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“Lessons in Chemistry” Tackles Sexism in Science but Perpetuates Nerd Stereotype

Lessons in Chemistry, by Bonnie Garmus, introduces readers to what it was like to be a woman pursuing a career as a research scientist circa 1960 – frustrating and at times absurd, even given the context of the times. I suspect the setting is unfamiliar to most readers. But the novel made me uncomfortable, because the travails of the protagonist ring disturbingly true.

The book rocketed up the bestseller lists as soon as it debuted in March 2022, and Apple TV picked it up “straight-to-series” more than a year earlier. Executive Producer Brie Larson, of “Room” and “Captain Marvel” fame, stars as chemist-turned-TV-cook Elizabeth Zott.

The tale is hilarious, fast-paced, and expertly plotted. But while the feminist message is obvious, the subtext simmers with a disturbing “othering” of scientists. The tone continues the stereotypes that sent me running from the TV after just a few minutes of watching the Big Bang Theory – which well-meaning friends continue to recommend.

Plot Points

In 1956 Elizabeth Zott works at the Hastings Research Institute in Commons, California, “EZ” emblazoned on her lab coat. She has a master’s degree in chemistry. A bit of context: In many fields, such as education, engineering, and social work, a master’s degree is an achievement. In science, though, a grad student typically goes straight for a doctorate, with the consolation prize of a “terminal masters” granted if she or he fails qualifying exams.

The story begins when Elizabeth searches for beakers in the lab of star chemist Calvin Evans, who right away assumes she’s a secretary. Why else would a mere woman seek laboratory glassware? Two weeks later, they bump into each other at a theater and Calvin, sick from something he ate and after his date bolts, promptly barfs on Elizabeth.

The two share interests, traumatic upbringings, and a physical attraction that neither at first wants to acknowledge. But they bond (more a covalent sharing than an ionic exchange). She tends to get on her soapbox, lamenting the system that keeps women out of science, as predictably Calvin is slow on the uptake. “’You’re saying,’ he said slowly, ‘that more women actually want to be in science?’” Alas, Calvin dies on an early morning run, tripping and then hit by a patrol car. Elizabeth is pregnant but doesn’t yet realize it.

A few years later, Elizabeth meets a parent at their daughters’ kindergarten class who is a TV producer. They talk, and she ends up hosting a cooking show, “Supper at Six.” She sees creating meals as a platform to teach about science … and life.

The first episode inspires an avalanche of calls from puzzled viewers asking what CH3COOH is. (Vinegar, aka acetic acid.) If spellcheck had been around in the 1950s, Elizabeth could have mentioned food additive sodium citrate – Na3C6H5O7 – and come up with NACHOS.

“Cooking is not an exact science,” Elizabeth begins another episode. “The tomato I hold in my hand is different from the one you hold in yours. That’s why you must involve yourself with your ingredients. Experiment: taste, touch, smell, look, listen, test, assess.” That’s remarkably similar to the scientific method. She launches into a recitation of how heat and enzymatic activity yield something yummy.

A chicken pie is “a mixture, which is a combination of two or more pure substances in which each substance retains its individual chemical properties.” The carrots, peas, onions and celery are “mixed yet remain separate entities.”

Supper at Six is an instant smash hit.

Elizabeth Zott is gorgeous, athletic, wears trousers (a no-no in the 1950s), and sports a pencil in her upswept hair. She has no sense of humor or subtlety and is, well, unlike most women of the era.

Early in the story, when a large mutt follows Elizabeth home from a deli and Calvin asks, “Who’s your friend?” Elizabeth thinks he’s wondering why she’s late and answers “It’s six thirty.” And that becomes the canine’s name. The dog is smart, although he flunked out of bomb-sniffing school. Elizabeth teaches him to understand hundreds of spoken words, and he becomes a major character. We hear his thoughts, a little like a journalistic fourth wall. Later, when an unemployed Elizabeth converts her kitchen into a lab, where she performs a complex extraction process to make coffee, she and Six-Thirty wear goggles.

Elizabeth links her culinary chemistry to life lessons, which is what draws her massive audience of bored housewives. Consider this telling description:

“The potato’s skin is teeming with glycoalkaloids, toxins so indestructible, they can easily survive both cooking and frying. And yet I still use the skin, not only because it’s fiber rich, but because it serves as a daily reminder that in potatoes as in life, danger is everywhere.”

Equally scintillating is Elizabeth’s description, to Six-Thirty, of albumin coagulation as she cooks egg whites.

Vague Yet Jargony

The novel quickly unfurls a curious dichotomy of too-general terms, such as publishing in “Science Journal,” against a torrent of unnecessarily multisyllabic words. Isn’t the intent of a scientist to obfuscate?

Elizabeth describes herself as a chemist, working in Chemistry departments. But her research interest, the RNA world, described as “abiogenesis” over and over, would have more likely been in a department of Biological Chemistry or Biochemistry, or if a little later, Molecular Biology. She is, after all, a contemporary of Watson and Crick, who are oddly never mentioned, and deciphering the genetic code lay in understanding RNA structure and function. Throughout the book, this sort of historical context is lacking, overshadowed by reliance on jargon.

The narrative also relies on the stereotypical objects of science, the things stuffed into toy chemistry sets, festooning Elizabeth’s digs with Bunsen burners, flasks, and rubber tubing. The language reflects public perception of science and scientists. Terms such as “scientific proof,” “believe in science,” and “breakthrough” reverberate, as “theory” is used synonymously with “hypothesis.”

A Missed Opportunity to Educate

The narrative barely touches on Elizabeth Zott’s professional interest, which is exactly the area that propelled me and many others to pursue careers in science: the origin of life. In the credits at the end of the book, the author thanks two friends, an “amazing chemist” and a “brilliant biologist,” for their technical advice. But had these experts really not heard of the Miller-Urey experiment? Or had Garmus or her editors dismissed it?

Elizabeth’s research passion is deciphering the role of RNA in jumpstarting life. “Abiogenesis,” referring to the first cells arising from chemicals, is repeated ad nauseum, yet fleshed out only fleetingly, in a mere sentence. And so Garmus missed a great opportunity to build her story around one of the most exciting experiments of all time. So here it is.

In 1953, 23-year-old biochemistry graduate student Stanley Miller, at the University of Chicago, mixed simple chemicals that likely had been the types in the early Earth’s atmosphere. He brewed a “primordial soup” of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water in a glass contraption and lit a spark – a recipe for life, perhaps.

Within a day, the soup ingredients reacted, forming new molecules that included amino acids, the building blocks of proteins. Variations of the primordial soup recipe, from Miller and others, generated RNA. That starting molecule then could have copied itself into a forerunner of DNA with a simple base swap, doubling, and twisting into a helix. Since both RNA and DNA participate in directing cells to make proteins, it’s tantalizing to envision the molecules connecting and interacting in the sun-baked muck of ancient clays, sculpting the first cells.

Stanley Miller wasn’t the first to think of how to recreate life’s beginnings. Soviet biochemist Alexander Oparin came up with abiogenesis in 1924. But Miller’s results were easy to replicate in a college cell biology lab in 1973, when I did it. The thrill at detecting the amino acids, smears on a chromatography strip, cemented my future in genetics, the field that connects chemistry to biology.

I was fortunate to interview Stanley Miller in 2000. He told me that his adviser, Harold Urey, took his own name off the paper they submitted to Science, “A Production of Amino Acids Under Possible Primitive Earth Conditions,” so that the young man would receive the credit.

Miller recalled being astonished when his experiment made headlines proclaiming that he’d created life. Media coverage used the term abiogenesis. “People made jokes. They suggested that I’d grown a rat or a mouse in there!” he told me. Miller died in 2007.

Me, Too: Relating to Elizabeth Zott

Three major events in Elizabeth’s life also happened to me, in a sense. That’s part of why the book made me uneasy.

1. Sexual assault. Elizabeth Zott exits with a master’s degree, and not a PhD, from UCLA because her mentor raped her. The department deemed it an “unfortunate event” and blamed her. In college, my research mentor put his hands on me, but I kicked and ran. In the pre-Weinstein 1970s, we didn’t talk about these things.

2. Stealing discoveries and taking credit. At Hastings, Elizabeth works with two incompetent men on abiogenesis. A benefactor wants to fund the research, so Elizabeth’s boss accepts the funds for “Mr. Zott,” knowing that no one would support a woman. But then he has to fire Elizabeth because she’s unwed and pregnant, as if a sperm cell had nothing to do with her condition. “I’m not contagious. I do not have cholera. No one will catch having a baby from me,” she implores, but is canned anyway. A few months later, she tutors her befuddled former co-worker in her home. When she briefly leaves him alone in her office to tend to her newborn, he steals her files of lab findings and gives them to their boss, Dr. Donatti.

A few months later, the benefactor wants faster results, and so Elizabeth is hired back, but demoted to lab tech. Then Donatti publishes her data in Science Journal, as his own:

“She read the article twice just to make sure. The first time, slowly. But the second time she dashed through it until her blood pressure skipped through her veins like an unsecured fire hose. This article was a direct theft from her files.”

This happened to me, too.

One day, a botany textbook arrived in the mail. I opened to the first chapter, and saw 42 pages of my own writing. Every. Single. Word. Except where my intro biology textbook read “biology,” the new book had substituted “botany.” That hadn’t happened spontaneously.

Had our publisher, which owns the copyrights to both books, mixed them up, like a chromosomal translocation? Not likely. We authors read and approve every step in the production process, reading every paragraph multiple times. And I just found the offending book that usurped mine on Amazon, from 1995, and I’m sure I don’t receive any of the royalties. Like Elizabeth’s blood pressure, I think mine just spiked.

The botanist who stole my work was (and likely still is) prominent, popular, and personable, one of those types whose Wikipedia page lists his many awards (I’ve never won an award). For years after he co-opted my 42 pages, I’d stand at the back of lecture halls at biology education conferences, watching him preen to audiences of mostly enraptured XXs.

Two years later, 1997, and oops, he did it again, stealing a boxed reading I’d written on Barbara McClintock, famed corn geneticist and Nobelist. Only a woman could have written what I had. So, I can relate to Elizabeth Zott’s pit-in-the-stomach rage at realizing her work had been stolen.

3. A precocious daughter. My oldest daughter Heather, as a preschooler, would sit behind the stage of the lecture hall where I taught intro biology. In middle school, when the teacher said the word “prophase,” Heather chanted “metaphase, anaphase, telophase,” her mantra the stages of cell division. When the astonished teacher asked how Heather knew that, she said, “Doesn’t everyone?”

Elizabeth Zott’s influence over her daughter was more direct. She read to Madeline from On The Origin of Species. In kindergarten, the child asked the school librarian for books by Normal Mailer and Vladimir Nabokov.

My favorite part of Lessons in Chemistry is when Madeline mulls over her teacher’s failure to grasp the fact that humans are animals, something that I’ve pointed out to journalists writing about “humans and animals” for many years. Even Six-Thirty is stunned at the ignorance. “All humans shared a common ancestor. How could Mumford (the teacher) not know this? He was a dog and even he knew this.”

When Madeline insists to her teacher that humans are animals, she’s punished. But when the child writes on a poster that “Inside, humans are genetically ninety-nine percent the same,” her mother admonishes her, for we are ninety-nine-POINT-NINE the same. “In science, accuracy matters,” Elizabeth tells her daughter.

Coda

After a few twists and turns, the ending to Lessons in Chemistry unspools after Elizabeth speaks with a journalist who finally gets her. “That’s why I wanted to use Supper at Six to teach chemistry. Because when women understand chemistry, they begin to understand how things work,” she tells him.

I won’t spoil the glorious ending. But in the last two chapters, Elizabeth’s work is finally recognized, and Calvin’s tragic upbringing clarified.

Elizabeth softens a bit by the end, but the contradiction remains: women equal men, but scientists do not equal non-scientists. We stand a breed apart, with our constant observing, questioning, testing, and hypothesizing anew, in our own, often multisyllabic, language. The othering of scientists persists.

I hope the TV version of Lessons in Chemistry delves more into the mind of the female scientist, analyzing what drives her innate curiosity.

A version of this post first was first published at Genetic Literacy Project.




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