, or dairy treated with a chemical additive containing formaldehyde. The dairy industry had discovered that the sweetness of formaldehyde — commonly used to preserve corpses — could mask the flavor of spoiled milk. As a result, children and infants exposed to embalmed milk sickened and died at an alarming rate during the spring, a time when children were usually in good health.

But the embalmed milk problem was not confined to Nebraska. In Indiana, some dairies were pouring higher doses of straight formaldehyde into their milk on the basis that it would better preserve their product — ultimately killing nearly four hundred children. After the problem was brought to court, Indianapolis News published a startling cartoon illustrating the fight against embalmed milk: an infant child staring up at a monster emerging from a bottle of milk. Public outrage helped bolster support for the 1898 Pure Food Law, banning formaldehyde from being added to milk.


“It looks like a tough battle for the little fellow.” (Indianapolis News, circa 1900) Source: Indiana.gov

In her new book The Poison Squad, author Deborah Blum invites readers to step back into the early twentieth century when food and beverage industries in the United States were virtually unregulated. Consumers were sickened by food tainted with high doses of chemical preservatives, tricked into believing labels that identified foods as something they were not, and were sold spoiled meat and dairy passed off as fresh. Specifically, Blum focuses on the efforts of Dr. Harvey Washington Wiley and his campaign to regulate the American food industry.

When Wiley leaves his position as a chemistry professor at Purdue University to become chief chemist of the United States’ Agriculture Department, he find himself faced with opposition from both industry and within the department. But over time, Wiley becomes an indomitable force fixated on taking down the industry titans poisoning consumer’s food with unregulated chemicals and preservatives. Like the infant facing off against the Milk monster, this is a story of David and Goliath.

Chemistry in the early twentieth century was finding the invisible threats hiding inside food. And for the first time, knowledge on how to detect these threats and turn them visible was being distributed to those in charge of the kitchen: women. Housewives became the target audience for books like What We Eat: An Account of the Most Common Adulterations of Food and Drink with Simple Tests by Which Many of Them May Be Detected, by physician Thomas A. Hoskins in 1861. It set the precedent for many books and magazine articles to follow, teaching women about chemistry and how to detect adulterations in their food. After all, a responsible housewife would want to inspect ingredients for contamination before feeding her family.

The household cook could invest in reagents easily obtained from the local pharmacy: iodine, hydrochloric acid, grain alcohol, and tools such as a magnifying glass. These enabled them to perform “kitchen-table experiments” without requiring the use of a lab, and detect contaminants such as copper sulfate (used to color canned peas a distinct green).

At the same time, watchdog journalists known as “muckrakers” were working to expose corruption. One of them, Upton Sinclair, would famously expose the horrific realities of the meat-packing industry in his book The Jungle. If you haven’t had the fortune of reading Sinclair’s book, it’s a worthwhile experience. I have known readers it turned into vegans and experienced the physical repulsion the book evokes. Blum takes you into the backstory of Sinclair’s efforts to write his book — and will make you thankful for living in the twenty-first century. Well-written, fast-paced, and deeply researched, Blum’s book will tickle your gag reflex and make you howl with outrage whenever industry wins.

On sale Sept 25. Penguin Random House

If Wiley is the hero of the story, Secretary James Wilson is the villain. Blum carefully documents every instance of Wiley butting heads with Wilson, stirring emotion in readers each time one of Wiley’s requests is denied or a much-needed budget slashed. Blum does an excellent job of making a very political and complicated story both fascinating and relevant to the everyday reader. A casual interest in the history of food safety and chemistry is all that is necessary to carry you through the book — Blum expertly handles the rest.

The Poison Squad is named after a group of volunteers that Wiley recruits for a study on the effects of certain chemicals added to food. The group is pursued relentlessly by journalists who invent stories of Dr. Wiley and his test subjects, imagining what he might be feeding them in his curious kitchen. Studies on the Poison Squad helped find evidence that would later make new regulations on food possible. Blum recounts the story with a delightful level of detail that makes her book so enjoyable and worth reading.

Perhaps most importantly, Blum does not leave her reader in the twentieth century. She draws alarming connections to our current president’s business-friendly efforts to repeal the legislation keeping food and beverage industries in check. Ultimately, Blum leaves her reader to imagine a world without the regulations currently in place to keep our food safe. Consider the tragedy of the children who drank embalmed milk: without the regulations in place to protect consumers from unsafe chemicals and fraudulent claims, what would our country be exposed to today?