Home > Isn't It Ironic? > Is Women’s Studies Good For Science?

Is Women’s Studies Good For Science?

So, I just finished reading Lost Clown’s tale of her entry into mathematics – from feminist theory. (Thanks to Sciencewoman’s compilation for the 6th round of Scientiae for leading me to that post!) It’s really inspiring, and exciting to hear how Lost Clown’s physics teacher helped her find her true love of math and physics and encouraged her to pursue it. Her physics teacher also talked with her about mixing feminism with science:

We had many discussions about me going into a scientific field; I was still concerned about leaving a possible career in women’s studies for one in science, she told me about how I could work for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and work to enact policies that ensure that girls and women were getting the same access to mathematics and science that boys and men have, and ones that could encourage girls to go into the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). She talked to me about ways in which I could incorporate my work in feminism with science.

This is indeed a wonderful tale to read. What is heartening to me here is to see women’s studies acting in concert with support for women in science – not just focusing on theoretical critiques of science and engineering, but actually aiding in the mentoring of a woman into science. When I was a graduate student at Duke University, women’s studies played a vital role in helping me finish my PhD. The director, Jean O’Barr, and the members of my women’s studies reading group all encouraged me. They advised me how to deal with the knucklehead professor in my department who was on a vendetta to drive out all the women; consoled me after a grueling 4.5 hour preliminary exam; and just provided a general network of support.
How discouraging, then, how depressing, to receive the latest newsletter from women’s studies at Duke, and read the tale of not one, but FOUR women who talk of leaving science to major in women’s studies! One student, who switched from engineering to women’s studies, is described thusly by her mother:

One of my proudest moments was when Amy was asked to be a teaching assistant for the Women’s Studies program in her senior year. I thank the Duke faculty for creating a challenging and interesting curriculum. Amy’s face lights up when she quotes passages from assigned texts or proudly reads the assignments she has written—an effect chemistry experiments never produced for her!

You know, I can’t say that my classes or work in the lab always made me feel particulary joyous, but the folks at women’s studies helped me to see that I shouldn’t let the jerkwads who were making me feel unwelcome and killing my science buzz keep me from the profession I had chosen and the work that I really did love. They helped keep me in touch with the joy that was there inside me; they helped me use women’s studies to keep my life in engineering afloat. If chemistry wasn’t making Amy light up, did anybody in women’s studies think to ask her why? Did anybody try to talk to her about sticking with engineering and adding women’s studies to the mix?
Another potential engineer and pre-med student drops out and switches to women’s studies because of her growing interest in the issues of Chicana women. Did no one mention to her that Chicana women are sorely underrepresented in science and engineering?
A third student still plans to go to med school even though she has dropped her science major. In this case, we might take her flight from science as an indictment of the undergraduate science class experience as much as a complaint against women’s studies for stealing women out of science and engineering. She liked that her women’s studies classes were not just about “memorizing facts”. It just takes too long in the undergraduate curriculum to get through to the meaty stuff. There is an awful lot of rote memorization involved in the first year or two.
A fourth student, and the third would-be engineer of the group – must Duke women’s studies poach so heavily from the engineers? there are so few of us to begin with! – says the following:

After my first class, I knew that Women’s Studies was about more than just the history of women, which common perceptions indicate; it is rich and bursting with theoretical questions, with competing analyses about society, with vibrant accounts of identity. Unlike engineering, where I only used my mathematical, scientific side, Women’s Studies gives me the opportunity to think both abstractly and concretely, with one foot in an academic discussion and one in the realities of everyday life.

Again I must ask: did no one tell her that she did not have to choose between two sides of herself? That the two sides are not at war with each other, that they can be integrated in one person and drawn upon together in the service of women and society? Is this not the very thing that women’s studies claims to offer science and engineering, a more integrated and holistic approach? Did no one talk to her about turning that women’s studies lens onto science and engineering, questioning her own field of study the way that women in history or political science or art history or what-have-you do when they become involved with women’s studies?
I mean, please, can you imagine a set of four stories in that newsletter about “how I found women’s studies and changed my major from English to women’s studies”? I don’t think so.
In fact, one of our former engineers is a double major in women’s studies and history. Another student whose story is included along with the four former engineer/scientists did not seem compelled to quit her cultural anthropology major in favor of women’s studies; no, she double majored, too. So again I have to ask: what is Duke women’s studies doing to try to stem the loss of women from undergraduate science and engineering majors? From the evidence in the newsletter, it looks like: nothing.
Here’s a course from the undergraduate catalog:

WST 116 Gender, Science, Technology and Society
The goal of this course is to gain insight into the interactions between society, science, and technology by using a multidisciplinary approach that draws from history, women’s studies, and science and technology studies. Throughout the course, we will try to understand the different ways that technology and society shape each other. We will do this by focusing on machines and work, and looking at technologies that have participated in defining how we understand society. We will be especially concerned with assessing how non-human objects can participate in both reflecting and molding human culture and values. This course functions as an introduction to the methodologies and major themes of Science and Technology Studies and the History of Technology, from the vantage point of Women’s Studies. The questions this course will address include: How do machines and other technologies influence the way we live? To what extent do we shape the technologies that alter our daily lives? What different ways are there for understanding technology and society’s mutual shaping of each other? And, what sorts of intellectual tools must we employ to begin to answer these questions?

It sounds like a great course. But I have to ask: if you are interested in how we shape the technologies that alter our daily lives, wouldn’t you be interested who’s doing the shaping as well?
Maybe someone there at Duke women’s studies tried to talk to these young women about staying with their first love, science and engineering. I don’t know. If so, you’d think there’d at least be some commentary in the newsletter about that. After all – three engineers and one scientist switching to women’s studies. It seems worthy of comment to me. It’s not what I would wish to read about women’s studies doing.

Categories: Isn't It Ironic?
  1. Bob
    May 18, 2007 at 2:11 pm

    Not to sound like an Amazon e-mail, but you may also be interested in Evelyn Fox Keller’s
    Reflections on Gender and Science. New Haven, CT & London: Yale University Press, 1985.

  2. lordcanning
    May 18, 2007 at 7:02 pm

    In my experience, a serious career in science or engineering requires certain abilities incompatible with Women’s Studies. I have never heard a scientist (of either sex) talking about Women’s Studies without irritation (perhaps hostility is a better word). Some view it as low-grade baloney; others see it as a form of vicious anti-intellectual propaganda. In any case, if you find Women’s Studies (or any one of a number of similar subjects) interesting, you probably should stay away from science or engineering; if you are designed to be an engineer, you do not need me to tell you to stay away from Women’s Studies.

  3. May 18, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    A friend pointed me to your blog and am so glad he did. This post is awesome. I’ve been interested in gender and technology for sometime. I am a middle school teacher. Thank you for writing such a thoughful piece and I look forward to reading more.
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    Kind Regards,
    Mechelle : )

  4. May 18, 2007 at 8:40 pm

    A friend pointed me to your blog and am so glad he did. This post is awesome. I’ve been interested in gender and technology for sometime. I am a middle school teacher. Thank you for writing such a thoughful piece and I look forward to reading more.
    Have a wonderful weekend.
    Kind Regards,
    Mechelle : )

  5. May 18, 2007 at 8:53 pm

    LordCanning’s comments leave me speechless…almost.
    I’m not sure if the physics gender equity statistical studies I do right now 100% qualify as bona-fide “Womens Studies”, since I only spend perhaps a 1/3 of my time actually thinking about theories as to why physics is so screwed up wrt gender equity.
    However, I can tell you one thing LC, I am very, very good at the statistical gender equity studies I do, and I am also one hell of a physicist. Apparently your theory that a woman can’t do both well is wrong. Dumbass.

  6. May 18, 2007 at 9:07 pm

    During the u-grad years at a SLA college, we had a summer research fellowship thing for minorities. for some strange reason the awardees always seemed to be doing “something something on minority group X blah, blah”. one enterprising natural sciences faculty member went and ‘splained some things to the dean when one of his promising students got denied for a second year running. said student got the fellowship to do “blah, blah nothing whatsoever to do with any sort of minority ’cause pigeons are plentiful”.
    I’ve always had this belief that the absolute worst thing for women/minority success in academia is to bud off into woman/minority related scientific disciplines. can anyone say ‘Cornel West’? I’d sooooo much rather that people consistently identified as “HoaryAuldUniversity’s top African-American/woman/Chicano/etc Professor” just so happened to be working in disciplines other than GroupX-Studies…

  7. May 18, 2007 at 10:32 pm

    I’m aware of “Reflections on Science and Gender”; indeed I read it years ago when I was a grad student at Duke. It’s a text that people then at Duke women’s studies pointed me to, as I began to ask questions about the situation of women in engineering and what gender had to do with it all. I’d like to make it clear that I am NOT saying there is no use for feminist critiques of science; quite the opposite, I think such critiques have been quite helpful to me in making sense of much of my own experience, to say the least. They are not, however, enough. If women’s studies stops at just critiquing science – if it cannot summon up interest for the conditions and concerns of actual women in science and engineering – then something has gone badly wrong. What use is all the high theory in the world, if we are still bleeding women at every level? How will our sophisticated visions for feminist transformations of science come into being if there aren’t any feminists in science? I’m not saying every woman in science is a feminist, but damn, you’re more likely to get some feminists in science if you work to increase the numbers of women in science.
    It just breaks my heart to see a program that was so important to me at a time when it was so hard to persevere, now celebrating, unambiguously, the stories of students who have been lost to engineering and science. Do they not see any irony, any contradiction?
    If a student can make it all the way through four years of majoring in women’s studies at Duke, and still feel that there is a huge dichotomy between science/engineering and women’s studies that cannot be bridged, what does that say about Duke women’s studies? It doesn’t speak well.
    Well, I shall have more to say about this, I think, in the next edition of the Joy of Science class….

  8. lordcanning
    May 18, 2007 at 11:36 pm

    Dear Absinthe:
    Thank you for illustrating my point so beautifully. With your permission, I will comment on your message point by point. 1) You will observe that I never said anything about a WOMAN being UNABLE to do both physics and Women’s Studies well. I said that a serious scientist (in any bona fide scientific field and of either sex) is unlikely (very unlikely!) to be interested in Women’s Studies; the same (in my fairly extensive experience) applies to anyone capable of any serious intellectual endeavor. 2) Having known many physicists, I have never heard one refer to himself as “one hell of a physicist” – both the language and the attitude are wrong; it is unlikely that you are a physicist, hell of one or otherwise. 3) The notion that physics is screwed up with respect to gender equity is peculiar – could it be that physics is OK, and the notion of gender equity is screwed up? 4) The last word in your message (Dumbass) would seem to indicate emotional involvement of an activist rather than equanimity of a scientist.
    All in all, I have to thank you for helping me make my point.

  9. May 19, 2007 at 12:42 am

    Ever since I changed to mathematics and physics I have seen it as nothing less then a feminist act. I am still writing feminist theory, which gets sidetracked by my studies, but I am still doing it nonetheless. I am serious about my field and am insulted by your idea that I can’t be serious about science since I am a feminist theorist.

  10. absinthe
    May 19, 2007 at 3:09 pm

    Zuska, you know my true identity. Do you want to fill LordCanning in on my credentials? Because apparently, I am not to be believed as to what my degrees and profession(s) are.

  11. absinthe
    May 19, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    I showed LordCanning’s second comment to Mr.Absinthe (who is also a particle physicist, just like Absinthe). After Mr.Absinthe stopped laughing, he pointed out that LordCanning has obviously never met an actual physicist if he thinks that they would never toot their own horn…horn tooting is epidemic in the field. Mr.Absinthe also said “I think it’s pretty likely he isn’t a Lord either, but it looks like he is in fact a dumbass”.
    As for Absinthe’s research record: when she spent five years as a postdoc at Fermilab she worked on one of the very large collaborations there. The advantage of working on a large collaboration is that there are lots of other postdocs working right along side you, and the experiment keeps careful track (in online databases) of who does what work when. For reasons that aren’t LordCanning’s business, Absinthe had to perform a statistical study using these databases to determine what her productivity was relative to the other postdocs on the experiment. It turned out Absinthe’s productivity was well above the 95th percentile. In addition, use of the SPIRES database revealed that Absinthe was also the only postdoc on the experiment who produced physics publications not related to the experiment (ie; her work in her free time on weekends produced publications). Absinthe was also the only postdoc who was regularly invited to universities throughout North America to speak on her sub-specialty (data mining, and multivariate statistical data analysis)…it is only usually much more senior people who do touring seminars that aren’t job-search related.
    Absinthe was also the only person on the experiment to have discovered a particle during the five years she was there.
    Unlike nearly all the other self-inflated horn tooters in particle physics (who, it should be added, are exclusively male), Absinthe has the statistics in her back pocket that back up her claims to be “one hell of a good physicist”. She feels no qualms about saying it. The sciences have long reacted negatively when women actually speaking up about the value of their work (but find it acceptable when males do it), and Absinthe isn’t copping to to that kind of repression.
    All in all, LordCanning, I thank you for helping me make my point about your dumbassed-ness.

  12. PhilosopherP
    May 19, 2007 at 8:08 pm

    Although “Lordcanning” may, in fact, BE a dumbass — I don’t think his initial comments were intended to say that women can’t or are not both physicists and feminists. What he is saying is that the two disciplines tend not to mix.
    Among male philosophers I know, they tend to look at Women’s Studies as a bogus discipline. These are the ‘hard nosed search for the TRUTH’ sorts who tend to want philosophy to be more akin to physics. I suspect that “Lordcanning” has made similar observations.

  13. absinthe
    May 19, 2007 at 9:57 pm

    PhilosopherP, what LordCanning said in his original message was if you find Women’s Studies (or any one of a number of similar subjects) interesting, you probably should stay away from science or engineering
    Why should I “stay away from” physics (when I am obviously good at it, and have contributed much to my subfield) just because I am also interested in Women’s Studies? I can assure you that other women physicists I know don’t find it threatening or odd (or whatever) that I have interests in both. They don’t think I should stay away from science just because I do statistical studies of gender equity in physics. On the contrary, they think it is great that I combine the two.
    So why is LordCanning so anxious to advise people with an interest in Women’s Studies to stay away from the sciences? What in the hell does he care if they are in the sciences, if they are quite capable of doing science just as well (or better) compared to their peers? Is he afraid of them? I guess nothing can ruin a chauvinist’s work day more than having to work side-by-side with someone who doesn’t share his views…a someone who actually might talk about their views of gender equity in the sciences. God forbid.
    Obviously nearly 100% of people interested in Women’s Studies are females, so his directive is aimed almost exclusively at females (despite his protestations to the contrary). If he is in fact in the sciences, advising women like me “to stay away from science” is a nice way to ensure that any women he does have in his working environment will meekly toe the male-dominated-status-quo-line. It also tends to lower the number of females who do go into the sciences…no doubt another plus for the all the LordCannings out there in the sciences.
    No PhilosopherP, LordCanning has no valid point. He is merely a troll. And somewhat uncommonly even for a troll, he is prepared to tell a woman she is lying about her profession, solely based on her proclamation that she is good at it. Zuska’s blog gets a lot of trolls, but none have quite matched him.
    Zuska is extraordinarily permissive in allowing trolls to leave comments, because she feels that their dumbass comments often underline the point of the post incredibly well. I used to find this annoying, because I am not nearly so permissive on my blog and I found that the comments left by the trolls on this blog often distracted from serious discussion of the topic at hand. Lately though, I have gotten into the spirit, and have somtimes taken to troll-baiting just to get the trolls to further illustrate what kind of jerks thoughtful advocates for greater gender equity have to deal with on a regular basis. LordCanning bit the bait admirably well. Bravo LordCanning.

  14. PhilosopherP
    May 19, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Not to defend a troll… because he may really be one.
    I read his message again, and I quote him…
    “n my experience, a serious career in science or engineering requires certain abilities incompatible with Women’s Studies.”
    Stupid remark to start… perhaps you are right about him being a troll, but sometimes trolls speak truths… but — his point is about perceptions —
    “I have never heard a scientist (of either sex) talking about Women’s Studies without irritation (perhaps hostility is a better word). Some view it as low-grade baloney; others see it as a form of vicious anti-intellectual propaganda.”
    Empirically, he could be wrong — but, this is a claim that could and should be challenged. Y’all seem to provide sufficient evidence here to refute the central claim. I love seeing that… This doesn’t make him a troll. This makes him honest, or indicates exposure to a limited set of scientists (perhaps scientists that agree with him??).
    “In any case, if you find Women’s Studies (or any one of a number of similar subjects) interesting, you probably should stay away from science or engineering; if you are designed to be an engineer, you do not need me to tell you to stay away from Women’s Studies.”
    What he seems to be saying is that interest in Women’s studies places a person (not all Women’s Studies students are women — I know a few men at least, and I don’t know many in WS) in a negative intellectual category according to those interested in physics.
    Again, this is a claim about those interested in physics, namely that physicists take a dim view of Women’s Studies and those interested in WS are not judged to be up to the intellectual rigor of physics.
    I can tell you that in an area of philosophy which wants to be more like physics, this is the EXACT attitude I encountered in most of my grad program in philosophy. Perhaps what needs to change is the perception of women’s studies within physics, I know women’s studies and feminisim have a long way to go in philosophy.

  15. KMSL
    May 20, 2007 at 2:03 am

    I agree with you that it’s sad to see good people turn away from the sciences and engineering, even if it is to go to friendlier fields. Your post struck me because I followed a similar path.
    I am a practicing chemist, and I detoured into a non-chemistry master’s program so that I would have the pleasure of writing and thinking about science from the perspective of social theory. I relied heavily on feminist theorists (and on Marxists) in my studies and I loved it.
    That opportunity is the only thing that let me enjoy science again despite its ample backwater of arrogance, misogyny, and group-think driven research (e.g.-homeland security). I think the experience gave me a better understanding of how to choose collaborators, good research groups, and good research questions. It also drives me to want to improve the environment for commonly excluded people within the sciences.
    Perhaps part of the problem is that when people leak out in this fashion there is a lot of gate-keeping that prevents them from ever returning. I can think of two things immediately: even a brief detour is seen as a lack of commitment, and it’s seen as a failure–you can’t be a ‘high-level’ scientist if you ever left.
    Maybe it’s only a leak in the negative sense if you can’t go back. Happily I have been able to go back, and I am working with a PI who provides plenty of credit-sharing opportunity.
    p.s.-I agree with the Absinthes: LordCanning is not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree. He talks about physicists like fine cheese–e.g.-“both the language and the attitude are wrong”–which is pretentious gate-keeping for a group he isn’t even a member of. Bleh.

  16. May 20, 2007 at 11:40 am

    Amusing analysis of troll behavior aside, I wonder (with some hope) if Zuska’s example may be specific to Duke.
    As someone who’s had opportunities to observe some aspects of Duke U over the past decade, I think the environment there has changed significantly in the last few years. It may be just coincidence, but I think things have gotten worse for women since Nannerl “Nan” Keohane retired from the role of Duke President three years ago. I think some efforts she championed now languish. Also, it appears that Duke’s Old Boys Club has become more active and influential.
    With that in mind, it doesn’t surprise me that Women’s Studies might become something of an oasis.

  17. btblue
    May 21, 2007 at 12:52 pm

    Zuska, I can see your point about the lack of critique of the original majors of their students, but I don’t always think it’s a bad thing when students switch from stem fields to women’s studies.
    As an undergraduate, I was a math major and started asking a lot of questions about the issues concerning women in science and engineering. After a bunch of women’s studies and psychology classes, I decided that I could produce more change with respect to those issues from women’s studies than I could from math. Fast forward a few years and I’m almost done with a PhD in women’s studies looking at women in science. It’s true that often women’s studies is blind to the problems of science, but having some scientists (or individuals with interests in science) within the field can help call attention to them.

  18. May 21, 2007 at 4:02 pm

    Btblue, I agree with you that it’s a good thing to have scientists or individuals with interests in science involved in the field of women’s studies. It’s been my position for some time that women’s studies needs to do much more interacting with the sciences and engineering, not less. And any individual woman has to decide for herself where her best interests and her own happiness lies. But I think women’s studies must have some responsibility, when women from science or math or engineering wash up upon its shores, weary or even confused about the gender battles within their initially chosen disciplines, to first help those women attempt to persevere. As I noted in my post: when women who are majoring in English or history or political science or religion or cultural anthropology, for pete’s sake, come to find women’s studies, no one expects them to end up abandoning their major for women’s studies; double majors are often the result. It’s damn difficult for women to persist in STEM fields and women’s studies ought not to be the place where women drop out and into; it ought to be a place that helps women persist.
    If women are leaving STEM for women’s studies, the fault, in my opinion, lies mostly with STEM, but still women’s studies has a responsibility to not facilitate that exit.
    Anon 4 This 1 has a point about Duke in particular and I should confess to my own particular concerns about the environment for women at Duke engineering, but also for the environment of Duke women’s studies over the past several years. It’s become heavily high-theory, cultural studies laden, and I think it’s a place where having an English major studying the gendered facets of the human genome project would be considered far more interesting and “cutting edge” than something as dull and boring as the pedestrian issues of access and climate of actual woman scientists. That newsletter trumpeting their four former engineers and scientists as success stories leaves me wondering how aware they even are that such issues still exist.

  19. May 21, 2007 at 4:23 pm

    Since I have a PhD in biomedical engineering and have had a successful career in research and the pharmaceutical industry and I have a graduate certificate in women’s studies, I am clearly an exception to Lordcanning’s rule that “a serious career in science or engineering requires certain abilities incompatible with Women’s Studies.” A statement like that is just silly to begin with, because it assumes that we can divide up abilities into categories, and classify them as to which disciplines they are useful for. No need to think analytically if you’re a history major – I don’t care how much archival material you have to sort, nor how many complicated databases you have to analyze! You’re a humanities person, yessir, and furthermore you’re doing wimmin’s history!
    Just about any type of ability you could identify could be useful in any type of intellectual endeavor – it just might be applied in a different manner. Many of the analytic and critical thinking skills I developed while working on my women’s studies graduate certificate actually helped me become a sharper reader and interpreter of scientific literature, and thus a better scientist.
    Nevertheless, the majority of us tend to believe strongly in the dualistic view of intellectual capabilities; some are hard and mathematical and oh-so-masculine, and those are the ones that are good for science. All those other soft skills are the non-sciency ones. And of course, since those soft non-sciency things are also woman-y things, it stands to reason that a field like women’s studies would be chock full of them, and clearly would have nothing whatsoever to offer to science.
    Further more, women’s studies dares to ask questions about science, which is the tool you are supposed to use to ask questions, not something you ask questions about, so it’s just downright rude. No wonder most scientists are scornful and denigrating of it. Too much association with women’s studies could make you go flaccid, and undermine your entire enterprise. Not to be tolerated.
    Much of what women’s studies has tried to do and say about science has been completely misunderstood by scientists. Some of what women’s studies has done and said about science has been a tad off the deep end, and that stuff has truly alienated many scientists. For all these reasons, there is a deep divide between the two disciplines. In this sense, and this sense only, you can make sense of Lordcanning’s remarks to “stay away” from women’s studies, because it won’t win you a lot of fans among the majority of scientists, who view it with suspicion. But this is not because the two are truly incompatible, only because they are perceived to be so.
    On a side note: I don’t think anyone is “designed” to become an engineer. Engineers are made, not born.

  20. May 21, 2007 at 4:41 pm

    Lordcanning said:
    You will observe that I never said anything about a WOMAN being UNABLE to do both physics and Women’s Studies well. I said that a serious scientist (in any bona fide scientific field and of either sex) is unlikely (very unlikely!) to be interested in Women’s Studies; the same (in my fairly extensive experience) applies to anyone capable of any serious intellectual endeavor.
    Well, in the most trivial sense, the first part of this statement is true, simply by the numbers; the majority of scientists are not also involved in women’s studies. So if you asked the question, are productive scientists also likely to be interested in women’s studies? you would answer “no”, but you would just be restating the obvious, already existing state of affairs. You would not have learned anything about why this is so or what factors produce or maintain this state of affairs.
    The second part of the statement is manifestly not true, as a vast number of individuals at universities across the U.S. and Canada and in other nations are pursuing active research agendas in women’s studies in a large number of disciplines, either from women’s studies departments, or from disciplinary departments and maintaining a connection to a women’s studies program.

  21. hydropsyche
    May 26, 2007 at 10:45 am

    I’m a science grad student at Duke right now. I haven’t had much interaction directly with the Women’s Center, but the WiSE group (Women in Science and Engineering) is a great support system for both undergrads and grads in STEM, and is organized through the Women’s Center. Otherwise, I think your surmise of the current state of affairs at Duke is probably pretty accuracy.

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