ASTech Awards

Hello Alberta Science and Technology Community. Did you know that the deadline to nominate a fellow Albertan for an ASTech Award is quickly approaching? You have until May 31st. Go here to learn more.

For those of you who are not familiar with the ASTech Foundation, let me give you a quick introduction: Alberta Science and Technology Leadership (ASTech) Foundation is a not-for-profit organisation that is committed to showcasing substantial achievements in science and technology in Alberta. Every fall, finalists in the nomination process are honoured at an awards ceremony. I have had the pleasure of attending the awards ceremony for the last 3 years and I can say that it is a great event for anyone interested in innovation. It is tremendously fun to be in a room with so many like-minded individuals.

With all of these great things going for ASTech, I have to say that the awards remain plagued by one key problem: a lack of diversity in their award winners. In 2015, only one of the 15 award winners was female. Further, not a single award presenter was a woman. In a discussion about diversity, I brought this point to the ASTech Foundation. Let’s just say their response wasn’t quite as convicted as “because it’s 2015”:

(I’ve done sales/customer service. “Thanks for your feedback” is right up there with “I’ll take that under advisement” for the polite, if not passive aggressive, dismal.)

I began digging into ASTech’s history a bit: in the last 5 years only 9 women have been named winners of awards, with another 3 women being the representative (CEO/Founder) for companies that have been award winners. This means that less than 20% of the award winners are women.

At the 2015 awards, I discussed it with a couple of individuals on the Board of the ASTech Foundation and they expressed that they get a notable lack of female nominees, making it difficult to ensure that there is equality in award winners. This may explain, at least superficially, why there are so few female award winners, but this hardly does anything to explain why award presenters and evening MCs are all still male.


Here’s the thing, I am not in anyway suggesting that the men who have won an ASTech award are not deserving. In fact, in 2015, TWO members of my PhD committee, Drs. Jonathan Curtis and Todd Lowary, accepted awards. These are two individuals who had a profound effect on my career and I count them among a list of wonderful mentors I have worked with over the last fourteen years.

That being said, I have also worked with an innumerable number of women who have also changed the landscape of science and technology in Alberta. I am currently involved in two Alberta-based start-ups where the Founder/CEO is a woman: Stephanie Hoeppner of Life Science Forensics and Donna Mandau of Graphene Leaders Canada. The scientific leads, operational leads, and other senior management roles in these companies are also dominated by women (myself included). I work with female vice presidents, female lead researchers, and female project managers every day. I DO NOT accept that there are not enough women contributing to science and technology innovation in Alberta as an explanation for the lack of female nominees. I call on my fellow scientists and innovators to no longer accept this either. When you make your nomination for the 2016 ASTech, do not forget about all of the brilliant women you know who are also changing the Alberta science and technology landscape.

The mission of the ASTech Foundation is “To identify and celebrate outstanding achievements in science and technology in Alberta and to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership.” It is difficult to inspire the next generation of innovation and leadership to embrace diversity and new ideas, if we aren’t demonstrating, and celebrating, diversity today.


Girls with Toys

I want you all to engage in a little thought experiment with me:

Imagine yourself at dinner with some family friends. Their 17 year old is going to be heading off to university next year and so you ask “Jamie, what is it that you are planning to do?” Jamie replies, “I’m going to be a physicist! But, like, not just any physicist, I want to get a PhD and work for, like, NASA or something. I want to be Canada’s Neil Degrasse Tyson!”

You’re not surprised; this kid has always loved science. Heck, when Jamie turned 7 your gift was a model of the solar system. Which was followed by a lecture on its inaccuracies: Pluto is NOT a planet.

What advice are you thinking about offering Jamie, knowing that these specific career goals mean at least a decade in university?

-How about the fact that this may interfere with plans to have a baby? No one wants to start having kids in their 30s.

-A technical diploma will allow for way more family focused jobs

-What about *future* husband’s career goals?

How many of you actually imagined that Jamie was a boy?

On Friday, Shrinivas Kulkarni of Caltech said in an interview on NPR “many scientists, I think, secretly are what I call ‘boys with toys'” and it has since sparked a backlash on Twitter with the hashtag #GirlswithToys. It has some people wondering, “what are people so outraged”?

Well here’s the reason: that statement automatically excluded 50% of the population from being identified as scientists, a group that already is discourage from science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) disciplines. In one statement, Dr. Kulkarni managed to highlight the tacit institutional sexism present in the sciences (like so many other fields).

You would be hard pressed to find anyone, with the exception of cretins who identify as “Men’s Rights Activists”, who would openly say “women cannot be scientists” and yet, women earn as few as 20% of the the bachelor of science degrees awarded to men in physics, engineering, and computer science.

On April 29th, (that’s April 29th, 2015) female researchers were told that their paper would be improved if it had a male co-author. I can assure you that none of my male colleagues have ever been told their paper would fair better with a female co-author.

My male colleagues haven’t been asked about “when they are planning to have children” in job interviews, despite being married (some already committed fathers). My male colleagues haven’t had TAs who didn’t want to to female students. (Sadly this was a situation that arose, in 2009, in Canada.) When my male colleagues mention that their PhD is in chemistry, I have yet to see the kind of shocked faces followed by the condescending, “oh you have a real PhD,” as though somehow getting a PhD in a physical science is harder or more legitimate than one in a social science. I have never heard anyone refer to my male colleagues as a “bitch” because the same kind of tough questions that the male professors do. And they certainly haven’t had to deal with the rampant sexual harassment. Let me tell you, when you are at a conference poster session and one of your professors begins to tell, in graphic detail, of how attractive he thinks a well-known undergraduate student is and what he is planning to do alone in his hotel with her image, it makes your skin crawl to know that even if you said something about this, the guy has tenure and so nothing will happen. Hell, let’s not even discuss some of the things the more senior fellows in the department have said.

Did Dr. Kulkarni mean that women can’t be scientists by his off-hand remark? Probably not. I like to think that he was commenting on the child-like curiosity that many scientists have, and that the general enthusiasm with which curiosity-driven research is carried out feels a little like “getting to play with some pretty cool toys”. However, when you take that sentiment in context with the stories of institutional sexism that I, and every female scientist, has experienced in some way, it becomes easy to see why we are reacting with outrage.

I happen to work for a company called Life Science Forensics, where I am the Director of Science and Research, and right now we are made up of four women only. I would very much refer to this wonderful group of women that I work with as “girls with toys” because we are driven to innovative research projects that often start with a curious question and the knowledge that we have plenty of high end instrumentation to test out ideas. We are committed to innovating our field-and if you had the kind of instruments we have, you’d want to be testing for all kinds of things like we do.

Does it matter that we are women? Not at all. Science is for everyone with a curious mind. Dorothy Parker wrote: “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” And that has NOTHING to do with gender.

The Trouble With Science Communication

I dedicate this post to Dr. Brent Rudyk and Nathaniel O’Coin.

The other day Nathaniel asked me “What is the Canadian Light Source?” He has a friend who was recently doing research at the CLS and didn’t know what it was. His friend was doing near-edge x-ray absorption spectorscopy. I hit a communication block: how do I explain this? I mean, I know what the technique is; I had a number of colleagues while I was in grad school making trips to the CLS and yet I found myself struggling to explain what CLS and near-edge x-ray spectroscopy is. I mentioned it on facebook and my friend, Dr. Rudyk, came back with a GREAT explanation: “CLS is a synchrotron, where highly intense, tunable x-rays are created by bending near light speed electrons. X-ray absorption near-edge spectroscopy (XANES) is the process of promoting a core electron into conduction states and analyzing the resulting “edge-jump” and the general vicinity of the jump.” I was excited. I couldn’t have said it better. I immediately recalled the classes I discussed it in. But here’s the problem: Nathaniel still didn’t quite understand. See he has no chemistry or science background, meaning that the terms “conduction state”, “edge-jump” still didn’t help him understand what was going on.

This whole situation really demonstrates the challenge in communicating science to a non-technical audience. My friend Brent is a wonderful teacher, easy to talk to, and is a great communicator, and yet, his perfect description of XANES and CLS still didn’t help Nathaniel understand. How do we, as scientists, make our explanations more accessible to non-technical audiences without coming off as condescending? This is what the mission of Curiosity Science is all about. I hope that those of you who follow with interest bare with us as we learn to talk about science most accessibly and I hope that other scientists interested in contributing to the project recognise the challenge and the wonderful opportunity that we have.

So with all of this in mind: here is my attempt at explaining the CLS and XANES-really I am just editing Brent’s answer because it really is one of the best explanations I have read. The Canadian Light Source is located at the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. It is a synchrotron, which is a source of light generated by accelerating electrons to nearly the speed of light (2.99 x 10^8 m/s) and then bending these electrons using very powerful electro-magnets. As the electrons bend, they emit intense, highly focused beams of light. This light is at different energies: some are x-rays, others are infrared or ultraviolet. These beams that come off allow scientists to do various experiments depending on the wavelength of light.

Different wavelengths of light have different energies. X-ray is much more intense energy than infrared. When an atom absorbes an x-ray, there is enough energy to kick an electron that is closer to the nucleus of an atom to a higher energy state (excited state). These are the core electrons and require a lot more energy to excite or remove compared to electrons located farther away from the nucleus of an atom. The different types of electrons have very specific energies that are required to excite them, this gives rise to the “absorption edge” because in the actual spectrum it looks like a vertical line, like the edge of a cliff. The specific “edges” that one would see in a spectrum are element specific. You can therefore tell what elements are present, what their oxidation state is etc.

So there you go. There is a little bit about the CLS and what you can do with it. The CLS is a pretty cool, state of the art research centre. It is definitely a claim to fame for the University of Saskatchewan and the City of Saskatoon.

Also, Thanks Brent, for helping me in trying to explain XANES to the world. Let me know if I missed something!

Welcome to Curiosity Science!

Hello Folks and welcome to Curiosity Science!
I previously wrote a blog called Chemistry is Awesome, where I answered your chemistry questions in a non-technical, jargon-free manner. It was fun, but I found myself stymied by the fact that science is so much more than just chemistry and many of the things I wanted to share involved other sciences on top of chemistry alone. I wanted to share all science because really Science is Awesome.
Enter Curiosity Science. This is for anyone curious about any type of science. Science impacts all of us. It isn’t meant for just a handful of people who spent years studying it. Science is meant for everyone. Again, this is a place to fine jargon-free, non-technical answers and information on the science that happens every day.
Do you have science questions? Contact us: Do you want to #askanexpert a question? Send us an email or tweet @thecuriosityscience.
Curiosity Science Mission: to bring great science to every curious mind without the technical jargon. Hope you join us for our 13 week mission!