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Sally Gregory Kohlstedt on the rise of women in science

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sally600.jpgI attended a lecture by Sally Gregory Kohlstedt titled “Uncovering the past, charting the future: the rise of women in science.” A few points she made that stuck with me:


  • History writing is entwined with history making

  • The concept of “compensatory history” – seeking out women to study

  • The role of “collaborative couples” – how being married to a scientist gained female scientists access to resources

  • Yes, Marie Curie was amazing, but focusing too much on well-known women like Curie overshadows the work of ordinary women in higher education science.

  • The “leaky pipeline” – women drop off as you move to higher and higher degrees

  • Research has shown that fathers make a big difference in encouraging daughters to pursue science.

Quick hit: the indifference engine

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science fiction museumMcLeod, Ken. “The indifference engine: how science fiction contributes to the public understanding of science, and how it doesn’t.” Extrapolation 51.1 (Spring 2010): 170.

In this article, McLeod examines why written science fiction (sf) is expected to contribute to public understanding of science. After all, he argues, “[w]e don't ask of westerns that they contribute to the public understanding of American history.” His answer, drawn partly from the work of Gary Westfahl and Hugo Gernsback, is that sf as a genre contains, by definition, scientific fact—it's one of three elements: charming romance/thrilling adventure, scientific fact, and prophetic vision.

Another important aspect that “makes written sf distinctive as a genre is its relationship to its subject matter and to its core readership.” Fans of written sf expect real science and are able to identify scientific errors. McLeod believes this does not hold true for fans of “media sf”: films, TV, and games. These fans tend to be much less bothered by, and indeed less knowledgeable about, scientific errors.

McLeod concludes thus:

“the very minimum that written sf does is to popularize the rhetoric of science, and make the language of science familiar to the reader. It valorizes and validates interest in science, and stimulates thought about the consequences of discoveries and of new applications of science. But I would go further than that, and claim that science fiction is the only form of literature that takes seriously, and communicates in a popular form, the greatest scientific discovery of all: that the universe we inhabit is vast, ancient, and indifferent.”

A noble distinction, to be sure.



Photo of the Science Fiction Museum via Flickr user adactio, creative commons.

Astronaut Anna FisherThose writing our laws and funding our research have tough decisions to make about reproductive technologies. When it comes down to it, the task is to make decisions about technologies that are not yet available, based on how they will work in a society not yet conceived. As Michelle Stanworth writes, “By altering the boundaries between the biological and the social—by demanding human decision when previously there was biological destiny—the new technologies politicize issues concerning sexuality, reproduction, parenthood and the family” (2). Science is on the cusp of discoveries that might present women with the choice of internal or external gestation, conception with two eggs instead of an egg and a sperm, interspecies surrogacy, and a host of other options once explored only in the pages of science fiction. What is clear is that the decisions made and the research allowed in the next few decades will alter more than just pregnancy. The more complex the question “Where did I come from?,” the more possibilities there are for “Where are we going?”

"Technological quickening" and sonographic discourse

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Picture 88.pngThe phenomenon of medicalization saturates the entire reproductive experience, from birth control pills to in vitro fertilization to amniocentesis testing to birth. In general, Western women no longer rely on signals from their bodies to tell them that they are pregnant. Instead, as Barbara Duden notes, "contemporary pregnancies are given to women by physicians whose expertise, grounded in scientific medicine, is aggrandized through technology" (Duden 51). She writes that the milestone of feeling one's fetus move for the first time is also supplanted with an earlier "technological quickening" as one sees the fetus move on the ultrasound screen before ever feeling it move in one's body.

The dissociation of the fetus in one's body and the fetus on the screen puts pregnant women in a unique theoretical space. Many women report "bonding" with their fetus during ultrasound exams, or feeling like, having seen the fetus, they know it better. The visual ubiquity of the ultrasound has fundamentally changed the way pregnant women connect with and theorize about what is growing inside them. It is a constant reconciliation of image with feeling, technology with biology, and science with nature.

Ultrasound, prenatal genetic testing, and fetal personhood

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Ultrasound was introduced into prenatal care in the 1960s. When first introduced, ultrasounds were used in cases of high-risk pregnancy, not as a normal part of prenatal care. Now, this technology is seen as one thing on the extensive and ever-growing list that determines how responsible a pregnant woman is. How often do you hear about a pregnant woman who refused an ultrasound? It has been thoroughly integrated into the experience of pregnancy. In "prenatal interventions that are as normalized as ultrasound, to decline their use poses an enormous burden of proof on those who might want to challenge the norm" (Seavilleklein 76).

In a visual culture such as ours, the fact that ultrasound creates an image is very important. It catapulted us from conceptualizing the fetus as something that was part of a pregnant woman's body to recognizing the fetal image as an individual who might, say, have a Facebook profile or try to sell us Volvos and hamburgers through mass media advertising. By creating this second person out of what was previously one complex person (see Mattingly 13), the concept of "maternal-fetal conflict" really took off. It is important to note that technology itself is value-neutral. It is how a society uses a technology that imbues it with value. As a testament to the power of the fetal image and an example of how a neutral technology has been co-opted in order to control pregnant women: Currently, 14 states have introduced bills requiring a woman to look at an ultrasound image of her fetus before an abortion.

Informed consent and prenatal genetic testing

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299245275_ee59c8953f_m.jpgThe most common prenatal genetic screening tests are amniocentesis, chorionic villi sampling, and the maternal triple screen, the last of which is performed in "most, if not all, pregnancies" (Ackmann 201). Though this test is not mandatory, a "relatively small percentage" of pregnant women refuse it (Rothschild 203). In fact, not all women know they have a right to say "no" (Rothschild 197). But perhaps this high testing rate is not so surprising. In a technology-driven society, one habitually chooses more information over less, especially in situations as important as pregnancy. It may even be read as irresponsible not to. When interviewed about their decision to undergo amniocentesis, women often express sentiments like this woman's: "It's a feeling that...I have done all I can do that is medically feasible and advisable, at my age, to ensure that any baby I have will be fine" (Rothman 59). In some cases it is less about personal reassurance and more about presenting oneself as a "responsible pregnant woman" who is behaving as expected. One woman admits: "I went along with it because I wanted to be labeled okay (and sensible) for a home birth" (Rothman 52). Prenatal genetic testing has become an expected part of prenatal care, in the same vein as ultrasounds.

Quick hit: the intersection of law and fiction

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In his article "Making Space: Law and Science Fiction," Mitchell Travis looks at the cultural and scientific environment surrounding the enactment of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act of 1990 in Britain, sections 3 and 4 of which ban the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos. He argues that simply by coming into being, the law "inspired a new generation of science fiction," including Splice and Oryx and Crake (249). Hybrid (or "admixed") embryos were not a large area of research, so the law, by prohibiting them, created a new mythology around them and created them as cultural objects.

Perhaps even more interesting, Travis argues that the influence went the other way as well--that the law was influenced by fiction. "I would argue," he writes, "that, given the relative dearth of scientific research into the area of hybridity when the HFE Act 1990 was being contemplated, law drew upon the huge and available body of popular discourse in its initial decision to prohibit the admixed embryo" (249). He notes that the figure of the interspecies hybrid has been part of folk mythology for millennia, manifesting itself in the years leading up to the HFE Act in works of fiction such as Alien and The Fly.

How fiction helps us understand reality

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still from movie Another Earth. Image from Fox Searchlight

The goal of my research is not literary analysis for its own sake; it is to understand how fictional representations of new and future genetic and reproductive technologies reflect and affect the lives of real women. That said, one may wonder why, if the experiences of real-world people are my target, I choose to study them through fiction. It is because I believe fiction gives us a rhetorical device step outside our own reality--a necessary skill for anyone writing laws, funding research, or making one-on-one moral decisions.