On Being a Female LDS Scientist

December 15, 2003 | 14 comments
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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 T & S, 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 norm and not the exception.

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14 Responses to On Being a Female LDS Scientist

  1. Ady Hahn a.k.a Fly_killa on December 15, 2003 at 7:01 pm

    Um, I posted this entry, but for some reason my name is not listed as the author. Can anyone help me out? Thanks.

  2. Kaimi on December 15, 2003 at 7:17 pm

    Nice post, Ady. There is certainly lots of substance in this issue.

    Wasn’t there a time when the conventional wisdom in graduate programs was “Don’t accept women, because they will only have children and drop out”? Attitudes have changed (at least slightly) in the academy, and it is refreshing to at last see a female LDS scientists (on our blog, no less :) ). I like to think I run in somewhat educated circles, and I believe you’re the first one I know (even if only through blog).

    As far as reconciling religion with science, I had a great physics professor who liked to say that anyone who thought that religion and science were incompatible didn’t understand either of them.

  3. Kaimi on December 15, 2003 at 7:26 pm

    One more note on science and religion:

    I was intrigued by Greg Easterbrook’s recent suggestion (link http://tnr.com/easterbrook.mhtml?pid=717) that dark energy (which, according to the NYT science page — source of all of my science information — is now believed to comprise something like 75% of all energy and matter in the universe) might be a form of spirit world or immaterial world. It seems like an interesting reconciliation of science and religion, especially for us as LDS members, given some of the D & C discussion of “light” in sections 84 or 88.

  4. clark on December 15, 2003 at 8:19 pm

    I find the idea that dark matter is spirit matter fairly problematic, if only because of the gravitational effects of dark matter. Further it doesn’t really resolve the larger issues of the big bang and the eventual outcome of the universe. I’ve discussed that a bit on my web site, albeit probably in too technical a way for most to enjoy.

    Regarding women and science, I must agree. It would be a very big sacrifice for a Mormon woman to do 4 – 5 years of undergrad and then 5-6 years of grad school and possibly more in research before having a hope of getting a possibly low paying job at a college. If you add in children and the economic issues then it gets that much more complicated. I truly respect those who manage it. Actually I respect those who manage to go on and be a professor, man or woman. Mammon called to me far too early.

  5. Jim on December 15, 2003 at 9:45 pm

    I wonder whether the problem of evolution is really the problem that many LDS scientists feel that it is. Perhaps they are responding to a vocal minority or to things that were problems in the past. At least in my experience most students no longer worry much about the problem. That may be because they don’t care. I don’t know. But it doesn’t seem to me to be the issue that it was twenty years ago. In fact, I think that the people most likely to raise the issues are scientists.

    I also wonder whether it is true that most scientists are not religious. There is evidence to the contrary: http://www.guardian.co.uk/life/feature/story/0,13026,1034872,00.html

  6. Gordon on December 15, 2003 at 11:44 pm

    Nice post, Ady. A lot here, but since the main theme is women in science, let me say something provacative about that. Before doing so, however, I would like to note that I married a woman who loves science. She majored in neurology and worked for several years in research laboratories, but gave that up when we started having children. (Just to illustrate your point!)

    OK, with that background, I would be interested in hearing responses to this: do we care whether LDS women pursue careers in science?

    I like the notion that LDS women should have the option, and I plan to encourage one of my daughters in this direction, since she seems to have some talent in math and science. But it is not clear to me that we should make any efforts to change the culture to encourage this. Will the world be a better place if more LDS women pursue careers in science? Hmm. Not clear to me either way.

    By the way, why is it that only men have commented on this post?

  7. Michelle on December 16, 2003 at 12:05 am

    Gordon,
    Most likely because, as indicated here, http://www.timesandseasons.org/archives/000150.html#000589, we’re not likely to be taken seriously.

    For those that are interested, women in science are great. Just like women in other fields, they offer distinct characteristics and attributes — new solutions to old problems, and of course, old solutions to new problems. Are women necessary to the advancement of science? I don’t think so. I doubt that scientific progress is gender specific.

    As for the mommy issue – it’s a serious one. And it will continue, oftentimes appropriately, to be a barrier to women pursuing the sciences. But it’s not impossible – as Ady proves. My sister-in-law will finish her Ph.D. in horticulture this spring. It’s a great achievement, and it fills her soul. Her children, male and female, will be inspired to pursue doctoral degrees themselves. And her field will be better, is in fact better, because of her contributions.

  8. clark on December 16, 2003 at 1:00 am

    Why do I want more women in science? I think the more people educated in science the better and that the more women in science the more the social climate among women will change for the better. I fully admit to thinking that the better educated society becomes of science the better society will be. I don’t think it will cure all the ills of society, but I remain convinced it will cure a surprising number.

  9. Max on December 16, 2003 at 1:43 am

    Not to minimize the discussion about whether we want to encourage women in science, but I wonder how much the world would be improved if men shared some of the opportunity cost involved in raising children? I think I would have liked more time with my father growing up.

  10. A Scientist on December 16, 2003 at 12:29 pm

    The guardian article that Jim references quotes a 1997 Nature paper (vol 386 p435) which reports a survey done of 1000 scientists, including physicists, mathematicians, and biologists. Only 39% report believing in a God that answers prayers, and 38% in human immortality. I would interpret this as “most scientists are not religious.”

    A follow-up paper by the same authors (Nature vol 394 p313) in 1998 surveyed members of the National Academy of Sciences and found only 7% believing in a personal God, and 8% in human immortality. These prominent scientists define the tone and substance of the science/religion debate (ie Richard Dawkins and his ilk).

    An interesting question then is: are these “greater” scientists smarter than the rest of us, and therefore realize to a greater degree the inconsistencies, or maybe free themselves better from the shackles of supernaturalism and superstition? Or does a strong commitment to naturalism and materialism motivate them more to do science? Or perhaps is there a selection mechanism whereby the scientific inner circle recognizes their bias and rewards them with MIT jobs, large grants, and eventually membership in the NAS and nobel prizes?

  11. clark on December 16, 2003 at 2:15 pm

    Perhaps we ought to include the Newton factor? i.e. that first tier scientists may be kind of “fringe-like” in certain ways? (Perhaps even a little anti-social or nutty?) I brought this up before, and I recognize I’m probably in the minority on this one. But I think that, especially for physicists, there is a definite danger of a Jehovah complex arising.

    I also wonder if the old analysis by Nietzsche doesn’t apply. The notions of God given by traditional religion, taken to their logical ends seems rather nihilistic. The premises which at Nietzsche’s time had not been followed through have been this century. At best scientists adopt a Spinoza like God. But at that time, is calling this belief a belief in God really apt?

    The last explanation I might give is the positivist one. Scientists come, at least in their discussions, to only want to discuss what can positively and publicly be “established.” Anything else is “metaphysics” and not to be trusted. While it may shock people who read my web site, I had through most of my college career a *very* anti-metaphysical stance. I considered even such questioning evidence of a frenzied mind. (Like many physics students I also had a strong dash of a Jehovah complex and looked down my nose strongly at the humanities) Given those biases, which I find rather common in the hard sciences, how would a scientist go about approaching the God question?

  12. Ady Hahn a.k.a. fly_killa on December 16, 2003 at 2:46 pm

    Great comments everyone!

    A scientist – thanks for the stats to back up my claim that most scientists are not religious. Don’t get me started on the annoying Richard Dawkins, however.

    Kaimi – I have talked to a few women that have said the attitude of some men in the MD/PhD
    program here at UT Southwestern is exactly that–
    don’t accept women because they will have children and drop out. There’s usually only one or two that get in every year, I happen to know a few. They are all unmarried or don’t have children.

    Gordon – I don’t think it makes much of a difference in general if LDS women are not part of the scientific community. However, I think it would be beneficial if more religious people became scientists. As “a Scientist” pointed out, the big-wig scientists run the science policy in this country and in the international community e.g. the UN. Their beliefs do impact social policy. I’m going to post later on how scientists
    have helped change social policy e.g. advocating zero population growth and global warming.

    Michelle- It sure would be great if we could put down science, have a family, and then go back to it once the kids are old enough. There are more and more “mature” people getting advanced degrees nowadays. Perhaps in the future there will be more opportunities for part-time and electronic courses for degrees in the sciences like there are for business and humanities degrees.

    Jim & Clark – I can’t deny my faith and also I can’t deny that there is much persuasive scientific evidence supporting evolution. But I don’t really worry about what I consider clashes between the two, because I know that there is much that I don’t know right now, both spiritually and physically. I try to be patient, but occasionally I’ll stay up nights trying to figure out an intriguing problem, burn myself out trying to find the answers, and then go back to patiently waiting.

  13. clark on December 16, 2003 at 2:57 pm

    (Dang I post here too much) Just a brief comment on evolution. I don’t think there is a conflict between evolution and Mormonism. There is between certain Protestant-like readings of scripture. But I find it hard to reconcile that style of reading with Mormonism. The big problem for reconciling evolution with Mormonism isn’t the science, but the issue of pre-Adamites, souls, and the atonement. I’ve not seen that really explained well. But the way Adam was discussed in the 19th century (minus him as God) seems very much in harmony with what we think of as evolution. We have a Terrestrial being from the Garden taking on the nature of the telestial world where evolution flourished. I’ve always noticed some parallels between the Mormon conception of Adam’s fall and the story of the Watchers in 1 Enoch as well. (There angels “fall” from heaven and intermarry with humans producing a “super” offspring) Yeah it is difficult working out what is “behind” the text let alone what is “within” the text. But overall I don’t think Mormons ought to worry much.

    I tend to see Adam in certain ways like Lehi, Jared, or even Noah. A person sent by God to a new world. He speaks of his descendents but more than likely he entered into a world with existing inhabitants.

  14. Adam Greenwood on December 16, 2003 at 11:23 pm

    Ady,
    You’re exactly right about the need for more believing scientists. I get so frustrated when an argument about values gets shut down by the authority of science. Well, Science says so, I’m told. Pardon me, but where is this Science? What does it eat, how does it speak? Prithee, tell me, so I may speak to it myself.

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