Bees with Mohawks: Spotlight on Native Bee Researcher Joan Meiners

When you picture a bee, the honey bee with black and yellow stripes may come to mind. A social insect introduced to the North American continent in the 17th century, the honey bee is often kept for honey and for pollinating food crops. We’ve heard a lot about honey bees in the news due to the risk of colony collapse and the agricultural impacts it could have. However, honey bee research overshadows attempts to identify and analyze the numerous native bee species living in the wild. One scientist working to close the knowledge gap is ecologist and environmental data journalist Joan Meiners. I interviewed her to understand the significance of her work, the daily life of a bee researcher and her role as a woman in STEM.

Meiners recently published a research paper on the native bee biodiversity in Pinnacles National Park, about 40 miles east of Carmel in California. Following up on a previous survey of the region, she and her colleagues wanted to sample the area to monitor the level of native bee biodiversity. Compared to honey bees, native bees live more solitary lifestyles and have more selective habits when it comes to pollination.

Meiners and her team took pleasure in the process of identifying about 50,000 different bee specimens. “Bees are beautiful and fun to identify. They can be metallic blue, bright green, have little mohawks of hair on their heads or interesting ridges on their exoskeletons.” Even the delicate patterns of the wing veins provide species variation clues. In total, she and her colleagues found 450 different bee species in the surveyed region.

And while this number seems impressive upon first glance, Meiners pointed out that there are relatively few studies available for comparison, citing just 23 similarly extensive surveys in the entire United States. She emphasized that Pinnacles National Park is the only area where scientists have surveyed native bee populations over multiple decades, allowing scientists to better track trends over time. “Without repeated sampling, what we know about wild bee decline is complicated by all this natural fluctuation and actually pretty restricted to agricultural areas, where we know they don’t really live.” In short, Meiners would like to see more native bee research done in the future.

Meiners’ research not only helps to advance our knowledge about native bee populations in Pinnacles National Park, but it also lays the foundation for further research. “In the paper, I really tried to highlight this point that more studies like ours are needed to really understand the value of natural habitats (before they’re gone) and the status of native bee decline”. By researching native bees with their uniquely interdependent relationship with plants, scientists can gain insight into the overall ecological health of a region.

Melissodes tristis: a native bee species recovered from Pinnacles National Park.
Photo courtesy of Joan Meiners.

Wild, native bees are key ecosystem service providers in both natural and agricultural landscapes. Compared to the unstable European honey bee, on which United States agriculture is heavily dependent, little is known about the four thousand North American species of native bees…

Meiners et al. (2019) Plos ONE https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0207566

But how is this done in practice? As part of her routine, Meiners collects bees by laying colorful “bee bowls” filled with soapy water that attract the bees and preserving them in ethanol. Otherwise, she catches them in a net and then transports them in vials. For this, she roams through a specific sampling area each day. Rather than spotting them by eye, Meiners usually listens carefully to her surroundings to find bees: “You learn to be able to differentiate the flight patterns and the sound of a bee versus a fly versus a wasp flying.” By now, she has become so attuned to identifying different insects this way that her ears remain alert off the clock.

Once she collects the bees from nature, Meiners takes them back to the lab to be pinned and labelled. She’ll store the bees in climate-controlled boxes to prevent beetles from eating their specimens. Meiners explained that in order to identify bees under a microscope, they must be killed. The samples they collect, however, do not make a significant dent in the overall population of the many native bee species, most of which only live as adults for about a month.

Of course, I wanted to know how many times she had been stung. Her response surprised me: “The answer is five, though I’ve collected and handled at least 10,000 bees. It’s only five because native bees aren’t as aggressive as honey bees. Most of the species are solitary or less social than honey bees, so they aren’t guarding a hive and have less reason to want to sting you to protect it.” These five stings were typically encounters with unseen bees in the net.

Meiners’ interest in bees began in eighth grade, when she wrote a research paper on honey bees and won third place in the Colorado state science fair for a related experiment. Encouraged by her teacher, a female scientist, this early success sparked a lifelong vocation as a scientist. She later attended Mount Holyoke College, the first institution of higher education for women in the U.S. and she considers its all-female campus a factor that contributes to her success. “It’s about prioritizing women and education,” Meiners said. Namely, she didn’t learn to “let men speak first or dominate the conversation,” and she left university feeling empowered in the workforce. “I don’t let anyone tell me to be quiet about things I think are important.”

Joan Meiners studies native bee populations in Pinnacles National Park.

Joan Meiners’ educational background and career is not limited to bees, either. She majored in neuroscience and worked at a coastal ecology lab to research sea turtles and crab ecology, followed by research on the Canada Lynx in Colorado. She also works hard to bring science issues into the public sphere in her role as an environmental data journalist: “[I]f you stop spending time on a project once it’s published in the academic literature, it often never achieves its potential or metamorphoses into any policy changes.” Her goal is to get more projects that would normally be locked up in the “ivory tower” pushed through to the public sphere. She feels that by accurately gauging audiences, journalists can expose more scientific research, not just “flashy” research, so it sees the light of day outside of academia.

About the author: Erica Eller is a freelance writer and editor focusing on sustainability and conservation. Originally from the US, she currently lives in Istanbul. Website: https://ericaeller.com, Twitter: @ericaeller

Celebrating Women in Chemistry: Marie Maynard Daly

February 11 is the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The goal is to recognize the critical role of girls and women in the scientific and technological communities. As we commemorate this day, it is also vital to remember minority women scientists who have made significant advances in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields. 

In this guest post, Sophie Okolo presents the life of Marie Maynard Daly in the context of her experience as a minority woman in STEM.

Marie Maynard Daly (1921-2003) was an American biochemist and the first African American woman to obtain a Ph.D. in chemistry in the United States. She was awarded her doctoral degree from Columbia University in 1947. I first heard about Daly when I was researching the history of women in STEM for a multimedia STEM project. As a woman and a minority, it was wonderful to learn that she made a significant impact on chemistry and biochemistry. Daly overcame the dual hurdles of racial and gender bias by conducting several important studies on cholesterol, sugars, and proteins.

Chemistry was one of my favorite subjects in college, and it was great to learn about the chemical reactions and equations that Dr. Daly established. Daly’s outstanding work continues to have a lasting impact on scientific research. As a young girl, Daly was an avid reader. She had a budding interest in science and became inspired by her father’s love of science. He had been forced by economic circumstances to drop out of Cornell University, where he had been pursuing a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Due to her father’s experience, Daly was committed to developing programs to increase the enrollment of minority students in medical school and graduate science programs. She established a scholarship fund for African American science students at Queens College in honor of her father.

Dr. Daly was the first African American woman to receive a Ph.D. in Chemistry in the U.S.
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The Issues and Barriers Facing Women in Technology

There is great interest in understanding why the technology industry and wider STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) fields have low participation by women. In this guest post, Lucy Wright summarizes some key studies that address this disparity and offer solutions to increase diversity. 

Much has been written about the dearth of women working in the technology industry. From an apparent low interest in technology-related subjects at school through to the small number of women employees in tech companies today, there is a serious and undeniable under-representation of women in the tech industry. This is despite the fact, that women have been some of the most innovative pioneers of technology historically.

Key statistics are below:

  • Women own only 5% of start-ups in the US
  • In the UK, only 5% of women are in a technology leadership role
  • Only 3% of British high school students say they would choose the technology sector as a career choice
  • Only 16% of women have had a career in tech suggested to them

What are the issues underlying this?

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Maths Through Stories: A Profile of Dr Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai

Dr. Natthapoj Vincent Trakulphadetkrai founded MathsThroughStories.org, a non-profit research-based initiative which sets out to encourage teachers and parents globally to help children learn mathematics more effectively and, equally important, more enjoyably through storytelling. The website offers various evidence-based and freely available resources, including support for children to make their own stories. One of the research projects he leads, Representation of Girls and Women in Mathematics-specific Picturebooks, finds that female characters are significantly underrepresented in mathematical picturebooks when compared to their male counterparts.

Can you start off by telling us a little bit about your research that led to this project? In particular, why is it important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in learning mathematics through storytelling?

MathsThroughStories.org draws from a body of research over the past three decades that highlights pedagogical benefits of teaching mathematical concepts through storytelling, particularly in the form of story-picture books. One of these research projects has been conducted in a few different countries (including England, Ireland, and Malta). It is an investigation into teachers’ self-reported frequency of using story-picture books in their mathematics instruction as well as their perceived barriers to (and perceived enablers for) the integration of stories in mathematics teaching. A key finding is that while early years practitioners regularly make use of storytelling as part of their daily mathematics teaching, teachers of primary (elementary) school children (5-11 years old) are much less aware of such teaching approach. The principal reported barrier is the lack of awareness (and hence pedagogical knowledge) of how story-picture books can be incorporated into mathematics teaching. Thus, MathsThroughStories.org wants to help raise teachers’ awareness in this area, and to essentially encourage them in giving this approach a go.

In terms of why it is important to feature gender and race/ethnic diversity in mathematical stories, I draw from the idea of Weitzman, Eifler, Hokada and Ross (1972), that picture books are read to children when they are most impressionable and when they are forming their self-images and future expectations of themselves. Imagine a classroom where the teacher only reads mathematical stories where boys and men are always the protagonist solving problems using their mathematical knowledge and skills, while girls and women are secondary characters lurking behind a tree. If you are a girl listening only to stories with such characteristics, how would you see yourself in relation to mathematics now and in the future? Thus, as educators and parents, we need to critically examine what otherwise seems to be a very colourful, cute and harmless educational resource.

A young girl looks up thoughtfully as she writes in class
How would girls see themselves in mathematics?

 

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“I Don’t Need the Most Expert Expert Who Ever Experted”: Q & A with Journalist Mika McKinnon

Men dominate media: in news rooms and stories, they get more exposure on camera, more by-lines and are quoted more often. An analysis of  2,353,652 news articles covering 12 topic categories from over 950 news outlets over a six month period ending in April, 2015 showed that mentions of men ranged from 69.5% in Entertainment to 91.5% in Sports. The only exception was Fashion, where women edged out men slightly at 54%. A more recent analysis by science writer Ed Yong of his STEM stories was similarly discouraging: only 24 percent of his quoted sources were women. Worse, 35 percent of his articles featured no female voices at all. Why does this matter? As journalist and editor Adrienne Lafrance noted in The Atlantic, the extreme gender imbalance in the media implies that the best voices are not those of women and misses out on diverse viewpoints, experiences and ideas. Journalist and field geophysicist Mika McKinnon is acutely aware of this gender differential in reporting and makes it a point to ask both men and women for expert comments. When making press requests, she is typically turned down more often by women. One case stood out: not one of 74 women requested for an interview obliged, contrasting with 11 of 15 men who agreed, including two who stated that they were not experts. She tweeted her frustration.

This tweet was seen over 792,000 times with more than 16,000 interactions, clearly demonstrating that the topic touched a nerve. We asked Mika to share her experience and her thoughts on the gender imbalance in journalism reporting. 

Mika McKinnon kneels at the edge of icy water
Solving gender bias problems in science – Mika McKinnon

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Professional Role Confidence for Early-Career Women Engineers

Sitting in a conference hearing a male colleague speak about the mentors who’d supported his career, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory Professor Anita Sengupta realised that, as one of the few women in her field, she’d never had this type of support.

“I sat there thinking, I’ve been working here for 10 years, and I never had that… I’m also a professor at University of Southern California,  and there are very few female professors in hard science and engineering fields. So, there aren’t enough female role models girls can look up to and feel like this kind of thing is normal. It’s a huge detractor. There aren’t enough role models pulling girls in.”

An American longitudinal study can shed light on how Professor Sengupta’s individual experience is part of a broader pattern affecting women engineers.

Anita Sengupta

The research examined the reasons why women engineering students drop out before completing their course. Contrary to public perception, the study finds that family plans and self-confidence in STEM knowledge (such as math abilities) do not have a significant impact. Instead, the study shows that women tend not to finish their engineering degrees because they lack “professional role confidence.” This idea encompasses a person’s assessment that they can fulfil the roles, competencies, and identity required of engineers.

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Women Trailblazers in Science

Today we take a look at various women who have inspired us for their trailblazing efforts in science. We start with Dr Harriette Chick, who was a microbiologist, nutritionist and the first scientist to show sunshine impacts health. Particle physicist, Dr Fabiola Gianotti, is the first woman leader of CERN. You likely know Florence Nightingale for her contributions to nursing, but did you know she was the first woman awarded the Order of Merit, and the first scientist to develop graphical statistics? Astronomer Dr Cecilia Payne-Gaposchkin was the first person to discover what the universe is made of, though few people understand her tremendous contributions to the field of physics.  Did you know that the word “scientist” was invented to describe the research contributions of Mary Somerville? She trained as a mathematician, astronomer and historian. Finally, Dr Jane Cooke Wright was a “first” in many senses, as a Black woman physician, cancer researcher, and the first woman elected president of the New York Cancer Society.

Learn more about these amazing scientists below!

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Shut Up, Sit Back, and Listen

Dr. Bastian Greshake Tzovaras offers concrete ways in which men can  be effective allies to empower women and promote gender equity in STEMM fields. Our guest post is part of a collection of articles entitled, “Championing the Success of Women in Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths, and Medicine.” 

The UNESCO Institute for Statistics estimates that only around 30 percent of researchers worldwide are women (1). Similarly, according to the Economics and Statistics Administration of the US Department of Commerce only 24 per cent of STEM jobs are held by women (2), with individual disciplines like Engineering having a significantly worse gender bias. There’s also extensive literature on biases against women in STEM (3), affecting all aspects of academia, including hiring, publishing, citation counts and teaching. Given these disheartening statistics, it is clear that there is still a long way to go before we can even start thinking about gender equality in STEM.

Why am I, a man in STEM, writing about this? Because to me these statistics also show another thing: men, who are dominating these fields, have an obligation to support women in STEM and help level the playing field. But how can men help to facilitate change and support women in STEM? All the things I try to implement are the result of listening to women – who sacrificed their spare time to educate me – and taking their advice. Thus, maybe the single best, most actionable thing is this: step back, shut up, give women space, and listen to them.

What can this look like on a more concrete level? Ask yourself about your own environments: is it men, including me, who are taking up all the airtime at meetings (4)? Chances are that this is the case, as women are interrupted more often than men (5) and speak significantly less at professional meetings (6). So take a break and let others speak. To whom are you paying attention (7)? Is it the always same male crowd? For social media some tools let you check the gender breakdown of the people you read (8). Make sure to identify those voices you’ve ignored so far and listen to them. Along the same lines, ask to whom you are giving an audience. Make sure also to boost the messages of women instead of only focusing on your (male) buddies (9). Generally, the male overrepresentation in STEM means you’re likely to default to male perspectives. Make sure to steer actively against this.

Listen to women in STEM

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Women in Space

Dr Mae Jemison. (Source)

This 12 September 2017 is the 25th anniversary of Dr Mae Jemison’s flight on space shuttle Endeavour as the first Black American woman to travel in space. Dr Jemison began her career as a physician who served in the Peace Corps, before making history as an astronaut. To celebrate Dr Jamison’s achievements, let’s take a look at her contributions and the trajectory of other iconic women in spaceflight.

While there have been many iconic women pioneers in space travel, their ascent has been a triumph over gender inequity. Up until the 1980s, the media largely focused on women astronauts’ looks, making disparaging jokes about their femininity getting in the way of their missions. Thus they ignored the mental and physical stamina required to go into this field, not to mention the high level of education demanded of astronauts, who are qualified scientists. For example, the first woman to travel in space in 1963, Dr Valentina Tereshkova, did so after acquiring a Phd in engineering.

Only 50 years a go, astronaut John Glenn dismissed the scientific qualifications of women astronauts using biological determinism. He told a USA Subcommittee: “The fact that women are not in this field is a fact of our social order. It may be undesirable.”

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What to do When Facing YAMMM (Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting)

When University Of California (Davis) Professor of Evolutionary Biology, Professor Jonathan Eisen, was scheduled to speak at a meeting on Metagenomics in the Era of Big Data, he found himself in a bit of a pickle – or more to the point, a YAMMM. This stands for: yet another mostly male meeting. The male speakers outnumbered women 21:6. He considered his options. In the past, he has submitted a conference abstract in protest, A quantitative analysis of gender bias in quantitative biology meetings. He has also written to organisers and publicly called them out on their gender exclusion. This time, he considered not going, but then came up with a clever approach to tackling YAMMM.

YAMMM - Yet Another Mostly Male Meeting
Tackling YAMMM

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