She is one of the 1,000 most cited chemists in the world. She's written papers with three Nobel prize winners, taught a generation of young scientists at Bryn Mawr College, and called out tropes about women in math and science in her article "Sex in the Citadel of Science." On Saturday, April 22nd she'll be one of the speakers at the March for Science in Philadelphia, and in all likelihood she'll pray before she goes on. Meet Michelle Francl — chemist, feminist, professor, writer and theologian.
NBC10: Tell me what you will be talking about at the March for Science.
Francl: I’m going to try to break down the standard notion of what a scientist looks like. There is a test anthropologists use called “Draw a Scientist” test, which does just what it says, hands people a blank sheet of paper and asks them to draw a scientist. The image that surfaces is incredibly consistent. People draw a man — and it’s almost always a man — in a lab coat with crazy hair, glasses at a lab bench with bubbling beakers and test-tubes.
But #actualLivingScientists (to use a popular hashtag) don’t look like that. They are short plump women with grey hair, like me. They are tall athletic young women from New Jersey…and brilliant women from Mexico. They wear headscarves and geeky t-shirts and leggings — and their lab coats. They are gay young men with beautiful bass voices, like my son.
People think that it doesn’t matter who does science, because science is supposed to be objective, and the people who do it like Vulcans, dispassionate, unemotional. They think that if it is there to be discovered, and we just have white men looking, someone will still find it. (Nuclear fission was discovered at least three times , twice by women and once by a man, some years later; he won the Nobel for it.)
I see science as a “long, loving look at the real” — scientists are incredibly passionate about what they study. Irish crystallographer Kathleen Lonsdale figured out the structure of a key molecular building block, benzene, on her kitchen table while on maternity leave. What you are passionate about determines everything, to quote the former head of the Jesuits, Father Pedro Arupe:
Breaking news and the stories that matter to your neighborhood.
What you are in love with,
what seizes your imagination, will affect everything.
It will decide
what will get you out of bed in the morning,
what you do with your evenings,
how you spend your weekends,
what you read
whom you know,
what breaks your heart,
and what amazes you with joy and gratitude.
And I would add, what science you do! If we limit who we let in the door to become scientists, we are limiting what science can be passionate about and thereby limiting our imagination. We are all the poorer for it. It does matters who does science, and the best science will emerge when many excellent people with different passions and backgrounds and ideas come together. There is no shortage of challenging and important problems we could all use solved — from antibiotic resistance to climate change.
And I will talk a little bit about my work with the Vatican Observatory, that for me science is a door into the sacred.
NBC10: What prompts your desire to participate in the March for Science, and what are you most excited about?
Francl: My students! Some of them are coming to march here, others are going to DC. I want people to be able to see the science all around them and to recognize the scientists around us, too, even when they don’t look a thing like Albert Einstein. In 20 years, when people take the “Draw a Scientist” I’m hoping they draw my students.
I’m excited about scientists getting out and going public. All too often we hear about what Stephen Hawking is doing, but not what our own Monell Chemical Senses Center is doing, or how biology, chemistry and engineering work together to build better medical sensors.
Science is political in the sense that it is a tool to help us make sense of the world around us, and in that it makes stuff. Without science we have no way of understanding how and why tornados might form, or what could happen to coral reefs when more CO2 dissolves in the oceans and the pH rises. This is part of the information we need to make sound political decisions.
NBC10: People will be surprised to hear that you are a Catholic theologian in addition to a scientist... Tell me a little about how you marry the two passions.
Francl: This is back to the idea that for me science is a long loving look at the real, a phrase which comes from Walter Burdghardt SJ’s description of contemplative prayer. To look deeply into creation, and the truths revealed there, is for me a way to pray, to listen to and draw closer to God.
For me, there is a fascinating beauty in the shapes of molecules, and the ways in which they work that provokes a sense of awe, even as I understand the quantum physics that underies them. God isn’t who I invoke when I don’t understand the science — God is not a way to cover gaps in what we as scientists know.
Last year I was honored to be appointed one of a dozen scholars at the Vatican Observatory, working with the full time staff of Jesuit astrophysicists and others. It’s a wonderful to chance to merge my theological persona with my chemistry one. The Catholic church considers science to be an important part of the human endeavor, and the Observatory is one sign of that. So is Laudato Si’!
Other local scientists/theologians include Frank Ferrone, a physicist at Drexel, who wrote a book on liturgy; Kathy Duffy, SSJ, another physicist, PhD from Drexel, now at Chestnut Hill, who has written a book on theology of Teilhard de Chardin, SJ; Peter Dodson at Penn, paleoentology, who writes and talks about evolution and faith; and Steve Barr at University of Delaware, who has started the Society for Catholic Scientists which, coincidentally, is having its inaugural meeting in Chicago on Saturday.
NBC10: You've written a lot about women in the sciences, do you consider yourself a feminist? How does this fit in with the rest of your identity?
Francl: I am a feminist, who believes that we still have a hard time seeing women as scientists, here in the US and around the world, for many reasons. I’m not a different sort of scientist — kinder, gentler, more interested in cosmetic chemistry or kitchen chemistry — because I’m a woman. I am interested in quantum physics and topology and molecular structure, and I am as good at it as any guy.
NBC10: Tell me about some your national work.
Francl: I'm perhaps proudest of the piece I wrote for the UN’s International Year of Chemistry for Nature Chemistry, "Sex in the Citadel of Science," which called out some of the tropes that get hauled out all the time about women in math and science (e.g. that there are more men in the top, top percentiles of math…or that women just don’t want these jobs…or) and tried to prod us to think instead about how we design the physical space scientists work in to “fit” women.
The Food Babe. Psuedoscience propopents like the Food Babe and Joey Mercola and even Dr. Oz try to take advantage of people’s lack of knowledge about chemistry to sell something. They try to capitalize on images of disgust to sell their products, or products they get a kickback from. For example it is not true that hard to pronounce chemicals are inherently unsafe (or inherently safe), oxidane sounds nasty, and sounds nastier when I say it is the major component of urine and it’s in your coffee — but it’s just the formal name of water and you can’t live without it.
And “natural” doesn’t mean safe. Four marvels powder is an herbal remedy that is used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, it can be toxic to your liver. Don’t get me started.
NBC10: Why is it important that the March for Science take place, and why should non-scientists care?
Francl: So much of what we touch and use each day is made possible by science, that it’s important for people to be able to see that, and to have good information to help them make decisions about what they want for their families, or for their neighborhoods or for our country. We live much longer because chemists can analyze the water to see if it is pure and figure out how to filter it, because biologists develop vaccines, because of antibiotics and even the light bulbs that keep us from falling down the stairs!