Teen Skepchick Interviews: Jen McCreight

This post is part of the Teen Skepchick Interviews series, where TS writers talk with amazing women scientists and skeptics about life, the universe, and everything.

I’m a total fangirl of this week’s Interviews subject, Jen McCreight of Blag Hag. She’s a self-described atheist, feminist and geek who is studying for her Ph.D. in Genome Science in Seattle. She is also on the board of the Secular Student Alliance. Truly, a woman after my own heart. She has graciously agreed to answer some questions via email. Enjoy!

First, something I’ve always wondered. How much do you hate being called “Blag Hag?”

Haha. I used to be annoyed by it (who wants to be called a hag?) but I’m getting used to it now. It’s really can’t complain – it’s my fault since I chose the name. In retrospect I should have picked something a little more flattering, but I had no clue people would actually read my blog.

Did you identify as an atheist when you were a teenager? Is so, were you ever subject to social pressure to change your ways?

I grew up in a secular family. My parents went to church when they were young, but we never went. We somehow celebrated Christmas and Easter without ever mentioning God or Jesus.

When I was in 7th grade, a friend asked me what church I went to. When I responded that I didn’t go to church, he asked me if I believed in God. I said “no” without giving it any thought – I didn’t realize people thought God was more than just a story. He replied, “So you’re an atheist, then?” and I nodded in agreement. Thankfully I got lucky and he didn’t care, unlike a good chunk of the US that holds heavy stigma toward atheists.

But I began waffling a bit after that. It seemed weird that I was the only person who didn’t believe in some sort of God. And the thing that made me a deist for a couple years – which is kind of embarrassing now – was hearing about evolution for the first time. I felt like there was no way such complex organisms could come about without some sort of guidance.

I say “hearing about evolution” because when I actually learned about how evolution really worked, I realized Intelligent Design was a bunch of BS. But by then I was in high school, and the social pressure set in. I never felt obligated to go to church, but I quickly realized that most people found the word “agnostic” to be a very reasonable, thoughtful philosophical position compared to the angry, strident “atheist.” I stuck with the term until college to avoid conflict.

Then I read the God Delusion, was thrust into a very religious college campus, and quickly learned why it was so important so speak up about atheism. I’ve been one of those nasty, militant, blog-writing atheists since then.

How do you think this has changed, if at all, for kids today?

Sheesh, I’m not that old! I still feel like I just graduated high school. Even though I know that High School Jen thought 23 year olds were ancient…

Jokes aside, I do think a lot has changed in just the last few years. It was rare for me to turn on the news and hear someone criticizing religion or talking about atheism. It’s not exactly common yet, but you’re way more likely to find it. Most of the atheist blogs were just getting started, but now kids have whole internet communities they can escape to if they’re in a particularly religious area or closeted from their family. And heck, you guys have Camp Quest! I’m jealous – I wish I had a skeptical, pro-science summer camp I could have gone to when I was younger.

I noticed that you are on the Board of Directors of the Secular Student Alliance. Do you have any tips for students who want to start secular organizations at their high schools or college campuses?

Doooo iiittttttt!

I founded my group at Purdue University, and it was honestly the most fulfilling experience I had at college. Not only did I make a lot of friends, but the group has had a lasting effect on Purdue. Lots of students now know they’re not alone in their nonbelief, and we’ve had a really positive impact on the community. And that’s the sort of sentiment I’ve heard from all of the student leaders I’ve met.

As for more practical advice – running a group isn’t necessarily easy. It does take a certain amount of time, drive, and organizational skills. But rarely are student groups started by people who know what they’re doing 100% of the time. So find friends who can help you, and realize that it’s okay if you’re not instantly inviting The Most Famous Atheist Ever to give a lecture. Start small!

But if you’re interested at all – even if you’re unsure – contact Lyz Liddell (for college campuses, [email protected]) or JT Eberhard (for high schools, [email protected]) and they’ll tell you everything you ever needed to know. Or if you’re near Ohio, come to our annual conference in July! It’s a blast and super motivating in terms of getting ideas for a group.

Were you always into science? Is biology your first love? What initially drew you to genetics as an area of study?

My first love was actually art thanks to having an art teacher mother, but I soon fell in love with science too. I started getting into science around 4th grade, which was about when I was obsessively watching Bill Nye the Science Guy. At the time my favorite science wasn’t biology, but astronomy – I loved stargazing and was fascinated with how mindboggling the universe was.

I didn’t get into genetics until my excellent 7th grade science teacher. I was obsessed with the puzzles of Punnett squares and the idea that complex traits could be explained by simple mechanisms of inheritance. (Well, what I thought was simple – the more I learn about biology, the more I realize that it’s not so simple!) He was also my Science Olympiad coach, and during practices he would teach me about evolution. Evolution is what really captured my attention – it was just so amazing how a natural mechanism could explain all the diversity of life on earth. And genetics is the most powerful tool we have for understanding evolution, so they really went hand in hand.

When it came down to choosing between art or science, it was tough. But I decided to major in biology because I could always do art as a hobby – it’s a lot harder to have a laboratory in your garage than a studio.

You also have a bit of an obsession with sexuality and gay rights. (And I agree, if I had to choose between squid and sex, sex wins every time.) What about those issues interest you?

Seriously, my obsession so beats out PZ’s. Well, except when he’s talking about squid sex, I guess.

What’s not interesting about sex? When you think about it, human sexuality is profoundly silly. We go through so much trouble and convoluted cultural practices so we can touch our certain oddly shaped body parts with other people’s certain oddly shaped body parts. And we’re often oblivious to the silliness, because we’ve evolved to really really really want it, and contemplating absurdity would have probably gotten in the way of passing along our genetic material.

And I think when you start thinking about how absurd sex is, it becomes even more absurd that people want to take away rights from people who are attracted to people of the same gender. Except it’s not “haha” absurd but “What the hell is wrong with you?” absurd.

But more personally speaking, I’ve had a lot of gay and lesbian friends since middle school, and even though I’m pretty-much-mostly-kind-of-straight (it’s complicated), I got a lot of harassment in school for perceived gayness. So I really sympathize with this cause in particular, even if I’m interested in social justice in general.

Your blog, Blag Hag, is truly delightful. There isn’t really a question here. I just wanted to let you know.

Aww, thank you! Sometimes I feel like I’m just word vomiting the strange thoughts that pop into my mind, so it’s nice to hear people find that delightful, ha.

In addition to being a kick-arse blogger, you are an artiste. How does your self-proclaimed status as a feminist, atheist, and science nerd feed into your art?

I am indeed an artiste! I was very serious about it – took every art class I could, won prizes in local shows, have a piece hanging in my high school, yadda yadda. It’s odd, because most people who know me now are always surprised to hear about my artistic past, while back home I’m known for being an excellent artist. Scientists can be creative too!

Sadly I don’t do as much work as I used to – school keeps me busy. And my identification as a feminist/atheist/scientist really didn’t fully develop until I went college. But you can see inklings of ideas in my high school stuff. My AP Studio Art portfolio was all based on Greek mythology, and I have some drawings that deal with body image. I still have my old artwork up over here.

What advice would you give to teenage girls who are interested in studying science?

Being a scientist is pretty damn awesome – I mean, you discover stuff no one else in the history of mankind has ever understood. But it also takes a certain type of personality to persist through failed experiments, take criticism, and be constantly surrounded by brilliant people (which can make you feel kind of stupid sometimes). It’s not for everyone, and I think the worst thing a girl could do is feel “obligated” to go into science to prove she can handle it, instead of doing what she really enjoys.

But if you’re like me and science is your passion, don’t let anyone discourage you. Not just the people who will explicitly say crap like “Girls aren’t good at math.” There’s a lot of subtle sexism you’ll run into. My counselor was fine with me taking lots of art electives, but talked me out of taking AP Chemistry and AP Physics. Even when I pressed her about it, she told me not to worry about it. I really think she assumed that I would end up in art and not biology because I was a girl.

So don’t let people talk you out of the science classes you want to take. Don’t feel awkward joining academic teams like Science Olympiad if it’s mostly guys. And don’t put up with people who tell you what you should or shouldn’t like. You know what you love, and bugger what others think.

Image credit: Jen McCreight

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Mindy is an attorney and Managing Editor of Teen Skepchick. She hates the law and loves stars. You can follow her on Twitter and on Google+.

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