Women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics

About this blog:
This blog discusses the impacts of being a woman on careers in STEM fields, and the role of STEM fields in bettering the world.

The more I learn, the more I see how everything is connected. For that reason, topics on this blog range from general career advice, to personal finance, to topics of concern to women, parenthood, motherhood, breastfeeding, gardening, Geek culture, and the environment. All with a hefty dose of Space Advocacy.

All opinions are my own, I do not speak for any agency or corporation.

Moving on
I've started a new blog. For the latest, see here.

About Layoffs
The summer I was 15, my dad came up for promotion again. As a military officer, he had two chances to promote up before he was discharged. This was the second time, and he was not promoted.

That was also the summer when we were expecting our brother Hi-tek.

On one hand, this meant that he didn't have to worry about getting leave to student teach in the spring. On the other hand, we had to move out of base housing, pronto.

I think both our parents were home, out of work for about six months. Mom found a job early the next summer, when I was 16, but it wasn't enough to keep the family in Omaha. When Dad's first teaching job offer came, from Indiana, we took it.

The salary for a first-year teacher took us below the poverty line. There were no opportunities for Mom to work in that small town. Especially not with infant Hi-tek and our youngest brother on the way. The four of us in school ate free school lunches for a year.  Mom, Hi-Tek, and the new baby all were on WIC.  The rental house had a garden in back, which we ate from regularly. Dad's teaching adviser regularly brought over more produce from their garden, and the elderly couple next year would often ask sguth1982  to come over, to pick up sweets she had made.

The following spring, the school decided not to renew his contract.

He found a new job over the summer, and we moved again. This time, Mom could find work too... in theory.  One of her first full-time jobs was at a bank.  She had mentioned that there were seasonal jobs there, but we were led to believe she had been hired to stay.  Shortly after the new year, they laid her off.

In addition to their full-time jobs, they took on one or two evening jobs.  Dad tutored, and Mom taught test prep classes.  Even with that, I guess the severance pay was running out.  One afternoon while the family was driving somewhere, Mom & Dad started making noises about using our savings accounts.  Taking the money I had earned, that I had saved to help me go to college, just MONTHS before I needed it to get myself out of the situation and into my college career.

Mom took me to at least one of their WIC appointments, maybe she figured it was an important life skill that I might need in the future.  (Thank goodness it hasn't happened yet.)  I did at least one of the shopping trips with WIC coupons, looking through the list of qualified items to pick up a set that we needed.

We survived.

It wasn't fun, it wasn't easy.

Mom didn't have time to make lasagna anymore.  When that was on the menu, it was mostly the frozen store-bought kind, and there were no leftovers.  I certainly wasn't starving... but I didn't turn down food, either.

cguthrie00  and I had voluntary jobs during high school.  We tried a paper route while we lived in Omaha.  I had had a pretty good babysitting business until we left Base housing.  Kawphy and sguth1982 had jobs in high school, and I think their choice was "what job," not "to work or not to work".  And, I gather, the money from their jobs also went to The Family.  Whether it was towards their tuition,  or their auto insurance, or what, I don't know.

Some of the things I describe above are uncomfortable at the least...  this was also just about the time of Welfare Reform.

My uncle once forwarded one of those spam e-mails, something that compared one's salary to a grade that a person earns by studying... and about people who went out partying every night, never studying, complaining when they fail.  Let's just say I don't see it that way.

Someone made a very loud comment in my hearing, about hoping that people who voted for Obama were happy about the layoffs.  It's probably better that I didn't find the words to reply.  I guess they didn't want to believe I'd already been there, and I take absolutely no joy in seeing anyone else suffer that, however transitory it may be.

Here is an older paper on the effects of poverty on children.
And here is a policy paper specifically about the Great Recession... the first ~10 pages are mostly good general information.  After that, it gets into specific political policies that I have not thoroughly read.  I would need to read through them and understand them before promoting those policies, therefore this is not an endorsement.

Dies the Fire

Evacuation Route

August, 2005
My grandfather had a medical issue, so that he was temporarily moved to a nursing home. I flew up to spend some time with him. The itinerary north included a layover in New Orleans, so I looked around the airport for a chance to try some of the local food. I had a strange feeling, that I should see what I could while I was there.

Two weeks later, Hurricane Katrina hit.

September, 2005
We had been living on the Gulf Coast for five years. Every time a hurricane entered the Gulf, we'd waited and watched to see what would happen. Usually with concern, prayers for the region. For Katrina, with horror.

So far, all of the hurricanes were far enough away that we continued living a normal life, watching the news north, east, south, wherever away from us the storm hit.

Hurricane Rita was different.

As before, we watched and waited for a few days. Tuesday night, I closed out class at the Dojang, and it occurred to me to say something to the few youth who were present, about being patient if their family evacuated.

By this time we were well aware that we were supposed to evacuate for even a Level 1 hurricane. We knew our evacuation route. It went the wrong direction for where we thought we would go. What that meant was that, in order to take the route we wanted, we had to leave before evacuation became mandatory.

Wednesday, I think, I woke up with the urge to GO, get out of town NOW.

So we called in "evacuating, using leave" to work, and we packed up.

If you ever want to know what you care about most, try packing to evacuate.
Things that made the list:
  • photographs
  • Grandma's quilts
  • clothing for several days.  I think  I packed for both casual/family and work
  • toiletries (though really, these could be purchased afterwards)
  • pets, and supplies for their needs.
Once we packed up, though, we didn't head north immediately.  First we went south, to check on a friend.  I'm afraid we weren't successful in our help, but we tried.

It was about lunchtime when we began to inch our way back north... and we actually stopped for a late lunch back in Clear Lake, maybe 30 minutes before the restaurant was about to close.

August, 1993

The youth group at our church in small town Indiana had raised the money to travel to Denver for World Youth Day, to see Pope John Paul II.  We were traveling through Denver to one of the MAJOR events of the week.  There were youth from all over the world there for the event.  The route we were taking had a bottleneck at a footbridge.

I was in the lead, and I found the crowd energizing.  I kept seeing spaces ahead, and inching further and further towards our destination within the mass of people.  I think we might have been nearly across the bridge when our chaperones called me back, and we retreated to a slightly less crowded space.  Another of the youth, local to that small town (I had only lived in the small town for 1 year) started having a panic attack from so many people, so close.  They'd never seen anything like it before.

We had to go around, find a different route, maybe even wait for most of the people to get in before we could continue on.

It wasn't for several more years, well into adulthood, that I realized my dad might  be like that youth who panicked.  That both my parents were from small towns in Indiana, whereas we had grown up around cities.

September, 2005
We finally left Clear Lake, TX, on the south side of Houston, about 1 pm.  It normally takes about 60 - 90 minutes to reach The Woodlands on the north side of Houston.  For the Rita evacuation, it took us 5 or 6 hours.

This was while my sister was in Iraq.  In addition to our 2 cats, we were watching 3 for her (2 of her own, one for our brother).  So we almost had to take both cars, splitting the cats between us.  We managed to stay together, through it all.

Somewhere towards the north of town, my husband held up a sign in the back window that said "Cat 5".  I saw it and got very confused.  Yes, we're transporting our 5 cats... what do you mean?
It wasn't until later that I heard on the radio that Rita had been upgraded to Category 5.

Somewhere on the north side of town we stopped at a Joann's fabrics to use the restroom.  I picked up some thread to make friendship bracelets after we had reached our shelter.

Farther north, we fueled up at a gas station / barbeque restaurant.  And there we saw a car we recognized, and stopped to greet our fellow evacuees.  Kind of a "You're out?  Good.  We're out too.  If you see someone we know, you can pass the word along."  I probably shouldn't have been surprised, we were all heading to the same state.  In point of fact, if some of my relatives had not moved back to Indiana before then, we could even have ended up in the exact same town.  But since they had left before I ever visited, there doesn't seem to be any point in mentioning connections to a town I've never seen.

We made it to Dallas about 11 pm, and started looking for a hotel to stop for the night.  At first we went looking for one that would accept cats.  But by 1 am on the north side of Dallas, we settled for a room for just us.  The night manager gave us a "no show" room.  I only asked for a couple of hours, standard checkout time, but he gave us until 1 pm.

We got the cats out a couple at a time, for food, water, and a chance to 'walk' on a leash, and then left them in the car overnight.

My husband was much more alert and thinking than I.  We woke up in the morning, and went to check on the cats, they were starting to overheat.  It was a good thing we had both sets of keys, we ended up purposely locking ourselves out of the cars, leaving them running with the A/C, while we got brunch.

And later that day, we arrived where we were going.

Things we learned from Hurricane Rita:
  • Evacuations are not fun for anyone.  It's important to find the right balance of patience and creativity.
  • When the power goes off, gas stations can't pump gas.
  • By the time the emergency is upon you, it's usually too late to go buy supplies.
April 27, 2011
I was at work when the power went out.  That's not unusual during a storm, often we just wait it out and it's back on pretty soon.  I was going to work late, but when the power didn't come back I decided to go.

It wasn't until I turned on the car that I learned the power was off for half the state.

I made it home safe, but we knew it was going to be a rough night.  A few weeks ago when we took shelter from a storm, it woke our small child & he wouldn't go back to sleep.  So we decided to make pallets and sleep in the closets. 

April 28, 2011
We woke up late in the morning.  We figured out that I (we) wouldn't be working the next two days, and that our weekend commitments were canceled.  I checked with the neighbors to see if anyone else needed supplies, and made a short run.

Many stores were taking cash only.  I heard from other people which groceries were open and taking plastic, made a list, and tried a short supply run.  There was plenty of dry cereal.  No bread.  Not much peanut butter, but several of the natural kind we try to use.  And no propane for our grill.

Brunch was a slice of bread with peanut butter.  DS had crackers and cereal.  We didn't want to open the fridge or freezer, that would let all the cold out.  It was later I heard over the car radio that the fridge was lost already.  They say refrigerated food can keep for about 6 hours with the power off.  By then it had been 18.  So we emptied the fridge.
We tried to get DS to nap, but he was resisting.  It was such a weird day, so silent.  Peaceful, in a way.  I halfway wanted to just camp out at home, work on the lawn, playing games, getting organized.  But:
  • We couldn't cook our food.  We didn't have charcoal, or a charcoal grill.  We didn't have propane, and we didn't have electricity.  I did have supplies for some cold meals, mostly peanut butter.  But not enough for four days of well-rounded cold meals.
  • We had to conserve water, so doing dishes, scrubbing floors, taking baths & showers were limited.
  • We were under a dusk-to-dawn curfew.  Which while quite sensible for the situation... chafes.  I don't usually go out later in the evening, but I like to be able to.
  • Emergency services (ambulence, fire, police) were strained near-to-breaking.  If we stayed, and if we had another problem, we would be on our own.  If we left, there would be fewer people for these services to worry about.
  • We could reach relatives, in a reasonable time, where we could get hot food, hot showers, and reasonably-priced, readily-available supplies for returning to a powerless house.
So we evacuated a second time.  We saw damage on our way out.  Wood power/telephone poles snapped like twigs, trees down, houses collapsed.

Not too far out of the county, we even saw electricity on again.  But we kept going at that point.  When we stopped at a restaurant for food, we saw someone we recognized leaving as we were going in, so we chatted a bit.  Small world.

This evacuation was NOTHING like evacuating Houston for Hurricane Rita.  Well, it had a few parallels, but not much.

Two Evacuations
 Hurricane RitaApril Tornadoes
TimingBefore the storm (relatively early)After the storm.
PacePainfully slow traffic jam A little bit of  "rush hour" slow traffic, mostly fine
Going outNo damage.Saw considerable damage.
StoresBeginning to close
Many/most closed
Coming BackSaw considerable damageSaw considerable damage and progress on repairs
Our PropertyA lot of fallen branchesOnly damage was spoiled food
MoneyLike usual.Cash is king in town
Like usual out of town.
Civil GovernmentI didn't see a lot of police cars, exits weren't blocked yet.I think we saw a few police officers directing traffic in the county
When we stopped for food in Tennessee, they also had police out to help with evacuee traffic.
PetsEvacuated with us.Provided food & water to stay at home.

Note: The subject of the post comes from a fiction series I've been reading.  It occurred to me, even as I was evacuating, that I might be overreacting based on the stories.  S.M. Stirling's Change series is an alternate reality fiction.  It has as it's premise an event called "the Change," in which high-technology (electricity, guns, pneumatics, explosives, etc.) stop working, suddenly, worldwide.  "Dies the Fire" is the first book of the series, describing the event and the immediate responses/repercussions.

Poverty: Untying the knot | The Economist

Poverty: Untying the knot | The Economist

Women’s History Month « Women in Planetary Science

Women’s History Month « Women in Planetary Science

THIS.  Oh this.  I have known women who work for NASA who used to be cheerleaders, who used to be on the pom-pon / dance team.  There are others who are self-professed geeks like me.

Elizabeth Lindsey: Curating humanity's heritage | Video on

Elizabeth Lindsey: Curating humanity's heritage | Video on

Among the books on my parents shelves, were the works of Thor Heyerdahl. Kon Tiki, The Ra Expeditions, and one on Easter Island. I was struck by the concept of using ancient, ancient technology to cross the oceans. Struck by the "Star Trek"-style international and interfaith composition of the crews of the expeditions. Struck by the faraway places.

Once, in college, I was browsing the Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education (HSSE) library at Purdue when I came across another Thor Heyerdahl book, with maps of ocean currents, showing ways that ancient peoples could have traveled the seas in simple canoes.

Alas, I don't have the name of the book. And as an engineering student, I didn't have the luxury of time to check it out and peruse it as I would have liked. It feels strange, that this missed opportunity still stands out to me, 12+ years later.

The video also reminds me of something I read once in the Society of Women Engineers magazine, about water-priests. This book indicates they were Hindu water-priests in Bali. I encourage you to read pages 48-51 of the linked Google book in their entirety.

As an engineer, I am trained and dependent on the scientific method. There are many people who believe that science and religion are incompatible. My brother, Kawphy, is an atheist who scoffs at all religion as useless superstition.

I see a middle ground. As the TED video on Polynesian waveriders, and the Google Book on Bali's Hindu water-priests show, I believe that religion is one of the ways in which traditional knowledge of seasons, weather, plants, animals, migratory patterns, waves, and many other scientific patterns come to us.

Gratitude: Yes, We Are Still Breastfeeding | Womens eNews
Gratitude: Yes, We Are Still Breastfeeding | Womens eNews

I breastfed for a little over 3 years.  The woman in this article quit her job to focus on breastfeeding.  Since my husband quit his job to be the primary caregiver, I didn't have that option.  Every woman and every family is in different circumstances, and should do what is right for their situation.

I pumped for about 8 to 10 months.  When I couldn't pump enough to get our child through the day, we supplemented with formula... but we made the commitment not to use formula when I was around DS.

This paragraph from the article is so, so, SO important:
"I share my story with you precisely because the circumstances that have made my breastfeeding experience possible are so exceptional and rare. Some of our success, as I've said, had to do with the luck of the baby draw, and the fact that I didn't struggle with milk production. But our ability to succeed long term also had everything to do with the early and continuing support I received from my community (the women around me who were also breastfeeding, my doctors, my partner, my mother and on), and with the good fortune of being able to make choices about my work life that, coincidentally, made breastfeeding easier. Those are luxuries that few women in America have..."

How do working moms handle spring break? : The Work Buzz

How do working moms handle spring break? : The Work Buzz

Brains and Beauty

Natalie Portman, Oscar Winner, Was Also a Precocious Scientist -

Second Generation White Collar
I read this article the other day: I'm first-generation white collar - Feb. 3, 2011

While I am not first-generation white collar, I am second-generation. There are elements of the article which still rang true for me.

In the book Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood inside the Fortress, Mary Edwards Wertsch writes about the vastly different frame of reference which military brats often have from their parents. One of the differences in frames of reference has to do with the military classism, distinguishing officers from enlisted.

My mother came from a large Catholic farm family. My father's had a single mother who worked in a factory. But because my father entered the military with a college degree, we were raised as Officer's children, with expectations that we would live a white-collar, middle-class life.

In Rich Dad, Poor Dad, Robert Kiyosaki describes his experience growing up with his birth father and his rich mentor. It occurred to me recently that I had a roughly similar situation, except that my "Rich Dad" came in the form of an insurance, banking, and investment company called USAA. We were still in the military when I began to drive, and that was about the time, USAA began sending ME newsletters on financial awareness, investing, safety, insurance etc.

I'm not certain that my parents ever learned the life lessons L. Marie Joseph describes in the first article. I read the finance articles (such as Octomom critiques) that expect all families to save for their children's education, and I have a hard time relating. By the time I was 10, I knew that I was expected to go to college, but that it was up to me (and whatever grants/loans/scholarships I could get) to fund it.

Then, as I came to adulthood, I began to realize that my parents "retirement fund" was their six children. I find myself conflicted, because that is the Traditional way of things, for children to care for their aging parents, in MANY global cultures. But it's not the American Middle-Class expectation. I believe Kawphy would call this cognitive dissonance.

I recently read C.J. Cherryh's novel, Regenesis. It's approximately like Brave New World meets Foundation, where the main character is something of a psychologist shaping the 'programming' of the mass-produced factory-built clone humans. The protagonist thinks about things like how adjusting the rules will affect the situation in the third generation.

I certainly hope that my son will be the third generation to go to college. I do have a college fund set up for him to help that dream. It will be interesting to see what expectations he grows up with.

How many generations of your family have gone to college? Do you see a shift in attitudes and finances over those generations?

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