Month: November 2015

DoctorAl Digest 12

This week’s edition focuses on mentoring and mental health.

Meghan Duffy talks about “How intensively do you mentor undergrads working in your lab? over at Dynamic Ecology.

Terry McGlynn believes that “A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring at Small Pond Science.

Scitrigrrl speaks “On my role/effectiveness as a mentor at Tenure, She Wrote.

A very clear and honest list written by a student entitled “Dealing with mental health: A guide for professors” over at University Affairs.


What can bystanders do about sexual harassment in science?

I’ve been enjoying the new podpast “Not Just Scientists by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science and his colleague H.K. Episode 3 called “Under Pressure” was particularly interesting as it featured a discussion that centred around what male scientists could do if they realized a female scientist was being sexually harassed. The episode was really honest, with Terry and H.K. expressing dismay about not really knowing how to appropriately respond to these kinds of situations. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment and knows many other female scientists who have as well, I’d like to offer a list of what I personally would have found helpful before, during, and after I had been the victim of sexual harassment. I am not an expert on this topic and strongly encourage you to educate yourself by contacting your local sexual assault support centres for additional advice and resources.

Before- Prevention

1. I think that it’s really important to have explicit policies in place about acceptable behaviour in our workplaces, field sites, laboratories, teaching environments, and conferences. I realize that policy can only go so far, but it’s a solid start. There also have to be consequences with teeth. For example, if someone is sexually harassing female trainees, then that person at a minimum should no longer have access to any trainees for their research program. I believe that sexual harassment is a zero tolerance offense.

2. Take a hard look at the climate for women in your department, faculty, institutions, and scientific societies. The climate that you are experiencing may be very different from that experienced by your colleagues. Ask your female colleagues what their experiences have been and be prepared to listen. Believe what they are telling you is true even if you don’t like what you hear or if it hasn’t been your experience.

3. If policies don’t currently exist or your climate is chilly then advocate for improvements that will address the concerns of your female colleagues as effectively as possible. You may need to step up and advocate due to power differentials being at play (i.e. your female colleagues may feel unable to do this due to career stage and/or cultural and social constructs and stereotypes).

4. If you run a research group, model appropriate professional behaviour and make it clear what behaviours are unprofessional and unacceptable. Talk about these topics in your group lab meetings. The SAFE paper published last year is an excellent starting point for these discussions.

During-Witnessing an Episode of Sexual Harassment or Assault

1. If you witness one of these acts then you need to call out the perpetrator and explicitly let them know that the behaviour is unacceptable. If it is safe to intervene, then please do so. I can’t count the number of times that someone has said something inappropriate to me while others stood by awkwardly. Everyone knew that something awful had just happened, but stood there in stunned disbelief. The moment passed and things continued on as if everything was normal. Please do not make excuses for the behaviour of the harasser. It is not o.k. to say “he’s just socially awkward”, “he didn’t mean anything by it”, or “don’t be so sensitive”.

2. After the immediate threat has passed, communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. In some cases they will want to do nothing, sometimes they will want to report using a policy, and other times they may want to report to the police. You need to respect and support their choice. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

3. Write down how you experienced the event. Put down as much detail as possible; date, location, time, situation, who else was present, what was said or happened, etc. You may never need these notes, but if you do you’ll be glad that you have them.

After-Someone discloses to you that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault

1. It has taken a lot of courage for this person to disclose to you. Communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. Depending on the law in your jurisdiction you may be a mandatory reporter of cases that involve your students. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

2. Be proactive about removing people from potentially harmful situations, or even better take steps to ensure that harmful situations cannot arise. Terry talked in the podcast about warning female colleagues about predatory scientists and actively preventing the harasser from accessing potential victims.

Much has been said recently about the “culture of silence” with regards to this topic in science especially with the recent situation at Berkeley.

Women in Astronomy blog

The San Francisco Chronicle


Please think about active steps that you can take to remove this “culture of silence” from your academic field, societies, and institutions.


Solid Advice on “How to Choose a Good Research Problem”

Running a lab and doing science are hard. I owe thanks to the Twitterverse for directing me to a thoughtful piece written by Uri Alon in 2009 which is still relevant today. The title is “How to choose a good scientific problemand it’s a very quick read, but it articulates very clearly the challenge in selecting scientific problems for yourself and your trainees. He relates that any scientific problem can be mapped out on two axes which are feasibility and interest. He argues that you want to avoid spending time in the quadrant containing problems that are hard and yield a small gain in knowledge. The efforts that you’d have to rustle up in order to solve a problem in that quadrant won’t pay off much. In contrast, putting a new student with little experience on a problem in the quadrant where the project is easy and produces a small gain in knowledge is a smart choice. As trainees gain experience and confidence (e.g. senior graduate students and post-docs), you can move them into solving problems that are a bit more challenging and lead to larger gains in knowledge. I really liked this approach for selecting good problems to work on and how to assign them to particular trainees. I also like his idea of making his trainees “take time”. He makes his trainees wait for 3 months or more before they commit to a particular problem. During this time his trainees read, plan, and question and come up with a solid problem to solve before they dive into research. I also take this approach with my trainees when they first enter the lab and there are certainly times when we both feel that we are wasting time by not producing results immediately. I will make the argument that this initial investment in time pays off in terms of my trainees better understanding their research and being more motivated and engaged in solving their defined problem. The other powerful observation that he makes is contrasting two different schema when it comes to visualizing what the research process looks like. The Scientific Method is taught in classes as a series of linear steps, which I think is wrong. Perhaps because of this false structure, many scientists view research as a series of sequential steps (e.g. that you must go directly from A to B). This leads to a lot of frustration because in my experience research never directly goes from A to B, but meanders all over the place. Alon suggests that it is better to start with a nurturing schema for research that expects that meandering will occur and takes steps to nurture students while they are stuck in “the cloud” (i.e. when everything goes wrong and your assumptions prove to be false). This schema accepts and embraces the possibilities for new research directions and personal and professional growth.

I’m often guilty of biting off more than I can chew with my own research problems, but I try to protect my students as best I can from this tendency. Alon’s short essay has given me some new things to think about and has confirmed some of my conclusions about choosing a good scientific problem that I have made during my first 5 years as the head of a research lab. I recommend reading his piece and seeing if it influences how you choose your future research problems.


Doctor Al Digest 11

Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that challenges facing women in science are important to me.

Here are some recent articles from the web on these topics that I think are worth reading:

A great article from Lauren Morello summarizing the experiences of female scientists on Twitter in light of the sexist scandals of the past year.

The costs of being a minority professor are hard to quantify. Here’s an insightful article about the service part of the job with some concrete examples.

Previous posts of mine on similar topics can be found below:

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work

Moms and babies: Maintaining academic productivity while a mother is not a zero-sum game

Don’t feed the trolls

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

A New Hope

This is not a post about Star Wars; sorry if you saw the title and came here expecting something else. It is instead how I felt last night once I had a chance to look at the new cabinet selected by our Prime Minister (PM).

The first thing that struck me is that the cabinet and the PM arrived together on a bus and that members of the public were welcomed to the grounds of Rideau Hall to take part in the event. This is a great change from the closed door policy of the previous government and the previous method of having each minister arrive separately. These new ministers look happy to be there. I was also pleased to see that the PM included his partner and his children in the events of the day. I have hope that this will be a functional cabinet where ministers are free to be themselves and express their opinions.

The second reason that I have hope is because of this photo.

new cabinet image

Image copyright CBC

This is an awesome photo! This photo matches what I think of when I think about being Canadian. People who have different genders, gender identities, sexuality, ancestry, religion, personalities, regional affiliations, experiences, life realities, challenges, and motivations. It is so wonderful to see people who look like me in this photo; it makes me feel like I belong in this country and that a version of my voice will be heard in Parliament.

Several other things that give me hope…

We have a Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development. This highlights the key role that science and technology play in a financially successful Canada.

But wait! There’s more! We have family doctor who is the new Minister of Health. We have a Minister for the Status of Women!! We have a Minister of Environment and Climate Change!!!! We have a newly created position of Science Minister!!! All of these portfolios are held by individuals who have impressive credentials, life experiences, and the ability to get things done. They are all women. We have for the first time in this country a cabinet with a 50:50 sex ratio that is truly reflective of the Canadian population.

Today, I am very proud to be Canadian.

An excellent start Mr. Trudeau!

Doctor Al Digest 10

A wonderful essay on the emotional labour performed by many women in the academy by Margeaux Feldman.

Lecturing is getting a bad rap these days. Some great thoughts by Stephen Heard on the expectations that we should have of our students if we are using lectures in the classroom.

Jeremy Fox has an interesting post up at the Dynamic Ecology blog about the best movies about scientists . I’ve blogged in the past about my impressions of the portrayal of scientists in popular culture here and here.

A great post by Terry at Small Pond Science about the conditions at his institution and how they constrain the type of laboratory that he can run.

An insightful post from Acclamatrix on anger over at Tenure, She Wrote.