Category: Women in Science

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.

Advertisements

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).

 

Why 2017 was so hard for many of us

I’m still processing all of the revelations and feelings associated with #MeToo and the tipping point of the Harvey Weinstein exposure. It was like a dam broke in society and in me. It brought up a lot of memories that had been locked up tight that I choose to think of infrequently. I think it’s now safe to say that if you ask any women or female presenting person if they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault the answer is going to be yes. In the past that response would have been oftentimes followed up with a disclaimer that it wasn’t that bad, but the fact that it happened at all says everything.

2017 was validating. When these things are happening to you it’s hard not to think that they only happen to you or that you are somehow bringing it on yourself through how you look or act. I refuse to think this anymore. That’s been liberating. I’m not going to accept excuses from other people to justify the poor way that someone’s behaving. I’m done with “he didn’t mean anything by it”, “that’s just the way he is”, “he’s just socially awkward”. I’m now firm in my belief that if he’s treating me that way, it won’t be the first time he’s done it, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ll react accordingly.

The processing of all of this has been emotionally draining, but ultimately it’s been helpful. I was angry for most of 2017 about a lot of it, most especially that it seemed to be such a revelation for most men. Women weren’t especially shocked by the most egregious of behaviours in the same way as men. Given what’s happened to us and our sisters not much shocks us anymore. The fact that it took a movement and millions of voices in order to be heard was heartbreaking and rage inducing.

The sexually harassing and assaulting men who have been exposed are just the tip of the iceberg. We are no where near to cleaning house. Predators still lurk. Systems and policies are still in place that protect perpetrators and silence victims. It’s always been about power. Some men are worried that they may have behaved inappropriately. That worry that they feel is but a fraction of what women have had to bear for years.

I move into 2018 hopeful. There is power in speaking our stories. Power in solidarity. Power in ally ship. I think of all the amazing women I know and how fantastic and accomplished they are. I hope that the emotional burden, time, and energy that has gone into navigating dangerous shores has been lessened. I’m impressed with what we have all managed to do with anchors holding us down. I look forward to seeing what will come with self-assurance and freedom to be our full selves without fear of retaliation or shame.

 

Podcasts I’m Currently Listening To

I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now. I listen to them while I run with my Couch to 5K app going in the background. The ones that are in my current rotation are:

The Productive Woman

Laura McClellan is a real estate lawyer with several grown children who talks about productivity for professional women. I always get a few tips or gems from most episodes of this show.

Organize 365 Podcast

Lisa is a professional organizer who shares here tracks for killing clutter and organizing your home and work life. Each episode focuses on a particular issue; there are some that I skip because they are not relevant to me at this life stage, but the ones that I have listened to are quite useful and are a great place to get new ideas.

The Productivity Show

This podcast is hosted by the Asian Efficiency website and dives very deep into exploring productivity. I’ve applied several things that I’ve learned here to my working life as a professor that have saved me time and have improved my ability to get things done.

Hannah and Matt Know It All

Han and Matt do a weekly round-up of questions answered by online and newspaper advice columnists. The questions are bananas, and just when you think you’ve heard it all…a question that you can’t believe is real gets addressed. This podcast is tough talking, realistic, socially aware, and compassionate. It is also vastly entertaining.

My Favorite Murder

This podcast is hosted by two comedians who each take turns giving rundowns of true life murders. It’s fascinating, very dark, and often creepy. The hosts employ gallows humour frequently and go down rabbit holes and tangents that sometimes go on a bit too long, but it’s very entertaining and I’ve laughed out loud several times while listening.

 

Doctor Al Digest #22

A great post over at the Conditionally Accepted blog entitled “Latinxs in Academe: Rage about “Diversity Work that effectively articulates the anger that is generated and internalized when one is assumed and expected to speak for an entire group.

This beautiful piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a must read. I am in awe of this man’s ability to use English prose. The lovely turns of phrase in this piece are surprising given its subject matter. I read it several weeks ago and it’s haunted me ever since.

I had previously avoided reading anything authored by Margaret Wente on purpose. Her column on Sept. 19, 2017 about students with disabilities was ignorant, unkind, and poorly researched. I won’t do it the dignity of linking to it here. I’ll warn you not to read the comments either; most of them are equally gross and lacking in empathy.

 

Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.

 

How to Deal with Professional Disappointment in Science

Science is a profession of rejection. My history is a wasteland of rejected manuscripts, unwanted grant applications, and failed experiments. This is completely normal. What matters here is not necessarily the outcome (e.g. failure), but how the outcome is communicated to you and how you choose to deal with that information.
I am tired of hearing the mantra to “grow a thick skin”. That advice is crappy and is probably a result of the myth that science is supposed to be an unemotional and uncreative undertaking. Professional disappointments received now as an Associate Professor are just as unpleasant as they were when I was an undergraduate student; age and experience don’t make these events hurt less. What has changed is that my ways of coping productively have greatly improved.
Here are some strategies that I use to deal with professional disappointments:
1) You are not your science.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid taking a professional rejection personally. For many of us, our scientific identity is wrapped up in and intertwined with our personal identity. We are after all a scientist and we study [insert your topic of research here]. It is very hard to tease apart our professional identity from our sense of self. I make the argument that it is healthy and useful to have as many other identities as possible in order to buffer yourself from the feelings that a professional rejection will engender. For example, in addition to being a scientist, I am also a parent, a spouse, a softball player, a reader of books, a polymer clay artist, a science fiction fan, a blogger, a Blue Jays’ fan, etc. When you have multiple identities, you feel less threatened by a rejection of an aspect of your professional work.
2) Educate yourself about imposter syndrome.
When I get a professional rejection, the first thing that I do is blame myself. This is not helpful and is destructive and paralyzing. I’ve found it helpful to education myself about the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. I also have an ego file where I store all of the great feedback that I’ve received on my research, teaching, and service which helps to combat these feelings of being a fraud.
3) Take a deep breath and walk away for a while. File away the rejection for 2-3 days and let your emotions stabilize. Then come back to things and do a post-mortem. What could you do better next time? Is it worth trying again, or is your time better spent moving on to other goals and endeavours? Rejection feels awful in the moment, but there are many things that we learn from failure. It is also worth remembering that you cannot fail if you don’t throw your hat in the ring or try for things. Science is probably 95% failure and 5% success; set your expectations accordingly.
4) Have more than one project/goal on the go at the same time. If one thing isn’t going well, chances are something else will pan out. It is easier to accept rejection if you have recently had a success.
5) Sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them. There are many things in life beyond your control. Sometimes Reviewer #3 is a clueless idiot and nothing that you can say will change their mind. Let it go…
Let’s say that you are on the other end of one of these interactions. What if you have to deliver a rejection?
1) Be tactful and kind. It doesn’t cost you anything to be compassionate and polite.
2) Try to provide constructive feedback so that future disappointments can be lessened or avoided entirely.
3) Rip the band-aid off. Don’t leave people hanging once a decision has been made. The person may have other choices available to them if you impart the news in a timely fashion.
Professional disappointments are many in science and I’ve found that they don’t get easier over time. What strategies do others use to deal with rejection as a scientist?

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

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

Planning a Sabbatical

Due to the number of years that I’ve been at my job, I’m eligible for my first sabbatical opportunity next year. I’m planning to go on sabbatical from July 2016 to June 2017. At my institution this means that the application for the sabbatical is due November 1. My application needs to propose scholarly activities, the potential benefits to myself and the university, and the likely outcome of these activities.

I’ve been thinking for several months about what I’d like to achieve using the sabbatical and this has been more difficult than I anticipated. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues at my university and other institutions and have received conflicting advice. I suppose that’s to be expected as one size doesn’t fit all. My partner and I had several conversations about the limitations that we would impose on the sabbatical due to our particular family needs and situation. The two senior women that I spoke to indicated that although they had taken the full year abroad at a different institution with their families, neither would do it again. The stress of managing the logistics of schools, daycare, visas, housing arrangements, etc. made the mental cost of going elsewhere too high. It’s perhaps telling that the one resource that I found that dealt with the nuts and bolts of planning for a sabbatical (a book) was written by the spouse of the academic partner. Evidently she was the one responsible for co-ordinating all of the non-academic aspects of the experience. In my opinion that is an unacceptable burden and expectation to place on your partner.

My plans are shaping up slowly, but I have encouraging news from a friend in Spain and I’m hoping to go there for 2 months next summer with my family while my kids are out of school. The rest of the year I’m planning to attend several conferences that I normally can’t go to due to my teaching schedule. I’m also brainstorming about smaller research trips (2 weeks or so) with collaborators who are within driving distance of my institution (I am very conveniently located geographically). Several of the people I spoke with warned me about flakey collaborators and sabbatical projects that went nowhere.

I’m actively looking for advice from other scientists who have planned and taken a sabbatical. How did you come up with a plan? How did you work around any personal and professional constraints that you had? Did you go for a full year, do mini-trips, or stay at home? If you had the chance to go back in time what would you do differently and what would you do again?

DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.