Read About the Remarkable Female Scientist Who Fought to Regulate Radiation

Gayle Greene’s The Woman Who Knew Too Much: Alice Stewart and the Secret of Radiation is an incredible overview of the life and work of Stewart, whose voice fills the pages and echoes through time to help readers better understand the field of radiology in the twentieth century.  Through extensive interviews with the indomitable Alice Stewart herself, and thorough research into the controversial issues of radiation and nuclear power in the twentieth century, Greene tells a story that deserves a place in the history books.

Who was Alice Stewart?

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Alice Stewart. Source

Dr. Alice Mary Stewart (1906-2002) “was a British physician and epidemiologist specializing in social medicine and the effects of radiation on health” (Alice Stewart, Wikipedia). She is known for being the first person to find a link between prenatal x-rays and childhood cancer, the reason that pregnant women today must avoid x-rays. She is also known for her study of the effects of radiation on workers at the Hanford plutonium production plant in Washington. Her work is still cited today by those who argue that low-level doses of radiation have lasting negative effects on our health.

Greene begins with Alice’s parents, particularly her mother, “who became a physician at a time when this was barely a possibility for a woman”.  Greene takes us through Alice’s life — the story of their large family, then Alice’s days at Cambridge. Alice was born in 1906, the third of eight children. She went on to study medicine at Cambridge, and shared with Greene the experience of her first physiology lecture:

It was a large room, an auditorium you entered from the rear with a long set of steps descending to the speaker’s podium in the front. I slipped in, hoping to take a seat as close to the back as possible. But when I stepped into the hall and took my first steps, the students, all male, began stomping, slowly and deliberately, in time with my steps. As I took my first step into that room, bang! came the sound of two hundred men stomping their feet in unison. I took my second step and the stomp was repeated. Every step I took, there was this stomp, stomp, stomp. My first instinct was to duck into a seat and disappear, but no — every row was blocked by the men. I was forced down to the front row, where I found three other girls and a Nigerian. These medical students had managed to segregate us out — they weren’t going to have anything to do with women or minority populations. I wasn’t whipped. I was stomped.” Alice Stewart

Although women women had been allowed to study medicine within the past few years, Greene notes, they were still yet to be accepted in the field. Throughout her education, as well as her career, Alice struggled to be recognized by her peers in medicine. Although she would come to be recognized by many as an expert in radiology, she fought sexist stereotypes her entire life — treatment that only served to smother her important, controversial work even further. Take into account the state of the world at her time of research – the budding of nuclear energy, the competition for nuclear weapons – and it seems as though the entire world was willing to turn their gaze away from her argument that these industries were killing their workers from radiation exposure.

Greene does an excellent job exploring this controversy in great detail as she examines the societal obstacles, as well as looking at the way Alice was treated as a woman in her field. As a reader, she is our guide through Alice’s life. But I don’t recommend starting with Greene’s introduction in chapter one. Though I was trained as an English major and always read footnotes, check citations, and never skip the introductions or forewords, I don’t think it’s worth it for The Woman Who Knew Too Much. This biography is much better experienced by diving into the second chapter, where Greene’s wonderful storytelling immediately sweeps you into the story. It almost feels as if she betrayed too much information in the introduction, and you won’t get a good feel for her writing style. However, it does allow the reader to meet Alice Stewart herself and lay the groundwork for how Greene ended up writing her biography in the first place, which is valuable backstory.

Aside from the introduction, the rest of the book is astoundingly intellectual and well-written. Green has put considerable effort into researching Alice Stewart’s work and interviewing the formidable scientist herself. This is an incredibly important biography – Gayle Greene has captured a picture of one of the most important and overlooked female scientists of history, and captured her brilliantly. Alice Stewart shines in Greene’s writing: her voice and personality is memorable, her work is fascinating, and perhaps most important, Greene is careful to put her in the context of culture at the time. Through a mix of reflection and action-filled description, Greene does an excellent job presenting a story worth telling. It’s a documentary and biography in one book.

Why is this worth reading about? Why would Greene have dedicated so much time into getting to know Alice Stewart and sharing her story with readers? The story of Alice Stewart is not only that of a scientist whose work was censored and barred in every way possible by the industry she fought to regulate, it’s the story of a woman who fought hard to be recognized in her field. It’s the story of a female scientist who rose to recognition through hard work, passion, and occasionally, sheer luck.

We need more stories like this to be told. We need more about the women who knew too much, women who were silenced and censored. In the context of our world today, we need women’s stories to be told, now more than ever.

Start with this one.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.