19 Questions With Zuska

Originally published on Page 3.14 on 9/21/2006.

Interview by Katherine Sharpe - The interview is loosely based on the infamous Proust questionnaire..

What's your name?

Zuska at a sculputure garden in Princeton

Well, originally my name was Suzanne Franks. Then I married someone, and just because I said I wanted to, my name became Suzanne Shedd. Ten years later, it took a lawyer and a court order and a "petition to retake former name" to go back to Suzanne Franks. And there's still a utility company and a credit bureau that thinks my social security number belongs to Suzanne Shedd. Let that be a lesson to you young women who think it's a good idea to change your name at marriage. Anyway - Suzanne Franks.

What do you do when you're not blogging?
I garden, I read, I cook, I have migraines.

What is your blog called?
Thus Spake Zuska

What's up with that name?
Zuska is a Slovak diminutive bestowed upon me by my maternal grandfather. Zuska was never hesitant to demand justice. I'm glad to have her back with me in adulthood.

To paraphrase Nietzsche, "Discrimination is something that is to be overcome. What have you done to overcome it?" Descending from the Appalachian coalfields, I proffer my hard-won wisdom to the world. The residents of Science-and-Engineering Land are lost, sickened by discrimination and harassment. Perpetrators and victims alike are mired in this discriminatory wasteland. The source of their sickness is the Death of the Superior White Male, a fantasy who never really existed, but to whose malignant existence denizens of Science-and-Engineering Land devote entire careers. They are locked in the past. I don't have time to fantasize about how things might be better in the future. The struggle exists in the present. (Thanks to Jorn K. Bramann for an excellent synopsis of Thus Spake Zarathustra, which I paraphrased with pleasure: here. )

How long have you been blogging, anyway?
Just over a year. [Since 7/13/2005]  Though I've been blogging in my head and to my friends a lot longer than that. Pretty much my whole life, if you must know.

Where are you from and where do you live now?
Geographically: I was born in the back seat of Dad's Oldsmobile on the side of a back road in Greene County, Pennsylvania, USA. Coal mining country - bituminous, not anthracite. My mom still lives in the same house she was (literally) born in. It's a house built by the coal company. Six rooms, my parents, my grandfather, and us six kids, and extended family around town. I live now in a suburb of Philadelphia, PA, in a hundred-year-old three-story colonial house with two cats and my husband. My nearest family is 300 miles away.

Intellectually: I come from a place where girls were supposed to grow up to be good wives to local boys, and good mothers to their children. I did not marry a local boy, and I have no kids. I do have a divorce and a couple of theses! Did I mention I was raised Catholic?

Would you describe yourself as a working scientist?
Well, first we'd have to agree on what "working scientist" means. I used to joke with my friends that according to the standard prejudice about what it meant to be a "real" scientist, the only real scientists in the U.S. were postdocs and post-third year grad students. They were the ones doing actual lab work, collecting and analyzing data, keeping up with the literature, etc. The professors had all, as far as we could tell, been gradually transformed into proposal-writing and grant-maintaining machines. Also, postdoc and grad-student slave drivers. And people in industry didn't seem to count at all. Let alone anyone doing something so garish as public policy or administrative work - those were "used-to-be" scientists. My opinion: if you work in any capacity in which you draw upon your science/engineering education to perform your work, you are a working scientist/engineer. That said: I used to have a very nice paid career as a scientist/engineer, before I became disabled with chronic migraines. I now consider myself to be an unpaid disabled blogging scientist/engineer.

Any educational experiences or degrees you'd like to mention?
Oh lord. Degrees are easy: BS in engineering science (Penn State), MS in nuclear engineering, (MIT) MEd secondary ed - mathematics (Arcadia U), PhD in biomedical engineering (Duke), women's studies graduate certificate (Duke) - I'm a chronically educated person. I've had educational experiences that would curl your hair, but you can read about all that on the blog. I'll just mention this statistic: 11 years of engineering higher education at three prestigious institutions. Three female professors for an engineering-related class the entire time. That's 0.3 role models per year. I just love it when people tell me things are getting much better for women in engineering now, because that's what they were saying to me when I was a student.

What are your main academic interests, in or out of your field?
Anything gender and science/engineering related. Research on women in engineering and science. These are not necessarily the same. The first is more theoretical - the culture of science and technology, its production, its uses - while the second focuses on issues of access and climate. They are related but you'd be surprised how little communication there is between the two camps. I am interested in fostering communication between them. And, of course, getting engineers and scientists, who are not necessarily the ones doing this research, to listen to anything that either group is saying. Three points of a triangle, but little communication between any of them. If we could link them...well, any engineer knows how strong a triangle is.

I'm also interested in what I call the Intelligent Design Schoolhouse Crusade for Christ movement. The organized movement that wishes not to remove science from our schools, but to pervert it and bend it to the purposes of the radical right evangelical movement that foments all the intelligent design hooha that goes on in the U.S. and makes us look like fools to the world.

Long, long ago I used to be very interested in chemotherapeutic resistance of cancer cells, how it affects their lipid metabolism, and what sorts of perfusion systems are best for studying this using 31P NMR spectroscopy. I had some really, really lovely spectra obtained from living cells - just gorgeous. Should have framed some of them.

The last book you read?
I can't seem to read just one book at once. Right now I'm reading Socrates Café - A Fresh Taste of Philosophy by Christopher Phillips; Suffering for Science: Reason and Sacrifice in Modern America by Rebecca Herzig; Longitude: The True Story of a Modern Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time by Dava Sobel, and The Observations, a novel by Jane Harris. Though I did just finish Longitude the other day, so I guess that would be it.

What is your idea of a perfect day?
No migraine, no aura, no feeling that a migraine is about to come on, no hangover from pain-relieving meds from yesterday's migraine, no low-grade headache that isn't quite a migraine but is just there and annoying. Just a normal head. That, plus anything else that happens. Sunshine is good.

What's your greatest habitual annoyance?
These are a few of my least favorite things: barking dogs, loud music reverberating from cars, mountaintop removal, George W. Bush, and sexually-harassing science/engineering faculty members.

Who are your favorite heroes of fiction?
Rat, from the comic strip Pearls Before Swine. Jo, from Little Women, before she got all swooney about Professor Bhaer. Karana, from Island of the Blue Dolphins. Kit Tyler, from The Witch of Blackbird Pond. Elsa and Alice Pendleton, and Greer Farraday, from Easter Island by Jennifer Vanderbes, a book every living woman scientist and engineer ought to read. And then send her a fan letter.

Your favorite heroes in real life?
Debra Rolison, who has asked the infamous question "isn't a millennium of affirmative action for white men sufficient?" Absinthe - you are marvelous, dear. Rosalind Franklin - James Watson, you'd be nothing without her, ah, "borrowed" data. Cynthia Burack - she knows why. My mom - I'd have quit engineering after my first calculus course if not for her. Beth Montelone, Ruth Dyer, Jackie Spears, and Susan Arnold at K-State. Jean O'Barr at Duke. Oh, I can't possibly list them all. All the WEPAN folks. There are so darn many kick-ass women. If you don't see yourself on this list and you think you should be, you should just assume that in the unabridged version your name would be there.

What's your most marked characteristic?
Speaking forthrightly.

What's your principal defect?
Speaking forthrightly at inopportune times.

What quality do you admire most in a person?
The ability to allow others to feel and express their feelings, whatever they may be, and not try to explain them away or tell them they should feel differently. It's a much harder thing to do than you might think, and a rare friend who can do it consistently, for more than just the happy feelings.

Who are your favorite writers?
I don't think I really have favorite writers. I like good writing, and I like things that make me think in new ways. But I'll read the back of a cereal box if nothing else is available.

What would you like to be?
Healthy. I can do pretty much whatever else I want, if I could just stop having migraines. Also, a mean banjo-picker.

2 responses so far

  • Diana says:

    I don't know how many comments you receive that begin: I am not a crackpot, but I am not a crackpot. Perhaps you have heard a lot of folk remedies for migraines, but my hubby and I recently learned of one that works for his frequent headaches (haven't tested it on his migraine yet). One of my colleagues at work who did try it on a migraine found it helpful.

    It's brain freeze. Drink an icy, slushee, milkshake or anything else that's really cold very, very fast. I know it sounds horrible when you're already suffering in the cranium -- and it is painful, but after two or three good brain freezes, your head should feel much better.

    Just a suggestion. No insurance required.

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