Why care about the gender gap in science and tech?

A day on the job for Christine McKinley

A day on the job for Christine McKinley

Scenes like the one above are engineer Christine McKinley’s favorite views of the construction sites where she manages building designs and contracts with other engineers. McKinley, a mechanical engineer, musician, and author, enjoys the complexities, high stakes and surprises of her job. Engineers, she says, “design against [surprises] but live for surprises.”

One of these surprises, McKinley told an audience last Thursday Feb. 25 in the Nelson Music Room at Duke, was a talk she had with the director of a community college district. He told her “women aren’t as good as math and science.” Shocked and disappointed that a man in charge of the education of the young students would believe this, McKinley pointed out that several of her accomplished colleagues were women. McKinley, like many other women, was frustrated that she has to work harder than men to get a promotion.

Is this changing? Are women today more prevalent in engineering fields than they were twenty to thirty years ago?

The chart below depicts the distribution of engineers in 1989: only 15 percent are women.

Distribution of Engineering Graduates in 1989

Of course, 1989 was 27 years ago and a different cultural time, with Nintendo’s Game Boy and Prince William’s seventh birthday. But the chart below shows how little those numbers have changed.

Distribution of Engineering Graduates in 2015

For mechanical engineers, the gap is much larger: only 7 percent are women (yellow faces), while the blue faces represent men, with the some frowning ones unhappy to be working with the women.

Percent of female mechanical engineers

Percent of female mechanical engineers

When the workers are broken down into teams, according to McKinley, the image below is what it actually feels like to be working as a female mechanical engineer.

What it actually feels like to be a female mechanical engineer

What it actually feels like to be a female mechanical engineer

Let’s start with the most troubling issue regarding the lack of diversity in engineering. If women and people of color are told that we are not good at math and science, and we believe it, then we are choosing a form of helplessness. Specifically, if we don’t pick apart the data and challenge those who made up this story, then it sticks, and the “rumor” becomes a narrative – and that’s dangerous, McKinley said. However, everyone needs to know basic chemistry, math, and physics to participate in conversations about topics such as medicine, NASA, one’s cholesterol level, and energy conservation as a knowledgeable adult. People need to be STEM-literate to be able to analyze this data, and men, especially in the 1950s, didn’t want women to research the facts and prove a competition.

Why should we care about women choosing careers in STEM fields?

Reason 1: Gender financial inequity: STEM grads make more than non-STEM grads

If we care about the gender pay gap, and only 19 percent of engineering graduates are women, then that aggravates the situation. This gender inequity can be addressed – partly – by women choosing to study engineering, McKinley said.

Of course, money is not the only thing in life; we want jobs with meaning, she added. However, even civil engineers understand that they are in a helping profession, always excited to build a new bridge, for example, to help people cross a flooded river. At the same time, money gives one the ability to leave a spouse, to take care of a disabled child, to find a better job, to afford healthier food; making real money gives one a way to become independent and make better choices. Working a job, however, does not imply that we must “sacrifice [our] life and fun.” McKinley enjoys what she does and has a lot of fun on the job; studying math and science, she says, is not that complex with the right motivation and support.

Reason 2: Humanity’s Survival

A coronal mass ejection (CME) is an enormous eruption of gas and magnetic field that launches billions of tons of plasma from the sun’s surface into space. Such an event occurred in 1859. As a result, farmers plowing field with horses noticed a bright flash of light, steam engines continued to run on schedule, and telegraph operators were confused when their telegraph batteries stopped working. Overall, there were few problems due to the limited technology at the time.

Imagine a CME happening today. All our large pieces of equipment – power stations, transformers, and transmission lines – would get fried.

Equipment involved in the transportation of energy from power plants to users

If these power houses blow up, what are we going to do? With three-year lead-time and $2 trillion cost, they will not be repaired in time for us to continue our daily functions. We now have a civilization-changing event on our hands – what Hurricane Katrina gave us, but now, for entire countries. We are in a time where our dependence on technology is constantly rising – until it’s not. In such a disastrous scenario, we will need more engineers. At this time, everyone – men and women – will come together to work on simple, elegant solutions to make the world better.

Currently, we have a mass shortage of engineers, so those today are overbooked with work. If these engineers are unable to find time to think through the entire solution and review all possible sources of error, then it creates a problem not only for engineering but also for the entire world in general. We are in need of good engineers and a diverse workforce to bring together all our ideas for a better world.

McKinley notes that she finds herself more comfortable when there are other women in the room. As a result, the whole team gets more relaxed, “elevating everyone’s game,” and people get more creative and feel more secure in sharing their ideas.

Grace Hopper created the computers advertised in this flyer.

Grace Hopper created the computers advertised in this flyer.

 

Reason 3: The third reason we care about this view about engineering is the history of STEM achievements by women being ignored or the credit being taken by men.

Women who became mathematicians in the 1900s had to fight hard to have their contributions to the field recognized. The world misses out significantly if the achievements of half of humanity are ignored.

Hertha Aryton was a brilliant mathematician who had been elected the first female member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers in 1899. In 1902, she became the first woman nominated a Fellow of the Royal Society of London. “Because she was married, however,” McKinley quoted, “legal counsel advised that the charter of the Royal Society did not allow the Society to elect her to this distinction.”

Amalie Noether was another incredible mathematician who invented a theorem that united symmetry in nature and the universal laws of conservation. Some consider Noether’s theorem, as it is now called, to be as important as Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity. Einstein himself regarded her as most “significant” and “creative” female mathematician of all time. However, McKinley tells the audience, she was denied a working position at universities simply because they did not hire female professors.

In the 1900’s, more than 1000 women joined an organization called Women Airforce Service Pilots. They transported newly-made planes to the fighter pilots; however, many of the planes were untested, causing 38 of them to die in service. While they went through intense military training and had prior experience, the women were considered “civilian volunteers” and had to fight to be recognized. Further, most of the accepted women to the organization were white, and the only African American applicant was asked to withdraw her application.

Nancy Fitzroy was American engineer and heat transfer expert in the 1900s. She received plenty of criticism as well, but she said it didn’t affect her: “The reaction I pretty much have gotten most of my life is ‘little girl, what are you doing here?’ but I was a good engineer. That’s what made all the difference.”

 

Curiosity, inventiveness, and the urge to improve are not male traits. They are human traits. Women are half of humanity; they are not the spectators. Women must step up and contribute even if it is more difficult. Constantly underestimated as a female mechanical engineer, McKinley says she uses this underestimation as fuel to work harder and become better.

Being an engineer is worth it. Ask great questions, and be really good.

Remember, McKinley told her audience, that engineering is full of surprises. And for people who underestimate you, you’ll be that surprise.

 

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C

Christine McKinley gave her talk in the Nelson Music Building at Duke last Thursday for Feminist/Women’s month.

Christine McKinley is a mechanical engineer, musician, and author. Her musical Gracie and the Atom, won a Portland Drammy for Original Score. Her book Physics for Rock Stars was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Christine hosted Brad Meltzer’s Decoded on History Channel and Under New York on Discovery Channel.

You can view her website, read her book, or contact her via email.

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Anika_RD_hed100_2 By Anika Radiya-Dixit

 

 

3-D Movies of Life at Nanoscale Named Best Science Paper of the Year

If you’ve ever wanted to watch a killer T cell in action, or see human cancer make new cells up-close, now is your chance.

A collection of 3-D movies captured by Duke biology professor Dan Kiehart and colleagues has won the 2015 Newcomb Cleveland Prize for most outstanding paper in the journal Science.

The paper uses a new imaging technique called lattice light-sheet microscopy to make super high-resolution three-dimensional movies of living things ranging from single cells to developing worm and fly embryos.

Cutting-edge microscopes available on many campuses today allow researchers to take one or two images a second. But the lattice light-sheet microscope, co-developed by 2014 Nobel Prize winner Eric Betzig, lets researchers take more than 50 images a second, and in the specimen’s natural state, without smooshing it under a cover slip.

You can watch slender antennae called filopodia extend from the surface of a human cancer cell, or tiny rods called microtubules, several thousand times finer than a human hair, growing and shrinking inside a slide mold.

Daniel Kiehart and former Duke postdoctoral fellow Serdar Tulu made a video of the back side of a fruit fly embryo during a crucial step in its development into a larva.

Chosen from among nominations submitted by readers of Science, the paper has been viewed more than 20,000 times since it was first published on October 24, 2014.

The award was announced on February 12, 2016, at an award ceremony held during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C.

Winners received a commemorative plaque and $25,000, to be shared among the paper’s lead authors Eric Betzig, Bi-Chang Chen, Wesley Legant and Kai Wang of Janelia Farm Research Campus.

Read more: “Lattice light-sheet microscopy: Imaging molecules to embryos at high spatiotemporal resolution,” Chen, B.-C., et al. Science, October 2014. DOI:10.1126/science.1257998

 

Post by Robin A. Smith Robin Smith

 

What Came Before the Big Bang?

The Big Bang Theory: Origins of the universe.

Students and faculty gathered in the Physics building over coffee last Friday to understand the theory and mathematics behind a fundamental question: how did our universe start and what came before it?

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor at UNC, is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of many.

Cosmologist and theoretical physicist Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor at UNC, is a proponent of the idea that our universe is one of many.

Laura Mersini-Houghton, associate professor of theoretical physics and cosmology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has appeared on various TV and radio stations to discuss her theories on black holes and the origins of the universe.

With the rise of technology in the twentieth century, we now know more about the Big Bang and the dark energy that makes up approximately 70 percent of the universe. With the expansion of universe, all other matter — everything we have observed on Earth and through instruments — will dilute, while dark energy, which has constant density, will expand, thereby “pushing the universe apart.”

Expansion of the universe due to dark energy.

What has bothered scientists since the early 1970’s are the questions: what exactly selected the initial conditions of the universe? What determined the arrow of time? Why did we have to start with these very special conditions?

What brings these issues to the forefront of research today is that fact that dark energy will be the only thing remaining in the present timeline of our universe. In other words, we are going towards another big bang explosion. In order to predict how the future of the universe will evolve, we must first understand the mystery behind dark energy.

Dr. Mersini-Houghton says that the chances of a Big Bang happening by chance are 1 / 10^{10^123}, which is infinitely impossible. What selected this initial condition?

Illustration of the string theory landscape of multiple universes.

She proposes wave functions. When the energy of each wave function is at a tipping point, a new big bang occurs and with it another universe is created. With the support of the string theory, using one-dimensional strings in place of the particles of quantum physics, we calculate a landscape of 10^500 possible universes. The hypothesis that there exist other universes then raises the question: why did we start with this universe? Our universe is no longer at the center of the Cosmos as we previously believed; rather it is a humble member in a vastness.

Even if there are multiple universes, their entanglement with us is so tiny that they are nearly impossible to detect. However, the Planck satellite has found concrete scientific evidence of changes in energy due to other universes. According to Dr. Mersini-Houghton, atypical observations made about galaxies moving in the wrong direction and the unexplained “Cold Spot” in the cosmic microwave background are effects are due to the presence of neighboring universes.

In short, nature is a lot more complicated than we think it is, and simply looking at it and simplifying the problem to solely our world will not help us understand what is truly happening. To address the problem of our origins, perhaps we need to extend our paradigm of space-time and look for observational tests of a multiverse framework.

Stephen Hawking’s take on parallel universes in an interview.

 

Learn more about Mersini-Houghton’s multiverse theory and her latest research on Hawking radiation and black holes. To view a list of her talks, visit her webpage or send her an email at mersini@physics.unc.edu.

By Anika Radiya-Dixit.

Anika_RD_hed100_2

 

 

 

 

Measuring the Mechanical Forces of Disease

“All these complicated diseases that we don’t have a good handle on — they all have this mechanical component. Well why is that?”

Brent Hoffman is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering

Brent Hoffman is an assistant professor of biomedical engineering

This is exactly the question Brent Hoffman, Duke biomedical engineering assistant professor, is helping answer. Many of the common diseases that we fear have a mechanical component. In asthma attacks, a chemical or physical stimulus causes the air channels in the lung to shut as the muscles that control the width of the channel contract– the mechanical component.

Another example is atherosclerosis, commonly known as the hardening of the arteries, the leading killer in developed countries. Instead of air flow, blood flow is affected as the walls of the blood vessels get thicker. Factors such as smoking, being overweight, and having high cholesterol increase the chance of getting this disease. However, examining the mechanical portion, the plaques associated with atherosclerosis tend to occur at certain parts of the blood vessels, where they branch or curve. You can think of it like a hose. When you kink a hose or put your thumb over the nozzle, the fluid flows in a different way. Hoffman said there are similar stories concerning mechanical portions of major diseases, such as muscular dystrophy and breast cancer.

Hoffman's lab is building tension sensors to measure forces during collective cell migration.

Hoffman’s lab is building tension sensors to measure forces during collective cell migration.

This all sounds very biological, so why is he in the engineering department? As mechanobiology is a new field, there are few tools available for reporting a protein’s shape or its forces inside living cells. Hoffman makes the tools enabling the study of mechanobiology. During Hoffman’s postdoctoral research, he worked on recording forces across proteins in living cells, their natural environment. Now, he’s expanding that technology and using it to do basic science studies to understand mechanobiology.

Hoffman said he hadn’t planned this. From high school, he knew he wanted to be an engineer. As an undergraduate, Hoffman interned at IBM, where he worked on the production of chip carriers using copper-plating. Hoffman was able to apply knowledge, such as changing pH to get various amounts of copper, and make everything perform at optimal performance, but he wanted to know more about the processes.

So he set out to get his Ph.D in process control, which involves deciding how to set all the numbers and dials on the equipment, how large the tank should be, what pressure and temperature should be used, etc. in chemical plants. Hoffman was set on the path to become a chemical engineer. However, during the first week of graduate school, he attended a biophysics talk, in which he understood very little. Biophysics interested Hoffman, so he went from intending to do research on one of the most applied engineering projects on campus to arguably one of the least applied in a week. This was the beginning of his biophysics journey. However, as his Ph. D was much more heavily interested in the physics aspect, Hoffman chose to do his postdoc in cell biology to balance his training. Mixing everything together, he got biomedical engineering.

Hoffman reflects that his decisions were logical, but he had not planned to take the route he did. Hoffman cautions that it is better to have a plan than not because if you do not plan, you won’t know where you are going. However, he advises that since a person learns more about likes and dislikes as one proceeds on their route, students should not be afraid to incorporate what they learn into their plans.

Hoffman’s journey is characterized by finding and doing what he enjoyed. Trained in both the worlds of physics and biology, but never intending to pursue a future in either, Hoffman is uniquely suited for his current position in the revolutionary emerging field of mechanobiology. He is able to put his biology hat on and his physicist hat on for a bit, while the engineer in him is thinking, “is any of this practical?”
“If you had to pick out the key to my success, it would be doing that,” Hoffman said.

AmandaLi_100Guest Post by Amanda Li, a senior at the North Carolina School of Science and Math

 

Middle Schoolers Ask: What’s it Like to be a Scientist?

PostdocsWhen a group of local middle schoolers asked four Duke postdocs what it’s like to be a scientist, the answers they got surprised them.

For toxicologist Laura Maurer, it means finding out if the tiny silver particles used to keep socks and running shirts from getting smelly might be harmful to your health.

For physics researcher Andres Aragoneses, it means using lasers to stop hackers and make telecommunications more secure.

And for evolutionary anthropologist Noah Snyder-Mackler, it means handling a lot of monkey poop.

The end result is a series of short video interviews filmed and edited by 5th-8th graders in Durham, North Carolina. Read more about the project and the people behind it at http://sites.duke.edu/pdocs/, or watch the videos below:

Celebratory Bottles Mark the March of Time

The 50th anniversary of the Triangle University Nuclear Laboratory (TUNL) November 6-8 was a homecoming of sorts for hundreds of alumni, faculty and friends.

On the eve of the anniversary party, Chris Gould of NC State inspecting the trophy case at TUNL.

On the eve of the anniversary party, Chris Gould of NC State inspected the trophy case at TUNL.

For half a century, the three Triangle universities have collaborated seamlessly on nuclear physics experiments using particle accelerators and other equipment too large and expensive for one university to effectively use on its own.

Key milestones in the lab’s history are marked by a dusty rank of empty champagne bottles marching across the top of a power supply cabinet in the basement lab.

Each trophy bottle records a moment of celebration, when faculty, researchers, technicians, and students gathered to savor an achievement made possible by years of working all hours of the day and night to design, build, measure, adjust, repair, monitor, and make sense of equipment and experiments. Each is labeled, typically in Wite-Out correction fluid, with a date and the event.

“The bottles represent technical milestones that either created new research opportunities at TUNL or increased the competitiveness of TUNL’s research activities in specific areas,” said Calvin Howell, who is a Duke professor and the director of TUNL.

December 29, 1968, the first beam of 30 MeV after two years of construction and assembly.

December 29, 1968, Roberson’s handwriting celebrates the first beam of 30 MeV, marking the end of two years of construction and assembly and the beginning of 50 years of science.

Russell Roberson, Duke professor emeritus and one-time TUNL director, started the tradition. On Sunday, December 29, 1968, TUNL physicists successfully coaxed a beam of particles out of the new equipment, marking the completion of  two years of constructing a new building behind Duke’s physics building and installing enormous equipment purchased with a $2.5 million grant from the Atomic Energy Commission.

“It was a pretty big deal to have that beam and it seemed like we ought to remember when we did it,” Roberson said.

Graduate student Chris Gould had just driven from Philadelphia to Duke between Christmas and New Year’s day to deliver a piece of equipment with colleague Steve Shafroth, who was beginning his TUNL career at UNC. “We arrived in the evening,” remembered Gould, who is now a professor of physics at NC State. “And came upon a bibulous celebration in the control room where bottles of Cold Duck were being cooled down with liquid nitrogen and drunk out of paper cups.”

Six months later, Gould began his career at TUNL.

In the coming years, they would collide this type of beam (and others) with targets of various compositions in their quest to unlock the secrets of subatomic structure and forces.

Here are a few trophies from over the years:

Worth Seagondollar

July 14, 1983 – “Polarized Target – Polarized Beam.” Worth Seagondollar, chair of physics at N.C. State. (Courtesy of David Haase, NCSU)

May 13, 1979 – “First pulsed polarized n”

In the mid-1970s, TUNL began producing polarized neutron beams, in which the neutrons were all spinning in the same direction. Knowing the spin direction of the particles in the beam made for more precise interpretation of the data when the beam hit the target. This bottle from 1979 marked a further enhancement—the beam was pulsed so that the speed of the neutrons in the beam could be calculated.

July 8, 1980 – “First data taken with the VAX”

TUNL was the first nuclear lab to take data with the new 32-bit VAX computer from the Digital Equipment Corporation. TUNL physicists built an operating system to go along with it, which was used by many other labs around the world. In fact, Gould and Roberson traveled to China and Saudi Arabia to help labs there set up the same system. (Before the VAX, TUNL “borrowed” computer power from the high-energy physics group at Duke, via cables that ran through a 4” pipe between the two labs.)

May 15, 1992 – “Lamb Shift Polarimeter Bump Bump Bump”

TUNL faculty and students designed a device called a “Lamb shift spin-filter polarimeter” that would characterize the distribution of spin directions of the particles in a polarized beam almost instantly — a task that had previously taken hours. “We had just collected the first spectrum which proved that the Lamb-shift polarimeter could be used to determine the beam polarization in the predicted way,” recalled UNC professor Tom Clegg. “It was a night for high-fives and celebration. We joyously popped the cork on this bottle late on Friday evening after a very difficult week.”

"Bump Bump Bump" signified three distinct signals from the new Lamb shift spin-filter polarimeter.

1992 “Bump Bump Bump”

October 26, 2006 – “First Beam Extracted from Booster”

TUNL operates the world’s most powerful Compton gamma-ray source, called HIGS (which stands for high intensity gamma-ray source). The gamma rays are produced in a free electron laser ring, which is housed in a 52,000-square-foot building adjacent to the original TUNL facility on Duke’s campus. In 2006, TUNL scientists added a booster ring called a synchrotron to increase the intensity of gamma rays that could be produced. Scientists from all over the world use the facility for experiments involving gamma rays at energies of 10 million to 100 million electron volts (MeV).

Mary-Russell RobersonGuest post by Mary-Russell Roberson