Friday, August 29, 2014

Trail Names

This summer, my son hiked the entire Green Mountain Long Trail with a group of teens from his VT camp. Putting aside the naches-induced kvelling for now, I want to write about the concept of trail names. These are nicknames that long-form thru-hikers bestow upon each other (no-one gives themselves a trail name) that simultaneously celebrate their journeys and acknowledge the difficulties of the trail.

Some examples from my summer travels…

Holly Hobby (curly red-head/freckles)
Mister Blister (AT thru-hiker with crocs & duct tape as footwear)
Little Turkey (A kid that I know, who was spooked by a bevy of flapping grouse)
Left It Burning (don’t forget to put out that campfire!)

Summertime is wonderful, isn’t it? Wasn’t it?

And then there is today—there is my friend and colleague Hope Jahren’s blog post about a deranged colleague mis-sending her a nasty email full of vitriol. (I recognize and point out that the colleague's idiot actions have absolutely nothing to do with Hope at all. I hope that Hope’s chair/dean does the right thing and has an official notice placed in this person’s personnel file and insists that he obtain what appears to me to be much-needed psychological counseling. Dear Hope's Chair: Compulsory counseling is a thing. Use it.)

Hope's story shocked, saddened, and horrified me. And reminds me of my own experiences, many years of observations, and all of the other stories I hear from the women in science. Part of me wants to bury my head in my work and block out the mistreatment of self and others. Ignore it, hope it goes away, try to keep moving forward as positively as possible while looking for opportunities to promote change from within. After all, any criticism about my science is welcome—will only make my science better and me a better scientist. The psychological work that must be done to keep my keel down and sails out—that can only serve to make me a stronger wiser and hopefully more compassionate person.

The unfairness of it all— the discrimination of women in science at all scales, not just sensed and observed but documented in so many places, in so many ways—it’s real. It’s here. And it is in addition to the “normal” stresses of the job that we all have as scientists, including more  uniformly distributed generalized unfairness (perhaps this should be called the “non-gender-biased component of unfairness)—like the scramble for scarce resources we all must participate in, and the generalized lack of professionalism in the academic environment.

This needs serious counterbalance. How many attaboys make up for each awshit? 

I will tell you that my own personal professional requirements are consistent and humongous helpings of wonderful science with my days filled with data, discussion, working, and writing with a multitude of diversely talented, intelligent, clever and committed people.

My Vision:  We Female Scientists create about ourselves and our departments and our intellectual communities wonderfully rich and rewarding days, with immense intertwined systems acting to support all of us--women and men and research staff, undergrads, faculty, admin, grad students--as we continually push ourselves and each other to do our best science and be the best scientist-citizens we can be.

We need trail names, don’t we?

It might be small and simple but maybe a powerful way to share and celebrate the journey we are on as scientists while also affirming the nature of difficulties we encounter as female scientists on the trail.

So I’ll start the ball-rolling by suggesting:

Hope Jahren: Warrior of the Growing Life