Category: Guest Post

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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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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Solvay Sequel: Nine Women Scientists in the White House

The iconic photograph of the 1927 Solvay conference featured 29 stellar physicists and chemists, including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. Only one, Marie Curie, was a woman. When Professor Teresa Giraldez came across a historical photograph of nine leading women scientists, she was intrigued.  Dated February 14th, 1980, this photograph marks a reception hosted by the President of the United States, Jimmy Carter (represented here by his Assistant Sarah Weddington). Here, Teresa tells us about the remarkable journey of these women who received high recognition at the White House.

Reception at the White House to nine American women scientists
PHOTO: Reception at the White House (Washington DC, USA) to nine American women scientists, dated on February the 14th, 1980. Left to right: Dr. Mary Good, Dr. Chien Shiung Wu, Dr. Janet Berry, Dr. Ariel Hollingshead, Sarah Weddington (assistant to President Carter), Dr. Mildred Dresselhaus, Dr. Elizabeth Crosby, Dr. Margaret O. Dayhoff, Dr. Mary Calderone and Dr. Charlotte Friend. The picture is dedicated “To Margaret Dayhoff, With best wishes, Sarah Weddington 2-14-80”.

The scientists portrayed in this picture were all born in the first quarter of the 20th century and many of them developed their career throughout extremely hard times: during or just after the Second World War (WWII). Interestingly (or should I say ‘sadly’?), tough times for society usually turn out into professional or social opportunities for women; this seems to be the case for some of the women in the picture. In the US, during WWII, the proportion of working women increased by about 15%. The reason for this increase was that many jobs, previously occupied solely by men, were now deserted–they had left to the war front. This situation was soon extended to the field of Science and Technology. For example, the United States Civil Commission, in its search for qualified personnel, “rebranded” many disciplines such as engineering (until then, mainly dominated by men). Thus, the Commission made it clear in its 1941 report that ”Feminine aptitudes may be well adapted to engineering design, testing, and inspection, research, preparation of plans and maps, and computation” (Calling women for federal war work, United States Civil Service Commission, 1941). However, most historians agree that this apparently auspicious achievement must be taken with a grain of salt: these women scientists were mostly hired in positions “according to their femininity”, often in lower level jobs and always as subordinates in the research teams performing research projects during the War. In most cases, it was expected that, after the War was over, they would stop working to go back to their ‘home duties’ (1, 2). While many women were hired during those years, only a few were recognized.

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“If You See/Hear Something, Say Something”

Dr Buddhini Samarasinghe is the founder of STEM Women and is a science communicator with a background in molecular biology and cancer research. Buddhini has authored a series of articles in Scientific American, titled “The Hallmarks of Cancer.” She provides science outreach through broadcasts on YouTube. Her science writing can be found at JargonwallConnect with Buddhini on Google+ or on Twitter @DrHalfPintBuddy

Last Monday I had the pleasure of attending a private event organised by Digital Science. It was a round-table discussion on what inclusivity looks like in STEM, led by the lovely Amarjit Myers and Laura Wheeler. I got to meet some insightful people who had great ideas for how we can move this conversation forward. We also looked at the ever-present issue of sexual harassment in academia. With Ada Lovelace Day approaching, I wanted to write down some thoughts I had on this broad topic.

Connecting with such a broad group of women, in diverse disciplines, all passionate about the same cause made me realise how easy it is in this day and age to ‘find your tribe’ online. We have so much access to communities and support, various networks and organisations (such as this one!) that help us navigate a system that has always had structural biases that disadvantage women and people of colour. It made me consider an earlier time, and how isolated and alone a woman in STEM would have felt navigating this. Many conversations with my own mother, who is now a retired professor of Chemistry, make me appreciate how much the environment seems to have changed.

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Is the Gender Gap Solved in Liberal Sweden?

Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede is a professor and division head of Chemical Biology at Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden. In this post, Professor Wittung-Stafshede goes beyond the progressive nation’s gender policies, to examine the everyday and institutional sexism experienced by women in science. 

Sweden is considered one of the most gender-equal countries in the world. We have the longest paid maternity leave in the world (16 months), and at least three of these months must be taken out by the dad. Sweden has free daycare, schools (including university), and afterschool programs. Swedes are very liberal in terms of household duties: men and women share a lot of responsibilities, and there are no stay-at-home moms. Based on this culture, I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken.

I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. - Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede
I expected no gender problems in Swedish academia when I returned to a full professor position in Sweden after 10 years as faculty in the United States. I was mistaken. – Pernilla Wittung-Stafshede

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Gender Bias in STEM: A Southern Perspective

By Cathy Newman

Cathy Newman gives a postgraduate student perspective on how local culture impacts on the careers of women in STEM, and why it’s important for women students to learn about the challenges of gender bias as part of their education and career planning.

Last month, the College of Science at Louisiana State University hosted a Women in STEM event. The event consisted of a keynote address followed by a panel discussion, the latter of which I attended. All speakers were LSU alumni holding or retired from prominent STEM positions.

Panelists were the following:

  1. Dr. Karen Adler Storthz: professor emerita at the University of Texas Health Science Center,
  2. Sorcha Clary: project engineer for Marathon Petroleum.
  3. Judea Goins-Andrews: director of school engagement for Louisiana at Project Lead the Way,
  4. Rebecca Guidry: clinical medical physicist at Mary Bird Perkins Cancer Center,
  5. Pat Bodin: former chief information officer and VP of global information for ExxonMobil.

Louisiana State University Women in STEM
LSU Women in STEM panel (Left to right): Dr Adler Storthz; Sorcha Clary; Judea Goins-Andrews; Rebecca Guidry; Pat Bodin. Photo: Cathy Newman (copyright)

As a graduate student in biology at a major research university, I rarely have the opportunity to interact with women in STEM careers outside of academia, so I especially appreciated that the panel included women in industry and education/outreach. The panel also spanned a wide range of career stages, from a few years out of college, to retired. Despite the wide range of careers and career stages represented on the panel, the advice to early career STEM women was remarkably consistent, emphasizing self-confidence, assertiveness, and patience.

I live tweeted the panel discussion. Here are some of the highlights.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

By  Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton
Kristin Milton

Kristin Milton wants the conversation about “the leaky pipeline” to broaden, and include applied researchers and specialists who navigate gender discrimination in STEM. Her post focuses on the “many little cuts” that applied women in STEM face in their daily work. Her story shows that the conversation about gender inequality needs to be inclusive of women in STEM beyond academia, as there are many intersections in our experiences of “everyday sexism,” as well as some unique challenges that we should collectively support.

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The Most Important Scientist in My Life: My Mom

By Jonah Miller

This guest post is by computational physicist Jonah Miller, who interviews his mother, Dr Arleen Miller, about her experiences getting a STEM degree in the 1970s. Her dissertation was focused on mathematical outcomes of girls and boys. She also shares experiences teaching mathematics in Sierra Leone.

Dr Arleen Miller
Dr Arleen Miller

January 6th is my mother’s birthday. As a present, I decided to showcase the first scientist I ever knew—one who I met before I was even born.

Arleen Garfinkle (one day to be Arleen Miller) entered graduate school  at the University of Colorado in the fall of 1973 and graduated in 1979. During that time she developed a battery of tests designed to track a child’s numerical and logical reasoning skills, based on the theories of psychologist Jean Piaget.

Once she developed the test, she gave it (and several other tests) to over 200 pairs of twins aged four through eight and correlated their success rates to other factors, such as their gender and how much their parents emphasized success. One of her most significant findings was that a young child’s ability to learn math was highly dependent on genetics. Another was that gender had no effect on performance—i.e., girls and boys were equally good at math.

Despite being offered a prestigious position at Yale University, my mother left academia to pursue other interests. But to me, she’ll always be my favorite scientist. (more…)

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