Cloudy with Meatballs Shines Light on Women in Science

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There’s something to be said for age-appropriate social commentary in children’s movies. The 3-D animated film Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (Sony/Columbia) addresses most of the Seven Deadly Sins—extravagance, gluttony, greed, envy, etc. In entertaining fashion, viewers are reminded that over-eating, political corruption, and the use of technology for ill gain can be bad.

Messages about the troubles smart women have in science or engineering careers—channeled through perky, TV “weather girl” intern Sam Sparks—are also part of the lesson. “Meatballs” grabbed the alpha spot 2 weekends in a row since opening in September and is still holding a strong second place. A lot of kids—many of them girls—are seeing that film.

Conflicted about her intelligence and beauty, Sam (voiced by Anna Faris) reins in her left-brain for eye-batting cuteness to gain acceptance—until she meets Flint Lockwood, a lovable but misunderstood brainiac inventor, as both contemplate their failures at the end of the local pier.

Forgetting herself, Sam gleefully identifies Flint’s sprayed-on shoes as “some kind of elastic biopolymer adhesive,” and his pet monkey Steve’s communication device as a “Monkey Thought Translator.” Flint (voiced by Bill Hader) and Sam unite in cerebral bliss to save the town of Chewandswallow (nee Swallow Falls) from the run-amok Flint Lockwood Diatonic Super Mutating Dynamic Food Replicator, or FLDSMDFR, for short.

Through the process of “hydrogenic mutation,” the launched invention turns water from clouds into a smorgasbord of food items that rains on the town. “So when you shot it up in the stratosphere, you figured it would induce a molecular phase change of the vapor from the cumulonimbus layer?” Sam asks.

According to government studies, interest in science between boys and girls is similar until about fourth grade. Soon after, though, many girls turn away from science, math and technology subjects like computing and engineering. High-school girls make up only 17 percent of students in AP computer science and 7 percent in AP physics.

Sam tells Flint, “When I was a little girl, I wore a ponytail, I had glasses, and I was totally obsessed with the science of weather. Other girls wanted a Barbie. I wanted a Doppler Weather Radar 2000 Turbo. But all the kids used to taunt me….” Sam got a new look, gave up the “sciency smart stuff,” and was never made fun of again.

This week, the Swedish Royal Academy of Sciences is announcing Nobel Prizes in physiology or medicine, physics, chemistry and economics. In more than a century of prizes, only 17 have gone to women in those fields (none in economics).

In this year’s round, three women were honored. Elizabeth Blackburn and her once-graduate student Carol Greider shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine with Jack Szostak for discovering the mechanism by which chromosomes keep from unraveling. The finding has implications for cellular longevity and cancer treatments. The field is one of the few in biology that seems to have gender parity.

Like Sam, both Blackburn and Greider attribute female aversion to science to social and cultural factors.

“We [Blackburn and Greider] were women and tended to have women students and post docs. There's a sort of self-perpetuating aspect to that. Because there's nothing particularly about the science that has any gender-like quality to it,” Blackburn said in an online interview. “You want women to have access to science because it's such a wonderful thing to do. Anything that makes it more feasible for women to be in science and do the science they like, that's good,” she said.

According to Greider, “actively promoting women in science is very important because the data has certainly shown there has been an under-representation and I think the things that contribute to that are very many social ... subtle, social kinds of things.”

Ada Yonath, who was awarded this year’s prize in chemistry, is only the fourth woman to receive the honor, along with the Curies. Marie Curie also won the Nobel for physics.