With Women's History Month underway, GBH’s Morning Edition is highlighting how women are excelling in fields that are traditionally dominated by men, like science, technology, engineering and math. There are still significant barriers to entry in those fields, including an exposure gap. One person looking to break those barriers is Marcia Bartusiak, an author, journalist and professor of the practice emeritus at MIT, who's been covering the fields of astronomy and physics for four decades. She joined Morning Edition co-hosts Paris Alston and Jeremy Siegel for a discussion. This transcript has been lightly edited.
Jeremy Siegel: It's a pleasure to have you. So you're kind of a legend in the field. You were among the first to report on discoveries like dark matter and meteorites from Mars. You have a long and storied career reporting on science and writing about science. Tell us a bit about your trajectory, like how you ended up in the space in the first place.
Marcia Bartusiak: I have a very unusual background. I started out actually in journalism. I myself was inspired while I was in high school by the first female reporter at a local TV station in the Norfolk, Virginia Beach area. And I was determined — "Oh, I like that, I'll go into that." So I went to school, got a degree in journalism, went back to Norfolk and became her rival reporter at another station. But the NASA Langley Research Center was nearby. And when I did stories there, I was in love with covering science. And I said, "If I could do this 24/7, I would be in heaven." So I actually went back to school to pump up my science background and ended up with a master's degree in physics, and then went on to combine those two fields to write on the field of science.
Paris Alston: It's fascinating because science is sometimes something very complicated to communicate. Even like Jeremy and I, we do science stories here. We do our absolute best. I think sometimes we knock it out and then sometimes it knocks us out. How are you able to transfer and merge those two worlds to make something that's been digestible for everyday people?
Bartusiak: Well, I like to quote The New York Times reporter George Johnson: "to take the strange and make it familiar." And that's my passion: to get people excited about something. They think, "Oh, my gosh, I couldn't possibly understand that." But that's the role of a science writer, is to take those, what seemed to be difficult ideas and, through metaphors and analogies, show how it affects your everyday life, or explain them with examples that they would be familiar with from their everyday life.
And women can bring a perspective on this. I was thinking of one story I did — I was talking to some theoretical physicists about: What is the nature of space-time? And on the tiniest of levels, they had a theory that it was made up of these little loops of energy. And a male reporter who reported on this as well described it as a medieval soldier's chainmail. I preferred thinking of it as weaving a blanket of space-time. So a woman can bring a different perspective, different analogies. That's what we can add to these different viewpoints.
"That's the role of a science writer, is to take those what seemed to be difficult ideas and, through metaphors and analogies, show how it affects your everyday life."-Author and journalist Marcia Bartusiak
Alston: Next time we talk about space, we've got to remember blankets.
Siegel: Yeah, we'll bring our blankets. So as we're thinking about some of the lingering gender disparities in science fields, I've told Paris a number of times that I was a failed science major in college — started out as a chemistry major, and ended up switching to something different. But looking back at my time in college, which wasn't too long ago: especially in math and engineering classes, it was mostly men. And so even though we've made a lot of progress, there are still significant, lingering barriers for young women and girls entering STEM fields. As a science writer who is making these things more accessible to people who they might not be accessible to, how can we do a better job of talking about and writing about science?
Bartusiak: Great strides have been made in the biological sciences. Women are now pretty much in parity with the men in terms of numbers. It's the physical sciences: engineering, mathematics. And for me, because it helped me to be inspired by a role model, I think the same can be true in science. More women science teachers to serve as mentors; of course, more women scientists; but also I think communicators like me and others can play a role.
I think it's important for young girls, young women, to see a woman's byline in the newspaper or on the cover of a book, to hear a woman's voice on the radio. To see a woman's face on TV. And I have to give a shout out to those women scientists who are using social media, the great means of communications for the current generation on TikTok, on YouTube, to do these wonderful little short programs explaining various aspects of science. I think that can be very important. So it's also breaking down those stereotypes, that somehow if you're going to major in a hard science that, "Oh, I'm not going to get that boyfriend." But I think seeing these role models around them more and more, and seeing more women in science communication.
And women are now the major science communicators! That wasn't the case when I entered the field in the 1980s. Men were the dominant science communicators. Now it's women. And I think that may be, not of a large part, but playing a role in attracting more young girls and young women.
Alston: So in the 30 seconds we have left here, Marcia, I mean, what are some of the challenges that women face once they get into those fields? And how can the fields adjust to be more welcoming to them?
Bartusiak: I think they have to know that sometimes women will have different reactions than a man in terms of how they're absorbing the material. And I think that all of the science instructors, male or female, have to understand that. Some women may not be as aggressive. I think I was fortunate in that I went back to school after having worked in the real world, so that I wasn't afraid of confronting a professor or asking a question in class. And I think those skill sets need to be addressed, perhaps even at a high-school level, that women know they can have a voice.