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.

theonlywomanintheroomFINAL-horz.jpg
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.

10540_9dd16e049becf4d5087c90a83fea403b.jpg
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.

Materials Scientist Mark Miodownik’s Enthralling Explanation of Our Physical World

img_20180329_092112_413.jpg

If Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup is a whimsical explanation of how things work, Mark Miodownik’s Stuff Matters is more like a love letter to the materials which compose our world. Stuff Matters is not just delightful and easy to follow along, it’s simply enthralling. Scientific American’s description of Miodownik’s “infectious enthusiasm” for explaining the history and science of everyday materials is apt.

Czerski and Miodownik share a fascination and excitement for the commonplace: while Czerski delights in the physics which makes her toaster heat her toast, Miodownik holds an unrivaled appreciation for cement. Both of these scientists are eager to share these kinds of unexplored wonders of the world with inquisitive minds, and both should be approached with a childlike sense of curiosity.

Reading Stuff Matters is an excuse to ask your friends, “did you know…?” followed by an absurdly obscure fact about something they encounter in their physical world every day. This is the “infectious enthusiasm” which Scientific American described in their own review. In the video included below, Miodownik presents the charming behaviors and startling characteristics of various strange materials with an energy he conveys equally through his writing.

If you’re an avid reader, you’ve likely come across a vast array of books with unique qualities, but Stuff Matters brings a whole different set of unique characteristics to the table. Miodownik’s book is structured around a single photograph he first presents in the introduction. It’s a deceptively simple black and white photograph of the author himself seated at a table atop his roof, his eyes downcast at a book, the city buildings rising behind him. Each cleverly-titled chapter proceeds to break down a material seen in this photograph.

Steel. Concrete. Paper. Diamonds. Chocolate. In his book, Miodownik chooses some of the most “marvelous materials that shape our man-made world” and strips them down, revealing their secrets, forcing you to stop and consider the things you encounter every day. Most of us have not thought much about these materials before, and Miodownik’s approach is indeed one of thoughtfulness. He also writes with a tone of reflection, often utilizing startling and amusing anecdotes from his own life to build a personal connection with a materials he will discuss. In one unforgettable example about an accident in which he collided with a tractor while out for a drive, he describes the sensation of being catapulted through the windshield of a car “like hitting a wall of transparent ginger snaps”.

Miodownik’s ability to describe materials in vivid ways that make us think twice about them, or in some cases even think about them in the first place, is a magical ability in an author writing about science. By seamlessly weaving interesting history and fascinating science together and presenting it to readers with tongue-in-cheek humor and personal anecdotes, Stuff Matters is clearly deserving of its awards.

It’s also clearly deserving of your time spent reading it. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore.

Physicist Helen Czerski Reveals the Extraordinary Science Behind Everyday Life

“Why does milk, when added to tea, look like billowing storm clouds?”

This is the question behind the title of physicist Helen Czerski’s Storm in a Teacup: The Physics of Everyday Life. Her fascinating explorations into ordinary occurrences are the perfect introduction to physics for the lay-reader. Her brief and engaging stories help link concepts like refraction, reflection, gravity, and thermodynamics with moments in your daily life. If you’ve ever wondered how your cell phone works or why your toast always seems to fall butter-side down, this is the book for you.

Czerski takes difficult scientific material and presents it in bite-sized chunks through fast-paced storytelling. But in the first chapter, her style can come across as chaotic. She jumps from one idea to another before you’re finished thinking about the last one. You might feel lost at first, doubt yourself, or wonder if you’re not smart enough to grasp her ideas. Then suddenly, it all comes together. The stories connect to a physics concept so eloquently that you just get it. Now you’re delighted while you read, and every story she presents seems to draw you in deeper and deeper until all you can think about is how the world around you works.

The rest of the book reads more smoothly once you’ve adjusted to her pace and writing style. It’s not that she isn’t a talented writer – Czerski writes “Everyday Science” for BBC Focus magazine, and is a frequent contributor to the Wall Street Journal. But her pace can whisk you off your feet. If you take the time to watch her TED Talk, The fascinating physics of everyday life, you’ll understand that feeling.

Once you get your feet back under you, you’re in for a whirlwind adventure through science. Czerski’s high-energy attitude and wit give way to fascinating explanations about how your toaster works, why toast always seems to land butter-side down, and why duck’s feet never seem to get cold (turns out that they’re already cold). She’ll walk you through her memories and show you the science behind a small detail captured within them. Her vivid imagery, warm narration, and charming wit keeps her readers thoroughly entertained. Following along with her is like having a really, really good dinner conversation.

It feels like you can open up Storm in a Teacup to any page, read a paragraph or two aloud, and surprise everyone in the room with a cool physics concept they will all understand. And that’s exactly what Czerski aims to bring you; something you can share the coolness of with other people. Throughout the book, she throws in plenty of experiments you can try for yourself or show your friends and family. One of her most famous examples is spinning eggs, which you can see a demonstration of in her TED talk above. Her ability to use an everyday occurrence to help others understand physics makes science friendly and engaging to all audiences. While the experts can nod along, smiling, she’ll have non-scientists thrilled like fans of Mythbusters and How It’s Made. If you watch those kinds of shows, then you’ll probably like this book.

My own opportunity to apply what I learned from Storm in a Teacup came while I was at my job. I work as a medication technician at an assisted living home, where I have to monitor residents’ blood sugar levels and administer insulin shots and medications. Recently, one of my residents watched me poke his finger to check his blood sugar. When I read off his number on the screen, he surprised me by asking how the device could possibly know that. I immediately thought of a passage I had read in Czerski’s book just the night before:

Today, people with diabetes can monitor their blood sugar using a simple electronic device and a test strip. A tiny drop of blood touched to the test strip will immediately whoosh into the absorbent material due to capillary action. Tucked away in the tiny pores of the strip is an enzyme, glucose oxidase, and when this reacts with blood sugar it produces an electric signal. The hand-held device measures that signal, and viola! – an accurate measure of blood sugar appears on the screen.

After I explained this process to him, the seventy-one-year-old man raised his eyebrows and remarked that he had no idea how “smart the damn thing” was. I laughed. He told me he’d always wondered how it worked, but never thought to ask because he didn’t think I would know the answer. I did, thanks to Helen Czerski.

This is the wonderful thing about reading Czerski’s book. She’s giving you answers to questions you’ve thought about but never voiced. You might struggle now and then to understand a certain concept (physics never fails to blow my mind), but you will have that inevitable moment when something absolutely relates to what you do. And when you get to share that knowledge with someone else, it makes that satisfaction even better. The point is to provide explanations that everyone – your mom, your grandma, or your little brother – will understand.

Czerski ends her book by connecting fundamental physics to three essential systems – the human body, civilization, and the earth. These three short sections serve as an epilogue, leaving the reader with an understanding that knowledge of physics is not only relevant, but necessary. An understanding of its fundamental laws will benefit anyone and everyone. She is not only advocating for the importance of her field and her career, she is empowering non-scientists to have a better understanding of their world. She’s doing what every science communicator strives for: bringing science to the general public and engaging them with interesting concepts relevant to their ordinary lives.

That’s why her book is such a joy to read. It’s physics for everyone.