Tag: interpersonal relationships

The Scientific Persona Mask

I’ve been a practicing scientist since 1997. That’s the year that I started an undergraduate thesis project. My knowledge of what scientists did up until then was based on the portrayal of scientists in media, film, television, and books. That picture of what a scientist is was very homogeneous. These portrayals weren’t anything like me and that made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like an outsider and an imposter. Everyone has a strong desire to fit in and I was no different. My initial impression is that science was a serious business and that there isn’t much room for levity.

Through most of my academic career I’ve kept my intimate thoughts and ideas close to my chest, often out of fear that they were weird, stupid, or incorrect. What I have learned over the years is that what the scientific enterprise really needs is diversity. I think that the only way to get this diversity is to actively invite and recruit “others” into science. When we increase the diversity of people doing science then we increase the diversity of ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking about science and I think that this will do a lot for the advancement of science.

Several thoughtful posts by other bloggers have started to lift the veil on how different people do science. These posts have also served to highlight that it is people doing science and that we aren’t robots and that emotions have a rightful place in the scientific realm. Most of the scientists that I know have a wide range of talents that often are not directly related to doing their science. These can range from athletics (e.g. biking, hiking, swimming, etc.), hobbies (e.g. playing a musical instrument), or a passionate interest in something (e.g. star gazing, stamp collecting, etc.). I’m constantly surprised by the hidden depths of other scientists, but I really shouldn’t be. People are people after all.

I think that perhaps instead of working so hard to fit in, I should start letting other scientists see the other facets of this particular scientist. Perhaps someone else has a liking for scruffy-looking nerf herders, productivity tips, do-it-yourself manicures, and Settlers of Catan. I’m ready to take off my scientific persona mask and be a real person. Care to join me?

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

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.

Book Review- Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists

The hardest part of being a research academic is not the lab work. By far the most challenging part of this job is maintaining effective interpersonal relationships. This holds true whether we are talking about relationships with colleagues or with trainees. When I started my own lab I realized that I hadn’t had any formal training on how to manage scientists and that I’d better get up to speed as quickly as possible if I wanted my research group to be successful and thrive. One book that I found incredibly helpful was Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen published by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press. I have the first edition of this book as a paper copy and the second edition of this book in electronic format.

The book starts by asking readers to do some self-assessment in order to identify their own personality type and to identify personal blind spots that you might therefore have in your interactions with other personalities. This is accomplished through several exercises and requires taking some time for personal reflection. They make a strong argument for why you need to manage yourself first before you attempt to start managing others. There is an excellent chapter on negotiation with great “real-world” examples that serve to effectively illustrate the main points.

I’ve often heard it said that managing scientists is like trying to herd cats.  Most laboratory research these days is done in teams; gone are the days of the lone wolf scientist. As such, it’s important to master the skills involved in effectively running a lab group composed of scientists with different personalities and motivations. The problems that I experienced or saw while a graduate student and post-doc were almost always due to interpersonal conflicts.  Often the strategy of many scientists is to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. This book contains an excellent chapter on addressing these issues head on in order to avoid escalations and lost time and effort on projects. The book also contains great chapters on managing up (i.e. how to manage your boss) and managing sideways (i.e. interacting with peers). There is a very eye-opening chapter on the various types of dysfunction that can be found in academia based on how the reward system is set up and how to become a better mentor and how to survive as a trainee under these conditions. A great chapter is present in the book that describes the transition to industry for those looking to leave the ivory tower. The final chapter encourages readers to shape their workplaces for the better using the techniques learned in the book in order to improve the culture of academia for everyone. The second edition contains an additional chapter on leading team meetings and a new section on how to deal with difficult people.

I think that any scientist could learn a great deal from reading this book. I have referenced it several times since starting on the tenure-track when I’ve run into a sticky interpersonal situation or when I need a refresher on a particular aspect of mentoring. I believe that it would also be incredibly useful for graduate students and post-docs who are navigating academia.

This is your brain…This is your brain on Biology…

One public service announcement that I remember vividly from my childhood was an anti-drug TV spot. It starts out showing an egg and the announcer ominously says “This is your brain”. The camera then pans over to a skillet; the egg gets cracked, and then comes the classic line “This is your brain on drugs”. My friends and I used to mock that PSA endlessly because of its frying egg metaphor.

Over the years I have come to the realization that my brain is on “Biology”. The amount of time that I’ve spent in school studying and practicing Biology has permanently rewired how I think about and view the world. Most of the time, I am very happy about this effect. Training to be a biologist has allowed me to learn to think logically, troubleshoot, and generate solutions to complex problems. I think that it’s also allowed me to become a better communicator and serves as an excellent creative outlet. I am a scientist and that means that I experience the world through that lens. I like to think that it makes me the life of the party on nature walks; my family would likely disagree. After a careful inspection of the tenth bracket fungus they are ready to move on while I ponder the wonders of carotenoid biosynthesis that might result in that amazing orange colour. I accept that I am a nerd and fully embrace it.

I have also effectively transmitted “Biology brain” to my children. A few years ago we were eating dinner and talking about dinosaurs. I asked my son what colour he thought that dinosaur skin would have been. This was before the amazing work had been done using fossils to look at melanosomes (pigment containing organelles) in order to extrapolate skin and feather colours. He thought about it for a moment and then answered “Brown and green”. I asked him why he thought that dinosaurs would be brown and green. He answered, “Because they needed to use camouflage to avoid being eaten”. I thought that was an awesome answer that made a lot of sense coming from a six year old.

In the past few weeks I’ve attended workshops with colleagues from a wide range of other departments on campus. I am always surprised and delighted to discover the different ways that each of us looks at the world. I think that regularly experiencing these different viewpoints is one of the big perks of being in academia.

Why You Should Join a Scientific Society

Depending on the scientific research that you do, there will be one or more regional, national, and international scientific societies dedicated to advancing research in that area. Many societies have very broad interests, while others will be focused on niche research areas. I have found it very useful and rewarding, both personally and professionally, to be a member of scientific societies.

I joined my first scientific society in 1998 when I was finishing up my fourth year undergraduate thesis project. I was encouraged by my supervisor to present my results as an oral presentation at the Eastern Regional Meeting of the Canadian Society of Plant Biologists. This was my first introduction to academic conferences and the first time presenting my research to a scientific audience. It was an absolutely terrifying, but exciting experience. My talk went great, I received an honourable mention for it, and I ended up being invited to join some people for lunch. One of those people ended up being my Ph.D. supervisor a few years later. This effectively illustrates that joining an academic society allows you to actively participate in conferences and can be a very effective way to network and advance your career. Since then I’ve organized the Eastern Regional meeting on my campus and am currently serving as the chair of a committee for a prestigious student award for this society.

I joined my second scientific society in 2005 during my Ph.D. program. While much of my work used plants as an experimental system, I had also started to move into animal models for my experiments. I joined the Canadian Society of Zoologists and attended their annual conference later that year. I gave a talk at that meeting that attracted a lot of positive attention and helped me to meet many colleagues and to develop strong friendships with a wide variety of scientists. As it turns out, the chair of the session that my oral presentation was slated in later become my post-doctoral advisor. This society has also supported my research through travel grants to conferences and a research grant to conduct some work at Stanford with international colleagues. I currently serve as a councillor for this society.

Membership in these two societies has been an incredibly rewarding experience. It’s allowed me to see amazing places all over the world, to meet some incredible friends, and to develop a wide range of useful skills. I strongly encourage all of my students to join a scientific society so that they can experience the benefits first hand.

Book Review: Promotion and Tenure Confidential by David D. Perlmutter

As a newer faculty member, the goal of earning tenure is a big and omnipresent one. I’ve approached this goal by doing my best to be strategic about where to invest my time and energy. In order to do this effectively I’ve sought advice from colleagues, administrators, websites, blogs, and books. One book that I recently finished reading is “Promotion and Tenure Confidential” by David D. Perlmutter. While the book was published in 2010, which is now four years ago, I believe that what Dr. Perlmutter conveys in the book will stand the test of time very well. This is because he chooses to focus on what he calls the 3P’s: “the people, the politics, and the personal conundrums”. Regardless of how the academy changes in the future, the 3P’s will always hold heavy sway in tenure decisions. His writing style is engaging and honest and he uses humour quite effectively throughout the book. I was also amused to discover that several pseudonyms used in the book reveal him to be a “Game of Thrones” fan.

He takes a chronological approach to the tenure track by starting with the doctorate and concluding with the awarding (or denial) of tenure, but much of the advice offered in each section of the book will be applicable regardless of the career stage of the reader. In contrast to other books that I’ve read that only warn of potential problems on the tenure track, in his book Dr. Perlmutter identifies the problem, offers several ways that it could be addressed, and then goes on to describe the likely outcomes of different scenarios. It is this compare and contrast approach to solutions to problems and the admission that “one size does not fit all” that makes this book useful. The scenarios described are realistic and the advice offered is extremely practical.

I’d recommend this book to later stage Ph.D. students who are preparing to defend their thesis and are thinking about going on the job market, post-docs who are preparing academic job applications, and tenure-track faculty members who are just starting out or who are in the process of preparing their applications for tenure.