Biologists Need More Angle Grinders

Biological science is aesthetically female
AUG 2019
Erika
A.
Biological Engineering

I was very surprised one day to realize that I had developed a single callous on the pad of my right thumb. I can’t remember the last time I got a callous: I don’t rock climb, play an instrument, or do extreme sports. I don’t even take classes anymore, so I rarely write with a pen. Then it hit me: literally the only thing I do with my right thumb is pipetting. It was a pipetting callous.

Of the jobs you can have where you “use your hands”, molecular biology feels like the least likely to leave a physical mark on your body. You could be welding something, a task so cool and macho (there are power tools AND sparks!) that people go out of their way to have characters weld things in movies. You could be hammering something, or perhaps using a screwdriver –– less over-the-top, but a solid activity. In contrast, molecular biology involves so many liquids that the whole business lends itself to association with words like squishy, wishy-washy, watered-down, and, of course, jellyfish. And to top it off, small things are cute. So all together, the aesthetic of carefully moving tiny volumes of clear liquid from one itty bitty tube to another (in a safe way, making sure not to spill!) ends up being dainty, or maybe prissy. Dainty things don’t give you callouses.

It’s hard not to notice that the aesthetic styles we associate with certain scientific disciplines are gendered: macho is male; dainty is female. And indeed, biology attracts the highest fraction of female graduate students in STEM fields, at about 50% women. I wouldn’t speculate as to whether this is correlation or causation. Despite these numbers, the connection between small-dainty work and women is not absolute. For instance, people generally assume that neurosurgeons are male and consider the precision required in neurosurgery to be sexy, not dainty. In the media, if there’s a neurosurgeon around, he's probably the male/romantic lead, such as Derek Shepherd from Grey’s Anatomy, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange. So, in some specific cases, the aesthetic style of doing biological science can seem masculine.

Although pipetting is a big part of biology, there are other components that don’t fall in the squishy-and-cute category. For example: autoclaves, gigantic human-sized metal pressure cookers that are used to sterilize glassware, are decidedly not cute. Also, before you can move small volumes of liquid you often start with a large volume, so there’s a good deal of lugging huge carboys of water/TE buffer up and down from shelves and the water purifier. Finally, biology labs use big freezers, with big heavy doors that breathe clouds of frosty air in your face, which sometimes must be de-iced in Iron-man worthy fashion using a chisel and — you guessed it — a hammer.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised that I got a callous from pipetting. I had fallen into the trap of over-simplifying my internal image of what I look like when I do my job. The stories we tell ourselves matter, and it won’t do for me to imagine myself as a dainty little water fairy spiriting liquids around. Thinking this way discounts the physicality of many other aspects of my job: like being on my feet all day, holding my arm up to pipette at eye level for a half hour at a time, and being constantly in and out of warm and cold rooms. Perhaps one day our image of biological science will be more nuanced; we will realize that it combines the aesthetics of many different disciplines to create a field that isn’t inherently gendered one way or another.


The MIT Grad Rat design for Biological Engineering features both a cute small DNA, and also a nice solid gear.