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In Tribute to Vera Rubin

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

Courtesy of Carnegie Institution of Washington

In the 113 years that the Nobel Prize has been awarded, only two women have ever received the prize for Physics: Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

This past October, a public furor ensued when the Nobel Prize Committee failed to award any women at all with the Prize. The outcry also inspired an unofficial online campaign to call attention to the Committee’s failure to recognize the contributions of Vera Rubin, a WINGS Fellow who discovered that the universe is comprised mainly of dark matter, an unidentifiable substance that is distinct from ordinary matter.

The call to recognize Rubin was urgent, as she was 88 at the time. Nobel Prizes can be awarded only to the living.

Rubin died on December 25. Although she did win other awards, many were critical of the Committee’s oversight and lamented that she would never be recognized with the Prize. (Not even Mahatma Gandhi was given the award posthumously.)

Even so, Rubin leaves behind a remarkable legacy in the way that we now understand the universe. But she was also a fierce advocate for women in science. She was a pioneer – at times, even a rebel.

Rubin grew up in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; from the age of 10 she knew that she wanted to be an astronomer.

In a 1992 interview for the publication Mercury, she said, “I knew I wanted to be an astronomer. I didn’t know a single astronomer, male or female. Being a woman didn’t bother me at all. I didn’t think that all astronomers were male, because I didn’t know. I didn’t even know how you became an astronomer.”

When she received a scholarship to attend Vassar College, her high school physics teacher told her, “You should do OK as long as you stay away from science.”

She studied astronomy.

She married a physicist and had four children, two of whom were geologists, one of whom was a mathematician, and her only daughter, Dr. Judith Young, who died in 2014 at the age of 61, was also an astronomer.

In 1947, Rubin was denied admittance to the Princeton graduate school because women were not allowed to study there. Princeton didn’t allow women to study graduate physics until 1971, graduate astronomy until 1975 and graduate math until 1976, according to a talk Rubin gave at a 1990 conference on retaining women in physics.

She was the first woman to be legally permitted to observe at the Palomar Observatory in San Diego, California. Historically, observatories did not allow women; one argument was that they did not have the appropriate bathroom facilities to accommodate them.

In the same Mercury article, Rubin recounted a story about the bathroom on the ground floor of Palomar, which still bore a “Men” sign, nearly 30 years after she had first observed there:

“About two years ago, I sort of got annoyed at this ‘Men’ sign and I cut out a little figure with a skirt and pasted it up,” she said. “It stayed for the four days I was there, but it wasn’t there the next year.”

When asked why Rubin thought she was the first woman permitted to observe there, she said “Let me hope that the work I was doing was interesting enough.”

In 1976 when the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum debuted its first planetarium show, a feature on 200 years of American astronomy, it included only men, all but one of them white. After lobbying for months to have the presentation corrected, she was told that the show was recorded and could not be changed.

In her collection of essays, Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters, Rubin writes firsthand about astronomy, as well as women in science. At the time, women constituted less than 5 percent of all physicists and less than 7 percent of all astronomers. She notes that despite the contributions of both women and minorities to astronomy, there are limited opportunities for those groups to enter the field.

In her 1990 essay “Opening the Doors,” she writes at length about what can be done to encourage more women to work in science: she says that little girls need role models and that women students should not quit.

Despite knowing that obstacles lay ahead for women, she remained optimistic:

“For any who wish to be an astronomer, rather than marry one, and who are willing to work for it, I hope your lives will be filled with many options.”

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Uncovering the Remarkable Story of Escaped Slaves

Becca Peixotto.jpg

Deep within the coastal plain region of Virginia and North Carolina lies the Great Dismal Swamp, a habitat that was once home to thousands of maroons – people of African descent who fled slavery between 1660 and 1860.

Becca Peixotto, a PhD candidate and instructor at American University, safely brought home WINGS WorldQuest Flag #4 from the Great Dismal Swamp, where she spent the summer on an archaeological expedition. Her goal was to uncover the remarkable story of resistance and resilience of  African-Americans who had escaped from their oppressive conditions and sought refuge in the swamp.

Becca and her team began the expedition by using data from an aerial lidar survey and historical documents to visit areas within the swamp that might be islands. They then mapped the islands, studied soil profiles and did test excavations. They discovered fire pits, a possible cabin footprint and artifacts ranging from small fragments of glass and iron nails to ancient stone tools left by people before the maroons.

Peixotto documented the expedition on her blog, Swampscapes. In one post, she ruminates about the extreme hot and cold weather that both escaped slaves and enslaved laborers had to face:

We whine and wilt and and swat flies and try to drink as much water as we’re sweating out but at the end of the day, we go back to a shower and air conditioning. The enslaved laborers who battled heat, humidity and thick undergrowth to clear only 1300 yards of survey path in a day in the summer of 1769 didn’t have that option. The maroons who chose a life of relative freedom in the Swamp over a life of chattel slavery didn’t have that option. [...] Going to the Swamp in its full summer glory gives all of us, I think, a better appreciation of the strength and determination of the people we’re studying out here.”Becca Peixotto

Read more about Peixotto’s expedition in her flag carrier report. And learn more about the other brave women who carry the WINGS flag here.

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Antarctica Expeditions Focus on Leadership, Landscape and Art

It was not until the early 1900s that humans first set foot onto the continent of Antarctica. Today it is still considered “the final frontier” for exploration on Earth, because of its remote location and harsh conditions.

This month, two expeditions to Antarctica will carry the WINGS WorldQuest flag.

Homeward Bound is an initiative that aims to elevate the voices of women in science in the hopes that they will play a large role in influencing scientific policy in the years to come. The organizers envision a 10-year initiative, through which they hope to reach 1,000 women in science.

The Homeward Bound team with the WINGS WorldQuest Flag. Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound. 

The Homeward Bound team with the WINGS WorldQuest Flag. Photo courtesy of Homeward Bound. 

These women, all with critical science backgrounds, are involved in a year-long state-of-the-art program to develop their leadership skills. The inaugural Homeward Bound expedition, featuring 76 participants, launched earlier this year and is culminating in a 21-day voyage to Antarctica that set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina on December 2.

Joanna Young, a PhD candidate studying glaciers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, is on Homeward Bound’s maiden voyage. Young said having the expedition comprised of only women helps create a collaborative, unified network of women who can support and bolster one another.

Many of the women work in academic disciplines that are competitive, but the expedition offers an alternative.

“It’s a non-competitive environment – we’re all collaborating and learning together and brainstorming ideas that will benefit the planet and people as a whole,” Young said.

Young told WINGS that one of Homeward Bound’s missions is to talk about sustainability and global change related to climate change. Antarctica serves as a motivating backdrop of a rapidly-changing environment for the voyage, as well as a sort-of “canary in the coal mine” for larger environmental issues.

WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes at Mt. Erebus

WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes at Mt. Erebus

“Antarctica has a strong history of explorers wanting to understand the lesser-known areas of the world,” she said. “It’s risky and might not seem that welcoming of a place on first glance because of its harsh conditions. For some, that’s a big deterrent. For others, that’s a draw.”

Antarctica can even help scientists understand worlds that exist beyond the Earth.

Volcanologist and WINGS Fellow Rosaly Lopes is in Antarctica on a month-long expedition to Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on Earth. Lopes is completing a book project with astronomical artist and science writer Michael W. Carroll, focused on using landscapes in Antarctica to help readers envision what other worlds look like. Mount Erebus features one of the only lava lakes on Earth. Lava lakes are quite common on Jupiter’s moon Io, which Lopes has studied extensively with her work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“As an artist, he wants to imagine what it would look like if you were there,” Lopes said about Carroll. “I work with spacecraft data – I’m not thinking about what it would look like, I’m analyzing data from the images.”

The book will also feature accounts from Lopes and Carroll about what it was like to live and work on Antarctica. The project highlights the need to continue to protect Antarctica in the name of science – so far, strong environmental restrictions have prevented humans from contaminating the continent.

“It’s a good example for exploration, and maybe we should follow that on many other places on Earth,” Lopes said.

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Global Crisis, Local Solutions

Photo by Takver on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Takver on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

With temperatures and sea levels on the rise – and news that the newly named nominee to head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is a self-proclaimed “leading advocate against the EPA’s activist agenda" – the world is at a critical point in the fight against global warming.

Many WINGS Fellows and Flag Carriers contribute invaluable research to the environmental movement in fields such as endangered wildlife species, ocean and river pollution, and climate change. They have spent their entire careers protecting our environment.

WINGS asked climate scientist and WINGS Fellow Dr. Beate G. Liepert what impact the new presidential administration will have on any progress toward climate change reform.

With uncertainty over continued U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord, and restrictions on energy production on public land and the Clean Power Plan, Liepert says “we have come too far” to allow “a revival of the coal industry, and expansion of fossil fuels that contribute to climate change and environmental decay.”

Liepert foresees progress on many fronts at the state level that will help advance renewable energy technologies and usage. Here is an excerpt of her observations:

In the November elections there were referenda on the ballots in states, counties and municipalities that were related to climate and the environment. For example, Washington State had, for the first time, a carbon tax on the ballot, which was rejected, but the next referendum is already in the works. In the greater Seattle region, voters accepted a public transportation bill. Although it didn’t pass (due to required supermajority), half of Floridian voters said “yes” to the right to produce and consume your own solar electricity.

Independent of what the new administration will do, it will be on the local and state level where environmental and climate initiatives most likely succeed. The majority of states already have some renewable portfolio standards and goals (see figure below). It will be impossible for the federal government to overturn these laws and regulations.

The tendencies of electricity production towards renewables has been going on for a while now. In the mountain regions the change in electricity generation away from coal over the past decade is shown below.

 

In the state of Iowa, wind provided 31.3 percent of Iowa’s total electricity generation in 2015, the highest portion of all states. New jobs are created in the cleantech industry every day. Heavy coal and gas subsidies would be needed to upset the development in the cleantech industry.

Lofty international goals may be in jeopardy due to redirected federal priorities.Concrete steps from the bottom up will be more likely to succeed if we all keep working hard on the momentum generated over the past years at the local and regional level.

As a climate scientist, I am optimistic that we will make significant progress towards a carbon free, sustainable energy future in the next four years, no matter what the direction of the federal government.

Dr. Beate G. Liepert discovered the groundbreaking climate change phenomenon of global dimming, which was also the subject of her master's and doctoral thesis. Skepticism of her theorem was so great that she was nearly denied her PhD. Her work was eventually recognized and ultimately cited by the United Nations Panel on Climate Change. She received the 2016 WINGS Women of Discovery Earth Award and was inducted as a WINGS Fellow in October 2016. She is the founder of Lumen LLC, which develops solar energy software.

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Kristen Marhaver

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala on October 25. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our sixth and fInal honoree in the series is Kristen Marhaver, who is working to restore the essential marine habitats that reef corals need to survive. She will receive our Sea Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

KM: Spycraft gets some credit! As a kid in Minnesota, I had a neighbor who wanted to learn to scuba dive so he could be like James Bond. Those neighbors told my dad about diving, and he and I took dive lessons a few years later when we lived in Kansas, just after my 15th birthday. Dive trips were such a great father-daughter bonding activity – gadgets, boats, adventure, animals, and the Caribbean sun. There were also plenty of crazy-angry seas and freezing cold boat rides! As a freshman in college, I learned about a lab on campus that studied corals and I lobbied my way in – despite the fact that this was not really done at the time. Three years later, I was applying to Ph.D. programs in marine biology… and my undergrad lab was recruiting new freshmen! When I started studying coral spawning, I fell in love with the spooky craziness and suspense of night diving. You can be only a few miles from home, but once you're underwater in the dark at midnight, you're on an adventure.

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

KM: Women are pretty well represented in marine biology and conservation by now, at least up to the postdoc level – and we even have advantages underwater, like our tendency to breathe down a scuba tank less quickly. There is still a fair share of machismo in field research, especially at sea. And it is difficult to protect one’s modesty, professionalism, and privacy when everyone is in close quarters, in speedos and bikinis.  – I won’t even go into the subject of 'tropical beauty disasters'! – But in general, I’ve experienced much more harassment and discrimination outside of science than within. I have many strong ‘science uncles’ and ‘science brothers’ to thank for being good allies and upholding a respectful culture. Fieldwork can be ridiculously funny and salty without anyone getting hurt.

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

KM: I’m often frustrated that ‘diversity’ in academia means a group of people who look different on the outside, but who are all healthy, wealthy, workaholics. Companies are scrambling to offer part-time, flex-time, disability-friendly work arrangements, but in science we still expect someone’s CV to reflect an unwavering full-time-plus-overtime schedule, from Bachelor’s degree to tenure. The tragedy is that we end up rejecting all the brilliant and creative people with amazing hobbies, intensive family commitments, tricky or private health issues, a passion for outreach, or just a second job that they love or need to do. Scientists are such nuanced thinkers, but we still act like science must be done on an 1800s steel mill schedule.

WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

KM: We’re tragically short-minded as a species. It makes sense that evolution only prepared us to think about space and time on human scales – bathtubs and minutes we can handle, but not oceans or centuries. But we will always hurt ourselves as individuals and as a species when we don’t save nature, food, and clean water for the future.

WWQ: Describe yourself in three words.

KM: Because I’m sitting in my mosquitoey garden in Curacao: inquisitive, independent… and itchy!

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Women of Discovery: Q&A With Sheila Ochugboju

WINGS WorldQuest will induct six new inspiring women as Fellows during our 2016 Women of Discovery Awards Gala on October 25. In advance of our gala, we are highlighting the work of each new Awardee. Our fIfth featured honoree in the series is Sheila Ochugboju, who is developing and leading pioneering African science, technology and innovation projects. She will receive our Humanity Award. Read the rest of the series here.

WWQ: Tell us your story. How did you get involved in science and exploration?

SO: As a child, different fields of science offered me the vital tools to explore the forests, riverbanks and bushlands where snakes, scorpions or any number of life-threatening bugs and insects might have attacked me. This was because until the age of nine I was growing up (very happily) within a forest-dependent rural community in Northern Cross Rivers State, Nigeria. Everyday before I stepped out to play, anywhere where an elder could see me, there would be a short lesson in entomology:

“She-she (my pet name), this kind ant…red like this…if it bite you…run home very fast.”

Or zoology: “Kaka (my middle name), the snake with the green body…that one you never fear. But that spotty brown one, with the light-colored belly, hiding behind the water pot…. that one go kill you.”

Or Microbiology: “Bwan-me (my child), this river we leave for the Gods alone to drink…never drink from it yourself. Inside…. small creatures dey live, eye no dey see them, if you drink, when they enter your belly, you go die.”

So I wondered endlessly about so many beautiful, vicious or benign, seen or unseen organisms living alongside us. How would we survive? Years later that curiosity led to the study of Medical Biochemistry for a first degree and Plant Biochemistry for a PhD at London University. Marriage and children intervened; then, I continued with a Research Fellowship at the Institute of Virology and Environmental Microbiology, now the centre for Ecology and Hydrology Oxford. The Daphne Jackson Trust generously sponsored the fellowship, which is aimed at women, who have taken a career break for family reasons, to return to science. I was based at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford (when it was still a women’s only college) and my research area was on developing novel biopesticides (genetically engineering), using the Baculovirus Expression System.

Thereafter, my career has veered tangentially towards the humanities and for the last 15 years, I have worked as an International Development professional, with a focus on science policy projects in Kenya, Ghana and Nigeria. I’m currently the Lead Researcher for the Global State of Urban Youth Report for The United Nations Human Settlements Program. And I was recently appointed as one of the Global Roving Ambassadors for the County Government of Kisumu, Kenya, holding the portfolio of Transformative Science & Urban Resilience.

At the same time, I am also the Knowledge Management Specialist, for the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation program. This is an international effort to create a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, and our team is providing the technical assistance to the Nigerian Government. We are highlighting “Issues and Options” which lead to a National Strategy to save the rapidly depleting forests in Nigeria, focusing on Cross Rivers State, where I was born. So it feels like a lovely full-circle moment in my life this year.

WWQ: What is it like to work as a woman in your field?

SO: It’s wonderful that now the international development world is raising up strong, dynamic women leaders, who are at the forefront of change in the fight against poverty and disease across the world. It’s no longer unusual to see women heading teams of scientists going to fight Ebola or developing strategies to alleviate suffering for displaced migrant communities in refugee camps like Dadaab in Kenya, the world’s largest refugee camp, which my friend Dr. Ebere Okereke, working for the International Rescue Committee described as an “open air hospital/prison camp/“home” for over 300,000 people in the last 24 years.”

And my program leaders for UN-REDD Nigeria are two incredible women: Elsie Attafuah (Senior Technical Lead for UNDP), supported by the Minister for Environment in Nigeria, Amina Mohammed. Both balancing the myriad of complex issues and challenges involved in tackling climate change.

That is not to say, however, that the systems of patriarchy and cultures of exclusion have now disappeared – to the contrary. My experience working in Africa offers regular reminders that those who actively seek to muffle the voices of women and constrain their power are as determined as ever. It’s not surprising, therefore, that most of the gender-related goals and targets for the Millennium Development Goals were missed. And despite incredible progress in medicine and science, thousands of women and children still die in childbirth or from simple preventable diseases, due to the lack of things so “commonplace” as clean water.

In Nigeria, the continuing scandal over the 276 Chibok schoolgirls, kidnapped by Boko Haram terrorists and still missing after two years, is another damning indication of how little the lives of women and girls matter in many societies.

But still, I remain optimistic – for “the times, they are a-changing” and the increasing impact of transformations that can be attributed to the leadership of women in science and development continues to rise. More women will open more doors for many other women across all disciplines in the future.  

WWQ: What are the greatest barriers to having more women work in science?

SO: In my opinion, the three greatest barriers are systems, perceptions and finance.

Systems: The work environment in many countries offers few choices for women to optimally adapt to different stages of life and careers. The career path for scientists favors the linear approach, from PhD to Post Doc to Lectureship or Research Scientist, without any career breaks. A break in your career can seriously impede your future progress. And yet the initial investment to train scientists is so high and so long, that it’s important to create more appropriate intersections for exit and reentry into research and academic careers.

Women scientists should be recognized as valuable resources for social good and flexible career pathways should be created which nurture their potential in the long-term.

Perceptions: Despite centuries of progress, gender bias against women scientists is still strong within academia and research institutions. Empirical research studies show that at every level, women face more challenges as they enter and try to make progress in every field of science. What makes this even worse, is that many young girls and women themselves have started to believe these negative stereotypes, and self select themselves out of science early on. This is even worse for women from ethnic minorities. Diversity is as much challenge for scientists in the developed and developing world, in different ways.

Recent research blames this on “The Parable of Talents,” where certain professors – gatekeepers within science and humanities – believe that only people who possess specific innate abilities for the subject can succeed. Hard work and discipline are not believed to contribute as much as the talent you’re born with. This gives easy justification for gender and race bias in science. And it has been shown to exclude women and black people from careers in STEM, across the academic spectrum, because they are stereotyped as not possessing such talent.

If that is the case, it suggests that a cultural shift in schools and universities is needed, playing down talent and emphasizing hard work, in order to enhance inclusion.

We need the courage to challenge our own assumptions and those of our societies about women and minorities in science.

Finance: In high profile, big budget projects male scientists are usually more prominently featured. Examples include space research, genomics etc. Science research projects are designed through a strategic science policy process, and implementation pathways are often in the hands of finance and business experts, alongside the technical specialists. Women are not as prominent at these inception or upstream phases of work. Their absence makes a difference in the long-term, because this is where the big picture for projects is conceived and resources allocated to support specific lines of inquiry. Women scientists generally become more visible at the downstream phases of work, where less decision-making power lies.

Women scientists should advocate for more control over project design and budget control of the projects, which they are working on.

WWQ: What is the most serious threat the world faces?

SO: Waste. I believe that this is the Anthropocene Age, where humanity has an irreversible impact upon the earth. But the legacy that we are leaving behind is now covered up by all our waste. All our good is masked by the detritus of human life above all else. It is simply clogging up every part of our earth system – water, air, land and sea. It is also polluting our minds, because we are so ravenous in our consumption and so careless in our waste production and management. We have “wasteful” minds. Rich, developed countries in the West that are surrounded by excess, have slowly changed how they value things, people and even their own societies over time.

This mindset of plenty is also fuelling incredible inequality – inequalities of income, access, opportunities, etc. The gap between rich and poor is reaching new heights, and in a world where we are more visible to each other, it also fuels crime, spiralling economic migration and conflict. In Africa, we are faced with the rise of terrorist groups such as Al Shabaab and Boko Haram – which recruits young people who are easily indoctrinated because they have lost hope in the status quo in East Africa and Nigeria. But they are simply a subset of global terrorist groups, who prey of those who are increasingly renouncing all we have built for the good of humanity and laying waste to our way of life.

And yet, this is the first time in the history of humankind that we have enough food to feed everyone in the planet – but still people die of hunger daily.

We have more than enough weapons to annihilate humanity many times over, and yet governments continue to invest a major proportion of our annual national budgets on arms and defense.

We have more knowledge generated now than at any other time in world history, from the beginning of time. And yet we cannot find solutions to meet basic human needs and choose to hold on to our ignorance as an excuse to destroy one another.

We have so so much and yet so little, of everything.

Describe yourself in three words.

SO: Adaptive, creative, contemplative.

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