What does a sexist google engineer teach us about women in science? | John Abraham

John Abraham: The Google engineers infamous sexist manifesto is contradicted by the brilliance of women in science.

What does a sexist Google engineer teach us about women in science?


Thats the short answer, but it deserves some commentary. In early August, a young Google computer engineer made lots of news in the US when he penned a manifesto that many described as sexist and which led to his firing. The memo was written as a backlash against efforts to improve diversity in the workplace. However, the arguments articulated by the manifesto were rightly described as offensive by Google executives.

The explosive part in the memo involved comments about how biological differences explain the paucity of women in technology and leadership fields. While there are certainly both physical and mental differences between men and women, the comments about both genders are, in my opinion, misguided and offensive.

This article is not going to focus much on the content of this so-called manifesto. It also wont focus on the author of this document, except to question the basis for how a very young engineer has the experience, training, or education to make such broad-brush generalizations. I mean, has he for instance managed scores of male and female engineers and been able to assess their quality of work and intellectual capacity? I doubt it. Has he studied this in any detail or published on the topic? I doubt it.

I found this manifesto so ironic because I give a lot of thought to differences between male and female scientists. I am not an expert in the area, certainly not in evolutionary biology. But I am a Full Professor with many years of instructing both undergraduate and graduate students in engineering. I am often struck by how small the female population is in my discipline (perhaps 20%), yet it is higher in other technical fields (biology, mathematics, chemistry, etc.). I am also impressed by how well female students do in technical courses and degree programs. I note a statistically significant performance gap between male and female students in courses; females consistently outperform their male peers.

I also have had the fortune to be a consultant for many different engineering companies from industries such as biomedical, aerospace, manufacturing, clean energy and other fields. In my work, I notice that women team members easily hold their own with male co-workers. I also believe (but I have no evidence) that women think differently than men.

In my anecdotal experience, women are able to consider problems from a wider range of perspectives. This perspective has real value to design teams, it encourages companies to pay more for female employees (yes, our female engineering graduates tend to make more than their male counterparts). Diverse teams make effective teams. That includes gender diversity. So, in my 15 or so years as a professor, and in my perhaps 50 consulting positions, I have lived an experience very different from the one this young Google engineer articulated.

With all that said, I thought this event provided an excellent opportunity to showcase some female scientists who are either world-known or becoming world-known in the field of climate science. So, here are some short bios of brilliant women climate scientists.

Dr. Magdalena Balmaseda

Magdalena A. Balmaseda has been working at ECMWF since 1995. She currently leads the Earth System Predictability Section in the Research Department.

Dr. Magdalena Balmaseda. Photograph: ECMWF

Dr. Balmaseda has developed her career by helping us understand weather and climate. She has contributed to building bridges between the climate and weather sciences. Her expertise in ocean modelling in general, and in El Nio in particular, greatly contributed to ECMWFs first steps in seasonal forecasting back in 1995. Now seasonal forecasts are one of the pillars of the EU Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S), and the ocean is included in all ECMWF probabilistic forecasting systems, contributing the provision of forecasts of atmospheric conditions from days to months and seasons ahead.

Equally important have been her contributions to the role of the ocean in a warming climate. The apparent slowing of the global rise in surface temperature in the first decade of the 21st century the so-called hiatus had puzzled the scientific community. In 2013 Dr. Balmaseda together with other colleagues demonstrated that a fair amount of energy trapped in the Earth system had actually been absorbed by deep ocean waters. This outcome was only possible thanks to a combination of information from ocean models, atmospheric winds, and ocean observations, using similar combination techniques as those employed for weather forecasting.

Dr. Karina von Schuckmann

Karina von Schuckmann is an oceanographer working in France at Mercator Ocean. She leads the ocean climate monitoring activities of the Copernicus Marine Environment Monitoring Service, which includes the development of a regular Ocean State Report with more than 100 authors. She is also a lead author of the upcoming Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Special report on ocean and cryosphere.

Dr. Karina von Schuckmann.

Her research is focused on the oceans role in the Earth energy budget. This means she studies how much heat is stored in and how it flows throughout the ocean waters. Her studies particularly highlight the unique importance of measuring the global ocean as its global heat storage is the most fundamental metric defining the status of global climate change and expectations for continued global warming. With this topic she is also playing a leading role on international scientific collaborations under the framework of the World Climate Research Program.

Dr. von Schuckmanns rsum reads like a seasoned superstars; she has worked at some of the best research labs in France, the USA, Germany. I was so surprised to find she only recently received her PhD (in 2006). I want to know how she has become a leader in the field so quickly. I guess talent will do that. Her dissertation topic was on ocean climate variability in the tropical Atlantic Ocean.

Dr. Jessica Conroy

Dr Jessica Conroy is a faculty member at the University of Illinois Urbana Champaign. She holds a dual appointment in the departments of Geology and Plant Biology. Another young and upcoming research scientist, she has been at the forefront of connecting modern climate observations and climate model outputs with long-past climate measurements (paleoclimate data). Her work has helped improve our understanding of past Earth climate.

Dr. Jessica Conroy. Photograph: Jessica Moerman

In addition, she has developed long paleoclimate records from regions that are very sensitive to climate change. For instance, remote islands across the tropical Pacific and the Tibetan Plateau. She goes where few scientists have gone to make measurements that even fewer can.

Part of her work relies upon lake sediment samples and on the use of stable isotopes (oxygen and hydrogen) to give clues about what past climate was like. Not only does this give information about past temperatures but these data also, perhaps more importantly, tell us what the water cycle was like in the past. She was recently selected as a National Academy of Sciences Kavli Fellow.

Dr. Sarah Myhre

Dr. Myhre is skilled in climate science as well as climate communication. Her area of research is in paleoceanography (the study of past climate and biology through the oceans). Her research requires her team to gather sediment cores from the seafloor, to analyze the chemical compositions and the shells of creatures that are contained within such cores, or to observe deep sea ecosystem using remotely operated submersibles. Her publications have appeared in some of the most prestigious scientific journals.

She may become even better known, however, for her work not only communicating about climate science to the general public but in training other scientists to be communicators. We scientists are often good at talking amongst ourselves, but we are less skilled at explaining why our research is important and how society can use our research to make informed decisions. This is where Dr. Myhre shines. She is a board member of the organization 500 Women Scientists and the Center for Women and Democracy, and is an uncompromising advocate for womens leadership in science and society.

Dr. Myhre and her son at the North Cascades Institute.

Dr. Rita Colwell

World-renowned expert in infectious diseases and health, Dr. Colwell has degrees in bacteriology, genetics, and oceanography; her pioneering use of computational tools and DNA sequencing helped lay the foundation for the bioinformatics revolution. This unique background has allowed her to make connections across these disciplines and enhance our understanding of water availability, disease, safe drinking water, and the effects of climate change on waterborne pathogens.

Dr. Colwell has won numerous national and international awards, such as the 2006 National Medal of Science, the 2010 Stockholm Water Prize, and the 2017 International Prize for Biology, and has and been elected to multiple Halls of Fame. She served as the director of the NSF and has served on numerous advisory roles throughout her career. As with some of the other women discussed here, Dr. Colwell prioritizes scientific communication and engagement with the public, particularly children, and expanding participation of minorities and women in the STEM fields.

Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig

Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies is fortunate to employ Dr. Cynthia Rosenzweig. Her technical focus is on climate change impacts how society will be affected by a changing climate. In addition to her technical research, she has been a tireless service worker in the field, serving as a Coordinating Lead Author on the Fourth IPCC report as well as numerous editing and directorship roles with various climate and adaptation organizations. She also has an appointment at the Center for Climate Systems Research and Columbia University.

Perhaps her most current area of research is on climate and crop productivity. She wants to know how agricultural outputs will change as the climate warms and changes to water availability occur.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco

Dr. Lubchenco is well known as a world leader in the field of environmental science. After decades of innovative research at the intersection of climate change and the ocean, President Obama tapped her to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration the federal agency that keeps the nations climate records, produces much of the federal agency climate science, and leads the U.S. National Climate Assessment. She has focused squarely on the intersection between climate change and human well-being, and the opportunities to mitigate and adapt to climate change through smarter coastal and oceanic policies and practices.

With a technical record extending back more than four decades, it is challenging to find anyone with a stronger pedigree. She has used her prestige to raise the importance of scientific communication amongst her colleagues. In the past, communicating science to the larger public was an afterthought. Dr. Lubchenco made it a critical measure of ones career. Most recently, she has issued a new call-to-arms for scientists to become more engaged with society to counter the post-truth mentality, enable citizens and leaders to have confidence in evidence and science and work together to solve climate and other urgent environmental changes.

None of these short biographies do the scientists justice, but hopefully they give a sense of how some of our top female scientists are contributing to our understanding of the world in which we live. I know they are making a sexist engineer formally employed at Google look a bit silly.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/oct/25/what-does-a-sexist-google-engineer-teach-us-about-women-in-science

Guardian of the galaxy: Nasa seeks new ‘planetary protection officer’

Role involves safeguarding Earth from extra-terrestrial infection, and stopping other planets being contaminated by robotic or human explorers

Nasa is looking for a planetary protection officer who will help safeguard Earth from alien bacteria.

No, it isnt the script of an elaborate science fiction film, but an actual job advertisement on the US governments website.

According to the site, the unusual role involves creating policies to ensure the avoidance of organic-constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration.

The job description says the three-year position involves frequent travel and comes with an annual handsome salary of up to $187,000 (141,000). The roles security clearance level is secret.

NASA People (@NASApeople)

Interested in @NASA‘s opportunity to become a Planetary Protection Officer?! Vacancy is open! Learn more on @USAJOBS https://t.co/qj10DH6s3M

August 2, 2017

The successful candidate, who must be a US citizen or national and hold a degree in physical science, engineering, or mathematics, will make sure that no microbial life travels from Earth to infect other planets, and vice versa.

The planetary protection officer will oversee all space flight missions that may intentionally or unintentionally carry Earth organisms and organic constituents to the planets or other solar system bodies, and any mission employing spacecraft, which are intended to return to Earth and its biosphere with samples from extraterrestrial targets of exploration, the ad says.

The ad was created on 13 July but this week started to gain more attention after it was posted on Twitter, prompting a slew of mildly amusing jokes and faux job applications.

Townie Bagels (@TownieBagels)

.@NASA was this the idea for planetary protection officer you had in mind? pic.twitter.com/JPpBrt5yhA

August 2, 2017

Steve Rogers (@Supes252)

Dear .@nasa I hear you’re looking for ‘Planetary Protection Officer’ we’ll now submit our interest in the position pic.twitter.com/HTOnMgSiJ1

August 2, 2017

jillthrash (@jillthrash)

There’s one other name you may know me by . . . Planetary Protection Officer. #nasa #PlanetaryProtectionOfficer pic.twitter.com/5Lz9FctcRB

August 3, 2017

The job was created in 1967 in order to make the US compliant with the International Outer Space Treaty.

In 2014, Catherine Conley, the current previous planetary protection officer, told Scientific American that one of her concerns was that humans travelling to Mars could contaminate the planet if they died there.

She said it was important not to pollute other planets and repeat the mistakes humans have made on Earth.

If you wanted to drill into an aquifer on Mars, it would be in the interest of future colonists that you keep the drilling clean because organisms can grow in the aquifer and change the conditions so that it is no longer available. Weve seen that happen on Earth. That would be really unfortunate.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/aug/03/guardian-of-the-galaxy-nasa-seeks-new-planetary-protection-officer

The hidden history of Nasas black female scientists

The diversity of Nasas workforce in 1940s Virginia is uncovered in a new book by Margot Lee Shetterly. She recalls how a visit to her home town led to a revelation

Mrs Land worked as a computer out at Langley, my father said, taking a right turn out of the parking lot of the First Baptist church in Hampton, Virginia. My husband and I visited my parents just after Christmas in 2010, enjoying a few days away from our full-time life and work in Mexico.

They squired us around town in their 20-year-old green minivan, my father driving, my mother in the front passenger seat, Aran and I buckled in behind like siblings. My father, gregarious as always, offered a stream of commentary that shifted fluidly from updates on the friends and neighbours wed bumped into around town to the weather forecast to elaborate discourses on the physics underlying his latest research as a 66-year-old doctoral student at Hampton University.

He enjoyed touring my Maine-born-and-raised husband through our neck of the woods and refreshing my connection with local life and history in the process.

As a callow 18-year-old leaving for college, Id seen my home town as a mere launching pad for a life in worldlier locales, a place to be from rather than a place to be. But years and miles away from home could never attenuate the citys hold on my identity and the more I explored places and people far from Hampton, the more my status as one of its daughters came to mean to me. That day after church, we spent a long while catching up with the formidable Mrs Land, who had been one of my favourite Sunday school teachers. Kathaleen Land, a retired Nasa mathematician, still lived on her own well into her 90s and never missed a Sunday at church.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/05/hidden-figures-black-female-scientists-african-americans-margot-lee-shetterly-space-race

With Hidden Figures, the World Finally Hears an Untold NASA Saga

On February 20, 1962, as millions watched, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth. As with every NASA mission before or since, his solo voyage was the result of a massivecoordinatedeffort; however, that effortwent far beyond the Mission Control Center in Houston. Behind the Mercury spacecraft’s flightwas a team of engineers, physicists, and human “computers” whose work largely went unnoticedand now, in the movieHidden Figures, they’re finally getting the big-screen credit they deserve.

For many boys and girls watching Glenns landing, the national heroes at NASA didnt look like them. Women and people of colorlike the trio thatHidden Figures chronicles, Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer), and Mary Jackson (Janelle Mone)might have played significant roles in space flight, but in the 1960s their stories simply werent told. “NASA history was largely about the astronauts, doing battle with the Soviet Union in space,” says NASA chief historian Bill Barry, who still vividly recalls watching Glenn’s flight on a black-and-white TV on his living room floor. But in the early 1990s, scholars began to show more interest in the history ofNASA’s workforce, and the institution’s archivists began to unearththose untold stories, in part by interviewing former female computers at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. Later, writer Margot Lee Shetterly spoke with them as well while researching her bookHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story ofthe Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race, which was optioned for a film before it was even published.

Hidden Figuresfocuses on the story of Katherine Johnson, who painstakingly re-confirmed thousands of calculations made bythen-brand-new IBM computersmany of them to eight significant digitsin order to correctly predict Glenns landing. But Barry, ever the historian, sees the true hero as Vaughan, a onetime high school math teacherwho recognized the potential of working in mathematics at the rapidly growing NASA, where she stood upfor women computers of all races. And when IBM machines threatened to make the job of human computer obsolete, Vaughan recognized the changing landscape and, with the foresight of a successful start-up founder, taught her computers to become programmers, eventually becoming the leader of computer programming. “Now, were in a time when technology is shifting jobs in a similar way as it did in the 60s,” says Barry. Dorothy saw what was coming, and reinvented herself again and again.”

Usually, filmmakers working on projects about space travel just ask to use the NASA insignia, like in The Martian, or to shoot scenes on NASA property, like at the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab in Transformers. But Ted Melfi, the co-writer and director of Hidden Figures, which opens wide this weekend, spent hours going through the script with Barry, at a level of detail the historian hadnt seen since Tom Hanks’ 1998 docuseriesFrom the Earth to the Moon. Barry ensured that the Hidden Figures team got the details right, from the models of cars at the Langley parking lot in 1962 to how long it would take news of a Russian rocket launch to reach the White House. “There were lots of weird, quirky historical things,” says Barry. “You wouldnt notice them, unless youre a geek like me.”

Barry even got to assist on a couple of Easter eggs. In a scene showingJohn Glenn (played by Glen Powell) sitting in the rocket before launch, look for a woman in a white scarf, painting on the side of the capsule. Thats Cece Bibby, the artist who designed the insignia for the craft known as Friendship 7. In the 1960s, the names of rockets were usually stenciled on by men, but Glenn wanted a special design—and when he found out the artist behind the insignia was a woman, he insisted she hand-paint it onto the spacecraft, despite the protestations of her male superiors.

But Bibby’s isn’t the only story that’s known by surprisingly few people. Astronaut Stephanie Wilson, who has flown to the International Space Station twice, hadnt heard of the women of Hidden Figures before the book and movie. In fact, Wilson built her career at NASA without female engineers as role models. “When I entered the aerospace workplace in the late 80s, there were 85 engineers, and five were women,” she says. She heard about space travel by watching male astronauts go into space, and talking to a male astronomer in her hometownbut mostly, because of the promise of space travel. “To be adventurous, to be on the forefront of explorationto be an astronaut really appealed to me,” she says. And with the movie’s reviews helping it clock in at over 90% on Rotten Tomatoes,now young women who share that sense of galactic curiosity today can look back to the women who made history in spacebefore looking up to the stars themselves.

Read more: https://www.wired.com/2017/01/nasa-history-hidden-figures/