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Reader Rants: Science Needs Women – kevinf

You may remember Kevin Folta as the Great God who invented the Buzzed Aldrin. That’s how I remember him anyway. But not only is he the greatest thing to ever happen to Skepchickal sobriety, he’s also a scientist! He does real science! At a university! And now he’s a guest poster on Skepchick!

You can be one, too! Just write me an article, make me a video, write me a song, whatever you want, and send it to us here at skepchick[at]! I got a bunch of great submissions this week, but I could only pick one. So I picked Kevin’s because it’s sweet and Skepchickal.

Science Needs Women

Kevin M. Folta

In three weeks I will put on the cap-and-gown professor outfit I bought on Ebay and witness something that probably never should have happened: the graduation of a self-described dumb blonde. Jessie came to my laboratory looking to make some extra cash as a dishwasher. Little did she know that she would be remolded, repackaged and refocused by a cadre of women that identified a change that needed to happen, then took the initiative to make it so.

In my laboratory the ratio of X to Y chromosomes is traditionally skewed to about twelve to one. The reason is not clear, but the majority of the technicians, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates in my program are female, and it has always been that way. One residue of the phenomenon has been that I get to observe the powerful influence that strong women have in shaping the career, and sometimes personal, choices of young women entering science.

It happens every semester, but Jessie was the most stunning example. She would take on simple tasks like dishwashing and lab maintenance with a certain care and precision not seen in most twenty year olds. But when I asked her if she’d like to take on a laboratory project all she would say is, “I probably can’t do it, I’m not smart enough.”

That sentiment was echoed every time she was assigned a task. She had self esteem that was so low it defied accurate analogy. Yet every time I would show her a technique, computer program or protocol she would execute it flawlessly after a flurry of “I probably can’t do it” and “I’m not smart enough.” I don’t know why she was so eternally self-deprecating, but it was sad to see her downplay, if not completely discount, her inherent talents and abilities.

The women in my lab took special notice of this situation. At the time there was a technician and three graduate students, all balanced, opinionated and strong. Most of all they were complete, with good relationships overlaid with conspicuous hint of glamour. They were maybe four years older than Jess, making their influence especially strong. They dug one layer deeper into Jessie than I would want to; discovering her dysfunctional relationships with males, her horrendous daily decisions and the penetrance of her miserable self perception that negatively impacted many facets of her life.

Leading by example, they showed her that women could drive science and lead a high-powered research team. They cultured her talents, supported her good decisions and taught her flawless execution of advanced scientific tests. Their influence would escape the walls of the lab, as they’d reprimand her when she’d talk about the dopes she’d date and the poor decisions she’d make at home. Soon, the growth was visible and rapid. The self-described ugly duckling was changing.

After a year in my lab with Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma, Jessie left to pursue advanced training within her major. She wrote up her work, turning in a graduate-level synopsis of the literature and her results. She had a visible sense of confidence, a new maturity and poise that contrasted so starkly against that of the “dumb blonde” that started in my lab only a year before.

Last week, years after she left my lab, I received a tiny card in my university mailbox buried amongst the junk mail. Inside was an invitation to a graduation. From Jessie. Adjacent to the time, date and event details was a handwritten note. “Thank you for teaching me how to think critically.”

Sure, maybe I had a hand in it, but the best thing I did was mentor four stellar women scientists that took the initiative to guide her.

The rare success of a grant funded, a scholarly paper accepted, or putting the hood on a new Ph.D. are all wonderful, memorable moments in the life of an academic scientist. However, this victory was especially sweet. I folded that card inside-out, permanently wedged it into the frame of my office bulletin board, and then sent congratulatory emails to the four women that changed Jess’s thinking, influenced her decisions, and maybe even saved her life.

Kevin M. Folta

Associate Professor: Horticultural Sciences Department and the Graduate Program in Plant Molecular and Cellular Biology

1301 Fifield Hall

Gainesville, FL 32611


352-392-5653  FAX

The Skepchick Reader Rants, posted every Wednesday at 3PM Eastern, is a feature where you, the Skepchick readers, get to tell the Skepchick community what you think about whatever you want!  To be considered, please submit an original rant, preferably unpublished anywhere else, to skepchick(at)skepchick(dot)org.


Elyse MoFo Anders is the bad ass behind forming the Women Thinking, inc and the superhero who launched the Hug Me! I'm Vaccinated campaign as well as podcaster emeritus, writer, slacktivist extraordinaire, cancer survivor and sometimes runs marathons for charity. You probably think she's awesome so you follow her on twitter.

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  1. That….was….amazing.

    It was the perfect balance between a Lifetime Orinial Movie and Before They Were Stars-Scientist Edition. I really cared for Jess, and your post really makes me hope she proved, once and for all, to the most important person-herself-that she’s no dumb blonde, and that there is no limit what she can do.

  2. Wow. I loved this article. Thanks to @Kevinf for sharing this story and thanks to the Skepchicks for letting us readers and commenters have a shot.

  3. I think that’s a fantastic story about how the right influences can teach a person to be much more than they ever imagined.

    My mom is a similar example. She was raised under the assumption she was stupid. Crappy jobs and a husband who would always take care of her, but who also built her up and showed her that she was not stupid. At the end of my time in elementary school, she enrolled part time in University and graduated with distinction a changed woman years later. I will always be proud of her for that.

  4. Wonderful story! Relationships and mentoring are critically important parts of the whole educational process. My wife is a university prof and her most satisfying moments are clearly the times when some students become IA’s or TA’s and they move on to have successful lives and careers or where they’re going to grad school.

    I posted this on Facebook yesterday but thought it was worth repeating here. My daughter plans on being a teacher and has enjoyed her science classes for the most part. What happened on her first day in a college astronomy class made for an impressive story and made an impact on at least one student in the room.

    As my daughter told the story, she arrived for her first class in her college astronomy course yesterday. She said the approximately 65 year old prof quietly walked into the classroom, went up to the lectern and put his old leather briefcase down, looked at the class and broke into song! He sang the complete Galaxy Song from Monty Pythons’ Meaning of Life while drawing astronomy illustrations on the board. Now that’s some teaching! My daughter is a musician and was also impressed that the prof was on key the whole song.

  5. Speaking as an ex-student, that was a fantastic thing you did, and I (like a lot of other students) remember the individuals that helped us in that way.

    Speaking as a current university teacher, there’s very few better things I can do with my time than to strive for this sort of outcome. It doesn’t happen all the time… but even once is worth it.

    Thank you for sharing… and thank Jessie, and the other ladies in your research, for doing what they do. Past students and present professors thank them.

  6. What a touching story. It makes me want to write all those notes I meant to write to all those teachers/professors/etc who made a difference in my academic path.

    Hooray for all involved!

  7. Ok, I’ve read this story like 10 times today… and I’ve read this story at least 3 times before today. I LOVE THIS!

    Thanks, Kevin, for making our first Reader Rant a great one!

    The bar is set, people! Get writing!

  8. Oh, I have a question about the 12:1 ratio of X to Y chromosomes though. Do you mean a 11:2 ratio of women to men, which is what 12:1 X to Y actually means (not considering XXY-syndrome and similar, or the difference in numbers of cells between individuals)? Or 12 women for every man, which doesn’t take into consideration that every woman has to X chromosomes and every man has one?

  9. Wow, thanks for all of the sweet comments everyone. I really appreciate it. This was one of the unexpected benefits of my position. When I got that note I said out loud, “My job is done here.” My field is getting pretty close to 50-50 male/female, but most of science still is heavily male driven. Science women to have a profound impact, especially in shaping the decisions of young women entering the business.

    And thanks Elyse for spawning the concept. The reader rant page is a wonderful addition.

    Bjornar- a quiz! I guess I was working from the premise that a male-female pair is represented by four chromosomes, 3X and 1Y. Four women and one guy would be 12X and 1Y. I’ve operated a lab where everyone is there through normal meiotic segregation.

  10. @Bjornar:
    Do you mean a 11:2 ratio of women to men, which is what 12:1 X to Y actually means
    I was also wondering who the poor individual was with one chromosome missing.
    (6 women for every guy would be a 13:1 X to Y ratio)

  11. @kevinf:
    I guess I was working from the premise that a male-female pair is represented by four chromosomes, 3X and 1Y. Four women and one guy would be 12X and 1Y.

    And in the process you’ve accidentally added half of three guys.

  12. That was wonderful–thanks so much!
    …I really need to call my former mentor….

  13. What mathematical operator does one use to turn a male-female pair into four women and one guy?

    And can I use it to turn a single male into one guy and at least one woman?

  14. My first geochemistry job was as a dishwasher. I needed a work study job, but I didn’t want to work in the cafeteria, so I applied for a “laboratory assistant” position. Instead of washing dishes in the cafeteria, I washed dishes in the lab. But it was waaay cooler because rather than washing with water I got to wash with aqua regia.

  15. @kevinf: Good on ya’ Kevin! I love your “My job is done here” remark. As educators, however, our job is never done. I hope at least one of those four women who so inspired Jessie to believe in herself has also become an educator. What excellent role models they were (are), just like our resident Skepchicks.

    Love the little heart and xoxo on the note, too. I’ve gotten few of those and it makes me smile. :-)

  16. Garrison22- yes the job is never done, but it is such a good thing. I woke up today on a Saturday and was so excited to get to the lab. How many people get to say that? And I prove that you don’t have to be a complete brainiac to do this line of work- you just have to be clever and work hard. So many don’t get that.

    … and yes, the xoxox is a wonderful addition. Just the fact that she took the time means so much.

  17. Hi Everybody. It is January 21, 2011 and I just found out that the subject of this essay, Jessie, has killed herself. I’m stunned and immensely sad.

    She had so much potential. The world needs more like her, and now we have one less.

    Unfortunately she always had a troubled streak and would have benefited from some professional help. I still have her card on my wall, and now I’m adding her picture to it. Just an update.

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