This morning, as I was scanning the headlines, I encountered this MSN article about 17-year old Brittany Wenger. Wenger just won first place in the annual Google science fair.

Her project: she created an artificial neural network coded to detect malignancy in breast tissue. The artifical brain operates on a cloud-based system that actually “learns” and becomes more accurate as it processes more and more data. She hypothesizes that the technology could be applied to other cancers and potentially other diseases.

I’m very impressed. I’m beyond impressed, actually.

The article interested me further to investigate the “girls lag behind in math and science” media messaging that seemed to be influential for awhile. I Googled the phrase and was pleased to learn that fairly recent studies prove otherwise. NPR’s got a nice article from 2008.

However, as I was reading through the article, I encountered a second reference to the 2005 remarks made by Lawrence Summers, who at the time was president at Harvard, regarding why less women than men work in scientific fields such as physics and engineering. I had encountered these remarks in the Foreign Policy magazine article on female intellectuals that I wrote about in my last post.

Obviously, I’m a few years behind. Somehow I missed the controversy. Anyhow, after a bit of research, here is what I have discovered about that.

Apparently, Lawrence Summers’ comments from the academic conference follow this general outline (the conference was for women and minorities in the sciences). In my own words:

1. Women are not able or willing to work 80 hours a week with families at home.

2, Less women than men score in the top percentile on standardized math tests – and (this was what drew the most fire) this could be due to innate differences in ability.

3. Discrimination in the hiring of female tenured faculty in the sciences was not as big an issue as it was made out to be.

This summary comes from an interesting article in the Boston Globe. A very detailed and technical presentation of conflicting research in the wake of the controversy, presented by the New York Times can be found here. It is a dense presentation of various studies that is very interesting – regarding supposed innate differences in brain tissue, whether or not this actually matters, and related topics such as differences among cultures (rather than simply socialization within a culture). Check it out.

On a personal level, this discussion of women in math and science interests me very much. I grew up with a twin brother – a perfect set up for gender based comparisons! We both took advanced placement classes and succeeded in school, although I earned the higher grades. When it came time to choose a career, he chose engineering, and I, after a long struggle vacillating between the arts and sciences, chose liberal arts. Despite partying his way through college while I graduated as valedictorian, he now makes almost three times as much as I do, enjoys his work, and has been consistently promoted since his first job. I, on the other, cannot find work in my field without an additional degree and now make a living essentially stuffing envelopes and metering mail with an ever-so-occasional writing project.

I have had enough science classes to know there are a plethora of confounding variables in each of our lives that have influenced the formulation of decisions and the success or (lack thereof) of our pursuits. I don’t attribute my lack of a fulfilling job to the solitary fact of my sexual anatomy or gender identity or his success, likewise, to those solitary factors. I do know better than that.

I must admit, though, that I find the question of motivation very interesting, and I wonder, at least, at my own motivations eventually choosing the liberal arts when I had enjoyed equal success in my math and sciences classes. I was encouraged, the same as my brother, to choose any field I found interesting. I would like to think that it was, not, indeed, in any way the influence of my gender that subconsciously motivated that choice. However, as the NPR article suggests, now that there is proven equality in the ability of girls and boys in the fields of math and science, why aren’t more women choosing those fields? I am very interested in this question.

What do you think? Were you encouraged in math and the sciences or did you face any discouraging messages? What about the issue of motivation – in your own career, would you say your gender had any effect on your career choice?