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Life Is About Women In Science

1996: I had been writing science fiction for more than a decade, without ever going near a lab. For the "Anna Senoz" novel I needed to enlist a scientist, and this was alarming. I asked someone I knew at the University of Sussex, UK, to be my matchmaker. Could he find a Molecular Biologist, preferably female, willing to talk to a scifi writer? Someone who might even let me come into a lab, and be a fly on the wall? Eventually, Dr Jane Davies agreed to see me. One morning in November, I approached Dr Davies’s office door. I thought I'd state my case, go away and wait for her decision. I was concerned because I would have to talk about feminism right away, or I'd be under false pretences. In my experience successful professional women were very wary of that word. It's demeaning.

I saw a woman in a white coat, a few years older than myself; with a warm smile. I stumbled through my intro and then, Dr Davies showing no signs of impatience; unprepared and probably babbling, I began to tell my story-

"Anna isn't interested in sexual politics. Or any kind of politics. She's not anti-feminist, she'd say she just wants to be treated like a human being. She's secretly, wildly ambitious. She’s heading for a First but she gets derailed, by bad luck involving a male student who probably resents her talent. She ends up in human fertility studies. Then she spots something, a tiny change in a sample of male sex chromosomes, which she sees at once could have weird implications . . . I know the X and Y don't usually exchange bases, but could they? And could something like that happen, and for generations it would appear and disappear, the way I need it to do?”

I trembled every time I had to use a technical term. Mitochondria, how do you pronounce that?

"She keeps coming back to the thing she saw, losing it and finding it again, getting more and more excited. She knows it's the key to a BIG discovery, about life itself, but she also knows that the sex angle will be her downfall. It's what happens to women in science in real life. They keep running up against the sex angle. The story’s meant to be read doubly . . .

I have pages of scribbled notes from this meeting. I have no notes about my state of mind. My sense of astonished daring, my feeling that I'd entered a sanctuary, a holy place where I had never expected to tread, was no part of the interview. But it was to become part of Anna:

A transfer of material from the Y to the X?
The X and the Y don't usually exchange recombination, they're too different in shape, but there is a small area where this male donation could happen-
What's needed is a horizontal transfer
Transposons. What about transpons?
(Transposons were my big idea-)
What do you see? When that happens? A band changes in size?
Spontaneous change causes transposable elements to mobilise.
At least 10/15% of our DNA is made up of transposable elements.
They can act like viruses... She would note this change, publish a paper in "Trends in Genetics" a scientific journalist would pick it up from a database
Very bad news if your supervisor doesn't know what's in your graduate paper. If it's published without her supervisor's name, that's a crushing blow-

I hadn’t decided when my story would be set when I walked into Dr Davies' office. The near future? As we mapped out Anna's career (a game of snakes and ladders: and that's not going to change), I made an instant decision. She starts from 1996. From the here and now. She knows nothing about Seventies Feminism (She’ll have a crazy feminist friend, but she’ll never take her seriously). She's eighteen, proud and brave, and the Spice Girls have just released "Wannabe" . . .

She gets a good first degree
A science department gets a quota of grants
Your supervisor puts you on a project
For three years. It's not enough time.
The nature of lab-based science makes it impossible to survive for the fourth year. Industry sponsored studentships, for top-up grant support. Student works w. industrial partner, but no guaranteed employment.
Many supervisors use their students as technicians, you could end up without much choice of work.
In academic science you can keep going on short term contracts. But you have to have a permanent job by 35-40. Teaching, administration, grant organisation.
Publish! Publish! Publish!
Her own research is always going to have to give-

Not many young women in science will suffer all the crushing blows Anna struggles to survive; Life is fiction, a fairytale about how change, real change in the world comes about: how difficult it is for change to take root, how many false starts and dead ends litter the route (the establishment of a benign mutation has exactly the same drunkard's walk of a path) . . . But every single one of them has endured, or ignored, relentless, casual, intimidation and denigration from male fellow students, and then, most likely more of the same casual, relentless intimidation and denigration from an adult male mentor or supervisor (the case of Dr Tim Hunt's unguarded comments earlier this year is not unusual). Women are far more likely than men to be struggling from one short term contract to another, well into their thirties or forties. Experimental science is demanding, unforgiving work: it's (still) usually women who have to choose between career success and family committments. And in the face of all these obstacles, they also have to make the less obvious choice: between compliance and protest. Nobody loves a whistleblower. You're dedicated, inspired; desperate to get on. What do you do?

Sf feminists, fans and reviewers were very critical of Anna's catalogue of disasters; and of her response. Why so negative? Why doesn't she stand up for herself? It's just unbelievable! . Women in science (the women trying to change science) felt differently. In 2006 I joined an event at Hay Festival, reading from Life; as the preamble to a discussion run by Clem Herman and the pioneers of SET (women in Science Engineering and Technology). Due to a natural confusion about my role, I somehow ended up attempting to answer questions about the maths and science curricula in UK schools: I did my best.

In October 2007 I joined the same gang at the WiSER conference at Maastricht University (Get More Women Into Science Education And Research). The trifling task of giving a reading from Life earned me the right to be a fly on the wall in this terrific pop-up lab of ideas. So much to be said, so much energy, so many pathways opening for women returning to, embarking on, succeeding in, careers in Science, Engineering, Research. An inspirational young astronomer and instrument-engineer, Maggie Aderin-Pocok was there, talking about giant telescopes. I felt I was close to change; real change in the world. It was thrilling. I wrote it up for Aqueduct:

One step forward, two steps back. Change happens.

Read your copy of the latest Gender Science and Technology journal, ed Clem Herman, here:

extracts above are from a chapter called "True Life Science Fiction": Tactical BioPolitics: Art, Activism and Technoscience: eds Beatrix da Costa and Kavita Philips; MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts; July 2008


This post, the third in a series, has been brought to you by the PKDick award storybundle.


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