As of this week, I'm taking over Science News. Henceforth, Science News will be known as QUEER SCIENCE!, a column about scientific discoveries and controversies that are busting binaries in our understanding of humans, animals, plants, and minerals. That makes sense for a column, right? We'll see if Science News editor Charles Mudede thinks it works.
Pain Can Be Contagious in Mice
Last year, The Stranger offices had a mouse problem. Field mice were camping out in Editorial (possibly near former Stranger critic Brendan Kiley's soy sauce drawer) and darting around in the middle of the day to catch sandwich crumbs that fell from writers' laps. I don't know how the decision was made to put out glue traps, which is possibly the most inhumane way to catch mice, but somewhere, somehow, a decision was made. Long story short, Rich Smith ended up stomping a fuzzy little mouse caught in a glue trap to death.
I'm not sure how Rich would characterize what happened to the office environs after that, but to me, there was a palpable sense of unease. Before knowing all the facts, I even briefly considered breaking off my friendship with Rich over the Mouse Incident. Yet even after we were explained the logic behind the mouse-stomping, Stranger employees seemed more mopey and fidgety than usual.
Researchers have started chipping away at the idea that trauma can be contagious in humans. Studies of Vietnam veterans' families, for example, have demonstrated as much. But as of last week, researchers at Oregon Health and Science University have shown that pain can be contagious in mice, too.
The authors of the study, which is open source (yay!) and published in Science Advances, wanted to see what would happen to mice (bystander mice) housed with other mice enduring some form of pain. They discovered that bystander mice housed with mice that had inflamed hind paws demonstrated higher mechanical responsiveness to, for lack of a better term, poking. The same thing happened to bystander mice housed with mice who were undergoing withdrawal from alcohol or opiates.
And how did that happen? Researchers think that the method of pain transmission is smell. Because bystander mice also became hypersensitive to pain "just 24 hours after being exposed to the bedding of mice," researchers think that an olfactory cue is the "'carrier' of pain information.'"
You might be asking: In what world would it help to experience another animal's pain by proxy? "Pain is an adaptive process that can serve as a warning of actual or potential injury, enhancing the survival of the individual and its social group," the study authors write. "As a social cue, recognition of another’s pain can lead to the avoidance of harm or trigger empathy and caregiving behavior."
Ah yes. It all makes a bunch of fucking sense, right? Of course animals share pain. We shape and are shaped by our relationships to one another (as are plants and minerals and molecules, to some extent), and how FUCKING ARROGANT do humans have to be to assume that we can Rugged Individualism™ our way through the world? That's some fucked up, patriarchal bullshit, and it only serves to limit our range of experiences (and not to mention our healing) on this planet earth. Maybe our "selves" don't end at our toes and fingertips! Maybe we are far more connected to everything beyond our own physical bodies than we'd ever be comfortable admitting!
But anyway, getting back to The Stranger's mouse-stomping story: Who's going to study the cross-species transference of pain? Stranger staffers' inquiring minds would like to know.
Why Aren't More Women in STEM?
God, I hate reading this FUCKING headline. Every few weeks, it seems like yet another fucking magazine or fucking newspaper has another fucking theory about why there aren't more fucking women in fucking STEM. And the answers to poorly-posed questions about women in STEM irritate me just as much. (Example: Melinda Gates' blog post entitled "Computers Are For Girls, Too.")
So let's turn to the University of Washington for a better question about gender and STEM. Four University of Washington authors, after reviewing 1,200 studies on the subject, now propose a model with three factors explaining why some STEM fields have such poor gender balances. Their model, which seeks to explain the gender gap in fields like computer science, engineering, and physics, says that these fields are influenced by "masculine cultures that signal a lower sense of belonging to women than men," lack of sufficient early learning experiences in these areas, and, to a lesser extent, "gender gaps in self-efficacy," i.e. the fact that women often underestimate their own abilities compared to men.
But the biggest factor? Masculine culture, the researchers say. Specifically they say that masculine stereotypes of the fields themselves, negative stereotypes about what women are capable of, and a lack of role models all contribute to some STEM fields' gender gaps.
“When we drilled down into the numbers, we realized that if we just looked at women, that wouldn’t tell the whole story,” study author Sapna Cheryan said in a UW press release. “Underrepresentation is shaped just as much by what men are doing as by what women are doing.”
The UW model is just one of many that attempt to explain gender gaps in STEM, but I think it marks a significant advance in the discourse surrounding this problem. Instead of asking why more women aren't in certain STEM fields, maybe we should be asking why the culture of certain STEM fields appears to encourage big gender gaps.
Don't Miss: Alondra Nelson, Columbia University Dean of Social Science, on "Recreational Genetics"
If you don't know Alondra Nelson's work, take a second to introduce yourself.
Nelson, the first-ever dean of social science at Columbia University as well as a professor of sociology and gender studies, is one of the country's most prominent intellectuals challenging our understandings of the consequences of "Big Data" and advances in genetic testing and mapping. This year, Nelson published a book called The Social Life of DNA: Race, Reparations, and Reconciliation After the Genome.
She's also one of the most fascinating public speakers I've ever heard.
Today, at 10 a.m. at Seattle Pacific University, Nelson will be delivering the keynote for the university's day of free learning that's open to the public. Her talk is titled "Not Just Fun and Games: The Social and Political Significance of 'Recreational' Genetics," and it will probably blow your mind.
That's all for this week! Send me feedback or QUEER SCIENCE! story tips at email@example.com.