Women in Science: Stories about defying expectations

This week, in honor of Women's History Month, we're presenting two stories about women in science and the unique challenges they face. Follow us on Twitter this week as we feature highlights of other stories from women in science from our back catalog.

Part 1: Alison Williams' blossoming passion for chemistry is sidetracked by a professor's thoughtless comment.

Alison Williams is the Associate Provost for Diversity and Intercultural Education at Denison University. She received her Ph.D. in biophysical chemistry from the University of Rochester where she was a NSF graduate fellow and winner of the graduate student teaching award.  Prior to becoming an administrator first at Oberlin and now at Denison, she was a chemistry faculty member for 25 years, teaching at Swarthmore, Wesleyan, Princeton and Barnard College of Columbia University.  Her research focused using spectroscopy to determine the role of ions in shaping the physical properties of nucleic acids. Dr. Williams has been active nationally to increase access, inclusion and equity, especially in the sciences. She has received numerous recognitions for her teaching, outreach and mentoring activities.  She is a mother of two and a semi-professional oboist.

Part 2: Climate scientist Sarah Myhre becomes embroiled in conflict after speaking out against a senior scientist's problematic statements about climate change.

Sarah Myhre Ph.D. is a Research Associate at the University of Washington and a board member of both 500 Women Scientists and the Center for Women and Democracy. She is actively investigating and publishing on the paleoceanographic history of the Pacific ocean, using ocean sediment cores and robots on the seafloor. She is a freelance writer, grass roots organizer, and a leading voice in the field science communication. She is also an uncompromising advocate for women's voices and leadership, both in science and society. 


Episode Transcript

Part 1: Alison Williams

So when I was just over 15, I got hired to wash glassware in the lab of Dr. Lynn Willett.  I was really excited because I had delivered papers, I was babysitting, I was washing pots and pans in the local college food service, and having a job in a lab was a little bit better pay by the hour, and it was a steady income, all of which was important for me to save up so I could go to college and because I wanted to buy an oboe.  That was what I thought I might be doing with myself is being a professional oboist. 

So I walked into this lab, which, unbeknownst to me, a few years earlier, Dr Willett had been sitting in a department meeting and his department was deciding which candidate to hire.  In his mind, by far, the best candidate was a young woman who he thought was really smart, really talented.  And he said he sat there and listened to his colleagues make excuses about why they could not hire this woman to work in their department.  And he was floored.

Finally, one of his colleagues said, “Well, what if she gets upset and starts to cry?  And he said it really just shocked him and it hit him what women in science were up against.  He vowed that he was going to do something about it.

So ever since that experience, Dr. Willett only hired women to work in his lab.  This was unknown to me until twenty years later, but I walk into a lab full of women and, to me, it was just great.  I got to know these people.  We had great camaraderie and I wash glassware, which is not the most exciting thing. 

I had to rinse ten times in acetone, rinse ten times in toluene.  There was no ventilation back then.  Sometimes you have to sit down with a Coke at the end of the day and sober up so you could drive home.  They don’t let you have toluene in the lab hardly at all anymore, but that’s another story.

Gradually, I got to know how to do the assays that these chemists were doing.  The one thing that happened in this lab was that people were really willing to help me, to teach me.  Dr. Willett was the sort of stern person and he was kind of scary and intimidating.  At least I was intimidated by him.  He had very high standards, but he’d let you learn from your mistakes.  He was a really good teacher and a really good mentor.

Finally when it was deemed that my glassware came back really squeaky clean, because they were measuring very trace amounts of materials and the glassware had to be completely clean of any contaminants, and when it was finally deemed that my work was good enough, I got a promotion.  

I was so excited.  I got to weigh out manure.  I was thrilled because this meant a vote of confidence in my work and it meant that I was doing a good job.  My mother was kind of appalled.  She would sort of ask me every day if I’d washed my hands before I left the lab, not knowing that I wasn’t actually touching the manure.  I wore gloves and all, but I was thrilled.

So fast forward a little bit.  By the time I graduated from high school, I was doing the assays that these women, all the master’s-level chemists were doing.  It wasn’t without some rocky periods here and there.  

For instance, one time, we were going out to the barn to do experiments and we had to bring all of the equipment to the barn with us.  I had my assigned list of what I was supposed to bring and there was a particular tool, I don’t remember what, that I was supposed to bring.  It wasn’t there when we got to the barn, and there were all these esteemed scientists from the capital who had come up.  Dr. Willett looked at me and said, “Well, where’s this tool?”

I said, “Well, I assumed you’d bring it.”

He looked at me, “Do you know what you do when you assume things?  You make an ass out of you and me.”

I was just really, really horrified and wanted to crawl into the cows at that time.

But he said it in a way that meant he felt that I could do better and he expected better of me.  So I learned lessons the hard way and the easy way.  People were really generous in helping me out, helping me learn from my mistakes and teaching me all of the different things that went on in the lab.

When I went off to college, I figured, depending on oboe reeds wasn’t as sure of an income as being a scientist.  And I loved being in the lab so I decided to be a chemist.

Well, I was put into a sophomore-level chemistry course my freshman year because I had worked in this lab, but I really was not prepared for this at all.  So I didn’t know what I didn’t know.  And in high school, to be honest, I really hadn’t been pushed, I hadn’t been challenged.  I hardly ever took a book home.  I did my Spanish homework in Latin class and stuff like that.  I took my oboe home and practiced, but I had no clue about what it meant to study.

Three weeks into college, I started to realize I was in deep doo-doo.  I really was in trouble.  I had this very stern professor and it took me really almost a week to get up the nerve to go into his office hours and ask a question.  

I finally had my questions written down and I went to his office and I said, “I need some help,” and I asked my first question.  He kind of peered over his glasses at me and said, “What do you want to do?”

And I said, “Oh, I love being in lab.  I want to be a chemist.”

And he said, kind of dismissively without answering my question, he says, “I think you should be a nurse.”

Now, I was somebody who passed out at the sight of blood back then.  Being a nurse was not an option.  I was devastated.  I was floored and it was all I could do to get out of that office before I started to cry.  I kind of crawled back to my room and hid out there for the rest of the semester.  Actually, for the whole year -- I had him all year -- thinking something like I was damaged, I was stupid, I was flawed, there was something wrong with me.  I mean, I wanted to be a chemist and, here, was my dream over?  Was I not capable?  I didn’t know what to do.

Alison Williams shares her story in the Slayter Auditorium at Denison University. Photo by Timothy E. Black.

Alison Williams shares her story in the Slayter Auditorium at Denison University. Photo by Timothy E. Black.

Somehow, I got through that course.  I’m still not sure how.  I'd like to go back and take that course over again sometime, but…

Gradually, I got the hang of college.  I figured out how to study.  I probably didn’t do as well as I would’ve wanted.  I certainly didn’t do that well in that course that semester, but, fortunately, I did okay in the lab part.

For the next year, through my sophomore year, it was a real struggle, but I got through somehow.

Well, my junior year, two things happened.  They were just having this big celebration for celebrating ten years of women at this institution so I volunteered to work on the program for celebrating women in science.  

One night -- this was long before all the fancy printers we have now and all of that, so we had to make our posters by hand.  And I’m in this science lounge with a group of women, most of whom were seniors, and we’re sort of laying on the floor, making our posters and there's this chitchat going on.  It turned to different professors, who was a good professor and who wasn’t, and these women started talking about this person that I had my first year.

They started talking about, “Oh, yeah, he hates women.”  “He doesn’t think girls should be scientists, but we women will show him.”

And I was floored because, all of a sudden, it hit me.  It wasn’t about me.  He had this attitude about women and I wasn’t the only one that he had discouraged from pursuing chemistry.  That was a huge revelation to me.

When I got over the shock of that, I was really angry.  How dare he!  Because he had really defeated me in certain ways.

The other thing that happened in my junior year that was really good was that I had two professors for physical chemistry who saw something in me and encouraged me.  They would talk about thermodynamics like it was poetry and quantum mechanics was the most beautiful thing in the world, and I actually still think that sometimes.  I love quantum.

But really, they made it fun.  They kicked my butt.  I have never worked so hard in all of my college years.  But they also encouraged me.  They forced me to apply to graduate school when I really wasn’t sure what I was going to do.  And they pushed me all through.

So I went on to graduate school and continued to pursue a career as a chemist.  So I became a chemistry professor.

And fast-forward to about 15 years after that initial incident and I actually returned to my alma mater to join the faculty.  I’ll never forget driving up on a Monday morning, kind of gray Monday morning, in this moving van full of my lab equipment that I’d accumulated over the years.  I pull up to the loading dock and there’s a big banner over the loading dock that says, “Welcome home, Alison.”

I went back to the same department and I was treated like a colleague.  My science thrived and took off.  It was just the best environment for me to work in.  And who was still there?  And who would come trotting down the hall to ask me for help with his computer?  The same person.  And it was all I could do to resist the urge to give him some really bad advice that would mess up his computer for good.  

But I politely helped him out.  Really, it was a great experience.  

And throughout the years of being a professor, I was usually the only person of color in all of the science division, certainly in all the chemistry departments that I had been in, and students would seek me out.  They would kind of camp out in my office and share their experiences with me.  I got to know their stories. 

I started to realize that half of what I was doing in that moment was -- especially for people who are the first in their families to go to college and students of color and people who’ve sort of felt on the margins of the college academic community -- really what I was doing was being a cheerleader.  I was helping them navigate college and figure it out.  

And I was having to tell them, “No, you can’t do what you did in high school.  That’s not gonna get it here, you know?  You have to change the way you can do things.  But you wouldn’t be here if you couldn’t do it.”

So I found that a lot of what I was doing was just translating college to these students.  But then they would tell me stories about what was said to them by their professors.  I knew, from my own experience, that not being prepared did not mean that you weren’t capable and so I could often take somebody who maybe got a C their first semester chemistry, I’d put them in my lab.  By the time they were seniors, they were turning in the best honors thesis in the department, once they caught up and figured it out.

My colleagues often did not want to take the time of day for those students.  They really just had no patience.  They wanted to teach the crème de la crème, not realizing that they were overlooking a huge amount of talent.

So I learned to sort of help these students understand the process but also advocate for themselves and believe in themselves, because I knew the devastation that could come when your self-esteem was damaged.  I understood that experience.  But I also knew that you couldn’t make assumptions about people and that everybody had a story.  I would often find myself trying to urge my colleagues to take the time to get to know their students and know their stories and believe in their students and, certainly, not to assume.

Thank you.


Part 2: Sarah Myhre

It’s almost a year ago to the day that I was evicted from my house.  I’m a single mom and being evicted in a city like Seattle is really scary on an academic salary.  At the same time that this was occurring, the hate and bigotry, white supremacy, misogyny and bullying were unleashed into our culture from the election of Donald Trump.  It was a terrifying time for many of us but myself included because I faced losing my stable housing.  

About a month and a half after that, after receiving that eviction notice, I was on the way to Olympia, the state of Washington’s capital, the Monday after the Women’s March to give invited scientific testimony to the House Environment Committee on the need to reduce greenhouse gases.  I advocated, as a scientist, for the reduction of emission trajectories to a cooler and safer future for the state of Washington. 

After giving testimony, the lawmakers asked us questions and one of the lawmakers asked us a question about a problematic atmospheric scientist and weather celebrity in Washington.  Now, this particular atmospheric scientist gives great weather, has a huge platform, does lots of public education, and has very problematic communication of climate change.  At every weather event, every fire, every storm he hedges and does not attribute these events at all to climate change.  And it’s a problem because we need scientists in the public spaces to not equivocate around the risks of climate change. 

As an earth scientist myself, I don't give a damn about weather attribution because climate change is fundamentally not about weather.  Yes, it’s interesting.  Let’s figure those questions out, but climate change is a planetary scale phenomenon. 

So I chose to answer the lawmaker’s question.  I gave an analogy.  I said, “No matter how high this individual says that he can jump, the laws of gravity still apply to him.  And the same is true for his communication of climate change.  No matter how he equivocates about warming, the planet is still changing and it’s changing forever.”

From that moment of speaking truth in public, my career changed forever because I’m now on record articulating my dissent with a very powerful man in my field.  When you call out a climate scientist, a senior scientist for their problematic communication of climate change, things get very uncomfortable very quickly. 

Of course the first response that I had was self doubt.  Had I understood his position correctly?  Had I understood my position correctly?  Why had I spoken at all?  I could have avoided an avalanche of hostile emails and uncomfortable meetings if I had stayed quiet. 

On the terrible advice from a colleague that I deeply respect, I had coffee with this individual alone.  I got to the café first.  I sat down.  And as he came to the table, he came with his finger outstretched at me and pointed at me as he sat down. 

“I know who you are,” he said. “You're a climate extremist.  You're a climate radical.  It’s because of people like you that we’re not getting anything done.” 

He said over and over again to me, “You know nothing about the science.  You know nothing about climate change.” 

In the middle of our conversation he asked me, “So, how do poor people die in the state of Washington?” 

I said, “I’m not gonna play this game with you.  If you want to tell me something, just tell it to me.” 

He said, “In the state of Washington, in Eastern Washington in the winter, poor people, poor Mexican people, they die in traffic accidents related to ice.  And in the future of warming, there's gonna be less ice on those roads and fewer brown people are gonna die in the future.” 

When he said this, alarm bells started ringing in my head.  You cannot use the bodies and the deaths of people of color to equivocate about the relative benefits of future warming scenarios.  And you cannot use the bodies and the deaths of people of color to undergird your skepticism of consensus science. 

At the end of this meeting, he demanded that I recant my testimony.  I said, “No, I have no intention of recanting my testimony.” 

He then threatened me, saying, “If you don’t recant your testimony, I will recant it for you.” 

Sarah Myhre shares her story at our show in partnership with the American Geophysical Union. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

Sarah Myhre shares her story at our show in partnership with the American Geophysical Union. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

I left the meeting physically shaken and thoroughly disgusted, intent on moving on with my life.  In the next few weeks, I wrote and published an op-ed with Jane Zelikova and Kelly Fleming in The Seattle Times calling on EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt to use basic science and act on climate change to protect the American public. 

In The Seattle Times’ website of this op-ed, this same problematic weather celebrity showed up and in his comment he called Jane, Kelly, and myself “young, idealistic and not real scientists.” And said that we were “totally wrong.”

He didn’t have to show up there, but he chose to show up there and shit on three women scientists.  The presence of a local weather celebrity in the comments created an amplified tsunami of bullshit and misogyny that further undermined our participation as women in public spaces. 

Why?  Why did those words matter?  Well, first, I'll tell you what those words did to me.  I wish I could tell you that they didn’t hurt me, but what he did that day profoundly hurt me because it pierced into that piece of me that I carry around as a scientist that has always said, “You'll never be a scientist.  You'll never be good enough to participate in science.  And no matter how hard you work and no matter how many papers you publish, you will never be considered an expert in your field, because people like you, they don’t get to be experts.” 

“Young, idealistic and not real climate scientists.” Why did those words matter?  Because it’s an erasure.  It feeds directly into the cultural trope that women are decorative and men are the ultimate arbiters of information and power. 

There's a lot of space in science for a certain kind of woman, this science ingénue, the gritty and gutsy, yet ultimately powerless and disposable, role that many women find themselves in.  But you know what?  Ingénues, they don’t give invited scientific testimony.  And ingénues, they don’t write op-eds.  And ingénues, they definitely do not stand up to senior scientists. 

As a thirty-five-year-old single mother, I have decidedly aged out of the ingénue category.  I am now firmly in the nasty-woman category.  That is right.  And that means when I speak in public about science or about feminism what I receive is misogyny because I am stepping out of the lane of behavior that is appropriate and acceptable for people that look like me and sound like me. 

So that day that I was so discouraged, wondering if I should stay in science, I recovered from that day and I didn’t go away.  In fact, I have become much, much stronger.  I’m now a contributing writer for Seattle’s newspaper The Stranger, where I write about science and climate change and misogyny and, indeed, this problematic weather celebrity. 

I’m a founding board member of 500 Women Scientists, I’m a board member of The Center for Women and Democracy, and just last month I was awarded as one of Seattle’s Most Influential People of 2017, an honor that was also given to the state’s governor, to our attorney general, and to mayoral candidates. 

In this moment I’m reminded of a quote from one of my favorite feminists, Lindy West, who says that women’s nos in the culture are constantly eroded and degraded.  A woman saying no in public, in front of other women, is a political statement.  And I have learned this year that being a woman scientist itself is a political statement and standing up for myself in public is also a political statement. 

Sarah Myhre holds up a fist at the end of her story. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

Sarah Myhre holds up a fist at the end of her story. Photo by Finn Turnbull.

A year ago when I received that racist eviction notice because I put a Black Lives Matter sign in my front window, I didn’t go away then either.  I fought that illegal and racist eviction with the City of Seattle and the Department of Construction and Inspection and the Office of Civil Rights, and I won my fight and I am still in that house.  And my son did not have to move across town and leave his daycare friends, and we did not have to pay that price because I said no in public. 

I am talking to you here right now because I have chosen in the last year to put myself out in front and say no in public in a time when we need it the most.  But saying no in public comes with so many yeses.  Yes to a kind and safe culture inside and out of science.  Yes to equity and diversity and inclusivity.  Yes to opportunities for everyone regardless of their race, gender, ability, or identity.  And yes to women, especially women of color, in power and in leadership.