Tuesday, July 31, 2007

You Can't Take Me Anywhere

A colleague recently told me that he was "taking" his wife on a vacation. [He also mentioned that it was her idea and he'd rather work.] I couldn't help picturing him picking his wife up like a piece of luggage and carrying her to the airport. I tried to recall whether I have ever "taken" my husband anywhere, and I really don't think I have. I don't think he has taken me anywhere before either. We have, however, traveled together many times. Even if the trip is specifically the idea of one of us and/or one of us does the planning etc., neither of us would think of it as "taking" the other person. It's a curious phrase to use for a significant other.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Men Are So Special

For those who know me, the title of this post is a clear signal that I am gearing up for a visit with my family, in which the men are special and the women live to make the men happy and comfortable. I will enter a world in which the women spend endless hours cooking and cleaning, and the men sit on the deck drinking and talking about war and sports. Every once in a while, a man will be asked to do something manly, like carry something heavy.

Last year, I watched incredulously as my mother asked an ancient and decrepit male relative to carry something heavy that I knew would be difficult for him but easy for me. I said “I can carry that”, but this bizarre and emasculating suggestion was met with frowns and then ignored. Will I never learn?

And no, I don’t wish I could sit out on the deck with the men. Most of them are boring. Some of them are scary. I’d rather chat with my mother and aunts and cousins in the kitchen, but I can never stop feeling angry about the extreme gender role segregation in which the women are servile and the men are Men.

In recent years, my mother has been increasingly involving my daughter in the Women’s Chores, and I don’t think my daughter has yet realized that her male cousins aren’t expected to do anything.

It might be easier to endure these family visits if I could get away once in a while and take a break from making sandwiches for my uncles, but our family get-togethers occur on an island, in a house surrounded on 3 sides by tall trees and on the fourth side by a cliff. I think it would be easier to escape from Alcatraz.

My husband does not come on these trips. He is still traumatized by previous trips when he had to sit on the deck and drink with my insane male relatives. I in turn do not accompany him on visits to his family, and this mutual avoidance of visits to our respective ancestral homes pleases us both. His family is even stranger than mine.

My mother has already started to prepare for the big family get-together by asking me to do all sorts of tasks that will make my brother’s visit easier and more comfortable for him. My brother visits the ancestral home once a year. I visit the ancestral home once a year. Yet, somehow, his visits are more special than mine, and I have to make accommodations for him, not at his request (he is oblivious) but at my mother’s request.

In her most recent communication, my mother told me that it was really nice of my brother to arrange his schedule to make this visit at the same time that I will be visiting, and so I should do X, Y, and Z to make sure that his visit does not require any difficulties for him with regard to parking his giant SUV, having the food he most enjoys, and spending time the way he most wants to. If I don’t do these things, he might not visit again for several summers and it would be my fault. Is it too late for her to read a parenting book that explains that this type of behavior is really not appropriate? I have tried talking to her about this, to no avail.

Between my family and my career, I encounter a wide variety of sexist beliefs and behaviors, and I still fundamentally don’t understand any of it.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Back Burner

I don't know if this story will inspire or depress..

Many years ago when I was a graduate student, I got interested in a certain 'side project'. It was just something that captured my interest, but I knew it wasn't important enough to make a major focus of my work. For about 3-4 years, I occasionally worked on this project with 2-3 other friends from grad school, slowly collecting enough data to start figuring things out. When I became a professor, I advised an undergrad student for a senior thesis on the topic, and we wrote a paper together. That was good, but that paper just scratched the surface, and I felt strongly that there were more things to investigate. But again, it was never a priority.

Over the years, I never quite gave up on the project. I kept thinking about it, acquiring new data, and writing bits and pieces of a manuscript. The work sort of became a joke with some of my grad school era friends. They would ask "How's Project X going?" and I would say that it was still going.. slowly as ever. But not long ago, I finally finished the manuscript with help from a few grad school friends, it got pretty good reviews, and last night (late of course, as is fitting for a manuscript that took insanely long to construct), I resubmitted the revised version.

One of the things I like most about this paper is that all my co-authors are friends from grad school, even though we now work on different research topics. I told one of my former professors from grad school about the paper, and he was very pleased. It made me realize that I would also find it thrilling if some day a group of my former grad students get together and write a paper, independent of anything they ever worked on with me.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Academic Ex

This week's installment of "Dear Prudence: Advice on manners and morals" at slate.com has the sad tale of an academic couple's relationship that ended acrimoniously. They are in the same field, so encounter each other at meetings and have many colleagues/friends in common. This particular difficult situation is an occupational hazard for academics, and the potential for it to occur is perhaps especially likely for women in science/math/engineering because it is so common for us to be in a relationship with someone in the same field. If a break-up is accompanied by hostility, immaturity, indiscretion, and/or a tendency to gossip, the result could possibly harm the career of one or both members of the ex-couple.

I have been somewhat fortunate that most of my pre-marriage relationships involved men who have subsequently either left academia or have a very low profile, so I seldom, if ever, encounter them. There is really only one I greatly dislike seeing at conferences. I could certainly do without that, but at this point, he is so irrelevant to my life that it is mostly just irritating to run into him at a conference.


Q. What does your husband, who is in the same field, think about all this?
A. In general, he doesn't have a problem with the fact of my academic ex-boyfriends, and in the particular case of the loathsome one, he feels sorry for the guy and is very polite to him when they run into each other at meetings.

Q. Does your husband have academic ex-girlfriends, thereby making conferences a minefield of ex-'es for the two of you?
A. He had accumulated a number of ex-girlfriends by the time we met, but none of them are academics.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Job Hazards

At a recent medical check-up, I was asked if my job or hobbies involve any 'hazards'. I said no, though of course my job involves hazards (and I don't just mean from crazy colleagues, students, and random people). These hazards, such as they are, didn't seem relevant to mention specifically. My profession is listed in my medical record, and that seems like the essential information.

Some of my colleagues who deal with very scary materials have notified their doctors so that appropriate steps can be taken in the event of an accident, but my days of working with the scary stuff are long over. There are some other unusual potential hazards involved with my research, but I couldn't see any reason to mention them.

My department is very good about making sure we keep our health and safety training up to date, though mostly this involves watching videos that are so bizarre that I'm never sure if the people who made them were serious.

Perhaps one of the biggest hazards of my work is related to frequent travel, but that's not a medical issue (unless one's doctor is a terrorist? - sorry, bad joke, I know, but I was in certain UK airports earlier this month and that was not fun).

At my check-up, I was also asked if I am ever harassed or 'made uncomfortable' by people in my work place because of my gender. It's good that doctors and nurses ask these questions so that serious situations can possibly be dealt with or averted, but again, I didn't see any point in answering yes. I suppose the most accurate answer would be "Now and then, but no more than most women in my job deal with routinely".

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Recently Cited

The topic o' the day is Citations, as in one's personal citation record. The topic was inspired by a conversation with a colleague earlier today about citations, a topic of great interest/obsession in the corridors of academe, at least among scientists and engineers -- perhaps humanities people are not so afflicted by this(?).

When we talked, my colleague was en route to the library -- the actual physical library on campus -- to read an ancient (1993) article. He mentioned a hypothesis that was discussed at a recent conference he attended: namely, that the likelihood that pre-mid-1990's papers will be cited is lowered because many journals do not have their entire archive available online. Perhaps online publishing has contributed to the precipitous decline of citations of papers published before about 1996?

There are of course 'classic' papers from days of yore that are cited again and again, in some cases because they are great papers and in some cases because it's easiest to cite the same papers (snowball effect). Some 'old' papers are no longer relevant, and that just shows the exciting pace of science, but it would be tragic if the wisdom of pre-1990's papers is lost just because the articles aren't available online.

I checked my own citation record just now, making one of those zippy graphs that you can do in Web of Science, and there is an abrupt upward spike that corresponds to the year after which electronic articles are widely available. No, I'm not going to conclude anything from this one anecdotal record that doesn't contain nearly enough data to evaluate. There are other explanations for the spike exactly at that time. Nevertheless, it's intriguing how neatly it matches the hypothesis my colleague described.

Some of my colleagues could tell you their citation statistics very exactly and give weekly updates. I seldom check my citations, though when I do, it is typically for one of two reasons: (1) to see if there are new papers that would be of interest to me on certain topics and that I want to be sure I haven't missed in my perusal of journals; and (2) to check on a certain paper of which I am particularly fond.

I know the latter reason doesn't sound too sane, but there is a paper of which I am particularly fond because it was so much fun to write. It's a fairly short paper, so it doesn't have all that emotional/psychic baggage that some longer papers have. Fortunately, it is doing fine, so I will have to put off for now any brooding about how misunderstood my work is.

Monday, July 23, 2007

(One of) The Deciders

Part of the job of being a professor involves writing a few letters each year as part of the tenure and promotion reviews of assistant and associate professors at other universities. It is always a pleasure to be asked to write an easy letter for someone who will obviously and deservedly sail through the process because of their outstanding record.

The most difficult letters for me to write are for not-so-productive faculty at less highly ranked institutions, especially if the letter from the Chair specifically asks if the candidate would receive tenure at my institution. That doesn't seem like a fair question, in part because I typically don't have any information about what the research vs. teaching expectations are at the other place. And there is no good (i.e., non-patronizing) way to write "Professor X would not get tenure at my institution, but he/she is good enough for your institution."

Recently, a colleague and I were discussing our angst about writing these tenure-promotion letters. My colleague uses the standards of our institution, even for candidates at less highly ranked institutions, figuring that the departments can deal with the result by applying whatever spin they want on the letters. I use a slightly more flexible (but perhaps less systematic) approach. In these situations, I try to get a sense from the CV if the candidate has a heavy teaching load and/or a laboratory that required significant set-up time, and use that information to calibrate my adjectives.

A few years ago, a candidate who wasn't supposed to see his promotion letters was shown them anyway by his Chair. I heard about this and re-read my letter in light of knowing that the candidate had read it. Fortunately, I felt fine about what I'd written, even though it had been one of the more difficult letters to write. Since then, I always try to write a letter that I wouldn't mind the candidate seeing, even if the letter isn't 100% positive.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Eye of the Beholder

In my continuing efforts to learn a new language that will be useful for my research, I have found that watching movies in this language to be a fun and effective way to keep my skills (such as they are) from eroding over the summer. Not long ago, I was watching one of these movies with some undergraduates (all female, by the way) with whom I took a language class last year, and they all agreed that a particular character was ‘really old’ and therefore they did not approve of his relationship with a younger female character. I was surprised at their reaction -- he didn’t look very old to me. I argued that in fact he was a very attractive man, but I was alone in this opinion. The male character has some gray hair! He has wrinkles by his eyes! Later, I searched online to find a biography of the actor, and discovered that he is exactly my age. I guess that proves it then – he clearly can’t be old..

We all agreed, however, that a different male character, who had recently become engaged, was in fact not ready to get married. The proof: he had large posters of cars and motorcycles on the walls of his bedroom. Perhaps this particular opinion transcends a woman’s age.

Friday, July 20, 2007


Not long ago, I realized that not everyone sees letters and numbers in color, and that this phenomenon of seeing colors has a name: synesthesia (or synaesthesia). The term refers generally to a coupling of two or more senses, and supposedly it is a neurological condition that runs in families. I have the most common form, called grapheme, or color synesthesia.

Recently, my daughter and I were browsing in a book store, and I encountered a book for ~10-13 year olds about a girl with synesthesia. I was intrigued by this book until I read the plot synopsis, and then later read some online summaries and reviews of it. The synesthetic girl in the book (A Mango-Shaped Space/Wendy Mass) is ashamed that she has color synesthesia, and keeps it a secret after a humiliating episode at school. Apparently, math and foreign languages make no sense to her because of her synesthesia.

That makes no sense to me. Seeing letters and numbers in colors makes me have irrational likes and dislikes of particular words and numbers depending on how the colors of their various components look together, but if anything, it helps with language and some basic math skills by providing additional visual information. As a kid, spelling and vocabulary came easily to me, I think in part because I could see the letters/words in color. Each letter and number has its own distinct color, by the way. For example, to me, "s" is always a particular shade of green, and this helps me see/remember words no matter what the language. Perhaps this phenomenon also contributes to my fondness for writing, as it adds to the aesthetic effect.

Because I was annoyed that the book about the synesthetic girl treated synesthesia as an embarrassing disorder, we didn't get the book, even though I'm sure it has a happy ending. I have read that some synesthetics have the condition so intensely that the effects can be dizzying and confusing, and perhaps that is what the book is about. It seems a bit extreme, however, to compare synesthesia with obsessive-compulsive disorder (as one review did). Fortunately for me, color synthesthia makes many words and numbers beautiful (except when a "u" is next to an "a"..).

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Literature Professor (new example)

Some recent airplane reading turned up yet another unflattering description of a professor (art history, in this case):

".. a mild, rather mousy man, who for some reason invariably evoked the pity of students. It was not that they disliked him.. they just felt a vague, inexpressible regret that he existed.." (Love Over Scotland, Alexander McCall Smith, p. 1)

Ouch. This professor does not dress well and is passionate about obscure things.

It may well be that some students (and others) pity me, not so much for my unstylishness (although there may be an element of that) as for my fascination with obscure things, as if a deep focus on an academic topic means you don't have "a life". It's very true that I don't have as many hobbies as some people, but I love my research and I feel quite content with my current balance between work and family and other fun things in life (friends, travel, gardens, cats, reading, writing). So, bring on the pity and inexpressible regret -- the professorial existence can be very fun, however obscure your research topic.

(note: I enjoyed the book, even though I was slightly sedated by dramamine when I read it on a recent long flight)

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Summer Day Care

During summer weeks when we are not traveling or otherwise having unstructured time at home, my daughter attends various week-long day camps. There is one in particular that she loves and that many of her school friends attend. In terms of schedule and expected degree of participation of parents, this camp is set up for stay-at-home parents. That’s fine for us for a week or two because we have a very flexible schedule in the summer (a benefit of being a professor), but it makes it very difficult for kids of working parents to attend.

The camp organizers wondered how they could increase enrollment and diversity, and I suggested that the camp could be made more accessible to working parents by offering extended hours (until after 5 pm), and not having 20% of the camp days involve parent attendance at events. You would have thought that I’d suggested that they perform Satanic rituals and/or feed the kids Twinkies for snack.

One of the organizers snarled at me “This is NOT day care”. What’s so bad about day care? I send my daughter to camps because they are fun, she loves being around other kids all day (she’s an only child), and my husband and I need to get some work done in the summer. I feel not the slightest need to be apologetic or defensive about needing/wanting summer day camps to be all-day activities.

The other day when I picked my daughter up from the camp in the afternoon, the woman who had made the this-is-not-day-care statement sighed and said to me “I’m exhausted. Doing this all day is hard work.” I felt like saying “This is NOT work!”. Instead I said “Yes, I know how you feel. I had a long day at work as well”, though I suspect the divide is too great for there to be any mutual empathetic feeling about our respective long days at work.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007


Recently, I met for the first time an International Researcher (IR) in a field similar to mine. Our fields of research are just different enough that somehow the years went by without our ever actually meeting or even seeing each other in person. The IR was shocked upon meeting me, and said so; i.e., words to the effect of “You aren’t ANYTHING like I thought you would be.” I don’t think I had any particular pre-meeting mental image of what this IR would look like, but I was curious about why I was apparently so different from expected. Was it the usual thing involving my dumb blonde hair or my young-for-my-age appearance? No, as it turns out. It didn’t even have anything to do with my appearance. When we first met, the IR and I had a friendly conversation, and we were both laughing about something or other, after which came the statement about my being different from expected The IR thought that, based on my NAME, I would be “snooty”, serious, perhaps even unfriendly, and would have no sense of humor.

I have a very ordinary name.

Of course I asked what about my name was so unfriendly, thinking perhaps one of my names signified something dire in the IR’s native language, but no, it was just a random impression by the IR, based on nothing in particular. We laughed about it, and that was that.

I was thinking about names this week because it turns out that I am involved in a research project with a young woman with a ‘cute’ name – a name like Kandi or Brandi or Muffy or Coco. When I first heard her name, I thought to myself “And I think I have trouble being taken seriously..” At least I have a serious (perhaps too serious) name.

There are studies about the effect of names on later professional success. I am very curious to know what her parents were thinking when they gave her that name. Are they surprised she turned out to be a scientist? Is she ever tempted to use a middle name (assuming it is not a Kandi/Brandi kind of name as well), or does she enjoy surprising people and turning their assumptions upside down when they find out what she does for a living? I think it’s great -- she is kind of a pioneer for cute-named career women of the world, and for every woman scientist who doesn’t fit the lingering stereotypes about Scientists.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Quality of Excuses

A colleague of mine likes to quote: "You can't succeed by the quality of your excuses", and it is unfortunate that this quotation comes in handy as often as it does.

I'm quite willing and able to be sincerely sympathetic to a student or colleague with a complicated life that involves numerous consecutive problems with relationships, family, health, vehicles, computers, housing, and pets, but all of these excellent reasons for not making adequate progress in research add up to career destruction.

There are some life events that are clearly too terrible to allow life/work to continue normally, and I am not talking about that kind of event here. I think that it is, however, important to be able to work through the routine awful things that happen in life. For example, if I didn't submit my NSF proposal because I was too broken up about the recent death of my beloved 17 year old cat, my research program (including my students, postdocs, and colleagues) would be harmed. Aside from the fact that I would rather keep working than brood, it's just not an option to shut down.

Yet I work with some people who routinely do things like that. Perhaps I am less 'sensitive' and more of the stereotypical unfeeling scientist than they are, or perhaps they are less able to deal with life. I know which of those possibilities I prefer, but I think there is probably an element of truth in both.

I like to think, though, that working through bad/sad times is similar to how you have to keep yourself together and take care of your child even if you are stressed, sad, or anxious. I don't think this is something that I, as an advisor, can teach my students, even by example. Or, if it is possible, I have not yet figured out how to do it well.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Academic Choice

If you had a choice, and all other factors were equal, would you rather be a professor at:

1. A university that is located in a city/region in which you would love to live, but at which most of your faculty colleagues would be insane and/or unpleasant;


2. A university in a not-great place to live, but at which you would have interesting colleagues


Thursday, July 12, 2007

Anatomy of a PhD Defence

Grad students who didn't quite finish their dissertations in the academic year but who have postdocs or other positions lined up for the fall are racing to defend and finish by the end of the summer.

These final exams are always kind of strange. In my department, they consist of a talk (30-50 minutes) followed by general questions from the audience, then a closed session of questions involving the student and committee. After all the questioning, the student leaves the room and paces the hall while the committee votes pass or fail. If the graduating student already has a job lined up, it would be bizarre to fail them on this exam, and I can't think of any cases in which this has happened here. As a committee member, I tend to use the exam time to discuss any parts of the thesis that are not yet published -- e.g., manuscripts in preparation or still in review -- so as to give the student feedback on these. Asking questions to probe the student's knowledge is pointless at this stage.

There's also no point in commenting on already published work, unless there are major problems with it.. I was on a PhD committee that encountered this situation not so long ago. It was great that the student had published a few chapters of the thesis, but none of us committee members (other than the advisor) had been shown the chapters/papers until just before the defence. The committee was very critical of the published work, which had some glaring errors that any one of us (other than the advisor) could have pointed out if we'd seen the manuscripts earlier. I felt like my time was being wasted by being on that committee and that the advisor and, to some extent the student, were being disrespectful of the expertise of the rest of the committee.

So, although I am fine with the final exam not really being an exam, I also don't want the whole experience to be a waste of time for me as a committee member. Reading a thesis and going to the defence takes a lot of time.

At the final exam, the talks can't begin to encompass all that a PhD student has done in their graduate career, so the student has to make decisions about what to present and how to present it. For some students, it is painful to leave anything out, as if the audience might think they didn't do much in their research if everything is not described. The best talks are a synthesis of the first-order information, explained in context, and only a limited amount of detailed description of the more interesting aspects of the methods and results.

One of the strangest parts of the final exam process is the introduction by the advisor. These introductions typically involve praise of the student's talents and anecdotes about the student's graduate career. Some faculty are a bit extreme with the warm-and-fuzzy intro. I prefer the introductions that are more professional, though not to the point of being completely bland and impersonal.

My introductions are affected somewhat by whether the student's family is sitting in the audience. One time I scuttled plans to mention (affectionately) an incident in which a graduating MS student, who was a notoriously bad driver, had accidentally smashed into my car in a parking lot while he was trying to park. When I saw his parents in the audience, I fortunately remembered that they didn't think their son's frequent fender-benders (and their effect on auto insurance rates) were very funny.

When I was finishing my PhD, I most certainly did not want my relatives to attend my defence. They already think that my research is strange and useless. Attending my defence would have given them solid evidence for this. I prefer that they just have a vague suspicion that what I do can't possibly be useful (whatever that means).

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Anonymous Reviews and pdf Documents

I like it when reviewers send me (as an editor) their reviews in the form of annotated pdf documents, as it is easy and efficient for authors to download these and use them for revision purposes. Some reviewers still prefer to upload a text document with comments keyed to page/line numbers, and every once in a long while I get actual paper in the mail, typically a papyrus scroll with hieroglyph markings (a.k.a. the manuscript hard copy with pen/pencil annotations).

The annotated pdf is a problem if the reviewer wants to be anonymous and doesn't take steps to remove their name from the commenting function. I have to remember to check this. If the reviewer wants to be anonymous but their name is stamped at the top of every comment, I remove their name.

Another problem is when someone uses someone else's computer/software to prepare a review, so someone else's name appears in the commenting box (unintentionally or not..). I look for this as well, and remove the name if necessary.

I have a colleague who works to deflect authors from guessing his identity; e.g., he will write in a review "Although my own field of expertise is X, I will try to comment.." (X = something that is not his field of expertise). I wouldn't be surprised if he has a fake name appear in his annotated pdfs (Mickey Mouse? Albert Einstein?).

Perhaps I should be inspired by that and change the photo in my blog profile. I could use instead a photo of my cat ("Although I am not of the human species, I will try to comment..").

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Conference of the Men

Today I was looking over the program and participant list for an upcoming international conference. It's not a huge conference, as it is somewhat specialized, but there will likely be between 70-100 participants.

Here are the current data for this conference:

participants: 75% male, 25% female
invited speakers: 95% male, 5% female
conference organizers: 100% male

The imbalance in invited speakers would be annoying in any case, but the organization sponsoring this conference sent out an announcement saying that it particularly encourages the participation of women and underrepresented groups. I think that must mean that we are encouraged to go to this conference and sit and watch how science is really done; i.e., by men. There happen to be women doing interesting and significant work on the topic that is the focus of the conference, so it is actually really amazing that the organizers didn't invite more.

I don't believe that the organizers deliberately excluded women. That is, I don't think they sat in a room and said to each other "Let's not invite many women to give talks", but I think that they must -- to a man -- not think of women as doing interesting or significant research, at least not with the same level of prestige and rigor as men.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Grad students are (typically) people too

In the not-so-distant past, I wrote about a hostile reviewer who afflicted one of my students with anonymous rude comments that, without basis, called into question the ethics, intelligence, and writing ability of the student and his co-authors (including me). We revised the manuscript and resubmitted it with a strongly worded rebuttal letter.

In this case, "strongly worded" refers to the fact that the rebuttal letter clearly stated where we disagreed with the hostile reviewer, but at no point did we descend to his level of being hostile or rude.

Today this formerly anonymous reviewer identified himself to me and one other senior co-author in an email message. He did not include the Ph.D. student in the email, although the student is first author on the manuscript. This reviewer had seen the rebuttal letter and revised manuscript, and although he admitted that the revised manuscript was good and should be published, he was incensed by the rebuttal letter. He wrote that he "did not appreciate" the fact that the letter essentially accused him of being critical of our research (!).

It takes no imagination or inference to think that someone who writes in a review that the results/interpretations are "nonsense" and includes many pages of hostile comments is critical of the work.

I think it is at the same time bizarre and strangely understandable that this person's delicate feelings were hurt by our rebuttal letter, which refuted some of his more serious criticisms. I think that an apology by this reviewer to the student would have been in order, but instead the reviewer wrote to the Professors who are co-authors, saying that, although he respects our distinguished professorial selves, he has grave doubts about the integrity of the student author. It is a cheap shot to convert a scientific disagreement into doubt about someone's integrity, exploiting that person's lack of power.

Perhaps more disturbing than the reviewer's aggression and over-sensitivity is his lack of respect for the student. Why didn't the reviewer write directly to the student? Do we really have to wait until the degree is printed and framed before treating a student like a professional colleague? I think the very act of writing and submitting a manuscript should be a strong signal that the author is a serious scientist who is responsible for the content of the paper. There are exceptions to this (e.g., when the first author is not the communicating author listed as the main contact), but the default assumption, unless one is informed otherwise, should be that the communicating author on a manuscript is capable of discussions regarding the content of the manuscript, even if he/she is still a student.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

2-Body Good News?

A colleague at another university recently told me a long sad story about his department's numerous failed searches owing to the high housing prices and cost of living in his university's region. He said that unless an assistant professor is married to someone with a similar or higher salary, is willing to spend their life in decrepit rental properties, or enjoys long commutes, they decline the job offer.

Then he said BUT .. one way the university has found to get out of the situation is to hire couples, and in fact what used to be seen as a problem is now an opportunity. This doesn't mean that single people or members of non-academic couples are at a disadvantage -- his department still goes after the candidates it thinks are the 'best' -- but if one of those candidates is a member of an academic couple, the department and university are now more active in trying to make that situation work, rather than doing nothing, or even penalizing members of academic couples by weeding them out during the interviews.

Thursday, July 05, 2007


In my recent travels, I had occasion to meet for the first time another scientist who has been working on something very similar to one of my projects, but with no communication between us. I could have taken the initiative and emailed him once I learned of his research, but since I started working on this topic first, I had trouble thinking of a good way to email someone I don't know and not sound aggressive or territorial or paranoid. So, we have both been uncertain about the other's work, plans, and personalities.

As it turns out, I like him a lot. We had several great conversations and spoke at length about our similar research interests/project. We ironed out some differences that I think will be important for both of us as we publish our results, and found that we have more common ground than either expected.

There is some overlap in our work, but now I think of it as the good kind of overlap -- just enough so that we're reproducing essential results but not so much that we are duplicating effort. Another positive effect of actually meeting this person and talking to him is that I now feel like I have a new colleague instead of a competitor, and I think he feels the same way. We have plans to stay in communication and share results rather than scurry to publish first. I suppose we could have worked this out sooner via e-mail, but I think this in-person meeting was essential for creating such an amicable situation.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

On Display

Some of the labs that I work in are shared facilities operated by the department or a collection of departments. There are many positive aspects of having such facilities, but I just encountered a negative one that I had never previously even contemplated.

The head technician in one of the labs announced today that he had just finished installing a webcam system that would be accessible to the public so that anyone could go the website and watch people in the lab. His motivation for doing this was so that people could see how the machines are used, and he noted that this would be ‘educational’ for students and the public. When I read this email announcing the implementation of the webcam system, I was shocked. My students and I are primary users of this facility, and I was not consulted. I don't really have any say in the running of the lab, or I would has squashed this idea before it was implemented.

I would have been very upset by the webcam installation no matter what, but perhaps because I have been dealing with some security issues involving safety in my department recently, I acted extremely negatively to the webcam. The lab manager is clearly not thinking that he just created the perfect way for people to check and see when women are working alone at night or on weekends in the lab.

Based on my strenuous objections, he says he will reconsider his plan. Even though it will make him sad to take down his nifty little web-thing, I am pretty sure he will. It just didn’t occur to him that it was a safety issue.

The strange and disturbing person whom I described in a previous post has been sighted several times in the department recently, though I have mostly been out of town and have not seen him. Various people have called the campus police, but the police have yet to arrive in time to encounter him.

I heard that he left a note for a female grad student, and continues to ask people about me, trying to find out where I am or how to contact me. Maybe if he could monitor the women in my department by webcam, it would make his stalking more efficient and he wouldn't have to waste so much time looking for women to scare.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Am I My Husband?

Here is a conversation I had yesterday with someone I just met for the first time. He is a non-US scientist in a related field to mine and about the same age as me (maybe a bit younger). I don't know his work well, though I recently reviewed a manuscript on which he was 3rd or 4th author.

Male Science Professor: Your husband is also a PHYSICAL SCIENTIST [names general field].

Me: Yes, that's right. He works on X and Y.

MSP: I don't know about that work, but I do know his work on A and B and C [insert accurate description of my research topics].

Me: I work on the things you just listed. My husband's name is [insert different last name from mine]. Are you sure you are referring to his work?

MSP: I have never heard of him. The person I am thinking of has the same last name as you.

Me: Maybe you are referring to me then. You just described my research topics.

MSP: Oh no, I am sure the person with the same name as you is a man. His work is very well known and he publishes a lot. When I heard your name, I thought it must be your husband.


Epilogue: Someone else assured him that the 'man' with my last name is me. He was surprised but seemed to take the news well.

Did I just change his view of Scientists, or was this just another strange little episode?