Friday, July 30, 2010

Witnessing idiocy

It seems to be part of human nature that we all think we're smarter than somebody else at least once in our lives.

Some of us feel that way all the time. Some will argue ceaselessly even when they're wrong.

Some days I feel particularly stubborn and irritated by stupidity.

One of the things that drives me nuts, especially common among academic types, are people who take things too literally or will argue over mechanics when they're missing the larger point I was trying to make. And they're not patient or open-minded enough to try to see where I was going, they just start nit-picking in a way that doesn't get anybody anywhere nearer to enlightenment.

Sometimes I get really frustrated at my own inability to communicate what I think, or just not being in the right position to say what I think at any given moment.

For example: replying to comments on my blog, not being able to come up with the right way to illustrate a concept in a persuasive way and being told I'm doing it all wrong, when that really wasn't the point in the first place

Or, seeing people stretching the wrong way at the gym. It drives me crazy knowing they're getting nothing out of it and will probably injure themselves, and here I could totally prevent that but it's not my job, I shouldn't butt in

Dealing with stupid self-checkout at the grocery store that is designed really poorly and doesn't work very well or make any sense. Wondering if I'm taking it all too literally. But then seeing that not only am I frustrated, but also overhearing the guy next to me asking the supervising cashier perfectly reasonable questions about things we've seen real cashiers do at their stations but the machines won't let us do at the self-checkout station

Getting home and realizing I forgot something I needed at the grocery store

Isn't it funny how some of us are expected to remind everybody else of everything they're supposed to do, but nobody reminds us? And I'm probably only that way because my mother always reminded me of everything and it drove me nuts when I was growing up, but now I do it and people take it for granted that I'll be the reminder? The rememberer? So if I actually do forget something, they assume it's deliberate and I'm mad at them?

I don't really want to remember everything all the time. I really don't.

Some days I can't stand even witnessing personal conflict from afar, like watching friends ranting on Facebook and realizing that while they have a point, the person they're mad at might be crazy or uncomprehending and I just feel so bad for how hurt they are but there's nothing I can do. And knowing at the same time that ranting on Facebook isn't going to help their case at all, but I can't say that, I shouldn't butt in

One of the things I hated most about being a postdoc was watching people fuck things up on a daily basis, but knowing they didn't want my advice and wouldn't follow my protocols even when they asked me for them

And yet, it seems to be an inescapable feature of adult life. I put all this effort into learning how to do things, and I would dearly love to save other people the trouble of learning the hard way. But that knowledge and experience is essentially useless because nobody wants to hear it from me

Which is another reason I wouldn't want to have children. My parents thought they knew everything, and even though I frequently suspected they were wrong, what choice did I have as a minor? To run away? I had to live by their rules, their expectations, their advice and their control

Another thing I see on Facebook, and that I'm seeing more of lately, is my friends having children. And realizing that some of them are really great parents, and some are not. And it is hard to watch people I dearly love, as friends, fucking up their children's lives almost from day 1. And I don't know how to respect that, how to be accepting, or how to say to them gently "Um, you know, maybe it's not fair to be such a controlling perfectionist about your kid, even if that's how you do everything else in your life and that's okay because it's your life"? And knowing that it's not my place to butt in

But wishing there were something I could do to save those poor kids from growing up the way I did, just wishing somebody would please butt in

and stand up for me because we can't always stand up for ourselves

And how modern psychology would probably say this is what I kept hoping for in my career, for somebody to hear me say I needed help and butt in

But our culture seems to think that's somehow impolite, that you should keep to yourself, even when you see things that are unfair or unethical or inhumane, you should just remember it's not your place to butt in

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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Response to comments on last post

This time, when I tried to reply, google said "comment is too large to process".

Ha! Maybe that's why my replies get eaten so often! I am too verbose.

Oh well, at least this way I can spread out and relax... plenty of space to be as large as I want!


I totally get what you're saying. There was a time, when I was a bit younger, when I would have given anything to be surrounded assholes if it meant competition was out in the open and I could be my own assholish self too.

I was just so sick of the gossipy back-stabbing passive-aggressive nonsense.

I wanted the risky, exciting, moving things forward as fast as possible. I didn't care if we were a pack of snarling, barking dogs. I wanted to run with the pack if it was going somewhere. I was tired of waiting for my slothful companions to get off their lazy asses.

But I'm a little older now, and I'm tired. I wasted my youthful energy letting science crush my creativity into minimal publishable units.

I regret it, and no I wouldn't do it over again if I could.

I would do something else if I could go back and be 21 again.

But not now. I'm not going to run off now and join the dog army. I really don't have the energy to fight any more of that kind of fighting.

And I'm not convinced it's the best way to be creative, either. Maybe for a different age group, it works. But I think I grew out of it.

Anon 9:50,

I think you're missing the point. We're not saying it's a conspiracy- that's a different concept.

What we're saying is that it's the sum of accumulated unconscious biases of many individuals.

That it's true that because of these commonly held unconscious biases, men get more help getting their work done, and getting their papers submitted, and have an easier time getting their papers accepted.

We're not saying it's a lot different. We're saying it's a little bit different.

But consistently, it's different.

Even if it's only a tiny bit of help, and a tiny bit easier, those 1% here and 3% there.. those amounts add up to a big advantage when it comes to "well his CV looks better than hers".

Just think, if every time you went to submit a paper, and you were within the 3% range of it getting accepted, and somebody handed you a "3% off free" coupon. How many more papers would you have? If that saved you a round of resubmitting each time? A round of fighting with your advisor about which journal to send it to? Each time?

What would that save you? Six months? A year? Each time?

Over the course of a career, that's going to add up to a whole lot of CV lines.

And nobody seems to really get it at the hiring level that we're talking about apples and oranges. That for us to come up through these ranks is different than it was for him.

That even if nobody means to have these biases, they exist, and it makes it harder than it needs to be.

That when we do have a good CV, we get criticism amounting to the simple doubt that a women couldn't possibly have done that well on her own - AS IF THE MEN EVER DID IT ALL ON THEIR OWN!

Because nobody who gets to that level did all on their own. Everybody had student help, and technical help, and PI's who helped get them fellowships and invitations to give talks and had them lecture for classes. Men get that kind of help and it's considered par for the course.

Why is it unfair if women ever ask get any help at all?

The point is that we're never going to be able to overcome these biases without more help and without forcing people to notice what we've seen. That we're not making it up, it's not imaginary. It's real.

My point is, I know it's a pyramid scheme. I'm just saying that for women it's a tiny bit sharper, just a tiny bit steeper to climb. And maybe that tiny bit makes all the difference when it's barely scalable in the first place.

I read an article this week that said the next big hurdle for equality can only be cleared by getting men on board to help change things.

Denying that there's a problem doesn't help. You, sir, may think that you are not sexist.

But you are not helping.

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Tuesday, July 27, 2010

What I talk about when I talk about science

One of the comments on the last post raised the question of whether scientists mostly sit around talking about:

1) technical problems
2) asshole colleagues/advisors
3) publishing & competing
4) big ideas.

Technical problems: the good and bad of talking about it constantly

the good

Talking about it usually means you'll get advice & commiseration. This might make you feel like less of a loser, and you might learn something that fixes your problem.

It might give you the break you need to head back into the lab and try again.

I love giving advice to others when I know enough to be helpful. I find it satisfying to pass one what I've learned and save other people the trouble of learning the hard way.

I try to be supportive when I can't be useful.

I think if you don't like talking and hearing about technical issues, you shouldn't be in science. Period. This is the bread and butter, day-to-day, one foot in the front of the other. It's how research gets done.

The devil really is in the details.

the bad

Sometimes you get conflicting advice, and that can be confusing.

Sometimes people will be judgmental and it will make you insecure about asking for help again.

Sometimes people are no help, and then you wonder whether you're working in the wrong place, surrounded by people who don't care or don't know anything useful and won't teach you much, or if you're attempting something impossible and wasting your time on a dead-end.

Sometimes I give advice and people don't listen. I've blogged about this before because it's one of my pet peeves. The people who whine and want shortcuts and think it's easier to do it the "easy way" but that doesn't work and then they have to go back and do it all over again. My way might seem "harder" at first but it works, and in the long run that's actually faster. But sometimes I get tired of people asking me and not respecting what I have to say enough to talk to me about why they think it might not work or to just admit they're too lazy.

Assholes in science

I was talking to a grad student the other day about whether there are more assholes in academic science than in other careers. I think there are. She says there are assholes everywhere. I told her I used to believe that, actually had someone tell me that, back when I was in college and debating about whether to pursue a science career.

Now I'm not so sure. I think academic science selects for assholes and cultivates assholishness in otherwise decent people. I've watched it happen. Otherwise decent people, put under enough pressure, become angry starving dogs backed into a corner. They will bite you.

I'm not sure it was always this bad, but it's how it is now.

So yeah, we complain about it. All. The. Time. On blogs especially.

And I've reached a point where I'm just sick of it. I'm sick of working with jerks and I'm sick of hearing about other people being trapped working with jerks. I'm sick of lacking for constructive solutions.

At first, you treat it like just another type of problem-solving. You read all the books on communication and negotiating and you try to out-manipulate the manipulators. For some people, this works, usually in combination with other approaches like mentoring and string-pulling from family & friends.

But I get the feeling that if you need to read books about it (like I do), you're not going to make it through.

After a while, it's boring. It's frustrating being completely powerless and not knowing how to marshall enough support to stand up to these people or maneuver around them (notice the root of these words, man-ipulate and man-euver.).

And then it's like, well I can advise you up to a point but after that, don't ask me. I couldn't figure it out. Just for the love of god, please quit whining to me about it. I tried every iteration I could think of, but it just wasn't working out for me.

Publishing and competition

Truthfully, when I was just a new student who had never done anything myself worth publishing, I never cared about which journal, which author, which institution, or who did what first.

In school, I met people who cared a lot about which journal. My thesis advisor had ideas about which journals were "appropriate" for my work when we went to publish. I had ideas about which journals handled figures well and which ones tended to make them small and unreadable. That was my biggest criterion. Did they present the material well? No? Then I don't care how famous they are. It's not a journal I'd want to be reading.

Then there was the whole authorship thing. Like the collaborators who let us do all the work and then demanded at the end that their student be made co-first author after I had already written the entire manuscript. How was that fair? I realized I wanted people to be citing ME and not her. I did not want someone else to put their name on my writing.

Not having worked at too many different places, I still don't know what I think about the "which institution" question, but it does affect things. I remember sitting in one journal club, listening to the spoiled brats from the richest labs complaining that the authors of a paper from a third-world country hadn't done enough expensive controls. I tried to explain to them what it's like to work in a poor lab. That you have to choose carefully the most important controls that will tell you the most, because you simply can't afford to do them all.

And I remember slowly realizing how much money matters for how much you can do. That it costs about a million dollars to do a Cell paper's worth of work, by the time you pay for everything and everybody's salary who worked on it. And realizing that most labs simply can't afford to do that. And sometimes even the richest labs go through periods when they can't afford to do it for more than one paper at a time. And that paper might not be yours. And it might have nothing to do with which project is the better project. It might have everything to do with who the first authors are and whether the PI likes them more than anyone else.

And realizing how the competition aspect of everything just poisons the atmosphere. Turns people into dogs trying to eat other people they view as competing dogs.

Yeah, I talk about all of that a lot with my science friends. How it's too bad so much good science never sees the light of day because someone else did it first and that supposedly means it's better, when in fact the better stuff often just takes longer. How timing has superceded quality on the list of priorities and how I think that's a terrible thing for science. How timing often comes down to who gossips the most, who fakes or manipulates data, and which famous authors are on their paper. How perhaps it's the famous authors who fake and manipulate and gossip the most. How we all thought science would be less about fame and more about ideas. How we wonder if it was always this way and whether it always will be. Or whether science might implode if things continue on this way.

big ideas

So do we talk about big ideas? Sure.

As much as I'd like? No, not at all.

For quite a while now, I've been very isolated from other people who had similar interests. I talked more about big ideas at meetings than I ever did at my home institution. That was part of why, in the last few years, meetings were the most fun for me. My department was full of people who worked on different big ideas, or who debated endlessly about useless minutiae instead of coming up with ways to test their pet hypotheses. Or who did exclusively "me-too" science. One trick ponies.

At first, I tried to interject. And then I gave up. I would just sit back and let them debate amongst themselves. Sometimes I would try to redirect the conversation to the larger point, to ask, like a broken record, "Yes but how would you TEST that?" But often they would turn to look at me and then go right back to obsessing about which famous guy was right about their ugly cartoon model of their favorite mechanism.

It was hard for me to articulate why I thought even the best cartoon model of their favorite question wouldn't really clarify anything, much as they wanted to know, it wasn't going to move the field forward in any significant way if they weren't doing the right experiments.

But I couldn't figure out how to tell them that productively and have them really hear me. I knew it would just hurt their tiny, insecure feelings.

Also, if I viewed them as my competition, it was easy to see how it was better to let them obsess about something insignificant. Like the Princess and the Pea. If they wanted to think the pea was important, that was fine by me. I would rather that they were exhausted and unable to focus.

Meanwhile, I was sleeping soundly and thinking clearly.

But in general, I always liked the idea that we need both kinds. We need people who care about ideas and people who care about details. I want someone else to do some kinds of nitty gritty and I'll take care of the parts they can't see. That's fine. Ideally, there would be room for everybody.

Yes, when I talk to my friends who are scientists, we talk about the future of science and what the next big discoveries might mean for what we can do sooner or later, and how much later. And why do we have to wait. And can we get our hands on some of that new stuff, can we collaborate.

We talk about what we would do differently if we were in charge of everything. We talk about whether we're helping patients and how can we get our colleagues to think differently, to see what we're saying. How to deal with our own doubts by testing, testing, testing. And how to anticipate our colleagues' skepticisms and be most persuasive.

But mostly, we talk about how tired we are of all the nonsense that gets in the way. How much more we could be getting done if only we had the resources. How un-scientific the academic science hierarchy is. And why nobody seems to want to make the radical changes that would be needed to fix everything that needs fixing.

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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Feeling old and overeducated

Every once in a while, I make an attempt to hang out with non-scientist friends.

Even when these people are my age, sometimes it just makes me feel really old. Like having gone to grad school and doing a long postdoc gave me the equivalent of the world-weary, veteran, thousand-yard stare.

I feel like these people are making the most banal observations, things I figured out years ago. Things I read in books when I was in elementary school. Of course, they also don't know how to listen, so they dominate the conversation and I can't get a word in edgewise to change the subject from their endless monologues.

I do have non-scientist friends who are not like this. Who are older, and wiser, or maybe they were just born with enough wisdom to know not to do science in the first place. We talk about life. We have real conversations.

And then sometimes I hang out with friends who are actually younger AND not scientists. Some of them are really entertaining. But there are some people, I'm not sure why I ever hang out with them at all. Talking to them just kinda makes me want to shoot myself in the head.

In the worst case, I feel like I'm babysitting kids who won't listen to a word I say. I keep wanting to yell, "It's time to go to sleep! Stop jumping on the bed!"

Like that one time I babysat for a couple of incredibly spoiled brats and actually let them jump in the beds until I saw their parents' car drive up. Just because I knew it would tire the kids out enough that they would actually submit to laying down and closing their eyes. I spent the whole evening with one eye on the kids, and one eye out the window, waiting for it to end.

It was bad enough feeling un-heard and disrespected at work, but at least there everybody knew I was a senior postdoc, and they knew what that meant. I don't think anybody ever treated me like I hadn't worked hard, even if they might have claimed I still needed to pay more dues, or that I didn't know what I was talking about.

Even if they never came back later to admit I was right, or apologize for ignoring me. I figured eventually they would learn the hard way, even if I couldn't make them see what I had already seen.

Out in The Real World, I'm judged entirely on my appearance, which is young and female. And people tend to talk to me based on that alone, without having ever asked me what I do.

They just assume they are smarter or more educated or more well-read than I am. But usually they aren't.

So, yes, I got carded again last night. I glared at the bartender when he asked, but I knew it was just his job and at least he was nice enough.

And I'm trying to cultivate a sense of humor about all of it.

The last few people I met who did ask what i do, I said I was trained as a scientist and got my PhD X # of years ago, they said, "Oh really?" and did a tiny double-take, like they seriously had no idea what to say to that. Like they thought I was fucking with them just to see what they would do.

My favorite comment of the week from someone who clearly wasn't sure whether to believe me not: "Well you seem like a pretty smart person."

This amused me because of the way he said it, like he was actually thinking I'm not sure if you're lying or not, but you seem like a pretty good actress and I wouldn't know a real scientist from a liar anyway...?

I also had a moment of schadenfraude this week when I spoke to a friend who works in Big Pharma. For the last three years or so, I told her I was having problems with my advisor, how frustrating it was to have a sexist boss who wouldn't listen to me, took credit for my work, etc. And she was always sanctimoniously bragging about how she loved her job and was so glad not to have those kinds of problems. And I always thought Wow, she is either way smarter than me about picking places to work, or just really lucky.

Well, let's just say her luck has run out. This week we talked about how her boss does nothing, takes credit for her work, and then privately thanks her later "LIke I'm his fucking secretary!"

And because the new season starts tomorrow, I have to add the obligatory reference. Yes, it sounded like something out of Mad Men.

I'm sorry to hear that she's having a Peggy Olson problem, but part of me kinda wanted to say, "See? Now you know."

Except I'm not really sure if she gets it, yet. That it's not just this guy and it's not just happening to her.

It's not really until you realize that it's rampant, that everyone everywhere will at some point experience it. Only then will you really see what's going on and start looking at it with one eye out the window.

Maybe in a few more years of this Big Pharma, she'll have the equivalent of the thousand-yard stare. In the meantime, at least she's capable of carrying on an intelligent two-way conversation. And she knows I've paid more than my fair share of dues.

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Monday, July 19, 2010

Or maybe I'm not feminist enough?

I was talking to a friend last week about the idea that young girls are discouraged from doing science because they're literally afraid it will make them ugly.

In her mind, we should be practical. Mercenaries. Simply put, young girls are focused on being attractive. While we agree that the pressure on girls to be pretty and thin tends to lead to extremely unhealthy eating disorders, etc., it is nevertheless how many young girls' priorities are arranged. Even if the list goes 1. Pretty, 2. Smart, 3. Rich...

My friend was saying she thought that showing that women scientists are not all unattractive nobodies could be a good thing for helping to recruit more girls to be scientists.

Now, you all know what I think. I think NOBODY should be a scientist. I think we have TOO MANY scientists already. And not enough jobs.

But on the issue of whether images of attractive women scientists would help or hurt recruitment efforts, I said I don't know.

I said maybe it would help get everyone to realize that not all scientists are male uber-dorks who only wear graph-paper button-down shirts. Personally, I am tired of being laughed at when I meet new people. They ask what I do, and when I tell them, they think I'm kidding. It has happened so many times, I started wondering if I should have been a comedian.

So then I saw this blogpost today, and I don't get it. Isn't this something we've all talked about maybe doing ourselves?

Will this sort of Hot Scientist Babes webpage help? Maybe not. Will it hurt? I can't really see how it could make things much worse than they already are.

None of these women were depicted doing anything demeaning (except the first girl, and I suspect she's a model?).

Would I feel differently if I were listed there? Maybe. Especially if it were a bad headshot.

But right now, I just can't bring myself to care that much.

Meanwhile, the commenters at PhysioProf all agreed that it was egregiously offensive, but I'm not entirely sure why. Plenty of women complained about the Rock Stars of Science ad campaign because it was all men.

Isn't this sort of the same? We wanted to be included in that effort to make science look sexy then, so why not now?

After all, sex sells. Science.... doesn't.

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Tuesday, July 13, 2010


I read an article the other day that made me really sad. It said young women are the biggest users of Facebook. That the first thing many young women do every morning, is log into Facebook.

The article said the survey-takers weren't sure why, and maybe it has something to do with young women feeling particularly disconnected, and Facebook is a way of trying to feel less disconnected.

But they didn't pursue why that would be.

Is it possible that there are a lot of women who are being deprived of careers now? I read another article that said most people in the world, including the US, believe that when jobs are scarce, it's more important for men to have them.

Among the many books I've been reading lately, one is a compendium of interviews that Bill Moyers did with a bunch of poets. Every once in a while, I happen upon something in there that really strikes a chord.

So I'm about halfway through the book and got to this interview with a Japanese American poet named Garrett Kaoru Hongo.

Bill asks him why he decided to write poetry and he says

I was experiencing a social and historical sadness

He says he wanted to connect with the history that was repressed.

Bill says "Repressed in what sense?"

He says I wanted the words I was reading to belong to me, but there were no words for me. He talks about how there wasn't anything in his high school textbooks about Japanese in America. That they weren't there when the US gained independence from Britain or during the Civil War.

This is something that always bothered me. Somehow we were supposed to be thrilled that Martha Washington sewed the flag? I never enjoyed history class until college. Before that, it was always taught as if the women weren't even around. The men were off having important conventions and signing important paperwork and the women were at home making butter. Anybody see John Adams?

Hongo says: I felt I didn't have an identity

Then there's this long story about how Hongo's grandfather told him about how he was treated by the American government and how angry he was. And so he was basically charged with telling his grandfather's story. Somehow, to speak for him.

I don't know about you, but my mother and my grandmother and great-grandmother always expressed disappointment that they didn't get to pursue their career dreams. That they were held back by their families, by society's expectations, by the men coming back from the war and taking all the jobs.

Hongo says: I was basically indoctrinated in a Western vision of articulation, of speaking to emotional and historical issues, but my experience was one of repression.

Lately I feel like even when I'm just expressing an opinion, just telling the story of my personal experience, I'm being told to shut up. That it's my imagination. That it can't be true. That it's dangerous to say what I think. Or that things will change on their own (!). Or that I'm just being too negative. Or that I'm discriminating against men if I say anything that implies women don't actually have equality.

It makes me sad.

For example, I know this guy who really feels a lot of frustration about being a white man these days. He feels like all the women and minorities get all these fellowships and clubs and opportunities and he's left out. He thinks his career is in jeopardy because of that.

So when he had a daughter I thought, "Oh good, maybe now he'll learn what it's like."

But I don't think so. He's a big fan of John Tierney's.

Now I'm just worried for that little girl. Even though she's not old enough for Facebook yet.

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