Debunking the Top 5 Myths About Lady Scientists

Natalie's friend Caitlin breaks it down for us.
Publish date:
June 23, 2011
It Happened To Me, science

Caitlin is in her final stretch in the Biology and Biomedical Sciences PhD program at Haaaaavahd. She also presided over a sorority for Women in Math, Science, and Engineering in her college days, and has been in the science biz long enough to say, “YO. AS A Science Person / Woman / Harvard PhD Student / Researcher, IT’S NOT LIKE THAT.”

Myth #5: I’m just like that one character on the Big Bang Theory.

The entertainment industry has stereotyped us scientists as being awkward, often anti-social, individuals. On the silver screen, if our interests extend beyond science, it’s all science fiction and video games.

The truth is science requires you to be social. We share ideas, techniques, and equipment. A good scientist knows her limitations and uses someone else’s expertise when her own is not enough. The modern scientist communicates not only through conferences and journals, but also through blogging and Facebook. Labmates have definitely gotten chemicals by making ‘Help! I needed this chemical an hour ago!’ status updates.

And our interests outside of science are as diverse as any other group of people. I’m not saying I don’t enjoy watching "Firefly" every now and then, but I’d much rather be out at a bar on Friday night than analyzing the realism of Star Trek. (PS -- Star Trek is pretty much the most boring show ever).

Myth #4: I’m curing cancer.

When a non-scientist (usually my parents or some other close relative) asks me about what I do, they inevitably want to tie it back to how I’m curing a disease and saving the world.

I am not curing a disease or saving the world.

I study science because it’s cool. I study basic science -- asking questions for the purpose of learning the answer. That doesn’t mean what I do isn’t important. Lots of ground-breaking medical advances have been made just because someone asked a question no one else thought to ask. Way back in the 70s and 80s, a bunch of scientists (including two lady scientists) wondered what’s at the end of chromosomes and how they’re protected. They asked this question in everyone’s favorite organisms: yeast and tetrahymena (a single celled organism that lives in ponds). Through their pure curiosity, they discovered the critical structure of telomeres (the protective cap at chromosomes) and telomerase (the enzyme that makes them). Turns out mutated telomerase is often present in cancerous cells -- fast forward 30 years, and those women got the 2009 Nobel Prize in Medicine.

But if you’re not interested in science or related to me, I know you’ll tune out anything I say after about 3 minutes when you haven’t heard the words "cancer" or "AIDS." I mean, who else wants to hear about how genes are regulated in yeast? Ha! Me!

Myth #3: Only ugly girls go to Harvard.

My second year at graduate school I was a bridesmaid in my best friend’s wedding. After telling a groomsman I’m a grad student at Harvard, he said to me “But you’re too pretty to go to Harvard.” I suppose I should be flattered that he thought I’m pretty, but when I applied to my program, they didn’t actually ask me for a photo to make sure I fit their low standards for physical attractiveness.

What, you don’t believe that there are pretty girls here too? Natalie Portman majored in Psychology at Harvard.

Myth #2: I can tell you what’s wrong with your aching back/knee/throat, etc.

One day, not too far along from now, I’m going to be a Doctor. (Yeah I capitalized that, and when it happens you can be sure to call me Dr. Caitlin.) Not an MD-doctor that knows how to make you feel better when you’re sick, but a PhD-doctor that knows way more about a specific topic than a Wikipedia page could ever contain. We literally study the same subject for upwards of 6 years. Unfortunately, I’m studying to be a PhD-doctor at Harvard Medical School so everyone thinks our friendship is good for free medical advice. In reality, my interests are genetics and molecular biology and I have never taken an anatomy course in my life. Even I wouldn’t trust my own medical advice.

Myth #1: I’m fighting a battle for gender equality in the sciences.

What’s it like for me, being a female scientist? Well I imagine it’s a lot like being a dude scientist except the lab coats don’t fit as well.

My program is roughly 50 percent female, though we may even outnumber the guys by a small percentage, and I work in a lab where the women outnumber the men. I’m not saying gender inequality isn’t a problem in science: It’s just not quite the same problem for the life sciences as it is for say physics (or computer science, hello, nataliepo!).

To all you ladies fighting the good fight in other fields, keep at it, because the numbers are going up for women with advanced degrees.

I’ve always wanted to be some sort of scientist. When I was in elementary school I wanted to be a paleontologist because dinosaurs are awesome (and so was "Jurassic Park"). When I was 11, I read the Hot Zone and knew I wanted to be a biologist. Though there were times that I flirted with the Dark Side, i.e., medical school, but mostly only because when my teachers figured out I was good at science they said go to medical school. No one even suggested becoming a scientist.

Even though I knew from a young age I wanted to be a scientist, I still played sports in high school, I still joined a sorority in college and I still made some decisions that intellectuals aren’t "supposed" to make. Some of the best flip cup and beer pong players I know are scientists.

So, people of the universe, when I tell you that I am a scientist, the only conclusion you should draw is that I like science. Not what I look like or how I dress. Not what I like to do in my free time. Not how I interact with other people. And real world, get used to me because I am your average scientist and I am not at all who you try to say I am.