Thursday, April 30, 2009

You put WHAT on your slides?

The vast majority of time, I don't have to think about sexism. But every once in a while, someone crosses the line. It sounds like this is what happened at a Ruby on Rails conference recently:

The second low point was Matt Aimonetti’s talk “CouchDB + Ruby: Perform Like a Pr0n Star.” It is unfortunate that he took this joke too far. What might have been a short, juvenille, eye-rolling bit of humor continued throughout the talk to become increasingly disturbing.

Awkward. Definitely awkward:

Then I encounter a woman’s thonged rear on the screen at a conference, 20 feet tall, and I remember, oh yeah, people like me don’t belong here.

But, honestly, this sort of thing happens often enough that I hear stories about it all the time. So why am I posting about this one? Well, this time, someone helpfully collected a selection of thoughts from actual women on the subject, and it's pretty illuminating, even funny:

What about a presentation about writing code on deadline: “Delivering Like a Birth Mom.” Or how about graphic images of up-close breastfeeding in a talk titled “Nursing Your Projects Along.” I have four kids. I breastfed. I’ve hunted. I even like porn! But two great tastes don’t always taste great together, and that is the point that so many seem to have failed to make, or to get.

The quotes include some great commentary on the usual "it's a joke!" defense:

And if people don’t “get” your “jokes,” the correct response is not “There’s something wrong with you” but rather “Lemme take that one back to the drawing board.” Teachers don’t get to blame their students, writers don’t get to blame their readers, and comedians never get to blame their audience.

And they talk a little bit about how sometimes the responses in the aftermath are much more problematic than a few softcore porn slides:

The key is the right to complain safely. When complaints are predictably met with accusations of “overreacting”, “political correctness”, and “intolerance”, the resulting message is: Be like us, be silent, or leave.

I feel a bit like an onlooker at an accident scene reading this stuff after the fact. But it is rather fascinating to see the reactions. Unsurprisingly, they are varied, although most tend toward unimpressed with the slides and the talk.

One of the women who tweeted about this commented that it reminds her some of a previous incident in another community, so I'm going to end with a choice comment from the post she linked:

It is an unfortunate situation that often people when they're told, "hey, would you please be polite?" they respond with "NO, BECAUSE THAT INFRINGES UPON MY HUMAN RIGHT TO BE AN ASSHOLE!"

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Let's Talk Chemistry!

Originally written for my personal blog.

I finally got to do a really, really cool Let's Talk Science activity at my old high school with my partners Zahra and Carolyne. It was a chemistry magic show, where we played with everything from slime to fire to liquid nitrogen. Oh yes, and we taught them some chemistry on the way.

Here's me in 'mad scientist' mode, posing with the Evil Scientist Brew made with dish soap, sodium hydroxide, universal indicator, and dry ice. The dry ice creates the 'smoke' and acidifies the solution, eventually changing its colour.

Evil Scientist's Brew

Bubbling Away

The fire comes after playing a trick on one poor, unsuspecting student. We asked him to mix together two solutions for us into a homogeneous solution. Much to his dismay, though, a solid is created! We ask him to fix his 'mistake' by burning (and thus melting) it, but it turns out that doesn't work either because what we've actually made it Sterno.

So once we have our fire going, we throw in various metals to get pretty colours.

Potassium Flames

I had a lot of fun demonstrating the fast burning nature of gun cotton...

Gun Cotton, Part 2

...and the students loved our elephant's toothpaste...

Elephant Toothpaste

...making slime...

Making Slime

... and playing with liquid nitrogen!

Liquid Nitrogen: In the Sink

There are many more photos of these 'experiments' and others (like 'death to the gummy bear') available on my Chemistry Magic Show Flickr set (all photos that I'm not in were taken by me).

This just goes show how much fun outreach can be!

Sunday, April 26, 2009

CRA-W Grad Cohort

I had the good luck to be selected to attend the Committee on the Status of Women in the Computing Research Association, or CRA-W, Grad Cohort this past March. I highly recommend it for any of you female computer science grad students! (I'm sure we'll post information about applying when it becomes available.)

I wrote up some posts about it on my personal blog that most of you should find interesting:

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Cursed With Curves

CU-WISE's outreach officer and computer science student, Lana Lodge, recently wrote a song about what it's like being a smart woman in a sea of men. While she originally submitted it anonymously, she's received great feedback about it (including from me!), and would now like to share it with her name attached. Great job, Lana!

Cursed With Curves
Lana Lodge

What is it about an intelligent girl that threatens the world, that threatens the world?
What is it about me that's frightening to see, when you look at me?
What is it about an intelligent girl that threatens the world, that threatens the world?
There's people in heaven, know better and see, women belong in my degree.

The thrill of the chase and winning first place building a solution and solving a case.
I feel most alive
When I run and I drive.
What makes me a woman is what makes me thrive.
I won't stifle my drive and I won't compromise, because of some guys.

What is it about an intelligent girl that threatens the world, that threatens the world?
What is it about me that's frightening to see, when you look at me?
What is it about an intelligent girl that threatens the world, that threatens the world?
I wish that some thing'd come down from the sky and open their eyes.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Be proud; be loud!

My post about Carleton computer science research winning accolades reminds me about a tradition from Linuxchix that I'd like to see adopted by WISE.

A lot of women's accomplishments go un-noticed. There's various reasons for this, but one of them is that women tend to shy away from bragging. But you know what? I want to hear about the amazing things my female colleagues are doing. And often, if you don't mention it, no one else will, and no one will know! This is especially true within CU-WISE where we come from different departments and won't always hear the gossip about neat things going on elsewhere in the school. So enlighten us!

In Linuxchix, we have a tradition of "horn tootin'" posts, where it's perfectly acceptable (and expected!) that women brag about their achievements, whether it's setting up their own firewall, learning how to turn a heel, getting an article published... There's a lot of great things to celebrate, and it's incredibly inspiring to hear about all the neat things other women do.

So I'd like to encourage our WISE women to do the same. Got something neat you've done that you'd like to share? Or maybe you know someone who's too shy to mention the great scholarship they won or the amazing research they've been doing? Email me (terri (at) with a tale I can put on the blog!

Carleton Computer Science: having an impact on the world of CS research

Carleton University ranked in the top 5 universities in Canada for computer science research!

The universities were ranked based upon the average number citations per paper (a reasonable estimate of how much impact research has on the world) from 2003-2007.

Carleton's long been plagued with poor academic reputation, and it's nice to see that when you measure based on impact rather than what people think, we're right up there in the big leagues. And if you'll allow me to indulge in tooting my own horn, I'll mention here that my first paper (published in 2003 at Carleton) garnered 30 citations according to Google Scholar. That's well above the school average! Probably not all of those counted for their study, but I'm proud to say I'm helping!

Congratulations to our computer science researchers!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Boys have problems too

Leonard Sax MD PhD is the founder and executive director of the National Association for Single Sex Public Education. His first book is called "Why Gender Matters". But for a change, I thought I would focus on the males and talk about his latest book called "Boys Adrift". In this book he shows 5 reasons boys are having behavioral and educational problems:

1. Video Games

Boys spend less time in the real world, like playing outside, where they can face real problems and use their imagination.

2. Public Education

Boys are pushed to learn and behave long before they are ready, at a time they just want to run around energetically.

3. Over-medication for Behavioural Problems

Boys are being over-prescribed for medications for disorders such as Attention Deficit Disorder.

4. Lack of Male Role Models

A boy without an active father might not have any role models and instead look to their friends, celebrities, and television characters. I would like to add that it doesn't help that divorce is a lot more common nowadays.

5. Toxins in Plastics

Dr. Sax shows how chemicals from plastics change boys' brains.

There you have it, both boys and girls have a lot to face!

Lise Meitner, "our Marie Curie"

Nuclear fission is the splitting of atoms. The process is used to this day in nuclear reactors to produce energy. In Ontario, it is used to make almost 50% of our electricity.

Going back to a time of terrible gender discrimination in Germany, a Jewish Austrian physicist, Lise Meitner, discovered nuclear fission with her colleague Otto Hahn (a German chemist) in 1944 (their photo is included to the right). But only Hahn received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for the discovery.

Historians say that she was not a recipient of the Nobel Prize because, in the midst of these revelations, she had to flee from Nazi Germany, which saved her life but disconnected her from the laboratory and her colleagues. My guess is that nobody fought for her to receive the prize, and if anyone did it didn't help. Other opinions are that Neils Bohr was too excited to keep her insight a secret, or that her being Jewish and female played a role. Maybe we'll never know, but the least we can do is celebrate her intelligence, her courage, and her human nature.

But don't think she wasn't recognized at all for her great scientific mind! She was awarded as "Woman of the Year" by the US National Women's Press Club in 1946, received the Max Planck Medal of the German Physics Society in 1949 (and nominated 2 more times), received the Enrico Fermi Award in 1966, and had an element named after her in 1997: element 109, meitnerium.

Einstein respected her and called her "our Marie Curie".

Thursday, April 9, 2009

My Exam-Time Tips

Most students here at Carleton are writing exams or working on final projects. This is the first April that I'm not doing the same thing - I'm in my second year of my Master's trying to finish my experiments for my thesis instead! But, needless to say, I've done it many times before, and have developed a pretty good system for studying for exams. While everyone learns in different ways, this strategy should work well for anyone in science and engineering, perhaps with some small modifications.

The basic idea is to find a couple of different ways to force yourself to retain the information you learned in your classes.

My first step (and probably where you all should start) is writing what I call a summary sheet. I comb through my own notes and the professor's slides, looking for key information. I write these down on real paper with a real pen, because when using a computer, the temptation to copy/paste is often too high. Plus, the act of thinking about what to write and then physically writing it is actually the first retention technique. It's amazing how much more I know about the course after doing this. It can take a few days if the time is available between exams dates, so don't procrastinate on this.

I sometimes pretend that my summary sheet is a cheat sheet that I can bring in to the exam with me. While I don't set a strict page limit for it, I do pretend there is some arbitrary one. That way I don't rewrite the whole course, but rather summarize most important stuff in my own words and pick out key information. Again, the extra thinking required to do this helps me remember the content.

Ok, so now I have this summary sheet. What's next? Well, this is where you might like to modify my strategy to fit your learning style. At this point, I like to be forced to recall the information verbally by having a friend (or even, say, my dad - they don't need to understand it) look at what I wrote and devise some straightforward questions about it. You may also want to look at it, cover it up, and try repeating it as a more rote way of memorizing the material (this might work better for practicing formulas, too).

After all that, I sleep. It's so important to be well rested for the exam. Even if I'm not done going through the whole course, I know when to stop, because not sleeping enough will be worse than not being able to answer a question or two on the exam. The next morning, I eat a good breakfast, and read over my summary notes one last time. But I just read them - I don't usually try to recite information or do any more memorizing, because that can be stressful (the last thing you need is more stress!).

Finally, I bring some water to the exam, and just relax! Nothing I do after sitting in that chair is going to change anything.

Give this method a try, and once you get the hang of it, you might even like it. ;) Best of luck on all your exams!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Exams are coming and the happy lamp is here to help!

I was TAing one day and something caught my eye... something pretty, something bright, something that stood out white in the yellowness of the room. I didn't realize this right away, but a lamp was hypnotizing me with happiness.

Now you might think I'm crazy, but this lamp is special. It's called the "Ott-Lite Vision Saver Plus Full Spectrum Light", and it mimics natural daylight... and doesn't natural daylight make you happy? Now I don't think that this lamp will provide you with a tan, but it's proven to cause less strain on your eyes than regular electrical light.

I was so intrigued that I bought the same lamp a few days later at Canadian Tire for $50. Now those late nights studying for exams will be happier late nights.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009


The strong women of CU-WISE

Communicating through body language
After our yoga session in November, we thought it would be fun to try a different class for the end of winter term, so yesterday a bunch of the CU-WISE women gathered to try out Zumba.

Zumba is a fusion of aerobics with latin dance, set to great international music. One of the things I loved about it is that our instructor communicated almost entirely through body language, so despite the gym setting, it felt a bit like dancing in a club rather than the traditional "two more, one more" aerobics. And the music can't be beat.

Having a good time
Most of us had never tried zumba before, and despite a couple of problems with the CD player, I think everyone had a lot of fun!

[More photos from our Zumba class]