Female in Lab: throwback Thursday

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Here I am in the in lab in the 80s. The first thing an experienced chemist will see is that I’m not using gloves and don’t have my hair pulled back. I have glasses but not safety glasses with a side shield. These are all considered unsafe lab practice today.

I’m using a syringe to apply molecules to a tiny punch of paper in a technique known as room temperature phosphorescence. After being dried with the heat lamp, the molecules will glow in the dark. I’ll put the paper in the instrument that can be seen far to the left and measure the glow. I studied psychoactive compounds, some  of which are controlled substances now.

No doubt the radio was playing 80s music loudly. I had an office just to the right of the lab and I shared it with people I liked. There’s a lot of waiting in chemistry and we filled the time by doing crossword puzzles. drinking tea and coffee, and playing computer games. The games had no visuals, only text. The best one was similar to  Dungeons and Dragons where you developed an identity and walked around looking for treasure (typing out commands such as “walk forward, pick up object, swing sword” and getting attacked.) You couldn’t just buy software then. Someone wrote the program and put it on the server. We all knew Fortran, haha.

This is my only photo of me in that lab. I did have a few female scientist problems but the department director was a black man, Leo Davis, who recognized subtle harassment and kept it at bay even as I wouldn’t admit any incidents to myself or confess that there was anything at all holding me back or that I was at all different from the majority. To be honest, I was also in the Writer’s Workshop and any trouble was “interesting “as writers like to say.

There were a few problems at first such as the female scientists being relegated to TA-ing all female labs. The thought was that the male students were so unable to control themselves that they would go wild in the presence of the females. After we griped about that enough, we were allowed to TA whatever labs we were best qualified to teach. I once got a complaint that I was too sexy to teach analytical lab. I did like to wear skimpy clothes but always closed toed shoes as chemist must wear.

Perhaps the worst incident was when I submitted my work to be published and a man stole my idea, redid the work, and published it. Fortunately he didn’t know what he was doing (reported the blank for example) and I published my data elsewhere after asking the journal to NOT let him review it.

Even with mild harassment, these were the uncomplicated days of my past, filled with camaraderie. If I didn’t have to make a living, I’d be in graduate school forever.

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