the entrance arch under the library to Vassar's campus with a banner hung welcoming the newest class: of 2011

Gender, scientists, and reductionism: Why Vassar is special

This fall, for the first time in four years, I'm not returning to Vassar. What better time to muse on the college's specialness?

Over the summer, a couple divisions became more apparent to me than they had been previously:

  1. Gender in technology fields - I worked in a lab at NASA Goddard of fifty-some interns/apprentices with a large number of mentors who dropped in on a regular basis. I was the only female on my project; I generally worked in a room with fifteen guys. Only one of the mentors I knew was female, and she was a professor from a collaborating university, not from NASA.

    I should emphasize that the difference I'm focusing on here is not in treatment but in sheer numbers. Why is it that fewer women end up in technology fields? The fact that so many prominent organizations focus on promoting women in technology -- including WIT, the Women in Technology project, NCWIT, and of course the Grace Hopper Celebration, which I attended last year -- suggests there's a problem. It's at the point where it doesn't even feel weird to be the only female in the room. Is there something wrong with that?

  2. Science vs engineering - I mentioned this recently. There is a clear division between those who have been trained as scientists and those trained as engineers. Yes, each have their own goals and purposes, but why isn't there more crossover?

  3. Reductionism vs dualism - As elaborated in one of the first essays I wrote here, I'm not a dualist. A prominent place to find dualisms is in many of the world's fine religions. Some of the conversations I had with people this summer have accentuated just how different that point of view is from my own.

The fact that I noticed these differences now -- not during a previous summer or semester -- highlights just how special a place Vassar is, and how different being at an undergraduate liberal arts college is from being in the rest of the world.

My closest friends at Vassar were also non-dualists; Vassar's mix of genders is unique enough to begin with that the ratio in technology-related majors continues to be unique; Vassar lacks an engineering department and is generally full of scientists.

The rest of the world has different ratios of people and mixes of beliefs. I'm finding it fascinating to explore.


"I got these pictures off the Internet."

This is not a sentence that should ever be uttered when one is giving a presentation, yet last week, a fellow student said those exact words.

"The Internet" is not a reference.

Chapters of books, articles in journals, and individual web pages can be references. The Internet, instead, is like a library: A place to find references. You don't cite your library in presentations.

Perhaps some of the confusion arises because all the content on the Internet is accessed through the same program (your web browser of choice). Because it is all seen in the same window on your monitor screen, it must all originate in the same place, right? Intelligent people know better, yet it is still easy to fall into the trap of assuming that images in particular and digital media in general belong not to one author, but to the vast, amorphous sea of information floating around cyberspace. If it shows up in a Google search, it's free for the taking, right?

I'm not going to lecture you on copyright laws or on how to properly cite images. But for the curious, here is a long and detailed explanation of copyright and digital images. If that's too long, pop a couple words such as "digital images" and "copyright" into Google and I'm sure you'll find a summary. I'll also recommend Chris Chesher's article on blogs and the crisis of authorship, a related but not identical topic.


The Internet. Accessed November 3, 2009.