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Meet Mary Leakey

Google Doodle of the Day, February 6, 2013

Google Doodle of the Day, February 6, 2013

Apparently I need to bone up on my paleontology because I had no idea why the Google Doodle of the Day would feature a woman digging in the sand, pointing her trowel at footprints. A quick peek in the Doodle Gallery told me that artist Besty Bauer really cared about this person who was tremendously important for some reason, but I was still mystified. What the heck were Laetoli footprints and why were we celebrating their discovery?

I asked my husband if he had ever heard of Mary Leakey and he asked if she was related to the famous anthropologist Louis Leakey. The answer is yes, by marriage. She was a young artist with a passion for anthropology, he was a professor at Cambridge who needed a book illustrated. They fled to Africa together and married once he obtained a divorce. The rest is literally our history as a human race…

Mary’s many fossil discoveries shed light on how we evolved as a species. The Laetoli footprints strongly resemble modern human footprints and helped to establish that the ancestors of early humans learned to walk upright before their brains evolved to the present size, a matter of great debate in scientific circles. What’s more interesting is that she made so many notable discoveries as her husband’s partner while they raised three sons — in fact, their family has now dedicated three generations to the science of paleoanthropology.

I look forward to reading Virginia Morrell‘s book, Ancestral Passions: The Leakey Family and the Quest for Humankind’s Beginnings, so I can learn more about this fascinating woman and her impact on our world.

Where is NASA’s Mohawk Girl?

I’ve been loving all the fuss about the Mars Curiosity rover. NASA and JPL have done a great job of publicizing the event given all the competing news events this week. The writers for Curiosity’s Twitter account have struck just the right mix of funny and real. They’re clearly overqualified to do late night comedy so I’m glad they’re finding an outlet between developing algorithms or conducting experiments. Like Andy Borowitz and so many other people, I’ve taken a poke at the event myself on DonBac Forever, where my husband and I maintain a public record of our married fun. For the record, he is from Tuscon, not Mars, and he believes air conditioning is a natural right.

The surprise star of the mission turns out to be flight director Bobak Ferdowsi, aka Mohawk Man. Scientists with a sense of humor and an ability to communicate are worth their weight in lutetium. Cute scientists with a sense of humor are invaluable. To Bobak’s credit he has flavored his ride on Spaceship Media Frenzy with encouragement for more people to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and math. What he’s gotten in return are some pretty funny pictures, and a lot of marriage proposals. I hope his girlfriend has a good sense of humor too.

Of course the proposals are just jokes and teasing, but lost in all the giggles is the sad reality that Bobak doesn’t have many female coworkers. Pictures of his team feature row after row of men in powder blue t-shirts with only a the occasional woman. This jubilant video illustrates the issue:

Tara Tiger Brown has been working with JPL to compile a list of women who dare mighty things for the Mars mission, and so far the count of women in the flight room is seven. One of them is Ann Deveraux, Deputy Lead for Entry, Descent and Landing. So basically, she was totally in the middle of the Seven Minutes of Terror. I’m not sure about the hierarchy of mission control, but I’m betting she’s one of Mohawk Man’s bosses. While not quite the same media phenomenon as her creatively coiffed colleague, she has done some local television and radio interviews. She was also featured on the Women@NASA site, where she was asked about gender discrimination:

I went to school and now have worked in very male oriented disciplines (communications and electronics) and many times – even now – I can go into good sized meetings and not see another woman attending! But I’ve always considered myself to be just an engineer, and I find my male colleagues have treated me accordingly.

It’s great that a talented woman can rise to a position of responsibility at NASA and be treated fairly. The final head count of women working on the Curiosity mission will surely rise if this press conference is any example. Yet unfortunately, it seems like more women would still prefer to marry a flight director than become one. What can we do about that? I know that NASA has a Women and Girls Initiative and that Sally Ride dedicated her life to encouraging girls to consider science, technology, engineering and math careers. Let’s hope that Ann isn’t the only woman in meetings much longer.

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