2010-08-17 08:13 pm
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Traveling for SCIENCE!

Ok, a post just under the wire!

At some point in your graduate science career, you will travel for science. This has been on my mind, as I have done a LOT of travel for science this summer: more than 50% of my time. (My poor cat!) Traveling for science can be very rewarding, absolutely soul-sucking, both, or anywhere in-between. My hope in this post is to give some advice about how to maximize happiness while traveling for SCIENCE!

First: paying for it. Since you are lucky enough to be in science grad school, your advisor probably has money in their grant specifically for paying for travel for you. Hooray! However, you should be clear up front with your advisor about who pays what when, if you have to go through a travel office, whether you have a per diem (a certain amount of money per day for food and lodging) or you have to have receipts for food and lodging, what your budget is, if you ought to have a roommate, etc. For example, I have a deal with my advisor that if I want to take some vacation around my travel (e.g. stay an extra couple of days to do sightseeing or visit friends or whatever) the airfare can't be more than if I just went for the days of the trip. It usually works for me, and I've gotten quite good at the "go somewhere, see an old friend on the school's dime" game. Regardless, keep your receipts, your boarding passes, and hotel bills.

Furthermore, if your advisor doesn't have money, there are lots of travel grants out there. Often conferences and summer schools will have scholarship money, or your department or university may have grants, or your professional organization. There's lots of money out there! Use it!

And, seriously. Do your travel reimbursement within a week of coming back. Your wallet and your brain will be way happier.

Second: conferences/intensive schools/collaboration meetings. I'm not going to talk a lot about what you should do during a conference, as I think that varies a lot by discipline/size of the conference. However, traveling to a conference can be quite different than traveling for other reasons. Basically, I have to keep an eye on myself, more so than if I am at home. For me the hardest part about conferences is the fact that time can be quite heavily scheduled, and I'm used to having a lot of freedom in my day. So I have to be sure to make time to be by myself, calm down, and breathe. Also, eating out all the time tends to throw off my digestive system, so I have to be a lot more careful about what I eat. On the other hand, I get the most value out of conferences at meals, getting to talk to people more closely, and meet new people, so it's a balancing act.

I also think that trying to see some of the city where the conference is is a great idea. Ask the organizers, or better yet, the grad students of the organizers; they live there and can tell you the best things to do. Sometimes they'll even offer to take you to see things. After all, all work and no play...makes for a really sucky week.

Third: traveling to another lab/facility. Sometimes (or in some disciplines, like mine, almost certainly) you will need to travel to another facility to use some equipment, install some parts, assist another group, etc. Be a good guest. No, really. BE A GOOD GUEST. Obey your hosts' regulations on safety, training, ID, etc. Also, be clear on what those regulations are before you go. Do you need proof of citizenship/radiation training/biohazard training/whatever? Get it done before you go. Leave lab space that is not your own cleaner than you found it. Be prepared. Have a plan for the work you want to accomplish and how you are going to do it. Discuss your plan with your hosts before you get there. They will know if something is unreasonable. This will save a lot of frustration. Trips like this often mean very, very long work hours. Set boundaries for yourself. (Seriously. Don't work 18 hours a day. Just. Don't.)

Again, take care of yourself. Try to eat well. Schedule time to unwind a little. See interesting things around the area. I like to try to keep a schedule as much like my home schedule as possible; I like to try to stay somewhere with a kitchen, as cooking is something that feeds me cheaply and keeps me calm. You can often find twoish week sublets on Craigslist in major urban area—or even if it's for a month, it'll be cheaper than a hotel for two weeks.

If you have guests visiting your lab, be nice to them. Tell them the fun things to do in your area. Help them get the supplies they need. Help them navigate your local bureaucracy.

Fourth: be prepared for reentry, particularly if you've been away for awhile. Getting back into your rhythm can be hard. I like to come home on Saturdays, so I can relax, see friends, and do my laundry on Sunday. Then I'm ready to go on Monday. If I can't do that, I often work only the afternoon the day after I come back. Also, I find it helpful to make a report on my travels. If I went to a conference/school, I'll make notes on interesting talks. If I was doing lab-related travel, I'll make notes on what I got done, any results, and the status of my project. Then I present this at the next lab meeting. It makes you look fantastic to your advisor, and it's a great way to keep track of what you learned on your trip.

Lastly, and this is not relevant in every situation, but I've been through some hell with it: be prepared to encounter culture not your own. Now, this is true of every kind of travel (and even the point of most of it!) but more so when you are trying to get work done, rather than relax and see the sights. I have had to do a lot of travel to a very rural part of the US; I'm a city boy through and through. It's been hard for me: I don't feel the safest there, I can't do many of the things I like to do, the restaurants close before I'm even hungry, the people I work with there have political views I find abhorrent. Parts of it I've just had to suck up and deal with. But I've also countered by keeping in touch with my support structure at home. I email and text and try to keep up with goings on in my friends' lives. I have people who know I'm there and who I can call and vent to, if necessary. I try not to go there alone. I keep in contact with other visiting scientists there. Basically, I make sure that people have my back.

OK! I hope that this was not too long, and that it is helpful for adorkable new grad students. Comment if you have anything to add.
2010-07-23 11:01 am

Relationships & Grad School

The hardest thing for me, when I moved to grad school, wasn't even on my list of "things that could possibly go wrong". And being an inveterate worrier, that list was pretty long. That hardest thing? Developing a successful network of relationships.

I mean, after all, though I'm not exactly socially ept, throughout high school and college, I'd dropped right into a large, nerdy, friendly group of people to hang out with and to get support from when I needed it. I assumed the same would be true in grad school. And that was false.

Before grad school, the largest group of my friends at any given time came from school, as I suspect is true for most people. Neither my high school nor my college was particularly large, but contained people with varied interests—writers, linguists, theater folk, biologists, historians, musicians, sailors, etc. I took classes in a wide range of things, and made friends in those classes. However, in grad school, the people I saw day in and day out, in class, doing homework, in the lab—they were all physicists. And since grad school is such a time suck, I pretty much spent all my time with physicists.

Now don't get me wrong. I love physicists. I am a physicist—it's not just a job, but also an identity. But I was starving, socially, when all my social activity came from my department. It took me the better part of a year to figure out what was wrong and how to start to go about fixing it. I'm not even sure I've fixed it now, but it's much better than it was that first year. The fix was really to focus on generating and maintaining relationships outside of school: the variety of people I need in my life to be happy were mostly there, but because I didn't see them every day or around campus, those relationships were withering. It's not easy, particularly for someone as introverted as I am, but the payoff has been worth it.

So, three tips for building and maintaining relationships in grad school:

1. Build boundaries about when you work and when you don't. If you schedule time that isn't for work/work people, it's way easier to find and see people outside your program. Also, it's good for your sanity.

2. Find a good coffeeshop or five. Or a good bar or five. NOT on campus. Hang out with people there. Even if you are hanging out with grad school people, the mere fact of being away from school tends to loosen people up and bring out the parts of them that aren't about school.

3. Hobbies are hard in grad school, because of the time factor; however, they are a great way to find people outside your program. But be careful about your institution's various clubs and teams: many will be full of undergraduates, which isn't a bad thing, but can be disappointing in its own way.

All those are pretty general, but I want to have one last word about relationships and identity. I was also starving because, though I am white and male—typical in physics—I am also trans and queer and Christian—not typical, to put it mildly. I don't necessarily feel comfortable among my physics friends being vocal about those identities, not because people are bigoted or mean, but because my physics friends just don't Get It. This put extra emotional pressure on me. I can imagine that people who are gender minorities or racial/ethnic minorities or other minority categories in their field might feel the same way. I don't think the solution is any different—make a variety of friends, probably some of whom are those minority categories—but I do think that it's important to be aware of that effect and that it can wear you down, even if you don't think it will.
2010-06-24 10:26 pm
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...but not like that.

I just got back from an extended vacation/conference. I am apparently no longer able to take vacation without also going to a conference, but that's not the point of this post.

I noticed, at the conference that I was hanging out with a couple of different groups of people: grad students on my experiment, professors from my university, other random people I know. And I noticed that while I was hanging out with different groups, I was noticeably and appreciably shifting my gender presentation—at least within the allowed boundaries of masculinity for physicists. For example, when hanging out with the grad students on my experiment, I gravitated towards a beer-soccer version. (World Cup, WOOOOOO! USA! USA!) When with the profs, I tended towards a less...loud...aspect of gender performance, and more towards a competence-sophisticated version of masculinity.

Now both of these (and all the other masculinities I perform(ed)) are not inaccurate representations of my gender. I do love soccer. I do love beer. I do love long lunchtime discussions of experiments. But it was extra apparent to me that I was specifically manipulating aspects of my personality to fit those I was with, and that manipulation felt particularly gendered to me during this conference.

I'm not really sure what to make of this, other than it feels a lot like my ambivalence about what my gender actually means to me, as I talked about in this post on the cisgender/transgender distinction. Which is to say that 20-some years into my life, fiveish years into transition, and I still have no clue how to define my gender, despite being perfectly clear that medical transition has been exactly the right thing for me.
2010-05-17 09:16 am
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On acknowledging history

I'm going to stop apologizing for missing days. This is my project, and I'm learning what I am and am not capable of regarding writing, and that's more important than meeting an arbitrary (if self-imposed) goal.

I've been mulling over a post about the use of FTM (female-to-male) and MTF (male-to-female) to describe trans people. Essentially, the author's argument is that these terms emphasize a trans person's assigned gender to the detriment of their self-defined gender.

I see that. I do think that, as a whole, cis-dominated culture places a premium on always noting a trans person's so-called "original gender". Which, come on!. That's bullshit.

However, I cannot stop seeing this post as saying that trans people should not talk positively about or acknowledge our lives when we lived as our assigned gender. I know that reading is not actually textual for that post, and I don't think the author would agree with the previous sentence. But I can't stop seeing that.

I resisted transition for a long time (well, a long time in teenager-time, three years) because I was happy. I had a great life with great friends and a great school and a great job.* And trans people, pre-transition, cannot have those things or be happy. And that message wasn't just sold to me by cis people, but by trans people too, partially under the guise of "not trans enough" and partially under the guise of "well, you'll lose all of those wonderful things if you do transition".**

And you know what, some of those good experiences that I had before I transitioned came as a result of living as a girl/woman or are only explicable by acknowledging that I was living as a girl/woman. Or have pictures of me smiling happily on an Italian hillside, dressed in a tank top that makes it abundantly clear that I once had breasts.

And now with the exception of some of my awesome friends, I can't talk about that history. Not with cis people, because I fear them latching on to my assigned gender as more valid that the one I now present. Not with trans people, because I fear them saying that those experiences invalidate my trans experience or saying that my willingness to discuss my early life positively reinforces the idea that our assigned genders are "real"/that if we just tried harder we could be happy in our assigned gender.

* Yes, I realize that I was phenomenally lucky. Yes, I realize that many of those things came because of the large amount of privilege I carry.

** I've since met trans people who didn't do this. But damn if it didn't take me a long time to find them.
2010-05-15 08:15 pm
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Race and physics.

Oh, Friday. Where did you go? Right, that vaguely drunken haze I didn't know I needed until I did it.

Back on the posting wagon!

I went to a panel by my department on race and physics this week, and was pleasantly surprised for a number of reasons. Firstly, how much our old, white, male, formal-but-kind department head Got It. I mean, he managed to strike a good balance between looking back and looking forward, and also what is feasible for a major research university (e.g. build relationships with HBCUs to get minority students to apply to us) and what we cannot do (e.g. fix the K-12 education system).

I was also surprised at how little I cringed during the discussion of excellence versus diversity, in particular because I really felt that there were people there backing up my position that increasing diversity does not dilute excellence and that that basic idea permeated the whole discussion. Of course, there were a few who didn't really get that, but they were mostly called on it.

It was a really good experience for me, particularly in light of the bad experiences with panels like this that I've had around both race and women in science before. It also makes me hopeful that our department head might be open to addressing what I see as a problem with representation of less visible minorities—particularly BTGL folk and disabled folk and so on. I hope that I can get the courage up to email him or speak to him about this, but it's so hard when it's so personal, and I feel very gutless about it, even when I know that it's going to be OK.
2010-05-13 03:13 pm

Slightly late to the start line...on class privilege and transition!

I got sick earlier this week, so I'm a bit late to the start line. But hey, I run this place, so it's OK!

I mentioned in my last post my inability to get started because I don't have complete and polished thoughts about some of the things I'm thinking about, and this post right here? Will be Example A.

Struggles with class privilege )
2010-05-02 10:09 pm


I haven't posted in nine months.


I haven't posted because I ended the romantic relationship I was in for difficult but good reasons, but have lacked (and continue to lack) the language and space to talk about that.


I haven't posted because I have had to take several trips for work that landed me in places that were very bad for my mental health and took about a month each to get over.


I haven't posted because FUCK. GRAD SCHOOL. FUCK.


I haven't posted because like some people have spoons, I have a limited number of words, and they've been used for more critical things, namely communicating properly at work and focusing on breaking down some of the privilege I've got and putting the pieces together in a better way.


But mostly I haven't been posting because I've been undervaluing my thoughts and the value of just putting it out there and not having to have finished thoughts or sentences.

So I'm going to work on that a little. I just finished a project I set for myself in April, with flying colors. So here's the new project. Not this week (which is a production week for me, so...yeah nothing but that!) but next, I will post some snippet of things I've been thinking about, without overediting, without polishing every last corner, and without shame. Seven days. Seven entries.

It'll be OK.
2009-08-12 02:40 pm
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Controversial (?) things about language

First, three stories I have told about myself:

A: "My gender's has always pretty much been the same. What we think of as gendered behaviour in Western culture—the clothes we wear, the things we play with as kids, our relationship types and styles, etc—have been fairly constant through my life, with some exceptions around puberty. But, hey, puberty. Furthermore, my parents tried to free me from what I should expect in terms of gender roles, and modeled non-traditional gender roles for me. I'm lucky to have grown up with family and friends who didn't make a fuss about what my gender looked like. Anyway, I don't really feel a change to my gender post-transition."

B: "As someone who has moved through this world perceived as both male and female, I feel like I am intimately aware of the different pressures and expectations placed on men and women. The way in which men's bodies are treated as more private is particularly interesting and enraging."

C: "I've never been one to hew close to gender expectations. I've always loved trains; I am a knitter and a baker; I enjoy having emotionally close friendships; I think mucking about with tools is great fun; I love things that are beautiful and soft; I love to watch things explode. I mean, why limit yourself to the pastimes and pleasures of one socially acceptable gender?"

All of these stories are fully true. All of these stories contain only part of the truth.

I am beginning to loathe the word 'transgender' and its antonym, 'cisgender'. Or rather, I am beginning to loathe the use of those words. On their own, they're pretty unremarkable: one purportedly describes people whose gender is not in accordance with the one assigned to them at birth and the other describes people whose gender is in accordance. Also in this nexus of incipient loathing are 'genderqueer' and 'binary-identified'.*

They make me uncomfortable because I do not feel I can claim any of them as my own. If I had to choose, you know, gun-to-the-head-implausible-scenario, I'd probably choose 'cisgender' and/or 'binary-identified'. They are probably the least in conflict with my perception of myself—but they are still in conflict. Mostly because I think other people, being told the stories above might select 'transgender' and/or 'binary-identified' for me.

Now, I should say that this isn't one of those conflicts that keep me up at night, as due to the many, many privileges I am accorded, it's actually not something I have to think about a whole lot. Most of the time, I just do my thing and people see me and think: "man". Or sometimes, "weird dude...oh, he's a nerd, that's all right."**

Nevertheless, I find the whole thing a shifting mess when I wish to talk about or describe my gender in this framework—and part of the reason I don't think on it a whole lot is that I'm not sure if there is a resolution without revamping the framework, and that's work that I neither feel qualified to undertake, nor to which I have the copious free brain cycles to donate.

And finally, I find this all exhausting because I am also aware that there are assumptions that come along with 'cisgender' and 'transgender': if I were to state in comments on some blog post that "As someone who is cisgender, blah blah blah", the assumption would also be that I am cissexual***, which, you know, I'm not. Similarly (though a bit less so) if I referenced myself as 'transgender'.

So, in conclusion, basically all I want is the mess of categorizing my gender to stop being such a squishy bog. I want there to be more options in our framework. Perhaps the first step is removing the oppositionalism from transgender and cisgender? Does this ruin their meanings? Must we break everything down?

* I do not loathe people who do claim these words for themselves, as that's rude, insensitive, and toxic. Plus, that's a LOT of people to loathe. Nor do I begrudge them their identities. I just, you know, want one of my own.

**A post for another time: "how men who run in nerd circles both opt-out and opt-in to hegemonic masculinity and how, as a result, society both shames and third-genders them"

***Note that this is the first time in this post I've referenced 'cissexual' or 'transsexual'. I reference myself as transsexual without any problems, as I am, indeed someone who wants to/has changed my primary and/or secondary sex characteristics from those I was born with.
2009-07-21 10:02 pm


I haven't posted in ages—well, internet ages—as I've been on vacation, home in a blur, at a conference, visiting a college friend and finally home again. I'm also working on a post about coming to terms with my classism that I've had in the rock tumbler for a month now, but still has raw pointy bits all over it.

That said, conferences! I was at a conference last week and halfway through I was wondering what the hell I was doing there in the age of the internet, the arxiv*, and email. I'd flown across the Atlantic to sit in a soporific room for ten hours a day (no, really.) and listen to stuff I could've found on the arxiv. Furthermore, three members of my collaboration had flown to three different parts of the world in the past week to give virtually identical talks to three different conferences. This seems like a waste of resources.

But, as with all things, I realized that conferences are not about the talks. Well, they are, sort of. Talks are basically advertisements as to who'll be the interesting person to talk to at the next coffee/meal break. The worthwhileness of the conference lies mostly in the conversations one has in between talks, and by that measure, this one was quite good. I had several productive dialogues about dark matter distributions, technology, and theory with people I'd never heard of before, got a couple new ideas, and ate foreign candy bars**.

Which got me to thinking, if the purpose of conferences is this kind of serendipity, why doesn't it happen as much on the internet? I mean, after all, the internet is the place for wandering in and finding stuff you'd never thought about before. Why do we need the face time?

I think it's because it's not just serendipity, it's focused serendipity. It's restricting the flow of information to a certain trickle. And then, I went "aha!". This is a lot like one of my favorite Feministe features, Sunday Self-Promotion, which is a weekly post for people to advertise particular posts they've written to a larger audience...and a great way for that audience to stumble on things they might otherwise miss in the noise of the great big internet.

All this makes me wonder if there's some way to facilitate the same among physicists on the internet. (Not to get rid of conferences. I think face time is valuable for many reasons other than serendipity!) The arxiv is already, in a sense, Daily Self-Promotion, but it lacks the dialogue and focus aspects that make conferences and Sunday Self-Promotion more worthwhile. Yet comments on arxiv papers seems like a bad idea from a practical standpoint.

Maybe there's not a way to do this for the scientific community on the internet. But I bet there is, and I bet it'll develop in the next five years. And I'm surely looking forward to it.

*The clearinghouse for physics papers. It's the greatest thing to happen to science publishing since the printing press.
**I adore eating candy bars in foreign countries. It's such a delightfully random experience. It has a penguin on it? Who knows what it'll contain!
2009-06-25 03:20 pm

Hey, guess what, trans men are men!

I'm a little late to the party on this one, but I think it's important enough that I'll comment on it. Because it pissed me off, and it hurt me, me personally.

The butch blogger, Sinclair Sexsmith, decided to do something about the fact that all lists of Top X Hot Women focused on women who tended to the dominant cultural feminine definition of "hot". So sie created the Top 100 Hot Butches*. Now, this is a project that I wholeheartedly appreciate, and certainly I enjoyed some of the eye candy (ahem, Rachel Maddow!).


The initial inclusion of trans men on that list was inappropriate and wrong. Flat-out wrong. It denies trans men our reality and furthers the idea that we're "just" butch women. And it denies butch women their ability to be recognized as women, not as "wannabe" men.

I won't deny that the boundaries between butches and trans men isn't blurry. Many, but certainly not all/majority, come in through the lesbian community as butches or related identities, self-included. And some small fraction of trans men hold on to "butch" as a remembrance of that community. (Icky, to me, but not over my line into unacceptable.) This blurriness is ok, and I'm even mostly ok with including trans men that include butch as one of their identities.

But it is incredibly disrespectful to include men who do not have a claim on butch simply because they are trans.

Fortunately, Sinclair has apologized and removed the trans men from the list. And this is one of the main reasons I wanted to post about this, because I feel that this is a really good example of someone on the internet fucking up, realizing sie fucked up, apologizing, and taking action. The apology feels genuine, and explicates how the realization of being wrong came about. Furthermore, the apology is accompanied with action to rectify the mistake. The only thing left on the checklist "not doing it again", and I think it's a little soon to evaluate that one.

So, in short, I'm really disappointed in the original list, as it really felt like a "this? again?" moment, but I'm impressed with the moves to fix the mistake.

*I do also have problems with this nomenclature in that not all "butchish" women identify as butch, but "Top 100 Hot Female People of Non-Feminine Gender Presentation" doesn't have much snap.
2009-06-19 08:41 am

Old School

There are some things I really love, like when scientists put old-school methods to new and interesting purposes.

In that vein, I just heard about a group in Japan that is using emulsions to do dark matter detection. (paper here) This is basically the physics equivalent of saying you're going to fire up your vacuum tubes to surf the internet. It's Steampunk Science.

An emulsion detector is essentially a type of photographic plate (well...cube, really) in which some material is exposed to some particles and the particles interact with the material and leave tracks which can be reconstructed after development of the emulsion. Now, emulsions were popular in the middle of the last century to do collider and nuclear physics; you could track the stuff coming out of a collision. They got outmoded as electronics got more sophisticated and as speed of reconstruction became a bigger deal.

However, because dark matter events are rare (by, you know, definition) emulsions are a reasonable way to look for these things. And so this group has revived this old technology and improved it by increasing the granularity of the detector and developing an automatic scanning technique so they can detect the short tracks from dark matter and reconstruct the direction. And a cool thing about dark matter is that there is a prediction for a preferred direction for dark matter recoils; because of the rotation of the galaxy, dark matter should look like a wind blowing in one direction. So if you can reconstruct the direction, you get a much, much better handle on whether what you're seeing in the is dark matter.

Now, who knows if this'll work out in the long run. There are several other directional experiments in the works. But I do love and respect how this group has learned from the past and repurposed it for the future.
2009-06-07 05:05 pm
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More Women in Science News

Via Slate comes this article, again about the gender gap in science.

In a study at the United States Air Force Academy, they studied the effect of professor gender on student achievement. USAFA is a great place to study this because it controls for many effects: the students are assigned to sections randomly, the syllabus is standard and set, and all students take the same exam at the end of the term.

The authors found that simply having a female professor essentially erased the gender gap, especially for high-performing students, as well as substantially increasing the probability that women would go on to advanced courses and science degrees.

This is not at all surprising to me. The role of mentor is an extraordinarily important one in the development of the proto-scientist. What I did find interesting is that certain male professors also erase the gender gap between male and female students. I would be extraordinarily interested in the qualities that those professors have. I have some suspicions about those already: calm in temper, casual, reasonably good social skills, fair, empathetic, and with a strong understanding and valuing of a well-rounded student. Or, pretty much, my undergraduate mentor.

My undergrad mentor managed to attract a disproportionate number of female students, both graduate and undergraduate students. Both of his grad students while I knew him were female, and 75% of his undergrads. I don't know how the cluster got started, but I do know how it perpetuated itself: he actually listened to and respected female students. They knew they had a voice in the group and other women saw that when they looked into joining the group. My group now perpetuates itself in the same way: there are a number of women, who are well respected, and that encourages other women to join. This was no small issue for me in joining a group—I felt sure that a group that was welcoming to women would be understanding of my transition. Furthermore, I believe that this cluster is good for those of us who are male students in the group. We're learning now how to become the seeds for when we are postdocs and professors.

The big question for me, then, is how to plant the seeds—my undergrad mentor, my graduate advisors—that nurture the clusters that draw women into physics. Can we plant them now? Can we retrain men to be those exceptional ones? Or do we just have to wait until the old ones die out?
2009-06-03 07:08 am

The Gender Gap in Math...

...is nearly gone, at least in the US, so says a new study. (Abstract linked, full article behind a pay wall, summary blog post)

In short, the study finds that boys and girls score the same on math standardized exams through graduation from high school, and that they are taking calculus classes at the same rate. The study then goes on to test the hypothesis that the averages are the same, but that men have a larger standard deviation, and so there are more math geniuses that are men, and finds that, while there are more men than women above the 95th and 99th percentile, that ratio has changed with time and with culture of origin, indicating that this is likely a culturally derived factor.

I find this to jive strongly with my experience. I work in physics, a STEM field with a poor reputation for gender equality, and currently at an institution that is below average, even for our field, even while it is a top-ranked department.

As both a graduate student and as an undergraduate student, I earned a reputation among my peers for being at the top of my class. But I noticed a marked difference between undergrad (when I lived as a woman) and grad (when I live as a man) in how my peers treated that reputation. As a grad student, it was treated matter-of-fact: someone's got to be at the top, eh, it's him. As an undergrad, it was treated as a bit of a challenge to the boys in my class. Not all of them, but some.

I will say, with some relief, that this isn't true for my research groups. I talk more, and have more responsibility now, but I attribute that to being a grad student, rather than an undergrad. I'm supposed to have more responsibility. I think part of the reason for this is that I've worked in two extremely female-friendly groups. My current group has 50% female professors, which is unheard of in my field. My undergrad group was 75% female grad students. With numbers like those, you don't get anywhere if you don't respect and listen to the contributions of women.

All of which is to say that both the numbers and my personal experience uphold the idea that it is cultural factors holding women back from numerical equivalency in STEM fields, both cultural ideas about what women can do and "lifestyle factors" (the ever-popular euphemism for, "hey, some people want to have kids and a life AND do science").

Now, this isn't a new thought for a trans man to have; Ben Barres has advocated this view for a long time. But I feel that it's worth repeating, because while the plural of anecdote isn't data, we're far enough apart in academic careers and fields that I'm adding more perspective.
2009-05-24 08:59 pm

So...what's with the name?

I spent some time trying out names for this place, mainly while I was sitting around waiting for code to compile or run. I wanted something that reflected my love of physics and something about gender/trans identity. I finally settled on "twostatesystem" because the two state system is something that is incredibly important in both physics and gender in Euro-derived cultures*. And yet, in both cases, the two state system is at best an approximation and at worst a lie.

A two state system in physics is one in which the Hamiltonian (a construct which describes the dynamics of the system, including the energy of the system) gives rise to two different energy levels. This is one of the few systems in quantum physics that can be solved exactly and gives us insight into many problems in physics, including (and notable for me), oscillation between two neutrino flavors. Using the two state system approach, an incredible amount of progress was made in understanding neutrinos and their oscillatory behavior. Nevertheless, the complete picture of the neutrino sector is not a two state system. It's a three (or possibly more!) state system with more complicated (and interesting) dynamics.

I feel much the same about the binary system of gender we experience in Euro-derived cultures. We divide ourselves up into two states, men and women, and analyze so much of our experience through the lens of that two state system that we forget that it's at best an approximation. Cultural analysis by feminists and other people interested in gender has done well under this approximation. We cannot understand the full impact of gender on ourselves and our culture by clinging to these two states, even as we recognize that sometimes, yeah, we can use that lens.

Furthermore, I think that one of the most important things I've learned from studying physics is that it is absolutely vital to know the boundaries of where your approximation is valid—after all, as one of my undergraduate professors once said, "Well, we're physicists. When confronted with an intractable problem, we only do one thing: approximate." I think that you can replace "physicists" in that sentence with "people" and it still contains a whole lot of truth. But, I don't think that as a community of gender thinkers, we've learned how to understand those boundaries of approximation yet. I think we're still struggling to understand, and failing in a whole lot of cases. And it's a whole lot more risky to approximate with human lives; if your assumptions exclude people of color, that causes way more suffering than if your assumptions exclude a fourth neutrino species.

I don't know yet if understanding and being explicit about underlying assumptions and boundaries of approximations will result in progress (for some unspecified definition of progress) . I only know that it feels right and necessary, coming out of my academic tradition, and that it's something I would like to see a whole lot more of. Now, if only I knew how to do it.

*a better term, I feel, than "Western". I'm talking here about cultures where the primary historical influence is Europe. This is not to say, of course, that what I'm saying applies in whole to ALL those cultures, nor that it doesn't apply to non-Euro-derived cultures. But my lived expertise is in dominant US culture and parts of European culture, so that's what I'll talk about.
2009-05-22 07:07 pm

Introduction, or does the world need another blog?

Probably not.

However, I've noticed a dearth of blogs by a) trans men b) trans scientists c) physicists anywhere in the BTGL* community. Being all three, and "be the change", blah blah blah, here I am.

So, who am I?

I am a graduate student in physics, studying neutrinos and dark matter at a major American university. I'm interested in the matter of the universe that takes up quite a bit of the energy budget of the universe, but is invisible to us thus far. I am also an experimentalist, which means that I'm doing actual experiments—I go out with actual objects and look at actual signals. Together, these things mean that I spend the vast majority of my time measuring zero, debugging my software, and trying to figure out where my light leaks are.

I am also a trans man. I spent the first 22-ish years of my life living as a woman in America; I now live as a man. Beyond that, I'm unwilling to divulge details of my gender and sex, even in the relative anonymity of the internet.

I do not think these two facts of my life are necessarily related or should be related, but they, in some ways, are. First of all, physics (and especially my university) has a gender problem, and I'm interested in the way my experience interacts with that problem. Less talked about is the fact that I know very, very few physicists that id as LBGQ. I'm also interested in the interaction there, though as a straight guy, I may have less to say about that. So, I'm hoping to post about the interaction between the scientific establishment and gender and sexuality.

However, I also want to post about things that are one or the other, interesting new results, trans issues in general, gender issues in general, and so on. My aim is to have one major post a week, with other small posts to supplement that. We'll see how it goes.

*I have problems with this terminology and grouping. Nevertheless...hardly anyone.