A (soon-to-be) feminist biology post doc tells all! PLUS CAT PHOTOS.

In part 2 of our ongoing investigative journalism here at Gap Junction Science, I interviewed Caroline VanSickle, the holder of the inaugural Wittig post doc in feminist biology at the University of Wisconsin. (In part 1, we described the post doc.) Here’s what soon-to-be Post Doc VanSickle had to say! I asked hard hitting questions such as “tell us about your research.” and also “what’s paleoanthropology?” and don’t forget “what excites you about feminist science?” Don’t worry. I got to the bottom of all of this AND MORE. And, because of my impressive investigative and interviewing skills, VanSickle just gave me a bunch of cat photos WITHOUT ME EVEN ASKING. Along with captions. All I have to say about this is WOW. But also, that VanSickle has some fascinating things to say.

1) Tell us about your research (like: what’s paleoanthropology?!).

Paleoanthropology is the study of human evolution. Studying humans is different than studying alligators because we complicate our biology with culture. (editor’s note: but wouldn’t some scientists say that some non-human animals do have culture? That said, my money is not on alligators because they are too eatey-scary.) Figuring out how and when we started using cultural behaviors like language, tools, and kinship patterns, is just as important to our evolutionary story as figuring out when and why our skeletal form changed. Exploring this combination of biology and culture (definitely not biology versus culture) is what draws me to the discipline.

My specific research examines sex* differences in our hominin ancestors. Currently, I am completing my Ph.D. research on the evidence of childbirth differences between Neandertals (who lived 100,000-40,000 years ago) and humans. (editor’s note: this is how you can tell a real anthropologist from an imposter: they spell Neadertals without an ‘h’. If anyone ever writes you a note that says “give me all your money or Neanderthals!” you can say “you’re an imposter.”) For that project, I compared measurements of the pelvis of Neandertal females to that of recent human females and found differences that may have affected birth. For the Wittig postdoc, I plan to research sex differences in australopithecines, the very early hominins who lived in Africa 3 to 1.5 million years ago. (editor’s note: that is a long long time ago.) There appear to have been multiple species of australopithecines alive at roughly the same time; I want to figure out how we identify anatomical differences as being due to sex differences and not species differences.

*Paleoanthropological evidence consists of fragmentary skeletal remains. It is impossible to ascertain gender or nuanced sex categories from a complete human skeleton, let alone a fragmentary not-quite human one. This means paleoanthropologists are limited to discussing sex in terms of “likely male” and “likely female” individuals.

This bed smells delicious (there was still a pizza inside the box)

This bed smells delicious (there was still a pizza inside the box)

2)  Tell us why you applied for the Wittig post doc.

My research in evolutionary sex differences stems from an interest in figuring out the role females played in human evolution. A lot of previous work in paleoanthropology focused on explaining all of human evolution in terms of how it relates to males. For example, there was a hypothesis that hominins became bipedal so that men could hold weapons while hunting. That hypothesis excludes the possibility that a behavior done by women (or women and men) could have caused selection for bipedalism; for example, ability to carry babies or larger quantities of food. One aspect of my research goals is to challenge hypotheses like this by asking “what were the women doing?”

My goal as the Wittig Postdoc is to find ways to further incorporate feminist theory into my research and teaching practices. When I first saw the post on GJS (editor’s note: that’s us!) announcing this fellowship, which asked for someone “who wants to develop research skills in an area of biology related to gender and teaching skills in feminist approaches to biology” my immediate thought was “CHOOSE ME!!!” UW-Madison’s Anthropology department is an excellent place to undertake research on australopithecines, as one of their professors (John Hawks) is actively involved at a South African hominin field site and therefore knows the people and materials that have been found in the region very well. This, however, was really icing on the cake; the opportunity to develop my feminist science principles over two years of teaching courses for the Gender and Women’s Studies department and implement those principles in my new project was what first drew me to applying for the fellowship.

Oh you wanted to print something?

Oh you wanted to print something?

2) Many scientists, even scientists who identify as feminists in the non-science parts of their lives, feel uncomfortable with the notion of feminist science. How did you come to sidestep that discomfort and move to identifying with feminist science?

This is certainly an issue that many feminists and scientists and feminist scientists struggle with; and I am not sure I have fully resolved it in my own mind. I can best describe my current thoughts on what feminist science means by comparing science to one of my favorite feminist bands, Bikini Kill. I think most would agree that Bikini Kill was a feminist band (the lead singer, Kathleen Hanna, is credited with starting the Riot Grrrl movement and composing a feminist manifesto with other women on what the movement should entail).

To get labeled as a feminist band, Bikini Kill…

  • Existed as a women-led band at a time when this was unusual.
  • Sang about topics they found worthwhile, even if they met opposition.
  • Actively created a safe space for women at their concerts (punk mosh pits were often physically harmful for women, forcing women to stand on the sidelines or risk being trampled. Bikini Kill instituted “girls to the front” rules and kicked men out of concerts if they were overly violent or sexually aggressive).

In my mind, feminist scientists should have similar goals. In short, they should

  • Exist as part of women-led science until this stops becoming newsworthy.
  • Research topics they find worthwhile, even if they are met with opposition (this isn’t to encourage pseudoscience or fringe movements; this is meant to encourage research into a more diverse range of topics).
  • Actively create a safe space for women (and other under-represented minorities) within academia (including at conferences, in departments, in the classroom, within publications, etc.).

Despite identifying myself as a feminist paleoanthropologist (who does Feminist Science as well as Science While Being a Feminist), I am still relatively new to this discussion. I do not claim to be an expert on feminist science methodologies. I do firmly believe that since science is a human endeavor, we humans have the ability to change the process for the better. The suggestions I list here encourage better science for everyone, not just women, which is why I do not find feminist science to be a contradiction of terms.

Books put me to sleep.

Books put me to sleep.

3) What excites you about feminist science practice?

I tend to be overly pragmatic, which has been known to get me into trouble when I read overly philosophical works. My perspective is: science is how we learn about the world around us; feminist science is a way to expand science by including more people in the practice. The opportunity to be part of improving SCIENCE, and therefore our knowledge about the world, excites me beyond measure.

Shopping bags are for cats, right?

Shopping bags are for cats, right?

4) What’s your academic background? How did it prepare you (or not) for doing feminist science?

I’ve always considered myself a feminist, ever since I first learned the word back in middle school. Women’s rights – can’t go wrong with that! I read a bizarre assortment of feminist works I discovered at the local library or that friends recommended (it was normal to read Cunt in high school, right?). I took some women’s studies courses as an undergraduate (graduating just one course shy of a minor). In graduate school, I chose a research topic that would let me study the behavior of women in the past. I also took a seminar taught by GJS-member Laura Ruetsche on Philosophy of Science and Gender. This course was really when all of my previous ideas about Science and Feminism solidified. Reading Longino, Haraway, and many others, I finally felt I had an adequate vocabulary to explain how I thought the process of science worked, why I thought it worked, and how it could be improved by feminist principles. After that course, I found paleoanthropology-specific feminist critiques to read and started thinking about how to better incorporate feminism in my research and teaching practices. I never had a true feminist science advisor, though I have been advised by a number of scientists who I would consider feminists.

Gravity, what’s that?

Gravity, what’s that?

5) What would you say to aspiring feminist scientist trainees and junior folks out there?

If they are available to you, I recommend taking courses in philosophy of science, gender and biology (like the one I am teaching next fall at UW-Madison), or feminist history. If they are not available to you, there are some mind-opening readings out there that are great for helping you see how gendered scientific inquiry tends to be (readings that include the blog posts here at GJS). A paleoanthropology-specific reading list of such topics might include the books The Invisible Sex and Women in Human Evolution.

While informing yourself about issues relevant to feminist science is of course important, you should remember the power you have to advocate change right now. Just because you are a student, doesn’t mean you have to go along with gender bias.  The “See something, say something” principle described by anthropologist Julienne Rutherford shows the importance of pointing out everyday gender biases in science. (Editor’s note: also see our post about this for conferences and this post for saying something as a junior person!) It is of course important to read the situation and avoid putting yourself in danger, but part of being a feminist scientist is (or a feminist punk band) is not being afraid to speak up!

Finally, assemble a support network, ideally one that includes woman role models. This is important for everyone, not just aspiring feminist scientists; yet forming a community of support does fit with classic feminist principles. I found this support system through my lab mates at Michigan, as well as on Twitter where I interacted with (and sometimes just lived vicariously through) more senior scholars who were willing to share parts of their day with the public. Sometimes it can really improve your day to know that there are other researchers out there who are struggling with a manuscript, taking a break for a favorite TV show, and fighting the patriarchy both within and outside of academia.

My bipedal cat

My bipedal cat

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