Sunday, December 27, 2009

reponse to comment on last post

Dear person who wrote as "lou dobbs" (pretty sure that's not your real name, but if it is, boy that sucks),

I know what you mean. But. I have no intention of hiring cheap, international postdocs just so I can, how did you put it, chain them to the bench? HIre and fire? Ruin lives? That's not me, and I will do everything in my power not to let it be.

I'm already the corporate psychopath, as you put it, in the sense that there is a significant split here with blogging and my daily life. I am both very devoted to mentoring and very devoted to actually getting science done.

I find I am in the minority in more ways than one.

I'm not the sort of person who is going to burn out my students so I can profit off their labor. Besides, I wouldn't want students who are obedient to the point of self-destruction. The smart ones never are. Call me a crazy optimist, but I think when you find good students and encourage them to be creative, they will be motivated.

If I were running a lab, I would keep it small but with the aim of high productivity per person. I liked the way Janelia Farm talked about it when they first started (although I don't know if they have actually stuck to their original plan of capping the size of labs, or how that is really going).

Of course, those people don't have to compete for NIH funding the way everyone else does. NIH caps the size of labs, too, actually, but for whatever reason they don't care if folks out in the rest of the country want to have a 30+ person factory. I don't understand why it would be so bad to cap it everywhere, for everyone.

I know plenty of people who feel like you do. They quit science for exactly that reason. Nobody IN science (or at NIH) seems to consider the possibility that Americans are quitting science, not because of the low pay, or the lack of job security, or the difficulty of having a family, or the geographical restrictions, or any of the other practical reasons, but because they have a CONSCIENCE.

And I absolutely agree with you that we need to track where postdocs end up. I have been saying this for years. For that matter, most grad schools don't track past "our students get postdoc positions". Puh-leeze. Of course they do. That is nothing to brag about.

The numbers I've seen are pretty dismal. Nobody tells you, when you are an undergrad thinking about going to grad school, that less than 10% of PhDs will get research university faculty positions. They all act like, "When you grow up, you can have your own lab!" hahahaha.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

could I post more often?

Yeah, probably. Lately I am feeling busy, disorganized, stressed out, and generally torn about what is bloggable and what is not.

It takes a lot of energy to figure out how to edit things to be instructive but not recognizable. I just haven't had the time or energy to do it yet.

So unless I get comments that inspire me, or an idea from someone else's blog discussions, it's hard to know what to write about (since I feel like none of my really recent material is safe to discuss at all right now).

Suffice it to say, I am still gathering material for my someday auto-blog-ography.

The good news is, I am finally getting to go back to a project that had been on hold for a long time, and I am having fun with that.

It is always nice to sink your teeth into a topic that excited you before, and realize that it's still really interesting. And now I have a different perspective, because it has been so long, I have the advantage of having gotten out of the trees and looking back at what I thought was the forest then vs. how the forest looks now. It's easy to get bogged down when you're in the thick of it.

I also realized recently again just how starved I have been for scientific interaction. It's funny how sometimes you don't notice until somebody asks you what seems like an almost irrelevant question. But it's that whole forest-trees problem. I'm really thankful that once in a while, I get to talk to other people who just ask questions. Because it usually gives me ideas for experiments to do. Which is usually where I get to make progress- getting a result from an experiment and then running with what that implies.

So yeah, I could blog more often, but I'd really rather not. If it were up to me, I'd do experiments all the time.

If it were up to me, equipment would be available 24-7 when I need it, and I wouldn't have to work around other people's schedules or children's schedules or buildings being locked on the weekends or holidays. I'd have unlimited reagent supplies and staff who replaced things BEFORE we ran out, and who made sure things got fixed so I wouldn't have to find the stuff broken and call the repair companies myself all the time.

Instead, I waste a lot of my energy on stuff like that, and I only blog when I'm really upset in a way that I think is worth mentioning.

So when you don't hear from me, you can assume things are either going really badly, or really well. Maybe both.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

A few days late

From over on FairerScience Blog.

The world is a scary place.


Saturday, December 12, 2009

A great example of unconscious bias


Found this by way of Drugmonkey, who cited this squabble started over Dawkins' latest book.

I'm staying out of the fray on the Dawkins' argument. Basically it's the same old argument about whether it's more important to be inclusive or "rigorous". Personally, I don't have a good answer. Part of me wants to say it's up to Dawkins to do whatever he wants, it's his anthology. I don't have to buy it (or any of his books, to be frank I can't stand his writing style).

And part of me says if you're going to do that, Dawkins, then you can't be defensive about your choices when people attack you for them. And if you're going to be defensive about it, then maybe that means you realize you were wrong? Isn't that sort of what happened with Larry Summers (supposedly)? I know I have gotten an earful myself on this blog from time to time, and I can (almost always?) see both sides of the argument, but it doesn't mean I'm going to join the other side.

Mostly I just thought this particular comment was so amazing, so brutally honest and insightful, that I had to reprint it here (bold highlight is mine):

12. steve Says:
December 6th, 2009 at 10:57 am

I just looked through my bookshelf and realised that there isn’t a single female author on it (not counting textbooks). Why? I think back to the female authors I have read – those that were recommended to me, those that rated highly on various rankings etc. I’ve just never really enjoyed them that much.

Once I had a friend give me ten excerpts from books I hadn’t read, and I ranked them in terms of what I preferred. Without knowing the authors, I still put the female authors at the bottom.

This ***does not*** mean that women are poor authors. It means that my (probably excessively) masculine brain doesn’t like something about how many women write. Maybe I just lack an acquired taste, I don’t think you can call me sexist for that – remember, even without knowing the gender of the author, I preferred male authors. And there definitely is a difference – Dickens was able to spot that George Eliot was actually a female (although not many other people did).

If I prefer reading fiction written by men, then perhaps this also translates to science (although definitely not the peer reviewed journal kind), although I am less certain of that. I’m pretty sure that it does translate to the kind of stuff I find in the blogosphere. So if a larger portion of the readers are men, and men were to have an affinity for male blogging style, this may explain why the rankings come out the way they are, and why someone like Dawkins might prefer science prose written by men.

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Actually getting to do my job

Someone asked on the last post what about the fun parts of the job.

I enjoy:

-doing experiments
-getting data
-analyzing data
-discussing data
-reading papers
-making lists of experiments I want to do someday
-making lists of experiments I should do immediately
-getting excited about doing those experiments immediately
-getting excited about new data
-new data giving me ideas for more experiments I should do immediately
-daydreaming about having my own lab someday
-asking questions
-hearing good talks
-giving good talks
-being asked questions
-finding out that other people's latest results are consistent with mine
-being treated as a colleague

I do not enjoy:

-working in labs that don't have what I need to do my work
-being told I'm "not eligible" to apply for my own grants so I can get money to buy what I need to do my work
-waiting for broken equipment to be fixed
-waiting for shipments because someone used up the last reagent and didn't order more or even tell anyone we ran out
-scheduling snafus
-get phone calls at night about last-minute extremely important paperwork due the next day
-other people getting credit for things I did
-being held to different standards than my male peers
-assumptions made about my work or life plans based only on the observation that I am female, or because of any aspect of my physical appearance
-nasty competitors
-lying, self-promoting fakers
-frienemy tor-mentors
-the little birdie effect
-anonymous commenters who represent just how rampant sexism still is
-seeing women leave science because they are discouraged by sexism and/or lack of sufficient mentoring
-deniers who act like sexism doesn't exist or it will just go away if we ignore it
-women who pull the ladder up behind them

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Perception hole

From a comment:

Anonymous said...
"My point in #3 and 5 is not that men don't care about these things, absolutely they do. But women drop out in disproportionate numbers, and these are some of the reasons they cite."

Wait a second. Why would women drop out at disproportionate rates due to lack of money and job security?

In fact, if patriarchy is the norm (as you suggest), don't you think women have LESS pressure to earn well and have good jobs? Shouldn't this make it easier for them to adjust to the lesser pay and lower job security? In the patriarchal system, women don't have to be breadwinners and hence they can afford to pursue science almost along the lines as a hobby.



Woooooooooooooooo boy. We got some work to do here.

I'm going to take a stab at this, and hopefully some others will write in the comments here as well.

Assumption 1a: That "patriarchy" means men take care of women


TRUE. The definition of the word patriarchy includes "a family headed by a man".

FALSE. Because not all women want to be or are taken care of by men; similarly not all men take care of or want to take care of women.

Assumption 1b: so women don't want to or need to work.

FALSE. Patriarchy has two other definitions, which are the ones more relevant to the point I raised (although I did not use the word patriarchy, you did).

As you can read here in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, patriarchy also means control by men of a disproportionately large share of power and a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy.

Although you could argue that nobody wants to work, I think you'll have to agree that if nobody is taking care of you, you need to work.

Most of us fall into that last category. We need the income. Also, there are various benefits to working besides just paying the bills. Being denied a career means being denied all of the fulfillment and stimulation of

a) an intellectual environment
b) making tangible progress and
c) getting feedback when you make significant contributions.

Assumption 2: That women should want to pursue science as a hobby.

I guess you're also assuming within this that most men who pursue science as a career would also want it as a hobby if they could afford to do that?

But in your version, women can do science as a hobby, but men don't have to??

So let's break it down.

FALSE: Science as a hobby

My type of science can't be done outside a university or a company. It is too expensive. It is unsafe. I can't do it at home in my basement. This is not just true for me because I am a woman; it is true for everyone in my field. We have to have careers in science if we want to do science at all. That's just the way it is.

And as I think I have written extensively here before, I want to direct my own project(s). I don't want someone else telling me what to do. So this means science is a full-time job for me. Not a hobby.

I want job security just as much as the next guy. Being a woman does not make it easier for me or any of my friends to "adjust" to being paid badly and not knowing where I'll be from year to year.

And in the current economy, in the current world, most everyone I know needs two incomes. So yes, women worry a lot about finances and job security because they want to have kids and own a house and take care of their parents and siblings when they get ill. Not less than men; maybe even more than men, if the statistics of why women leave disproportionately are any indication.

My personal impression is that women worry more and feel more pressure from our own parents to "settle down" in a secure, stable situation.

Men are allowed, in our society, to take more risks and take longer doing it.

If I want to have kids, I have only a few more years to decide that I want to do it. Men have more time to play around. That's biology working against us.

So by that logic, if anything, we should let everyone go through grad school and postdoc and get a job as fast as they can, but especially women if they can and want to.

But we don't even take that into account.

We're stuck with an incredibly inefficient, patriarchal system that wastes everybody's time and drives most women to run screaming from science as a career. I could have done ten times more science by now if not for the inefficiencies in the system.

This is why almost all of my friends left academic science for industry science. They felt it was possible working in industry to make more progress more quickly; get paid what they are worth; work more reasonable hours (because they can get more done in less time!); and potentially move up more easily (although this last part is actually not the case).

Women leave disproportionately because academic science is still based on a patriarchal system that doesn't work for us. Which isn't to say that science is working all that well for most men, either- I think the pipeline numbers show very clearly that it only works for a tiny minority of people, and the vast majority of those who major in science end up leaving for other career paths.

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Monday, December 07, 2009

Still true now

He must be joking

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More on presentations (also some ranting about writing)

By way of FSP's latest post, I wanted to say something more here since she had 44 comments already and many were quite long.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about "why do young women drop out" of the academic pipeline.

Lately I have been hearing from a lot of young women about why.

(As an aside: I've covered all but one of these topics (I think extensively?) on this blog from my own point of view. This post is mostly about the other one I really haven't covered.)

The why includes many components, but I think the main ones are:

1. not feeling welcome
2. wanting kids
3. wanting job security
4. outright harassment
5. wanting more money

Let's pick #1-2 for the sake of addressing FSP's post.

There is still a lot of pressure, especially in the US, for women to have children and be supported primarily by their husband.

I've had many long discussions with friends from Europe about the nonsense of last names, taxes, and mortgages in this country. On the one hand, we supposedly have equal property rights as men. Nobody would say, nowadays, that a woman could not legally own her own house. However, some of the red tape might lead you to think otherwise, especially if you are married.

I think one of the things we underestimate in science is how many young women feel these pressures. Constantly. From their own families, and from their in-laws.

They already feel left out of science as it is, socially speaking. Many fields are still majority male at the upper levels, even though we have this constant stream of young women coming in... and then leaving again. They see their friends leaving. It's a sinking ship. And they are not stupid.

There's still a lot of talk among young women about things like:

1. should I tell my boss I'm pregnant?
2. when's the best time to be pregnant in grad school/postdoc/junior professor (before my ovaries dry out)?
3. should I expect to be treated badly because I'm going on maternity leave (yes)?

They get the answers and they start making other plans for their lives.

So in response to FSP's question, no, I don't think it is too much information (aka TMI) for a (presumably senior, tenured?) professor to include in her research seminar some (?) mention about how she integrated having a family with having a career.

I think one of the major problems, as bluntly illustrated by the comments on FSP's post, is that women are often just as sexist and discriminatory as men are.

And many of the senior women in science now came from a generation of all-or-nothing. They did not have children, and whatever their feelings about it now, they tend to resent younger women just for having the choice. And they're not very sympathetic when their own students or postdocs need time off before or after having a child, or when they need more flexible schedules. I've seen it; I've heard about it; and you know it's true. Having a female PI is not necessarily any better.

I'll admit, learning to recognize the resentment and where it comes from can be really difficult. In my case, I have a younger friend who is very very girly. When I first met her I was mostly surprised that she wanted to hang out with me. Then sometimes I was slightly bothered by her girly-ness. But I was able to take a step back and say, you know what? She's being herself. In that very Legally Blonde kinda way that I actually really respect and enjoy. And I'll admit I'm a little bit jealous that she has figured out a way to do it without being the slightest bit self-conscious.

I would love to see more of this in science.

I think there has been a dangerous trend lately, perhaps brought on by various linguist-type philosophers (Roland Barthes comes to mind), to pretend as if science is written objectively by using pronoun-free passive phrasing. (Bear with me here, it's a short tangent and I promise it's relevant.)

Science was never like this. Looking back, historically science grew out of letters people wrote to each other (yes, there were women doing this too) about things they did basically as hobbies. Gardening, collecting bugs or rocks, looking at stars. They were conversations. They wrote, "I saw this. I thought that. I think it means blah. Next I think I'll do bleh."

Science now might as well be done mostly by robots, since so much of it is repetitious anyway. So then it might make sense to use phrasing like "The DNA was sequenced and this analysis revealed" rather than, "When we examined the DNA sequence, it became apparent that."

End of tangent. My point is that a little person-ality is not bad for science. It's actually how science was always done until very recently (say the last 20 years or so). So I'm very concerned when I see this kind of backlash against scientists being people. The two should not be mutually exclusive.

Sure, by the time you're a tenured professor you might have had all the life beaten out of you. You might have squeezed yourself into the mold so hard you cut off all the parts that didn't fit. But is that really what you want for the next generation?

Personally, I would MUCH rather have an informal presentation from a friend about her work, where she intersperses in stories about what else was going on at the time. Because that's where ideas come from, really. And science is sorely lacking for ideas these days- precisely because we're driving away so much young talent in the form of young women who haven't lost or traded in all their personality.

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Thursday, December 03, 2009


Lately I've been hearing a piece of advice given for formal presentations: to disarm your audience with a self-deprecating joke near the beginning of your talk.

The idea is, your audience will be less defensive and less likely to attack you if you acknowledge that you

a) may be wrong
b) may sound arrogant, but you don't mean to be
c) don't really want to be attacked.

I heard it more than once, thought it was stupid, and perhaps more importantly, a waste of a slide when you could be showing data (which should also, supposedly, make your audience less likely to want to chase you with pitchforks and torches).

And then I saw somebody do it. And thought it was stupid and clumsy and a waste of a slide, but I still found it sort of cute in spite of my thinking that. Which I guess is the point?

So my question is, does everybody think this is a necessary part of scientific presentations? Is it a new requirement?

I mean, it's one thing to start with a joke. I especially love it when someone uses a cartoon that has a double meaning for real life and the philosophy of science. Especially for an hour-long seminar (not so much for short talks, then it is definitely a waste of a slide!).

But a joke specifically aimed at yourself - isn't there a risk of coming across as being weak, like, "I'll pick on myself first! Please don't pick on me!!!"?

Note also that I got this advice from men; and the person I saw who did it was also a man. So I'm somewhat skeptical as to whether this would work for women, but especially for junior women. I'm afraid it just comes across as unprofessional, even more arrogant (who can afford to waste data slides??), or weak (and therefore even more attackable).

What do you think?

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