Monday, December 15, 2003

On Being a Female LDS Scientist

So where do I begin? First of all, there are not many LDS scientists to begin with and I’m not exactly sure why. There are approximately 2000 LDS scientists currently according to this link. I don’t know how many of those are women. What’s interesting is that Utah produces more scientists per capita than any other state for the last 60 yrs, 75% of whom are LDS. Of these, 83% percent classified themselves as strong believers and 90% of these felt that their religious beliefs and science theories could be harmonized. I think these statistics show that there is a great love for learning amongst LDS people and that most don’t believe that science and religion are mutually exclusive. Here’s a great paper on science & LDS scientists by Robert L. Miller.

Recently on Times & Seasons, there was an entry that posed the question of why there are few LDS women in the “hard” sciences and philosophy. I think LDS culture and theology play a large role. At an early age, it’s drilled into our heads that as women, our primary role is mother. We are told by our leaders over and over that we should stay at home with our kids and not work outside the home unless we have no other choice. So we have to plan ahead while we’re in high school for an education that will prepare us for employment that is family-friendly should we have to work.

I believe that most LDS women, if they attend college, plan for careers that involved only a 2 or 4-year degree. A woman can graduate with a bachelor’s by the time she is 21 or 22 if she attends full-time. This is the prime age for marriage and raising a family. I was almost 23 when I married, so I had a year to work after getting my degree. I was planning on going on a mission, but I met my husband before I submitted my papers. The majority of LDS women are getting married either before or right after they get their bachelor’s degree. And then most have children within a year or two of getting married. There simply is no time for graduate school.

It’s very difficult to attend school, even part-time and care for young children. I’m unique in that I had some health problems that prevented me from having children right away. I decided to use the time I had to further my education. Science is not a family-friendly (or female-friendly) career area. In order to get a position as a professor at most universities, one must have a Ph.D. and a post-doctoral fellowship or two. It can’t be done part-time either because it’s like having a full-time job plus overtime. Typically one takes classes the first two years while working the rest of the day and then one work full-time (and then some) in the lab until the thesis is complete.

The problem isn’t just that there are few LDS women in science, but there are few women in general in science (at least at professor levels). Only 10% of tenured professorships in the U.S. are held by women (link here) even though 25% of PhDs are awarded to women. Most of the women’s advocacy groups claim this is because of discrimination, but I’m not so sure. There may be some institutions where sexual discrimination is a problem, but I have never experienced it. I think the reason is that most women, when faced with choosing between family and a career in the sciences, choose family.

When looking at first year graduate students classes, there are about as many women as men, but over the years, many drop out. Some get married, some have children, and some decide they don’t want to do science anymore. When one finally gets to the post-doc level a lot of women have decided that they don’t want to go further. They might branch out into other fields such as science writing, technology transfer, patent law, etc. These are the prime childbearing years and once one steps off the academic career track, it’s hard to get back on. If a woman stops to have a child or two, then she has to choose to either stay at home with them until they are school age or shuttle them off to daycare at a young age and go back to the lab. The latter alternative is out of the question for most LDS women.

But things are getting easier. There are now day care centers on most campuses. There are more part-time post-docs available. I have met a few female professors that are able to juggle running a lab and caring for their children. But they have had to make big sacrifices. Either their research or their time with their children suffers. Mostly, the children grow up in daycare. If I were unmarried, none of these things would be an issue and I could pursue a position as a professor without any guilt.

Besides the issue of family, some LDS people wonder how one reconciles LDS theology with the theories of science, especially the theory of evolution. I’ll talk more about my ideas about evolution later. But to me science and religion, at least Mormonism, are not incompatible, but rather complementary.

Believe or not, most biological research has nothing to do with evolution directly. I could think the theory of evolution is totally bogus and finish my thesis project with no problems from my committee. Evolution is usually only an issue when relatedness of genes or fossils are being studied. For instance, biochemistry as a discipline involves taking apart a biological machine like a cell and trying to see how all the different parts work independently and then trying to reconstitute the cell. The evolutionary history of all the components is not that important. But the relatedness of an uncharacterized human protein compared to a well-studied homologous mouse protein can give insight into how the former protein functions.

I personally favor intelligent design in part because of LDS theology, and also because living things, even single-celled organisms, are incredibly complex. There are thousands of different enzymatic reactions that take place in various signaling networks that can have hundreds of different component proteins. These networks are robust to perturbations, but are also highly sensitive to targeted mutations. This is a strong indication to me that life did not evolve randomly, but was somehow organized by an outside force.

I’m fascinated by the complexity of nature. To me, science is like taking apart the little machines God has put together, and then trying to put them back together. Scientists are always trying to duplicate what God (or nature) has done. It makes me laugh when some Christians accuse LDS people of blasphemy because we believe we can be like God one day when that’s exactly what we as humans are doing every day. We are creating, organizing, and re-engineering things to make them better, to cheat death, and explore beyond our small planet. No other creatures of God do what humans do.

Yet, there seems to be a significant bias in the scientific community against those that are religious. Most scientists I know are agnostic or atheist and treat religious people as less intelligent and sophisticated. Scientists, who are supposed to be objective and deep thinking, can be just as bigoted and shallow as anyone. We all bring our unique worldviews with us. There was a time when it was unusual that a scientist did not believe in God. I hope that one day religious scientists will be the

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