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May 31, 2007

How We Are Hungry

The next round of posts for the Scientiae blog carnival is themed "How We Are Hungry." I thought about writing about the history of food science, and how it started out as the generally disrespected field of home economics until it got too serious for mere women to be the ones working on it, but then I decided that would make me cranky.

Instead, because I'm a big food geek, this immediately got me thinking about food science, on many levels. Which, really, wasn't hard, because I've already thinking a lot about food and science and culture in the last year or so, thanks to a permaculture design intensive I attended last spring and Michael Pollan's excellent book The Omnivore's Dilemma (hereafter referred to as OD, because I'm lazy.) Also, I really want to eat at El Bulli someday, which is a whole different realm of food science, but today I'm going to focus on the growing end of things rather than molecular gastronomy, which really deserves a gushing post all its own. (And you'll note how I restrain from gnashing my teeth about how so many of the most respected chefs in the world are men...)

Now, for those of you who are big food geeks like me, the fallout from OD has been pretty fascinating. It inspired a great conversation between Pollan and John Mackey, the CEO of Whole Foods (see here for Pollan's letter and a link to Whole Foods' initial letter to him) about the ideals and goals of the organic food movement.

This is, of course, old news for those of us who are Pollan groupies (I can't be the only one, right??), but OD seems to have kicked the organic movement to another level. Then, earlier this month, Slow Food guru Carlo Petrini sparked a big controversy with his comments about the Ferry Building farmer's market in San Francisco. Check out this post on Ethicurean for a good summary of the issues.

And that kerfuffle (I love that word) led me to an interesting conversation last weekend about the promises and problems of the organic food movement. On the one hand, it's clear that organic farming involves far fewer noxious chemicals on our food, but on the other hand, not all organic farming cleaves to the ideal of truly earth-friendly growing practices. Furthermore, there is some question as to whether or not we can grow enough food to feed the earth's population if we're not using industrial farming practices, which get a lot more calories out of an acre than we used to be able to. On the other hand, at what cost? Some studies suggest that organically grown food is more nutritious. Here's a link to a NYT article discussing some of the studies and debates on that topic.)

I can't help thinking that there must be a limit to how many nutritious calories we can squeeze out of an acre of land, but one of my friends pointed out that, so far, in every newly large generation, enough of them are smart enough to figure out some new genius way to get most of them fed. Of course, that ignores the fact that millions of people in the world are already starving, but that, in turn, brings me to the point that makes all this relevant not only to the Scientiae carnival but to FairerScience.org:

Insofar as people tend to use science to address issues that are interesting and relevant to them, and insofar as women are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty and experiencing hunger as a way of life, finding ways to draw more women into the sciences is a clear way to increase the minds working on these issues. I'd certainly like to think that there's a way to grow enough food for everyone in the world in a sustainable way. And it's probably someone who's hungry for such a solution who will find it.

May 29, 2007

Welcome to 1975, NYC public schools

From a young age, I heard disparaging comments about the handling of young women who had the bad judgment to get pregnant were whisked off to facilities that were mentioned in whispered undertones to live out their ignominy beyond the sight of their neighbors and acquaintances. For many years, I had the impression that this ridiculous practice was long past.

Imagine my surprise as a teenager, then, when I learned that even in my small, progressive school district, the one or two girls who got pregnant each year were "encouraged" to switch to the "alternative" high school, which was also where students with severe learning and behavior challenges went. Since then, I have been resigned to the idea that pregnancy is like a learning disability in the eyes of many school districts.

I am, therefore, pleased to read New York’s Schools for Pregnant Girls Will Close:

The schools’ demise, like their origins, may be a sign of changing times. Pregnancy schools across the country appear to be slowly fading away, partly stemming from the decade-long declining rate of teenage pregnancy and partly because of the idea that the girls should not be segregated from other students.

May it be so on all counts.

May 25, 2007

Just saying something can make it so.

Tell a girl that boys are better at math than girls, and she won’t perform as well. It appears that worrying about a stereotype can actually hinder success. New research by the University of Chicago focused on the old but too often still prevalent stereotype that boys are better at math than girls. After pre-test assessments, college women were randomly assigned to two groups: one was told that the research was to determine why men achieve better in math than women; the other was told that they were part of an experiment on mathematics performance. The results: scores for women who were told that men were better went down from nearly 90 percent in the pretest to about 80 percent. Women in the other group actually scored a bit higher than in their pre-test.

Read more about this intriguing research on mental processing online at ScienceDaily.com

May 24, 2007

Faulty Trigger Mechanism

Yesterday as I was reading the Dana-Farber Report (which apparently is only on paper, not on-line) I read an overview of a theory on skin cancer prevention that I just have to share. Let me quote:

"To begin [David Fisher's] lab engineered mice whose genetic traits stemmed from the same roots as fair-skinned people. Equipped with this model, he stimulated melanocytes in mice with a chemical compound called forskolin. The mice turned a darker color, proving that lighter-skinned people are capable of producing pigment—they just have a faulty trigger mechanism."

Ok knowing (or at least theorizing) that we light skinned people are that way because of a "faulty trigger mechanism", a problem that can most likely be fixed, probably won't change the effects of white privilege, but is rather fun to think about it.

PS For those of you who want the more technical report, it is here.

May 21, 2007

"It turns out that much-touted differences in the mental evolution of boys and girls aren't so pronounced after all."

So did you know about the MRI Study of Normal Brain Development? Me neither but thanks to Echidne I do now.

Study director Deborah Waber says they are finding:

• Mental performance differs little by gender. "We found a few significant differences that we would have suspected," Waber said. "For example, boys are better at visual and spatial tasks, and girls are better at motor speed, but there are no differences in many other paths, like memory."
• Family income matters. Kids from more affluent homes do better than those from lower-income families, with average IQs of 105, 110 and 115, respectively, for children classified as low-, middle- and high-income. "But when we limit the groups to healthy children, the differences are not as great," Waber said. "That suggests that the difference has more to do with disparity in health care related to income."

While the full article is behind a pay wall in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society, you can find a good
in Forbes magazine (skip the welcome screen).

Forbes concluded: "It turns out that much-touted differences in the mental evolution of boys and girls aren't so pronounced after all."

How about that!

May 18, 2007

Rocky Mountain High

I'm in Boulder this week attending a K-12 Summit sponsored by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and working with the fine evaluators of the National Science Foundation's Broadening Participation in Computing Demonstration Projects.

Why do I bring this up? Well one reason is so you will be jealous when I tell you that I am going hiking in the Rocky Mountain National Park today (and so that if I don't survive hiking at 10,000+ feet you will know I was thinking of you).

More importantly if you don't know about NCWIT , you should, Their mission is: "is to ensure that women are fully represented in the influential world of information technology and computing." And they have lots of resources to help make that happen. Among my favorites are: Survey in a Box: Student Experience of the Major (SEM) and Outreach in a Box: Discovering IT .

Check them out.

May 13, 2007

How did they get so many Smurfs and only one Smurfette?

So asked academy award winner Geena Davis when she received the Hollywood Hero award from USA Today this month. She went on to say "Kids learn their value by seeing themselves reflected in the culture. If their reflection is visible and common they can say. "I must count, I see myself." But what messages are we sending children with so few female characters? Or when male relationships and female accomplishments are devalued?"

Geena has founded a group called See Jane. Its goals:

• On average, half of all characters (both major and minor) in the most viewed media made for young children (under 11 years old) will be female.
• Both female and male characters will display a range of attributes/qualities and will not be limited by traditional gender stereotypes.
• Entertainment creators will make these goals integral to the projects they choose to produce.
• Parents and educators will actively demand and selectively purchase media products that meet the first two goals.

I've always been impressed with Geena Davis the actress ("Thelma and Louise" and "A League of Their Own"—now those are great movies) but now I am even more impressed with Geena Davis the woman.

Go Geena Go!

May 11, 2007

Guess the galaxy wasn't that far away

Last week when I blogged on the enduring impact of our 1992 report "How Schools Shortchange Girls: The AAUW Report" (HSSG) , I didn't think I would be blogging again on it so soon. But this is too "good" to miss.

As you know at FairerScience we are always interested in Why The Don't Hear What I Say?. Well I think the answer in this case, is because they don't want to.

Earlier this week the blog Intellectual Conservative (IC) went after HSSG as part of a broader attack on the AAUW.

IC started by saying "Back in 1992 the AAUW published the report, "How Schools Shortchange Girls." The report purported to show that American schoolgirls were being kept down by the ever-present patriarchy."

What HSSG actually said was: "By studying what happens to girls in school we can gain valuable insights about what has to change in order for each student—every girls and every boy-- to do as well as she or he can. Our children—and our nation—deserve nothing less." (pp 4-5)

IC goes on to say "To redeem itself, the AAUW finally came out with a second report. "Gender Gaps: Where Schools Still Fail Our Children" had to admit – a-ha!– that, “National data indicate that girls consistently earn either equivalent or higher grades than boys in all subjects at all points in their academic careers.”

Guess she missed that part on page 26 of HHSG which said: "Nevertheless, girls generally receive better grades than boys, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."

I have no idea why the "Intellectual Conservative" didn't bother read the report before attacking it. Guess she isn't intellectual after all.

May 09, 2007

Is the research worth a story?

Hi folks:

From FairerScience colleague Donna Tambascio, AKA the Deputy Director for Communications & External Relations at the Wellesley Centers for Women:

Last week I attended the National Education Writers Association (EWA)
annual conference in LA. The program featured many sessions on a broad
range of issues related to pre-K-12 and higher education (not much on
gender and STEM, this year however). The conference was geared to
journalists as well as advocates and public relations professionals (like
me) so that we could learn a bit more about each other’s fields, new
education policy initiatives, and recent research. One session I attended
featured a panel of journalists who shared their experiences covering
education issues (regionally and nationally) and they talked about how
they work on stories, how they like to receive pitches, what they need
from sources etc.; the target audience was comprised of the PR folks and
advocates. What became clear from the Q&A is that journalists often
struggle with research materials. They don’t necessarily know if one study
is more rigorous than another, if the quality is high or poor, how the
work is relevant to key issues, etc. It was clear that most didn’t have
the time to delve deeply into data; they may ask another source/resource
to look at the materials to determine if the report is worthy of a closer
look. They may delete a report all-together without even reviewing it.
This reinforced to me the importance of the FairerScience project and
website. The resources offered on this site can help researchers and
journalists learn to better communicate with one another.

One quick plug before signing off: Another good session at the EWA
conference was offered by Andy Goodman from Cause Communications. Andy is
all about making presentations effective and engaging. He has written a
few publications that may be great resources to researchers and advocates,
including “Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes.” You can learn
more about his ideas and maybe even get yourself a free copy of this
manual from his website.

May 08, 2007

Good reading: The Difference Blog

I've been reading The Difference Blog on Livejournal for a few months, and I'm embarrassed that I haven't blogged about it before now. The Difference Blog is "written by dan4th. Dan4th is a 30 year old, female-to-male transsexual. He lived as a woman for the first 26 years of his life, and as a man for the past four."

On his blog, Dan4th gives short summaries of studies of sex and gender variation, often citing studies that give conflicting or contradictory results. He follows these brief summaries with a paragraph of commentary on his experience as a transman.

What's great about The Difference Blog is that I can be lazy and get pointers to some pretty interesting studies, and I get an interesting perspective by way of his personal comments. Check it out.

May 06, 2007

Use Your Words

Remember when you were a little kid and teachers and adults were always saying "use your words.?" The newest FairerScience tool, Words Matter , is about helping you use those words more effectively. Words Matter focuses on the effects of different word choices on audience response to your writing and presenting on gender and science.

It can help you make choices, based on your audience and your goals, as to when you, for example, should use the term gender or talk about sex; call our field science or STEM. It can even help you think about when to use words like feminism or equity (and when not to). Check it out.

On another front. I'm sorry for not posting this past week. The combination of six site visits and the flu tired me out a bit (the site visits great; the flu not so great).