Bio_Info REU Day 1


Monday I found myself in a conference room on the tenth floor of the Life Sciences building, listening to my post-doc advisor explain his most recent project. Hundreds of issues of Nature and Science covered the bookshelves, and a wall of windows overlooked the Charles, Harvard, MIT, and the “infamous CITGO sign.”


10th Floor LSEB

My post-doc said something that I was acutely aware was meant to be a joke. The biology reference went over my head, but I pretended to laugh anyway to ease the awkward.

I took notes while he was talking to me, but most of them consisted of things I was too embarrassed to ask about:

  • What does SSN stand for?
    sequence similarity network, not social security number
  • What’s the workflow?
    the order in which you run big programs? sort of?
  • What does “PI” stand for?
    principle investigator, aka the head of the lab. not 3.14159

I only have a NYS 10th-grade knowledge of biology. Yet this is the second time I’ve decided for some reason to join a bioinformatics research group.

For both projects, the first day has been the same: someone with a PhD in a biology-related field explains to me what they are working on while I try to keep my brain from exploding. It always makes me wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.

Last fall, on the first day I met the Hungarian neuroscientists, for example, I spent the entire 2-hour research meeting thinking they were studying this phenomenon called SHARK wave ripples instead of SHARP wave ripples. I thought that was cute, and totally saw the resemblance between the SWR pattern and a shark fin in the ocean:

Drawing Space II (1)

(to be fair, their Hungarian accent was really thick)
These kinds of experiences make me worry that I don’t belong here, that I’m not going to be able to help with the project, that I will be annoyingly slow– IMPOSTOR syndrome.
I try to remember that this is an REU and the point of it is for me to learn. I’ve already been handed a textbook and five papers to read through! That should be a start!

Reblog: Parable of the Polygons


Screen Shot 2014-12-12 at 19.10.12

If you haven’t seen it yet, you should stop reading this blog right now and go check out Parable of the Polygons!

It’s a project created by Vi Hart and Nicky Case called a “playable blog post.” It’s a sort-of game, sort-of blog post, sort-of math modelling presentation, sort-of social comment.

The interactive post focuses on the issues and segregation that occur when even just a small amount of “shapism” exists in society. The post is incredibly relevant to the current events regarding racism in the States, but also successfully comments on any sexism/size-ism/homophobia/etc.

The thing about the Parable of the Polygons that I think is really amazing is how universal the game is. It’s very appropriate for kids and schools, yet the “cuteness” of the shapes and demos does not make it too young for adults. It’s interesting for mathematicians and scientists since it takes a data-driven look at society, yet is no where near too dense for non-STEM individuals. And, although the post has been public for less than a week, it has already been translated into five languages by volunteers!

I also love that it brings together mathematics and humanities, something that is a relatively new and exciting interdisciplinary frontier. The interactive blog post is a good example of how powerful mathematics can be when applied to a topic you won’t think it apt. Vi Hart says:

[I]f there’s two subjects that get a really defensive and hateful reaction, it’s mathematics and social justice, so we figured we’d do them both at once.
(Vi Hart on her blog)

Go check it out! What do you think?

A Few Other News/Blog Posts on the Parable of the Polygons (because it is getting a lot of attention!):

Why I edit Wikipedia, Three Reasons:


(1) Because I want to.

I think this is the most important reason, really. I find editing and being a “Wikipedian” fun! Wikipedia is generally one of the first links that comes up in a Google search for anything, and is the first link many people click to get quick information.Screen Shot 2014-12-02 at 13.30.45

It’s really exciting for me to think that when someone does a web search they are looking at information I’ve added, sentences I’ve copyedited, and photos I’ve taken!

(2) Because of Living in Hungary.

Being in Hungary has opened my eyes to just how dependant on the Internet I am.

Back home in the States, if there’s something I don’t know, I Google it. The opening hours of the teahouse down the street? Google it. The formula I need for my physics homework? Google it. The winner of yesterday’s midterm elections? Google it.IMG_0713

Here, in Hungary, there have been so many times when I have tried to find information I need that simply doesn’t exist online. The chances of a webpage both existing and being accessible in English for a store or cultural attraction in Budapest are quite low. The best information tends to come from second-hand sites such as budapestbylocals or TripAdvisor. Otherwise, you have to get your information the “old-fashioned” way: by going to the store and reading the sign for their opening hours, etc. While I expect every “mom & pop shop” in the States to have a webpage, it’s an exception in Budapest if that’s the case.

Further, while trying to learn about monuments, history, and culture of Hungary, the information just isn’t there on English webpages the way it is for American culture. In particular, the Wikipedia pages for Hungarian topics, if they even exist, are severely lacking in information in English.

Compare the Wikipedia page for St. Stephen’s Basicialla  in Budapest, cited as the third-largest church in Hungary, to St. Paul’s in London. The article on St. Stephen’s is tiny, and frankly, not very helpful or informative. It shouldn’t be the case that I can’t get information on St. Stephen’s online, just because the basicialla exists in a country where I do not speak the language.

I realised that Hungary is something I know about and care about that most people don’t. So I do the opposite of what I would do back home: instead of searching about someplace before visiting it (since it won’t be helpful), I  go on Wikipedia after I’ve visited and update the page with the information I’ve learned and photos I’ve taken.

I love this city and this country, and I want to help make it more accessible to other English-speakers.

(3) Because of the Gender Gap.

For me, simultaneously editing Wikipedia and lessening the Gender Gap is just sort of a cool side-effect.


Image: “Mind the gap1” by London Student Feminists

As of 2011, it was estimated that only about 11% of Wikipedia editors identified as female (Cohen, Define Gender Gap?…). This is a serious problem because the content that is available on Wikipedia is completely reflective of the volunteer editors who take the time to add it. If the editors are primarily male, then the information is skewed to what men stereotypically know about. This is unacceptable for an online encyclopedia which is consistently one of the top ten most-visited websites in the world.

I think Wikipedia is really cool, and I’ve realised there are so many places where my knowledge, experiences, and interests are helpful to the online community. For me, I think it’s sort of similar to blogging, related in the way where blogging is like the op-ed section of a newspaper while Wikipedia editing is more fact-based journalism.

If you want to start getting into Wikipedia editing, I highly recommend trying the Wikipedia Adventure game. It’s a little bit silly, overly cute, and has some bugs, but it’s a fun and simple interactive way to learn the basics of the Wikipedia syntax as well as the rules and regulations of Wikipedia culture.

“I’m a woman in tech. That doesn’t mean everything has to be pink.”


I originally wrote this post on August 9, 2014, but unfortunately just got around to editing and publishing it now:

I recently listened to the New Tech City podcast episode “Mindy Kaling, Girly Girls, and the Future of Tech.” To use a phrase given by the dissenting opinion on the episode, it made me cringe.

The episode was about the attempt to get more girls involved in computer programming by “meeting them where they are”–aka by pink-ifying, glitter-ifying, and pony-ifying computer programming. By making it seem **glamorous** to 8-16 year old girls.

Now, I completely agree that we need more women in tech (I wrote my entire gender studies final on the subject last semester), and I’m also all for diversifying the stereotype of what a typical programmer/scientist/mathematician looks like. I hope that soon when someone thinks of one they do not always imagine an old, antisocial, white man with glasses and a pocket protector.

So it’s totally awesome to want to encourage “girly girls” into the sciences. But I guess what my concern is about is this idea of “meeting them where they are”– because they’re not all there. My concern is about losing the middle ground. I think we need to make sure we are not only attracting the girly girls, but also actively encouraging the tomboys and the not-quite-so-girly and the “my favorite color is orange and I like to play softball” girls into the sciences.

Think about the concept of intersectionality, which focuses on an individual’s multiple identities, made famous by Kimberlé Crenshaw in the ’80s. Her emphasis at that time was on the African American WOMEN’s unique set of struggles that cannot be addressed by either the feminist movement or the Civil Rights movement alone. By being part of not one, but two distinct minorities, the complex identity created at the intersection of these two separate identities carries extra weight.

Consider the not-so-girly girl. She likes math. Her favorite subject is chemistry (and no one had to trick her into it!). With this influx of girl-focused programming initiatives, you’re going to lose her.

As referenced on the podcast episode, many boys get involved in computer science because they love video games. She doesn’t. Yet still if you send her an invitation to Google’s “pink lemonade” girl coding gala, she’s not going to be excited about it. The other girls already make fun of her because she doesn’t want a boyfriend, she doesn’t wear makeup, and she likes to ask for the “boy” toy in her McDonald’s Happy Meal. She’s not like them. How is she going to get into coding? She is seeing that if you are a boy, there’s a place for you in the sciences, and if you’re a very feminine girl, there’s a place for you in the sciences. She’s falling through the cracks.

I’m concerned that her intersection of identities–being a girl, but not a girly-girl– is creating extra weight and thus making it more difficult for her to peruse a career in the sciences. Which is ironic because she ought to be easy to encourage– she already likes the subjects.

Bringing more women into the sciences is an excellent and admirable goal. Just make sure there is space left for those of us women who are already standing outside the door, waiting to be welcomed by the still male-dominated STEM world.


“If you are eve…


“If you are ever affiliated with a male mentor, their reputation seems to dominate over your career achievements at some level. Over time, I’ve learned how to stand up and speak for myself.”
–Dr. Lillian Hsu, Biochem

A quote from one of the Science Week lectures, on the challenges of being a woman in science.

I had never actually thought about this problem that Dr. Hsu brought up. She gave us a few examples of times when her male mentors were getting credit for work she had primarily done, or times when her male mentors were getting excessive credit for “making her as successful as she was.”

I can imagine this might be a subconscious showing of sexism: individuals thinking they are complimenting the mentor, not realizing they are also de-crediting the mentee in the process.


Women & Gender & Science, Oh My!


What have I been up to?

Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking on the topic of gender and STEM (Science Tech Engineering and Mathematics).

Aside from math, gender studies is one of the major subjects that I really enjoy. For those of you who may not know– gender studies has replaced the women’s studies departments at many colleges/universities. It is a study of both femininity and masculinity, as well as everything in between. One of the main ideas is that you cannot really talk about what it means to be a women without also talking about what it means to be a man and vice versa.

I am taking an intro gender studies course right now, and get to write my final research paper on a topic of my choice. Since gender studies is interdisciplinary, we were encouraged to focus on an area directly related to our other interests. Not surprisingly, I chose to look at the intersection between gender and math/science.

For some reason, when I began to think about what my thesis for this paper would be, I thought I wouldn’t actually be that interested in the subject of women and STEM… I was way wrong. I absolutely love the topic and am having a difficult time stopping my research so I can actually, you know, write my paper!

My paper is short– I’m analyzing a specific definition of “feminist science” that was given in an article we read for the class this semester– but I want to keep reading on all topics related to gender and science. It absolutely fascinates me.

Since I go to a women’s college, I don’t face day-to-day difficulties about my choice of major. But I know I have, and I will. Beginning my research for this paper has reminded me why I chose a women’s college in the first place and I am excited to continue learning about the topic.

Coincidentally (which worked out quite well for me), this week was “Science Week” at my college… which, at a woman’s college, really means “Women in Science Week.” As part of that, I was able to attend three different public lectures on the topic.

I will continue to blog and post in more detail about those lectures and my paper, but for now I’ll leave you with a quote from one of the professors I was able to hear speak:

“What is it like to be a woman in the sciences? Well, I haven’t done the control experiment! I look at the world through a woman’s eyes. I don’t know anything else.”

She made me laugh at that first part. :) She went on to tell us about some of her experiences of discrimination faced as a female scientist, but also just wanted us to know that she is who she is– she is a scientist and she loves it.