Xena, Warrior Scientist!

I freely admit it. I routinely destroy my neoencephalon by watching all manner of crap on television. I am not one of those overweening snobs who daintily curl an upper lip as I sneer, "I never watch television." I love popular culture, and frankly, find a dose of mindless television to be relaxing, and occasionally thought-provoking.

Warning: This is recycled bonobo scat from the long defunct Refuge, ca. Nov. 5, 2005.

Such occurred recently when I watched the imaginatively titled, "Vampire Bats" featuring the unconquerable Lucy Lawless. Although I was not a devotee, I enjoyed watching Ms. Lawless chew up, and kick the shit out of, the scenery in "Xena, Warrior Princess." The imagery of Xena often came in handy when I, often the lone woman, endured gigantic clashes among primadonna scientists. As the guys were postulating, posturing, and sometimes patronizing, I imagined myself as Xena, leaping to the top of the conference room table, bursting forth with Xena's signature ululation, and making them listen to me by means of a whip or a well placed boot. Of course, by all appearances, I would be supporting my view in a moderately civil manner with data and citations from the literature and experience. Inwardly, the Xena imagery bolstered my assertiveness when the guys were in full chest beating mode.

I once told a male colleague about this imagery, which took our conversation down the general path of women in science. These days, there are a lot more women scientists, particularly in biology, but fewer in other fields, e.g., chemistry and physics. Back in the day, many scientific disciplines had fewer still. A former colleague related an amusing anecdote from his grad school days in a chemistry department at a major Midwestern university. Of all the tenure track faculty, there was only one woman, and as a young professor, she felt more comfortable with the grad students than the grand old men in the department. After a particularly contentious departmental meeting, she came back to the lab and voiced her frustration to the grad students, including my friend. She said, "They (the rest of the faculty) all were trying to prove who had the biggest dick there, and I have nothing to work with!"

The chemistry professor's humorous lament really hit home. I frequently experience the same feeling. That's when the Xena imagery comes in handy. It's also why, in spite of wincingly bad scripts and not-quite-campy acting, I thoroughly enjoy Lucy Lawless' role as Dr. Maddy Rierdon in "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats." Maddy comes across as competent and thoughtful, strong and intelligent, plus I'd kill to look as sexy as she does in jeans and a T-shirt. Her students love her, and will follow her into the deepest darkest Louisiana swamp to help her capture the anomalous vampire bats so she can more closely observe their behavior. As an aside, the science of "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats", albeit wacky, is another appealing feature. The locusts and bats are not products of a Revelational pestilence of Biblical proportions or supernatural spookdom, but have "scientific" explanations, typically pertaining to bioengineering gone awry (the bugs) or manmade environmental maladies (the bats).

Yes, I like Maddy Rierdon, and it's refreshing to see a woman scientist portrayed, even in such goofball offerings as "Locusts" and "Vampire Bats," as a strong, smart character who saves the day through her powers of observation, her knowledge, and yes, more than a little kick-ass physicality. Although there are smatterings of women scientists in the spheres of television and cinema, two others stand out most in my mind.

The first is Robby Keough, the infectious disease specialist as portrayed by Rene Russo, in the truly-wretched-yet-I-cannot-look-away Outbreak. Robby's smart enough, but one gets the impression she's just along for the ride for dramatic, and not incidentally, sexual tension between her and her ex-boyfriend, Colonel Sam Daniels, as played by Dustin Hoffman in an excrutiatingly horrid action hero role. Colonel Sam is really the principle character in "Outbreak," as he and Robby try to idenitfy and contain the outbreak of the deadly Motaba virus, which is some sort of super-hemorrhagic cousin of Ebola. Sorry, Robby, but Maddy's colleague and husband, Dan Dryer (Dylan Neal), is relegated to a supportive, handsome accessory, and unlike Colonel Sam, stays in the background. Chalk one up for Xena.

The second is Rosalind Franklin, a real-life character, who is portrayed by Juliet Stevenson in Race for the Double Helix. Rosalind Franklin was the superb crystallographer whose data were pivotal in solving the structure of DNA. Unfortunately, her significant contributions were obscured by the fact that Maurice Wilkins shared her results, without her knowledge, with Jim Watson and Francis Crick, who ultimately cracked the code. Here are a couple of key paragraphs from the link provided:

She spent three years in France, enjoying the work atmosphere, the freedoms of peacetime, the French food and culture. But in 1950, she realized that if she wanted to make a scientific career in England, she had to go back. She was invited to King's College in London to join a team of scientists studying living cells. The leader of the team assigned her to work on DNA with a graduate student. Franklin's assumption was that it was her own project. The laboratory's second-in-command, Maurice Wilkins, was on vacation at the time, and when he returned, their relationship was muddled. He assumed she was to assist his work; she assumed she'd be the only one working on DNA. They had powerful personality differences as well: Franklin direct, quick, decisive, and Wilkins shy, speculative, and passive. This would play a role in the coming years as the race unfolded to find the structure of DNA.

Franklin made marked advances in x-ray diffraction techniques with DNA. She adjusted her equipment to produce an extremely fine beam of x-rays. She extracted finer DNA fibers than ever before and arranged them in parallel bundles. And she studied the fibers' reactions to humid conditions. All of these allowed her to discover crucial keys to DNA's structure. Wilkins shared her data, without her knowledge, with James Watson and Francis Crick, at Cambridge University, and they pulled ahead in the race, ultimately publishing the proposed structure of DNA in March, 1953.

The strained relationship with Wilkins and other aspects of King's College (the women scientists were not allowed to eat lunch in the common room where the men did, for example) led Franklin to seek another position. She headed her own research group at Birkbeck College in London. But the head of King's let her go on the condition she would not work on DNA. Franklin returned to her studies of coal and also wrapped up her DNA work. She turned her attention to viruses, publishing 17 papers in five years. Her group's findings laid the foundation for structural virology.

Stevenson's portrayal of Franklin is excellent. In France, she is smiling, energized and happy. In England, with the hovering Wilkins, she is closed, dour, snappish with her male colleagues and fiercely protective of her research. And with good reason. Wilkins is the archetype of what I call "the project vampire." Scientists (male or female) of this ilk latch themselves on to the work of another scientist individually, or as part of a team, and manage to gather credit and recognitions for little to no accomlishment. Franklin's story, and Juliet Stevenson's portrayal of this brilliant woman, is very painful for me since I was the target of a project vampire in my previous job. The experience of watching this guy insinuate himself into a major project, in which I was a key player, contributed in no small way to my answering a recruiter's call, and accepting a significantly vertical move to another company. I am not even half the scientist that Rosalind Franklin was, but I so empathize with her history that Juliet Stevenson's role brings back those crushing feelings.

This is why I like Maddy Rierdon. She's always the one on top, and not just the sexy foil for the guy scientist or the dupe of the conniving male colleague. The only vampires she deals with are furry little critters with wings. So, CBS, if you're listening or if one of your minor minions stumbles across this backwater of a blog through Pharyngula or a Google search on "hen bestiality" (yes, that happened), give me more Maddy!


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Thanks, Sandy & Stephanie!

Yes, the lack of telepathy is definitely a plus, but I think I might just signal what I am thinking by my oh-so-subtle eyerolling and highly audible sighs of exasperation. That's why I love teleconferencing, thanks to the truly wonderful "mute" button.

Great read, Dr Bushwell! :) As a Xena fan, I really enjoyed reading this. Hope you don't mind my reposting it on a Xena forum I co-moderate.

Nice article! As I and other Xena fans know very well, Xena was also a great scientist. She invented the tracheotomy, despite having exhibited absolutely no prior knowledge of surgery. That's how good she was. Don't know how this or that was discovered? Xena did it. =)