With Earth Day and the March for Science coming up April 22, I’ve been reflecting on how important science is to me even though I chose a career in education and writing instead of a scientific field. My family tree is rife with science types, albeit, until recently, all male.
My great grandmother’s generation produced a physician, an engineer, a naturalist, and a horticulturist. The next generation of sons boasted two renowned research scientists.
My father was a bacteriologist, and his and my mother’s generation of relatives included a physician, a college math professor, and an engineer in the U.S. and more across the pond in Finland. However, it wasn’t until my generation that any of the girls chose a scientific career.
An older relative once told me that my grandmother Angelika wanted to be a math teacher, but she was discouraged by her father, a Lutheran minister who had rigid ideas about what girls should and should not do. I don’t believe that Angelika was prohibited from pursuing a career in math. Her father’s dogma was rigid, but he was by nature a gentle man, who supported women’s rights in the context of the church, and had great affection for his children. A gentler form of sexism existed in my family as I was growing up, and I doubt that it was much different two generations earlier. Education was encouraged. Girls weren’t pushed into science and math but weren’t actively prohibited from it either. I believe she could have become a scientist or math teacher, as could have I, and the family would have been proud of us, but, taking the cues from our society, we chose more conventional female paths.
The only hard evidence I have of her predilection for math is that among the memorabilia she chose to save from her life is her high school physics notebook from LaConner High School, 1907-08. I have scanned the notebook many times, admiring the neat handwriting and illustrations and wondering if she felt the lever pull in a scientific direction.
The hardback notebook cover is faded black, triple punched and held together with shoelaces. It contains descriptions of 99 experiments and demonstrations covering the principles of physics—conduction, gravity, porosity, inertia, gears, levers, magnetism, electricity, etc. Unique to the time period are the charging of a Leyden jar, description of a steam engine, an arc light experiment, and the operation of a telegraph. I’m impressed not only by my grandmother’s work, but by that of the teacher who outfitted the lab with extensive apparatus and supplies probably at his own expense, set up at least three experiments or demonstrations per week for the nine students in her senior class, and was likely responsible for all the math and science courses in the school as well.
After high school, my grandmother went to college for two years and then returned with plans to teach in the local school. Soon, however, she was engaged to my grandfather, a farmer, and she decided that the career of farm wife would be hers. Her two brothers had illustrious careers as researchers. Most famously, Uncle Hilding conducted an experiment with cow’s lungs, which he acquired fresh from the local slaughterhouse and hooked up to a cigarette smoking machine. He then dissected the lungs and documented how tar accumulated in spaces without cilia. His work was featured in Life Magazine and cited in the Surgeon General’s Report on Smoking in 1964. Uncle Rubert’s research spanned work on enzymes, the effects of radiation, and photoluminescence. Angelika kept scrapbooks of her brothers’ scientific achievements and awards, and, since they were her personal heroes, they became ours as well.
Angelika’s interest in science extended beyond admiration for her brothers, however. Her letters demonstrate a more than casual interest in weather, nature, and the condition of the crops. Her neat vegetable garden, the rows of canned fruits and vegetables on the shelf in the basement, and her careful accounting of the profits and losses on the farm portray a mind that could have been a scientist’s.
In high school, I, too, thought of becoming a math teacher. Math came easily to me, and I would have been happy to defy the gender conventions of the time. But the way the science classes were taught did nothing to spark my interest. In my high school biology and chemistry courses, we didn’t have near the exposure to lab experiments that my grandmother had in 1908. If we witnessed one experiment a week, I’d be surprised. We learned from reading about experiments and theories and proofs, not doing them. With the answers on the next page or the back of the textbook, the experiments didn’t exactly prod my curiosity; it was easier to look up the answer than to do the careful weighing, mixing, dissecting, and documenting just to come to the same conclusion. At the same time, in Advanced Algebra, I grew bored of looking up the logarithms in the back of the book, and, inspired by a great English teacher, fell in love with literature instead.
I found my way into science the back way through love of nature. Like my grandmother, I found a calling in the garden. Experimenting with plants comes naturally to me from real questions in my mind where the book answers don’t always turn out to be true.
Last year, I did an experiment with tomato starts to see what soil mix would work best. I compared the results of using my favorite mix, OBC, to that of used potting soil, enriched with compost and activated charcoal, and I posted photos of the plants weekly to our local gardening Facebook group. The experiment was going quite well until I started to feel sorry for the poor tomatoes in the used potting soil, which were doing very poorly, and started giving them extra doses of fertilizer. Who wants to waste perfectly good tomato plants anyway?
I have also been tempted to join “citizen science” projects from time to time. Years ago, the National Gardening Association would send you free seeds if you planted them and kept track of the results. I always tried my best to follow the instructions, but controlling for variables in a backyard garden was beyond my calling and I always felt a little sheepish about my haphazard records.
Lately, I decided to give it one more try and signed up for another citizen science project: backyard bird feeder counting with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. I’d already been documenting the birds that came to the feeders, so I thought I might as well participate. Unfortunately, it was midwinter before I read the directions, and it turned out they wanted to know how long you watch the feeders each day, the weather conditions, and how many of each species showed up. I hadn’t been keeping track of all that, and I didn’t think I could count birds of a species accurately anyway. How do you count the number of juncos present when they are flitting around into and behind bushes, up to the feeder, on the ground and in the tree? Especially, in the midst of chickadees, towhees, sparrows, and finches doing much the same thing? The feeder watch program runs from November to April, so I recently did the best I could at filling out the info and sent it in.
I also enjoy reading about science. Among the science-themed books I’ve read lately are Lab Girl by Hope Jahren, I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong, The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman. Sometimes I feel like the natural world is talking back to me through these writers, calling out its marvels in vivid language, and changing the way I interact with trees, birds, and even my body. I read these books for the big ideas, letting go of the details I won’t remember anyway. The devil, to me, is still those damn logarithms in the back of the algebra book.
I’m quite sure if Angelika or I had been born male, we would have been pushed toward scientific paths and been happy in our work. Two of my female second cousins, born 10 or more years after me, chose science careers, and the following generation sports several more. Among my network of friends and family are women who are researchers, doctors, nurses, audiologists, naturalists, engineers, psychologists, farmers, nature writers, educators, and science aficionados like myself who appreciate the great work that others do.
I will walk in the March for Science on April 22 in honor of those scientists, past and present, female and male, in my family and among my friends, and for the science writers I know only through their books. Also, I’ll walk for Angelika and all those other female could-have-been scientists and mathematicians who cheered them on.