What Happens When You Read Science Writing by Women

On December 30, 2018, I posted a note on my women’s science writers’ group on Facebook. “What’s your favorite story that you wrote in 2018? Post it here and I will read it, tweet it, and tag you.” 

I shared my own favorite story, “‘Elderly Woman’ Is Not a Synonym for Clueless Person,” or, as I originally titled it, “All the Scientists Named Myrtle,” which I wrote for Scientific American nearly a year ago. Then I activated my Self-Control app, which blocks me from seeing Facebook for the next 24 hours. (I prefer not to fall into Facebook’s yawning maw more than once a day.)

When I returned to Facebook the following evening, about 45 of my sister science writers had shared their stories. I had expected five or 10, but I wasn’t daunted, and started reading with enthusiasm. Over the next two weeks, I read about self-assembling robots based on ant behavior, a medieval warrior whose right forearm and hand were amputated and replaced with a knife-ended prosthesis, the “bioprinting” of 3-D “liver organoids,” and the volunteer monitors in Iceland who are tracking the retreat of the country’s glaciers. I read about the strangely human messages we send to aliens, tree-munching white-rot fungi, the Persian leopards that roam the Zagros Mountains of Kurdistan, and the Delta smelt, a small fish that has high odds of becoming the first fish to go extinct in the wild while under the protection of the federal Endangered Species Act.

Why did I volunteer to embark on this reading project? I wasn’t entirely disinterested. I had anticipated that some readers of the post would share my “Aunt Myrtle” story, and that I would probably gain some new Twitter followers, both of which happened. But I also felt it would be a public service to highlight stories by women science writers. Back in 2014, a Science survey of the “Top 50 Science Stars of Twitter,” found that “of the 50 most followed scientists, only four are women.” More recently, of the 584 science and technology stories written during 2017 for The Conversation, an independent source of news and views from the academic research community, 72 percent were written by men and only 28 percent by women

Then, in early January 2019, Allison Coffin, a professor of neuroscience at Washington State University in Vancouver who describes herself as “passionate about #science and #scicomm,” posted a tweet, asking, “Hey #sciencetwitter! I’m teaching a #scicomm class and just polled my students to ask them about their favorite science communicator. Some didn’t have one, but for those who gave a specific name, all but one named a man. Ugh.” Her question, “Who’s your favorite female in #scicomm?” generated 797 responses. 

As one of those nominated (thank you, #ScienceTwitter) I agree that it’s important to follow female science communicators, but I also think it’s important to share their stories on a regular basis. Reading self-nominated favorite science stories was also an interesting learning experience for me, leading me to stories that otherwise I would have ignored. They included Kristen French’s story in Wired about D.J. Soto, a pastor who runs his own virtual-reality church, and others that took me out of my comfort zone. As a mother of twins, I wasn’t entirely at ease reading Wudan Yan’s article about Les U. Knight, the leader of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement—VHEMT (pronounced “vehement”) for short — a worldwide crusade for people who have voluntarily decided not to have children. 

But I had another motive, as well. As a rather-too-avid user of Twitter, I have noticed, as I am sure others have, that Twitter and other social media tend to prioritize viral stories, so that we see the same articles and videos posted over and over again by people we don’t even follow. I wanted to read the non-viral stories, and I wanted to give a shout-out to writers whose stories had slid under the radar, and especially to women writers. So I read and shared almost every story that my fellow science writers posted, minus a couple that were published behind a paywall, and including another 10 or so stories that writers added as I went along. It was great fun, and almost every story was a gem.

I have to admit to some personal favorites. For Neo.Life, Anna Nowogrodzki wrote about the Make the Breast Pump Not Suck Hackathon, a project to develop a better breast pump—a device, Nowogrodzki writes, that is “clunky, loud, and uncomfortable, with lots of small parts that are hard to clean and easy to accidentally leave at home.” I could heartily endorse this endeavor, as I’ve written about my own extreme efforts to pump breast-milk for my preemie twins, an experience both tedious and ridiculous. In a marvelous story for National Geographic, Fehmida Zakeer wrote about Turkish-born astrophysicist Burçin Mutlu-Pakdil, who discovered a new, rare type of galaxy and had it named for her: Burçin’s galaxy. For Mother Jones, Melinda Wenner Moyer wrote about how the U.S. health care system is failing children with “medically complex” issues, and how their families dedicate themselves to keeping their children alive. And in Yes! magazine, Tasha Williams described how entire black communities suffer collective trauma after police shootings of unarmed African-Americans. 

The range of stories was wide, and they were published everywhere from The Washington Post to modest blogs. In the course of those two weeks, I learned about the 90 percent of patients who had “penicillin allergy” listed on their medical charts who have no such allergy at all. I read about climate change in Iceland, climate change in Greenland, and ReClam The Bay, a project to increase coastal resilience by seeding New Jersey’s Barnegat Bay-Little Egg Harbor estuary with clams. I read about cryopreservation of ovaries for girls who survive cancer. I read about Monsanto’s pesticide dicamba, which is destroying millions of acres of crops worth millions of dollars, and whose use was extended in 2018 by the Environmental Protection Agency, despite warnings by scientists and extensive research that showed dicamba would evaporate into the air and ruin crops miles away. 

All of these are important stories, and I had not seen any of them previously despite my wide reading habits, including a subscription to the international New York Times and The New Yorker, membership of Medium, and daily scanning of headlines in The Guardian and Haaretz. So I want to make a plea to my fellow science writers, and to anyone else reading this: When you read a good science story by a woman writer, share it. Also: tag the author. Do this at least once a week. Because it’s just good to know that we are not shouting into the void.



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