Fifteen Questions: Sarah S. Richardson on Gender Equity in Science, Interdisciplinary Research, and Purring as a Superpower



The historian of science sat down with Fifteen Minutes to talk about gender, science, and her ideal superpower. "Science is done by humans in context in cultural spaces, and is inflected by those contexts," she says.



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Sarah S. Richardson is the Aramont Professor of the History of Science, a Professor of Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality, and the director of the GenderSci Lab. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: In 2018, you founded the Harvard GenderSci Lab, which works to generate feminist ideas for scientific research on sex and gender. What prompted you to establish the lab?

SSR: I was newly tenured. With my academic freedom and the resources I had access to, I wanted to formalize a model for producing scholarship that I’d had access to informally until that point. We had a gender and science reading group that had started to organically write together and think together. It brought scientists and medical folks together with people like me—historians, philosophers, and gender studies scholars. I thought that was about the most exciting thing happening in my whole life. The GenderSci Lab was created to be a platform to really dig deep into this model of what I call “radical collaboration.”

The other thing that made me want to found it is that, over the years, I’ve had a stream of students from the sciences coming over to gender studies and saying, “I really am inspired by feminist work on science, and I want to know how I can bring that into my scientific research.” We didn’t have any tools for them. How do you learn how to do research? In a lab. How are they comfortable learning to do research? In a lab. Creating the space where we’re working together on research questions, and we’re doing the work, was the best way to train up a new generation of feminist and queer scientists. So they could actually practically learn how to bring these critiques, perspectives, values, and principles into scientific research design, and the questions that they ask, and bring a whole new perspective to their fields of study.

FM: What have been some of the most interesting findings of the GenderSci Lab?

SSR: I like to say we only write big papers. One of our first moonshots was to take on the so-called “gender equality paradox” in STEM, which is the most recent version of the “women are not really suited to STEM fields” point. In essence, the argument uses some very crude and spurious forms of evidence and practices of correlation to argue that more gender-equal societies have less gender-equality in STEM, positing that therefore, when women are free to do as they want, they don’t prefer STEM fields. We reanalyzed the original study that made those claims and was in headlines, and found major errors in the reasoning and published a six-part analysis using all of our multidisciplinary tools. We published a critique in Psychological Science that the original authors of that theory have never been able to answer. It really illustrated how we use all of our different disciplines to take on hard questions and to analyze forms of bias and hype in sex difference claims that are really important in the world.

FM: You do so much interdisciplinary work, orienting biological thinking in philosophical and historical conversations. How do these different fields enrich one another?

SSR: Each field has its own toolkit and its own way of posing questions, and then its own set of assumptions. The core of it is training students who can read and write across diverse fields and to diverse audiences. My hope is that that practice of constant self-criticality, or really systematizing that by embedding oneself in these interdisciplinary environments, leads to humility, and to more sophisticated and nuanced frameworks and concepts and research on sex, gender, and sexuality.

FM: There are moments when it feels that biological scientists and social scientists are operating in totally separate realms. For instance, I think I felt that disconnect a lot during the COVID vaccine rollout a few years ago. From your work at the intersection of both those areas, what thoughts do you have about science communication, and the dissemination of biological findings to wider audiences?

SSR: A lot of my work starts from the premise that science itself is a social practice. That it would have been alarming or confusing that scientific advice was not immediately taken up by a wider public comes from an idealized conception of science that doesn’t recognize that. Science is done by humans in context in cultural spaces, and is inflected by those contexts. We have diverse relationships to the authority of scientific expertise, and diverse histories in relation to it. It’s not just a question of science communication, it’s about understanding the history, practice, and politics around the authority of science.

FM: I’m thinking about your book, “The Maternal Imprint,” and about how the science around the maternal-fetal relationship interacts with dynamic understandings of motherhood and of health. And you write a lot about epigenetics and historically contextualize the scientific perspective that minute environmental changes during pregnancy can have long-lasting impact on future generations. How have scientific researchers studying epigenetics or the maternal-fetal relationship reacted to your work?

SSR: A whole rainbow of reactions. There’s curiosity and affinity and recognition of what I’m describing, which is the sometimes hyped nature of claims in that field, the overstretched hypotheses in epigenetics, and certainly the worries about the increasing surveillance or the diminishment of reproductive autonomy that could occur as a result of strong claims made about the relationship between maternal-fetal effects and life outcomes. Actually, some of the most enthusiastic reviews have come from scientists. I’m able to give really detailed cases of how these ideas have played out in different scenarios throughout history. I think that gives a remove from the current practices to give some space for critical reflection that doesn’t feel so much like an attack, and an opportunity to explore the space of possibility for the promise of that kind of scientific research.

FM: How have you seen the public’s conceptions of gender and sex shift throughout your career?

SSR: I’ve been at this about 20 years. During that time, there have been dramatic changes in sex and gender systems, including the normalization of things like gay marriage in a very rapid period of time. It’s more and more the case that people identify, for example, outside of the gender binary. Of course, there’s been the public debates over trans recognition and rights that are moving through the courts, through the health space, and are activating right-wing movements around the world. We see those changes in our classroom, in the kinds of folks who show up and the hopes and interests that they come to, for example, a gender and science course with — what kinds of voices they hope to hear from, what kinds of readings are of interest. For me, I have to really keep up, and I often say that the gender studies classroom is one where I’m learning as much as I’m offering.

FM: Did you always want to be a professor?

SSR: No, I did not. I always wanted to be a professional who made my own income. I wanted to be a writer, and a researcher, and a thinker, and maybe an activist. I wavered between grad school and law school. I chose grad school with the idea that it was maybe more fun than being someone’s assistant in my 20s. I just followed the path as I received good feedback and uptake of my work. So here I am. It’s been enormously gratifying. I am a happy academic, I like to say. To the extent that I’ve been able to play a positive role in students’ lives, that’s a surprising and very gratifying part of the life of being a professor.

FM: How did you get into this field?

SSR: I’ve always been very intrigued by the practice and sociology of science. My grandfather was a very prominent scientist. He was Martin Rodbell, a Nobel Prize winning biologist. I was the oldest grandchild and he took a very special interest in me and often brought me around to the lab or to his scientific gatherings. He had an interdisciplinary mind as well, having done his undergraduate in French literature, and liked to talk about cells as a giant metaphor for societies.

When I was in college, the Human Genome Project was heating up. There was an efflorescence of social studies scholarship around the genome, and what it meant, and what impact it was going to have on society. I caught the wave, and I caught the bug. I had a chance to be in that moment of exciting exploration of the social meaning and impact of scientific research, and have not stopped finding wonderful things to think about in that space since.

FM: You’ve taught larger Gen Ed courses at Harvard as well as smaller seminars. How do you teach differently for different types of classes?

SSR: I love teaching both lectures and seminars, and they are very different. Lecturing is a wonderful chance to crystallize big themes and organize material at an introductory level. The way that I teach in a lecture is I offer an argument, the course as a whole has an argument. The idea isn’t that I am presenting neutral information to be learned in a banking sense. The idea is for students to really feel that they’re being challenged, that they’re being asked to think. It’s very question driven.

For a seminar, I like to encourage students to go very analog, to slow way down, to read deeply, and to read hard texts. Our discussions are sometimes rapid-fire, but very structured. I want all students to find their way toward saying something out loud that may be a little risky or vulnerable. A lot of it is about creating a community space where people feel that level of safety and comfort to venture ideas or thoughts that are not fully formed.

FM: You spent part of your childhood in Montana. How does Cambridge compare?

SSR: Cambridge, compared to Montana, feel like a very miniature and a very cluttered closely built environment. Cambridge feels very urban, and has a much longer history in terms of the architecture and monuments and markets — its spaces. People think faster, and speak faster, and move faster in Cambridge. It’s very expensive to move through your day in Cambridge, and you don’t encounter a whole lot of diversity. These aren’t critiques. They’re very, very different places and I could have never imagined that I would end up in Cambridge. I love it though. I almost never leave Harvard Square when I’m here. Whenever I walk through the yard, and I’ve been here almost 15 years, and see tourists in front of the John Harvard statue, I still feel awe.

FM: You were a championship high school debater. Do you use any of the skills you learned in debate in your work today?

SSR: Absolutely. In fact, this is, I think, the reason why being a professor is a great fit for me. I basically get to be a full time debater. I am very interested in the shape of ideas and in the questions, the tensions, and the points of debate. I’m passionate about this practice of being able to see and anticipate different perspectives, and to articulate them in their most fulsome and charitable way. And so I do think that this inflects my teaching, my writing, my thinking, and makes being an academic so joyful for me.

FM: Are you reading any interesting books right now?

SSR: Yes, I’m actually reading Naomi Klein’s book “Doppelganger” at this very moment. It’s a personal and reflective take on exactly what we were just discussing — the wildness and weirdness of the COVID era and the post-Trump era. And the politics that brings together, say, a yoga influencer and a right-wing January 6 Trumper, which she calls “diagonalist politics,” a term she borrows from a sociologist. It’s speaking to issues that I think many academics are struggling with, which are the proliferation of disinformation, and social media and its role in that, and transformations of our politics that are deeply troubling. I’ve been reading that with some urgency.

I’m also reading a book, Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s “The Worst Journey in the World, it’s one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and also just searing. It’s a personal account of an Arctic expedition. So when you’re having a hard day, it sure makes things seem easier when you are reading about what they put up with.

FM: What’s an urgent problem on your mind?

SSR: My not-so-serious answer is email. I really think that we are reaching overload with digital communications. It is a real challenge to my ability to find space to think, and the offloading of administrative practices has become so extreme as a professor, it is hard for me to actually find the time to do the things that are core to my job. I don’t think it’s going to be pleasant for our futures as writers, thinkers, academics, if we cannot grapple with this constant flow of information.

In terms of big issues, naturally the biggest issues facing us are the rise of fascist nationalist movements of all kinds, and climate change. The two of those coming together point to the possibility of major shifts in global politics.

FM: If you were a superhero, what would your superpower be?

SSR: I’m going to give a very weird answer. I often teach science fiction in my courses. Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy has in it somewhere this slightly genetically modified human population. Among their practices, they have the capacity to purr. If one of them is sick, they will purr to help heal the other. I am a cat lover, so this idea of being able to bring warmth, healing, and the rhythm of purring into others. It would be the ability to heal, like a cat’s purr can heal.

FM: Finally, can you tell us about any exciting project that you’re working on?

SSR: The GenderSci Lab has a new project that we call Sex in Motion. The project is looking at the interaction between gender norms, musculoskeletal health, and athletics. We are looking at how different gendered ideas about participation in sport and athletics at every level contribute to differences and bodily comportment and health outcomes. Among the projects within that we’re first looking at sex disparities in ACL knee injury among athletes. Already it’s been an incredibly gratifying journey, learning about the world of sports, and about the skeleton, and how gendered social contexts contribute to our risk of injury.

— Associate Magazine Editor Ellie S. Klibaner-Schiff can be reached at ellie.klibaner-schiff@thecrimson.com. Follow her at @ellieklibschiff.