Kuroshio Conversations: Poncie Rutcsh

“If I asked you to name a female scientist, who would you name?” That’s the question Poncie Rutsch was asking people in downtown Boulder one day, and guess what, most people could only name Marie Curie, if any at all. If you are frantically trying to recall some other female scientist right now, don’t worry, by the end of this article you’ll get to know at least three more.

Poncie Rutsch produces Babes of Science1 , a podcast about women who contributed to the sciences. Two years ago she was an intern in the OIST media section writing news articles that explained and summarized achievements of various research units of OIST. Before coming to OIST Poncie was an engineer, a field biologist, and a radio journalist. She then realized she really loved interacting with scientists as well as communicating science to the public, which, I can tell you, she is really good at. Poncie now lives in the Washington, D.C. area and currently works three jobs.

Babes of Science is Poncie’s “passion project.” As she puts it: “As a professional development thing it has been hugely successful. I’ve definitely improved my research skills, my narrations skills. I’ve stuck to my deadlines, been super organized by myself and self-motivated, which I didn’t know I could do before I started my podcast.”


The discussion has been excerpted below and edited for length and clarity.

On focusing on women in sciences.

Although it may seem at first that the main goal of a podcast on female scientists is to encourage women to go into sciences, Poncie admits that it is, foremost, educational. “I’m hopeful that that’s what people are taking away, that they are not the trailblazer. There is actually a long history of those people before them; they just need to be able to advocate for themselves and ask for credit.” Then why focus on women? “I never learnt that much science history, and I thought that was weird” Poncie replies. “At first it started as an idea to just talk about science history, and do ‘Humans of science.’ The longer I talked about it, the more I got overwhelmed by how many people that would actually entail. I liked the idea of focusing on only women because I really didn’t know any women who contributed to the sciences. I knew Mary Curie and Barbara McClintock, and on a good day maybe I could come up with Jane Goodall as well, and that was it…. I thought ‘Babes of Science’ would be a cool name for it, because then you would have sort of a tunneling ship way of both talking about the way the women are objectified and taken advantage of in the sciences; but also people say that we are using our appearances to our advantage in the workplace. So, I like to walk the line between those two different meanings, and how people interpret it differently.”

On the stereotypical female scientist.

Seeing Hedy Lamarr among female scientists was almost as surprising for me as seeing snow in Okinawa. Usually, when a stereotypically-minded person encounters a stunningly beautiful woman they start questioning the plausibility of her scientific contributions—as it turns out, for a reason. Was she just a movie star that happened to know a smart man at the right time, or is there more to the story? “I feel like she really proves the whole Babes of Science point right there. The fact that I doubt her would suggest that everyone doubts her. She is probably smarter than we give her credit for…. The hard thing about doing a podcast on history—a hard thing about doing anything on history, which is so different from science—is that it’s not like you can just set up an experiment and find out the answer. All of the evidence from history is disappearing. I can’t make more evidence; it’s either there or it’s not.” Poncie also contemplates the diversity amongst scientists in general and women in
particular, so that an overlap between sharp mind and outstanding appearance is inevitable at some point. “One of my goals in starting the show is to demonstrate that the diversity we see in science today isn’t new; there have always been a lot of people contributing to it, including women. We just don’t know those people’s stories.”

 

On what makes a scientist.

“There are surprising people who were contributing to the sciences who we just don’t recognize as scientists. If I were still a scientist, I would look at these people’s lists of publications and think that they were not scientists because they didn’t publish any papers.” Take Zora Neale Hurston for example, the “babe” Poncie released an episode on right after our interview. She was a famous African American writer, mostly known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She was doing extensive anthropology research, collecting folklore in the Southern US in the ‘20s and ‘30s. At a deeper level, her novel was a way to deliver her research to more people. “It demonstrated to me that there are a lot of different ways to get your message across, even as a scientist. This is all just a matter of how you label a contribution, how you measure a scientist. What’s the criteria for a scientist? Mine is really loose at this point.”

Conducting experiments to yield results that either prove or disprove a hypothesis is a big part of a scientist’s, at least of an experimental scientist’s, life. That’s also how most children imagined scientists in the ‘90s: wearing a lab coat while “cooking something up,” experimenting on animals, or on their own selves. Selfexperimentation has a long history and continues even now, in the age of computer models, lab animals, and lengthy clinical trials. Take Albert Hofmann and his LSD experiences, Kevin Warwick aka Captain Cybor, or even the growing movement of biohackers2 . Alice Hamilton is yet another example. Her job was to test confiscated cocaine brought by the police, and she turned herself into a test subject. Initially, she tried testing the cocaine on rabbits, but she stopped when, as Poncie describes, “the defense lawyer tried to villainize her in court as a rabbit torturer.” Poncie admits: “I love the first episode that I produced on Alice Hamilton; I love that she started sticking cocaine in her eyeball. I thought that was really cool. How is this real life? How could this be happening?”

On birth control.

My favorite episode of Babes of Science is about another “babe,” Margaret Sanger, who opened the first birth control clinic in the US a hundred years ago. I like it because it seems to me that the hardships Margaret had to suffer are exactly the same some women face, a hundred years later. Despite the progress made regarding the availability of various birth control methods, contraception is not used worldwide for various reasons, mostly religious in nature. The claim made back then that “contraception will lead to promiscuity, insanity, and prostitution” sounds to me very similar to the claim some people make today that atheism will lead to murder and a fall of all moral standards. I don’t see any reasons why this should be the case. By giving a woman the choice to plan her motherhood, we give her a chance to plan her life, to avoid unhappy unwanted children, and to have a healthier and better-functioning society. Poncie explains the situation in the US: “I have the privilege of living in a first-world country, where you can walk to your local Planned Parenthood. I live on the East Coast in a pretty liberal city. If I needed to I would get myself to a Planned Parenthood. If I lived in rural Texas I don’t know if that would be the case. I would love to see us go a little farther than we have in the past hundred years.” Poncie also told me about Tie My Tubes podcast3 by Brie Ripley, an American producer who made a decision to get sterilized when she was 22. However, her attempts to get the procedure seemed to fail as the doctors kept telling her she’d “change her mind.” The situation is both sad and ironic, since there is a history of forced sterilization not only in the US, and not that long ago. However, once you make a deliberate decision to be sterilized, nobody is ready to agree it’s your body and you are free to do whatever you want with it.

As promised, you now know a few more female scientists. In fact, I bet you are already hooked and crave for more “babes.” Go ahead, check out Babes of Science to learn more. If you have a favorite “babe” in mind, e-mail her name to Poncie; she is keeping a list of “babes” to cover. You can also support the podcast on Patreon4 . Keep learning and “Stay strong at OIST!” Poncie said in farewell.


References:

1Poncie Rutsch, “Episodes,” Babes of Science, last updated January 2, 2017, http://babesofscience.com/

2There is a pretty cool TED talk on that subject: Ellen Jorgensen, “Biohacking — you can do it, too” TED, last updated June 2012, https://www.ted.com/talks/ellen_ jorgensen_biohacking_you_can_do_it_too

3Brie Ripley, “Tie My Tubes: A Radio Documentary Series,” Tie My Tubes, last updated December 15, 2016, http://www.tiemytubes.com/

4Poncie Rutsch, “Babes of Science,” Patreon, last updated January 3, 2017, https://www.patreon.com/babesofscience

Images: Brian Matthews, “Drawing Scientists,” Gender and Education 8, no. 2 (1996): 231.

Larisa Sheloukhova is a second year PhD student in the Evolutionary Neurobiology Unit. In her free time she enjoys watching online courses and listening to podcasts on various subjects, a habit she picked up when she had to commute a lot back in Moscow, Russia.