Katie Hafner, the host and co-executive producer of the Lost Women of Science podcast, is a longtime reporter for the New York Times, where she continues to write about healthcare and technology. She has written six works of non-fiction, and recently finished her first novel, which will be published in 2022 by Spiegel & Grau. She is also the host of Our Mothers Ourselves, an interview podcast in which guests celebrate their extraordinary mothers.
Here, she discusses early email romances, sniffing out sexism with the Finkbeiner Test, and her “golden gut” for stories.
Why is the work you do on Lost Women of Science important to you?
This project is important to me for the same reason that I think it's going to be important to listeners: because the women we’re talking about have achieved something significant, even groundbreaking, yet we barely know anything about them. It goes well beyond being disappointing. It’s stunning. It speaks to just how indifferent society has been to what women can do, and, more importantly, what they have done. Maybe once we're aware of how much women have done in the sciences, we won’t be so indifferent.
How were you introduced to the sciences?
I come from a long line of scientists on both sides of my family. My father, Everett Hafner, was a physicist who helped start Hampshire College in the late 1960s. And my grandparents on my mother's side were scientists, as well. My grandfather, Jerrold Zacharias, was a very well-known atomic physicist at MIT. He invented the atomic clock, was a science advisor in the Eisenhower administration and worked on the Manhattan Project. My grandmother, Leona Zacharias, was a biologist.
Did you enjoy science classes when you were in school?
I was really, really bad at science in high school. My grandfather had revamped high school physics education with something called the Physical Science Study Committee, but physics was just so monumentally difficult for me, its concepts so hard to comprehend, that I would go into the girls’ room and cry.
In elementary school, though, I was gifted at math. I could do stuff in my head that the other kids couldn't do, but I just wasn’t encouraged. Teachers called on the boys, not the girls. I was a textbook case of someone who excelled in math as a youngster, but by the time I reached puberty, all I wanted to do was pass notes in class.
Were you a competitive student?
Yes! In fact, I got the oddest email just the other day from someone named Peter, who said, “I’m looking for the Katie Hafner, who went to Scripps Elementary in La Jolla.” And I thought, “Oh, my God, that's the guy!” I hadn't thought of him since third grade, when I used to compete with him every week for the spelling bee trophy. I knew there was only one kid as smart as I was, and it was this kid, Peter.
Did you think of the spelling bee as a battle of the sexes at the time?
Zero. It was just his brain versus my brain.
How did you get into science journalism?
I got into writing about science professionally through first writing about technology. I wrote for many publications—Computerworld, Newsweek, the New York Times. I wrote a book about computer hackers, and I wrote a history of the Internet with my late husband, Matt Lyon.
When I was writing about technology for The Times, I was really interested in profound questions of human interaction and how technology affected that. For instance, I was one of the first to do stories about romance via email—it was all brand new.
Seems like you have good storytelling instincts.
My editor at The Times used to call it “Katie’s golden gut for stories.”
What are your favorite podcasts?
My favorite podcast of all time is a Radiolab episode called “Unraveling Bolero,” about a woman with frontotemporal lobe dementia.
I love Krista Tippett’s “On Being,” and the New York Times Book Review podcast. But the one I love so much is the New Yorker: Fiction podcast. As a fiction writer myself, I get lots of insights.
There’s something called the Finkbeiner Test, which is a set of seven rules that are meant to help journalists covering women in science avoid sexist tropes. To pass the test, a story can’t mention things like childcare, her husband’s job, or that she’s a role model to other women. What’s your take on these rules?
This is an interesting one, even for Lost Women of Science. In the trailer, we have someone saying Dorothy Andersen was a “dowdy-looking thing.” And someone who has donated to us wrote to me and said, “You would never say that about a man.” And I think that’s true. As a science journalist, you always have to be careful not to fall into the tropes.
But saying that a woman is a role model to other women? I just don’t see a problem with that. And childcare arrangements? Not to mention that she’s run ragged because her husband who thinks he’s doing 50% is actually doing 5% of the childcare? Sorry. That just sucks, and it needs to be talked about.
How have recent conversations about identity—gender, race, sexual orientation—changed the way you cover science?
It's incumbent on us to be much more aware of what role someone's identity plays in whatever we’re covering. Me, I used to write about all these white men, just unthinkingly. And I'd like to say that it was inexcusable that I didn't think about it, but it just wasn't part of the public discourse, and now, thank goodness that it is.