Lynn Conway, Enabler of Microchips

Are you using something with a modern microprocessor on International Women’s Day? (If you’re not, but somehow able to see this post, talk to a doctor. Or a psychic.) You should thank Dr. Lynn Conway, professor emerita of electrical engineering and computer science at Michigan and member of the National Academy of Engineering, who is responsible for two major innovations that are ubiquitous in modern computing. She is most famous for the Mead-Conway revolution, as she developed the “design rules” that are used in Very-Large-Scale Integration architecture, the scheme that basically underlies all modern computer chips. Conway’s rules standardized chip design, making the process faster, easier, and more reliable, and perhaps most significant to broader society, easy to scale down, which is why we are now surrounded by computers.

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She is less known for her work on dynamic instruction scheduling (DIS). DIS lets a computer program operate out of order, so that later parts of code that do not depend on results of earlier parts can start running instead of letting the whole program stall until certain operations finish. This lets programs run faster and also be more efficient with processor and memory resources. Conway was less known for this work for years because she presented as a man when she began work at IBM. When Conway began her public transition to a woman in 1968, she was fired because the transition was seen as potentially “disruptive” to the work environment. After leaving IBM and completing her transition, Conway lived in “stealth”, which prevented her from publicly taking credit for her work there until the 2000s, when she decided to reach out to someone studying the company’s work on “superscalar” computers in the 60s.

Since coming out, Dr. Conway has been an advocate for trans rights, in science and in society. As a scientist herself, Dr. Conway is very interested in how trans people and the development of gender identity are represented in research. In 2007, she co-authored a paper showing that mental health experts seemed to be dramatically underestimating the number of trans people in the US based just on studies of transition surgeries alone. In 2013 and 2014, Conway worked to make the IEEE’s Code of Ethics inclusive of gender identity and expression.

A good short biography of Dr. Conway can be found here. Or read her writings on her website.

Grace Hopper, Pioneer of the Computing Age

A white woman in a naval dress uniform is pictured. Her arms are crossed.

If you’re seeing this on any kind of computing device on International Women’s Day, you should thank Dr. Grace Hopper, rear admiral of the US Navy. Hopper created the first compiler, which allowed for computer programming to be done in code that could more closely resemble human language instead of the essentially numerical instructions that work at the level of the hardware.

These “higher level” languages are what are typically used to create all the various programs and apps we use everyday. What have you done today? Word processing? Photo editing? Anything beyond math was considered outside the domain of computers when Hopper started work.

Why I Love Agents of SHIELD

So I finally caught up on TV with a post-finals DVR binge and watched the last three episodes of Agents of SHIELD for the fall. And I still love it. I’ve always loved it. Evidently this puts me in a minority on the Internet.

Penny Arcade, why?

Talking to a friend, I realized I love it so much because of one thing: FitzSimmons. Or more accurately, two things: Jemma Simmons and Leo Fitz. (Although others think they are basically one character.)

Why do I love the two characters that other people view ambivalently? Because they’re scientists. Okay, technically Fitz is an engineer, but their roles are very similar in the show. And both scientists and engineers end up using the scientific method, and in their work, Fitz and Simmons use a lot of technology. With Fitz and Simmons, Agents of SHIELD shows science and technology as forces for good, and that’s something we haven’t seen much on TV shows lately. I’m particularly excited by the fact that they’re actually full characters in the show, not recurring lab rats who just dump tech on the protagonists as needed like Q does in James Bond (or Marshall from ALIAS). Also, the things they talk about typically make some kind of sense (I’ve only heard the term “pure energy” once, but “gravitonium” makes no sense whatsoever).

What strikes me as particularly important is that they’re ethical scientists. I realize this sounds like an incredibly low bar, but seriously, this isn’t something we’ve seen on major TV shows lately. People (especially children) tend to be scared of the people they see working in science-related fields on TV. And honestly, I can’t blame them. The entire backstory of LOST and Heroes seemed to be related to mysterious mad science. It is incredibly important to me that Fitz and Simmons comment on how unethical Project Centipede is, and that in the pilot, they angsted over the uncertainty of whether or not they could help Michael Peterson without hurting him.  In the third episode, their favorite professor calls out the villain of the week for hypocrisy in his technological development.

Pretty big spoilers below the jump, if you haven’t been watching the episodes after the winter break.

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Title IX is more than just sports

So in theory, I’ve claimed this blog will look at science and society, not just scientific advances.  And now I’ll finally make that true.  While staying at a hotel out of town earlier this week, I read the free newspaper of choice at hotels all over the country:  USA today.  What caught my eye was an op-ed with the headline “Girls don’t need Obama’s help with math”, written by Kirsten Powers, one of Fox News Channel’s liberal commentators.

Powers is responding to a recent effort by the Obama administration to use Title IX to ensure equal opportunities for both male and female students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.  One major part of her argument is “The End of Men” thesis.  While I’m definitely sympathetic to the idea that our education system seems to be failing a large population of boys (and as a male, my concern isn’t entirely unselfish), that doesn’t mean that the way our culture perceives STEM education and fields can’t also harm girls at the same time.

Powers cites several statistics about women earning degrees, but I’m not sure this all translates to women entering STEM careers.  Let’s break it down.

  • “women rule in biology with nearly 60% of all bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorates awarded to women”:  Okay, that actually probably speaks well for biology education (I tend to think gender ratios in the 60:40 ballpark are pretty reasonable).  But what becomes of all these women trained in biology?  Lots of biology undergrads end up going into medicine, which isn’t bad, but also is not as male-dominated a profession as science and engineering.  Biology doctorates are likely to become professors (look at Table 3).  If they’re becoming professors, though, academia isn’t known for being the most hospitable field for women.  For example, one study has suggested women win fewer science awards than would be expected based on how many doctorates they hold.  And the tenure track is notorious for making it hard to start a family.
  • “40% of bachelor’s degrees awarded in the physical sciences and math go to women”  This statistic actually is higher than I would have expected.  But again, what do these students do after school?  I don’t have official numbers for the trends, but I remember lots of my friends from college.  Of the five girls in my physics class, one decided to go into consulting and the other went to med school.  Out of the eight guys, only one of us wasn’t planning on doing technical work or going to graduate school in physics or engineering.  Of the four female chemistry majors I knew, two of them were pre-meds and one decided to become a teacher.
  • “72 % of [psychology] degrees go to women” Okay, there’s probably something pulling men away from studying psych, but that’s not equivalent to overcoming older prejudices that push women away from science and engineering.  Also, having known lots of psych majors of both genders in college, I would be willing to hazard a guess that male psych students don’t feel pressure due to their gender.
  • Just throwing out “bachelor’s degree” without description can be kind of misleading.  At some schools, students in science and engineering majors can choose between a Bachelor of Science (BS) and a Bachelor of Arts (BA).  If a school makes that distinction, one of these degrees will involve more technical coursework and lab work than the other.  (Typically a BS will be the technical one, but my understanding is that can vary)  People who get the less technical degree may be preparing more for medicine, law, or other careers besides science/engineering.
  • It also seems like something must be going on for women to represent only 18% of engineering and computer science bachelor’s degrees given the above stats.  Engineering, the E in STEM, isn’t something completely unrelated to math or science.  It’s applying science with design thinking to solve problems.  For women to represent such a large portion of pure science students while having a much smaller presence in the application of these sciences would seem to suggest that something more than academics is at play.

What does it all mean?  I’m not entirely sure.  I don’t think many US colleges are blocking women from studying STEM fields, and so in some sense, I probably agree with the central idea of Powers’ argument.  It seems to be a bigger cultural problem.  Does that require government intervention at the college level?  Maybe not.  But considering some of the uncertainty in how women transition from being STEM students to being STEM professionals, I’m not sure I’m ready to discount the idea of this program.  I would also say it seems naive to think we can have such a culture and not expect it to affect the behavior of some individual officials at the college level, such as an older professor who may discourage women from declaring a major in his department.  As we hear more stories of brogramming or just outright sexism in the tech industry, maybe it’s worth checking to see if that comes from the universities producing these workers.