Sunday, October 25, 2009

Most post

At 726 posts in my dashboard (including a handful that were never posted), and in response to the intriguing Acadamnit meme:

Most Favorite Post (of mine)? Letter I won't send... yet.

Post with the Most Comments? As an American, I'm a minority in my profession

Most Memorable Post? Dear PI, it's your fault I'm depressed

Most Indicative of Your Blog Identity Post?
Still true now

Most Humorous Post? Evolution of a project

Most Regrettable Post?(As in, I wished I hadn't had to) Alarming plagiarism of yours truly

Most Misunderstood Post? Just buying groceries, thanks

Most Satisfying to Write Post? Dear PI

Most Likely To Never Be Posted Post? On Obama vs. Clinton (never posted, now out of date)

Most Important Post? Ambassadors for Science

Most Appreciative Comments on this Post? Building Confidence

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Wednesday, October 21, 2009

How to choose a lab

Prof-like substance is asking a good question:

So, I would like to find out from you why you chose the lab you are in or got your degree from? Was it a good choice and would you do it differently now? Was it the subject or PI that got you interested? How much did suggestions from others influence you?

This is interesting to me because I've blogged about it before, from the perspective of advising grad students (but don't ask me where, I didn't tag it intelligently).

So here we go, as vague as possible for pseudo-anonymity.

1. Why I chose the lab where I got my PhD

a. I liked and respected my advisor as a person and as as a scientist (that changed over time, of course, as I learned that everyone is human and people tend to fall off of pedestals)

b. I liked the other people in the lab- it had the right atmosphere. Nobody was condescending to me, I was not in a minority. It felt like a family, not like a factory.

c. I liked the way they did things- their priorities matched my priorities. They were smart about the practical aspects. I had already worked in a few labs so I had seen some really good labs, and I had rotated in at least one that did not match what I was looking for.

d. I liked my rotation project (even though it didn't work!)

e. I was excited about the subject for my thesis (even though it didn't end up being my thesis!)

f. I was drawn in by the graduate program (even though I quickly learned to hate it!)

2. Was it a good choice and would I do it differently now?

For reasons I can't blog about, I'd say it was good and bad. Would I do it differently knowing what I know now? Absolutely, yes I think so. But not in the sense that I can name a lab where I'm sure I would have been happier or fit better.

I adored my PI and my labmates, still do. But we had our ups and downs, some things happened that nobody could have seen coming and others that should have looked like an oncoming train if I had known what I was seeing.

Still, if some angel or devil had taken me aside in high school and showed me a movie of what my life would be like, I would have done a 180. Would have gone to a different college, and majored in something other than science.

3. Was it the subject or PI that got you interested?

Both, in approximately equal measure. But there was no way I was going to work for an asshole on a subject I didn't care about.

Subject was primary in my mind, and my PI got me excited about our subject. I had never heard of it when I was in college.

I interviewed with and rotated with a few other labs. In some cases, the subject was appealing but the PI was smarmy ("stop staring at my boobs!") or otherwise seemed like an abusive jerk ("everyone in my lab works 80 hour weeks!"). Those were immediately struck from the list.

In other cases, the PI was nice and seemed to have the best intentions, but I didn't like the other people in the lab.

In still other cases, I liked the PI but the project was hopeless, not at all what I wanted to do with the subject, even though the subject was still interesting to me.

I still think rotations are key. And I don't mean 6 week rotations, either. I think 3 months, minimum, is probably about right. If you can't get through the honeymoon period without getting heebie-jeebies, GTFO.

4. How much did suggestions from others influence you?

None of my advisers in the labs where I worked even tried to recommend people for me to work with. I asked where I should apply. They named the top schools, of course. I didn't end up going to any of the ones my advisers recommended. I went somewhere another person told me about. Scientifically, it was a good fit. Program-wise, it was not a good fit. At all. But I didn't know how bad that would be until after I arrived.

My advisers just said of course you'll get in. I didn't get invited everywhere I applied, but I did get interviews.

Then they said go, see how you like it when you interview. So I did.

Then when I got in, they said go, do rotations, and then decide. So I did.

Basically it was what everyone else seemed to be doing. I didn't think I was missing out on some amazing insight. There were no blogs or anything to read with advice at the time. At all.

I really didn't have a big network to draw from. I had a lot of older friends, and they all told me not to go to grad school. Of course I didn't listen. Of course I later realized why they said that. It's funny though, I really thought they were joking.

Seriously, I really did.

When I got to the point of choosing a lab, I heard a rumor about my PI that supposedly originated from a former postdoc. However, I also heard a rumor about the postdoc who said it. I figured that made both rumors uninterpretable and/or false. I later understood that both rumors were true, which is sort of the same (but not quite).

I don't like gossip. I don't like second-hand information, especially when it comes to people, unless it's really from people I've known for years and deeply trust. Even then, I find sometimes people disagree or have different experiences, due to different commonalities and different conflicts. I'm not best friends with all of my friends' friends, and they aren't best friends with all of mine. The same principle applies. To really be successful, you kind of have to be best friends with your PI (I know this now, I didn't know it then).

I have never liked to judge people on others' opinions. When I have done that, I made some terrible choices.

Now, I'd rather meet them and decide for myself (although sometimes it helps to know what to look for, and then forewarned is fore-armed, or whatever that saying is).

And, let's be honest, I really hate it when people spread rumors about me, and I hate it when other people choose to believe them without investigating (although I know most of science works this way, I reserve the right to hate it).

Having said all that, I ended up in my thesis lab because of a different rotation. That PI said, "You know, I think you'll like this friend of mine, you should rotate there and then if you want you can come back here." And I didn't end up going back.

Now, I am much more careful to listen to what people are actually telling me. I'd like to think I always make up my own mind, but I'll admit I am influenced when someone I respect tells me they think somebody would be a good mentor.

That was actually how I ended up in my postdoc lab. Boy, was that a mistake. Needless to say, that particular blunder has made me revisit my original policy to try to ignore what anybody says. But it's hard. You don't always realize you've been influenced by advice (good or bad) until it's all hindsight.

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I'm feeling negative about this.

An actual google ad on my comment page (for the last post):

Ur negativity is showing! And it's not pretty! We'll teach you how to be stop being so negative!

Honestly, I would probably be fine with it if they had spelled out "your". Since there are no other abbreviations, I just don't get what is up with the txtspeak.

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Tuesday, October 20, 2009

I'm not your fucking support staff!!!

Okay, this is one of those rants that will be short and angry. FSP has written on this topic before.


Memo to the fucking administrative staff:

Contrary to your entitled attitude, I am not YOUR support staff. Highly trained monkeys CANNOT do what I do. And yet, in support of your arrogance, I make half as much as you do, have zero job security, and everyone treats me like dirt.

The least you could do is STAY THE FUCK OUT OF MY WAY AND LET ME DO MY JOB!!!!


Okay I could go on but I have to go watch Sherri on Lifetime and stop grinding my teeth.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Data envy

It has been too long since I've had an interesting result that actually made sense. I'm in the fog part of the project, where all I can do is keep moving forward and hope that eventually I'll reach dry land.

Meanwhile, I'm finding myself wanting to know more about other people's results, even when I don't care about their projects very much. Just because it's nice to see things falling into place, and remind myself that it can be done.

But sometimes this backfires and makes me think, why do I bother asking? Maybe I just shouldn't even try to talk to anyone.


Case in point: I had a really disturbing conversation today with a professor.

This person was going on and on about consulting with other people in the field before proposing or embarking on new research projects.

Here was the list of concerns this person had:

1. To avoid scooping them
2. To avoid competing with them
3. To potentially collaborate

(in that order).

Here is was what I was thinking as I listened to this:

1. I'd be more worried about them (or you!) taking my ideas, since I have no interest in theirs (or yours!)

2. Who cares if we compete, and besides it's unlikely that we'd be doing exactly the same things in exactly the same ways. But why should I drop what I'm doing in the rare case where you happen to be doing something similar? Fuck that.

3. Why would I want to collaborate with you, when you sound so much more concerned with being nice than with actually doing science?? Look at all the science I got done while you were worrying!


I mean, I don't pretend to be a super-nice person, but I don't deliberately try to be an asshole, either (sometimes I can't help it, the assholishness just leaks out...). I used to really admire the super-nice people. Some of them seem to be really good at getting what they want using niceness, and I thought well, it doesn't come naturally to me, but it's something I could work on.

But lately I have less and less patience for the super-nice types. It seems to me that most of these people just waste a lot of time.

Case in point: our lab had a problem recently that affected almost everyone. However, nobody wanted to test the most obvious variable because it equated with blaming human error. In the end, of course it was human error (most things are!), but nobody wanted to say anything because they were terrified that feelings would be hurt.

And yet, to me, the real tragedy is how much everyone's science suffered in the meantime. Lots of time and money wasted because of this super-niceness bullshit. Over something trivial. A mistake that anyone could have made (and which ultimately came down to the PI being absent too much and the lab being too big).

Me, I want to work with adults who know that everybody makes honest mistakes. I want to work with people who are willing to say, "Hey, I'm having a problem with that thing." And I want the other people to say, "Okay, let's try to fix it." And perhaps more to the point, I want to work with people who appreciate that I already do that for everything, every day.

I guess this means I want to be the queen of fantasy-land.


I really like the phrase I heard from someone else who was talking about jealousy and competition in science: Eyes on your own plate.

My eyes are on my plate. I don't particularly care what other people in my field are doing, and I don't particularly want them to know what I'm doing (until I'm pretty darn close to being finished).

My field seems to be populated by people who spend all their time worrying about making sure they dress the right way so the popular kids will like them. Nobody is even trying to be creative and come up with something new to do.

This is yet another reason I find myself seriously thinking about quitting science. Because most people's science bores the shit out of me.

And I'm sick of people trying to offer me cookies in exchange for copying my notes. I don't want your fucking cookies.

Eyes on your own plate. I know you're a shark in nice clothing.

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Wednesday, October 14, 2009


I was looking at a department website today, trying to find out someone's job title, when I noticed something weird.

This department is at a top-tier school with a lot of money, but they have more adjunct faculty than regular faculty.

(I know, that's not necessarily weird. Wait for it....)

What seemed weird to me is that this department listed senior faculty from distant top-tier universities (think: opposite sides of the country) as adjunct faculty in their department.

Not visiting lecturers. Not honorary members. Adjunct faculty.

Now, I don' t know what it's like where you are, but at my school the adjunct faculty have lab space. They don't get start-up, they pay their own salary from grants, and they can't be a primary graduate student adviser. But they are expected to do almost everything else the regular faculty do, including hiring postdocs and technicians, serving on committees, and teaching.

This got me thinking about a couple of Big Shots I know who each have two labs. I may have written some about this in the past, but it still bugs me. In both cases, these guys (I can't think of any women who do this, can you?) supposedly spend half the week at each lab. The labs are in separate cities, and in reality they aren't at either one very much at all. These guys are twice as much terrible adviser as your average #$%@ PI.

So now I'm wondering if all these "adjunct" Big Shots have double lab lives, too? Lately I'm seeing more of this not just cross-country but internationally, too. You know the types who have an appointment in the US and one in Singapore or India, and they spend the summer overseas (or not even).

It just burns me up because I have a hard time understanding why less than half of a Big Shot is so much more appealing than a full-time, super-energetic junior faculty member. I know plenty of postdocs would be thrilled to have even an adjunct (read: no startup, soft-money) faculty position in this department.

And yet, it just makes me ill since I have to assume that it could be all about appearances: by listing all these Big Shot names, they're trying to make themselves look bigger and even more top-tier than they already are?

Still, something seems fishy about this practice. I suspect that, among other things, it means a less than ideal situation for the students taking classes in that department.

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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

There's hope for you yet

Just finished reading a somewhat fatalistic post over at FSP about teaching science writing (and whether it can be taught).

One particular comment caught my eye, and I wanted to write a long response so I will copy that comment here (with apologies to the author, but hopefully my response will make it worthwhile):

Anonymous said...

Oh it would be so super helpful to get some tips on how to get a grip on all this writing.
If people have any suggestions on good books to teach yourself writing..... it would be grand to share those.

I am just in the process of writing / correcting my thesis and it is all done, but according to my supervisor, the quality of the writing (not the analysis) is not so good. And I need to seriously work on this because I will fail if I cannot manage to make myself understandable to other people.... (I know she has a point, but sometimes it is hard to improve, especially since the rest of our department is a bit more laissez-faire and never gives critical feedback) :(

I think for me it is not the grammar and the writing as such. But the following points:

1) What are the exact words/expressions one should use - I seem to memorize the broad concepts and the full story rather than single definitions and their respective relations. My brain just seems more wired like that, so it is sometimes hard to translate from one "language" to the other.

2) One of the main points of my supervisor is that I try to cramp to much information into one sentence or half sentence. I should rather keep it clear and short instead of crowded and too challenging.
The reason for this is (I think): I very often feel that what I did was fully trivial and not really that interesting. So that basically everybody would just be able to glance over it and think: "oh, yeah, sure, easy, so what is your point?". By cramping stuff in, I try to prove, that I actually do know my stuff.

3) And sometimes I am just helpless in separating the relevant bits from the not so relevant bits. Discussing the stuff with other people would help and actually does help, but only if I am not under major stress (because they are important people, because there is only little time, because I am having a major self-confidence crisis) :(

4) also, because I feel I should be able to do it just like that, I probably also spend far too little time on structuring and writing well formulated sentences than I should.... (well my fault really).

I'm going to start by saying, this comment is written very clearly. You got your points across very well. So I think you have all the right tools. Also, this comment really resonated with me because you sound a bit like me when I was a grad student.

1. What are the exact words/expressions one should use - I seem to memorize the broad concepts and the full story [...] so it is sometimes hard to translate from one "language" to the other.

I had this same problem, and sometimes have it even now (and probably always will).

The truth is, if you're working on something relatively established, then yes there is specific language, and it is used a certain way by convention. You can learn this by reading papers in your field. Many of the comments on FSPs site were spot-on with this kind of advice. I particularly liked the suggestion to pick a few good papers in your field and dissect them.

But if you are working on something new, or if you are on the edge of something old and venturing into something new, you might find examples of things that are poorly defined. In those cases, multiple people use the same words, but they are sloppy about it. That is confusing for you as a reader, and very confusing if you want to write about these things but you are not exactly sure what to call them.

I ran into this during my thesis work. I was working on something that had a name. It was very well established, so it was in the textbooks with this name and diagrams, etc. But as it turned out, nobody agreed on what that name meant at the molecular level.

It turns out that the secret to science writing is also the secret to science reading: most people are taught to avoid, at all costs, ever mentioning where their work raises more questions than it answers.

So if something is not known, we are taught to NEVER say at the end of the results section of a paper:"this is still not known and will require further investigation". That is the kiss of death if you want your work published!

We are also taught to NEVER say in the results section of a paper "this is controversial."

So if you really want to know what has been done and what hasn't, you have to learn to pay attention to what is NOT said. You have to figure out what was NOT DONE. What was NOT SHOWN?

It's part of human cognition that we fill in gaps using intuition. The trick is to get enough distance to know the difference between assumptions and testable hypotheses.

Also, another thing you might try that works well for me, is going back in time.

Go back to what you thought before you started your project - because it changed as you went along. "Before" is where you audience is. They don't know what you know.

I find it helpful to go back and ask myself that eternal question in a very serious way: what was I thinking when I started this project?

For my thesis, I had to take a step back, review the old data that came before my project, and decide:

a) what was really known before
b) what was really not spelled out about the missing bits
c) what do I know now that can help me fill in the missing bits
d) how do I say that clearly.

Note that the hard part comes BEFORE the "saying it clearly." I always say the hardest part of writing is the deciding.

This brings me to the next point you bring up.

2. By cramping stuff in, I try to prove, that I actually do know my stuff.

We intuitive types tend to make what others call "logical leaps" (I can tell from what you wrote that you are like me in this regard).

We have to learn how to slow down and spell things out, precisely because they are so obvious to us.

The secret here is: these "obvious" things are not obvious to most people. And you are probably making connections that others have not really made. It's hard to see this when you're inside your own head, so the only way I've found to get out of this trap is to take several steps back.

Students tend to assume that when you write as a professional, grownup scientist, you are writing for the other experts in your field. But this is almost never the case! The best scientists are always writing for experts in OTHER fields. Think about it this way: there are not enough people in your field for them all to serve on a study section dedicated only to your little subject area. No. Most of your grants will be reviewed by people who work on something else!

With that in mind, think of the audience for all of your scientific writing as other smart people who took the basic four AP/college-level science courses (intro bio, intro chem, intro physics, and calculus). That's about the common ground we have across fields.

So you don't have to spell out absolutely all the basics, but almost. I think at the beginning it is helpful to practice spelling out every single thing, if nothing else than to name the assumptions YOU are making, about what is obvious, and what is really known.

Yes, at the beginning you will feel like you are writing for 5th graders. Like you are writing a dictionary. You will feel as if you are being condescending. You will get over this feeling, but it might last a while. At the beginning, you are just aiming to be clear and not get ahead of yourself. It will be boring, and you will want to jump ahead. But you have to make yourself do it without skipping any steps. You know if you randomly skip steps in a protocol that your experiments don't work, right? It's the same thing with writing.

Eventually, as you become more practiced, you'll be more comfortable with thinking of it this way: you're writing for new grad students.

You want them to see why you like your topic, and why what you did is cool. It has to be accessible enough for them to understand it without looking up every reference you cite.

And it is good to over-write, at least in the first "vomit" draft. Write EVERYTHING at the beginning. That is what editing is for. Which brings me to your next point (which I am separating into 2 parts for clarity!).

3a. And sometimes I am just helpless in separating the relevant bits from the not so relevant bits. Discussing the stuff with other people would help and actually does help

Yes. This is where giving lab meetings is good. But if you don't get to do this very often, or don't want to do it yet, there are other ways to get where you want to go.

Talking to strangers about your project is great practice. And when I say strangers, I mean people on the subway. People you meet in the waiting room outside the dentist's office. Random people. Also, talking to friends from home who are not scientists is really useful.

You will find that even people who initially sound excited when you say you are a scientist get bored really fast, so you have to get to your point quickly and sound exciting (!), and/or you have to make a simple analogy with something in daily life. Even the most obscure things can be explained by a cute analogy.

Even if you can't use your cute analogy in a Very Formal Written Document, it is a useful exercise for focusing your thinking.

For example, for my work I have the "please ask me more" accessible answer, and the "please don't ask me more" inaccessible answer. I use them depending on my mood.

So if I want to be friendly and show what a generous martyr I am:

Me: "I work on X disease (which affects your grandmother and killed your cat last year)"
Them: "Really! What exactly do you do?"

If I want people to leave me alone:

Me: "I work on bloggedy-ology thing you've never heard of" and I make no effort to explain what that is.
Them: "Oh" (and then walk away).

So you see what I mean? The same thing happens with writing. You want people to understand enough that they feel engaged and want to know the answers to the obvious questions (which you fed them)!

So this "talking to strangers" exercise will help you answer the following questions:

1. What is the coolest thing I did in science
2. Why should anybody care
3. What is the one thing I want them to remember when I am done talking about this

Even better is to explain it to someone, say a non-scientist or a younger student (undergrads are great for this!) and then listen to them explain it to a third person.

Yes, it will be awkward and probably comical at first. But it will help you understand how to teach your subject, which is essentially what you're doing when you write about it.

You are teaching what you did, why it is cool, why they should care, and what is the take-home message.

You just happen to be doing it on paper in a relatively stylized and potentially soon-to-be-outdated format. ;-)

3b. but only if I am not under major stress (because they are important people, because there is only little time, because I am having a major self-confidence crisis)

Okay, this is a separate issue. Who are these so-called "important people"? Don't talk to them yet.

Like I said, find other people. Talk to your family, your dog, your neighbor. Talk to a tree. Seriously. I always practice my talks alone before I give them, and I always talk about my work before I write it up. This means my laptop monitor has heard a lot of my random babbling (and it still loves me! Awww).

It also means I get a lot of my awkwardness out before I talk to real people, especially before I talk to important people.

You think articulate people are always articulate? No way, no how. The best speakers and writers I know all practice, practice, practice what they will say, and they edit how they will say it.

Then, when you get some of that precious quality time with Important People, you won't be shy because you'll be well-rehearsed and comfortable talking about your work in a succinct little soundbite (theoretically, anyway).

4. also, because I feel I should be able to do it just like that, I probably also spend far too little time on structuring and writing well formulated sentences than I should.... (well my fault really).

This is not really how it's done. The best, most efficient writers I know all do a "vomit" draft, written conversationally just like you wrote this comment. Just the way you would talk to a friend.

Then you go back and see if the logic makes any sense. See if you skipped over things and didn't spell them out.

Then you go back and spell everything out.

Then you go back and see if all the missing bits are really filled in, or if you missed a few more. And then you fill those in.

At the VERY END, you go back and work on re-structuring your sentences.

But plan on several rounds of drafts and editing, editing and drafts.

Structuring your sentences will not help with the overall organization if you're getting ahead of yourself and not spelling things out. Gotta see the forest for the trees. Then you come back later and fill in the veins on the leaves.

Oh, and one final point, now that I've droned on and on and on.

There are many kinds of writers, but it is VERY hard to find good editors. If your advisor is saying "not so good", that is not constructive feedback. That is vague, negative criticism without specific suggestions for how to improve!

Personally, I am on the warpath against these PIs who think that re-writing every sentence is "teaching". ARGH!

There are some good books about how to be your own best editor, so I recommend starting there. Also, consider asking some other not-too-important but friendly people to give you feedback about where you're making sense and where you are going off on tangents.

There endeth the lecture. Go forth and scribble!

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Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sleep is for those with job security.

Lately I am having the rage again. You know, the one about how come that guy gets to do nothing and have every one of his wishes fulfilled, and I have been working my ass off only to be told NO to even the most minor, reasonable request?

It always hits me early in the morning, say around 6 AM. I don't like to get up at 6 AM, and yet, sometimes there is no point trying to go back to sleep.


This week I got an email from an old colleague who just landed a faculty position in her home country. Her email talked about perseverance and how happy she is.

This colleague was a postdoc when I was a grad student. That puts her at roughly 5 years more post-doctoral years than I have now (in her country, you can make a decent living even if you are not faculty, but it's still very hard and I'm not sure how she did it).

Hearing that she has a new job made me happy for her, but it also made me want to quit on the spot.

She was always a role model for me, and it was discouraging when she lost her funding and couldn't find a position.

She might be a phoenix now, but like a lot of things in my career, there is no way I'm going to follow in her footsteps. I can't work in her country anyway, but 5 more years of working on other people's projects? NO WAY am I doing that in any country.


Meanwhile I have been bad about exercising and I know this is part of the problem. It is very simple. When I don't exercise, I feel like crap and find I have a lot of extra rage. But I still hate exercising, and I resent having to make time to do it.

I think if somebody could invent an exercise pill that gave all the benefits of exercise (not just weight loss but also stress relief and all the other good things that come from aerobicizing your joints, muscles and brain), I would take it.


In other news, I wish I could blog about other things, but I can't. So instead I am working on my memoirs. I know, it sounds so vain to use that words, but I don't know what else to call it. It is basically a book about things that have happened to me.

I guess I'll stop blogging now and go work on it some more. Since I am awake, and angry, and I don't feel like exercising just yet.

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Wednesday, October 07, 2009

Oh, crappy day.

I just had one of those days.

Lots of stupid annoying things happened. Nothing huge, but a lot of straws on the camel's back. People were rude and/or condescending. Experiments didn't work and I will have to do them over. People I hate got things I wanted. I did good deeds and wondered why, because it wasn't particularly rewarding.

I don't want to write another one of those downer, droopy-faced blog posts where I whine (yes, I do read your comments before I delete them) about how much it sucks to be a postdoc, and so on and so forth. But in case you were wondering, yes, it still sucks.

Tomorrow I will get up and put one foot in front of the other, and who knows what will happen.

The last few weeks have been really kind of strange, with lots of unexpected things both good and bad. In the end, I guess it all evens out, but I feel like I'm on a really bumpy road in the back of pickup truck as the sun is going down, and it is getting dark and cold outside.

I'm getting somewhere, but I can't really see where I'm going, and my ass hurts.

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Sunday, October 04, 2009

Pseudo Science, the Internets and Politicians

A while back, I was at a party with some smart non-scientists who happen to be extremely paranoid about health issues.

They were ranting about organic food this, pesticide-free that, traces of pharmaceuticals in the water supply, genetically-engineered plants, etc. Unfortunately, I was getting frustrated because they didn't seem to know what they were talking about.

Gradually, as I argued with them, I came to realize that they had been reading about these things on the internets, and getting their information largely from one-sided documentary films and whatever the water filter guy in Home Depot told them they needed to buy.

They didn't understand what genetically engineered actually means. Sure, it sounds kinda scary. But they didn't seem to know what "DNA" is, relative to "genetic". They were throwing around these terms about genes being "different" from ours without knowing that our most important genes are all conserved.

And they had seen some documentary about the potential evils of bionic alien plants, or whatever, which got them off on this kick of being very anti- almost anything scientific.

"It's not natural!" they kept screaming, and I really should have asked them if they use birth control (they don't have any kids, so I'm pretty sure they do). But I think you'll agree that some people believe that birth control of any kind is not "natural", either.

Or indoor plumbing. Or tv. Or microwaving.

I guess if they keep going on this path, they'll insist on joining the Raw Food movement and living in the forest, or something.

Mostly I was amazed at how much it annoyed me that they were vehemently arguing with me. Not because they were arguing, but because they were so dramatically misinformed.

And it breaks my heart a little, because I think they would make great scientists. Here's why:

1) They are interested in getting information, going to great lengths to learn about how the world works (however inept they were at determining the quality of what they found).

2) They are unrelentingly skeptical, not caring one whit for academic reputation or the Establishment.

3) They are passionate about their cause.

4) They have no investment in doing science to make money.

I always draw the analogy between science and government. If you've studied American History, you know that members of Congress were not supposed to serve lifetime appointments the way they tend to do now. There were supposed to be term limits for a reason: to avoid having career politicians (the way we do now).

I still think maybe the idea of science as a temporary position is not such a bad one, and we kind of already have it with most of our scientists working as terminal postdocs (but without the prestige of serving our country). I have to wonder if it's not the career scientists who do the most damage, just like career politicians?

And yet, as I ranted about on my last post, we're really doing a terrible job of educating the public. Instead, we're taking some of the most intelligent, vocal, self-directed amateur researchers and letting them feed on junk information.

If only they were as scrupulous about their reading as they are about their food.

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Saturday, October 03, 2009

Ambassadors for Science

Much as I aspire to have a paying job with the word "ass" in the title, the truth is that as a PhD, I think it is already part of my "job" to educate the public about science and scientists.

I probably spend too much time wondering how much more we could get done, how many rockets sent to how many planets, how many diseases cured, how many electric cars invented, if only we were valued by our taxpaying citizens as much as wars and wall street already are.

I probably spend too much time wondering why we can't have high-paying contracts the way rock stars, lawyers, and ball players do to live the wonderful lifestyles they live.

But what I think it really comes down to is this: as a group, we are terrible ambassadors. Scientists themselves are responsible for not educating the public about science.

Just witness the comments on my last blog post.

Most scientists are more concerned with their own comfort than with the bigger picture. The one minute it takes you to get out there and give science some visibility by saying Hey, I'm a scientist! This is what a scientist looks like!

Is it really too much for you to give?

We love to talk about K-12 outreach and educating teachers, yada yada, when claiming we'll have a "Broader Impact" in our grant proposals. But let's be honest. It's too late by the time kids are in school. The truth is, their parents don't value science as an endeavor, and they don't see their kids as potential scientists. I know mine never in a million years would have guessed I'd want to work in a lab. And they really had no idea what scientists do as opposed to, say, medical doctors or engineers. I'm pretty sure they still don't quite get it.

I really hate seeing these surveys they claim "most" US citizens think science is important. I think it's complete bullshit. My own parents have zero interest in visiting my lab and seeing what we actually do there. We do some pretty freaking cool stuff, but somehow we've failed to spread the curiosity or excitement.

In real life, most US citizens are freaked out at the thought of meeting a scientist, and they'd rather pay more taxes to protect them from terrorists than they would to protect them from H1N1 flu, even though their chances of catching the flu are orders of magnitude higher.

You might have seen the "Americans sure are stupid" video floating around recently. Do you really think the people on that video value science? Of course not. They think we are all still the kids they picked on in school. The nerds. Nobody respected us then, and they don't really respect us now. They have no idea what our jobs entail, why we do them, or how it affects their daily lives.

Do us all a favor and get out of your comfort zone when you're out running errands or at a party meeting new non-scientist people. If somebody asks you what you do, DON'T LIE. Just say you're a scientist.

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Thursday, October 01, 2009

Just buying groceries, thanks

Went to the store tonight on the way home. Typical exchange (some variation on this theme has happened on at least 3 occasions):


Cashier: Donate to xxx disease charity?

MsPhD: Not today, I work on xxx disease, I donate every day.

Bag Assistant: Are you a doctor?

MsPhD: I'm a PhD. I work in a lab.

Bag Assistant (looks me up and down, puzzled expression, sounds doubtful): Oh.

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