Saturday 27 June 2015

Little Miss STEMshine

At The Institute we offer a degree called something like Biowonders with Bioforensics.  Every year some students sign up to this because they have grown up with CSI on the TV and think they can handle the blood-splatter and skeletons found in the woods. They wait a helluva long time for any of this on the curriculum and eventually pass out with a degree that is more or less useless for getting a job in forensics in Ireland: of which there are about three openings every decade. We are spending next academic year having a strategic review of our courses and one thing we are all determined to do is scotch the 'forensic' lie and call the course Biotechnology for Superheroes for the generation raised on Spiderman movies. Elsewhere you can complete a BSc in Forensic Science and get a job as an autopsy technician [they call it medical examiner and medical technologist]. Presumably the Faculty at U. Vermont devoted some time and effort to developing their course in Forensics - Blood-splatter 101; Advanced Entomology; Handgun Caliber Analysis - rather than merely stapling the word 'forensics' into the Prospectus as a dishonest after-thought.

I know all this because Alayna Westcom, a rather symmetrical female autopsy technician, secured the title Miss Vermont 2015 this Spring. You can't see much of her symmetrical face because she has been raised on the Little Miss Sunshine school of how to respond when you win a beauty pageant. You put both hands up to the mouth, give a little at the knees and shriek "OMG, OMG", while last year's winner drapes your sash and pins a plastic tiara to your hair. Now you could getting snitty about the elements of popular culture than Ms Westcom has chosen to embrace: how parading fit young women in near-nakedness is demeaning gives a rather one-dimensional view of their talents. She contributed to the distractinglysexy twitterfeed, so she has a sense of humor. Although Only confirmed followers have access to @AlaynaWestcom's Tweets and complete profile, which suggests that Miss Dingbat competitors attract a lot of unwanted attention from lurkers, stalkers and oglers. But you could turn it around and say: here is a successful young scientist who has a peculiar hobby.  No more peculiar than going to Samba school or doing a little light book-binding in the evening after a heavy day pushing the frontiers.

It may seem that some of the contestants in these competitions are as thick as pig-dribble but then so are a proportion of any profession including college professors. With hindsight, the responses to the question "Should evolution be taught in schools?" by Miss USA contestants are a) varied and b) not unreasonable; although we all snickered contemptuously at the time (2011). Is it just me but do a disconcerting number of these women have sort of up-slanty eyes? What's that all about? Most of these women are white, or 'round-eyes' as the Chinese used to refer to Westerners, but the ideal physiognomy now seems to be going East - is it all the Kung-Fu movies on the TV?

Mais revenons a nos agnelles Ms Westcom has been changing her strategy over her years of competing for the titles of Miss Bellows Falls . . . Miss Vermont . . . Miss America. Over the years, the contestants have been asked to demonstrate that they are not one-dimensional ciphers to be ogled at; but are young women who are worth something in their community. She is still raising wodges of folding money for a worthy charity, and she visits old folks homes. Ms Westcom used to offer a [same-old, same-old] dance routine as her way of showing that Vermont Has Talent.  This year however, she has ditched that and her 'extra' is Platform:  Success through STEM.  That's great, like Harry Potter and Nobel Prizewinners, people listen disproportionately to celebrities.  Can't be bad if girls see Alayna Westcom's demo of 'science' and say "that's cool, I'll have some of that" and put an extra effort into their maths homework. The fact that her science demo [L and micro-youtube] is reduced to a 40sec sound-byte is not her fault but integral to the whole superficial nature of these events.

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