Women in Science panelists (clockwise from top left) Kristen Onos, Susan Letcher, Jane Disney and Elisabeth Marnik.

Female scientists share their experiences in online discussion



ELLSWORTH — “Science,” writes geobiologist Hope Jahren in her memoir, “Lab Girl,” “has taught me that everything is more complicated than we first assume, and that being able to derive happiness from discovery is a recipe for a beautiful life.”

The joys of science and deriving happiness from discovery was also part of a discussion on Oct. 3, when four local female scientists came together virtually to share their thoughts on the book and their own experiences as women in fields traditionally dominated by men. The discussion was hosted by the Ellsworth Public Library as the kick-off to its NEA Big Read, a series of community events focused around “Lab Girl.”

The women said they had been largely fortunate not to face overt discrimination in their fields, although several said they felt more likely than their male colleagues to have an idea not taken seriously or had heard the odd gender-based comment that made them uncomfortable.

“I feel like as a woman you’re more likely to get dismissed,” said Kristen Onos, an associate research scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in Bar Harbor who was the first in her family to go to college. “If I said something it would get dismissed, but if a male graduate student said the same thing…all of a sudden it was a great new idea.”

Jane Disney, director of the Community Environmental Health Laboratory at the Mount Desert Island Biolaboratory (MDIBL), pointed to Jahren’s experience being in a smaller, less well-equipped laboratory than her male peers.

“She was almost more alluding to things rather than calling them out as problematic, but there were problematic things,” Disney said.

Susan Letcher, a professor at College of the Atlantic, said that a “generational shift” has taken place as more women have joined the field.

“I’ve been extremely fortunate,” said Letcher.

“I don’t feel like I’ve faced a lot of discrimination…I don’t think we’re such an unknown quantity anymore,” she said, referring to women who hold higher level degrees.

The percentage of women getting degrees in science and engineering fields has mostly increased over the years. In 2016, women held a majority of the degrees in psychology (75 percent) and biological sciences (more than 50 percent) at all degree levels, according to the National Science Foundation. In the social science fields, women earned nearly half or more than half of all degrees in 2016 except in economics.

But women still made up only 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce as of 2017, and the percentage of women in some fields remains very low, such as engineering, where women make up 16 percent of the workforce. Over the past two decades, the share of women receiving bachelor’s degrees in mathematics and statistics has declined, as has the share of bachelor’s degrees in those fields earned by Blacks.

Perceptions of women’s abilities are slowly shifting both inside and outside the scientific fields, said Elisabeth Marnik, a postdoctoral researcher at MDIBL.

One of the most striking things she’d been told relating to her gender, said Marnik, was that “Women in science are liabilities because we like to have babies.” At the time, she had just gotten married but had not yet decided to have children. When she did become pregnant, said Marnik, she was worried about telling her mentor, although when she finally told him “He was great about it.”

“There are men in science, or even women in science, who think that if you decide to have a kid you’re not committed to your career,” said Marnik. “I think that is slowly changing, as people realize that women can do multiple things and dads can be fully committed dads and fully committed scientists.”

Several of the panelists pushed back on the notion that a scientist is somehow who spends day and night in the lab, working 100-hour weeks.

“You don’t have to work it all night to make it in science, but there will be times you want to anyhow,” said Disney. “Those nights are some pretty magical times, when you’re onto something and you can’t let it go.”

The library is hosting several more virtual events through Oct. 31 as part of the Big Read. For more information, visit http://www.ellsworth.lib.me.us/bigread/.

Kate Cough

Kate Cough

Kate covers the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. She lives in Bar Harbor and welcomes story tips and ideas. She can be reached at [email protected]