I spent yesterday working with a group of amazing middle school-aged girls, showing them what I do in the lab, and then having them do some scientific investigations of their own. I love working with that age group – it’s such a critical time, when culturally, girls are pushed away from anything that involves science or math. It is great to see a group of girls who are excited to try things out and ask questions, and even just do some science. I could write for pages on this topic (and I am sure that I will, in many future posts). I’ve been interested in science for as long as I can remember. I devoured technical books when I was in elementary school. I was constantly asking questions about my surroundings and learning as much as I could. Unlike most scientists and science students I have encountered, I never had a science teacher who was a great role model for me, who made me want to go into science. It’s always been something I wanted to do. Given the duds of science teachers from 5th through 11th grade that I had (and really, my only GOOD science teacher was my senior year of high school, in a subject that I don’t even really like*, for that matter), it’s really surprising that I am in science at all.
Our society is incredibly good at convincing girls, around late elementary school and middle school, that they shouldn’t show that they are smart. That being good at (or even just interested in) math and science is not as “girly” and appropriate as, say, writing poetry**. Being Autistic, I think I missed most of the societal pressures – they just went right over my head, for the most part, and my perseverations kept me focused when I did get hit by them***. However this isn’t the case for most young girls, including many on the spectrum, who want nothing else but to fit in and have people stop bullying them for being different. We Spectrumites are rather good at camouflage – it’s an important survival technique, but it can have extremely detrimental effects. One of the reasons I have done so well in the lab I’m in, is because of the older graduate students who are all incredibly intelligent, engaging, and enthusiastic women in addition to being great scientists. I have had some of the best positive female role models and quasi-big sisters in these women, who have shown me on both a scientific and personal level that being a woman in science is not just “ok”, but wonderful.
For this reason, I have spent, and will continue to spend much of my life (from age 13, in one particular situation, and from age 16 for the rest), mentoring younger girls, and helping them to keep an interest in math and science. Even if that interest doesn’t translate into going into a scientific career, just showing them that it is OK to ask questions and think scientifically, and that really, “Math Doesn’t Suck”, is super important. It reminds girls that they can do whatever they want to do, and that they are smart, capable, and all around worthwhile, intelligent individuals. If they decide to go into science or math down the road, that’s great, but it’s not my main motivation – if they grow up and decide that they want to become a businesswoman or author, or anything else, that’s great too, because at least they had options, and the chance to do what they enjoyed, regardless of what their career choice becomes later on. And so, I will continue to volunteer and devote as much time as I can to mentoring young women in science, and trying to be the best positive role model I can be, to pass along the gift that others who came before have given me.
*I really love learning about the subject in question, I just definitely don’t want to go into it for my career. I’m actually pretty good at it too. I just don’t like actually doing it.
**I have *NOTHING* against writing poetry. It is something that is rather beyond me most of the time, but I have the utmost respect for those who do write poetry and other creative-writing styles. I don’t think that being good at poetry and science are mutually exclusive – in fact, I think that they probably go very well together in many people. It was simply an example that is a contrast to the more traditionally “male” subjects (and that in and of itself is incredibly problematic… one’s gender should never define what one’s interests are).
***My mother’s goal for me for quite a long time was a “MRS. Degree” – she seems to have quasi-accepted the whole scientist thing for now, but who knows… another subject for another post.