Category: Women in Science

Put some thought into who you suggest as a reviewer

I realized something profound the last time that I submitted a manuscript for peer-review to a journal. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize it, but it occurred to me as I was selecting my list of reviewers that this was a prime opportunity to live the values of equity, diversity, and inclusion that I’d like to see in the academic scientific enterprise. I realized that due to unconscious bias that the first 4 or so scientists that I thought about listing as reviewers were not representative of the researchers doing work in my field of study. So I took a few more minutes and thought of several people that I could suggest as reviewers who didn’t work in Canada, who were women, who were early career researchers, or who were new to the field of biology that I work in.

Anecdotally the review process was fairly quick and the reviewer comments that I received back were extremely useful and led to a much better manuscript. I also noticed that the reviewer comments were considerably less snarky and quite respectful in comparison to some of my past experiences with peer review.

This approach is a permanent change that I’ll be making from now on when I select reviewers. I respectfully suggest that you do the same.

 

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Personal Safety at Scientific Conferences

safe travels

Considerations about my personal safety always influence my conference travel, accommodation, and eating plans. This statement probably is not surprising to other women or female-identifying/presenting people. Why is this the case? I am always worried about getting harassed, attacked, or murdered.

It sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? Right up until we hear about cases such as the murder of Dr. Suzanne Eaton. She was attending a conference on the Greek island of Crete, took a break by going for a run, and did not return. The police are piecing together what happened next and have a man in custody.

I have attended many conferences during my career thus far and I want to talk about how safety considerations play out in real life terms and provide some examples.

Disclaimer: I am talking about my experiences and your mileage with my advice may vary. I am not looking for alternative ideas or comments on how I could have solved or prevented these problems. In an ideal world, I wouldn’t have to think or worry about these issues and I ask that you believe me when I say that the logistics of conference planning takes up a lot of time and emotional energy that I do not believe is experienced by my male colleagues.

When I first hear about a conference that I’d like to attend, my first thoughts are about the location and travel logistics. I ponder the following questions about the location:

1) In general, is the conference in a country, city/town, location that is relatively safe to travel to and travel within for a petite woman travelling alone? Do any travel advisories exist for the destination?

2) What options are available for travelling to and from the conference site? Can I take a direct flight, or do I have to deal with one or more flight connections?

3) Once I land at the airport, how do I get to the conference location? Is there public transit? Are local ground transportation options plentiful, safe, and regulated? Has the conference made arrangements for ground transportation?

I find travel exhausting and stressful. In an ideal situation I take a direct flight from my local airport to the conference city and pre-book ground transportation through a reputable and insured company that meets me at the airport and directly delivers me to where I’m staying.

Story time: The most stressful conference travel experience that I ever had (in terms of getting to a destination) was a small meeting in Europe. It involved a 7 hour flight to Switzerland, catching a 1.5 hour train, transferring to another train for 30 minutes, a 1.5 hour conference arranged bus ride, sending my luggage ahead on a ski lift, continuing the bus ride for another 15 minutes, and a snowcat ride up a mountain for 30 minutes.

Next up is investigating the conference venue and accommodation options. I ask the following questions:

1) What kind of venue is being used to hold the conference? Is it on a university campus? At a conference centre or hotel? What services are available at the conference site (e.g. food available, safewalk service available)?

2) Is the venue in a decent neighbourhood/relatively safe part of town? Is access controlled and secured, or is it a public or open site? How are things after dark?

3) What is the distance between the conference venue and accommodation options? Can I walk the distance? Is a car or public transit required? What do parking options look like? Any safety concerns with any particular accommodations?

4) Are any special events (e.g. conference banquet, pub night, etc.) being held at another location? What are my options for getting to/from these events?

Story Time #1: I remember a meeting at a university on the east coast of Canada where the conference was held in a main university building and the accommodations were residence buildings further up the hill. This was neat and pretty during the day, but terrifying at night. The options for walking back up to the residence at night were to either walk up a busy road with no sidewalk, or take the exceptionally dark path through the forest. Women arranged with each other to walk back up in pairs or in groups; no way in Hell was anyone willing to do that walk alone.

Story Time #2: A conference in a major Canadian city. One night I wanted to leave the pub night early, but no one else was leaving at the same time or staying at the same accommodation. It took me 20 minutes to walk to the pub (in daylight) and 10 minutes to speed walk back to my hotel. At the same conference a few nights later, we had returned to the city after the banquet on a bus at about 12:30 a.m. I was very grateful when a friend offered to walk me back to my hotel before returning to his own accommodations.

Some general guidelines that I’ve made for myself based on prior experiences of scientific conferences:

1) Whenever possible I travel during daylight hours and always stay alert to my surroundings. I don’t try to travel for lengthy periods of time all in one go. If I’m travelling across an ocean, I’ll aim to arrive 2 days before the conference and do the travelling in stages to try to deal better with jet lag and exhaustion. I don’t make good decisions when tired. Once I’m at my destination, I plan the route that I’ll take ahead of time and if I’m walking I wear comfortable shoes and never wear earphones.

2) I spend a lot of time looking at Google maps of the areas that I’ll be staying in so that I can situate myself in the location well before I arrive (e.g. I know the locations of major streets and landmarks). I identify several options for the following well in advance: food (grocery stores and restaurants), bank machines, pharmacy, transit stops, all conference venue locations, hotel location, parking locations; I use TripAdvisor ratings to identify good options.

3) I use the campus/hotel fitness centre. I am not comfortable jogging or running in unfamiliar places outside.

4) I don’t use ride-share apps (e.g. Uber, Lyft) and attempt to avoid taxis if possible. I’ll usually opt for public transit or pre-book a towncar/limo with a professional driver. I am done having to listen to offensive opinions, sexist comments, drives through sketchy neighbourhoods to rack up the fare, etc.

5) I stay at hotels or university residences. I don’t use AirBnB/VRBO for travel if I’m by myself.

5) I make use of room service, meal delivery apps, and grocery stores for meals and snacks. If I’m ambitious I’ll plan to meet friends for lunches or dinners on certain days of the conference before I leave to attend.

I’ve been very fortunate that most of the negative experiences that I’ve had during conference travels have been very minor. I hate that I have to invest so much time in proactively attempting to keep myself safe as a woman travelling alone.

Commiseration about awful or dangerous conference and academic travel experiences are welcome in the comments. Stay safe out there!

DoctorAl Digest #30

A depressing finding in this study by Dr. Holly Witteman and colleagues “Are gender gaps due to evaluations of the applicant or the science? A natural experiment at a national funding agency.”

The main finding “Gender gaps in grant funding are attributable to less favourable assessments of women as principal investigators, not of the quality of their proposed research.”

The takehome: “To ensure the best research is funded, funders should ensure the design and execution of their grant programmes do not reproduce or exacerbate biases.”

Women in academia across Canada are no doubt nodding in agreement and feeling validated.

 

Sarah Parcak @indyfromspace asking female academics what the “absolute worst advice ever given to you by senior male colleagues?”

The replies say it all. I had to stop reading them; I was so disheartened.

 

These issues are systemic. They build and amplify the longer you are exposed to them. That is the brutal truth of microaggressions. Death by a thousand papercuts.

 

Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.

 

 

Why I will continue to use the title Dr.

I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the decision by the Globe and Mail to update their style guide came across my Twitter feed. I get to be an associate professor of biology upon first reference in an article, but become Ms. McDonald on second reference. I guess this is how the Canadian Press have been doing things for years, but I find it irritating and I’m going to tell you why.

I’m a professional and an expert and earned a credential, namely a Ph.D., that reinforces these facts. Now you may ask why I need these facts reinforced. It is not because I have a gigantic ego, think I’m better than everyone else, or am a member of the non-existent Canadian “elite”. The fact that I’m a professional and an expert needs to be enforced regularly because they are questioned regularly several times each term due to the fact that I don’t look like a typical scientist. There are huge social and cultural contexts at play here and that Dr. title is therefore really important to people like myself; that is women and persons with disabilities.

I can only assume that because I look younger than I am and because I am female that people feel free to tell or ask me:

1) that I don’t look like a scientist (hello, stereotypes!)

2) I’m too pretty to be a scientist (umm, these two things are not mutually exclusive like you seem to think they are, and ewwwwww!)

3) Which professor do you work for? (I’ve run my own research lab for 8 years thank-you very much)

4) I thought you were so and so (insert some other female academic here), I’m so confused! (We are both petite and female presenting so we must be interchangeable then)

The above are interactions that I’ve had at academic science conferences.

My credentials and authority often also get challenged in the classroom. This is not a unique experience given that it happens to most of the other female professors that I’ve mentioned it to. We were commiserating about it over lunch a few years ago and our male colleagues were in disbelief because it never happens to them.

That doctorate is one item that I can use to level the playing field in academic science. I earned it, I need it, and you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

 

Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.

 

Doctor Al Digest #25

bacterial-diet-spotlight

Poster by Dr. Tristan Long

Some great articles in the past few weeks…

The Feminism of Black Panther vs. Wonder Woman

We are All for Diversity, but… How Faculty hiring committees reproduce whiteness and practical suggestions for how they can change

Addressing issues related to child-care at conferences

Pushing back against the quick turnaround to serve as a reviewer for journal manuscripts

How some relationships are ending because of the #metoo moment and current politics, and it’s not due to the reason you think!

My colleague and I talk about our #Scicomm efforts.

 

Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.

 

Doctor Al Digest #24

The #reviewforscience Twitter hashtag has been cracking me up this week. Highlights include gluing trackers on bees, using a body massager to attract spiders, nooses for lizard collection, and the winner: using nail polish for killing bot fly maggots prior to extracting them from your own body.

Looks like the #MeToo movement has caught up with Canadian politics and they’re clearing house (the House of Commons that is!)

Tooting my own horn a bit…myself and several other bloggers were interviewed by the Nature piece “Why science blogging still matters”

A very elegant and thorough study by Chrétien et al. that suggests that the mitochondria in human cell lines operate at ~50°C when at maximal capacity  and a thoughtful critique by Dr. Nick Lane . I suspect that some paradigms are about to be destroyed in the near future in mitochondrial and thermal biology.

Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Like many people, I watched the results rolling in on U.S. election night in 2016 in disbelief. The major question that I had that night was what happened? This book starts to put together some answers to this question and it will be interesting to see a few decades out what historians will say about this particular election and time in U.S. politics.

I was really impressed by this book and its author. She is an intelligent and hard-working woman who has been the best-qualified person ever to run for the office of president. I was constantly amazed by her restraint in this book. It would have been much easier and satisfying for her to let loose a wave of vitriol at the Republican party, the media, and Donald Trump. She also accepts responsibility for some campaign missteps that contributed to her defeat. She is a class act.

The book is a fascinating look into her personal and professional history and I can only assume that many Americans that read it will be disappointed that this woman is not their current president. There was a bit too much focus on policy for my liking, but at least this was a candidate with a plan for her time in the White House. Her and her campaign team expected that this electron would be an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, but nothing could have prepared them for the constantly shifting ground during the election and the roles that racism, misogyny, Russia, and the media would play in the outcome. Given the circumstances, her resilience is to be applauded.

Working women will find much here that resonates with them. Here is a woman who has faced everything that professional women have ever faced in the workplace, but had to do it on a national stage and while subject to double standards and ridiculous scrutiny. This is the reason that her loss to Donald Trump felt so personal. I hypothesize that it was a very large contributing factor to the #MeToo movement last year.

The book is well written, but I found it a difficult read because it brought forth strong emotions in me as I turned the pages; namely unbridged rage and sadness. She gave it her best shot, it’s now up to others to pick up the torch and cross the finish line (or more realistically, to break the glass ceiling).