Barbara McClintock, Genius Geneticist and Gender Subversive

Barbara McClintock as a young women

Barbara McClintock as a young woman

From the beginning of her life, Barbara McClintock knew she was different. Born in 1902 in Hartford, CT, she was never content being a “good girl”, or later, becoming “ladylike”.  She loved to play sports with the boys, and she relished learning, even those most “unladylike” subjects, math and science.

Luckily, Barbara’s parents were themselves mavericks.  They encouraged her to be fully herself.  When a neighbor woman tried to lecture Barbara on being “ladylike”, Barbara’s mother immediately called her and told her in no uncertain terms never to speak to Barbara again.

Barbara’s parents prized the individuality of all their children.  Barbara not only defied gender categories, she also defied social expectations.  She loved to be alone.  From babyhood, she could sit quietly by herself, just thinking while other children played together.  This gift for contemplation and concentration was the foundation for her genius.

Her genius was in the area of genetics. She worked on corn (“maize”) and she began surpassing even her mentors while she was still in college.  Her ability to identify individual chromosomes was her first huge contribution to the field.  Her list of published papers grew quickly as a grad student and post-doc, but she could not get a university job.  Most universities were adamantly opposed to hiring women instructors or researchers.

But Barbara had incredibly supportive colleagues, who rallied around her.  With their support, she got her first research grants, and a 5-year research position at the University of Missouri.  However, she was isolated from the overall university structure.  She wasn’t invited to faculty meetings, or included in other activities.  She knew she had to leave.

She ended up at Cold Springs Harbor, on Long Island in New York state.  What was supposed to be a short stopover at this venerable research institution ended up becoming a lifelong home.  While there, she would make her Nobel-winning discovery about the true nature of DNA.

The “central dogma” about genes at this time was that they were just inert packets of information.  They were like pearls on a string, and all the information was downloaded into the RNA, which coded proteins.  McClintock discovered that DNA was not so inert.  It could change positions.  It was self-regulating.  And the changes could be triggered by the environment.  Thus – the field of epigenetics was born.

She made these discoveries in 1951.  But the scientific community wasn’t ready to have their “central dogma” overthrown, and certainly not by this woman, this eccentric woman.  It took them a full 20 years before they realized that she had been correct all along.

To the credit of the scientific community, this is one woman who did get the rewards she deserved.  She got her Nobel in 1983, and received numerous other awards and recognitions as well.

What I admire most about her is that even when she was not being recognized for her achievements, even when she was being discriminated against for being a woman… she held fast to her individuality.  She didn’t try to change herself.  She decided in college to wear pants and cut her hair – it was just practical, given that she was in the corn field all day.  This of course caused shock waves across her campus (she went to Cornell).  But she knew from the time she was in high school that she was different.  She knew she would pay a price for being different.  And she made a very conscious choice to do as she like and pay whatever price she had to.  She prized loyalty to herself above social approval.

Today, we can see her attitudes and choices reflected in many women around us.  But in the 1920’s, being herself made her a radical.  But to manifest her genius in the world, she needed great courage.  We are lucky

indeed that she had that courage.

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“Get Inspired: Four Brilliant Women Scientists” talk at University of Northern Iowa, March 26, 2015

I’m excited to announce that I’ll be giving my talk, Get Inspired:  Four Brilliant Women Scientists on March 26 at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

When I first started researching the history of women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math), I assumed that it would be an easy, quick study. After all, sexism has held women back for centuries in every area, but especially in STEM. Still, I thought, Marie Curie couldn’t be the only remarkable woman scientist in the last 200 years or so. There had to have been others.

Oh. My. Goddess. After 6 weeks of steady reading, I had still only scratched the surface. Smart and persistent women have pushed through sexism to make their mark in all areas of science. I decided to create a talk about a few of them.

Next challenge: a talk shouldn’t be more than an hour. Who would I choose? It was impossibly difficult to narrow the field.  I finally decided to go for diversity of background… at least, for this first talk. I include Lise Meitner, an Austrian Jewish woman who worked in Berlin in the 1920’s and 1930’s, Chien Shiung-Wu, a Chinese woman who emigrated to America to study science in 1936, Barbara McClintock, a Connecticut-born “gender rebel”, and Shirley Ann Jackson, profiled below.

For my the next four blog entries, I’ll do short profiles of each women featured in my talk. Their achievements are especially impressive, given the obstacles they each faced. First up: Shirley Ann Jackson, an African American woman who defied the odds and helped make the world a better place for all of us.

Jackson 1

Shirley Ann Jackson

Shirley Ann Jackson is a physicist and leader. She was one of the first 2 African American women at MIT, and she eventually co-founded the Black Student Union there. She is a unique individual, with considerable gifts in both science and building consensus. These dual talents eventually led her to work with state nuclear regulatory commissions. President Clinton then tapped her to head the National Nuclear Regulatory Commission. She was one of the first to enforce the laws and demand that nuclear power plants actually bring their plants into compliance with regulations. She also became concerned about the nuclear stockpiles of unstable nation-states, and helped to found the International Regulatory Commission. Today, she is the first woman and the first African American president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Next up: Barbara McClintock, a genius geneticist who was decades ahead of her time! 

I’d love to book more talks while I’m in the Midwest – get in touch with me at, or fill out the form below.





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IBHA Performance


I borrowed this image from Cool right? Recently, I got to perform at the International Big History Association conference. Funded generously by Bill Gates, this group “…seeks to understand the integrated history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life, and Humanity, using the best available empirical evidence and scholarly methods.” (From

So – my work fits right in, since I use the scientific history of the universe as a frame and back drop for a comedic love story in my show, The Physics of Love. (

It was a fun performance!


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The SciArt6 Troupe

For several years, I’ve been working with the Association of Environmental Sciences and Studies (, bringing the arts to their conferences.

This year, the conference is at Pace in NYC (June 11-14), so I decided to put together a troupe of NYC performers to create work inspired by the conference themes.  I was thrilled to find amazingly talented people who were also super-smart and able to read and understand the research that AESS members will present at the conference.  Together, we have created work that will entertain, inspire and inform.  The company:

BenuBenumerata Muhammad (Benu) is a slam poet, rapper, actor and movement artist.  Benu studied many environmental issues, especially in NYC, and then re-wrote the Jay Z’s lyrics to Alicia Keys’ Empire State of Mind to reflect those realities.  He’s also very interested on the effects of synthetic chemical pollution, and will be doing some rhymes that scientist Tyrone Hayes penned about the impact of pesticides on frogs.  We’ll see his movement talents on Healing Earth, with Sergio and Amanda.

AmandaAmanda Valdes is a choreographer, dancer, singer and actor.  She choreographed and will perform (with the entire company) our opening piece, Manhatta – Manhattan, which explores what the island was like 400 years ago.  She also choreographed and will dance (with Sergio and Benu) Healing Earth,  and The Heartbreak of Extinctions (which she will dance with Jennifer).  Amanda will also sing on Empire State of Mind.

JessicaJessica Cermak is an actor and movement artist.  Jessica read over 200 pages of research on current issues relating to food.  She then created highly entertaining puppet shows for the troupe:  Fanny and Daisy Meet a Troll, and Fanny and Daisy Learn Urban Farming.  She designed and created the puppets for this piece – Jessica has talents in many areas!  She will also portray Sergio’s love interest in the beaver romance, Beaver Love.

SergioSergio Castillo is an actor and activist.  Sergio studied themes relating to “The Anthropocene”, looking closely at how humans have impacted the earth.  He played with the notion that humans would only survive if they evolved.  When he started looking at research relating to beavers, he was inspired by their industry and their positive impact as ecosystem engineers.  The result was a scene where the characters evolved from both humans and beavers.  He’ll portray a suave beaver hanging out in a singles bar in Beaver Love.

MikeMichael Coyne is a comedy sketch writer and actor.  He looked at the impact of corporate power on environmental issues, and created a character called Faceless, who represents corporations everywhere.  Focusing on corporate slogans, Mike created scenes where people from the press and delegates from small island countries try to talk to Faceless, with hilarious results.

Jennifer Joy, Artistic Director of SciArt6

Jennifer Joy, Artistic Director

I’ve had a great time in this project.  Besides over all design and direction, I studied Manhattan’s ecological history and created the overall direction and design for Mannahatta – Manhattan. I also wrote and will perform poetry in that piece.  Next, I looked at issues relating to ozone and will perform Harper from Angels in America, which looks at ozone issues circa 1990.  I also created and will perform in Scenes from the Anthropocene, a piece that looks at where we are and where we need to go.  For that piece, I’ll be performing some of my standup comedy, as well as a monologue from my solo show, The Physics of Love.

This is only a brief overview of what the show has in store for audiences.  The show is appropriate for all ages, but has a limited run of June 14 and 15 only.  For tickets, go to

Show deets:

Dates:  June 14, 8pm; June 15, 7:30 pm

Location:  Wow Cafe Theatre, 59-61 East 4th Street (at Bowery)


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Upcoming Show: Scenes from the Anthropocene

The SciArt6 Postcard-page-001 Sciart 6 postcard back-page-001

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The SciArt6 Postcard

Sciart 6 postcard back

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Global Warming and the Polar Vortex

Polar Vortex and climate change

You may be looking at this weather across much of North America and thinking, well, so much for global warming! That’s a relief. We’re gonna freeze to death, but at least we won’t boil to death!

Actually… it turns out that global warming may be the culprit for this cold weather.

The first thing to remember is that our global climate and weather systems are quite complex. When new factors are introduced, such as the heating effect of carbon and other greenhouse gases, the effect won’t simply be “it’s warmer”. For example, it will be warmer, but it will also be wetter – warm air holds more moisture. So in some parts of the globe, flooding will become a problem, and in others, record-breaking snowfall.

I know it’s hard to believe, but global warming can also make us colder. This has to do with the jetstream. Jetstreams are narrow bands of air at about 20,000 feet, that move our weather around. They get their energy – their speed – from the temperature differential between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes. As it turns out, the temperatures in the Arctic have been rising 2-3x faster than in the mid-latitudes, so the difference in temperatures between the Arctic and the mid-latitudes is dropping. As a result, the jetstream across the Northern Hemisphere has slowed down, and is taking a more meandering path.

Normally, that jetstream would move weather systems out more quickly, but now, it doesn’t have the speed to do that. So we have a polar vortex – a weather system that just keeps repeating, bringing in cold temperatures and lots of snow to the US and Canada, and ongoing thunderstorms and torrential rain to northern Europe.

Check out this video and report – it explains things very clearly:

So… global warming, and its chaotic effects on our climate and weather systems, is here to stay. The only question is – how bad will we let it get?

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Creativity in the Business of Being an Artist

Art Ed Ass'n image

I had a wonderful time this fall on my school tour. It always feels so delicious to just be an artist. By that I mean, very specifically, engaging in activities like writing, editing, rehearsing, collaborating and performing. There are no other experiences like it for us writer/performers. There are no experiences that provide such satisfaction and peace. Of course, making art can be full of conflict and high drama, don’t get me wrong! But those of us that stay with it do so because it provides us with a sense of being exactly where we are supposed to be in this world, in this time.

Unfortunately, for most of us artists, we spend far more time doing something that is not our favorite thing: marketing. Looking for jobs, grants, connections, etc. That’s what I’ve been doing for the past couple of weeks: organizing myself around doing a major submission push to theatres around the country.

Today I feel good about it though. I just wrote a synopsis of my show, and it turned out to be a very creative piece. At first, I wrote it as a summary, and I was painfully bored before I even finished it! I wondered how anyone else could be interested if even I wasn’t… then Lady Muse visited.

Creativity isn’t just about creating something new or original. It’s also about synthesis. It’s about how to organize and structure your ideas. Edward de Bono, a master creativity researcher and trainer, put together a 4-part creative thinking process:

1. Focusing – warming up with games to get the creative mind sparking
2. Generating ideas – coming up with new and possibly impractical ideas
3. Capturing ideas – identifying the best ideas that have been generated
4. Implementing ideas – applying the “practical”; organizing and creating structures within which the new ideas can flourish

So you see, creativity is not just a right brain occupation. It involves both originality and organizational skills.

With my synopsis, it meant finding the 3-act structure: What happens in the first “act” or the first 3rd of the play? What happens in the 2nd act? The 3rd act? Once I had the structure, I could let go of summarizing and just tell the story.

Creativity may start off chaotic, but does not remain that way. Creative thinking can lead us to real solutions in our personal and professional lives… and, dare I say, in the world. It does so by encouraging a beautiful synthesis of fresh ideas applied to practical realities.

And the synopsis? I’ll share the final draft of it next week…

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The Biochemistry of Love: A Recipe for Addiction?

biochem of love

I went to a party for polyamorous people recently. What can I say, I was curious. It was at a big house in Bayview-Hunters Point in San Francisco. And no, it wasn’t a sex party! It was a pig roast.  And everyone kept their clothes on, more or less. There was a clothing swap in one room, and people kept whipping off their clothes to try on other clothes, but only in that room. (I found a really cute polka-dotted corset myself. I paired it with a skirt the hostess had given me – b/c I had come in black pants and a tank, easily the most square person there – and suddenly I fit right in.)

Anyway, the reason I have become curious about the poly lifestyle is that it seems to me that the vast majority of monogamous, dyadic (dyad = 2 people) relationships are dysfunctional, unhappy and addictive. I was wondering whether anyone in the poly community had figured out something better. For many people, romantic relationships seem to bring not only emotional highs, but also lot of chaos and pain. I’m trying to figure why that is, and how to be different myself.

brain in love

I can see the benefits of relationships, of course. When they’re healthy, you get companionship and support.  But all too often, people just seem desperate to be in a relationship, any relationship.

For example, I met a woman this past summer whom I thought was attractive. She’s smart and passionate. She had quit her corporate job to follow her passion. That’s a quality I always admire! But, as it turned out, T was fresh out of a relationship. She wanted to sleep with me within 24 hours after meeting me. When I gently pushed her away, she started crying over her ex.  This is what started me thinking about relationship addiction.  The desperation to be in a relationship is not unusual at all.

Why do people relationship-hop? Why are people afraid to be single? And if being single is so bad, and being in relationships so good, why is there so much unhappiness in romantic relationships?

I did a little research about the biochemistry of falling in love for my show, The Physics of Love. I wrote this monologue as a result:

Love is blind. It’s this force inside you making decisions, and you’re just along for the ride. You try so hard to choose the right person, but who really has that choice? When the unconscious mind gets the girl it wants, it downloads the dopamine and norepinephrine and suddenly you’re insanely high and all you can think about is her. Her. Her. People in love are in exactly the same chemical state as people high on cocaine… or in the manic phase of a manic-depressive disorder. When reality starts to kick in, you notice a loss – your old sense of self. It’s dissolving. And it hurts. Enter Oxytocin. The bonding chemical. It’s helping to dissolve away certain synapses in your brain – the you you were before her. Going, going, gone… and it’s scary and painful, but the oxytocin is also making you feel really warm and fuzzy about it all. Do not trust oxytocin. The FBI makes suspected terrorists sniff it before interrogation – makes ‘em pliable.

I’m more and more convinced that it’s the dopamine and norephinephrine spikes that keep most people in unhappy relationships. The withdrawals from these chemicals are painful – and are either the cause or the effect – or both – of the intense conflicts that are a hallmark of “passionate” relationships. Once the partners “make up”, though, the chemicals spike up again.

polyamory symbol

So, do poly people have an easier time of it? I don’t know… but I kind of doubt it.  It does seem like one pitfall of dyadic relationships is the intense emotional focus on only one person. This focus makes you seem them first as the answer to all your problems; then as the worst person in the world; then back to being the best thing that ever happened to you. I wondered – and still do – whether poly people side-step this obsessive focus on one person. Could this help them build healthier relationships?

The people I talked to at the party mostly called themselves “poly-curious”. They’d never been involved in a poly situation. There were others who had, but found it hadn’t worked well at all. I only talked to one person, a lesbian, (we’ll call her “L”), who was happy with her poly situation. Her girlfriend had a boyfriend of almost 2 decades. Since lesbian relationships can be very emotionally intense, L appreciated that her girlfriend had another focus.

Of course, I am not taking my experiences at the party as representational of all poly people everywhere. I only know a few people that I met at the party!

lesbian symbolWhile I doubt I could handle a poly situation, I remain curious about how people work out the challenges of relationships. I have only ever known of 2-3 dyadic couples who are in stable and healthy non-addictive relationships. By that I mean that they got to know each other very slowly, and they never went through long periods of intense conflict, interspersed by periods of great sex. Instead, they delayed having sex, and maintained their individual lives and interests consistently. They say they have great sex now, but it’s not the kind that is present when you have brutal arguments all the time!

love being single

I love my life as a single woman very much. There are so many benefits… peace of mind, freedom, health and strength. If and when I do get into a relationship again, I am going to try to have a non-addictive one… the emotions might be quieter, but I’ll still have all the wonderful things I have in my life now.  That’s my goal – to bring my best self, the one I’ve found through being single – to a healthy, emotionally rich relationship of equals.

I’d love to hear your comments!

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Seneca Falls and the Women’s Rights Park

Yay, Seneca Falls!

Yay, Seneca Falls!

After my show last Wednesday in upstate NY, I drove to Syracuse – 140 miles. In the rain, on country roads. Yikes! I thought I’d sleep in a bit on Thursday, but no luck. I gave up and got on the road.

I ended up being really glad that I had. Along Highway 90 from Syracuse to Rochester, there is a little town named Seneca Falls. My interest was immediately piqued. Seneca Falls, of course, was the site of the first Women’s Rights Convention, in 1848. Anyway, I turned off the highway, drove into town, and found this:

A National Monument! For women’s rights! How thrilling! I was suddenly grateful for my insomnia! It gave me the extra time to explore. And so glad that I had the extra time – yay insomnia!!

There was a lot of cool stuff, both in and outside of the Center. This, from the inside:

One of the many inspiring quotes in the Center.

One of the many inspiring quotes in the Center.

And a walk along the river led me to this sculpture:

Statue of Susan B. Anthony meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Statue of Susan B. Anthony meeting Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Anthony and Stanton’s friendship proved to be turbulent, but together they were a force for justice for women in this country.

I really enjoyed my time in Seneca Falls. It was a sweet gift in the middle of an enjoyable, but sometimes exhausting tour.

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