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

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Science (or Work) Mother

Science (Work) Kids: Top row: Jonny Nye, Jeanette, Bobby Mr. POM, Kaycee, Patrice; Marilyn and Ying, 2019

Mother (noun):
1. Title for nun
2. Title for woman of advanced years
3. Female parent
4.  Woman acting as parent
5. Originator
6. Origin of something
7. Taboo term (usually associated with an expletive)

As a young woman under the age of 30, I was not ever considered to be a Mother. I always had to produce my ID when buying beer, and I longed to someday look like a distinguished scientist, not a teenager. I became a real mother (definition number 3: female parent) in 1988 when my daughter was born, and again in 1991 when my son was born. I was almost 39 years old then—certainly old enough to be a mother.

Mothers of young children are consumed with breastfeeding, diaper changing, day care issues, and potty training. We enter into the elementary school years thankfully resting from hour-by-hour care. Our children are usually resilient, happy, and engaged in life at school and with friends. As mothers we’re now used to managing a household, dealing with kids other than our own, and ordering the little ones around.
Dana (3 years) and Evan (baby), 1991

Mothering usually comes with higher organizational skills, delegation of duties to others, and a sense of caring about a child’s well being. For me, once I’d mastered the basics of mothering my biological children, I found those skills to be useful in working with younger students and postdocs. Sometime in my late forties, I became definition number 4: woman acting as parent, when I began to view the people I worked with as people to help navigate science and society.

I became a Science Mom. In the nearly twenty years that have followed, I’ve had many young(er) scientists in my office—wondering about how they would balance their lives with their work. I’ve seen more tears than most of my male colleagues, I’m sure. I always kept a box of tissues on my desk, ready to slide towards a tearful person, without drawing too much attention to their tears. Candy was another useful helper. In recent years, following Seth Newsome’s recommendation, I kept a stuffed animal—in my case a wombat--handy to pass over to the distraught person. We’d continue to talk as they petted the wombat and calmed down.
A good wombat will help

Over the decades, I gave a lot of stable isotope advice. I can recognize a good idea, spot a potential problem, know something about troubleshooting mass spectrometers, and have published a lot of papers and had many grants funded. As Isotope Queen, I have attained Mother definition numbers 5 and 6: Originator and origin of something. That type of advice I chalk up to mentoring or advising. Mothering is a shade different.

I counseled both men and women on marriage and pregnancy. I was asked about boyfriends and girlfriends, diet, exercise, career choices (of course), children, parents, vacations, health issues, mental worries, and finances. I could have answered these questions like a financial advisor or straight mentor, but I developed a feeling for the whole person. I embraced being a Science (Work) Mom, taking full advantage of being a woman.
Dana and Evan as adults; Steelie--who calls me "Ma" 2017

My assistant at UC Riverside, Jeanette Westbrook, refers to me as her Work Mom, since she’s not a scientist. She’s a Mom herself, with two elementary school age kids, living with her own Mom in a three generational living situation. She and I have journeyed through our own separate life challenges in the three years we’ve worked together. We have “adapted and overcome”—her US Navy slogan--many situations that others would have caved under. Many a Monday morning, we’d go over our weekends and discuss how things went in her 3-generational household.

I grew up with a minimum of drama with my parents and brother until my sister reached her teens when family drama exploded. I have some direct Mother experience with my own childrens’ teenage dramas, and lots of hours of listening and reading about family relationships. One thing I’ve learned is you can’t change someone just because you think they should change. In the long run, people are who they are and the best you can do is to accept them warts and all. Of course this is most important for family members who you can’t trade in, but also for anyone you know and have to work with.

As I would listen to Jeanette, I would remind her of these truths.

“You have the mother you have. She ain’t gonna change now.”

Often I would end our conversation and recommend, “Tell your Mom you love her. It can work wonders. Maybe not right away, but eventually the message will sink in.”
Jeanette, Kaycee Morra and Bobby, AGU 2019

When problems arise in science (or work), people get testy and fire off angry emails. We’ve all done this. I go back to advice from Tom Hoering: “Formal and polite,” he’d say. In life you’ll have to work with people you might not like, but you have to work with them. This is the type of advice mothers give to kids about teachers they don’t like or other kids who are annoying.

Personally, as a mother, this puts a tax on my energy, but without accepting this “tax” it would be equally difficult for me to observe pain in a person and not show empathy or thoughtfulness.

2020: I’ve reached Mother definition number 2: woman of advanced years. I now have the privilege of barking out some advice that could be called old-fashioned and ignored. No problem. I’ll never reach definition number 1: Nun no matter what I do. On the science front, I suggest an experiment that might work (or might not), how to best deal with cranky reviewers, and how to manage one’s major professor, without them realizing it.

Sometimes a Mom needs to just provide a small touch—a push in the right direction—not a heavy hand. We Science (or Work) Moms can’t be intrusive, we just need to be alert, sensitive, and cognizant of the fact that as females we can help out in a slightly different way than what we’ve been trained to do as lab bosses, professors, or Principal Investigators. Once I’m retired I look forward to being able to still listen and help out others with their problems and their unfolding lives.

Hopefully, not too many people will associate me with definition number 7: taboo term: Mother ^#*@er, but I’ve got some time left!

Rounding Third Base and Heading Home

Cards from Franny and Flowers the Rumbles   My daughter Dana is marrying George Goryan on June 25 at our home in Mariposa...