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random musings of a crazy cat lady

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

I expected better from NPR

As usual, I awoke to the sound of NPR this morning, when my clock radio alarm went off.  Unlike most days, the first words I heard were "bioinoganic chemist', which  made me wonder if I was still dreaming or if someone had finally started the world's first all-chemistry radio station.  (That would be awesome, incidentally).  Then I woke up more fully and listened to rest of the story.
Anyway, they were interviewing a husband and wife (Brian and Elizabeth), who are both bioinorganic chemists.  When their son was born, Elizabeth took lots of pictures and noticed "white-eye" in many of the photos.  She remembered reading that it was a sign of a type of eye tumor and stressed about it.  Initially Brian dismissed this hypothesis, and said it was their imagination, or a weird flash from the camera.  Eventually they took their son to the doctor; unfortunately, he did have the cancer and lost one eye. 
A few years later Brian (now an assistant prof) decided to see how long the white eye was showing up, and started analyzing all the baby pictures.  This eventually led to them teaming up with doctors and programmers to develop image recognition software, and published a paper on it.  This is all fine and good.  I think it's a great example of how scientists often excel in areas completely unrelated to their formal training.  I was intrigued and dug deeper and read today's NPR story, an older NPR story on it, as well as the transcript of the interview. 
That was when I started to get ragey.  From all of their statements in the interview, it sounded like 100% of a team effort.  Indeed, they are both on the paper.  Elizabeth made the initial discovery and persisted when Brian did not believe her.  Later he decided to investigate the old photos. To me, it was pretty obvious they have both put a lot of thought and effort into this.  However, you don't get any of this from either of the stories.  It's all about the genius male scientist. Even in the interview, the interviewer keeps setting up the questions as a narrative about a really smart guy who decides to solve a problem, rather than a team who of two scientists, without either of whom the research would not have been possible.  It makes absolutely no difference that she is a stay at home mom now, or that he is a professor.  They both contributed, and the fact that these sorts of stories are subject to revisionist history to fit a more familiar narrative pisses the hell out of me and makes it harder for people to recognize the true contributions of women and minorities in science.  To me, I think it makes for a far even more interesting narrative than the usual "white guy solves problem" type of story they usually run. 
Some of you may think I am imagining sexism where there is none, especially if you are young or are not a woman working in a male-dominated field.  I beg to differ.  I think it's more like when you buy a new car and suddenly see that make and model everywhere.  They were there before but now you are noticing it because now you are familiar with it. 


  1. wow, I completely failed to notice that part!

  2. I was half awake this morning and didn't notice that the interviewer totally directed most of the science questions to Brian and the baby related ones to Elizabeth. Later when I read the transcript, and the way the interviewer set things up, I was appalled. So yeah, even a cranky old biddy like me probably doesn't even notice most of the subtle sexism out there.