Feminine vs. Feminist Part 2: Stanton and Steinem and Stereotypes, Oh My!

“Feminist” was considered the “f word” when I was younger. It represented pushy, overbearing, screaming bra-burners who demanded to be treated better than everyone else. They had single-handedly destroyed the very fiber of American society by pushing to open the doors for women not only to enter the professional arena in droves but also to be paid the same as their male counterparts. This meant that fewer women were at home raising their children, which of course led to a rise in things like poor academic performance, promiscuity, and abortion. With women’s lib came the sexual revolution and the diminishing of the traditional American housewife who wanted to stay at home and raise a family. That’s what most women at that time wanted.

I had a history teacher in high school who said that he definitely thinks women should have the right to vote, but that even since women were given that right, the country has become way too liberal.

Does this sound like complete drivel to you? If anything, what feminism (combined with the Civil Rights movement) helped to accomplish was to lift the lid on the stereotypes that had kept too many things boiling in secret for so long. For instance, people have been having sex outside of wedlock for millenia. As much as certain people like to say that abstinence is the most foolproof method for unwanted pregnancy, that’s an unreasonable thing to expect. Tell someone he or she can’t do something (that’s not illegal, of course) and they’ll figure out a way to do it. Feminism helped make birth control more readily available so that people could be more responsible with sex.

Not only did feminism pave the way for promoting more responsible choices, it also provided “outlets” from housework and childcare. When I hear that most women enjoyed staying at home, I want to laugh. Not because I think staying at home with a family is not as important as a paid job (which, by the way, I don’t; I think being a stay-at-home mother is just as important and honorable as any other type of honest work). But because if most women wanted to stay at home, how come so many revolted and took to the streets to demonstrate? Why would there have been a need for the Equal Pay Act, which, let’s face it, we’re still waiting to come into full effect over forty years later? And even if the majority of women wanted to be housewives, why does that have to be the predetermined path for all women?

I was taught that a woman who doesn’t put her husband and children ahead of her own wants and needs is selfish. Essentially, women with children who wanted careers were only self-serving. If your husband made enough money to support the family, the only reason a woman would work is because she’s selfish. A man who works deserves respect because he is giving his family stability. A woman who works is a scourge on family values.

So let me get this straight. A man can have his career, his family, and the respect of those around him….but a woman can’t?

I understand that today things are better than they were around the time the women’s movement began, but have you asked yourself why the movement is still going strong? Perhaps because there is still so much more to accomplish. There is still a strong need for the women’s movement because we haven’t met our goal yet: equality.

An article in Nature, “Inequality quantified: Mind the gender gap” by Helen Shen, cites a 2010 survey conducted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science in which 52% of the women reported being the subject of gender bias at some point in their careers.

But what about the men? Don’t they encounter gender bias?

Sure they do. That’s what 2% of the men reported.

The article also references an experiment conducted by Jo Handelsman, a microbiologist and director of the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery who also decided to delve into researching gender biases. She sent CVs (Curriculum Vitae – an academic version of a resume) of two fictitious people, one named John and the other Jennifer, to 127 faculty members. The CVs were identical; the only difference was the name. The result: the professors wanted to offer John almost $4000 more than Jennifer to do the same job.

Sexism doesn’t exist anymore? This study was conducted five years ago.

According to the National Academy, in 2010 the percentage of full-time female senior faculty in engineering was 9.6% nationwide. Some people might argue and say, “Well, so what? Women aren’t as interested in engineering as men. Don’t try to force them to do something they don’t want to do.”

What a crock of bull!

There are plenty of women who want to pursue careers in STEM but are discouraged from it because of the sexism that is still inherent in our society. I just recently spoke to a friend, a rather brilliant friend at that who finished her Ph.D. at Cornell around the time I finished my master’s degree, and she is currently doing really impressive work with Exxon Mobil as a chemical engineer. I spoke with her about maybe getting involved in helping young girls become involved in STEM. Her response: “I would hate to encourage girls to come into this; it’s such a terrible field.”

Why?! Because of the science?!

No, of course not. Because of the MEN.

Currently, my friend is the only woman at the meetings she attends where she has to deal with arrogant misogynists who look down on her work. People might say, “Well, tough bricks, lady. Everyone has to deal with those types of people.”

That’s true. But women seem to have to deal with it waaaay more often.

As I discussed in my previous post, “That’s So Unladylike!,” femininity is defined in a way that keeps girls “under control.” They’re supposed to be meek and quiet and are warned of being too pushy or overbearing. This type of attitude doesn’t exactly breed confidence, does it?

Boys are encouraged to be daring and take risks; are expected to be loud and obnoxious; and aren’t reprimanded for interrupting or being a show off. This type of approach with boys encourages them to continue along the risk-taking path and makes them develop more confidence. However, it develops to the point of being completely arrogant and unteachable.

One of my brothers is in the military; when we were younger, I got caught up in the military bug with him and we both joined a Junior Rifle and Pistol team. I was one of a handful of girls, and some days I was the only girl that showed up. All the instructors were men. You know what I was told?

“Girls are better shots than boys.”

WHAT?!

Yep. Girls are better at shooting than boys. The reason? The boys think it’s somehow embedded in their DNA to be able to shoot a gun and hit the bullseye. The girls are more willing to admit they don’t know what they’re doing and actually listen to the advice the experts are giving them.

And how true it was. For a while, I was a better shot than my military-bound brother (until he actually joined the military and had way more practice time than I did).

One night in particular, I was on a hot streak. I must have advanced three ranks in two hours. All the kids’ fathers were there watching and saw the marks I was receiving and how impressed the instructors were. One father stood up and yelled at the boys, “This girl is kicking your a**es!”

My father looked over at me with a smile that said, “That’s my girl!”

Girls can excel at things for which they are given the same amount of positive attention that the boys are given. They have the ability, but, like most aspects of life, if the proper encouragement isn’t given early in life, the deep-seated misconception of not being good enough or smart enough or “born with it” takes hold and creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

We need to start teaching both boys and girls that they are capable of being daring and nurturing; of conquering new feats and being content with their lives (but not complacent); and of pursuing any dream that comes their way. We need to invest equally in the mindsets of both genders sooner rather than later. Feminism has helped put us on that track. It has helped improve society, not tear it down.

Isn’t it amazing what a group of women can accomplish?

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Feminine vs. Feminist Part 1: That’s So Unladylike!

What does “femininity” mean? Growing up, being “feminine” meant keeping quiet while the boys were “just being boys.” It meant keeping my ankles crossed lest anyone catch a glimpse of my “foundational” garments because of the stupid skirt required as part of my parochial school uniform. It meant being demure and sweet and unobtrusive.

It feels weird to describe this, considering this was just during the 1990s, barely 20 years ago. But that was femininity in my world. Boys were allowed to be obnoxious, but humility and modesty were held as the standard for girls. We seemed to be the ones who were raised to be more responsible and accountable (even for things that were outside our control) and also more considerate. For example, how many girls volunteer to help cook and serve (though I really hate to use the word “serve”) Thanksgiving dinner and clean up afterwards even if they are guests in someone else’s home?

And how many boys will just park it on the couch and watch a football game, only caring about the score and the food that keeps magically appearing in front of them?

Rose Hackman describes this emotional labor in her article “’Women are just better at this stuff’: Is emotional labor feminism’s next frontier?” Most women are still the sole caretakers of the home and children while men claim they would help more if they were asked. This isn’t because women are more inherently inclined to housework and childcare but because until recent years these have been considered predominantly feminine tasks. The expectations for women to be more considerate, better managers, and better multi-taskers than men start early for girls and are further exacerbated by society’s biased opinions.

In my former circles, society determined that wives were to be submissive to their husbands and, while they were “allowed” to work outside the home, should preferably be full-time mothers and homemakers. Women could teach other women and, of course, children, but a woman was not supposed to teach a man, especially her husband. An unmarried woman is under the authority of her father until she marries, which is when her husband takes on the authority.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I wish I were.

I was told that “men give love to get sex and women give sex to get love.” So, ladies, I hate to burst your bubble, but the only reason he’s nice to you is so that he can get some. Dating advice that was given to the girls was to ask for help; it makes the guys feel more like men when they know they’re helping you with something. Yeah, makes total sense. Act helpless; pretend you can’t take care of yourself. Be the damsel in distress so he can rescue you and feel better about himself. After all, it’s about his ego, right?

As a kid, I asked why I would need to submit to a husband. What if he was making a really stupid decision?

“Well then, it’s not your responsibility. And, besides, if you marry a good man, he’ll know the difference between right and wrong.”

So essentially good men always know what to do. Wow, isn’t that a relief.

“Oh, of course your opinion will still matter! Your husband should take your feelings into consideration when he makes the final decision.”

I’m sorry. WHAT?! When he makes the final decision?

One lady actually told me that I should trust my husband to know what is best for me. Ummm, I have been living my own life for almost thirty years now; I think if anyone will know what’s best for me it would be, uh, ME!

But in my former life, which I have since left behind, that was considered the quintessential woman. The one who is submissive and always asks for help (but heaven forbid she asks for help with the housework since that is her “domain”). She always acts and dresses modestly so as not to attract negative attention from men who just can’t help themselves and struggle constantly with surges of testosterone every twenty seconds.

Apparently, according to the religious leaders of my childhood, men are more sexual than women; women are more emotional, and because of that, they are more irrational and do not make good decisions. Which is why husbands are supposed to have the final say so as not to introduce chaos into their households. (Apparently it’s so much better to have the person who’s allegedly more sexual making all the decisions.)

I can’t tell you how many times I heard the following statements when I was growing up:

“Men are natural-born leaders; women are naturally submissive.” I can think of a ton of examples of naturally-submissive men and naturally-assertive women.

“Men love the thrill of the chase.” So I’m just an object to be won?

“Let him lead; it makes him feel more like a man.” So either dumbing myself down or acting as if I can’t take care of myself makes him feel more masculine. That doesn’t sound a little controlling and possibly borderline abusive?

But there’s no way sexism still exists, right?

I understand that not everyone grows up with this kind of background and not all religious groups promote this kind of inanity; but this is still an attitude that pervades society. No wonder women have a much harder time than men in their professional careers. I sure do.

This type of indoctrination did not help my already naturally shy personality develop into confidence. If anything, I felt more that I had to rely on others’ validation of me to determine whether or not I was successful. I had always been a people pleaser and only willing to do things by the book. This is not exactly the type of personality that survives in STEM for very long.

Any STEM field requires tenacity, assertiveness, creativity, and the guts to do something crazy in spite of being discouraged on all fronts. This flies in the face of what society defines as “feminine,” whose definition has only served to perpetuate the double standard that pervades nearly every professional arena.

My one saving grace in all of this was my parents, especially my father. They chose the parochial schools we attended based on the secular curriculum that was taught, which was more rigorous than a typical public school. When I told them about the nitty-gritty details of the sexist religious instruction years after I graduated, they were livid to say the least.

I’m the youngest of a brood of four; my older siblings are all boys. My father wasn’t about to let me be pushed around for the rest of my life. Instead, he wanted to make sure I would never have to depend on a man for anything. He and my mother made sure I had both baby dolls and Legos to play with; Star Wars and Beauty and the Beast to watch; and Cool Tools and Pretty, Pretty Princess to entertain myself. He let me help him with his home improvement projects and enrolled me in a jiu jitsu course so I could defend myself (although my three brothers had taken care of that early on in my life).

And when the time came for me to apply to college, my father wanted me to go into STEM. He picked the most rigorous, male-dominated, “unfeminine” field possible: chemical engineering. After hours of arguing with him, he finally told me, “It’s my job to make sure you’ll be able to stand on your own two feet. And, besides, you have the mind for this; I don’t want to see you waste it.”

I can’t thank him enough for that.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

The Magic of Chasing Dreams and Facing Fears

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined. – Thoreau

Once upon a time, when I was young and stupid (though I’m still young and still pretty stupid), I had my whole life planned. I was in my senior year of college and had just been accepted to Cornell for my Ph.D. in chemical engineering. I was engaged to a man who had been my best friend since I was 14. Because I was leaving for Cornell in August and knew I wouldn’t have time to plan a wedding once I started, my mother and best friend and I decided to finish as much as possible before the summer.

We had a blast! I found a dress that my mother and I immediately fell in love with; my best friend found a bridesmaid’s dress that we both gushed over; we had a location for the ceremony and reception, the members of the bridal party, the flowers, invitations, and DJ. I even had the dress I would wear to my wedding shower. The only things left were some of the nitty-gritty details.

My plan was to start working on my Ph.D., and two years later, I would get married. My fiance, who lived in Michigan, agreed to move to Ithaca after the wedding and work from home. We didn’t want kids right away, so I would just focus on work and publish cutting-edge papers and present at dozens of conferences. Then I would get a position as a post-doc at an equally, if not more, prestigious institution and double my publications. After that, I would go on to become a world-class professor and hopefully join the National Academy of Engineering.

In my first year, I saw that whole plan go down the toilet.

The distance between my fiance and me put a great deal of things into perspective. Even though he was an amazing guy, I started to realize that we weren’t right for each other. Calling off the engagement was the hardest decision I have ever had to make. I wasn’t just putting an end to the wedding; I was ending a part of my life.

My plan was starting to fall apart. And it only got worse.

I had been struggling since I arrived at Cornell. My adviser tried to tell me that was perfectly normal, and that Cornell only takes the top students. The first year is designed to stretch everyone to see who’s the best of the best, which means most of the students, who aren’t used to failure, struggle just to stay at average.

I didn’t realize for many years that my struggle stemmed from an undiagnosed health issue. While I was at Cornell, I finally went to the doctor and received one diagnosis. Four years later, I found out I had been misdiagnosed and the problem was actually more serious than anyone thought. Looking back, it finally makes sense why I struggled so much. As an undergraduate, I was a machine. My whole life revolved around my work. As a graduate student, I wanted more than anything else to continue on that same path; but my illness reared its ugly head and impeded my goals.

The most frustrating part is that I had no idea just how bad it was until long after I had finished at Cornell.

I desperately tried to make it work. I couldn’t explain why I had so little energy, why everything always seemed to hurt, and why things that I desperately loved to do became chores and cost me the very little energy I had.

My plan was unraveling. And the more it fell apart, the harder I tried to make it work…and it only got worse.

I finally approached my adviser and told her I needed to stop at my master’s degree. The Ph.D. would still become a reality sooner or later, but it was clearly not in the cards at that particular time. My work was still cutting-edge; no one else had done the type of work I was doing, and my data was published in two very high-impact journals. My time at Cornell was hardly spent in vain.

But I knew that the amount of energy required for a Ph.D. was just too far out of reach for me. I needed to go home.

I successfully defended my thesis and started pounding the pavement trying to find a job and was met once more with a boatload of discouragement. My plan had always been to stay in academia; therefore, all my experience revolved around working in a lab. I had never even worked as an intern at a company and so I lacked many of the skills the head hunters were told to look for.

But I ended up not having to wait too long for a job. Within three weeks of my thesis defense, my former professor called me and asked if I wanted a job teaching part-time, which I jumped at. Part-time work was better than nothing.

A month later, I received a full-time offer from the Naval Academy and a contract position at IBM. When I told my boss, he immediately set out to create a full-time position specifically for me, which I immediately accepted. Things were starting to look up.

Hindsight is always 20/20; I can see now that this series of events was supposed to happen.

Have you ever listened to “Something Wild” with Lindsey Stirling and Andrew McMahon? This song resonates with me in a way that nothing else has because it felt like it was written with me in mind.

“You had your maps drawn.

You had other plans to hang your hopes on.

Every road they let you down felt so wrong.

So you found another way.”

I had my whole life planned and it fell like a deck of cards. For the longest time I judged myself based on my accomplishments (or lack thereof) and believed I was a failure. But once I started working as a teacher, I started to get back on my feet.

“You’ve got a big heart.

The way you see the world, it got you this far.

You might have some bruises and a few scars.

But you know you’re gonna be okay.

Even though you’re scared, you’re stronger than you know.”

I definitely have the scars to prove I was a Cornell graduate student. I felt like I had been torn apart and put back together in the most haphazard way. And because of that, I eventually learned a few things about myself, one of which is that I have a strength within me that I had never bothered to tap into before. And that was something I needed to realize when I started my new journey as an educator.

“Sometimes the past can

Make the ground beneath you feel like quicksand.

You don’t have to worry; you reach for my hand.

And I know you’re gonna be okay.

Even though you’re scared, you’re stronger than you know.”

For a long time after I finished, I wanted to forget about my time at Cornell. I felt embarrassed because I hadn’t finished what I had set out to do, and I worried that I was doomed to repeat that same “failure.”

“If you’re lost out where the lights are blinding,

Caught in all, the stars are hiding,

That’s when something wild calls you home.

If you face the fear that keeps you frozen,

Chase the sky into the ocean,

That’s when something wild calls you home.”

That line “face the fear that keeps you frozen” defines everything that I’ve had to do ever since I left Cornell. And I realized years later that I had done that even when I was at Cornell. Struggling as hard as I did scared me senseless. I had no idea where I stood with my health and always felt like everyone else was outperforming me; I didn’t think I belonged or deserved to be there.

But like I said, this was supposed to happen. I didn’t fail at Cornell; I was a success! I have a master’s in one of the most demanding fields from an Ivy League university and data published in prestigious journals. That can hardly be considered a failure.

This isn’t to brag. I’m no better or worse than anyone else. And that is the whole point of this post. I wasted so much of my time and energy comparing myself to other people and feeling as if I didn’t measure up. But once I changed my perspective, I made peace with my past and learned to be thanful for it.

I simply plotted a new course. And I have no regrets about any of it. I found a job that I fell in love with and quickly worked my way up; during that time, I realized passions and talents I never knew I had. And I became convinced that getting my Ph.D. and becoming a professor really are for me. It’s something that I want more and more each day, and now I have a tangible motivator to push me.

My illness is now my lifelong companion. I worried for the longest time about going back to graduate school, thinking I was only going to repeat my Cornell experience. But since I learned of my diagnosis, I have worked to turn this from a liability into an asset, and now I know that I can be successful because of it, not in spite of it.

Am I scared? Yes.

Have I wanted to pull out before I even start? Yes.

But will I? No.

It’s fine to have a plan, and it’s great to be ambitious. But it’s also ok for those plans to be fluid. Let them change with time. As you discover new things about yourself, you’ll see the things you’re meant to do. If the course changes, you haven’t failed; you’ve simply embraced who you were supposed to be all along.

Just don’t avoid going down a path because you don’t think you have the ability or the guts. That is giving up. And that’s when you fail.

What do you have to lose? A little pride? So what?! We’ve all fallen flat on our faces. Those are when some of the greatest learning opportunities come along and you build the skills you need to tackle the next thing that comes your way!

I don’t regret going to Cornell. In fact, some of my best memories are from that time. And that just goes to show that even a seemingly bad situation can actually end up being one of your greatest.

It is truly something magical.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

A Grad Student’s Life for Me!

We work and we research throughout five long years.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

In our data we pour our blood, sweat, and tears.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

Oh no, oh no, a grad student’s life for me!

A special thank you to George Bruns for composing the song I just “pirated” and put my own grad student spin on.

Get it?

I know. Lame, lame, lame. That’s STEM humor for you.

The “lyrics” that I composed represent something paradoxical: the bittersweetness of being a graduate student. It’s a love-hate relationship in the sense that we love the opportunity of learning and studying something that no one else ever has before and forming friendships with like-minded nerds. But we hate constantly banging our heads against brick walls trying to figure out why our data looks awful; why we work 80 hours a week for meager pay; and why we seem trapped in an ever-shrinking prison that is our lab.

There are three questions you should NEVER, EVER ask a grad student:

  1. “How is research going?”
  2. “When do you graduate?”
  3. “Do you have a job yet?”

And why should you never ask them these questions? Because most of the time the answer is a resounding “no,” and you have only served to remind them of their miserable plight.

  1. “Research is going; where it’s going, I don’t know.”
  2. “Your guess is as good as mine; or as good as my adviser’s.”
  3. “If I had one, do you think I’d still be here?”

When I was a first-year grad student at Cornell, I volunteered to help out for the new grad recruitment weekend. Why I volunteered, I don’t know. I was most likely the worst person to help serve as a positive image of what Cornell had to offer. Actually, I think all the first-years were. We were in the middle of our second term and still reeling from our first semester. Just trying to keep up with the material was bad enough, but in our second semester we also had to start working in our labs.

For each of us that volunteered for the recruitment weekend, we were assigned a “buddy,” whom we had to contact prior to their arrival. The people coordinating the recruitment weekend sent us a template for a “suggested” email.

What was suggested: “Congratulations on your acceptance to Cornell University!”

What we wanted to say: “Dude, the feeling won’t last long.”

What was suggested: “Cornell offers a plethora of opportunities to her students.”

What we wanted to say: “Run! Turn around and run while you still have the chance! Get a job, work 8 to 5, and live off of something besides Ramen noodles and coffee!”

Sending that email was bad enough, but the weekend itself proved to be an even bigger challenge.

We had just finished a 24-hour midterm (that really had taken the full 24 hours) and were getting ready to welcome the new class. We tried pasting smiles on our faces but weren’t 100% successful since we had been awake for 40 hours.

When the coordinators wanted the students to have an up-close look at what life is like for a Cornell engineering graduate student, they definitely delivered.

This sounds awful, doesn’t it? Who would want to live this way? Little sleep, little pay, constant frustration.

And yet these are some of my favorite memories.

For my qualifying exam, I had to write a research proposal before the beginning of my second academic year. That summer, all first-year students spent a ridiculous amount of time in their labs. Now that we weren’t taking classes, we had the time to devote to learning the techniques required to generate some preliminary data.

I, in all my stupidity, decided that since my lab was always hopping that I would work during the night and sleep during the day.

Probably the worst plan in the world.

Once a week my research adviser had a one-on-one meeting with each member in the lab. Mine were always scheduled around 10 AM. If I had worked normal hours, that time would have been completely manageable. However, I was going into work around 5 PM, working until anywhere between 3 and 7 AM the next morning, going to bed around 9 AM, and waking up around 2 or 3 PM.

So incredibly stupid.

By the time I met with my adviser, I had been awake for close to 20 hours. Try explaining crystal data on 4 hours of sleep. She must have thought I was the biggest idiot, in spite o not knowing about my “master plan.”

In order to get ourselves through those nights, my best friend (who also worked the graveyard shift) and I would make frequent trips each day to Collegetown Bagels, the hip coffee join right off campus and just down the street from our building. The place closes at 2 AM, so we would fuel up when we got to work, stop in a couple more times for something to eat (and of course for more caffeine), and then return to stock up around midnight to get us through the early morning hours until they opened again at 7 AM. Then we could go get our dinner of bagels and, of course, more coffee before going home to get some sleep. (At that point, we had had so much coffee that we had become immune to the effects of caffeine; but because we still enjoyed the taste we would reward ourselves for getting through another day of work.)

Again, that sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And yet that is one of my favorite memories of all time. My friends and I bonded over our shared love of coffee and commiserated over our insane work hours and lack of sleep.

But it was all short-lived. We didn’t stay sleep-deprived. We finished our quals, got some rest, and then moved on to the next ordeal (which presented its own challenges).

And that is why that in this blog post, written shortly before I re-enter the wonderful world of graduate school, I hope we can all learn to live in the moment while not being bogged down with all the stress and pressure that accompanies it. Embrace the chaos that comes your way, and remember that everything is temporary. You can never get those moments back.

Did you “suck out all the marrow of life” (to quote Thoreau)? Did you take that opportunity to grow in ways you never thought possible? Did you enjoy every second of it?

Added to our names, the letters Ph.D.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

I would not have done it differently.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

Oh no, oh no, the life’s no longer for me!

I definitely would not want to do it differently.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Let’s Hear It for the Girls!

You remember the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. It’s one of the most popular princess movies of all time. And of course, who can forget the queen’s famous catchphrase: “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest of them all?” When the mirror tells her that Snow White is her competition, the queen plots her rival’s murder, which ultimately leads to her own demise.

It sounds silly, doesn’t it? A queen so vain that she’s willing to kill someone just to be the most glorious person in the land. She would have been the fairest, but she was also the most insecure.

What do you say to yourself when you look in the mirror?

Most women, like the queen, have serious self-confidence issues, including yours truly. Now, I don’t think there are any women out there plotting brutal murders. I do, however, believe that we are plagued by lies that have become commonplace in our society yet they have been set as the standard for success. And if we don’t measure up, we are clearly unworthy.

How many of you look at yourselves and only see your physical “imperfections”? A little too much around the waist, too many lines around your eyes, some gray hairs. I’m going to sound like a hypocrite because I have problems with this too, but let me just tell you this:

Embrace it, baby.

Seriously. Give yourself a big hug. You deserve it.

That extra skin you’ve got from enjoying that second piece of cake: you were allowing yourself to indulge in some of life’s simple pleasures. Or from emotional overeating: you needed comfort; don’t we all? Or from pregnancy: you brought children, new souls, into this world. Or from a surgery: you made it through and you’re alive. Those extra lines around your face: no one should ever be accused of smiling too much. Those gray hairs: you’ve lived and you’ve acquired wisdom, something that is revered in many cultures.

How many of you look at yourselves and see your parental “imperfections”? Kids that won’t stop crying, a house that’s always a mess, dinners that come from takeout containers more often than from the oven.

Embrace that chaos! And while you’re at it, embrace yourself!

Those crying kids: they still need you, and those cries can help remind you that you still have a purpose not only as a parent but also just as a human being. That house that’s always messy: it’s lived in. It’s a home where people feel comfortable, and YOU created that cozy environment. That takeout dinner: you’re giving yourself an extra break to focus on more important things like just being there for your kids as a parent and not as a cook or a maid.

How many of you look at yourselves and see your career “imperfections”? That meeting you were late to, the work that’s piling up, the promotion you didn’t get.

Chin up, dear! Hug yourself and those challenges you’re facing really tightly!

That meeting: don’t worry; there will be others. You were late because you expect too much of yourself and have stretched yourself a little too far. So you’re ambitious! That’s awesome! You’re discovering your strengths and weaknesses. That work that’s piling up: that shows that a lot of people value what you do and want your help because they trust you. That promotion: it sucks, it really does. But maybe you have more to learn where you are, and that’s never a bad thing. Or maybe there’s something even better waiting for you. Chalk it all up to experience!

I love the line from Dr. Seuss, “Today you are you; that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is youer than you.”

There is no one else out there like you! Think about that. You are the only you there is. You have talents and gifts and abilities that only you possess, and you can use those to leave a unique stamp on this world. Because of you, someone else’s life can be enriched.

Another one of my favorite quotes is, “Who is wise? Those who learn from everyone.” (I paraphrased to make it more inclusive of those who aren’t men.) 😉

A teacher of mine explained that wise saying to me as everyone has a uniqueness, something that no one else has. And it is up to that person to teach it to someone else. The mark of a true teacher is not one that simply lights a candle that flickers but one that nurtures the flame until it rises on its own. Only then can your student become a teacher.

We live in a society that tells women they have to do it all: look like a supermodel, have the best possible career, marry an equally successful husband, and raise 2.5 perfect, well-behaved children who are supposed to be prodigies.

Look at all the advertisements out there. Want to get rid of your wrinkles? Your gray hair? That extra flab? The stretch marks? Want to stop the aging process altogether?

Now if you feel insecure and those products help you feel better about yourself: go for it, girl! Just do it for yourself, not to please anyone else. You’re the one that has to live in your body; only you can determine what will make you happy with it.

What about all the pressure women have from society expecting them to be the perfect mothers, the primary caretakers of their homes, husbands, and children? Thankfully, we’re seeing more men stepping up and actually taking responsibility for the mess they helped make in their homes and raising the children they helped create. (Seriously, dudes; your job didn’t stop after the fun part.)

Have you looked at job postings recently? Apparently the only jobs that are available that pay well and have good benefits are the ones you should’ve started honing the skills for when you were in junior high.

We cannot allow others’ perceptions of us to determine our realities. And so this begs the question:

Who is the biggest liar of us all?

Is it society? Or is it ourselves?

Society has definitely lied to us since the beginning of time. But if we choose to believe it, when we know better than anyone else what we’re capable of, then we’ve become even bigger liars.

This is why things like the Dove Campaign’s “Like a Girl” and Microsoft’s “Make What’s Next” have become not just important but necessary. We have to counteract the lies that have permeated society and promote the truth:

We’re beautiful, regardless of whether or not we can rock a bathing suit like a Baywatch lifeguard.

We’re strong, because we face these lies and all the pressure head on, even though we feel like giving up.

We’re intelligent, because we take the uniqueness we each possess and nurture it so that we can share that gift with the world, who so desperately needs what we have to offer.

You define what success is. Only you know what’s most important to you, and only you know what you need to do to foster that love and make it your reality.

And so far, you’re doing an amazing job!

So let’s hear it for the girls! We’ve earned it.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Immortal Cells and the Rape Culture

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is one of my favorite books of all time. Usually, I only read a book once, even for a book I enjoy. But a book that I can’t get enough of: that’s one I read multiple times.

That is how good this book is.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who grew up in the South in the 1920s and 30s. Her life was nothing out of the ordinary for a woman during that time. As a Southern African-American woman, her opportunities for advancement in any arena were, sadly, few and far between. She was married as a teenager, had five children, and lived through the Great Depression and a world war at a poverty level that was lower than most, even for back then. However, she was devoted to her family and recognized that she was capable of making her life as interesting as she wanted it to be.

Sadly, she died from cervical cancer at the age of 31. She had gone to Johns Hopkins for surgery and treatment, and one of the doctors took some of the cancer cells and sent them to Dr. George Gey, a cell biologist who had been trying to create a cell line with little success. With Henrietta’s cells, though, Dr. Gey was able to create the first immortal cell line called HeLa (for Henrietta Lacks). From this line, the polio vaccine was created, AIDS and cancer research have advanced, and observations of how human cells behave outside Earth’s atmosphere have helped propel NASA into space.

 

But here’s an interesting fact: Henrietta never consented to having her cells used for research.

Back in the 1950s, doctors didn’t need to ask for consent to conduct medical research on tissues removed from patients. This was also back in the day when doctors weren’t obligated to fully disclose the extent of someone’s illness to a patient. With the HeLa cell line, these practices have come under attack and sparked some intense court cases that have put into law specific guidelines for patient consent in cell/tissue/organ removal and medical research. Before the laws were put in place regarding consent practices, the justification was that once cells had been removed from your body, they were no longer a part of you and doctors could do whatever they wanted with them.

Does this sound familiar at all?

Does it remind you of the persistent rape culture in our society?

A woman is drunk and will say yes to just about anything and that’s all that’s needed to take advantage of her, right?

But even if she says no, how is she going to stop anyone?

Really, she doesn’t even need to be drunk. She’s a woman, they’re usually weaker than men (especially a group of men), and since she can’t physically resist, she’s fair game.

This all sounds ridiculous, right?

I sure hope you said yes to that question. Otherwise, seek help immediately, you misogynist.

Why do we side with rapists, the villains themselves, over the victims? Why is it that the questions that are asked when a woman is raped is, “What was she wearing?”, “Why was she out so late at night?”, “Why was she drinking?”, “What was she doing there?”, “Doesn’t she know that’s exactly the type of place where these things happen?”

Yeah, these things happen at those places because WE DON’T PUNISH THE PEOPLE WHO COMMIT THE CRIME! Why should they bother stopping when they know there won’t be a penalty?

She was dressed up; she was asking for it.

She wanted to hang out with her friends and they were out after midnight; she was begging for it.

She had a couple drinks; heck, at this point, she was practically planning it.

She wanted to check out the party and see some of her other friends; she was practically forcing their hand.

She thought she could trust the people she was with; well forget them raping her; she was pushing herself onto them.

Again, does this sound stupid and outrageous to you? Because it should.

Remember Brock Turner, the rapist who was only sentenced to six months in jail after raping a woman behind a dumpster? Do you remember his father’s letter to the judge? He is such a great guy, a good Stanford student, an excellent swimmer, an amazing friend who made one stupid mistake that his father didn’t want to see ruin his son’s life.

Oh. Well I never thought about it that way. You’re right. Poor Brock. After all, he’s just a kid. All college boys make dumb choices; he was just sowing his wild oats. Isn’t that a rite of passage for young men?

What about the girl he raped? That “stupid mistake” he made changed her life forever. People who have been robbed say that they no longer feel safe in their own homes. Imagine not feeling safe in your own body. Imagine being used in the most debased way and not having any control over it.

Now imagine the people who were charged with protecting you siding with the person who treated you like an animal and sweeping your “problem” under the rug.

Since when is it ok to villainize victims? Why are women, who are the targets, immediately blamed for what happened?

Do I believe in exercising good judgment? Yes. Do I think it’s necessary to take extra precautions if you’re going to be in a vulnerable situation? Absolutely.

The sad thing is though that I, and other women, shouldn’t have to worry about avoiding those situations. We shouldn’t be the ones held responsible.

Golda Meir, Israel’s fourth prime minister, was asked if women should be put under curfew following an increase in rape across the country.

Her response (paraphrased): “The men are the rapists. Let them stay at home. Why punish the women?”

You go, girl.

We need to stop holding women accountable for everything. We are not the guardians of sex; we will not be confined to “submissive roles”; and we will not allow a man’s perspective of us determine our realities.

And you know what, dudes? This change in attitude would have a positive outcome for you too. No longer would you be viewed as nothing more than a wild animal who’s not in control of his urges. No longer would you be seen as an insecure, spineless bully who has to exert his authority over us “helpless” females just to make you feel secure in your masculinity. Now you can be seen as real men, the kind who take responsibility and hold themselves accountable for their own actions.

All relationships are based on everyone giving and taking.

But that doesn’t mean you can take against someone’s will.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

A Heart Unfettered by Foolish Dreams

Show me a heart unfettered by foolish dreams, and I’ll show you a happy man.

Ah, Tennyson, you heralder of impending doom; you’ve struck again.

I do enjoy Tennyson’s works; he is one of the most celebrated writers of all time, and deservedly so. He knew how to wield his pen like a sword. Unfortunately, this particular sword was dripping with poison.

A lot of the nerds out there will remember that this line was used in a discussion between Mr. McAllister and Mr. Keating in The Dead Poets Society. Mr. McAllister (played by Leon Pownall) is commenting on the teaching tactics of Mr. Keating (played by the unparalleled Robin Williams, who is so desperately missed). Mr. Keating believes in teaching students to broaden their minds and think for themselves, not parrot the opinions of others. Mr. McAllister quotes this famous Tennyson line as a way of saying that free thinking can only lead to disappointment.

But who could forget Mr. Keating’s drop-the-mic response?

“But only in their dreams can men be truly free. ‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”

I can see Tennyson’s point: the fewer chances taken lead to fewer disappointments. That old saying “Ignorance is bliss” was coined for a reason. The less involved you are in worldly matters, the fewer reasons you have to be upset and stressed. You can enjoy your own life and pretend that your world is perfect as is. The cliche definitely rings true.

But so does “Knowledge is power.”

The more aware you are of the world around you, the more prepared you are to change it for the better and leave your mark on it. Why pretend your world is perfect when the power to help make it come close to perfect actually does lie with you?

Many people are content with where they are in their lives and are happy with going to work, coming home, and working on their hobbies. They are providing for themselves and their families, their needs are met, and for them, that means a fulfilled life.

I think that’s amazing. That’s a wonderful way to live.

But that is not how I want to live.

I’m a goal-setter. Once I’ve achieved one goal, I set my sights on another. To me, life is so much more interesting and fulfilling that way. A lot of people might read that and say that my life must be so empty, always chasing new things, never being content, and filling my life with things that fade away.

But do they really fade?

The legacies we leave behind will impact this world in some way. People may not remember from whom the legacy stemmed, but it was still given to us whether directly from that person; from someone else who knew him or her; or from someone else who was part of the ripple effect.

And there is nothing wrong with wanting to be remembered.

I want to be a mover and a shaker in science and come up with something so revolutionary that it rattles the very core of how we approach research and development. I want to propel women forward in STEM so that both the wage and gender gaps close completely. I want to reform education so that no student ever feels bereft of anything knowledge has to offer but instead learns how to be creative and independent in every challenge.

I want to leave behind something that makes people come alive with inspiration to learn as much as they can and to use that knowledge to move society in a positive direction.

For some people their legacy is through their children.

For me, I want it to be through science and education.

I don’t see how one is better or worse than the other. They’re just different.

Maybe my dreams are too foolish or ambitious. Maybe they’re too self-serving. Wanting to know that your life wasn’t spent in vain doesn’t have to be achieved through recognition. But in my mind, the bigger the wave, the more intense the ride.

Now don’t go thinking I’m heading down a destructive path here. I’m not thinking of Hurricane Katrina-type effects. I’m thinking of those nice swells that make professional surfers hyperventilate from excitement. And one of the great things about big waves is that when they crash, they change the landscape.

For my students, their final project is to design their own projects.

WHAT?!

Yeah, the idea made them panic at first, too. They were so used to people telling them what to do all the time that they hadn’t been encouraged to get in touch with their creative sides. Once I talked through ideas with them, their eyes would light up. They became excited about their projects, knowing that they were attempting something no beginning programmer had tried before, let alone thought up on his or her own. They were leaving their own personal stamps on the class; they were contributing to it and making it a better experience. And when I told them that the more crazy and “out there” the idea, the better the grade, they leaped at that project. Finally, they were trusted enough to take matters into their own hands and work on what was important to them.

We all have the ability to take our creativity and independence and wield it into a force to be reckoned with. Who cares about the naysayers? Some of the greatest accomplishments created by the human race were snubbed as the products of fools.

I wouldn’t mind being known as a fool if it meant that the work I leave behind will have made others’ experiences more passionate. Because to me there is nothing greater than putting your hard-earned knowledge to good use and seeing it come to fruition not only in your life but also in others’ lives.

In my humble opinion, your legacy doesn’t determine your importance.

But it does make the importance of your life something that lasts.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Midnight Memories…In the Lab

“Tell me that I’m wrong but I do what I please.”

Somehow, One Direction was able to sum up the entire graduate experience in one line.

Don’t judge me. I am not a 1D fan. But I did take my niece to see them a few years ago on one of their tours (so this would have been pre-fallout, as is the fate of pretty much every boy band ever formed). It was actually the first concert I’ve been to. And after that experience, it’s the last concert that I will EVER go to. The stadium was filled with thousands of screaming tweens, and for three hours afterward, I felt as if I were in a tunnel. My poor eardrums had suffered so much torture that they declared mutiny on me.

In addition to “Midnight Memories” being a huge pop hit, it is, oddly enough, a minor tribute to grad student life. No, we don’t go everywhere “singing, singing, singing, singing.” But we are used to constantly being told that we’re wrong and then going ahead with whatever we were doing in the first place, much to the chagrin of pretty much everyone around us.

We do go straight from planes to hotels for conferences and are not always sure where we are because we’re too freaking exhausted to notice. We do normally have large house parties since we only know each other and even when we leave our labs we still have to talk about our work. Sadly, the only people that want to hear about our work are the people we work with.

No, we don’t always know where we’re going but we are trying to find our way. And that’s not even in reference to research (though it very well could be). Many a grad student has asked her- or himself if what she or he is doing is worth it.

We definitely do care about how much we spend, though. We’re grad students. We work our tails off for a pittance. (A bit of an exaggeration; we make enough to live off of if we have a couple roommates.) Although sometimes when we get too depressed about our own lack of progress, we spend more money than we should thinking it will perk us up.

It doesn’t.

Because we then become depressed by the next credit card bill we have to pay, and a vicious cycle ensues.

I guess the big question is do we stay up until midnight?

Ha! Midnight? I laugh in the face of midnight. I’m sure you actually meant have we stayed up until all hours and then gone to work the next day?

Oh yeah.

I remember writing a draft for a paper and my adviser sent me corrections before Thanksgiving. Stupid as I was (and possibly still am), I thought that since the corrections appeared minor I would only need a couple hours to do them. So I went home to pack and decided to work on the corrections that afternoon and make the nine-hour drive during the night to get home.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

The corrections ended up taking me about TWELVE HOURS to finish. Even though I was exhausted, I figured what the heck? I’m up anyway; I might as well get the drive over with.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Driving while tired is similar to driving while drunk. I had to pull over twice to take a nap since I could barely keep my eyes open. What was only supposed to be a 9-hour drive (even with the holiday traffic) turned into a 15-hour trek. What made matters worse was my cat wanted to cuddle with me while I napped; but when I woke up she’d lodged herself under the passenger seat. When I got home, it took my mother pulling her front paws and me prodding her tush with the windshield scraper to get her out.

Another fun-filled experience came around midterms, which usually results in some form of academic PTSD. The prof had given us our test and told us we had 24 hours to finish it but that we would definitely not need the whole 24 hours.

Oh, but we definitely did.

I don’t think there was anyone in the class that actually finished the test. The ones that actually went to bed that night had just stopped caring after hour 18. On top of that, the deadline for the exam was at 10 the next morning, which meant we all had a full day ahead of us.

Enter my quantum mechanics class, which at the time was the bane of my existence. And my prof, who felt I was the bane of HER existence, already didn’t like me. How much did her opinion worsen while I was struggling to keep my eyes open (especially after she turned out the lights to show us something on the projector)? I honestly have no idea; I thought her opinion of me couldn’t get any worse, but it most likely did.

(Interesting side note: even as I was dozing off, I was still taking notes. And they were almost 100% right. How weird is that…)

I’ve spent the night on the couch in my lab before. (Yeah, my adviser had a couch, a toaster oven, and a fridge in our office space; essentially, she wanted to give us everything we needed to just stay there.) Even as a teacher, I’ve spent the night in my office. At least in my former lab there was a couch; in my office there was the floor, which cost me a visit to the chiropractor.

Such is the way of academia. Some of our best work is accomplished at the most profane hours. We never know when inspiration will strike. If it even bothers to, we have to be ready for it. (Hence the reason you will see coffee makers and about three to five coffee mugs on every grad student’s desk.)

Most of the time, nothing makes sense and we sometimes do have to just pretend that everything is A-OK. Why am I not getting enough data? Why isn’t there a trend in the data? Why hasn’t this worked after doing it five times? Why is the universe against me?

It makes me wonder why I am even bothering with going back.

Maybe it’s not just the memories but also the experience that made everything else worth it.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak