Guest Repost: “A Chemical Imbalance- Gender and Chemistry in Academia” by Biochem Belle
Aug13

Guest Repost: “A Chemical Imbalance- Gender and Chemistry in Academia” by Biochem Belle

I'm pleased to bring you another guest re-post from Biochem Belle. She's previously shared her writings about letting up on the pressures we place on ourselves in science professions. This time, her post is about A Chemical Imbalance, a new 15-minute documentary that looks at gender parity in academe through the lens of one university. This post originally appeared at Biochem Belle's blog, Ever On & On. As an undergrad preparing for med school, I fell in love with chemistry, thanks in large part to a quirky gen chem professor. He convinced me that a biochem major would be great for pre-med. That department became my home for 3 years. It was fantastic, and I found my true interest in science. And I never felt that there was anything unusual about being a woman pursuing chemistry. In grad school, that changed. I've often wondered what flipped the switch. Perhaps the first clue was the fellowship offer that had the goal of increasing representation of women and minorities in the field. That initiated higher awareness of the disparities in my field, which expanded as I talked to peers and just took a look around. There were several women in my grad school class (going through the group in my head, 10 years later, I think we were pushing 40%). But at the time, there was one woman on tenure-track in the department. Another joined the department after my first year. Scanning through the faculty listings today, my undergrad department (undergrad focus with M.S. and small Ph.D. programs) is more than 25% women; my grad program looks to be around 10-15%. My Ph.D. department is fairly representative of the faculty breakdown in physical sciences, according to the most recent NSF data. Life sciences perform better, with about 30% female faculty. Across disciplines, it's not just that there are far fewer female faculty, but they earn less than their male colleagues. This phenomenon is not restricted to the US. A Chemical Imbalance is a short documentary and e-book looking at the history of female chemists at the University of Edinburgh. In the UK, less than 10% of STEM faculty are women. The Department of Chemistry at Edinburgh boasts 25%. The film, less than 15 minutes long, looks at the milestones of the department's female faculty. It also takes a brief look at the two big questions: Why do numbers of women in the faculty ranks remain low (and drop off further at upper levels), and what should be done to change the landscape? The creators provide four action points for a start. Here's why I think they matter. Monitor our numbers. Paying...

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Grappling with the Elements
May24

Grappling with the Elements

The movie opens on an industrial wasteland. Big vats of nitric acid stand out against a gray sky, the acrid smell of nitrogen dioxide hangs in the air, and discarded circuit boards litter the desolate landscape. It looks like a scene from a sci-fi film taking place in some dystopian future. But it’s not. Rather, this image of present-day India sets the tone for British filmmaker Mike Paterson’s short documentary "Copper: Acid & Dust," one of several films created for the ambitious 94 Elements project in which filmmakers will create a short documentary exploring each of the 94 naturally occurring elements, everything from hydrogen to plutonium. The project is an opportunity for Paterson and a host of other notable filmmakers to explore the more human side of the periodic table. “Copper,” for instance, tells the story of a group of teenage Indian boys who, having left behind the agricultural practices of their rural state of Bihar, now mine second-hand electronic circuit boards for copper and other metals. Placing the cast-off boards inside nitric acid solutions, the boys are able to extract copper from between the boards’ epoxy resin layers and then sell the copper to factories. According to Paterson, this practice is illegal in India, due largely to the toll the extraction process takes on the environment: One of the by-products of the process is the aforementioned nitrogen dioxide. Paterson found this juxtaposition between the agricultural and industrial practices of his film’s subjects particularly inspiring during the creation of his documentary. “The similarities between the work they were doing with the copper and the agricultural, laboring work struck me very strongly,” he tells Newscripts. “They’re farming the copper now rather than farming the land, but the unfortunate side effect is that their work is highly polluting to the land.” "Copper” is one of the four documentaries that has already been completed for 94 Elements, and it’s not the only one to contemplate humanity’s relationship with the chemical elements. “Gadolinium”—by the winner of the 2008 Sundance Film Festival’s World Cinema Directing Award for a documentary, Nino Kirtadze—tells the story of Levan, a man who has just undergone an MRI scan and must wait for a specialist to properly diagnose his condition. “Germanium,” by Paterson, follows a number of patients as they receive cataract surgery at New Delhi’s Venu Eye Institute & Research Centre. And “Oxygen,” a documentary by British Academy of Film & Television Arts award-winning filmmaker Marc Isaacs, captures a night in the life of Bob, a former ballet dancer whose cigarette habit has left him with a respiratory illness that renders him bedridden and completely reliant on his...

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“Naturally Obsessed” Tackles Why Scientists Do Science
Jul09

“Naturally Obsessed” Tackles Why Scientists Do Science

I’ve had documentary fever recently. A few weeks ago, I took in a film fest, and this week, I wrote a recommendation of “Naturally Obsessed: The Making of a Scientist” for C&EN’s Reel Science feature. Although “Naturally Obsessed” was released last year in some places, it was recently made available on the website of New York’s public TV station, Thirteen. So you can now watch it anytime and anywhere (well, anywhere with an Internet connection)—for free. The one-hour film follows the trials and tribulations of graduate students in a molecular biology lab at Columbia University Medical School. And it gives viewers a good idea of what a regular day is like for a research scientist—something that is mostly a mystery to the general public. But this documentary isn’t just for audiences filled with nonscientists. There’s something in there for the experts as well. Maybe it’s grad school nostalgia, maybe it’s pride at having survived the trauma of the Ph.D. process, and maybe it’s inspiration to keep plugging away in the lab. In any case, it’s worth watching. Of course, some of the technical details are watered down for general consumption, and you’ll be left wanting to know more about what happened to certain students. But as Robert Townley, one of the grad-student stars of the film, told me, it’s nevertheless “compelling and fun and dramatic.” He added, “It’s just the beginning” for this type of science-based film. After writing the recommendation, I caught up with Townley and Lawrence Shapiro, the professor whose lab provides the backdrop for the film and who calmly advises the students in “Naturally Obsessed.” We talked about what it was like to do research under the lens of a video camera and how the documentary has affected their lives. When I tracked Shapiro down, he seemed just as busy as he appears in the film. “I’m still doing the same things,” he said. “I’m writing papers and grants and just running experiments.” But he pointed out that the film has opened certain doors for him, too. “I get asked to give certain kinds of talks that I never got asked to give before,” he said. For example, he’s recently been asked to speak at undergraduate institutions and at student seminars. “It’s put me in a position to focus a little bit more on the broad needs of science education and to do something about that,” he added. Townley, now a postdoc at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, in the Bronx, said that although the film hasn’t exactly made him famous, “every now and then, someone will” come up to him and say “Oh, I saw...

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