Wednesday, March 24, 2010

This Is What A Scientist Looks Like // Happy Ada Lovelace Day!

Today is Internet-wide Ada Lovelace Day, a day of blogging about women in technology and in science. 

From the official website:
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace was born on 10th December 1815, the only child of Lord Byron and his wife, Annabella. Born Augusta Ada Byron, but now known simply as Ada Lovelace, she wrote the world’s first computer programmes for the Analytical Engine, a general-purpose machine that Charles Babbage had invented.
I decided to pledge to participate after seeing a post on Google Buzz from one of my favorite scientists in the whole wide world.

On the title of this post: Since the first time I saw a "This Is What A Feminist Looks Like" shirt back in college (is it weird that I never saw one 'til college?), the idea of challenging stereotypes of what a _____ looks like has stuck with me. The idea that a ____ can look like anything/anyone-- I wish someone had told me that when sixteen-year-old-me was trying to "look like a lesbian" by wearing Dickies and A-shirts all the time (it didn't really work).

When I thought about who I'd write about for Ada Lovelace Day, it was my friend Diane Kim who immediately popped into my mind. 

There she is to the left. Pretty fly, don'tcha think? (Didn't you know that scientists are sexy? Someone started a blog just to document them!)

I'm excited about this profile of Diane for Ada Lovelace Day because she is yet another example of how scientists and academics are not, by default, cloistered in their ivory towers. Diane is engaged in organizing for marriage equality, has come out to Tuesday Night Cafe, and even found time to do a cameo on That's What She Said.

Diane's research has taken her to Guaymas, Mexico (she went by ship, unlike me), New Zealand, even Antarctica, but she remains firmly connected to her communities outside of science.

So, let's meet her!

Who are you and what do you do, Diane?

I’m a graduate student in the Marine Environmental Biology section at USC.  My research centers around characterizing plankton communities at and near the base of marine food webs.  I’m interested in understanding community dynamics under changing environmental conditions and what that means on a functional level in the ecosystem.  

How'd you decide on your field?

1)  I love being near, in, and on the ocean, so the field work involved drew me to marine biology immediately.  

2) I’m also really fascinated by the complexities of the natural world around us.  There is so much we don’t understand, and because of that, many processes or phenomena may seem random at times.  I just think it’s really awesome to be able to explain some of the seemingly randomness in the world.  

3) Microbes are cool.  When people think of marine biology, most immediately think of charismatic megafauna like dolphins, but I study marine microbial organisms, which constitute the majority of the biomass you find in the ocean.  Another fun tidbit:  ~50% of the oxygen you breathe comes from phytoplankton in the sea. Microbes are such important constituents in marine ecosystems, playing a variety of critical functional roles.  The diversity of these tiny critters of the sea is amazing too.  In fact, even with the current technology, we aren’t able to plumb the depths of diversity of microbial assemblages in many marine systems.  And have you ever looked at plankton under the scope?  They have such unique and beautiful morphological features that, I guarantee, will blow your mind.  

What are your top three concerns as a (queer) woman in your field? How does the number of women in your field compare with other sciences?

1.  I think that the ratio of male to female is very skewed toward male students for some fields like engineering, but it’s about 1:1 in my department, which is pretty typical in biology.  When you get higher up the academic tier though, the ratio becomes highly skewed toward male faculty members even in biology. 
So that is definitely one concern.  Where did all the female graduate students go??

What’s encouraging and really inspiring is that there are programs specifically designed to promote women in science and engineering like the WiSE program at USC.  Among other opportunities, the program provides roundtable discussions with distinguished female scientists in various fields of study to interact in roundtable discussions with female (and male) graduate students, so that we can hear and learn about the success stories of other female scientists.

2.  I love that there is so much encouragement and support for fostering more women in science, but with that I have this irrational fear that we’ll be given more ‘slack’ for things because of it.

3.  I’m trying to think of concerns I have as a queer woman in my field, and can’t really think of any.  Just about everyone I meet in academia is pretty liberal and very open-minded. 

What else occupies your daily grind, other than the science-y stuff?

I’m a steering committee member of KUE (Korean-Americans United for Equality), which is a grass-roots organization that is organizing efforts to 1) create a safe space for queer Koreans and 2) to educate the general Korean-American community regarding LGBTQI issues.  For more info, email 

I also love to work on and ride my bike, catch a little BSG, hike, swim at the beach and stay connected with friends and family.

Of course, I have to ask: What are your top 3 favorite things about Los Angeles? (Can be anything-- places, things, concepts, events, anything!)

1.  I love the diversity of ethnic restaurants in LA.  Can’t live without it.  Thai one day, Korean another, Ethiopian the next.  Does it get any better than that?

2.  Family and friends, definitely.

3.  I love LA’s potential.  The potential to become more queer friendly, the potential to become greener and cleaner, etc.  So much to get involved in.

4.  I love the fact that I can go boarding one day, head out to the beach the next day, and have perfect conditions for both.

5.  Summers are always great because of concert season.  Love love love live shows.

6.  You really can’t beat the weather here.

Oh, you said 3, didn’t you..oops.  love it here too much. 

Any other comments on being a woman in science?

Something a distinguished female scientist in my field said to a bunch of us recently: There is no one formula to have a successful career in science. You can do it the way men do it and be great, but you can also do it the way you want to do it and become just as successful if not more. Women have different things to deal with than men sometimes and vice versa, individuals all have unique circumstances and challenges. Just because you don’t fit the cookie-cutter, doesn’t mean you won’t make one delicious cookie.

[emphases and links added by me]

Diane is, indeed, "one delicious cookie." Isn't she dashing standing next to this rather large piece of equipment? I don't think I've ever seen her in a lab-coat. This is what a scientist looks like!

Happy Ada Lovelace Day, everyone! To ever more delicious cookies in science!

(Thanks so much, Di, for letting me put you on blast on the internets! <3)


  1. ahhh this was so cute! and informative to read.

  2. One thing that is worth mentioning vis a vis ratios for women of Asian descent in particular is that while Asian women are proportionally represented overall in nearly every single STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) field, if you look at where they are distributed, Asian women are overrepresented in lower ranks and underrepresented higher up.

    This is a unique trend that appears to be unique to Asian American women. I have a bunch of documentation about this wandering around my apartment somewhere from my trip to the NSF Symposium on Women of Color in STEM . . .