August 20th, 2014

me: abby

SFF Worldcon/Loncon3 report: Part 2 of 2

My second day at Worldcon started with a panel titled “Scientists Without Borders”, with three other female scientists: Sharon Reamer, Katie Mack and Rachel Berkson, along with our friendly moderator, Brother Guy “I can hear your confession, but I can’t forgive you” Consolmagno. All of us have worked extensively and/or presently work in a country that was not the one we were born in, which is less uncommon for scientists than you might imagine.

This was such an enjoyable panel. Guy outlined a quick plan in the Green Room (already this was looking much better than my first panel). He asked us to use personal stories to illustrate points as much as possible, which is a strategy that worked beautifully. This was a panel in which many examples of cultural misunderstanding, miscommunication, sexism and racism were brought up, but all were handled with sensitivity and even with humour.

I didn’t have a chance to make notes. I really wish I had, as I’ve already forgotten a good deal and I would have dearly loved to remember everything about this panel. I enjoyed Sharon’s anecdotes about being an early-career geophysicist in Germany at a time when there were almost no women in the field, trying to give instructions to men who ranked beneath her. They unwillingly respected the hierarchy at first, but eventually she won them over, partly through competence, but also through putting in a massive effort in learning German. I enjoyed Rachel’s observations on adapting to different cultural attitudes toward the expression of respect and the sharing of ideas. I enjoyed Katie’s stories about working in Japan, and her perceived value as a young non-Japanese-speaking undergraduate researcher (hint: not even valuable enough for teleconferences to be conducted in a language she could understand).

Guy provided just enough guidance to keep the panel moving along a particular trajectory, ending with literary examples that we thought did a good job of portraying scientists. (Hint: not very many.) I do hope we influenced some aspiring writers in the audience to put scientist characters in their novels who are well traveled, not single-minded, not necessarily white, who have diverse relationship histories, and who may be parents too. I am reminded now in particular of Rachel’s anecdote about the Swedish professor who was spoken of by Swedes in reverent tones because they’d managed to achieve so much and had a large family. Said professor was male - parental (not maternal/paternal) leave in Sweden is two years (!!!).

I do hope someone, whether another panelist or an audience member, writes up the panel in more detail, as I’m seriously regretting not trotting off to a quiet corner afterward to make some notes. To be fair to myself, I didn’t have much time since I picked up Humuhumu from the bloke shortly afterward and had solo childcare for the rest of the day and evening.

We spent Saturday entirely away from the con. In the morning, Humuhumu and I went to hunt book benches (see previous post), and I discovered just how horribly inaccessible much of the south bank of the Thames is when you actually need to use lifts because you aren’t supposed to be carrying a pushchair up and down stairs. I ended up having to do it once, which exacerbated my existing injury and unfortunately flattened me for what I had hoped would be an evening out for me.

Sunday heralded my third panel, “Secrecy in Science”. There were quite a large number of people on this panel. Three of us were from astro/space including the moderator, one person was from pharma, one European patent lawyer (largely dealing with pharma, I suspect, from their contributions) and one English professor.

Despite the advance discussion in the Green Room, which gave us a good structure to work with, I never felt like this panel quite gelled completely. I’m not really sure why. There was a lot of interesting independent discussion about secrecy in the two realms of drug discovery and space exploration, but we never quite managed to make an unforced connection between them. I didn’t find much of it exceptionally memorable, I must admit, so I didn’t come away regretting the lack of opportunity to make notes as strongly as I had with the Friday panel.

One tense moment occurred during the open access discussion. An audience member asked what the panel members thought of Aaron Swartz (a researcher and activist who downloaded and shared a number of academic articles from JSTOR, a paywall-protected site). Swartz committed suicide last year after being prosecuted by MIT and JSTOR for his actions. Those panel members who were aware of the case (I wasn’t among them) and the audience seemed to agree that the outcome was disproportionate to the alleged crime. Swartz had legitimate access to JSTOR when he downloaded the articles, and a good many of the articles that he shared were apparently not paywalled by their originating journals. However, the discussion got heated when audience members pushed for further personal statements from the panel members, and one panel member took issue with the agreement over disproportionality between Swartz’s actions and the prosecution’s. The tension was diffused by means of a swift topic change.

My final LonCon3 event was my Rosetta talk, “Catching a Comet”.

I had an amusing encounter before I started. I was poking the projector when a person in the audience spoke to me. “Are you the person in charge of the lights and things?”

“No,” I replied, “I’m the speaker.”

The expression on this person’s face was priceless. (You get one guess re: age/race/gender.)

I had thought this talk through but had little time to work on it before the con, so putting it together was a concentrated last-minute effort. It seemed to go over well. At the very least, I didn’t hear any snoring, not very many people left during it and I got a few laughs. I tried to add in little anecdotes and tidbits from work, and I spent at least fifteen minutes answering questions at the end.

Afterward, I talked to a few audience members, and went for a quick coffee with [personal profile] foxfinial and briefly met some other lovely writers before heading out to meet the bloke and Humuhumu for our journey home. It was earlier than I’d hoped, since I had to be in hospital in Birmingham for my 20-week scan on Tuesday morning, so I missed the last two panels I was supposed to be on.

Note: Part 1 is access-locked due to racefail during my first panel. I may unlock it at some point in future, but given previous experience and observation wherein calling out racism often brings more wrath down upon the whistleblower than it does on the person being racist, it’s unlikely.

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