Jumping Through Hoops: How Dangerous is Women’s Ski Jumping?

Is elite, competitive, ski jumping too dangerous for women?

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Jerome, Hendrickson and Van at a press conference for the 2014 Olympics. Photo by Voice of America

In 2014, for the first time ever, women ski jumpers are competing on the Olympic stage. The sport- which features skiers whizzing down steep slopes, launching themselves into the air, and landing sometimes a football field and half away- has always seemed risky. Old video footage of crashes, available on YouTube and played on major sports networks, add to its aura of danger. And critics hotly contest whether the sport is safe for women at all. When a group of female ski jumpers filed a law suit in 2009, hoping to be included in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics, the question of safety could no longer be ignored: is ski jumping just too dangerous for women?

The answer- absolutely not.

Concern for female ski jumpers’ safety dates back to the sport’s origins, and has more to do with cultural standards than it does actual risk. Ski jumping originated in Norway in the early 1800s, and in its infancy it was a sport about men being men. Jumping was considered a courageous feat that connected men to nature, their mortality, their woodsy birthright, and their ancestry. Ski jumping became synonymous with Norwegian machismo culture. While it was fairly standard for women to ski- it was a common mode of transportation in the winter- the moment skiing became an organized competitive sport, women who tried to join found themselves the center of a chorus of complaints. The loudest among them were from medical personnel.

Doctors worried that participating in ski jumping would impair a woman’s ability to have children; the physical demands of the sport required too much energy and could weaken the muscles supporting the uterus. Ski jump landings in particular are jarring, and doctors were afraid the jostling would displace the uterus- move it around inside the body- leaving the woman infertile. This misconception persisted through the 19th and 20th century. As late as 1990, the head of the International Ski Federation voiced concern that the force of landing could burst a woman’s uterus.

In 2002, the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) medical team issued a statement to the opposite. Because women’s reproductive organs are inside the body, they are safer than men’s. Ski jumping may actually be safer for women than for men in this one regard.

The only documented dangers to female reproductive health are the same that wrack any elite female athlete. If a woman exercises and has low body fat, she often stops menstruating. While this is a sign that the woman cannot become pregnant at that time, it is not a permanent condition and the Olympic committee has not considered it too dangerous for other sports.

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The ski jump at Holmenkollen, Oslo. Photo by Max Froumentin

Ski jumping, regardless of a competitor’s sex, is relatively safe compared to other downhill events. Downhill skiers, freestyle skiers and snowboards are at greater risk of severe injury than ski jumpers, according to a study that looked at both men and women elite winter athletes. Women ski jumpers are in no more danger than any other female skiing in the Olympics.

All Olympic sports have safety risks, and ski jumping is no exception, but the risks are not so great that women should not compete. The women ski jumpers lost their lawsuit in 2009; however, the courts concluded that the IOC’s decision to exclude women’s ski jumping was gender discrimination. Perhaps the high profile and press coverage of this trial put enough pressure on the IOC to change its policy. In 2011, the IOC voted to include women’s ski jump in the 2014 Olympics. Now question is not one of safety but of political prowess: to do what they love, why did these women have to ski jump through bureaucratic hoops?

Confessions of a Biased Blogger

As directed, I place my two index fingers on the ‘E’ and the ‘I’ keys.  My fingers tingle with anxiety, a physical discomfort I just never get used to.  I take a deep breath and prepare for words to flash across the screen: Mother, Father, Son, Music, Geology, Math, Daughter, Uncle, Literature. In a matter of minutes this trial will be over, and I will know my unconscious thought associations. Would I, could I be gender-biased?

The test I’m taking to find out is part of Project Implicit, a research project that detects unconscious thoughts and feelings about myriad topics. You could a take a test to discover whether or not you have certain associations with skin tone, weight, religion, sexuality, race, age, even gender.

I clicked on the Gender-Science association test, which is composed of four rounds of fast-fire associations.

Second roundThe first round involves two categories, male and female, which are placed at the top corners of the screen. If a word is male (like uncle, son, father, husband), I had to press the ‘E’ key. If a word was female, I pressed the ‘I’ key. The second round involved linking careers to their disciplines- pressing one key for subjects in the Science discipline and the other for subjects within the Liberal Arts discipline.

Now here was the tricky part- in the third round I had to click ‘E’ for female words and science subjects and ‘I’ for male words and liberal arts subjects.

It was a complete disaster. While I didn’t see a red X on either of the first two rounds, I saw at least four red Xs this time. That’s FOUR mistakes!!! Not only that, but I could tell I was tripping up. It was taking me  much longer to respond. And the instructions explicitly asked that I go as fast as possible. Oh, the pressure! I really, really want to be an unbiased person- I WAS a woman in science after all (during my undergraduate studies I doubled majored in Biology and English- I even flirted with applying to a PhD program in Zoology).  So what was the holdup?

Much to my shame and horror, this last round is easier.  I hate to admit it, but it is. I have to press ‘E’ for male words or science subjects and ‘I’ for female words or liberal arts. As I’m whizzing through the words, I know I’m going faster than I did in round 3.

So I’m not totally in shock when I get my results:

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Just disheartened. How could I unconsciously associate men with sciences?

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Project Implicit test results of all Gender-Science association test takers as of October 17, 2014.

Turns out, I’m not alone. More than half of test takers either slightly, moderately, or strongly associated men with sciences. And over a quarter of test takers, including me, had a STRONG association between men and sciences.

Dr. Meg Urry of Yale University probably wouldn’t be surprised. I listened to her speak today at the sixth annual Graduate Women In Science and Engineering Fall luncheon. Though she studies supermassive black holes and not the psychology of women in science, she is prominent astronomer who also happens to be a woman. So she might know a thing or two about what it’s like to be a woman in a male-dominated field.

She also prepared a ridiculously well-informed presentation that presented lots of information (and data from case studies) about gender-biases in the science.

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Dr. Meg Urry delivering a guest lecture at Graduate Women in Science and Engineering’s sixth annual Fall luncheon at Boston University on October 17, 2013.

In her presentation, Dr. Urry pointed out the disparity not only between the numbers of women (versus men) in science, but also between the percentage of women who are earning bachelors degree in science and the percentage of women earning a PhD in those same disciplines.

Physics, for example, had women accounting for 20% of its undergraduates while women made up only 15-18% of the people earning PhDs seven years later (seven years is an appropriate estimate for the time it takes to complete a PhD, though Urry warned it is in an overestimation in some cases and an underestimation in others).

“There is some process that is differentially filtering out the women,” Urry said.

And that something is not a skill set. Astronomy, which requires the same skills to succeed as Physics, has twice the percentage of PhD women.

“It’s about something cultural,” said Urry.  There is an unconscious bias or implicit bias toward women in male-dominated fields, she explained.

One problem is that people have lower expectations for women. And notice I say “people,” not men. Women are equally as guilty as men in this regard.

To illustrate this, Urry pointed to a study by Paludi and Bauer who had men and women look at the same academic paper, and asked them to score it. One third of the papers were “authored” by John  T. McKay, one third by Joan T. McKay, and the last third by J. T. McKay. Men gave better scores to the paper with the male author. So did women.

It turns out both men and women have different standards for the sexes when it comes to science.

But why?

The answer may lie deep in our minds in that area between what we “know” to be true and what actually is true for a given situation. For example, researchers Biernat, Manis, and Nelson gave undergraduates pictures of men and women standing next to an object (for scale) and asked them to judge the heights of those men and women. We know, in general, men have a taller height distribution than women. So the undergraduates found this to be true in the photos as well, even though the men and women were actually all around the same height. The undergraduates “knew” men were taller than women, so that’s what they saw.

“Imagine that we know men are better at science,” said Urry. “We might evaluate people differently if we knew men were better at science.”

This “knowledge” is unconscious, of course. As scientists, and for me as a journalist, objectivity is of the utmost importance.

“We are trained to be objective,” explains Urry. “If we are not objective, we are in some sense a failure in our profession. And I think this is why we are all so defensive about admitting to being biased.”

Defensive is right. A whole arsenal of ‘but …[fill in the blank]’ and ‘not me, because…’ came spilling out of my mind almost immediately. My test results made me very uncomfortable, and that strong association of men with science was not something I was aware of. I mean, I write a blog about WOMEN in science.

Bringing unconscious biases to the forefront of our awareness is one of Project Implicit’s goals.  In an email to Dr. Mahzarin Banaji, a Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard University and one of three scientists founding Project Implicit, I asked why it was important to understand thoughts that are outside of our control. She replied:

If we knew that we had a hidden bodily defect such as a malfunctioning heart valve, would we want to know?  I think so.  Why?  Because that which is hidden and untreated can be bad for us.

It seems to me that the same is true for our minds. And now, we have methods, rudimentary methods for teaching us that we carry around knowledge of which we are unaware, knowledge that can be harmful to ourselves and others if we stick our heads in the sand.

I understand the desire to not want to know, but in so many ways, because of the revelations that present day technologies give us, we are the generation that must face many inconvenient truths.   I see it as a matter of a new but simple courage that is being asked of us.

If I can bravely push those ‘but’ and ‘not me’ thoughts aside and be honest with myself, then I can accommodate for my biases. Only by acknowledging them and correcting for them can I take away their power.

Dr. Karen James: DNA Barcoding and the Beagle

Dr. Karen James is a staff scientist at Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

Dr. Karen James is a staff scientist at Mt. Desert Island Biological Laboratory.

Dr. Karen James is a staff scientist and member of faculty at Mount Desert Island Biological Laboratory in Salisbury Cove, Maine. There she uses “DNA barcoding” as a tool to identify animals in Acadia National Park. This woman may look at small segments of DNA, but she dreams big. Find out about Karen’ research, community involvement, educational outreach, and dream to resurrect the HMS Beagle in the interview below:

Hannah: So, what is “DNA barcoding?”

Karen: DNA barcoding is using a small segment of DNA from a particular gene or genes to identify and organism to the species level.

How does that work?

It’s very similar to the criminal DNA database idea, except instead of identifying criminals we are identifying species. [You] compare your sequence from an unknown specimen to a reference library of DNA sequences from known species that have been professionally identified by taxonomists.

It sounds kind of like grocery shopping, where apples and oranges have different bar codes.

Well, yeah. That’s where the name came from. Because we read a little snippet of DNA- about 700 nucleotides long- it’s like a 700 digit UPC symbol.

But…?

But it’s important to remember [the DNA “barcode”] wasn’t put on there by human beings. We’re just reading the natural DNA of the organism and trying to use it to figure out what kind of organism it is.

You said DNA barcoding is a tool. What could you use it for?

Testing when seafood has been substituted for a different species, determining whether someone is transporting illegal wildlife products across international boundaries, looking at food safety, or in my case, using it as a tool for ecological, environmental, or conservation research.

And in your work?

[We are] trying to pilot how we might be able to use DNA sequencing to validate specimen identifications made by citizen scientists. Historically that’s been a real difficulty of involving citizen scientists.

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Acadia National Park, Maine. Credit: National Park Service

My current project involves using DNA barcoding and citizen science to explore ecology research questions that involve identifying invertebrate animals, but I’m just beginning to expand my program to include the plants of Acadia National Park.

I have heard of research projects using citizen scientists to collect data. Could you explain what citizen science is?

Citizen Science is public participation in scientific research.

How did it start?

For hundreds of years it’s how science was done. So, even the word scientists hasn’t always been around. Everyone used to be an amateur scientists. And science wasn’t a profession until 100 years or so ago.

So now there has been what you called a “resurgence” in citizen science. Why did you incorporate it into your research?

So initially this was a way for me to get funding. In 2009, we found was that the funding climate for DNA barcoding was not particularly friendly. Everyone had a hard time getting funding, including me. So we struck up a collaboration with an educational charity who was very interested in my work and was willing to fund my research program in exchange for engaging the students at the schools that they run. But of course, I’m also really interested in outreach and engagement education and so I thought this was a really great opportunity to get kids involved in natural history and molecular biology.

What kinds of outreach do you do now?

One thing I do is I work with Island Readers and Writers, which is a local nonprofit based here on the island. They reach out to elementary schools in underserved communities in Downeast Maine. I’ve worked with them to develop a science education program. This year we’re visiting two schools, working with K-2 kids

What kinds of things do you do with the kids?

Go outside and collect specimens from trees and make botanical specimens from them, talk about trees, and try to get kids excited about the very basic idea of natural history.

Which is?

To carefully observe what’s around you and to make collections and that kind of thing.

You’ve also been working with a UK-based charity since 2006. Could you tell us a bit about the project you are working on with them?

We’re trying to raise money to rebuild the Beagle.

Rebuild the Beagle? The actual ship that Charles Darwin sailed around the world? Can you repair the original HMS Beagle?

No. The Beagle is not still out there. There may be some remnants of it under an estuary in Essex.

We’re trying to raise money to build a new ship that looks, at least from the outside, just like the Beagle and on the inside a more modern vessel; it would need certain specifications to make it legal to sail today.

What will you do with it once it is built?

Mostly we’ll put a bunch of scientists on it, and teachers, and kids and people. Ideally we’d have nice mix of scientists actually doing research and people on board having an educational experience, perhaps by serving as research assistants to scientists.

You seem very excited about this project.

It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, and still is. It would be an incredible moment of realization for me to get to sail on the Beagle.

THIS PHONE INTERVIEW HAS BEEN EDITED AND CONDENSED.

Cziczo and Hoehler Make Martian Clouds

Outside the cloud chamber.

Outside the cloud chamber.

“It’s a funny story,” Daniel Cziczo, an atmospheric chemist from MIT, said to me over the phone. Cziczo along with Kristina Hoehler of Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, and a team of scientists came together at a three-story-tall cloud chamber in German to study clouds. “We predominantly do Earth cloud studies to understand climate change,” Cziczo explained, “but we had a week left over to pursue another project.” Cziczo proposed that the team use their extra time to study how clouds are formed on Mars.

So they did. Hoehler, who led the German side of the research project, and Cziczo created clouds in a Mars-like atmosphere within the cloud chamber and documented at what point clouds were able to form.

To recreate the Mars environment, the team emptied the chamber of all oxygen. They then pumped nitrogen gas- which behaves like the carbon dioxide atmosphere on Mars, but is not toxic- into the chamber. The team added pulverized basalt (which acts like Mars dust) to the air in the chamber and ice to its walls. A vacuum sucked air out of the chamber to mix everything up and make all the stuff inside the chamber move.

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Computer generated image of daybreak on Mars. Credit: NASA/JPL Caltech

The movement is vital.

Clouds are an intricate dance of ice molecules moving between different altitudes. As a molecule moves high in the atmosphere and gets closer and closer to space, the temperature and the pressure drop. This allows the molecule (on Earth, the molecule is water) to form around a particle of dust and crystallize into ice. The ice particle is so tiny it gets bounced around and held aloft by gases in the atmosphere.

But the particle will eventually get big enough and heavy enough, that it will fall to a lower atmosphere where it is warmer. Once there, the particle vaporizes-become a gas again- and makes its way up to the colder atmosphere to repeat the dance. The falling and rising of the particle creates long wispy streaks in the sky.

What is important about the molecule’s movement is how it falls from areas of low temperature and low pressure to areas of higher temperature and higher pressure. The scientists recreated this movement by changing the temperature and pressure inside the chamber to reflect that of Mars and by vacuuming out the air to create the movement. Cziczo and Hoehler then documented at what point clouds started to form.

What they found was surprising.

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Cirrus clouds over a field. Credit: NOAA

The results, published in Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, showed the Martian clouds did not formed until 190% humidity. Previous models were created under the assumption that, like cirrus clouds on Earth, Martian clouds formed at 120% humidity. Cirrus clouds are most similar to what scientists know about Martian clouds- they even look similar- so scientists incorporated what they knew about cirrus clouds into what they did not know about Martian clouds: ”people had assumed [the clouds] formed the same way,” explained Cziczo.

Cziczo was one of those people- he had expected the research findings to support the models. But they did not, and Cziczo was not sure why. The Mars environment is very complicated- the atmosphere is composed mainly of carbon dioxide, there is little water available as most of it is locked up in ice, and temperatures reach as low as -125 degrees Fahrenheit- which means there are a lot of variables that could make the system different than here on Earth.   “It’s not obvious why that happened,” said Cziczo. “It’s very surprising, and it means we have more work to do.”

Jessica Green Designs with Bacteria on the Mind

“Everything is covered in invisible ecosystems made of tiny life forms,” began Jessica Green at her 2013 TED Talk titled, “We’re covered in germs. Let’s design for that.” And design for it, she did! Green, who is an engineer and an ecologist explains how we can look at these tiny life forms- fungi, viruses, and bacteria- in enclosed spaces and architecturally redesign parts of those spaces to promote healthier “invisible ecosystems.”

ImageThe first step is finding out what kind of “invisible landscape” is in a building. Green and her team focused on bacteria at the Lillis Business Complex at the University of Oregon. They sampled over 300 rooms, including classrooms, offices, and bathrooms, by vacuuming dust. They opened the dust, pulled out the bacteria cells, opened the cells and sequenced the DNA. This told them what kinds of bacteria were there.

By looking at all the bacteria and its abundance in each room, Green could create a microbial profile of sorts. When she looked at the profiles, or ecosystems as she calls them, by room type she saw that each type of rooms had its own unique ecosystem. That is to say, the bacterial ecosystems in all the classrooms were similar to one another, but different from the unique bacterial ecosystems found in the offices and the bathrooms.

Once she knew what kinds of bacteria were in the building, Green and her team of architects could look at how the microbes moved around within the building. They decided to check out air ducts. Like the rooms, each air duct had its own unique microbial ecosystem.

Green blocked off the airways of certain classrooms to see how that might change their microbial ecosystems. “When we walked into those rooms, they smelled really bad, and our data suggests that it had something to do with leaving behind airborne bacterial soup from the people the day before.” Imagine those people were sick and had introduced new bacteria into that ecosystem. That could make for really foul bacteria soup the next day.

Rooms designed with what is called sustainable passive design did not have the same problem. Sustainable passive designs are energy efficient ways to create comfortable environments without the use of machines. Opening a window is an overly simplified example of a passive design, while turning on an air conditioner is an example of active design. By understanding how the bacterial ecosystems work within a building, ecologists, engineers, and architects can start designing for them.Image

“If we can design the invisible ecosystems in our surroundings, this opens a path to influencing our health in unprecedented ways,” said Green. Indeed, Green is part of The Hostpital Microbiome Project, which in name alone seems to reference this idea of bacterial ecosystems. The Hospital Microbiome Project details in its first report, the need to understand how pathogens and infections spread throughout hospitals. Among other things, the report articulates the need to determine if some pathogens and infections are airborne.

If they are? My guess is Green would say, “Let’s redesign for that!”

All the quote above are from Green’s 2013 TED talk. To hear the full TED Talk: 

Catherine West Approaches Climate Change in a New Way

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Catherine West and her research assistant stand atop a midden on Chirikof Island, Alaska. This will become one of five excavation sites for West’s 2013 research. (Photo by Patrick Saltonstall, Alutiiq Museum)

Catherine West is not looking to the future when it comes to climate change- she’s looking back. About 5,000 years back, at archeological evidence left behind by the Alutiiq people who once occupied Chirikof Island, Alaska.

Historically, diets can show what food resources were available to a population. Leftovers from last nights dinner (however many thousands of years ago) were discarded on the landscape or in pits by the Alutiiq hunter/gatherer society. In some cases the leftovers build up over time. Archeologists like West can look at these pits, or middens, and create a record of what people ate and what resources were available to them.

Excavating middens is a bit like sorting through the trash. Exposed to the elements or other variables, the contents of the pits can decompose.

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Catherine West and her team excavate middens on Kodiak Island neighboring Chirikof Island, Alaska. (Photo by Patrick Staltonstall, Alutiiq Museum)

But not everything rots.

Fragments of bones and shells, and in well-preserved middens sometimes hair and oil, are left behind. And “what’s left behind is what I have to interpret,” said Dr. West, of Boston University.

West spent ten days on the uninhabited Chirikof Island this past summer looking at middens left sometime in the past 5,000 years by the Alutiiq people.

Mostly, West looks at the bones. First she sorts them out into marine mammal, fish and birds, and then she identifies them. Eventually she will send them to the lab to be radiocarbon dated.

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Chatherine West sifts through dirt from a midden on Kodiak Island, Alaska. She is looking for human waste remains like bones or shells. (Photo by Patrick Saltonstall, Alutiiq Museum)

After identifying and aging the bones, West can start to create a timeline of which resources were being used by hunter/gatherer societies at certain times throughout the past.

Further lab tests look at nitrogen and oxygen within the bones, which can provide clues about what an animal ate and whether its diet consisted of terrestrial or marine prey. This is a whole other depth to the information scientists can extrapolate from these middens. Using this information, West can  retroactively piece together historic food webs.

As West fills in more information about the food webs, she can start to look for shifts in resources that are available to or used by the Alutiiq people. Also, she can compare what scientists already know about historic climate shifts to what she knows the Alutiiq people were eating at that time.  She can start to answer questions about whether or not climate change affects the diets/resources of these people.

Her task is not a small one.

“The major gap that we see now is that there are a lot of these long term records,” said West. “We have huge animal bone records from around the world, we have lots of climate proxies for the past in the archeological record, we know a lot about contemporary environmental conditions- but the connection between the past and the present has not been made very successfully by a lot of people.”

That’s why West went to Chirokof Island this summer- to see if she can find the connection between the past and the present. Once she does, she can start asking bigger questions like: “can I apply those long term records to contemporary environmental questions?”

The answer: only time will tell.

The Birth of My Blog

Ironically, this all started because of Bill Nye.  If it weren’t for his Dancing With The Stars (DWTS) debut, I would not be sitting in my pajamas thinking about women in science.

But here I sit, at my computer with my yellow sweater snug around my shoulders and my hair in a messy braid. Two decent (but not great) story ideas are at the tips of my fingers. All I have to do is push down on those fated keys. But I can’t.

In the afterglow of Nye’s first DWTS performance, my good friend Mark directed my attention toward a not-so-flattering blog by Jennifer Welsh. Among many things, Welsh asserts that Nye’s performance was “bad for science” because he doesn’t portray scientists as the everyday people that they are- he embodies the glasses-wearing, beaker-loving, white-man stereotype of science. She even goes so far as to claim, “that [nerdy, white-guy] stereotype is what’s holding women back from science,” citing an article from GeekWire (which is actually reviewing a scholarly article written by Sapna Cheryan of the University of Washington and published in Sex Roles’ July 2013 issue).

So that got me to thinking about women in science. Are women being held back?

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics February 2013 report 47.3% of the people working in life, physical and social science occupations in 2011 were women. Not too shabby.WIS

There are even some disciplines where women have made some inroads: 45.9% of chemists and materials scientists, 48.2% of biological scientists, 54.4% of medical scientists and a whopping 71.2% of psychologists were women.

On the other hand, some careers (conservation scientists and foresters, atmospheric and space scientists, astronomers and physicists) have so few women in them, the percentage could only be marked by a dash.

Clearly there is a bit of a disparity. So who is responsible for filling the holes?

Geekwire may have our answer:

“Our message is not that the people in computer science need to change,” she [Sapna Cheryan] said here. “It’s a marketing issue. When students think of computer science, they think of all these stereotypes that are not accurate. If we could expose students to what computer scientists are really like and all the varied and interesting things they do, we can have a positive effect on participation in the field.”

Exposure. That’s what I take away from this. If women sit back and remove ourselves from sight, all that is left to look at is the stereotype. We shouldn’t point fingers and say, “that is what we’re not.” We need to step forward and say, “this is what we are.”

As I move forward with this blog, I have no intention of asking what it’s like to be a woman in the scientific field. My intension is only to show. I plan on stepping forward, making women more visible, and showcasing the wonderful work that they do in science.