Two sisters talk biology, gender and theatre

Dr. Julie Robinson is the Chief Scientist for the International Space Station. She is also my sister. While working on The How and the Why, which examines not only questions about science and gender but also inheritance and family, I took the opportunity to interview my sister about some of the issues raised by the play. You may also notice that we included Julie in the Women of Science exhibit on display in TimeLine’s lobby during the run of The How and the Why.

Julie Robinson, Chief Scientist of the International Space Station. (Photo credit: NASA)
Julie Robinson, Chief Scientist of the International Space Station. (Photo credit: NASA)

Maren Robinson (MR): Describe the sort of work you do for NASA.

Julie Robinson (JR): As Space Station Chief Scientist, I serve as the representative of all the scientists who use the laboratory within the large engineering organization that built and operates it. I advise on science strategy and help to de-conflict competing science investigations by working with the selecting and funding organizations to set priorities for each 6-month period. I get to work with hundreds of scientists in almost every discipline, and with my international counterparts in Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada.

MR: The play uses an Ernst Mayr quote about scientific problems being explainable in two ways, the how and the why.  So how and why did you become a scientist?

JR: I think being a scientist was always in my nature. I do pass through life wondering about how things work and why. I gave up other electives in high school so I could take essentially every science class they offered—that is the “why.” For the “how” I started on a very traditional path, two undergraduate degrees in Biology and Chemistry and a Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology, then a post-doc. Then I was a scientist. After that, I veered into uncharted territory leading to becoming the chief scientist for the space station. I had started working with NASA data to make ecological maps, and during my post doc at the University of Houston, I started collaborating with scientists at the Johnson Space Center. I started working for NASA as a contractor doing research in remote sensing and did that for seven years. Then, after hearing me speak, the space station chief scientist at the time asked me to come work in his office for a year because I was very interdisciplinary and could represent both biology and Earth sciences. As I worked with all the science on the space station, I fell in love. That was almost 10 years ago.

MR: Women are still underrepresented in the sciences. Do you think that is changing and what work do you think still needs to be done before we see more women in science?

JR: Women disappear at a rate of about 50% at each stage of their scientific careers. Because I shifted to work in the government sector, I think I had an easier time than many of my colleagues in that first decade after my Ph.D.—fighting for grants and tenure is really difficult while having babies. So I was able to have a good marriage and a child. As my career has taken off though, I also have to make sacrifices, especially for the constant travel required. Having the support of my mother and husband has been key. In the end, I think more family responsibility still falls on women, and their success depends on having help. My support network makes all the difference. Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In really resonated with me, because that is her message too.

MR: I think that is really interesting you mentioned both our mother and Sheryl Sandberg. Part of the play is about the role grandmothering played in human evolution. Sheryl Sandberg we discussed in rehearsal and we did a book club event in which we discussed her book, Lean In, alongside the play, because we thought the issues she describes really resonate with the issues of the play.

Were there moments in your career that you experienced discrimination and do you think discrimination is a continuing issue in the sciences? If you were ever discouraged, how did you overcome that discouragement?

JR: I remember in organic chemistry, the old professor having another woman and I, the only two in the class, move over next to him because we would be “needing more help.” I tell that story to young women now, and they can’t believe it. In the 1980s we moved where he said, and thought of the professor like a silly old grandfather. Today, he would be taught a few cuss words, at the least. I also found that the apprenticeship system in science makes you very vulnerable to exploitation. You are dependent on the support of a very small number of senior scientists and without them your career is over. The good news is that by the end of that class, the professor asked me to come and work in his lab, because I was the best. Early in our careers we can overcome barriers by being the best. You just have to pick yourself up and try another route to success.

MR: “NASA scientist” is not a low-key job. With all the recent books like Lean In or the recent New York Times article by Eileen Pollack,  “Why are there still so few women in science?” What challenges do you think still face working women and women working in science?

JR: There are still huge barriers to women becoming leaders in science, and later in your career you see more and more barriers. The biggest barrier to women in science is that it is a hierarchical apprenticeship system where the most respected scientists who bring in the most research funding do it on the cheap labor of graduate students and post docs. So there isn’t much room at the top for full professors, and they are motivated to turn out too many junior scientists. I think as women when we fail in a competitive environment, we are more likely to believe it is a flaw within ourselves, and that can even be reinforced by other women and well-meaning mentors. Men are more resilient under fierce competition, and don’t decide they are a failure when they don’t get a grant. We have to get over feeling that “not winning this time” is the same as a lifetime failure. And we really have to reinforce this in our daughters, helping them see the difference between their merit and the outcome of a specific contest.

MR: You have had opportunities to work with and speak to young women in science. What advice do you give them?

I always share some advice from our father, who was a civil engineering professor. He said everything you learn is like tossing a stepping stone into a river. Over your career you don’t know which stone you will need to cross, but more options are better.

JR: I tell them to be open to career opportunities that they aren’t expecting. I always share some advice from our father, who was a civil engineering professor. He said everything you learn is like tossing a stepping stone into a river. Over your career you don’t know which stone you will need to cross, but more options are better.

MR: The two characters in the play are evolutionary biologists and related but did not live in the same household. You and I share the same parents and the same upbringing yet I ended up working in theater and you ended up in science and our third sister is a lawyer. Have you thought about what combination of our genetics, education and upbringing led us down these different paths?

JR: All three of us had so many different interests that there were many different possibilities for pursuing our passions. I remember having a conversation with you on the phone when you were considering different majors. I must have been in graduate school by then. You actually really liked science, and I suggested that you should consider it. Do you remember this? You said something like, “but you’ve already taken science!”

I think siblings are like the butterfly effect in chaos theory. Small little decisions and even off-hand phrases here and there completely change the outcome space at later points in time. If you hadn’t had a big sister, maybe you would have been the scientist. If I had an older brother that had followed daddy around fixing carburetors, I wouldn’t have, and then maybe I would have been an artist.

MR: It is funny, I don’t remember that conversation, but it sounds like me. I have two impressive older sisters, and I think I was trying to differentiate myself for a long time. You’ll be happy to know that I have the reputation of being a science-y dramaturg. I always get the plays with science in them because I do like science. It makes sense to me. I think the role of dramaturg can be similar to a scientist: I ask lots of questions, do research and make connections between things. While working on the play Copenhagen I kept thinking to myself that there was an alternate life in which I would have been happy being a physicist, but perhaps I am better off being one of those people who helps make connections between things.

Your work at NASA is different from the research you did when you got your PhD. I have vivid memories of spending time with you when you were doing your fieldwork running through marshes in 95-degree weather catching black-necked stilts and banding them. While science requires a certain level of detachment, I don’t think scientists run through marshes unless they really care about the work. Do you miss doing your own research and are their surprises in what you enjoy in your current work?

JR: I do miss having my own research. At first I valiantly clung to doing scholarly activities and then after finishing a major book, my career accelerated and there just weren’t enough hours in the day. I do get to live though the thousands of experiments I help the scientists of the world to do, help them all be successful, and make discoveries along with them. If some scientists won’t step away from their own research to help manage major scientific laboratories, there are plenty of engineers and project managers out there who will step into it, and not do it nearly as well. At the Tonys they give awards for producers, directors, and lighting designs and costumes as well as actors, because they recognize the play doesn’t happen without everyone. In science, we often only acknowledge the scientists designing and carrying out the research as if they were doing it all alone.

MR: You have a background in chemistry and biology but your graduate work was in biology. The kinds of science being done on the Space Station are in many different areas. What in your scientific training allows you to work with and support scientists in many different fields?

JR: I originally had the opportunity to come to the Space Station because I had experience in a number of fields—virology, analytical chemistry, physiology and Earth remote sensing. So I was lucky, I only had to pick up a few little things like being able to understand and explain research on dark matter and Bose-Einstein condensates!

MR: I think scientific research is often open to the same sorts of criticism as the arts. “Why are you spending money on researching x when it could go to roads or why should we spend money on a play rather than garbage collection?” What is your response when you are asked if it is worth it for the government to spend money on research on the international space station?

[The International Space Station] is the center of engineering developments that advance our technology economy. It is the most complex machine ever built by human kind, and using that machine, we are working with more than 86 nations around a core partnership of five major space agencies. This partnership is the foundation for future exploration beyond Earth orbit.

JR: Over the last 50 years, our country has had an innovation economy that was leveraged by the technology and science investments of the cold war. Human space exploration is, thankfully, the transition of that cutting edge driver of engineering and science to a peaceful global endeavor, and the International Space Station is its flagship. It is the center of engineering developments that advance our technology economy. It is the most complex machine ever built by human kind, and using that machine, we are working with more than 86 nations around a core partnership of five major space agencies. This partnership is the foundation for future exploration beyond Earth orbit.

The science going on there brings back benefits on Earth: potential treatments for diseases including certain cancers and muscular dystrophy, telemedicine for pregnant women in rural areas from Africa to the Arctic so they will know if there is an increased likelihood of complications and can relocate close to a hospital before going in to labor, and a new robotic technology for brain surgeries that were otherwise inoperable. The return on the investment is broad, sometimes intangible—such as the economic benefit of peaceful international cooperation—and very real for our daily lives.

MR: The evolutionary biologists in the play are striving to answer why human females menstruate and why they live beyond menopause. Much science surrounding women’s bodies was not even explored until the last hundred years. In your work have you encountered any interesting science surrounding sex or gender?

JR: My first year of graduate school, I thought I would become a behavioral ecologist (a scientist that applies evolutionary principles to understanding animal behavior), and I was involved in a research project studying polyandrous spotted sandpipers. They switch typical shorebird parental roles. The males incubate the eggs and the females defend the territories. The most vigorous mature females can defend a territory for up to 3 males to raise young, and they start with a previous well known mate, then when he is on the nest, they court a new male, etc. This was at the dawn of new technology for genetically confirming parentage, and when we tested the young, we found that females were storing sperm from the first mate, and using that to fertilize most of the subsequent clutches. Those later males were working hard to raise broods that were only partly their own!

There are now many studies of parentage in different species and how that links to behaviors and mating system. Of course, behavioral ecology can also be applied to provide insights into human behaviors and their foundations, but there be dragons. There was a team in England that did a related study with humans looking at sperm retention in marital and extramarital affairs. When they presented their work in an obscure parallel session at an international meeting, 900 scientists tried to cram in a room that could hold 100 people. The problem is that we carry our own gender biases and societal baggage with us, and it is hard to be objective in designing and interpreting human studies. It is much less likely to have the scientific results misused when you study a process in birds.

MR: Your work requires you to travel and collaborate with scientists in many other countries. Are there differences you see between the United States and other countries in how the sciences are valued?

JR: Overall, all scientists I meet share that core curiosity about how the world works, so we are unified by common intellectual processes—the how and the why. But working together in a shared laboratory is powerful. We have been collaborating with our Russian colleagues since Apollo-Soyuz, but lately I have had the opportunity of putting together teams for very close new collaborations on the space station. Having the different perspectives from spaceflight experience going into designing joint research investigations is so amazing!

I think that all countries work through the same political cycles of valuing scientific investments as economic drivers, and then questioning and criticizing science as being too expensive. There was a great article in Science last year about the problems that science as a whole is having in the current U.S. economy “proving” there is a return on each dollar of investment. Each of our international partners works through these cycles, and we are all in slightly different places based on our histories and how each nation is faring in the global economy. That is one of the great strengths of the space station partnership—we are linked by treaty level agreements that help us weather short-term challenges together while meeting objectives that take decades. And we work together to tell the stories of our total international research accomplishments.

The International Space Station. (Photo credit: NASA)
The International Space Station. (Photo credit: NASA)

MR: Give us a few examples of some of the current exciting research being done on the space station.

JR: I am really excited about having a new capability for significant studies of mice on the space station. During the assembly period, Amgen used mouse studies on Space Shuttle flights to the space station to understand the mechanism of a new osteoporosis drug they were studying, that has since come to market. We will soon have a capability where scientists (whether funded by NASA, NIH, or pharma) can do mouse studies continuously to address questions about osteoporosis, muscle wasting, immune suppression, and even developmental biology. We also use the crew as subjects, and recently confirmed that for the first time we could prevent bone loss in the crew using the right combination of high intensity resistive exercise, Vitamin D, and caloric content. That is a really different paradigm and was on the cover of the Journal of Bone and Mineral Research because it makes scientists on Earth who have been focused on drugs to treat osteoporosis, look at the problem in a different light.

We have a facility on the space station where we are always burning different fuels to study combustion because you don’t have buoyancy-driven convection complicating the system. Scientists recently discovered a new process of cold flame combustion (cold is about 600-800 ºC compared to 2000 ºC). I’ll be watching that work to see if it can lead to approaches for improving the efficiency of combustion in applications on Earth, but that may take a while. We are now planning a “big burn” on one of our cargo vehicles before it is destroyed on re-entry, so we can study a major fire in a spacecraft. It won’t look anything like the fire in the movie Gravity.

The space station has dozens of sites for Earth and space observation instruments. We have the only 200-channel remote sensing instrument tuned to imaging the coastal ocean (most Earth imagers have fewer than 10 channels of information). This instrument stopped collecting data when we had a pump leak in our cooling system before Christmas. We will be meeting to be sure how to get the instrument running again so it can collect data for the EPA to study water quality, to study productivity in global oceans, and supporting disaster response. New instruments coming up will model winds for hurricane forecasting, and make the first-ever global measurements of cloud depth and density to help in modeling the global climate.

Every time someone asks, I seem to pick a different bouquet from a rapidly growing garden. You can see some other bouquets and more of the garden in a “top 10” research results from the space station I did for the International Astronautical Federation in Fall 2013, which is recapped in my blog, “A Lab Aloft” . We tell the stories of the major space station benefits for humanity, across scientific results and technology applications at ISS Benefits, and you can see videos of people telling their own stories of how their lives has been changed by the work we are doing on the space station.

Maren Robinson is a TimeLine Company Member and the dramaturg for The How and the Why.

Leave a Reply