From Batman to the X-Files: UNSW Ladies in Science

There’s no denying that the plight of women in science has been vanquished. The dragon of misogyny has been defeated, writhing its worm-like tale and belching profanities as it dies. I mean, I know about 7 girls doing physics in a class of 60! And I’m only told that men are naturally better at science every so often! And men are only a little more likely to be hired, paid more and perceived as naturally talented in their field![1] We should be grateful to the men who let us be fortunate enough to start graduating from UNSW in 1955 (even though the Harvard MBA was only open to women in 1962) and stop with women’s rights now, there’s a good girl.

Despite the people who treat women’s rights like a secret communist plot and those who treat feminism like a swear word. Despite the fact I feel uncomfortable wearing a skirt to physics. Despite the fact our opinion is more statistically likely to be ignored. Despite the fact we’re either ignored or paid far too much attention. Despite the fact any success we have is viewed as being an exception to the rule. Despite all this, some women are still managing to eke out careers in one of the most indisputably awesome areas of research – space. Space scientists are to science what Indiana Jones is to history. Except maybe without the whips. Actually I take that back. Definitely with whips. Space is so big, it appears there is even room for women.

For instance Claire-Elise Green, a UNSW PhD student who investigates how stars are made. As we all know, astronomers are as fond of data as capitalist America is of oil – willing to start wars over it. She interprets massive amounts of data from clouds of gas (insert fart joke here) floating around space. Part of this is done by looking at the “noise of the universe”.  Despite this sounding like a quote from a T.S Eliot poem,  Claire-Elise does dare to disturb the universe like a giant, all encompassing bat, listening to the clicks and squeaks of space. Basically she’s Batman – the hero science deserves, and the one it needs right now.

Another impressive individual – who has the job voted “Most like the X-Files But You Still Get Paid” – is Angela Chilton, a biologist doing her PhD with an astrobiology team at UNSW. She’s looking for aliens… on earth? A type of algae has been found desperately clinging to the International Space Station, terrified, but somehow alive – making this bacteria more successful in space than George Clooney and even Sandra Bullock .

In space no one can hear you screaming for an oscar.

In space no one can hear you screaming for an Oscar.

Angela says she’s looking at the microbes in “Crunchy soil” in the desert and the way they “ecologically engineer their environment to make it better-suited for them.”[2] She says they can be used to terraform planets. This is her actual job. Making Intersellar a reality. Maybe that’s a bad example…

You know, as much as I hate that outlining women’s contributions to science are necessary, it’s impossible to not be impressed by them. I hate the fact that women scientists are referred to as “women scientists” and not just scientists. But every time I hear the term I feel relieved. It’s proof against all the sexist knowledge, and the very real question of “Why am I the only girl in my physics lab?” It’s an assurance that my gender doesn’t have anything to do with my scientific ability, and little girls can play with the science kits as well as barbies. When these types of articles are no longer necessary, there will no longer be a problem. But until then, we can use these articles to kill the dragon. One paper cut at a time.

[1] http://advance.cornell.edu/documents/ImpactofGender.pdf

[2] http://www.smh.com.au/national/postgraduate-education/women-look-to-the-skies-for-answers-20150417-1mdpv9.html