Friday, May 29, 2009

World of Difference

Not long ago, another FSP and I were chatting by email and I told her about a recent incident in which a male scientist had doubted whether I came up with a particular idea all by myself. She thought I was joking. When she expressed her doubt, I thought she was being sarcastic. Eventually we sorted it out. She had never experienced anything like that, but to me the only unusual thing about the incident was that it happens much less now that I am at mid-career.

Why have we had such different experiences? There are many possible explanations, not all of them flattering to me, but I will ignore those for now. Here are my top candidates:

  • Although we are close to each other in age, my friend got her PhD a few years ago; I got mine in the 20th century.
  • Her small institution is dominated by the liberal arts and has few scientists; there are more women faculty than men, and many more female students than male; I am at a large research university with lots of science and engineering and few women in those fields.
  • Her job mostly involves teaching (few/no grants); mine involves a lot of research (lots of grant proposals).

We are both FSPs, but our experiences are very different because of these major differences in our academic environment. I find that cheering, in a way. Maybe the positive aspects of gender-neutral academic cultures will trickle up to the places where FSPs are still a bit exotic and not quite so well respected as one might wish? Or are the Big Research Universities impervious to such influences because the distance between the Big Research University continent and the Other Universities continent is too great and therefore the life forms at the BRUs will evolve in isolation and develop unusual and extreme characteristics that allow us to survive the harsh climate? (my apologies to non-academic marsupials for that bizarre analogy)

My friend marveled that today, in 2009, there are still men who make a distinction between science professors and female science professors, as if it matters. This is where at least some of you will say: But you make that distinction yourself. You call yourself FSP and go on and on about it all the time, so it matters to you too.

And this is where I say (again): Yes it does matter to me, but note that my url is In my professional life, I would love to be an SP just like the vast majority of my colleagues and an immensely vast majority of my fellow full professors, but I am constantly reminded that I am an FSP. And as long as that is the case, it will matter to me. Hence the name.

In fact, when I use the term FSP to describe myself, I am using the term in a potentially informative way that encompasses the full range of experiences in my professional and personal life. That doesn't mean, however, that it should be used as the major defining characteristic of me as a science professor. In my professional life, I am first and foremost a scientist and a teacher. [note: In fact, when I first came up with the name 3 years ago, I was being sarcastic, but that was then. I have evolved.]

I like to think that someday calling someone an FSP just adds a bit of identifying detail that might be relevant in some ways but that doesn't imply anything about intellectual skills, professional qualifications, seriousness, or ability to have one's own ideas. I also like to think that this change will happen in part because of the everyday work of female scientists doing Science, but it's going to take a lot more of us to make a detectable change in all types of academic environments, even the Big Research Universities.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

You're Welcome

Earlier this week I wrote about one of the many types of random interruptions that can occur during the professorial day. Of course, not all interruptions are unwelcome, and some are an essential part of my job. When I'm working in my office, I keep my door open so that colleagues and students can stop by to chat, ask questions, bring me chocolate etc.

It would be interesting to keep track of visitors during a typical week or month or academic year in the life of a professor and classify them by type, frequency, and duration of visit. I bet I spend more time talking to individuals who stop by my office than I do in most? all? other types of professorial activities, including teaching.

In the absence of a rigorous accounting of these interactions, here is a brief unscientific list of the categories of people who are not related to me who stop by during the day to ask me questions, tell me things, bring me things, take things from me, and/or appoint me to unrewarding tasks, in approximate order from most visits per unit time by population group to least visits, ignoring for now the people who call me rather than physically visit my office:

1. (tie) graduate students
1. (tie) close colleagues/collaborators
3. postdocs
4. custodians
5. undergraduate students working with me as research assistants
6. undergraduate students who are taking a class from me
7. random colleagues or other visitors
8. department chair
9. office staff
10. building managers or other physical plant workers
11. computer people
12. random genuinely lost people who are wondering how to find a person or place
13. random criminally inclined people who are casing my office while pretending to have questions (where is the restroom?) as they look around at my computers and other portable items of value
14. sales representatives (textbooks and other items)
15. random people who may or may not be sane and who want to ask me a question or who have a Theory of Something that they want to share with me

#1-5 are the (mostly) welcome types of visitors and are an essential part of my job/life.

#6 is also an essential part of my job and students are mostly welcome to stop by, but there are exceptions. For example, students are definitely welcome during office hours, but are not so welcome in the 30 minutes before class. Students are definitely welcome if they have real questions or comments about the course, but are not so welcome if the main purpose of the visit is to whine or to describe in graphic detail their medical problems.

#12-15 I could do without entirely and not be at all sad.

The middle 5 may or may not be welcome visitors depending on the purpose and duration of their visit.

The at times vast number of visitors, combined with various other random activities and interruptions during the day, are why I like to work at night and for at least part of the weekend. It is essential to me to have this time to think and write and possibly also to work with students and colleagues outside the daytime/weekday working hours. I don't need to work every evening and I don't need to work every weekend, but I need enough of these quiet times to get important things done, write more than a paragraph at a time, and think interesting thoughts about my research and teaching.

Without this extra time to get caught up and make progress with research, I would also have no time to pursue my new hobby of taking aerial photos of cats.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009


It's not hard to find commentators, pundits, politicians and others who are worried that Sonia Sotomayor, Obama's nominee for Supreme Court Justice, if confirmed, will be guided too much by her emotions. In fact, for illustrative purposes, let's confine our examples to statements made by men named John:

Republican senators will have to conduct thorough questioning in the confirmation hearings to make sure that she will not be a results-oriented voter, voting her emotions and politics rather than the law. (John Yoo)

She must prove her commitment to impartially deciding cases based on the law, rather than based on her own personal politics, feelings, and preferences. (John Cornyn)

It will be important to determine if Judge Sotomayor will decide cases based on her own personal feelings and political views, or the bedrock rule of law. (John Thune)

Was this an issue for the last couple of guys nominated for the Supreme Court? Was it one of the talking points?

[sarcasm alert:]

Wouldn't it be great if we could have a big computer program to decide cases strictly on The Law? With a program, no one, not even a sensitive male judge, would be tempted to consult their feelings about an issue and we wouldn't have to worry about all these emotional females populating the Highest Court in the Land every decade or two, tossing aside the rule of law on a whim if it suits their (probably hysterical) feelings to do so.

As an FSP, I am of course always doing that with my own personal research. Despite decades of experience as a scientist, I'll be doing some research thing, and when it comes time to interpret the results, or make any big decision for that matter, I get all emotional and I forget all the bedrock rules of math and science, and I just go with whatever my emotions tell me to do at that exact moment. I really can't help it.

[/end sarcasm attempt]

Wouldn't it be great if vast numbers of people saw those stupid "her own personal feelings" talking points that various John et al.'s are spouting and thought "They must not have any substantive criticism if that's the only thing they can come up with."?

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

No Soliciting

My preferred method for acquiring information and making decisions about textbooks is to browse the offerings at conference exhibits, talk to colleagues, and/or look through copies of books that I acquire or borrow through various means. I prefer to adopt a textbook and stay with it for many years, but sometimes a change is necessary because the textbook gets too out of date relative to a changing field or because I decide that a new textbook is better (e.g. has better explanations, is less boring, is a better fit with a course).

** This post is not about whether textbooks are worth the cost, whether publishers/bookstores/authors are gouging students by charging inflated prices for something that is, after all, just a book, and so on. I dealt with some of that last year (here and here). Feel free to leave scathing comments about your loser professor who made you buy an expensive book and then you didn't even read it but realize that you are somewhat off-topic.**

I have never made a decision about a textbook based on anything that a textbook sales representative has told me during a visit to my office. Perhaps this is because, in my experience, it is extraordinarily rare for a publishing representative to be well informed about their products. I suspect that the causes of this include:

(1) Sales reps cover a wide range of topics and can't be expert in them all;

(2) There is high turnover in the field (not sure why) so faculty are constantly encountering reps who are new to their job; and

(3) The reps trying to sell Science Books may not have a background in science. I have yet to meet one, anyway.

I am sure it is not an easy job. Sales reps show up unannounced at faculty offices and interrupt the day of someone who probably has no time to spare and who may not have a lot of respect for sales representatives in general, perhaps in part based on past experiences.

Also, for some reason the sales reps who visited me this year (e.g., last week) came at a time that was nowhere near when I have to turn in my textbook choices for the next term. I am sure they did not have a very satisfying experience trying to talk to my colleagues (or me). I could not do their job.

I have heard rumors of experienced and knowledgeable sales representatives who establish good, long-term working relationships with faculty, but unless my experience has for some reason been unusual, I'm guessing this is uncommon.

When a textbook sales representative darkens my door, I typically say "I am currently very happy with all the textbooks I am using, I am not interested in changing at this time, and I don't have time to talk now, but if you want to leave a brochure or a card with a website address, I will look at that later." I see no need to waste their time or mine.

Last week, a person unknown to me knocked tentatively on my door, and, without explaining who he was or what he wanted, asked me "Do you have a few minutes?". The answer to that is always no. I said "No". He ignored this, my first clue that he was a salesperson, told me his name and publishing company, and then told me that he has only had this job for 6 months and doesn't know much about textbooks and even less about science but he hoped that I would spend at least a few minutes telling him about my textbook needs.

I know nothing of sales, but I wonder how effective the "pity me I'm ignorant" approach works. It was not effective with me, but it's possible that his upfront statement of ignorance was a defensive response to unpleasant experiences he had had in the past with faculty who felt he was wasting their time.

Alas, I did not have time to spend with someone who wanted to sell me things I didn't want, so I directed him instead to another colleague. Evil hint o' the day: When sales representatives ignore your emphatic statement that you have no time or interest in talking with them, an excellent way to end the conversation is to direct them to another colleague, preferably one who is not a friend.

Monday, May 25, 2009

In Which I Discover That I Am A Parasite On Society

My daughter's class is learning about Jobs People Do. The class has created an imaginary city and, after being presented with a list of possibilities and job descriptions, each child gets to choose 3 jobs they think they would like to do in their city.

The other day, my daughter told me that she was interested in being mayor, attorney, or DJ, and she listed for me what her best friends chose as possible professions (reporter, gift shop owner..). At some point I interrupted and asked "Didn't anyone want to be a scientist?" She told me that this was not an option. Scientist was not on the list of possible professions. "Why not?" I wondered aloud.

My daughter said she asked her teacher (yes, the same teacher) this question and he replied:

"Because scientists don't contribute to the economy or society."


The next day my daughter told me that she had narrowed her employment choices and had decided to run for mayor. I asked her what her main issues were, and she said "Well, for starters, we will restore science to its rightful place."

I would vote for her. A kid who quotes Obama, supports science, and knows exactly what her constituent/mother wants to hear would surely make a good mayor of an imaginary city.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Death of the Unbelievers

In response to a letter from a young female doctor who is having trouble being respected by the older women staff members in the medical office in which she works, Slate advice columnist "Dear Prudence" ends her advice with this statement:

"And remember, while sexism may never be completely eradicated, despite your profession's best efforts, the generation that can't believe a woman is a doctor will eventually die out."

Shouldn't they be gone by now? That was my grandparents' generation, and my last beloved grandmother (who did in fact have strong opinions about what careers were and were not suitable for women) died a few years ago when she was in her 90's. My parents were young adults in the 1960's and 70's, so even that generation should be well acquainted with the fact of women doctors. Even my conservative aunts don't have a problem with women doctors; some of them have daughters who are doctors. And, since the female staff members who are giving the young doctor such a hard time are pre-retirement age, they are even younger than my parents' generation.

Perhaps there is a lag time, and with each generation there will be fewer and fewer people who can't believe that young women are doctors and eventually it won't be an issue, but I think there is more to it than that.

In my own interactions with staff members (male and female) in academic departments, I have had mixed reactions, ranging from extremely positive (perhaps because I am polite and respectful to hard-working staff members and I do more of my own administrative work than some of my senior male colleagues) to extremely negative (because, I am convinced, of the discomfort of some staff members with doing work 'for' a younger woman). In the latter case, the disrespectful, undermining staff have no trouble believing I am a professor, but they nevertheless have a negative reaction to working with me.

I don't even know what word to use to describe how these disrespectful staff members feel about working with female professors, or how to explain why it matters to them whether they are providing a memo to a male professor or a female professor. Do they feel demeaned? Does it make them feel uncomfortable about their own jobs? Will these negative interactions really go away eventually, maybe when today's 20 year olds are middle aged?

I would like to think that, but I have seen too much recent sexist behavior from young people to believe that the problem will be solved by generational attrition.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Oral Tradition II

PhD preliminary exams are complicated beasts. Following my post on the topic yesterday, a number of commenters mentioned the political aspects of the exams, an excellent example of the complexity (and potential unfairness to the student) of this type of gatekeeping exam.

Why have these exams? There are negative reasons (we need ways to purge the graduate program of students who are unable to do PhD research) and positive reasons (students interact with faculty and get input about their research) and lots of room for politics, irrational decisions, and stress. (see comments from yesterday for further details and rants)

My experiences as an Examining Professor in oral prelims this year have so far been very positive, but some of my colleagues report traumatic experiences for all concerned, raising a troubling question: Should issues other than the student's intellectual skills be considered in whether the student passes or fails?

Such as: Should the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?

The simple answer is of course no. Most people would probably answer that ethics and fairness and standards and so on require that the advisor's professorial rank not affect the outcome of an exam, so perhaps the more interesting question is:

Does the advisor's tenure status affect the outcome of a preliminary exam?

I am not talking about the obvious cases in which of course the student is going to pass because the abilities they exhibit in the preliminary exam, in whatever format it is given, are so awesome that there is no question whatsoever that the student will pass.

It's the marginal and even the terribly bad cases that are tricky. I use the term marginal to denote a situation in which the student has either obviously or very likely failed the exam in the 'objective' view of the committee, using traditional measures by which knowledge and intellectual potential are assessed.

In a case for which I have only secondhand information, the fact that the advisor was a tenure-track faculty member who needed to have some PhD students graduated or almost-graduated when coming up for tenure was discussed during deliberations about whether to pass or fail a student who had not done well in a preliminary exam. In that department/university, it is apparently an important element of the tenure evaluation that a faculty member have successfully advised or co-advised a PhD student.

In the physical sciences, it is difficult for an assistant professor to recruit, advise, and graduate a PhD student in 6 years. It can be done of course, but you have to be lucky in terms of funding, projects, and students.

I don't actually believe that the tenure hopes of an assistant professor who is otherwise doing well would be derailed by a lack of graduated PhD students, but I can see how it would not look good to have a student fail and/or not have any students on track for getting a PhD in the near future. I can also understand being anxious to avoid a perceived weakness in the tenure file, especially if one is a perfectionist. And assistant professors with only a few students need to keep making progress on funded research projects; failing a student on an exam has consequences beyond the impact on the student.

If marginal or failing students pass their prelims because the advisor is an assistant professor, that is clearly unfair to students with tenured advisors who enjoy no such advantage. On the other hand, if we assume for the sake of argument that the advisor's future would be imperiled by a failed student (and also assume that the student's failure was despite the advisor's best efforts in advising the student), is the impact on the advisor a fair consideration?

I have been thinking about this situation ever since I heard about it. If the prelims were really bad, I think the student should fail but be given a lot of feedback and a chance for a re-take in the near future. Perhaps the student could get back on track in time for all concerned to benefit. And if it still didn't work out, the department chair and/or department promotion & tenure committee can surely find some nice words to say about the advisor's heroic efforts with struggling students, giving him the advising credentials he needs for his tenure file. That doesn't help the student and it doesn't solve the problem of what to do about the research project that is in progress, but I guess I've had enough students and projects crater in the course of my career to know that life and research go on, and it's best if they go on without dysfunctional students.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Oral Tradition

There has been a flurry of PhD exams in my department in the past month or so, a ritual of Spring. Some of these exams are final exams (a.k.a. the PhD defense) and others are preliminary exams.

Part of the reason for the spring examfest is that some PhD students actually want to finish by the end of the academic year and move on with their lives. Scheduling a PhD exam of any sort requires that all faculty members on a committee are in the same general area at the same time and don't have other commitments. The rare confluence of schedules means that exams tend to come in clusters if they involve many of the same faculty.

I've been associated with departments that have various formats for oral prelims: traditional exams involving firing questions on any topic (relevant or not) at the student, exams focused more on the specific research interests of the student, and 'exams' involving writing and defending one or two proposals. In all cases, a decision must be made as to whether the student's graduate career advances unhindered, comes to a crashing halt, or goes into a sort of holding pattern until the exam can be redone.

Some departments allow the advisor to vote on the fate of their own student and some don't. This leads me to the question o' the day: Should the advisor have a vote in the decision as to whether their own student passes or fails the prelims?

There are obvious reasons for disenfranchising advisors, but is the underlying assumption that the advisor is significantly less objective than many other committee members valid?

Consider a particular case in which advisors didn't have a vote, and in which I would have voted "Pass" for one of my students, but a majority of the committee voted "Fail". Presumably the no-vote-by-the-advisor rule was instituted for just this type of situation, but did my (hypothetical) "Pass" vote indicate that I was less objective than the other committee members? Did I want to pass a marginal student out of concern that my grant-funded project would come to a screeching halt if she failed? Was I unduly swayed by having a closer connection with the student? Was I influenced by the fact that the student was female and the rest of the committee was composed of male faculty who questioned her aggressively until she cracked? Or did my positive judgment more accurately reflect the student's overall abilities owing to my more informed perspective on the student's work and potential contributions, things that are not necessarily well tested by the orals?

I don't know. Mostly I thought the exam wasn't as bad as some others I had seen and I thought the student should at least be given the chance to do the exam over. I know that's not such an appealing option, but for some people it's better than outright failure. In that particular case, even if I had a real vote, I would have been outvoted, so the result would have been the same. In the case of a divided committee, however, the advisor's opinion could tip the balance one way or another.

In departments in which the advisor can vote on their own student, I have been involved in the following situations:

1. The committee and advisor vote "Pass" and everyone is happy.
2. The committee is divided; the advisor votes "Pass" (and in some cases prevails in discussion and in others doesn't).
3. The committee is divided; the advisor votes "Fail" (and in some cases prevails in discussion and in others doesn't).
4. The committee and advisor vote "Fail" and no one is happy.

The divided committee scenarios #2-3 are quite common and result at least in part from the fact that the oral exam may or may not be a good reflection of a student's abilities and in part from the fact that different committee members have different standards of evaluation. Regarding the concept of 'standards' in an exam format that defies standardization, therein lies another tale.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

A Wall Between Me & You

And take all your friends with you, or at least as many as you can; purge the city of your presence; you will deliver me from a great fear when there is a wall between you and me. Cicero - Oration Against Cataline

I don't know why, but those lines have stuck in my head since high school Latin class. I use them today to introduce the latest literary and media attempt to portray scientists as a different, pitiful, unfashionable type of human. In this case, the culprit is Walter Kirn, whose writing I have from time to time found of interest. But no more.

I am no Cicero, but Walter should leave, and take his friend, the NY Times book reviewer Janet Maslin, with him. Here is why:

Regarding undergraduate science students during his student days as an English major at Princeton, Kirn wrote in his recently published memoirs (which I have not read and know of only from today's NYT review):

Somehow, someday, they'd reproduce, but that phase was not yet upon them, blessedly. For now they were free to decline communication and dress in pants that didn't reach their shoes.

Ha ha. So clever. And not believable. His contemptuous tone as he repeats this stereotype is much more unappealing than the image of those dopey science students with their unfashionable pants and their unwillingness to speak.

Compounding the idiocy is this introductory line in Maslin's review:

About science students, with the fine-tuned accuracy that makes much of this account so enjoyable, he notes: (see above)

Fine-tuned accuracy? I wasn't an English major, but is that a synonym for contemptuous?

What is the evidence for accuracy? Show me the data. I want photographs, names, confessions. Kirn's description doesn't fit my impression of the science students I knew from Princeton or anywhere at that time. I want proof that "science students" at Princeton, circa early 1980s, were unable to speak, were identifiable by the vast distance between their pant cuffs and shoes, and .. whatever the first part of Kirn's sentence is supposed to mean -- that science students had no romantic experiences or that they weren't yet making or having babies as undergraduates? I think I started hating this author when I got to the word "blessedly".

No, it's not really important that someone has written that they thought science students were dorky in the early 1980's, though perhaps we are becoming inured to memoirists making up random things for dramatic effect.

What bothers me is the us-and-them attitude and the contempt. It reminds me of the ignorant writings of Mrs. Mortimer, the 19th century British 'travel' writer who wrote emphatically about people she had never met and places she had never been. It turns out that everyone who wasn't like her was strange and contemptible.

For example, on the topic of German women, Mrs. Mortimer (according to The Clumsiest People in Europe: Or, Mrs. Mortimer's Bad-Tempered Guide to the Victorian World, by Todd Pruzan), she wrote:

..they are not fond of reading useful books. When they read, it is novels about people who have never lived. It would be better to read nothing than such books.

It sounds like Mrs. Mortimer would have approved of Kirn's memoir.

Monday, May 18, 2009

FSP 101: Final Exam Spring 2009

Whether your academic year has ended or has almost ended, it might be a good time to ponder some of the challenges that tend to occur at the close of the academic year. Perhaps this is not the sunniest of topics, and there are certainly many things to celebrate and be pleased about at this time of the year. Many of us, however, are tired right about now, and perhaps some exhausted professors will find it mood-lifting to have a group wallow in the classic end-of-year annoyances before setting all that aside for a few months.

I was going to write these out as statements, but for reasons I can't explain, I feel a strange compulsion to write this as a test.

FSP 101: Spring 2009 Final Exam

Please answer the following questions completely, concisely, and correctly. Use only the space provided. Do not continue your answers in the margins in increasingly illegible script in the hopes that I will assume it is correct. For multiple choice questions, most questions have only one correct answer but some have no correct answer and some have more than one answer, only one of which may be listed.

1. What do you say when a student says: I thought the final exam was today but I guess it was yesterday.

a. Just let me know when it's convenient for you to take the final and I'll set aside a couple of hours for that.

b. Do you want to take the same exam as the rest of the class or shall I spend another 4 hours making up a special exam just for you?

c. You must feel so terrible about that, especially since getting a zero on the final is going to take a serious bite out of your already low grade.

d. Thanks for remembering eventually! Have a great summer!

e. (deep sigh.. long pause) I don't have much time, but if you can come to my office at [specify time], you can take the exam.

2. What do you say when a student asks: How close was I to a.. ? [fill in the blank with the next grade increment, letter or number].

a. Not close enough.

3. What do you do when the only thing standing between a failing student's graduating and not graduating now is your non-majors, distribution requirement introductory science class?:

a. You fail them. It's too bad that they failed the course, but they earned that F. You can't have special standards for seniors and you aren't willing to give a passing grade to every failing student just because some of the ones who failed want to graduate now.

b. You pass them. If they did (some/most of) the work and for whatever reason just can't (or won't) do science, they shouldn't have their graduation put on hold. Give them a passing grade and let them get on with their life.

4. What do you when your department chair says?: (i) I know the academic year is over but I think we should have one more faculty meeting, or (ii) I know the academic year is over and I shouldn't ask you do any service work over the summer but..

(a) No

(b) No thanks

(c) Have fun and let me know how it turns out!

5. Essay question: Can grading cause brain damage?

I don't have an answer, but I will write a bunch of things that might be related to this topic and hope that my readers will sort through it and give me partial credit for anything that looks like I might know something about the topic.

Mostly, though, I have questions about this question. Has anyone done a study of people's motor skills and judgment before and immediately after doing a lot of grading? I am guessing there haven't been or else there would have been laws passed to prohibit operation of a motorized vehicle after grading. There would be regulations about how much time would have to elapse after grading certain quantities and types of assignments before you could safely drive a vehicle. This might be difficult to enforce, but there are probably biochemical or biophysical measurements that could be made that would indicate that excessive grading had occurred recently.

I don't even want to think about what would happen to someone who did a lot of grading and then went directly to a faculty meeting and then got some panicked emails from failing students.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Your Logo Here

Yesterday I wrote about student body tattoos. Today I am going to discuss presentation 'tattoos'. That is:

Do you put your institution's logo in your talks and on your posters at conferences? If you put a logo in your talk, do you put the logo on every slide or just on the title slide? Is institutional logo-ing more common on some continents than on others?

It makes sense to include an institutional logo and funding source logo in a presentation, though my preference is to do this in the corner of a title or conclusion slide and not have an entire separate acknowledgments slide that takes time away from the content of the presentation. And I can see that an institutional logo might be a bit more zippy than typing out your address, although that depends a lot on the logo.

Is a major controlling factor in logo frequency in presentations the attractiveness of the logo? I have recently observed many logoed talks, and I am quite sure that all of them featured a distinguished crest, a cool modern design featuring an abbreviation, or a scenic slice of a photograph of an historic campus. Not a single one featured a giant grinning or snarling creature, real or imaginary.

My unscientific opinion is that European universities tend to have much more dignified symbols than those of US universities, which in many cases also use their logo as a symbol or mascot for their athletic teams and that therefore in some cases feature strange animals, e.g. fierce megafauna, fighting rodents, or imaginary creatures. And those at a university with a controversial logo may prefer to have logoless presentations. (For examples, search the web for "university controversial logo" or mascot).

I'm not sure of the motivation of using a logo as a background on every single slide. Possibilities include:

- Perhaps some people who like their institution's logo also like to have continuity in the Design Elements in their presentations. These people probably also have other background design elements on every slide.

- Perhaps it is the culture of some places (institutions, countries, continents) for an academic person to identify so closely with the institution that their affiliation must be front-and-center at every moment of a visual presentation.

- Perhaps some people just like logos. I wonder if people who have logo-filled presentations also have a propensity to wear logo-clothing.

- Perhaps the logo is on every slide to identify the source of the slide for those taking digital images of slides during talks, even though most people think this is inappropriate (and some conferences forbid it).

Thursday, May 14, 2009

(Don't) Show Me

It is always thrilling to hear about the strange experiences of my professor friends and to detect possible trendlets based on limited but interesting data. This just in:

A friend of mine emailed me to tell me that two students (both male) showed him their tattoos this semester. One of them took off his shirt in my friend's office to show him a tattoo. My friend wrote:

I somehow made it to 44 years of age with no such show-and-tells; this semester I've had two students show me their tattoos. I'm thinking of changing professions.

One of the tattoos was a nerdy science picture and the other was not. Apparently neither student first asked "Do you want to see my tattoo?". If asked, my friend would have politely said "No thanks".

I have had students show me their very visible (arm, leg) tattoos that had a sciencey theme. I thought the tattoos were hideous but made an attempt at sincerity by saying something like "That's better than a snake tattoo". Fortunately I have not been subjected to more revealing displays of student body art in my office.

Ever the helpful and supportive friend, I told my tattoo-oppressed friend that he had probably invited these displays, albeit involuntarily, by having a particular association with the state of Missouri, the "Show Me" state.

I have no particular opinions about tattoos other than (1) I don't want one, not even a graph paper design; and (2) I don't want to be asked to admire student tattoos, even science-themed ones. Perhaps my friend and I are missing out on a special opportunity to bond with our young students, but it seems that we are both quite content to miss out on this particular mode of bonding.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why & Me

First, a blanket apology to all those who email me and do not get a reply. If I didn't have various important real life things to do (job, family) perhaps I could get to all these emails and be more responsive to all the requests for this-and-that, but it's just not possible.

I do reply to some emails, and I hope some of my emails have been useful to the recipients. There have also been some interesting proposals, conversations, and bits of information that have come my way via my FSP email, so I certainly don't want to discourage anyone from writing.

A common request is for me to answer questions (for various purposes) about Why I Blog. I think I've touched on this before in various milestone-type posts, but here is an FSP Timeline detailing the evolution of my motivation and thoughts on blogging:


I blog because I am angry. I spend a lot of time being treated as an inferior species of Science Professor. Even when it shouldn't matter, I am reminded that I am a Female Science Professor (hence the blog name). When I achieve something, it must be because someone had to give that grant/award/position to a woman. I am constantly asked if I am a 'real' professor, and only recently have I gotten senior enough that people stop assuming I am my male co-authors' student or postdoc. I am constantly given administrative tasks that require a lot of time for committees that are led by less competent men but I am never given any responsibility. When the issue of my being given responsibility arises, I am told that I don't balance research and administrative work as well as men, despite the fact that I excel at balancing these things and more, and that I am "too young", despite my being the same age or older than men who are apparently not too young. One of my favorite colleagues takes another job, and I no longer have as many friends and allies in the department. Blogging is a useful outlet for some of my anger, and I realize that there aren't many senior women scientists blogging. Perhaps I can be a niche-blogger? Does anyone want to hear the rantings of a senior FSP?


Yes, it seems that some people do. I keep blogging because I find that I have a lot to say and more and more people keep reading and making interesting comments. Can anonymous bloggers be role models? Does it help early career scientists to know that you can have a family and a fun and successful career as a science professor, even at a research university? This is my hope. There are still very few senior women scientists blogging, and I think that maybe my perspective, however strange, might be useful to early career scientists and students. Perhaps my writing about the workings of academia can also help bridge the communication/information gap among the various academic groups and generations.

I am still angry but my career is going well in terms of research and teaching and professional service. Many of my colleagues in my department still think of me as a "junior senior professor", but I find ways to enjoy the rest of my professional life and not be quite so angry about my immediate environment. Other universities start to recruit me as a senior hire and this gives me a chance to think about my career and my future and where I want to be scientifically and geographically. I write about all of these issues and this helps me get perspective, and, since the number of readers keeps increasing, this encourages me to continue.


I am much less angry. My department environment changes for the better. I often blog about academic topics that aren't typically discussed, and I have a lot of fun thinking and writing about these. I like writing about the weird things that happen during the day (I had no idea there were quite so many), and to my surprise, I still have a lot to say. I compile the FSP Book, and it surprises me even more that people read it (and review it!). Blogging becomes more of a creative outlet in a positive way than an anger-outlet.


I keep blogging because it is fun.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Works Well With Others

Recently I perused a list of graduate degrees awarded in the 2008-09 academic year at my university. The list is incomplete because it only contains awarded degrees; there are also quite a few degrees that are pending but will soon be awarded at the official conclusion of the academic year.

Even so, this list, though incomplete, is fascinating.

The list contains the names of advisors. At first glance I had the impression that more science/engineering PhD students were co-advised (as compared to having one advisor) than were students in the humanities and social sciences, but once I added up the numbers and calculated the %s, I could see that my impression was unduly influenced by the fact that there are many more PhDs in science/engineering than in the other fields. In fact, I was surprised at how few PhDs were awarded in the humanities, but this may in part be a function of the incomplete nature of the list.

I went through the list twice because the first time I only kept track of the numbers of co-advised vs. single-advisor students, but as I did this I started to get the impression that women faculty made up a high percentage of the co-advisors. I didn't trust my impression so I went through the list again and kept track of the gender of the advisor(s).

The % of women advisors of PhD students matched almost exactly the % of women faculty at the university in each of the subdivisions I tracked: science/engineering, humanities, and social sciences. Therefore, although the list was incomplete, I think it is has enough data to provide some potentially interesting insights into advising trends.

Here is what I found: Although 10% of single-advisor science/engineering PhD students had women faculty as advisors, ~40% of the co-advised students had one woman advisor; I don't think any were co-advised by 2 women faculty.

Although the total number of PhDs is less in the humanities and the social sciences, the co-advised students in these fields were twice as likely to have a female advisor as were the single-advised students in each field. And, in contrast to science/engineering, there were examples of students co-advised by two women faculty.

I have no idea what this means (if anything) about women or men as advisors or about student preferences for advisors. To the extent that these data mean anything, possibilities include: Women tend to collaborate more? Women have a greater tendency to lack the confidence to be the sole advisor of PhD students? Women don't tend to have their ego tied up in whether they are sole or co-advisor of their PhD student but men have a greater tendency to want to be the sole advisor? Women seek ways to maximize their time by sharing responsibilities with others? If a student has one female advisor, they also want another advisor? None of the above? Some fraction of some of the above? Did I miss some obvious possibilities?

Some of my PhD students are co-advised and some aren't. The decision is always based entirely on the research interests of the students, so I never looked at the issue with my Genders Lenses on before.

It would be interesting if there were a rigorous study of a larger database on the issue of graduate student co-advising and gender. Does such a thing exist?

Monday, May 11, 2009

FSP's Perfect Mother's Day

Here is my idea of an ideal Mother's Day, an ideal that I attain most years, including this one:

1. I sleep as late as I want. I get to do this anyway on weekends unless there is some particular early activity scheduled, so this is not an unusual event but is something I always appreciate.

2. I spend a few hours ambling around the house and garden with cats and family on a sunny day or at least a not-stormy day.

3. I spend a few hours of quiet uninterrupted time in my office on campus.

4. I spend some time at a cafe, either alone with something to read/write or compute (and maybe edit.. but that is slightly less than ideal) or with a friend to chat or with a daughter who reads/draws/chats.

5. In the evening I have an interesting dinner at home or at a restaurant. When we dine at home, my husband typically cooks, so I don't need a break from cooking but maybe he will also do the ancillary preparation and clean-up -- my jobs -- on my Ideal Mother's Day. This dinner most certainly involves a special dessert, preferably acquired at a store or bakery because, although my husband cooks, he does not do (or even appreciate) desserts.

I don't care about flowers or cards or other gifts, although I don't mind if my daughter brings home a sad little seedling that she planted as part of a Mother's Day class project and/or a weird poem about how wonderful I am. One year she brought home a drawing of me, and that was kind of disturbing.

The quietness of my ideal M-Day may relate in part to the fact that by this time of the academic year, I am exhausted. In fact, this year I am really exhausted.

Other possible features of an ideal day, none of which has yet occurred but I can dream:

- When my husband calls his mother, I am somewhere far far away. If I am in the same house, I can hear her voice on the phone even if my husband and I are in different rooms. She is always complaining about something or worrying about something. It is like having a pneumatic drill go off near (or on) your head.

- No students email me to whine about their grades or beg for extra credit or tell me about their illnesses, medications, or vehicular woes.

- NSF gives me a grant.

- My most obnoxious colleague announces his retirement, effective immediately.

- My most stupid cat (not shown in photograph) decides that, for the first time in his life, he is on the right side of the door.

Friday, May 08, 2009

Your Post-Evaluation Persona

A conversation with a colleague today about Teaching Evaluations made me wonder if I had scratched the dark underbelly of college-level teaching or whether I was just desperate to do another poll on a strange topic. Or both. As you may have guessed, I have a question for my readers who teach:

Do you change anything about your teaching behavior in the few classes that remain after teaching evaluations have been completed for your class?

Or, at the very least, do you feel a sense of relief after evaluations are done because you know that you can make innocent mistakes and not pay the same penalty for them? In fact, the topic came up when my colleague said that he didn't want to do online evaluations because the online evaluation period lasted too long and didn't give him those last few post-evaluation classes in which he could relax more as he taught.

After an admittedly shockingly brief investigation, I have determined that in the apres-evaluation near-end-of-semester time, some of my colleagues don't feel quite the same compulsion to answer annoying questions like "What is going to be on the test?" or "Are you going to ask anything from the classes in the week before Spring Break?" My colleagues report that they answer these questions, but perhaps not as nicely or completely as before the evaluations are done. Smiling may become more optional when answering such questions apres-evaluation. Having teaching evaluations completed can be rather freeing, but not in any sinister way.

What this question really gets at is the extent to which our behavior is governed by the looming prospect of teaching evaluations. Does the fact of teaching evaluations make (some of us) nicer? Is that a good thing?

I am not dealing with the issue of whether teaching evaluations make us better teachers by giving us constructive feedback or biting criticism, albeit too late to change anything to help a particular class (e.g. "I would have gotten more out of the class if you didn't just read endless text slides in a monotone every single class"; "You suck", etc.).

No, I am asking whether the prospect of teaching evaluations affects professorial behavior when interacting with students. Hence the question: Are you more patient, kind, and/or polite than you might otherwise be because you don't want to be slain in your evaluations for being cranky and terse with students, even if you are being completely insincere? And: Does your niceness level decrease, even if ever so slightly, after evaluations are done?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

e-Homework = Chaos

Earlier this term I asked my science major students to turn in a homework assignment via email. I was going to be traveling on the homework due date, and I figured this would be the best way for me to get the assignments graded in a timely way and to entertain myself in airports and airplanes.

I set up the homework assignment so that all answers could be written directly into an email so that we didn't have to worry about attachments and file formats and all that kind of possible chaos.

Half the class sent me attachments anyway. In most cases this was fine, except when it wasn't.

I have a very strict due date/time for assignments and under normal circumstances with homework on paper, I get the assignments on time unless there is a dire emergency. With the e-homework, however, 15% of the students had problems getting their homework to me in a readable form.

85% of the class got the homework in on time and in a form I could read. The others didn't attach the attachments or experienced other technical difficulties. For example, one student inexplicably decided to scan his homework and mail me the attached scans, but his assignment was missing the last page, which was 1/3 of the assignment.

When the emails arrived with the homework, I wasn't able to read them right away. I filed them all in a folder and looked at them later when I had time, and that's when I discovered the problems.

I had not made contingency plans for email problems; e.g. spelling out that it was the student's responsibility to make sure the email arrived on time and with the homework attached, complete, and readable. It clearly is the student's responsibility, even without my putting that in writing, but at the same time it seems too harsh to give someone a zero for forgetting to attach an attachment.

It will be a long time before I assign e-homework again. I am sure there are web-based solutions for this, but for now I am going back to paper and pencil-based assignments.

With paper-and-pencil assignments, the only crisis I have had so far this term was when a student slid their assignment under my office door while I was away, and then I stepped on it when I walked in my office, leaving a shoe print on the front page. I thought it was kind of funny, but the student was not happy about the shoe print.

What did he expect when he put the homework under my door on the floor? Did he truly think I stepped on the assignment on purpose as a statement of anger or disgust with his work? Do professors really do that? I admit that it can be tempting, but so far in my career I have refrained from stomping (literally) on student work, and I have had to content myself with editorial stomping.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Bad Advisor

Every once in a while I (as FSP) get a comment or an email from a student saying something to the effect of they wish I were their advisor or they wish their advisor were more like me. That's nice and I will admit that I have a few redeeming qualities as an advisor, but I am actually just as deeply flawed as most advisors. Between grad students and advisors, there can be a substantial gap in expectations and experiences, and this certainly affects my interactions with my advisees.

Also I can be quite sarcastic, may not be as sympathetic as students would like (especially when confronted with what I think is a lame excuse that my students find compelling), and have many of the classic advisor opinions about work ethic, writing skills, and so on.

And here is another reason why you might not want me as your advisor, illustrated by an example:

In the months leading up to the defense day of one of my PhD students, I was struck by his wild mood swings. The empathetic person that is hiding deep within my advisorial soul thought:

Oh no, how difficult life must be for Moe [not his real name] that he is experiencing these extreme mood swings, including wells of doubt and depression in which he questions whether his years of work have all been for naught, leading to non-conclusions and stupid results that no one will think are interesting even though that is most definitely not the case and his research is in fact quite awesome.

The evil scientist that also resides in my advisorial soul thought:

How fascinating. I want to graph this.

So I did. I assigned a number on a scale of -50 (completely freaked out, depressed, nearly destroyed by self-doubt) to +50 (confident, happy, maybe even exuberant) to Moe's mood each day based in part on my assessment, but also using self-reported data from Moe. For the 50 days leading up to his defense, I asked him each day how he was feeling, what his mood was etc. I was checking up on him frequently before I started graphing him -- in fact, we talked every day, typically more than once -- because I wanted to see how he was doing and make sure he was on track, but once I started graphing him, my questions had another purpose: to acquire data for my spreadsheet, and ultimately a mood-time graph.

At some point Moe suspected what I was doing and asked me "Are you quantifying me and making a graph?". I admitted that I was, and he seemed quite pleased and even intrigued. In fact, for a few days after that he provided me with multiple data points/day, and when I was out of town he sent me helpful mood updates by email so that my graph would not have unsightly gaps.

The graph (below) is interesting. Moe never hit what I thought of as -50 or +50, but he got close on the negative end. There were a few -40's (near total freak outs), but these never lasted for more than a day. Moe's mood was more negative than it was positive, but there are some notable positive spikes: e.g., when he submitted a manuscript to a journal.

The most interesting part of the graph is near the end. When Moe submitted his thesis to his committee, he felt really good about that. He turned the thesis in exactly on time, a deadline that for months he was sure he would miss. He worked extraordinarily hard and he produced a really nice thesis draft, part of which is already published, part of which is submitted, and part of which is imminently submittable. It was a very impressive document.

His mood stayed high for a few days, but descended when anxiety about the defense kicked in. He had an excellent academic position waiting for him after graduation, but somehow he feared that his committee would fail him despite abundant evidence that he had had a successful graduate career and was bound for further scientific glory. I suppose it is good that he didn't take the final defense for granted and do a sloppy job, but that was never even a remote possibility for him.

I have left the defense day (D-day) point on the graph blank. I suspect Moe had mixed emotions that cannot be quantified. That's how I typically feel on D-day too.

note: the gaps in the graph are mostly weekend days on which I did not see or hear from Moe

Tuesday, May 05, 2009


Last week I clicked on a science news headline that suggested that

Maybe an Asteroid Didn't Kill the Dinosaurs.

I followed the link (to Time Magazine) and read about the recent research of someone who disagrees with the prevailing ideas about dinosaurian demise. I asked an old (paleo) friend of mine about this and he explained that the scientist who wrote the paper profiled in the article is one of very few scientists who has long held a contrary view about this issue.

I can't assess this particular case, but I am interested in the general situation of Scientific Dissenters. In fact, in this particular case even NSF seems to think that this contrary view is worthy of publicity, so maybe it's not the best example of my topic today. This will not, however, stop me from my general discussion of the role of Dissent in scientific discourse and discovery, specifically in the context of how dissent is conveyed to the public.

Journalists like to (and should) present different sides of a story, but in the case of Science this may involve digging up the last remaining person who refuses to release their grasp from a discredited hypothesis -- perhaps someone who makes it their mission in life to be the lone voice in the wilderness for a hypothesis that no one believes any more. The motivation for this dissent can be noble (the person truly believes that everyone else is wrong) or a way to get attention (some people might like it when Time Magazine calls). Dissenters obviously can't all be lumped in one category.

When the topic is of interest to the general public, the journalistic practice of seeking and highlighting controversy can give the impression that scholarly debate continues about something that is no longer in serious doubt. Perhaps a love of dissent stems from a desire to shake things up, overturn dogma, and prove wrong those complacent brainiacs who think they know how things work. Not all of those are bad, necessarily, but it is a slippery slope to fostering doubt about things that are well known (e.g. the "It's just a theory" type of argument).

I think that it is important to have dissenters whose arguments push others to make sure their reasoning and evidence are as solid as possible. Dissenters have the useful purpose of making it not so easy for everyone to jump on the scholarly bandwagon du jour. And journalists do have a responsibility to examine various sides of issues.

At the same time, it is too bad that non-expert readers of media reports of scientific issues may get an unrealistic view of the state of the science. It may be difficult to distinguish a dissenter with a valid and significant point from an attention-mongering crackpot, especially if the latter is a professor at a distinguished university. I also realize that it is much zippier to write a headline like the one above, and the news that "Scientists understand This and That and are now trying to figure out These Other Things" is perhaps not going to grab anyone's attention.

Even so, scientists do make discoveries and may reach consensus on important issues, not because we are all sheep who mindlessly believe the prevailing view on a topic but because we make progress in understanding how things work. It is disheartening if the general public is given the impression, via sensational headlines and articles relying on the opinions of lonely dissenters, that in fact we really don't understand some fundamental aspects of the world.

I admire science journalists for the excellent work they do translating sciencese to the general public and highlighting what is interesting and important about scientific discoveries. I do think, however, that the practice of seeking contrary views should be done carefully, and choices made based on a broad and objective view of the relevant scientific field. That's a difficult task, but an important one.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Law & Science

News articles and editorials about Obama's possible Supreme Court justice candidates show how much has changed for women lawyers and judges in recent decades. Reagan apparently didn't have a lot of options for women candidates when he selected Sandra Day O'Connor. Clinton had more options when he selected Ruth Bader Ginsburg, but the pool of possible women candidates was still small.

Today that is no longer the case. Obama has a wide range of choices among highly qualified women and men representing diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

If Obama selects a woman to replace Souter, it will be particularly interesting because less than 2 years ago Souter was quoted as saying that all the "top" applicants for law clerks that year were men. I was skeptical about this and used the incident to discuss the concept of "top" applicants in general.

Why has the number of women reaching the upper levels of the legal profession changed so much in the past 20 years but the same is not the case for science and engineering in academia, government, or the private sector? The number of women students has increased tremendously, but the ceiling or the leaking pipeline or whatever symbol you want to use to explain the lack of women full professors, deans, directors, presidents and so on still exists for women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields.

Maybe there are so many differences between law and STEM that the question is pointless, but it caught my interest that one male dominated field changed so dramatically and another has not changed nearly as much.

Is part of the answer, at least in terms of comparing law with the physical sciences, that the legal profession has many more options and available positions, creating more opportunities?

When positions at a certain level are limited (Supreme Court law clerks and justices), however, and women are no longer the "top" candidates as often as men, do the differences between law and science diminish?

Mostly I am wondering, if it is reasonable to make any comparison between law and science, whether there is something we can learn from the evolution of the legal profession in recent decades that would help increase the number of women who choose and succeed in professions involving science, technology, engineering, and math or whether the differences are intrinsic to each field.

Friday, May 01, 2009

25% Solution

A recent article in about biomedical researchers scrambling for stimulus funding caught my attention because of this statement:

At the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, for instance, faculty members normally spend about 50 percent of their time working on grants, .. in March and April, however, faculty members have spent more like 75 percent to 90 percent of their time going after stimulus dollars.

The first part of the statement didn't surprise me at first, perhaps because the phrase is ambiguous. I interpreted 'working on grants' to mean 'working on grant-related activities', including writing proposals, but the second part of the sentence strongly suggests that this statement actually means that med school faculty typically spend 50% of their time writing proposals.

That's huge. It doesn't surprise me that the % time is higher than that of physical sciences faculty members, but I wouldn't have guessed that it was 50% (if that number is, in fact, correct).

The amount of time I spend working on proposals varies a lot from month to month, and in some cases from year to year, but it is definitely not 50%. If I spent 50% of my time writing proposals, I wouldn't have time to do the research that was funded by the grant. Yes, much of the research is done by graduate students and postdocs, but not all of it.

I like writing proposals, but I would not want to spend so much time attempting to acquire grants, leaving little or no time for doing science. For me, a reasonable % proposal planning and writing time that can potentially provide me with enough funding for research, not take over my life, and still let me enjoy both proposal-writing and science-doing is probably somewhere around 25% (±5). That number includes time thinking about proposals and thinking about thinking about proposals, not just the writing.

Has my proposal writing been affected by the appearance of stimulus funding? Only a little, mostly involving a request for some snazzy new equipment, as part of a large interdisciplinary group of scientists and engineers who all want the same snazzy new equipment.

Owing to the fact that I spend a lot of time doing various other professor things (for example, teach and write things other than proposals), there is no way that I could spend 90% of my time (or even 75%) on proposal writing, no matter how many hundreds of millions of dollars were in the offing.