Queering S(TEM)cience or making it real?

A hot gay mess.

That is the state of my head right now- and how some fanfic writers may describe it. I have no quibbles with that. But what am I wittering on about?

A young high school student from NYC wrote to me, thanking me for being an out lesbian

of colour in Science. Having found my profile on 500 Queer Scientists, she said she hadn’t known being gay was possible when younger. And knew no south asian lesbians in STEM. The complete lack of role models was isolating and stifling for her. Her email sparked this post.

Most of my life I’ve kept my personal and professional lives separate. Or so I thought.

The reality is when you spend majority of your waking hours and most of your cognitive energy on work, this separation becomes artificial and synthetic. Coming to work and having to pretend to be something one isn’t or having to hide some salient aspect of one’s identity takes emotional, mental energy. It is draining to the point of being dangerous for one’s well being. It also means one is still carrying one’s personal life in to work- only that it is largely demons. There is little good in it. The time that could be spent 100% focused on Science becomes splintered with worry about being unsafe/outed/not being accepted and other feelings of anxiety. Many leave STEM.

Like many others I have been guilty and victim of splitting my self into many bits and pieces, each bit smoothed and rounded to fit some segment of work/society. For example, there is racism is the gay community and that can be as horrible to navigate for LGBTQIA+ people of colour as homophobia is for any queer person. In the end where one begins and where ends, or what one’s self really looks like gets lost. The trauma of living with a personality and life divided into boxes is very much a road to perdition.

And the only reason it persists is the persisting vestiges of narrow mindedness. Especially in STEM.

The cis gender normativity and heteronormativity that pervade STEM makes it difficult to see it as a welcoming discipline for LGBTQIA+ people. There are few to no visible role models, certainly none from communities such as people of colour. At our conferences and events we talk about our Science (an essential part of us) but there is no mention of who we may be. Sexual orientation is a dirty word. To feel safe, professional, accepted as “real” scientists – take your pick, many of us hide our identity or subsume it.

It also means that the upcoming generations go through the same torment.

What is the point of progress if it doesn’t change our discipline for the better?

That is where organisations like  500 Queer Scientists and  the new Queer in Science initiative in Australia are so important. We need to come together and make visible role models for our discipline. We cannot keep driving away people from STEM because they don’t fit the stereotype of a STEM professional. Nor should we allow or contribute to making people feel they must contort their psyche to fit into STEM. Especially in regions where LGBTQIA+ rights are not well established.

It is within our power as LGBTQIA+ individuals, cis/straight allies to blow this stereotype business to bits. We need to act. 

We have a better alternative:  not simply queer STEM but to open it up to reality and real people.

Some other LGBTQIA+ STEM/ethnic minority focus organisations:

https://www.facebook.com/saathi.iitb/

https://houseofstem.org/

https://prideinstem.org/

https://lgbtstem.wordpress.com/

About Lesbians Who Tech & Allies

https://www.sacnas.org/

https://www.nsbp.org

Feel free to email me links to other groups and I will add them to this list- it would be great to have resources for all parts of the wold!

Scoping out a journal to publish in

This is my second encounter with journal scope that has been a mini skirmish.  Of sorts…

Coming out on the other side having published the paper. Our paper which was on a new approach to determine the aspect ratio of Gold nano-rods, seemed not to fall into any specific discipline: Chemistry, Nano-technology, Physics. It seemed to fit everywhere  from our point of view, hence it was hard to choose a journal. Yet (from the point of view of the journal reviewers) it didn’t fit with them… We had to try more than one journal and face rejection as each set of reviewers felt the paper was good but better suited elsewhere. The elsewhere was hard to pinpoint!

I can now reflect on the process a bit.

When submitting (indeed even preparing) a manuscript there are many factors in choosing a journal:

scope: does the manuscript topic and treatment fit within the scope. This is critical, sending a theoretical paper to a journal that deals solely in experimental work will not work. Nor will choosing the wrong topical journal.

audience: are the readers of this journal the right audience for this work. Research communities often have their own chosen avenues of publication and it is good to consider which is the most suitable avenue to get people to read your work.

impact factor: how much impact does the journal have. Every author desires to publish in the best journal in their field. But high impact factor may not necessarily mean this is the best journal for that work (or it may!). Typically higher the impact factor, higher the rejection rate too. So it places addition burden in terms of quality, innovation, and newness of the work.

author publication charges: does the author have to pay to publish, and if so how much

open access: will the article be free to read for all or only subscribers and therefore what is the reach

– time: how long is the process from submission to publication. Sometimes it is so time critical to publish the result (or lose out to another group) that this can really matter, or for someone’s PhD completion… at others it is less of a constraint.

Familiarity with some journals and their usual fare gives a  good sense of whether one’s work will fit well. Answers to the above serve as a handy tool. Yet there are times we still don’t know.

In such situations writing to the Editor and explaining (in brief) the principle of the work, significance of results, methodology and then asking if this fits in the remit of their journal is a good idea. It is usually helpful. One then hopes that the reviewers assigned (if the editor encourages submission) will be chosen appropriately.

Though ultimately patience and a sense of humour are a must to go through all the stages of publishing a paper!!

 

 

Tales of (optical) travel

November and the start of December have been rather hectic for me. There has been much to write about with nary the time to write it in! Hence the long absence. But now finally as I sit in my hotel room in Melbourne after a nice walk along the Yarra river I feel I should set down some of the cool things I have seen so that there is space for the next blogpost about the current cool things!

November was a veritable Discovery Of India(n Photonics) for me. I visited OSA student chapters in IIT Roorkee and IIT Chennai. Apart from that I went to TIFR and IIT Delhi.

IIT Roorkee was an amazing experience. Continue reading

That sweet feeling

I have written before about the madness of research: 360 days of frustration searching for answers all for 5 days of satisfaction of finding one. And then moving on to the next problem to repeat the madness.

In the last few days I entered the blissful 5 day period (thank the patron saint of researchers everywhere). It is the sweetest feeling that I know of and this pattern seems to have been understood by Rumi (and I quote a translation), though he may have said this in another context it still applies i think:

“When I am with you, we stay up all night,

When you’re not here, I can’t go to sleep.

Praise God for these two insomnias

And the difference between them.”

So it is that I am sleepless (yet) again. This time wanting to stay awake to get more of those answers and results that are finally gracing my life for a short period.

Do you suffer so too?

Of failures, frustrations and frontiers

India’s Chandrayaan2 mission (to land a rover on the moon) failed.

I, like millions of other people, was waiting with anticipation for the touchdown and a successful moon landing. The failure was painful, to the say the least.

Growing up in India I wanted to be an astronaut. I became a Physicist instead and I love that. But the embers of desire for space exploration remain unextinguished in my heart. This mission and others like it (Indian or otherwise) are in part a fulfilment of that long held space faring ambition for me. Although there is a special joy in seeing India make such leaps and any developing country stride forward, it is thrilling to see human beings move onwards into their home, the universe.

But was it really a failure?

Frustrating yes. Failure maybe not. In my opinion anyway.

Complex space missions involve so many technologies, overcoming obstacles and scientific challenges that to get to the stage of execution requires immense scientific development. The knowledge gained in the endeavour (and it’s deficiencies) push our capabilities even further.

At this moment my heart goes out to the scientists and engineers involved in the mission. No doubt right now they cannot focus on the boundaries they have crossed and their hearts are burdened. Their frustration would not be something I can begin to imagine.

If they read this I would say to them, “You are my heroes now and always”. This stumble should only makes us more determined to succeed and go still farther.

Each frustration can act as the fuel to try even harder, better and with more passion.

And that brings me to the frontiers.

The most recent frontier was the announcement of detection of water on an exo-planet and the excitement that this could mean life outside of earth. Search for habitable planets, water on other celestial bodies has been decades long…with many failures and frustrations on the way.

Yet here we are: on the possible door step of one of the most exciting discoveries ever made.

The possibilities that this might lead to are endless – that planet is 108 light years away. Will we ever get there? Will we find others? Will we be able to find extra-terrestrial life?

Gosh!

It takes my breath away to live in such times.

And now I am coming close to another frontier: the Frontiers in Optics conference at Washington DC. Here I will get to hear talks on the very latest in optics. So keep an eye out- I will be reporting soon on these frontiers too.

 

Radio Ga-ga, myths and (in)famy

It has been an overwhelming two days for me and my team. Once UTS made a press release that female applicants to engineering & IT degrees would get 10 additional ATAR points if they had at least 69 points required by UTS, the circus began.

I have been swamped with journalist requests for comments, radio interviews and newspaper comment from the media. The many articles out on this  (The Daily Mail, The Guardian, Sydney Morning Herald, SBS News, Business Insider, ABC ) and so on have received a plethora of comments, our Facebook page is littered… there are petitions out, there are many positive comments and some very personal attacks too.

Wow!

Read ATAR cheatsheet about how ATAR adjustment works and what it does! This will hopefully bust the myth that standards and quality are being lowered in any way.

I am trained to lecture in a classroom and give talks at conferences, not to face grillings by right wing radio show hosts live on air. The most I have done in public is that I  began exploring science busking for science outreach. When you are used to the relative obscurity of academic life this entire experience is a bit unreal. So I was not prepared for

a) this level of media interest

b) this kind of public engagement

c) personal backlash (and support thank heaven!)

d) lack of privacy

It is bemusing to be at the centre of so much attention and be held accountable (in the minds of a few) for a university policy that has gone through several layers of scrutiny, red tape and approvals at many levels. At times the  media seems to love a good headline – even if it is inaccurate and conveys the exact opposite of what is actually being done (e.g. lowering entry standards- which is not what we are doing!). Many readers don’t read past the headline and understand the details in some of the well written articles before they write strong comments. There may well be an inverse relationship between  people’s understanding of the issue and the length/strength of their comments. Lol! The reactions seem to come from everywhere (email messages, FaceBook, articles and comments to these, phone calls…) and they are relentless.

There are many comments by women which I really empathise with: their worry that female engineers will face questions on their merit, more scrutiny and lack of appreciation for their engineering skills now. That men (and women) will question their ability and right to be studying/working/practicing as a STEM professional. It is strange though that we as women often feel the need to justify our skill level and our right to be there, yet we never question men in the same way. This is the imposter syndrome (more here) mixed with the Curie Complex and to my mind this is a kind of internalised misogyny.

Other equity/entry schemes (e.g. exceptionally skilled sportspeople who get bonus ATAR points don’t raise an eyebrow. Though one might argue that being an exceptional basketball player may not make one a better equipped to be an engineer!). When gender comes into the question, people get upset and very vocal.

However I digress.

This post was more of a thinking out aloud on what I feel I need to do better now: hold my Composure under Fire.

There are comments flying in from all directions and platforms and it is hard to keep track of these. It is even harder to know which to read, which to ignore and which to respond to. Given the intensity of emotion (from supporters and critics), the polarised debate, and my role in it – I (and my team to an extent) have to and want to engage constructively with people. We want to understand their concerns.

Perspective on the situation is particularly hard. I meet colleagues and friends who haven’t read the articles and it looks like no one cares, so it is business as usual and there is no reason to get hot and bothered. Then a sudden flurry of media related responses gives me whiplash. It is hard to get a sense of actual ground reality in the middle of this!

The need of the hour: is calm, rational thinking, an open and compassionate attitude. It is hard to remain so when the language used is vicious bordering on abusive in some cases. How do we find a way to present the complex data and reasoning so people can understand the situation and rationale behind the decision? It is easier to talk in person, which one cannot do with everyone who is concerned about this.

It is a new learning for me- one I did not expect in this profession: on dealing with public opinion on a controversial topic. But then, life always teaches us something new!

 

 

On the Soapbox: science busking!

The day dawned sunny but blustery and very cold! Down we all headed to Circular Quay standing with the iconic Sydney  Opera House in the background…

Photo before my talk at Soapbox Science Sydney with the Sydney Opera House in the background

At Soapbox Science Sydney against an iconic backdrop! photo credit:Twitter: @asthasingh

finally it was 10th August, Sydney Soapbox Science!

What a wonderful event and experience.

IMG_6058

Sydney Soapbox Science speakers

 

This was science busking as I had never seen before or experienced. I’ve heard umpteen lectures and talks (given my own fair share) by amazing speakers. But almost all of these have been in a lecture hall or conference. An open air , open to all science event was a first for me as attendee and participant. Needless to say I was quite nervous.

The first hour was spent setting up, doing some photos and videos.. After that every hour we had 4 speakers, each on their soapbox. It was thrilling to see the public stop, do a double take and come and listen!! The range of topics was so large and diverse that I spent 2 hours listening (and forgetting to get nervous about my talk in the 3rd hour). The talks were all pitched at a level that no matter your knowledge or lack thereof everyone could get the gist. The talks were also interactive and fun so it was super engaging and soon I lost track of time hearing the talks.

When my hour finally came (I realised I was frozen by the wind) but really keen to have my chance- here is a  short video  on youtube about my talk (Video Credits: Dr Astha Singh  Twitter: @asthasingh).

It was so cool to stand on the box and hail people and literally try and attract the attention of passersby. I started my talk (which you can download: arti soapbox science sydney talk and feel free to use) and every few minutes new people would join, some leave. So I had to without repeating everything engage the newcomers and get them up to speed. There were lots of questions and my favourite was “Does the photon have a shadow?”. I didn’t know the answer and it gave me something to think about.

Getting people a sense of how large a nanometer is compared to their armspan

Giving people a sense of how large a nanometer is compared to their armspan

I was even told a joke about light by a member of the public: “A photon checks into a hotel. The bellboy asks if he has luggage and the photon replies: No, I am travelling light!”

There were people of all ages, sizes and stripes who came: toddlers, children, old people, men and women, tourists, Sydneysiders… One elderly gentleman had a camping chair and he attended the entire 3 hours hearing each speaker one after the other on comfortable on his chair! Several people (most minus camping chairs) stayed for 2 hours or so… It was rewarding to see their interest and how much they engaged with us. I am so glad we took our science outside the classroom, outside the lab out into the open, to the people where it should have a space.

What I realised in giving the talk and interaction was that the questions asked would often lead me to bits of optics that I rarely talk about, or other areas of Science, Physics: astrophysics, particle physics, biomedical engineering. In doing that and stepping outside my everyday work boundaries I got to relive the breadth of physics and optics that I do know beyond modelling. It was exhilarating to revisit that and fall in love again with Physics.

If you get the chance, do stand on a (metaphorical or actual) soapbox and talk about your science to people… it is an incredible experience.

By artiagrawal Posted in General

Academic nomads: the wander days

I am feeling a particular sense of dislocation today and hence this post. I have written previously about life as an academic nomad (and in other posts) and today I  write about the more frequent, smaller nomadic elements: the extended research visits and trips.

In June I set off to Germany to visit HTW Berlin and then attend the CLEO Europe (and was the only female teaching a short course! why such a poor gender ratio?) conference. I spent almost 2 weeks away… and snuck in a sneak weekend to London. Yay!

We often don’t count the many smaller business trips we make for conferences or research visits as elements of a nomadic existence. Yet they really are. Some cities feel like home and others make you want to run off bag and baggage as soon as you arrive. Each trip has the inevitable hassle of travel, jetlag, luggage, suitcase full of unwashed clothes, strange beds… and different seasons, lovely food, meeting old friends and possibilities to make new ones.. At times I miss the comfort of my own home, my things and friends so fiercely when away that I can’t wait to get on that flight back. And at times the time away is a great holiday from the routine of everyday.

I classified these shorter visits/cities based on my how much my nomad heart felt at home and explain my criteria:

I want to pitch a tent here: these are the best of the best and I want to return to these places. Cities with character and contrasts: where there is a pulse of life and vibrancy, people bustling about yet there are calm spots too. I love Berlin for that reason: the city has quiet, clean and green suburban areas where you can live in peace and these abut jostling, gritty crowded spots. The history of East Berlin and the wall juxtaposed with hip festivals such as the Fete la Musique. The vegan capital of Europe and also home to probably the grottiest, sorriest airport (Tegel) ever! I’ve found that it always helps to live as much like a local as possible (aka not in a hotel) as possible to allow yourself to discover and fall in love with a city. These cities feel like they will make space for you and will graciously allow you to make a home here. Bangkok is another such megalopolis that I adore.

Hotel California: cities where the hotel is my oasis and I only venture out for work. Evenings and free time is spent holed up in my hotel room. Not that the city is terrible, I just cant engage with it: If it is too clean, orderly and mechanical almost sterile and lacking in that quirky human spark. Munich sometimes feels that way to me (apart from the Weissbeer). Or if it is totally outside my abilities to deal with: too unsafe to venture out, or impossible to travel via public transport (Los Angeles), or so busy that there isn’t any soul left or just dead. Baltimore made me feel so depressed that I could not face walking around seeing the boarded up houses in spite of rich history of the city.

I am yet to find a place/city that I cannot bear to be in at all once I recover from jetlag and exhaustion. Given enough time and the right conditions I’d like to believe I can find something to do and like (even if it is the hotel gym).

At the moment, I think this old Hindi song, “Musafir hoon” (an inadequate translation of the lyrics can be found here)  best summarizes my state of mind.

How do you find travel and being a nomad?

 

Standing on a soapbox!

In this rather long absence from blogging I’ve been bolstering my courage- to stand on a soapbox and talk about Science!

Coming to Sydney for the first time, Soapbox Science, is a way to take science to the

image of circular quay, sydney

image of circular quay, sydney

general public. Female scientists stand (quite literally) on a soapbox and talk about their

picture of speakers for 2019 Soapbox Science Sydney

The Soapbox Science Sydney speakers on prep day

research, science in plain English to engage the public. Usually the event is held in a very public area that is frequented by people, families, kids etc. In our case, this will be Circular Quay near the iconic Sydney Opera

House on 10 August 2019. Check out Soapbox Science Sydney!

I like the idea that we take Science to the people here and not keep waiting for the people to come to science. Because when we do that we reach the few who are already interested in science and we miss out those who do not have a STEM background (and may not have thought of or be comfortable taking their children to science museums, for example). Falling number of students, especially girls, in STEM education are a clear warning that we need to engage communities in STEM – it’s importance and how cool it is, the career options it provides. On the other side we need to continue working in a way that members of the public trust scientists and ask their political representatives to inform policy decisions based on good science. For example read this article.

Soapbox is in part inspired by the Speakers Corner at Hyde Park, where people could on their soapbox during victorian times in London speak their mind on any topic freely.

Now in my case courage is required because this is a big change from the classroom teaching and conference presentation  setting that I am used to. No more the quiet room with a powerpoint prop… no more a scientific audience. Instead it will be a super busy, open area (Circular Quay attracts about 7,000 people), with people from all walks of life and age groups, nationalities. Some will have no interest in Science or engineering and some will, some will be knowledgeable and others not… I might be asked any question. People will be in rush to catch their train or ferry, while other might be just wanting to sight see in peace. The biggest fear is that I will bore the people.

How does one talk about highly technical research in a way in everyday language that people can relate to? The challenge before me is to help connect to their lived experience or interest and engage them. Share with them my love for science.

So for now I am spending time doing voice exercises to project my voice, modulate my tone and pitch! And hoping like hell that no one eggs me on the day!

 

CLEO 2019 Wrap: So proud! Need a concept conference

I am writing this post in the airport as I wait for my 15 hour flight (!!!!) back to Sydney. The thought of the upcoming 15 hours is bringing tears to my eyes and this blogpost is my distraction!

Unlike the usual conference wrapups I do, I thought I’d write about what I want to see more of on the technical side. Most papers (submitted/invited) tend to focus heavily on the results. There seem to a tonne of slides with graphs (and the like)- change this variable value and the graph moves in this way sort of thing. While the fundamental Physics/Science seems squeezed into 1 slide (if that) and gets maybe 0.5 minute.

What I propose:

Just the reverse: A concepts track in the conference where the papers exclusively focus on the new science. The methodology (unless there is new Science here) and results are restricted to 1 slide only. There may be fewer papers in this track, and that is fine. I want to hear some really interesting new concept, or challenge to existing concepts in these presentations. I want to go away with my mind expanded by the science, not full of the technology. Incremental advances in performance bore me to tears: that is not why I became a  scientist. I’d love to see an emphasis on cool, innovative science, even if the applications are not apparent yet, or the concept can’t be demonstrated experimentally… Some of the most exciting Physics came from ideas that could not be demonstrated when first proposed. Yet currently the focus is heavily on applications and/or what can be demonstrated. At times this focus can eclipse exciting ideas.

So moving on to why I felt so proud this CLEO : this year we held the first Pride in Photonics workshop for LGBTQI+ scientists, allies, diversity advocates. It was a terrifying moment for us: how would people react, would anyone attend? The sense of isolation and unique challenges that LGBTQI+ folks face in a largely heteronormative and quite conservative STEM community is strong, with negative impact on wellbeing and the Science they can do. We wanted to start addressing this loneliness by connecting LGBTQI+ individuals with each other, as well as educating allies on these issues and how to be strong advocates for inclusion.

It was a wonderful event: there was sharing of technical research and personal journeys. People connected and for many it was an emotional experience: being able to be themselves fully in a scientific context for the first time. I can safely say we all learned something new about how to treat others with more respect and not making assumptions about people. It was a moment of great pride for me (and many of us there). Join us for the next workshop! See some resources here.being an ally

Being an ally to the LGBTQI+ community. Source: Joby Razzell Hollis, @Jobium, founder of @LGBT_Physics link