Shortly After Hell Freezes Over: Interview with Elisabeth Montegna

Elisabeth Montegna is quite a prolific blogger, with SECular Thoughts being just one of her virtual spaces. We finally got to meet at the second Science Blogging Conference in January and took a tour of the Museum of Natural Science in Raleigh together.
Welcome to A Blog Around The Clock. Would you, please, tell my readers a little bit more about yourself? Who are you? What is your scientific background? What is your Real World job?
I’m a senior graduate student at the University of Chicago. Since I get a stipend, I consider that my real world job. I graduated college from Boston University with a BA in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. After that, I worked four years as a research technician in two different labs at U of Chicago. Then, I started the graduate program in Molecular Genetics and Cell Biology. I hope to finish my thesis work in the next few months.
In my lab, we are interested in how cells form and maintain intracellular structures. In order to function properly, eukaryotic cells have specialized structures called organelles which carry out particular functions. How a cell is able to construct a structure for a particular purpose and how those structures are “inherited” when a cell divides is not very well understood. My research focuses on two factors (proteins called Sec12 and Sec16) that are important for organizing structures called transitional Endoplasmic Reticulum (tER) sites which are part of the early secretory pathway. I want to understand the roles Sec12 and Sec16 play in organizing tER sites.
What do you want to do/be when (and if ever) you grow up?
A mom.
Professionally, this is a much more difficult question to answer. Unfortunately, grad school has turned me off of bench science, so I’m not planning on pursuing a research career. For most of my life, I have been interested in science education and that is what I plan to pursue in some way when I graduate. How exactly I will do that, I haven’t decided. Right now, I’m most interested in becoming a professor at a community college or designing exhibits at a science museum (I realize these are two very different things–this may give you some idea of the breadth of my interest in science education). I’ve also considered teaching high school science, teaching elementary school science, teaching science to elementary school teachers, science writing, and science curriculum development. Mostly, though, I’m interested in public science education for adults which is why I’m interested in teaching at a community college or a science museum.
I am one half of what people like to call a ‘two-body problem.’ My husband is an astrophysicist. Currently, our solution to the two-body problem is to live many miles apart from each other but neither one of us likes that so much. His interests are very specific and strangely enough, there aren’t that many jobs out there for astrophysicists so our plan is to settle wherever he can find a position. Given my broad interests, I should be able to find something to do that I enjoy.
Or, I might open a yarn shop.
When and how did you discover science blogs? What are some of your favourites? Have you discovered any new cool science blogs while at the Conference?
I discovered science blogs after reading Chris Mooney’s The Republican War on Science last summer (spring?). I first found ScienceBlogs and from there followed the links and blogrolls to other science blogs. As for favorites, there are so many good ones out there, it’s hard to choose. Of course, I love A Blog Around the Clock. 🙂 At ScienceBlogs, I regularly read Thus Spake Zuska, Sciencewomen, Laelaps, Drugmonkey, Terra Sigillata and Adventures in Ethics and Science. I also read the combined feed when I can so I read bits and pieces of other blogs. Outside of ScienceBlogs, I read Young Female Scientist, post doc ergo propter doc, and Cocktail Party Physics. Since the conference, I’ve started reading Pondering Pikaia and Open Reading Frame.
Oh dear, I’m sure I’ve forgotten somebody. I’m sorry if I did.
Do you have a blog and if so, will you tell us about it, your experience in science blogging?
I don’t have A Blog. I have several blogs. Because I’m weird like that. I started out with a knitting blog. That’s when I discovered how rewarding blogging can be and how quickly you can become involved in an online community of bloggers. Then, I decided to start a blog for my family to read about how my labwork is going because I got tired of them asking when I was going to graduate. Then, I started a blog under a pseudonym to blog about life in lab because I needed to vent. I enjoy that blog a lot, but I decided that I wanted to be able to talk more about my actual research which is tricky when you are blogging anonymously. So, I decided to start a new blog I call SECular Thoughts (referring to the fact that I work with Sec proteins). I’m still trying to find my voice with that blog. When I started the blog, I had a pretty solid idea for the focus of the blog and what I wanted to write in it. Except that the focus started to feel a little restrictive and that kept me from posting very much. One thing I’ve learned is that it’s hard to force the blog to be a particular thing if that’s not what feels natural to you. So, I need to spend some time writing on a blog for awhile before I know what exactly it’s going to shape up to be. I haven’t gotten to that point yet with SECular Thoughts. But, it will happen.
For me, science blogging is a natural extension of my love of science education. Whether it’s an entry explaining scientific concepts or an entry talking about the trials of being a graduate student, blogging has the potential bring aspects of science and scientific life to people who have no other way of experiencing it. Additionally, blogging has given me a community in which I feel comfortable. If you blog about science in any way, you have some interest in science communication. Most of the people I interact with face to face in my daily life have very little interest in science communication.
In medical blogging, most physicians who blog about their patients’ cases do so anonymously. In science blogging, it is mostly women who do not reveal their real names. Why is this so? When do you think this will change?
Ah, the whole anonymity issue. I think this is a complex issue and there’s no one answer. Here are my two cents. Few people would disagree that women are at a disadvantage in the sciences. We are underrepresented, we get paid less, we are openly (and not-so-openly) discriminated against. Just the fact that we have two X chromosomes counts against us. Yet it is not okay for people to say, “Because you are a woman,” when they don’t offer you a job or deny you tenure. So, people (consciously or subconsciously) look for other reasons to not hire or give tenure to women. The woman in question didn’t publish enough or have enough grants or didn’t show “proper dedication to the scientific lifestyle” (translation: she had a baby). It would be all too easy for someone to say, “Well, she spent a lot of time blogging so clearly she wasn’t very dedicated to her work,” or maybe, “She said unflattering things about the department on her blog so she obviously is not loyal to the university,” or possibly, “She spent a lot of time online whining about her graduate career, is that really someone we want to have in our lab?” Remaining anonymous eliminates that threat (in theory).
Women give many answers for why they wish to remain anonymous, but generally those answers all go back to being afraid of ruining their careers through blogging. We know how precarious our situations are. We don’t want to jeopardize our already meager chances at making it in the world of science. When you think about it, the question isn’t really why do so many women choose to remain anonymous. The question is, why, knowing the risks, do women choose to blog anyway?
I think women are particularly drawn to blogging about their lives and personal issues relating to science because we don’t have a community in our “real world” to discuss these things in. There are issues that are of particular interest to women, yet there are very few women in science. A woman may find herself the only female junior faculty in her department, or the only female grad student in her lab. Who can she commiserate with? Who can she talk to about the problems that face her that are unique to women? Through science blogging, women been able to find a community that they can belong to, people who understand when they want to bitch about whatever stupid misogynistic thing some old guy said to her that day, people who can say “Yes, I have taken my infant to a conference because I was breast-feeding and this is how I handled it.” We can read these blogs and get advice and talk about our problems and discover that, although the vast majority of people we interact with in our labs on a day-to-day basis are male, there are still many female scientists out there. We are not alone.
When do I think this will change? Sometime after women are given truly equal status with men and have equal representation in all fields of science. In other words, shortly after hell freezes over.
Is there anything that happened at this Conference – a session, something someone said or did or wrote – that will change the way you think about science communication, or something that you will take with you to your job, blog-reading and blog-writing?
There were two things about the conference that left a lasting impression on me. The first was the sense of belonging I felt even though I had never met any of the people there before in real life. There I was, in the middle of a very large group of people who all cared deeply about science communication–just like me! It was amazing. I had found my tribe and it was good.
The second thing I was struck by was the chasm between science journalists and scientists and how most of that exists because neither side has any understanding of the day to day life of the other. There is a lot of resentment built up in the scientific community about how science is represented in the mainstream media but very few scientists have a clue about how the media functions and what the limitations are for individual reporters. On the other hand, many journalists do not understand what it is academic scientists do, how they function, and why a scientist may or may not have time to talk to a reporter at that very moment the reporter calls them. Scientists say that reporters constantly make egregious errors in scientific reporting and journalists counter with the fact that they have difficulty getting actual scientists to talk to them. This state of affairs cannot continue if we are truly dedicated to increasing public understanding about science. I’m not sure how this problem can be resolved, but I think more opportunities for journalists and scientists to interact can increase understanding on both sides and help move us toward solutions.
It was so nice to see you at the Conference and thank you for the interview.
It was great meeting you at the Conference, Bora!
Check out all the interviews in this series.


3 responses to “Shortly After Hell Freezes Over: Interview with Elisabeth Montegna

  1. Wow! What a great interview. I particularly liked Elizabeth’s thoughts on women and science blogging and pseudonymity. She said it so eloquently.

  2. Great interview, I agree. Thanks!

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