ALD22 Books: Sway, Professor Pragya Agarwal

Sway: Unravelling Unconscious Bias, Professor Pragya Agarwal

For the first time, behavioural and data scientist, activist and writer Professor Pragya Agarwal unravels the way our implicit or ‘unintentional’ biases affect the way we communicate and perceive the world, how they affect our decision-making, and how they reinforce and perpetuate systemic and structural inequalities.

Sway is a thoroughly researched and comprehensive look at unconscious bias and how it impacts day-to-day life, from job interviews to romantic relationships to saving for retirement. It covers a huge number of sensitive topics – sexism, racism, ageism, homophobia, colourism – with tact, and combines statistics with stories to paint a fuller picture and enhance understanding. Throughout, Agarwal clearly delineates theories with a solid grounding in science, answering questions such as: do our roots for prejudice lie in our evolutionary past? What happens in our brains when we are biased? How has bias affected technology? If we don’t know about it, are we really responsible for it?

At a time when partisan political ideologies are taking centre stage, and we struggle to make sense of who we are and who we want to be, it is crucial that we understand why we act the way we do. This book will enables us to open our eyes to our own biases in a scientific and non-judgmental way.

Order the book on Bookshop.org.uk here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Professor Pragya Agarwal is a behavioural scientist, with expertise in cognition, HCI and User-centred Design, focused especially on diversity and inclusivity. She was a senior academic for over 12 years at universities in the UK and USA, and held the prestigious Leverhulme Fellowship, following a PhD from the University of Nottingham. Agarwal has published numerous scientific articles and books, some of which are on the reading list for leading courses around the world.

As a freelance writer, she regularly writes thought pieces on racial and gender bias for The Guardian, Times Higher Education, The Independent, and various other publications. Agarwal is a two-time TEDx speaker, and has been invited to give keynote talks and workshops around the world, appearing on several international podcasts, radio and television channels, such as BBC Woman’s Hour, BBC Breakfast, and Radio 5 Live. Her next book Hysterical: Exploding the Myth of Gendered Emotions is out later this year.

You can follow her work here:

Twitter: @DrPragyaAgarwal
Instagram: @drpragyaagarwal
Facebook: facebook.com/DrPragyaAgarwal
Website: drpragyaagarwal.co.uk

ALD22: Professor Maria Pavlova, Palaeontologist

Maria Pavlova

Professor Maria Pavlova

Maria Vasilievna Pavlova, Мария Павлова, was a palaeontologist who discovered several hoofed mammals from the Tertiary period and changed our understanding of the ancestry of horses in Eurasia.

Born in 1854, from age 26, Pavlova studied natural history at the National Museum of Natural History in Paris and the Sorbonne, graduating in 1884.

After graduation, she moved to Moscow where she began studying the geological collections held by the Moscow State University, where she worked for 30 years. She would go on to establish the Museum of Palaeontology there.

Pavlova began her career writing papers on Early Cretaceous ammonites from the Volga region before moving on to Tertiary mammal evolution. She travelled widely around Russia and Western Europe, studying museum collections and collecting fossils herself. She named and described several extinct species, including a rhinoceros P. transouralicum.

She also worked on the ancestry of horses, proving that Hipparion, a small three-toed horse, was not the direct ancestor of the modern horse as thought at the time, but an offshoot of the horse family tree. She then focused on ungulates (hoofed mammals) and proboscidians (elephants and their extinct relatives), especially mastodons.

In 1897, she was one of just two women to be invited to join the Organising Committee of the International Geological Congress, which was held in St Petersburg. Between 1887 and 1906, she published nine issues of Studies in the Paleontological History of Hoofed Animals. In 1899, she published a monograph, Fossil Elephants.

She became the head of the department of palaeontology at Moscow State University in 1910, and by 1912, she had collected over 10,000 specimens, which she gave to the university. In 1916, became a doctor of zoology of the Imperial Moscow University, an “extremely rare” rank for a woman.

She became a professor at the Moscow State University, and was instrumental in founding its palaeontological museum. In 1926, the museum was named after her and her husband who was also a geologist and palaeontologist.

Pavlova was the first Ukrainian or Russian woman to become a national and internationally successful vertebrate palaeontologist. In 1925, she was elected as a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, and a year later the Geological Society of France awarded her and her husband with a gold medal for their work.

She went on her final geological expedition in 1931, collecting fossil mammoths, elephants and rhinos from the Volyn district of northern Ukraine.

Further Reading

ALD22: Dr Katalin Karikó, Biochemist

Katalin Karikó

Dr Katalin Karikó

Katalin Karikó is a biochemist whose work on RNA-mediated immune activation laid the foundations required for the development of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccine.

Karikó was born in 1955 in Hungary, and earnt her PhD at the University of Szeged before going on to do postdoctoral research at the Institute of Biochemistry, Biological Research Centre of Hungary until the lab lost its funding in 1985, at which point she moved to the US.

She began working on Messenger RNA (mRNA) in 1989 at the University of Pennsylvania. She wrote a grant application that proposed using mRNA in gene therapy, but it was rejected. Her ideas were unorthodox and the basic work required to do the research, such as making RNA molecules, was difficult. After a string of rejections, the university demoted her in 1995.

She persevered, hopping from lab to lab in low-paid positions. Then, by chance, Karikó met immunologist Drew Weissman, who wanted to make an HIV vaccine. She thought she could do it, but the mRNA caused the mice’s immune systems to react, triggering inflammation. But during another experiment they noticed that transfer RNA, which they’d used as a control, didn’t result in the same immune reaction as mRNA.

They discovered that nucleoside modifications of mRNA could make it non-immunogenic, but had difficulty getting their findings published. Their results were eventually published in 2005, in Immunity, but didn’t cause a splash at the time because other scientists didn’t believe that mRNA was a “usable molecule”. The paper has, however, now become a seminal publication in the field of mRNA therapeutics.

Karikó and Weissman also worked on developing an mRNA purification technique, as no such protocol existed, and they were eventually able to use high-performance liquid chromatography to purify mRNA. They knew that they could use mRNA to order cells to make any protein, including insulin, hormones or diabetes drugs. They could also use it to create a new type of vaccine where the mRNA would tell cells to make part of the virus, which would then stimulate the immune system. But they couldn’t get any traction.

They founded a company, RNARx, in 2006 and patented several modified nucleosides that reduced the antiviral immune response to mRNA. But the University of Pennsylvania sold the intellectual property rights, so when Moderna asked Karikó if they could licence the patent, all she could say was that she didn’t have it.

Realising that her opportunities to work on mRNA would be greater in industry, Karikó became a vice president at BioNTech RNA Pharmaceuticals in 2013, becoming a senior VP in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a huge amount of scientific work and collaboration, but it was Karikó’s research that formed the foundation for the BioNTech/Pfizer and Moderna mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. Once Chinese scientists had posted the virus’s genome, BioNTech designed its mRNA vaccine in hours and Moderna completed the task in two days. Other groups provided the data and expertise needed to make the vaccine a reality.

In 2022, Karikó won the Vilcek Prize for Excellence which recognises immigrant contributions to biomedical science and the arts. She has also received Spain’s Princess of Asturias Award for technical and scientific research, the Lasker-DeBakey Clinical Medical Research Award, the Horwitz Prize, and the Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences.

Further Reading

ALD22 Books: Superior, Angela Saini

Superior: The Return of Race Science, Angela Saini

After the horrors of the Nazi regime in World War II, the mainstream scientific world turned its back on eugenics and the study of racial difference. But a worldwide network of intellectual racists and segregationists quietly founded journals and funded research, providing the kind of shoddy studies that were ultimately cited in Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray’s 1994 title The Bell Curve, which purported to show differences in intelligence among races.

If the vast majority of scientists and scholars disavowed these ideas and considered race a social construct, it was an idea that still managed to somehow survive in the way scientists thought about human variation and genetics. Dissecting the statements and work of contemporary scientists studying human biodiversity, most of whom claim to be just following the data, Angela Saini shows us how, again and again, even mainstream scientists cling to the idea that race is biologically real. As our understanding of complex traits like intelligence, and the effects of environmental and cultural influences on human beings, from the molecular level on up, grows, the hope of finding simple genetic differences between “races”—to explain differing rates of disease, to explain poverty or test scores, or to justify cultural assumptions—stubbornly persists.

At a time when racialized nationalisms are a resurgent threat throughout the world, Superior is a rigorous, much-needed examination of the insidious and destructive nature of race science—and a powerful reminder that, biologically, we are all far more alike than different. 

Order the book on Bookshop.org.uk here and your purchase will support a local independent bookshop of your choice!

About the Author

Angela Saini is an award-winning science journalist and author based in New York. She presents radio and television programmes, and her writing has appeared in National Geographic, New Scientist, The Sunday Times and Wired. She is a spring 2022 Logan Nonfiction Program Fellow and was in Berlin in summer 2022 as part of the Humboldt Residency Programme on social cohesion. As the founder and chair of the ‘Challenging Pseudoscience’ group at the Royal Institution, Angela researches and campaigns around issues of misinformation and disinformation. 

Her previous book Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong has been translated into fourteen languages. Both are on university reading lists across the world. Angela’s two-part television series for the BBC about the history and science of eugenics aired in 2019. She is currently finishing her fourth book The Patriarchs: In Search of the Origins of Male Domination, which will be published by 4th Estate and Beacon Press in early 2023.

You can follow her work here:

Instagram: @angeladsaini
Website: angelasaini.co.uk

ALD22: Professor Maryna Viazovska, Mathematician

Maryna Viazovska

Professor Maryna Viazovska

Maryna Viazovska, Марина Вязовська, is a mathematician known for her work in sphere packing. In 2022, she became only the second woman to win the Fields Medal.

Born in Kyiv in 1984, Viazovska competed in national and international mathematics Olympiads throughout her late teens and early 20s. She earnt her masters degree from University of Kaiserslautern in 2007, her PhD from the Institute of Mathematics of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in 2010 and a second doctorate from University of Bonn in 2013. She now works at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).

The sphere-packing problem asks how spheres can be packed together, in a particular number of dimensions, in the densest possible way. It’s a problem that fascinated Johannes Kepler, (born 1571), who was interested in how best to stack cannonballs. Although it’s easy to see how cannonballs naturally stack, it’s not so easy to prove that a pyramid is the most mathematically efficient way to pack them. That problem was not solved in three dimensions until Thomas Hales in 1998, and it required long and complex computer calculations.

Viazovska proved that an arrangement called the E8 lattice is the densest solution for eight dimensions with a proof that was mathematically very simple. Along with collaborators, she solved the problem for 24 dimensions using the Leech lattice. She also proved that the E8 lattice and Leech lattice are university optimal, a discovery “on a par with the great breakthroughs of the 19th century”.

Further Reading