MIT’s Hopkins: For women scientists, there’s only one kind of equal

Nancy Hopkins has told the story many times now. In the mid-1990s, a group of women scientists at MIT started talking about the subtle and not-so-subtle forms of gender bias holding them back. As Boston University President Robert Brown noted when he introduced Hopkins Tuesday, it was a very small group. In 1994, there were 194 tenured male faculty at the MIT School of Science and 17 women.

Brown had been MIT provost for a year in 1999 when the groundbreaking study that emerged from that meeting came out. He became co-chair with Hopkins of the MIT Council on Faculty Diversity and played a key role in the effort to address gender bias.

On Tuesday, Hopkins made the trip over to Brown’s turf give a talk entitled “Mirages of Equality.” Mirages, she said, because laws that made discrimination against women illegal only got them so far.

“On the other side of that wall were a series of obstacles to women’s advancement that we hadn’t anticipated,” she said. One was sexual harassment, a topic in the news these days, but unfamiliar to Hopkins at the time.

The experience, however, was familiar. She recalled a day in her early career at Cold Spring Harbor when she met geneticist and Nobel Prize winner Francis Crick. He walked up behind her, she said, and put his hands on her breasts.

“I thought, how can I get out of this situation so he’ll look at my lab notebook, " then realized, “When a man does that, it’s possible that he’s not interested in your lab notebook.”

Two other problems: lack of mentoring for women and the conflict between family and career. With the long hours in the lab many women faced the question: “How could you be the kind of scientist you wanted to be and be a mother?”

Back then, if seh wanted to pursue academic science, a “women’s choice to have children or not have children was not a choice,” Hopkins said. “Baby was a four letter.” .

Women still grapple with this issue but now maternity leave is more like a sabbatical, she said.

The bias problems identified at MIT are the same problems facing other research institutions, she said. That was clear from the response to the 1999 report, which was updated this year, she said. Still, problems persist. Many female students still deal with male colleagues who think the bar is lower for women who get into MIT. Women still have more family responsibilities than men and both men and women tend to undervalue women’s achievements, Hopkins said. As long as the notion of women’s intellectual inferiority exists, women need to keep the issue of bias on the table.

“There’s only one kind of equal,” she said. “And, that’s equal.”

MIT students launch campaign to preserve federal funding for science

Stand with Science, a project launched by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology student group called The Science Policy Initiative, went live today with a video. The group is working to protect federal research dollars from pending budget cuts. They are asking for signatures on a letter to “tell Congress how important it is to choose cuts carefully and avoid ruining our future while attempting to save it.”

The letter notes:

Over half a million graduate students and postdoctoral associates study science and engineering in the US… These researchers form the bedrock labor force of the world’s best university R&D community. The value of these graduate students is not limited to the experiments they run and the papers they publish. Researchers in science and engineering learn to develop and implement long-term strategies, monitor progress, adapt to unexpected findings, evaluate their work and others’, collaborate across disciplines, acquire new skills, and communicate to a wide audience…

We graduate students understand the severity of the fiscal crisis facing our country. Our sleeves are rolled up; we’re ready to be part of the solution. But we need your help. Congress’s goal in controlling our deficit is to protect America’s future prosperity; healthy federal research funding is essential to that prosperity. In the difficult months ahead, we ask you to look to the future and protect our crucial investments in R&D.

They also encourage other scientists to share their stories:

Give us your story in the comments, or throw something up on youtube and share a link. You can even offer to have your video put into a story mashup like the kickoff video by emailing

More from NNB on the Science Policy Initiative here.

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The Times and The Globe on the late Norman Ramsey

From The NYTimes:

Norman F. Ramsey, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist who developed a precise method to probe the structure of atoms and molecules and used it to devise a remarkably exact way to keep time, died on Friday in Wayland, Mass. He was 96.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Ellie.

In 1949, Dr. Ramsey invented an experimental technique to measure the frequencies of electromagnetic radiation most readily absorbed by atoms and molecules. The technique allowed scientists to investigate their structure with greater accuracy and enabled the development of a new kind of timekeeping device known as the atomic clock. Dr. Ramsey received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1989 for both achievements.

The Globe obit requires a subscription:

With one of his former students, Daniel Kleppner, Dr. Ramsey developed the hydrogen maser (microwave amplification by stimulated emission of radar), the most stable source of electromagnetic radiation. This led to "a clock of unprecedented stability,‘’ as Dr. Ramsey later put it: the atomic cesium clock, which is the present international time standard. By its measurement, one second equals the time required for an atom of cesium to oscillate 9,192,631,770 times… Kleppner, reached by phone yesterday, said Dr. Ramsey’s warmth of personality and high professional standards complemented his advanced research.

“He was one of the towering figures in the second half of the 20th century in physics,‘’ Kleppner said. "His ideas kind of permeate the field of atomic physics now. He always left a deep personal impression, which is one of the reasons why he is so widely appreciated in the field.’’

“On Being” on learning to speak, with BU’s Jean Berko Gleason

As an early waker who doesn’t want to be an early riser — and an NPR addict — I tend to listen to one of the two Boston public radio stations before I get up. So, I’m a loyal fan of some of the shows to don’t get a whole like of prime time play, including the lively sports show “Only a Game” and “Living on Earth,” which offers reporting on the environmental.

And, while I don’t get up and go to church on Sundays — Sorry Sister Mary Mercy — I do often listen to “On Being,” a show that aims to “draw out the intellectual and spiritual content of religion that should nourish our common life, but that is often obscured precisely when religion enters the news.” Host Krista Tippitt has the perfect gentle voice for this topic.

And this morning she offers a conversation with BU professor and “linguistics pioneer” Jean Berko Gleason, who “says language reveals unexpected truths not only about our human relationships with our world, but also our consciousness of ourselves” Check it out on line.

NYTimes: Worcester Polytech keeps students in the sciences

From a story in the education supplement on on using interactive projects to keep students from giving up on the sciences in college.

WORCESTER POLYTECHNIC INSTITUTE, in Massachusetts, one of the nation’s oldest technological schools, has taken the idea of projects to heart. While it still expects students to push their way through standard engineering and science classes, it ripped up its traditional curriculum in the 1970s to make room for extensive research, design and social-service projects by juniors and seniors, including many conducted on trips with professors overseas. In 2007, it added optional first-year projects — which a quarter of its freshmen do — focused on world problems like hunger or disease.

“That kind of early engagement, and letting them see they can work on something that is interesting and important, is a big deal,” says Arthur C. Heinricher, the dean of undergraduate studies. “That hooks students.”

And so late this past summer, about 90 freshmen received e-mails asking if they typically received flu vaccines. The e-mails were not from the health services office, but from students measuring how widely flu spreads at different rates of vaccination. Two of the students had spent part of their freshmen year researching diseases and devising a survey. Now, as juniors, they were recruiting the newcomers to take part in simulations, using neon wristbands and stickers, to track how many of them became “infected” as they mingled during orientation.

Play about MIT by students who would have been turned away in 1861

This weekend, the MIT Drama Shop, a student group, presents “”,2375,1340&type=php">The Roger’s Plan." It’s at the Kresge little theater, in the back of 48 Mass Ave. Tickets are $5 and it’s open to the public,

William Barton Rogers founded MIT on the tenets of learning useful knowledge and applying that knowledge in the classroom. In the last 150 years, this institution has been filled with brilliant minds tackling problems Rogers would have had a hard time imagining: weapons development, political protests, the rise of women in science, environmental activism. Walking through the halls of MIT we are surrounded by the names and legacies of the greatest minds of the last century, and are constantly facing the challenge of living up to the exceptional examples that came before us, creating new approaches to complex social problems, and managing to lift our heads up from the backbreaking, time-consuming work of science to see the possibilities and consequences that lie ahead.


A desk of her own: MIT’s Lightman works toward a new era for Cambodian women

Alan Lightman helped the Museum of Science in Boston put together the opening show for their new planetarium. Across town, Harvard Bookstore carries “Einstein’s Dream” and other novels by the MIT physicist.

But last night, Lightman gave a talk to his MIT colleagues about a project on the other side of the world – The Harpswell Foundation. In 2005, he founded the organization to help create a new class of female leaders in Cambodia. Sounds like a major feat, but he’s taking a simple, well-thought-out approach. The foundation, named for the Maine island where Lightman summers, funded the construction of two dorms for female college students in Phnom Penh.

On a trip to Cambodia, he learned that housing is the missing piece for women who want to attend the capitol’s universities – men can live at Buddhist temples. But, Lightman and his supporters offer the dorm residents more – English lessons, computers and leadership forums.

Leadership, he said, is the goal.

“We want our young women to the directors of hospitals, heads of NGOs and we want them to start new businesses,” he said. “We want them to be government ministers.”

And, to do that, he said he has to be “ruthless” about the women the foundation accepts. While he and his staff search the countryside for bright, high-achieving women, they also look for women with vision and drive. The Harpswell women want to help not just their families, but the entire nation. Lightman noted that raising the status of women is key to bringing nations like Cambodia out of poverty.

“We think of them not as individuals, but as agents of change,” he said.

So every morning, about 80 women — most dressed in informal uniforms of white, button-down shirts and long, navy blue skirts – mount their bicycles and ride to school through the squalid streets of Phnom Penh. If not for the Foundation, most of them would be married and raising rice and children.

Instead of returning to a house with no electricity or plumbing, they come home to spotless new dorms. There, they share rooms, but not desks – a luxury in a country where most people live in crowded homes with little privacy.

“It’s very important for the empowerment of women that they have their own desks,” he said.

He said it’s also important that they have each other.

“We give the students an environment where they can form a sisterhood, "he said.

When asked if he planned to keep building dorms, Lightman said no. Instead, he wants to put all the foundation’s efforts behind a group of small women. Plus, he said, if there were many more women in the program, he couldn’t remember all their names.

For more information about the Harpswell Foundation, see or my 2007 story in The Boston Globe.

Q & A with MIT’s Rudolf Jaenisch on U.S. science medal

Here’s an excerpt from The Tech, MIT’s student paper:

Professor Rudolf Jaenisch, MIT biology professor and a founding member of the Whitehead Institute, was recently named by President Obama as one of the seven recipients of the National Medal of Science, the highest honor given by the U.S. government in the fields of science and engineering… (Former Whitehead director Susan Lindquist was one of last year’s the medal recipients.).

TT: Cam you discuss some of the recent issues you have worked with in epigenetic regulation?

RJ: When I came to Boston and began working in the Whitehead Institute, it was already possible to make a mutation of the enzyme transferase, and put it into cells. Mice deficient in this embryo died early in development, proving the importance of methylation in development. This was the background from which I studied the role of epigenetics in cancer and chromosome activation.

Dolly was created from epigenetic regulation — she was made from a skin cell that was put into an egg of a new sheep, which led to the creation of a new sheep. If this is to be done with humans, you will need human eggs as well. However, we found we could take a skin cell, treat it, and make pluripotent cells to make a new organism. These induced pluripotent stem cells [iPS cells] have the ability to differentiate into different cells of the body, though they cannot create a completely new organism. This technique can revolutionize medicine, because you can study disease from the iPS cells of sick patients.

TT: Do you have any advice for students who are aspiring scientists or researchers?

RJ: Students should always follow their interests and be courageous to look for answers to questions they are interested in. Scientific research is a risky business, but you’re bound to get satisfying results if you are passionate about what you do. One challenge you will face in research is that funding favors those who do bandwagon research. But if you focus on your interests and solutions to research problems instead of on the actual paper or job, you will find the process to be extremely satisfying.

Edwin Salzman, 82; Parkinson’s led surgeon to research, med editing

The Globe obit notes Edwin Salzman died last month at “Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in a room not far from his old office.” He had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the 1970s.

Turning full attention to the scientific research that had always been his parallel career, he helped pioneer using aspirin to lower the risk of blood clots forming in the leg veins of surgery patients, which can cause a fatal pulmonary embolism…After the diagnosis made surgery no longer an option, Dr. Salzman spent a dozen years working part-time as deputy editor of the New England Journal of Medicine.

As the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette notes, he was quite a sailor too.

A worldwide traveler and avid sailor, he spent his summers with his boats and family in Chilmark.

“Animal Oddities” in the new The Annals of Improbable Research

From the folks who bring you the IgNobel prizes, 30 pages of thinking person’s fun, including a 3-page paper on “Popcorn-Bag-Induced Disorientation in a Gull” and another about frog foursomes.


The “Animal Oddities” issue also includes boozing mice, IgNobel-inspired limericks and the citation of the paper on diarrhea by Dr. Loo.

AIR offers a “cheesy low-res PDF” for free online, a “beautiful high-res PDF” for $5 and six-issue, hard copy subscriptions for $39.

From the seagull paper:

Based upon the circumstances and the position of the bag over the bird’s head during the flight, I conclude that the crash was due to spatial disorientation, which is most simply defined as loss of or confusion about one’s position with regard to roll, pitch, and yaw relative to the force of gravity.

Among human pilots, flight in situations where the horizon is not visible or discernable due to obscuration as a result of fog, dark night, clouds, or other factors predisposes to the occurrence of disorientation. It accounts for a significant percentage of fatal general aviation crashes annually.

Birds, however, have been documented as being capable of flight in conditions (referred to as “instrument meteorological conditions”) that would require human pilots to use instruments. Some of these cases were observed via radar2. Other cases, reported to the National Wildlife Strike Database, involve aircraft making physical contact with birds.3 while flying in clouds, fog, or rain. European starlings (Sternus vulgaris) have been experimentally demonstrated to be able to maintain straight and level flight in complete darkness within a wind tunnel for durations as long as one minute.

If you missed the recent IgNobels, here are the winners and here is a link to the a video of the recent 2011 ceremony.