… may be writing about what it is like to be a scientist.
I just finished listening to Alex & Me: How a Scientist and a Parrot Uncovered a Hidden World of Animal Intelligence as a book on tape.
A 10-year-old girl might hear the story about Irene Pepperberg’s 30 years with Alex, an African Grey parrot, and think “I wonder if it would be nice to do important research with a remarkably intelligent and friendly bird.”
A 20-year-old woman hearing the story might be more inclined to ask “Would I like to be divorced, childless, working seven days/week, 12 hours/day, and starting my first ‘real job’ at age 40?” or “Would I like to be in my 50s without a secure income, eating tofu and keeping the winter thermostat at 57?”
Pepperberg is one of the world’s more successful scientists. Because scientists and philosophers are so chauvinistic about humans, there was a lot of received wisdom in Academia about what animals could and could not do. Pepperberg laboriously demonstrated that Alex the parrot was capable of some fairly sophisticated thought and language. Most of her findings, however, wouldn’t have been news to a preliterate tribesman living with parrots 4000 years ago.
Pepperberg chronicles her career scrounging for jobs, begging for money (most often refused), and working with colleagues who are unintelligent, dogmatic, petty, and spiteful (except at the MIT Media Lab, which was the Promised Land for her until they ran out of money). Pepperberg endures the hardships of graduate school in chemistry and the peripatetic life of a young would-be academic. Right about the age when a New York City employee or Boston bus driver would be contemplating retirement, she finally gets a tenure-track job at the University of Arizona, only to discover that she dislikes her colleagues.
When a grant is denied or a lab runs out of money, Pepperberg is reduced to penury, apparently having no savings. Her total lifetime earnings are probably less than what a top radiologist would earn in two years.
Perhaps Barack Obama read this book before he recommended science as a career for people other than himself and his family.
More: my old women in science article.