Saturday, May 9, 2020

Babes of Science

Marilyn, Pan, and Liane, Svalbard, 2008
The word Bimbo is hardly a moniker that most women would likely want to be called. My Australian colleagues, after a couple of weeks in the Outback, would refer to me as a Bimbo—something unlikely to describe a woman who’d not had a proper shower in awhile, wore only hiking boots, T-shirts, and drank wine like water around the campfire. Bimbo was, for me, more of a term of “you’re one of us”, than a silly, bouffant-coiffed female who shrieked at snakes and spiders.
Giff Miller, John Magee, Bimbo, eggshell harvesting
Babe is another one of those largely derogatory terms. A Babe is a man’s plaything, a toy to be trifled with. Babes can be thought of as subservient to a man, but in some contexts, Babes can be independent, slightly raunchy women prone to swearing and opinions. My AMASE colleagues used the term Babes of Science to describe a cadre of women who were leaders on expeditions to the Arctic to study astrobiology.

Originally, we were three Babes of Science. The polite word by one of the older Norwegian scientists was “senior ladies”, which had a trace oldmaidishness to it. Even matronly—something no woman—mother or not wants to be called. The Babes of Science on AMASE provided a much-needed counterpoint to the swaggering, tall men who called most of the shots on these expeditions. We Babes didn’t take any guff from any one and were well known for being out spoken and opinionated.
Liane and Marilyn making G&T on ship, 2005

Liane Benning, one of the original scientists on AMASE, and the youngest of the three of us is German, raised in Romania. At that time, she was a Professor at the University of Leeds in Great Britain. With short sandy hair, Liane is intense, focused, and direct. Then, she was a smoker often with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth when she was taking a break. An intensely private person, Liane held her personal cards very close to her chest. Over the years, Steelie and I tried subtly, and unsuccessfully, to pry out whether she was in love with anyone and who that person might be. Eventually, we gave up because she slyly never revealed much. We needed to content ourselves with taking in what she gave in terms of personal revelations.

Scientifically, Liane was trained in Switzerland, postdoced in the US at Penn State, and is the Head of a major research group in Interface Geochemistry at the University of Potsdam, outside of Berlin. She is now officially a Big Cheese, with an assistant and manages about 15 PhDs and students in her group.

Creativity is a serious part of her personality. At the end of most days in the cold Arctic, we’d sip a gin and tonic on deck of our ship and discuss things we wanted to accomplish. Her scientific mind runs towards detail surrounded by the big picture. She digs and she burrows. There is a laser focus, and there is sustained thought. Together we were problem solvers. I had the more motherly Babe touch, greater emotional intelligence—Liane—no nonsense, linear, and no-shit, take no prisoners.
Liane and Marilyn, Svalbard, 2015

Pamela (Pan) Conrad was the other Babe of Science. Almost exactly my age (baby boomers born in the early ‘50s), Pan originally had a career as a biologist, then an opera singer. She has an amazing voice and can belt out any song leading with a smile and gusto. Pan entered my sphere as a graduate student from George Washington University, where she got her PhD in mineral physics in 1998 with staff scientists at the Geophysical Lab as mentors. Mineral physics was an intellectual dead-end for Pan. When she was looking for a postdoc, I recommended her to Ken Nealson, then at the Jet Propulsion Lab, where she picked up astrobiology as her next career choice.

Analytical and technological, Pan worked her way up to being an independent Mars scientist there, working on instrument development. She was obsessed with Biogeophysics—a subset and slightly different from the Biogeochemistry that Liane and I studied. Most of our conversations wound up discussing how we could make the most out of biogeophysics. I didn’t always get her scientific drift, but it had a novel spirit to it.
Marilyn and Pan, top of the volcano, 2004
Personally, Pan was a force. On the outcrop during the deployment of a JPL rover, we often playfully bantered about trivial things while the rover team struggled to make their balky rover do what they wished.

“I’m much younger than you are,” she shouted, as I scurried on a rocky promontory gathering samples.

“Yeah, like what? a month younger?” I snapped.

Back and forth we went, and others had to listen. Finally, one of the JPL folks in media, who was making a documentary film about AMASE, told us to “shut the F up” in so many words. He’d violated the silent code of conduct to be polite and patient.

I looked up from my sampling and wondered “what asshole just insulted us?” It didn’t take more than a couple of seconds for Pan to respond. Her rejoinder was withering. Maybe too withering. Pan could use the vocabulary of a sailor, which was common with the Babes of Science on AMASE.
Pan on the Polarsysslel, 2004
Silence on the outcrop followed. After a few minutes, work resumed—the rover moved a few feet and I finished my collections. The JPL media person kept a low profile for the remainder of the trip. Pan caught some heat for her remarks when she came back to the United States. She’s a fighter and came out the other side of this intact.

Pan is an iconoclast, broad thinking, and a funny character. She’s maintained a kennel full of weimaraners (large grey German dogs) that she calls her “Men”. She’s served on the SoCal rescue patrol. In the past few years, Pan has moved her life’s work and is now Reverend Pamela G. Conrad of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in Maryland—something completely Babe-like.

One term that I will not tolerate, however, is Bitch. If I have been referred to as one, I didn't hear it directly. I would have not held back. I’d rather not be called a Broad—but given my now matronly status of “Senior Lady”, Broad doesn’t come easily to mind when thinking of me.

This Bimbo is proud now to be called Bad Ass! Uppity women unite! 
AMASE 2005--Men (and Babes) in Black

1 comment:

  1. what a lovely story Marilyn, as usual spot on;

    I could not upload it here so maybe you can add it - but I emailed you another now 'iconic' photo of you and I with another set of younger - next generation 'babies' of science' in Svalbard; the still elusive Liane :-)


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