Monday, November 30, 2009

From a comment


If you love what you do, you'll rise to the top decile in any profession.

Anyone who has watched a reality tv show (take ANTM or Project Runway for example) knows that how much you love what you do has almost nothing to do with whether you will be in the "top decile".

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Sunday, November 29, 2009

In which I met the press, and started reading a new book

Yeah, I did it again. I watched David Gregory.

I've decided he's pretty good at interviewing. He just sucks at moderating. Last week's was a fiasco with people talking over each other, arguing, and he couldn't get a word in edgewise to control them or the direction of the conversation.

This week's was more watchable. (Probably because half of it was pre-recorded and edited!)


So I was surprised to find that I actually agreed with some of what pastor Rick Warren had to say. Much of it, actually.

Of course this post is not just about agreeing - that would be dull. The two things he said that I didn't like were about a) gay marriage and b) abortion rights.

He said he's more sympathetic to gays now that he's doing more AIDS outreach, even though he has these Biblical views on homosexuality. That's just... yuck. Condescending, righteous. But okay. Sympathy is better than hatred or violence.

But then he went on to say how he believes there are 46 million unborn Americans who don't get to vote because they were aborted.

Now that's just ridiculous.

He quoted Peggy Noonan as saying that any 16-year-old boy who uses a condom knows when life begins.

So now 16-year-old boys are the experts.

Of course! What were we thinking? Let's elect them to run everything! Oh and Peggy Noonan! She's my new hero!


He also said something about the economy that got my attention. He said that with unemployment at around 10% in this country, that's equivalent to the entire country of Canada being out of work.

Wheew. Is that even right?

The US census puts the US population at 308,046,671. (I'd love to know who that last person is, wouldn't you? Ha ha ha, no seriously there are let's say 8 babies born per minute in the US).

So ~10% of the steady-state (ish) US population then is about 30 million people. Okay yeah, that sounds about right from what I've been hearing on the news (give or take for people who are able to work). Of course, some states are worse than the average (Michigan is at 15%).

So what's the population of Canada (I know it's low)?

Apparently Rick Warren is more or less correct. It's 33,859,000, at least according to wikipedia.

Of course, I disagreed with what he said next, but not very strongly. He said we need to get people back to work first, and worry about healthcare after that. Personally, I think we need to solve healthcare first, since then it's not literally a life-and-death question of whether we're all working in traditional careers or not.

And then he said something interesting when David asked him about what happened at Ft. Hood. And he gave the standard speech about how, and I'm paraphrasing now, there are nutjobs in every religion. But he said they are fundamentalists. And he said yeah, it's a term that has changed in meaning. Fundamentalist used to refer to people who took the Bible too literally (I think that's what he said). But now he said it means anyone who believes in a religion but refuses to listen.

And I thought, hey, that's my problem. I'm a scientific fundamentalist. I don't subscribe to what the scientific church is saying.

I want to go back to why we believed in this stuff in the first place. So that makes me a fringe lunatic. Not that I'm going to physically attack anyone. But it's another way to describe feeling marginalized and abandoned by something you really tried to have faith in.


In a strange kind of irony, the other guests on today's episode were Bill and Melinda Gates.

This issue of the Gates Foundation is interesting to me, and I was curious to hear what they had to say.

They said what they were talking about is only 0.25% of the entire US budget (I think they're referring to NIH funding, but they didn't say the word "NIH"). They said the most important part of the US economy is innovation, and especially in health research and at universities, and that it had not been cut.

Um, really Bill? You DROPPED OUT OF COLLEGE and you have the nerve to say that
a) universities are the most important source of innovation
b) research has not been cut

???? He said the "best" scientists are doing all this great stuff.... As usual, I'm afraid it's not the horse's mouth that's talking. How is Bill Gates qualified to say anything about the "best" science, especially health research? Because he has a lot of money?


Meanwhile I'm still unresolved on whether I really support the Gates foundation's efforts. Okay yes, I agree that getting vaccines to sick kids everywhere is good and worth doing. But do I agree that our priorities should be to help save the rest of the world when the US is not doing nearly as well as they want us to believe?

Yeah, this might be news to you - it was news to me. And it kind of made me laugh.

I started reading Barbara Ehrenreich's new book, Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. And immediately felt like, oh my god, I really liked what I had read of her previous work, but now I may have to write her a fan letter.

Right up front, she gives you the cold, hard facts.

Allow me to quote:

Surprisingly, when psychologists undertake to measure the relative happiness of nations, they routinely find that Americans are not, even in prosperous times and despite our vaunted positivity, very happy at all. A recent meta-analysis of over a hundred studies of self-reported happiness worldwide found Americans ranking only twenty-third

And then she goes on to explain:

How can we be so surpassingly "positive" in self-image and stereotype without being the world's happiest and best-off people? The answer, I think, is that positivity is not so much our condition or our mood as it is part of our ideology

And then she strips it down to the bare bones:

If the generic "positive thought" is correct and things are really getting better, if the arc of the universe tends toward happiness and abundance, then why bother with the mental effort of positive thinking? Obviously, because we do not fully believe that things will get better on their own.

Well, that's exactly it, isn't it.

She's nothing if not opinionated:

The truly self-confident, or those who have in some way made their peace with the world and their destiny within it, do not need to expend effort censoring or otherwise controlling their thoughts. Positive thinking may be a quintessentially American activity, associated in our minds with both individual and national success, but it is driven by a terrible insecurity.

To which I say, AMEN.

And I think this underlines exactly what has been driving me nuts about the attitude of scientists in this country. It makes me see how to have more sympathy for them.

Maybe it's not a conscious choice to be in denial about what is happening. Maybe it's cultural. They can't help being blindly optimistic and positive to a fault. It permeates everything about this country.

Thanks, Barbara. You made my week.

And then she goes on to explain some more of what has been baffling me about the mentality of scientists (and apparently, everyone) in this country:

The flip side of positivity is thus a harsh insistence on personal responsibility: if your business fails or your job is eliminated, it must be because you didn't try hard enough, didn't believe firmly enough in the inevitability of your success. As the economy has brought more layoffs and financial turbulence to the middle class, the promoters of positive thinking have increasingly emphasized this negative judgment: to be disappointed, resentful, or downcast is to be a "victim" and a "whiner."

Wow, I couldn't say it better than that.

Essentially her point is, if we put half as much effort into ACTUALLY FIXING THINGS as we do into our carefully built and protected denial and arrogance, our country would be a lot better off. And ultimately, we'd all be a lot happier.


I'm thankful that I'm in a country where we're allowed to access any and all websites we want to, and we can talk about these things (even if it requires a pseudonym!).

From sea to shining sea.

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Thursday, November 26, 2009

Lessons learned in grad school, continued

When the advisor does not want to admit (s)he is wrong even after seeing the data

I wish I had such simple answers to this question as I did for the last post in this series.

I'll give you some suggestions. You'll have to do the experiment (and other readers can comment).

1. If you are a grad student, you should first go to your committee.

First, meet with each committee member one-on-one and present the data along with the context of why you think your advisor is reluctant to see the light. Be compassionate, not arrogant. Try to see it from your advisor's perspective. In my experience, it is usually because said advisor him/herself generated the original data, and it is published. They probably won't retract the paper, but what you're saying is essentially implying that they should.

Second, do whatever additional experiments your committee members suggest.

Third, have a committee meeting. Hopefully - and this did work for me - their mere presence will shame your advisor into agreeing to let you pursue your project and/or publication.

Finally, and this is really sticking your neck out, you can threaten to give the data away to some competitor to work on. Sometimes you can shame your advisor this way, by triggering a competitive/possessive reaction.

If these steps don't work, you should consider trying some of the more advanced steps below.

And/or you can shelve the data and promise yourself that you will work on it sometime later in your career. This is what most people try to do. In the short run, it's better for your career. But it's bad for science, and it's bad for you in the long run, and it might come back to bite you in the ass. You can't cite the truth if it's not published.

2. If you are a postdoc, things get a little more complicated.

First, the Safe route. In theory, you can do essentially what a grad student does, but some of it is more informal since you don't have an official committee.

Talk to other faculty at your school; talk to other experts in your field. Get suggestions on what other evidence would be required to convince your advisor. Sometimes you can overwhelm even the most stubborn, insecure person with enough data.

Second, if this is not enough, you'll have to push harder and broader. Get yourself invited to give talks at meetings and other schools (like job interviews!). If your advisor won't pay or won't let you go, call it a vacation and pay for the trip yourself.

It does help, and here's why: Because people will see your data; they will hear your arguments; and you will get useful feedback. And if you do a good job, word will get back to your advisor that s/he should be proud of the solid work you're doing. Sometimes you can overwhelm even the most stubborn, insecure person with enough praise.

Third, if you are really screwed, your options are to a) publish the paper yourself, without your advisor, and this will most likely mean you will have to b) leave (and take your project to someone else's lab).

There are many drawbacks to this route. Your career will likely be over, or you will have to take a series of postdoc positions or teaching/research-track positions, because you will probably not be able to get the coveted Cell, Science or Nature publication on your own.

But, your work will be in the literature. People will see it. You will drive your field forward, whether they are ready for the future or not.

And hey, if you're a postdoc, chances are good that you're screwed anyway. Might as well make a mark on the world on your way out the door.

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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Why it's sexist that top-tier papers are the unspoken requirement

Lately I've been having to explain this a lot, so I figured hey why not blog about it.

1. Nobody tells you it's a requirement

The thing about unspoken rules is that the in-crowd shares them with their proteges. The auslanders argue among themselves about whether there really are rules or not.

2. Publishing is sexist

Yeah, you can argue, but it's actually true that unconscious bias affects everything, including the supposedly objective non-blinded reviewing of papers. See for example this study .

Women, you should know that you are automatically at risk if your name sounds female, or if you're in a field where people know who you are.

Speaking with 5 women in different fields, we discovered that our papers were all trashed by reviewers in very unprofessional ways. We all thought we were the exception, until we noticed the pattern.

In one case, an observation from a male peer said it all (same age, same field, same tier publishing experience, who thought the work was really solid): "I've never seen reviews like this."

We all looked at each other.

Damn right you haven't. You have no idea.

3. Submitting papers is sexist

Within your own lab, you might experience what I've experienced over and over and over again.

First, my PIs have consistently undervalued my work (even as people from other labs were impressed by it), but nobody seemed to understand this. I felt like that guy who couldn't speak for 23 years because the doctors thought he was in a coma - screaming, trying to find a way to make people notice.

I did more work, and more quality work, than some of my male peers, and equal work to other male peers. And yet the men were systematically favored with opportunities to submit their papers to top-tier journals.

Then, when I had been forced to wait and wait and wait, I was told I couldn't submit to the same journals while the men's papers were still in review (which takes about a year, if you're talking about a top-tier journal and revisions).

Again, you could make all kinds of excuses for why this was the case, but it was pretty clear what my male peers had in common with our advisers to get these advantages in the first place: their favorite activities involved drinking, watching sports, and discussing the physical attributes of women's bodies. And because my male peers got more informal face-time, they had more chances to plug their work and keep themselves high on the radar.

Second, our PIs wanted to protect us from the heartache and frustration and length of time it takes to publish in top-tier journals. I'm not making this up. They told us we should plan to have babies; that it would take too long; that we weren't up for the fight; that we should go to industry; that we should run core facilities; that we should teach.

Third, they lied to us. They said it didn't matter. Simultaneously, they were advising our male peers on what other experiments they needed to do to get their papers accepted at top-tier journals when the time came, positioning them for success. Why were they telling us one thing while telling the men something else?


So when study sections and hiring committees decide that these papers are the mark of the best scientists, we should be asking ourselves, why?

Q: Do we really think the editors at these journals are the best scientists of all?
A: No.

Q: Have the editors at these journals themselves published extensively in these journals?
A: No.

Q: Have the study section members and hiring committees themselves published in these journals in order to get where they are now?
A: No.

Q: Is there double-blinded review, for the most objective evaluation?
A: No.

So why is this held up as the ultimate criteria of a qualified scientist?

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Lessons learned in grad school, part whatever

This week I want to emphasize an important lesson I think everyone should learn before being awarded a PhD.

Do you want to get the right answer, or do you want to be obedient?

Lately one of my biggest concerns with ethics in science is the enormous pressure I see on grad students and postdocs, which leads them to fudge or even fake data.

I see this happening out of desire to be obedient, to be liked, and out of fear of being fired, or being wrong (or losing their visas and being deported).

So here is my two-step plan, because I think it's a major source of evil in science.

1. Do what you adviser says you should do, even if you're sure it's not going to work.

I say this for two reasons.

First, because YOU might be wrong about whether it will work or not.

Second, because then you can show them the data and show how obedient you were. And they'll never admit they were wrong without you showing them the data. They'll be much more likely to swallow their anger if they see that you did what they asked in good faith.

2. STOP doing what your adviser told you to do when it's clear that it's never going to work. Do what YOU think will get you the right answer.

There are two important lessons in this step.

First, knowing when to stop. This is a hard lesson and many people don't learn it until their postdoc is over and they're hunting for a new career. Don't be one of these people. Learn how to assess when you're making progress and testing possibilities, and stop and find another approach when you're just banging your head against a wall.

Second, knowing how to be brave and disobedient. This is a really hard lesson for most people in science, so there are options for how to go about it.

Doing what your adviser asks first is generally the safest route in this regard, although it might be the most inefficient.

Doing both your adviser's stupid idea and your awesome new thing at the same time can work for some people who are good at time management (not everyone can manage this).

Finally, doing your new thing at night or on the weekends when your adviser is traveling is the sneaky way. Notice that I did NOT say you have to ask them. DON'T ASK YOUR ADVISER. Just do it.

Most of the time, they will be overjoyed that you showed some independence and got the right answer. And if it's really a big deal, they'll claim is was their idea to do it your way all along.


What to do if you find out your adviser was wrong and they don't want to admit it even after being faced with data proving they were wrong?

That's a different blog post.

Happy pipetting, y'all. Oh and don't eat too much turkey.

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Thursday, November 19, 2009

explanation of the name

got lots of comments on that last post... have not been in the mood to deal with blogging.

but I want to clarify a couple of points on a couple of comments.

1. Yes, it is easier for US students to get into grad school than it is for international students. That's because of how public/state schools fund graduate student positions. It is not because faculty do not want international students- quite the contrary. They want as many smart, hardworking students as they can get, and they don't care where they're coming from.

However, and perhaps more importantly, it is NOT easier for US postdocs to get faculty positions. It may even be harder because US postdocs are perceived (perhaps rightly) as being less obedient and more demanding than international postdocs (and whose fault is that, really?).

We could debate this further and we probably will, but my point is that it is a very strange scenario when compared with other careers in the US.

2. MsPhD as a name is a joke. It's a play on the feminist "Ms", which is often used as derogatory by those who do not respect women. PhD is in there to emphasize that I am a post-doc, although I feel my degree is essentially worthless, which is a joke to me since at one point it was all I cared about. And these two pieces are together because they essentially cancel either other out- as a feminist PhD, I am supposed to be in the closet about my beliefs. It's an oxymoron.

YFS as a name is also a joke. It is how I am defined to those who think the "young" and the "female" are more important than the "scientist". Here again, the name essentially cancels itself out to equal zero. Also an oxymoron.

So no, the PhD is not on there because I am "arrogant", as one angry commenter wrote.

3. Stop telling me to "just switch labs".

This little nugget has been put forth again and again and again. It's not an original comment, and typically when I get it now I just delete it because it doesn't add anything new to the discussion. When I do let it through, that's because I want it there as evidence that

a) scientists don't read
b) everybody thinks they're so clever to suggest it, as if I never thought of that before!

so, thanks to all of you, but especially the ones who say they like this blog. I've had a few ideas for posts lately, but it's usually hard to figure out how to anonymize them, and I haven't had the time or energy to be clever about it. I'll try to write more often...

that's all for now.


Saturday, November 07, 2009

even more depressed than usual.

I don't have a good analogy and I don't really have the energy right now to figure out how to blog anonymously about what has been going on lately.

Suffice it to say, it's nothing new, nothing dramatic. If it were an isolated event, or only a few, that would be easier to paint as a picture.

Instead it has to do with the frustration of not being able to explain what it's like being subtly but consistently slighted over and over and over and over (death by a thousand pinpricks, basically).

The frustration of dealing with scientists who consistently and repeatedly offend or disappoint me (or both).

The frustration of noticing that non-scientists somehow manage to be less offensive, less disappointing, more supportive, better people. My own cynicism that this is part of why I would rather be around students, because they were people before they started school and they haven't yet lost their heart and creativity (which science seems to beat out of everyone).

The frustration of noticing that it is only in the non-science parts of my life where I have female role models who manage to set a good example AND encourage me AND give concrete, useful suggestions that help me reach my goals.

I could list all the things that are bothering me this week, but I have other things I need to do, science things that should be fun, and I will be happier when I just do them, or at least they will be done and then I can move on without feeling as if I am being lazy.

Still, I am distracted by the low but consistent drumbeat of none of this is going to help, it's too late already.

Not to mention the creeping feeling that this is somebody else's deja vu, history repeating itself because nobody listened the first time when this happened to legions of other women scientists.

And yet, it continues to happen. And I feel like I'm screaming into the forest like a broken tree, and nobody is around to hear me.

Today I spent some time slowly catching up on reading blogs I missed while buried under a pile of other things. I am still feeling disconnected from the writing mood.

In a way, it is usually good for me to be busy - I am better about being "in the moment" when I am too busy to think beyond what is in front of my face, in firefighting mode.

But in other ways I don't think it's good for me to go too long without writing. For whatever reason, it is therapeutic in the sense that I feel worse when I don't do it, even if I don't always feel better when I do.

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Friday, November 06, 2009

this about says it.

more later.

for now, read this short post from Good Enough Woman.

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