Saturday, November 22, 2014

She++ #includewomen

Last night I had the good fortune to attend an event at Pasadena City College aimed at empowering women to pursue STEM careers, specifically computer science. There were a suite of panelists from industry that presented themselves as role models:

Jillian, Lan, Waverly, Dr. Wilkinson, Brandii, and Natalia
  • Brandii Grace, game developer
  • Jillian Greczek, Ph.D. candidate USC robotics
  • Orjeta Taka, IRobot
  • Lan Dang, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), PCC Alum
  • Natalia Alonso, CS B.S. (in progress) CSUN, PCC Alum
First, Dr. Paul J. Wilkinson gave a stirring introduction to the program with a quiz covering common misconceptions and little-known facts about women in computer science.  Women are 5 times less likely to pursue STEM.  U of Akron and U of Winnepeg studies show that females hold negative attitudes towards computers.  Some women do not pursue CS because they are afraid to be seen by their peers as outcasts, plain, unfeminine, or nerdy.

Second, Brandii spoke about the reasons why women are not found in CS.  Self-labeling theory is the idea that we (women) allow ourselves to be seen as "less than" by using diminuitive terms for ourselves, such as girls or gals, that keeps us out of the ranks of the "boys club."  No role model theory is that since there are so few female CEOs of tech companies that women don't see opportunity for advancement in that field.  Pretty girl theory is the idea that parents positively reinforce girls, valuing their appearance, while parents positively reinforce boys for their actions.  Differentiated criticism is the idea that boys are allowed to try things and make mistakes that they can learn from whereas girls are taught that when they do something wrong, they should have known better, which prevents them from trying new things.  She has seen this in her experience as a game developer, when girls test a first-person shooter game and they are killed, they put down the game controller and never want to play the game again, whereas boys will try repeatedly to "beat" the situation.

Brandii cited the TV program "Silicon Valley" as a poor example of Hollywood reinforcing the stereotypes of men in programmer roles and women in adversarial or "window dressing" roles.  I have a similar problem with the show "Big Bang Theory."  How about some equality?!  Differentiated learning theory is the idea that men tend to store information in a linear (procedural) fashion where women tend to store information in a story, therefore giving men an advantage in a linear profession such as CS.  She counteracts this theory by arguing that 


but some people have an easier road due to some innate ability (biology).  Altogether Brandii highlighted many reasons for the lack of women in CS, including also: Hiring Bias Theory, Investor Bias Theory, and Bros-Hire-Bros Theory.  She told us a personal anecdote about her own journey to startup where an investor said to her face "obviously you have no tech experience" because she is an attractive blonde woman who in fact had many years of experience working for Microsoft and other companies.

Third, Jillian gave us an overview of Robotics and described her work with socially assistive robots.  She highlighted the subdisciplines in her field: Machine Learning, Manipulation, Localization & Mapping, Computer Vision, Multirobot Systems, Remote Presence, and Human-Robot Interaction.  She told a personal story about herself as a Type I Diabetic and described how that motivated her to work on robots that could be issued to children as a "buddy" to help them through the first month of their diagnosis.  Her goals are to create robots that would withstand long-term relationships through adaptive programming and socially appropriate (not annoying) charateristics.  She encouraged the students in the audience to get into research through a DREU or REU program, which supports women and minorities specifically.

Fourth, Orjeta gave us a perspective starting in communist Albania and ending in a fulfilling career in Pasadena at iRobot.  She had a love of mathematics, and her mantra or "battle cry" was


which means that if you love math, don't hesitate to study it just because you don't see other mathematicians that look like you.  She told students that it's good to pursue your passion and experience it first without letting social roadblocks prevent you from getting into it.  Then once you're in the field, FIGURE IT OUT.  She told us that she loves her job because it's never boring.  Although working in robotics is frustrating sometimes, it feels like she's still in school because she's always learning, except she gets paid a lot.

Orjeta expressed her frustration with the way robots are portrayed in movies because the robots we have today are nowhere near as sophistocated.  With that being said, she told us that there are 100 RP-Vita robots in hospitals today that monitor stroke victims so that doctors can login remotely and monitor patients to decide if a medicine to save their life is needed.  She also told a story about the Warrior robot which was deployed to the Fukushima nuclear disaster and is also used for explosive-disposal work in Iraq and Afghanistan.  She said that sometimes robots come back to the company completely blown up and they throw a party since it means that no human soldiers were killed.  She worked on a Robotic Rodeo and a Self-Driving Car.  When she looked at photos of the event she was the only female in a team of 30, but she said "Just ignore it."

After the presentations had concluded, a panel was available to take questions, which included the three speakers and added two PCC alumna.  Brandii encouraged all CS students to stay up to date with new languages including Ruby on Rails and Objective C.  Natalia told us about her current project CSUNSAT-1 CubeSat: A Collaboration Between NASA, JPL, and CSUN to conduct experiments in space.  Lan told us that FORTRAN language is still preferred by scientists at JPL but they package the code in C afterwards.  The #1 hirer of CS grads is the US government, so jobs being outsourced is not an issue.  Natalia shared her experience of teamwork: if the problem is challenging enough, the team will rely on the strengths of every team member regardless of gender.  To break down stereotypes, make yourself available to the team and they will see your skills.


Brandii concluded the panel discussion by reiterating the importance of networking.  There are many avenues, Women In Tech and ACM-W, and it is important to inform your network when you are looking for a job.  Rely on networks, they will be with you forever!

The event was well put-together and I found my way there by following the balloons.  Grace and the CS club did a great job and I even got a T-Shirt that I wore proudly riding up and over Colorado Blvd to my study jam today.  I got to catch up with my friend Paul at CalTech, which was great.  I hope events like this can inspire more events like this and we can form a web of women to catch more of the talent that is currently being underutilized.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

No More Using Women as Window Dressing

Several items have come to my attention recently that make me cringe. Sexual objectification of women involves "reducing a woman's worth or role in society to that of an instrument for the sexual pleasure that she can produce in the mind of another." This is "taking place in the sexually oriented depictions of women in advertising and media..." The danger of sexual objectification of women is that it "can give women negative self-images because of the belief that their intelligence and competence are currently not being, nor will ever be, acknowledged by society."

First item:

Second item: 

To me, it is not funny or thought-provoking to have a woman's cleavage as the focal point of an advertisement or lesson.  I spend my mornings carefully selecting modest clothing that neither shows nor draws attention to my femine assets.

People in general are "taught that power, respect, and wealth can be derived from one's outward appearance." It's not untrue. In a recent discussion in Jonathan Wolff's column, he points out that "A woman needs a different dress for each event, for fear of being spotted in the same thing twice." Perhaps this is a commonly held belief among people, particularly in Southern California where image is sometimes more important than substance

We claim to do science in a meritocracy, but Wolff claims that a female academic colleague of his takes "as long to decide what to wear to project her 'I don’t care' look, as it does others who dress to impress." Francesca Stavrakopoulou says in a follow-up piece that "Dressing in order to be taken seriously indicates that the spectre of older, more explicit forms of sexism still hovers over us: a woman who adopts a more feminine style is too preoccupied with pretty things to be a serious academic, because a woman can’t be both attractive and intelligent – if indeed she can be intelligent at all."

So that brings me to the Delicious Women's PhD Darling Sexy Costume and outrageous Rachel Grant as Professor Myang Li, on Brianiac asking the question: Which fruit floats?  My friend Candy Bless said "this 'sexy fill-in-the-blank' halloween costume thing has gotten out of hand." I've been as guilty as any twentysometing girl at embodying stereotypes of female sexuality as halloween costumes (self-objectification), but in my 30s I am totally over it. And I guess making a PhD sexy isn't a bad thing, but the comments about the costume by actual female PhDs were hilarous.

But when one of my students showed Rachel Grant as Professor Myang Li in a lesson about density in a Teaching Assistant Development Workshop, I went insane. Not only is Rachel Grant NOT a professor (she is an actress), but the lesson had no value in terms of explaining density.  Strangely enough, none of the other students in the class (men or women) were offended by it.  Instead they thought it was funny. I've written before about using women as window dressing, which is unacceptable and should no longer be a way of advertising products.

One bright spot in my week was the HuffPo article where images of Disney Princesses were depicted with realistic waistlines. This has the potential to reduce body anxiety in young girls who already have a hard enough time as they start to develop adult female body characteristics. "The sexual objectification and self-objectification of women is believed to influence social gender roles and inequalities between the sexes," which is interesting since EQUAL PAY FOR EQUAL WORK is becoming a campaign issue in this election cycle.

Another positive moment happened while watching America's Next Top Model season 21 (The Girl Who Says It’s Over, air date: October 11, 2014). Matthew, an aspiring model, dresses his co-contestant as a "slut." Totally offensive. “The word slut is something that should be taken out of your vocabulary,” demands Kelly Cutrone. Mirjana, an aspiring model asked to supervise a creative project involving 2 other models, didn’t want to take charge because she was afraid to look like a bitch. Tyra gave Mirjana a Beyonce-inspired lecture about how women who take charge are often called bitches. “I’m not bossy, I’m a boss,” Tyra forced Mirjana to repeat over and over. Totally empowering.

Third item:

NotBossy on Make A Gif
make animated gifs like this at MakeAGif

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Living a creative life

Does a creative person wake up every morning feeling productive? A possible answer is yes, to varying degrees. I feel grateful to have a job where I could be creative every day. Some days I follow a prescribed plan, but other days I introduce a bit of uncertainty and see where that leads us.

Creativity can happen spontaneously (like weeds in an abandoned plot of land) or it can be curated (like an English garden). I think both types of creativity should be encouraged. Sometimes unexpected ideas can grow into something amazing, other times they need to be rooted out to make room for the more disciplined tasks that are known to grow into something productive and beautiful.

Creativity takes time. Reading "The Artist's Way" by Julia Cameron was a life-changer for me. She encourages artists to leave room in their schedule for events that replenish creative energy such as watching a film, visiting a museum, or hearing the symphony. Lately we have been taking long bike rides, which I think might accomplish a similar effect.

She also suggests taking a week long break from listening to outside influences. Imagine a week without reading the paper, browsing the Internet, or turning on the TV or radio.  This allows your own inner voice of creativity begin to whisper ideas to your conscious mind.  At that point, it's up to you to write those ideas down or get out your sketchbook and start drawing outlines.

As a blogger, I don't write every day. I do think that regular writing eases my mind and removes self-doubt so that when I do need ideas to flow from my brain to my fingertips to a manuscript on a computer screen, that process is not hindered by a lack of practice. I've implemented some fun activities in my classroom lately that worked well and I feel my confidence growing in that arena.

Sometimes you have to try ideas that will fail several times before you get something working. The fear of failure can prevent implementation, but the joy of success can only be reached if one has the courage to understand that many ideas are good and can only grow if they are allowed to be tested and optimized.

For example, this week we did candy chromatography in honor of National Chemistry Week.  I had an idea that it would be pretty and we had to try a couple iterations of how to achieve separation of the food dyes, but in the end it was a learning experience for the students who attended our first Chem Club meeting of the year.  Now we can use this activity as a hands-on demonstration for schoolchildren at some of our outreach events this year.

In closing, I will say HAPPY NATIONAL CHEMISTRY WEEK! I'm off to a study jam and afterwards I will drop by the chem club rock candy making event. I hope you find yourself free to be creative, even if it is making a crazy Halloween costume or testing a new recipe for dinner tonight.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Ride Report: R2R California Challenge, Day 7

There are bike rides and then there are Ride 2 Recovery rides.  One is pure fun and leisure, while the other is a testament to all things orderly, businesslike, safe, and efficient.  There is no "i" in teamwork and I felt that I was a part of something greater by participating in this ride.

79 miles, 6 hours 30 min, 12 mph, 4360 Calories
We had been wanting to try taking the train out to Ventura and riding either North or South from there and this organized ride gave us an opportunity to go for it.  Leaving work at 4pm on a Friday, we visited CycleWorld in Northridge for some last-minute adjustments to our bikes.  Then we hopped the Metrolink train to East Ventura station, arriving at almost 7pm.  We forgot our directions to the hotel, but Ventura has plenty of marked bicycle routes, and we followed the sunset West until we arrived at our destination.

A short walk to The Habit provided a Santa Barbara burger, Cesar salad, pastrami sandwich, and sweet potato fries.  We could see the meeting place from there, so we went to bed knowing we were very near the start of the next day's ride.  In the morning, we ate continental breakfast in the hotel: oatmeal, yogurt, eggs, potatoes, and sausage.  Also, the coffee was strong.  We headed over to the Crowne Plaza hotel and found a congregation of riders and support vehicles waiting.  Just before we left, we used the restroom and snagged a banana.

Most everyone there had been riding all week and were outfitted in the R2R jersey.  We did our best to fit in.  Mike had the R2R bibs and I had an R2R hat, but it was clear that we were "day riders" just joining for the last day of the challenge.  The ride briefing was informative and there was a speech from the city of Ventura.  At this point, we had no idea yet of the coordination that must have gone into planning a ride of this scale.  The riders were organized into groups: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, and Delta.  We opted to ride with Delta group (12 mph), thanks to the guidance of our friend who originally exposed us to R2R via a facebook event last year.

We rolled out to the sound of bagpipes and rode 2 by 2 alongside the Naval CBC Port Hueneme.  Folks came out and cheered us along.  We entered CA-1 (East Pacific Coast Highway) at Hueneme Rd.  Until this point, I did not realize how amazing the support was for the ride.  We didn't stop after this.  There were escort vehicles including motorcycles, police cars, fire engines, ambulances, and boats along the water.  They would sound their sirens and flash their lights and even blow a stream of water out to salute as we passed.  It was incredibly moving.  And we were literally moving!

Riding to our first rest stop, we chatted freely.  People started to wonder where we were stopping when a bathroom break was needed, but we all made it to Sycamore Canyon (Pt. Mugu) without much difficulty.  There were water bottles, Gatorade, peanut butter & jelly sandwiches, and port-a-potties for us to use.  Everyone was stretching and talking, making sure that all riders were doing OK.  There was a person making rounds with "second skin" spray for those who had spills on previous rides and had open sores that would have been painful if sweat dripped across them.  Torn shorts and jerseys were further evidence of difficulty on previous days' rides.

We rolled through Malibu (the "boo") and it was gorgeous.  The most striking thing about the ride was that we didn't have to fight traffic at all.  I would say the organizers did a fantastic job of streamlining our trip.  There were a few climbs, but nothing too grueling.  It was particularly exciting passing Neptune's Net and Moonshadows, two restaurants that I had always accessed by car.  We had a regroup stage at a parking lot in Topanga, just past Pepperdine University.  We were handed Gatorade chews and water bottles, much needed for the final climb to LA.

After joining all groups together we stepped up the pace to 16-19 mph.We arrived at the West LA VA Hospital just after 2pm.  A food truck from In-N-Out Burger provided us cheeseburgers and Lay's potato chips and we drank Gatorade and Coke Zero.  There were speeches and live music.  We stayed about an hour, then used the port-a-potties and headed out to Wilshire.  The ride home was uneventful (in a good way).  We took a "Copenhagen" left onto La Cienega to get up to Fountain Ave.  We rested at the top of the hill and then hurried across Fountain to the McDonalds before turning to Hyperion.  I had many moments along Fountain where I thought I couldn't make it all the way home, but we did it!

Our trip was epic.  We brought with us 6 Gu packets, one packet of Clif Blocks, one package of electrolyte Jelly Beans, a camera, two phones, our ID and health insurance cards, our train passes, one change of clothes, flip flops, 2 bike pumps, 2 spare tires, tools (Allen wrenches, patch kit, tire irons), sunscreen, chap stick, helmets, gloves, and bikes.  Traveling so light was liberating and we learned to trust our instincts and the power of riding with a large group.  We are looking forward to riding with R2R in the future, both for training rides and challenges.  It was humbling to be among so many motivated and inspiring leaders in cycling rehabilitation.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Body Positive

There's something about a beat that can shake off the blues.  Although I don't like lyrics that are degrading.  Instead of "in the backseat of your car" how about "groove is in the heart" and let it shine.  I like body-positive songs and I don't think there's anything wrong with Meghan Trainor's new song and video "All about that bass."  I don't like how Young MC calls someone "Fatso" but I do like the call to dance "just bust a move."

One of the most fun dance videos "Fire Burning" [on the dance floor] used to be the ultimate (last) song on my 8 hour playlist.  I would listen to it on my .mp3 player while working late in the lab and know that after 8 hours of pipeting, it was time to go home (or at least take a break for dinner).  Lab accidents happen when you're tired.

I love Beyonce and will never forget the anthem "Bootylicious" which celebrates the power of curves.  Another SUPER-FAVORITE is Mika's "Big Girl (You are beautiful)" which has a great message and a fun video concept.  The colorful dancers of all sizes remind me of "Sweatin' to the Oldies" with Richard Simmons, a staple of my teenage body issue years.

I always idolized Hollywood and Los Angeles, and now that I live here I have a different concept of what it means to pursue fame.  I like Niki Minaj and Iggy Azalea but sometimes their music (lyrics) degrade women rather than empowering.

I commend JLo for her acknowledgement of the body she has been given.  Even though Shakira isn't as classically well endowed, she is also known for her style of dance.  I used to hate skinny girls so much because they had something I thought I could never have.  I embraced my curves yet I felt I didn't fit society's mold for what a desirable woman should look like.

Artists like Beyonce are working to start a conversation about #WHATISPRETTY which I think is a good idea.  I'm as guilty as the next person at focusing on the negative.  I recently watched myself on video, teaching a lesson entitled "How to start a blog."  My first though was "Wow my hips are so wide."  What kind of academic conclusion is that?

I would say that pretty is skin deep.  Compassion is much deeper.  Lecturing is disseminating knowledge.  Teaching and learning are more holistic.  Beauty is the sum of behavior.  What you wear is not as important as how you carry yourself and how you feel about yourself and others.  I'm not afraid to have fun and let loose when I'm among my friends.  I hope this post encourages you to stay positive regardless of your size and let go of hate.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

going green

With the UN Climate Summit 2014 going on this coming week, I was inspired to write about all the small things that we do for the good of Planet Earth.  Everyone was complaining about the record heat wave we had last week.  We closed the blinds in my classroom to reduce cooling cost.  We dried our laundry on a clothesline.  We ate our food raw.

We bought our groceries from the Farmer's Market. We brought them home on our bicycles. We conserved water, allowing water-loving plants to die, but the basil and peppers are still trapping carbon dioxide. We have a variety of CAM (high temperature/low water availability) plants in our garden.

We think twice before printing, all my teaching materials are available electronically.  We take the train and our bicycles to work.  We use reusable coffee cups and a large thermos.  When paper cups are purchased, they are saved and repurposed for starting seedlings.  For the first time in 3 years, I am eliminating miles that would have been spent in a car.  I bike instead more miles than I drive.  I even biked to my office hours yesterday.  When I drive, sometimes I carpool with my husband.  When we go out for frozen yogurt, we walk.

I got to ride my road bike this weekend.  Cowabunga!

CicLAvia is in 13 days.  We practiced riding with our malti-poo (dog, Edna Jo) in the basket of my bicycle.  We even took her to the pet store for her haircut on the bike.  We live about 7.5 miles from the Echo Park hub, so we'll ride to the ride, which starts at 9am.  Hope to see you there!

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

personal style

Thinking back to my earliest attempts at personal style, I remember the grunge era. I had a couple of flannel shirts and a few pairs of Dickies and one sweet pair of Airwalk shoes.  I always felt like a tomboy and these were the first clothes that I picked for myself.  After grunge gave way to the Spice Girls, I identified with Mel C and styled myself "sporty spice" which didn't make much sense since I didn't play any sport.

In college, I didn't give much thought at all to my clothing. Partly because I went to school in a rural area where the shopping options included Wal-Mart and a really expensive department store. In graduate school, I started teaching. I lived in the Sonoran, Mojave and Chihuahua desert regions therefore my clothing consisted mostly of culottes and a pair of white eyelet capri pants.  My tops were not given much thought either, but I started wearing bright colors more.

My first year of teaching in the community college, I wore slacks (or jean-like pants that were not blue denim).  I loved plants with spandex on the first day after washing, but after wearing them for awhile, they tended to be effected by the gravitational pull, exposing the top of my underpants.  Or my belly.  Either way, totally unacceptable.  I found a large set of polo shirts to be perfect tops.  Some were short sleeved, some were elbow-length, and some were three-quarter sleeved.  They were in a variety of pastel and non-threatening single colors (absolutely no horizontal stripes).  I liked things without prints.

When I started graduate school (again) I survived mostly on the same outfits that I had used for teaching but my dress got even more casual with days of working in the lab and no longer teaching.  I dressed up a bit more if we were hosting an invited speaker, but nothing like a business suit and certainly no skirts or dresses (with the exception of my wedding!).  I amassed a great collection of 'nerd shirts' which are given away at conferences and have slogans printed on them like "lab rat," and "give precise details of sample preparation."

After school, I landed a fantastic job at a private liberal arts college.  My friend's mom had been a teacher and offered me two gigantic bags of her "teaching wardrobe" for my new work environment.  She liked prints (flowers mostly) and the color purple.  She gave me lots of dresses!  I found a store called "It's A Wrap" that sells second hand clothing from television and movies.  Each semester I spent at least $200 on work clothes.  Somehow that doesn't sound like a lot, but it was a time that I felt free to express my personal style and invest in myself.  I was conscious about my appearance and I wanted to highlight my femininity since I was teaching at a women's college (in the Spring semesters, at least).

For the fall semesters, I got a bunch of brightly colored skinny jeans from Express and a new pair of glasses à la hipster.  I like to make fun of LA hipsters and their fixed gear bikes, but maybe I'm closer to one of them.  I am artistic, but not pretentious, and I do incorporate vintage (read: thrift store) pieces into my wardrobe.  When I left that school, I got a faux-hawk and my department chair told me they were losing the most unconventional dresser in the department.  I still can't decide if that is a compliment or something that I should have considered during my appointment as a direction to tone down my wardrobe.

I moved to the school I'm at now and my style has evolved (or devolved).  I backtracked to Old Navy for a half-dress, half-business casual wardrobe at the beginning of working there.  Now I am sporting a $40 wardrobe from Goodwill.  I do think it's a shame to wear brand new clothing that was probably sewn by child laborers in Bangladesh.  That's why I prefer second-hand.  I'm teaching labs again so I need all natural fibers and clothing that won't suffer sticker-shock if it is ruined by acid or dissolves in a solvent.  I don't take the liberty to consider myself a fashion icon, but that doesn't mean I don't have a personal style.

I would like to think that I dress age-appropriate and work-appropriate.  One lifestyle consideration is that I get to work by bicycle, which is why skinny jeans are so great.  No excess fabric to get caught in your chain.  I do enjoy biking in skirts, with bloomers or bike shorts underneath of course.  It's fun to have a dress flapping in the breeze, but pencil skirts don't work so well.  Neither do the trend of longer skirts.  There are certain colors I like, such as turquoise.  I think it brings out my hazel eyes.  
I have a few pairs of shoes that I like but they're starting to wear out.  One pair of red Pumas I got in Switzerland brings back good memories.  Another pair of hot pink Nikes I bought for the Color Run makes me smile.  I also love my tennis-ball fluorescent yellow shoes I found at Old Navy.  When I completed the statement "I need more _________ in my life," one of the words that came to mind was "shoes."  I would probably get this pair of Toms if they weren't $54.  Another thought I had was "I need more flowers in my life."  I still wear lots of solid colors, but I'm more open to prints, especially ones involving flowers.  I won't say women in science have it easy, but we do have choices.  What we choose to wear under our labcoats makes us unique.