I am a scientist. To be specific, I am a woman
scientist. This, I have been told and have come to believe, is a good thing. In fact, it is such a good thing that America needs more of us. Everyone seems to be very sure of this.
The thing that no one is sure about, however, is how to make it happen.
One school of thought, supported by Lego, involves dolls. The “Lego Research Institute” playset came out about a year ago. According to Lego, it includes “everything that you need to explore the world below, around and above us.” The set comes with 165 pieces, three of which are meant to represent women in science. One of them is wearing a lab coat and holding a beaker. Another is standing underneath a large telescope. The third is examining a Lego dinosaur skeleton through a clear, convex lens. The dolls themselves are pretty similar: though one is blonde, one is brunette, and the third is a redhead, all three have skin the color of a banana peel and stand less than two inches tall.
The descriptive materials that accompany the playset exclaim, “There’s a whole world of exciting professions out there to explore – build and role play them to see if they suit you!” The idea is that you play with these dolls and become inspired to become a scientist. Girls, in particular, are invited to play with these dolls (principles of fairness in advertising and transparency dictate that I should also mention that Mattel’s Barbie now also comes wearing a lab coat…).
So I tried it. I bought a set of these Legos – used, on eBay, but still. And I played with them. For several hours. It was really fun. But at the end of it all I was still left thinking, “You know, that’s not really
what it’s like.”
I wrote a book to show what it’s like. It turns out that to be a woman scientist, you don’t need a magnifying glass that’s as big as your head (although that one is really cool, and I am totally getting one just like it in my size). You also don’t necessarily need a flask full of something bright green which is not real chromium phosphate solution (it’s just Plexiglas-Lucite; we checked). What you do need, it seems to me, is a strong back, and a big heart, and a very good friend.
And you can’t be made of plastic. You have to be real.
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I grew up in a small town. The first thing that I do when I visit a big city like Portland is walk around downtown, looking around at all the people, up at the tall buildings and the enormous billboards. When doing the latter, I am always amazed at the sheer variety of things that we sell to each other. We sell each other beauty, and happiness, and perfection. And I think about how none of those things are real. We spend our money on these things, but they do not change the stories of our lives.
Then I go into a bookstore, and I remind myself that we also sell books. And that books are real. And how the books that we read become the stories of our lives.
My book, Lab Girl
, is finally real. I hope you get a chance to read it. And if you do, I hope you like it. But mostly I hope the same thing for you that I hope for myself and for everyone that comes into contact with my book.
I hope that you will plant a tree this year.
And I hope that tree will have a chance to outlive both of us, if only to demonstrate to myself that every important laboratory experiment has both a backwards as well as a forwards. You see, I’ve studied chemistry, botany, orestry for years. I can explain to you in detail just how a tree can be made into paper. But I’ve always wondered – and hoped – that someday someone would help me discover how paper can be made back into a tree.
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has received three Fulbright Awards in geobiology and is one of four scientists, and the only woman, to have been awarded both of the Young Investigator Medals given in the earth sciences. Named by Popular Science
in 2005 as one of the “Brilliant 10” young scientists, she has taught and pursued independent research at universities around the country, most recently as a tenured professor at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa in Honolulu.