AAAS Lecture Series on Women in Science and Engineering

Essay: Haydee Salmun


I am a woman trained initially in physics, working in the field of the geosciences with emphasis on oceans and atmospheres. My work is quantitative and embedded in that subset of the world of science that includes engineering and applied mathematics and has been and still is less open to women and minorities. The first of my professional achievements was to work on an important problem during my Master's studies, when issues of climate and climate change had just began to be of focal interest to scientists. The second was to obtain my highest degree from a prestigious institution, working with a highly regarded scientist. Scientifically, our pioneering work on turbulent boundary mixing set the stage for much of the work on that subject in the following years. This work was, and still is, regarded as a very important contribution to elucidating some important processes at work in oceans, lakes and estuaries. I have published my scientific work in the top journals of the field, such as the J. of Fluid Mechanics, J. of Atmospheric Science and J. of Geophysical Research. I obtained a prestigious post-doctoral position at the University of Oxford, England. There, while extending the research of my doctoral thesis, a problem caught my attention because of the very well established results reported in the literature that I could not reproduce at all. I persevered in this work, convective motion due to heating and cooling in places such as an attic or a lake, and proved that the accepted results were incorrect. This important contribution motivated others to further research the topic. I regard the opportunity to join Hunter College as another important professional achievement. Our present work on understanding the impact of land-surface heterogeneities on climate and climate variability is at the cutting-edge of research in the field of climate dynamics. Scientifically, our results (and those to come) constitute an important contribution to the field because they demonstrate that our climate models can capture the influence of a heterogeneous surface on the vertical structure of the turbulence above it, and the impact of that influence on climate. This has important implications for the climate impact of land-use change such as deforestation and urbanization. This work has resulted in two major publications to date and has been presented in conferences and invited talks. Finally, I consider it an achievement that while I have pursued a career as a scientist, I have maintained an interest in subjects that belong to the humanities. As a result of developing and teaching innovative courses on women in science, I have contributed a well-received scholarly paper to the field of Feminist Critiques of Science.

Awards have come at critical moments in my career. First was the Gilman Fellowship, which afforded me the freedom to focus solely on my studies during that crucial first year of my doctoral career. Later in 1998, while holding a research position for which teaching was expected but hardly valued and recognized, a Hewlett award was bestowed for an original and creative idea involving a freshman seminar on climate and climate change. Most recently, in 2002, a fellowship was granted through the Gender Equity Program at Hunter College to assist my research as well as my commitment to guide fellow women scientists as they develop their own careers.

Challenges to be overcome are too many to describe, too frequently encountered to enumerate. From the start, I was persuaded at the end of high school in Argentina not to study mathematics, which was what I wanted to do. Under the guise of 'helpful advise' special counselors let me know that all 'the tests indicated' that I would do better studying chemistry, since I did have 'some talent for numbers'! I ended up choosing physics in the end but eventually had to leave the country, which was in a constant state of political and economical turmoil, hardly conducive to the pursuit of a scientific career. Challenges faced by a woman in physics, which is a male-dominated field are both overt and more subtle and result in a constant (and so tiring!) undermining of one's ability to succeed in the field. I offer two anecdotes to make my point.

It is the year 1979. I join a small physics department and find out I am the only female graduate student there. I wanted to work in a laboratory of low-temperature physics but was made uncomfortable by the 'culture' in the place: images of half naked women, inappropriate jokes and a professor that in the first week invited me in rather unequivocal terms (I did not need English to understand that!) to have a drink in a place 'away from campus'. In the classroom, my fellow students seemed not to accept any of my answers about 'why I study physics'. Eventually I was asked rather directly 'Why do you study physics if you are going to get married and have children?' These questions only increased my sense of isolation at the time. At the end of the first semester, I became a small celebrity because I had not fail any of my courses and was doing rather well!

It is the year 1997. I walk into the office of one of my former professors, now a colleague, to discuss a work related matter. Much to my distraction there sits, directly in my line of vision as I speak to him, the image of a woman's voluptuous behind, wearing a string thong and a smiling face. I did not see a way to make him aware of his 'oversight', shortened my conversation to a minimum, left his office and have not been there since. Nearly twenty years had passed and certain aspects of the work environment still resist change.

Challenges can also take a much more direct and obviously damaging form. One example will suffice. During my first post-doctoral appointment I prepared the manuscript for the first paper derived from the work of my thesis (by far the most important in one's career) and submitted it to the most prestigious journal in my field. In the end it took three years and the very angry intervention of my mentor for the paper to see the light of day. The story, too ugly to detail, involved one of the editors, his former student and prot*İg*İe, one of the very 'anonymous' reviewers at the time, and another reviewer (let's call him Rev A) who considered our findings 'bogus science'. His (yes, it was a 'he') objections seemed to hinge on the fact that we showed that some earlier theoretical predictions we ourselves had made based on our limited experimentation (which he himself had used as a basis for some of his own work) had not been supported by my experiments and I was offering a new theoretical framework to explain the processes at hand. Rev A wanted me to 'simply report on the experimental results' and leave the theory to more 'experienced scientists'! This type of vocabulary and pedantic attitude seems to be reserved for women, early in their careers. In the mean time, Rev A wrote another short article on the subject and the editor's prot*İg*İe also got his first and only article on the topic (work he had started after a summer visit to my laboratory) published in the very same journal of this story! I cannot stress the impact of this damage to the work of someone trying to establish a career - in time delays, in undermining confidence in one's own work and abilities and in undermining the confidence of those in the funding agencies who have to rely on the judgment of other qualified scientists. In my experience and that of others, this not only happens to women more often in my field but it affects women more adversely that it seems to affect male scientists.

One of the most difficult challenges for women in science in the academic sector is related to the types of positions that women seem to fill. There are relatively many women that complete their doctorate degree at top institutions. There are relatively very few women holding tenured or tenure-track jobs at those institutions, or many others for that matter. The vast majority of women that hold PhDs will be found in academic institutions but will be in the so-called 'soft' money positions (which rely solely on the continued ability to bid successfully for grants), a much more tenuous position from which to launch a career in academia. These positions are not taken as 'real jobs' by the dominant culture of academia and in some cases, also by the funding agencies. Once in these positions, women find it nearly impossible to be considered for a regular position. They are then excluded from the decision process as regards curriculum development, future directions of the department and of research in the field, etc. My case attests to the stark difference that it makes to a career to move from a research position to a 'real' faculty position. This includes the recognition I receive for my contributions, the support I receive from the College and the department and a more positive response from funding agencies.

It takes an enormous determination and an unwavering passion for one's subject of work to persist at 'it' in the face of all these challenges. As I have tried to convey here, one must recognize the genuine support of colleagues when offered and take full advantage of every opportunity to work with others, particularly women. This helps staying focused and minimally productive through the many times in which the obstacles seem insurmountable. A supportive social environment, which starts at home, is very important. Mentors and role models invariable play a large role in the life of all people and we are not an exception to this rule. Institutions are slowly changing to foster the active participation of women in science, and this can only work in our favor!

The reason I became a physics student has much to do with an incredibly lively physics professor. As I struggled to 'do chemistry' while not liking it at all then, I stumbled into a course taught by Silvia Duhau. She became my idol and later on my mentor. She was a small-framed woman with an enormous energy and a love for her subject that just poured out of her entire body! Most of all she did believe that I could study physics! The second person instrumental in helping me stay in science was Gerald North, who was the first person to treat me as a normal being in the physics department I was at, and trusted I could succeed at my work. Owen Phillips was the reason I decided to pursue a doctorate. At a very difficult junction in my professional life, after a rather stressful experience at one university, I 'dared' to call him for an interview. He was kind, respectful and considerate. His rather modest style could not conceal his warmth. He asked that the department consider my application despite the deadline and 5 years later I was his first female 'successful' PhD! He is a man I admire and respect, he understood my love for physics and science and he helped me channel it toward the physics of fluids, which is an incredible dynamic, theoretical yet very applied field within physics.

I am committed to talking to and with female scientists because I am a female scientist. I devote a considerable amount of my time to teaching science, and about science, to women in science and engineering. Outside the classroom, mentoring women and minorities has become a major drive in my continuation in academia, as well as one of the most rewarding activities in my professional life. I view sharing experiences and expertise with foreign colleagues in the same light.


 

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