"Vigorously told deceptions and battle scenes." ~Publishers Weekly review of Eolyn

"The characters are at their best when the events engulfing them are at their worst." ~Publishers Weekly review of High Maga

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Biology and Destiny

Myth or history? Pope Joan, an 11th
 century girl who wanted to be a priest,
and made it all the way to the top.
Once upon a time, when I was attending Queen of the Holy Rosary Grade School in Overland Park, Kansas, I wanted to be a priest. 

I was religiously minded as a child, devout in my faith, and most importantly, absolutely convinced I could do a better job with sermons than any of the priests I knew.  

There was, of course, one important problem with my career plan:  I was a girl.  

This was not my first confrontation with the ways in which gender would influence the path of my life, but it was one of the earliest. 

When I decided to direct my professional ambitions toward science instead, I had a very different experience.  I was lucky to be growing up in the 70s and 80s, a time when doors were opening for women in the sciences like never before.  My grade school and middle school science teachers introduced me to the wonders of the solar system, and indulged my dreams of becoming an astronaut.  In high school, my biology teacher facilitated a life-changing experience, allowing me to conduct my own original research for an innovative cancer treatment at the University of Kansas Medical Center. 

Sally Ride, the first woman astronaut
to  reach low earth orbit, was one
of my role models during high school.
By the time I reached college, I had settled comfortably into the assumption that gender was not an issue when it came to pursuing a career in science. So it was something of a surprise when the rules and regulations of gender began to crop up during my undergraduate and graduate years. 

The first indications of gender issues emerged from the stories of my mentors, faculty members who formed part of the first big wave of American women that broke into the academy.  But there were also many incidents I witnessed or experienced, and questions that came with them.

For example, why were most of the graduate students in my department women, while all of the faculty members (with only two exceptions) were men? 

Why did one of our postdocs, when called for a job interview at a prestigious university, fret about the possibility that the selection committee might notice she was pregnant?

Why, among the many pieces of sage advice given to women graduate students, did we inevitably hear the following:  “No babies until after you’ve earned tenure!”  (Which may not sound so bad, until you count up the years and realize you could easily be forty before you are granted tenure.)

Joan E. Strassmann, the evolutionary
biologist who introduced me to the
field of animal behavior at Rice University.
My experiences as a woman growing up in a religion where positions of power are dominated by men, and then building a career in a field very much influenced by the patriarchal mindset, have had an impact on me, and on my understanding of the society in which we live.  What I have learned and seen has even shown up my writing, providing threads for the story of Eolyn, a woman who struggles to forge her own path in a world where the vast majority of people believe one's sex determines one's destiny.

Some might say that Eolyn’s journey has little relevance for the women of today, set as it is in a medieval society built from my imagination.  Yet this semester at Avila, I am teaching Women and Science together with Dr. Carol Coburn, and as we open up the discussion of sex, gender, feminisms (yes, the use of the plural is intentional), patriarchy, history, and power, I am reminded that while times have changed dramatically in many ways, in other ways they have not. 

NAPIRE students Aliah Irvine and
Briana Albini, part of a new
generation of women scientists.

Women and Science is a complex topic.  It requires a careful study of history and society, ample reflection, a critical mind, the ability to see the world through different lenses and to distinguish between fact, myth, and whatever lies in between.  Every two years I get to teach this course, and every time it is a new experience that brings forward unexpected revelations. 

This semester, I’d like to take you with me on this journey of exploring the relationship between women and science.  My occasional blog posts won’t be sufficient to cover everything we talk about in class at Avila, but I will bring some topics to the virtual table for your consideration, including case studies of historical figures such as Hypatia, Rosalind Franklin and Barbara McClintock.  This will be an internal adventure – no jungles to hike through from here to December – but I suspect it will be just as exciting as my 2012 field season, and even more thought-provoking. 

I hope you will join me, and I look forward to having your company, comments and insights along the way. 
During the month of September we will be celebrating our birthday on Heroines of Fantasy, with giveaways, great sales, and a new regular contributor, poet and author Mark Nelson.  Please stop by to meet Mark and to join the fun!