Saturday, March 31, 2007

Troll Data

I very seldom censor comments on this blog, even if the comments are obnoxious. These negative comments are not so different from some of the negative reviews one gets from time to time for manuscripts or proposals or teaching, albeit the blog comments tend to be on the inarticulate and strange end of the scale of negative reviews. I guess I consider these comments to be a natural element of the blog ecosystem.

In some ways the annoying troll comments are like data outliers that you'd like to delete because they make the interpretation of the 'nice' data more difficult, but they are data nevertheless. In some cases, data outliers are important, and in some cases they mean something went wrong with the experiment or analysis or sample preparation or all of the above. Of course, I wouldn't want to hypothesize which of the latter possibilities explains these people.

The phenomenon of aggressively sexist men who frequently read and negatively comment on blogs that have a 'women in science' theme is interesting in a disturbing kind of way. The obnoxious comments certainly reinforce the point that many of us are making about what the scientific/academic culture is like for many of us.

I once got an external review comment from a semi-prominent person in my field in which the prominent person wrote that he 'never' reads my papers because he knows there will nothing interesting in them. I told a colleague about this, and whenever he encounters this particular person at a conference, he makes a point of asking "Hey, have you read that recent paper on X by FSP?" (i.e., me), and my colleague reports that the semi-prominent person always says yes, he's read the paper in question, and then discusses my paper in great detail. As far as I can tell from this secondhand information, this person who 'never' reads my papers has read everything I've published in the past 15 years. As long as he isn't writing any more reviews of my work, it's fine with me if he just lurks there in the background with the other academic trolls, though I know that he could well be a reviewer of my papers and proposals on some occasions. That's an unfortunate part of the academic ecosystem, but it hasn't yet stopped me from writing what I want to write.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Professional Service Can Be Fun

Compared to all the time I spend reviewing ghastly manuscripts and proposals, participating in stupid committees, and all the rest.. my experience with a recent teaching workshop was an amazingly anomalous positive experience with Professional Service. It was disconcerting at first to be working with a group of friendly people who listened to each other and laughed a lot. It was a multi-generational, gender-balanced, geographically disparate group. There was also a nice mix of college and university professors, and this provided a range of experiences to call on for the teaching materials we created.

I was the only one from a big R1 university, but I felt right at home at this workshop. At a previous teaching workshop I attended, I felt isolated because the workshop was 98% professors from small colleges, and many of the topics discussed were irrelevant to the realities of teaching at a large university. This recent workshop, however, was an invitation-only event in which the organizer specifically selected a small group of people with particular expertise. We tackled the problem of how to teach some of the more difficult theoretical and applied aspects of our field. This was something my fellow workshop participants and I had all given a lot of thought to, but each had done so largely independently, and it was fascinating to get together to share ideas and create materials that can be used by others.

I arrived at the workshop very tired from all the traveling I've been doing this month, so it was also great that the trip was very worthwhile. I feel like I've been away from my family too much lately, but fortunately I don't have to go away again for nearly 2 weeks.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Space Wars

My department/division/university has been reevaluating how lab and other work space is allocated to faculty. Space is limited, but for as long as I've been here, some faculty members with no research programs (no students, no postdocs, no grants, no activity) have retained their lab space. There is one particular lab in my building that is used only to store a faculty member's bicycle, and another that has not been entered at all in years. This has long annoyed me and others, as several of my colleagues and I are pressed for space and could use those labs for scientific purposes.

Taking away someone's lab space is a tricky thing, politically, or so I've been told. I would think that having an unused lab would be stressful for the lab 'owner', but my unproductive colleagues don't seem to be losing any sleep over it. I don't see how anyone can justify their clinging to these spaces, but no administrators have wanted to 'go there'.

It's possible that things might be changing now. We are increasingly being asked to justify our use of space, including generating sufficient indirect costs from grants to justify our the lab space we each currently have. I think this might be a humane way to reclaim some of this space. It makes the lab reassignment much less a personal issue, and more one of stark economics. I wouldn't advocate that someone lose their lab if they have a gap in funding, but only if the lack of funding was the result of a long term lack of any effort even to seek funding.

Even so, it's difficult to escape the personal aspects of it. My department chair asked me today what I would do with one of these unused lab spaces if he reassigned it to me, and I had lots of ideas. This lab would have to be reassigned against the will of the current faculty member whose lab it is. I asked the chair how he would go about this reassignment, and he wasn't sure. If he does move forward with this, I strongly recommended that he phrase it in terms of indirect costs and long term grant/proposal activity, so that the situation wasn't set up as Me vs. SeniorGuy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Fine Academic Lines

There's a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive (or even.. shrill?).

There's a fine line between criticism and constructive criticism.

There's a fine line between being supportive of a struggling grad student and prolonging a bad situation that should terminated.

There's a fine line between being mature and being a doormat.

There's a fine line between educating and entertaining.

There's a fine line between careful consideration and indecisiveness.

There's a fine line between being sane and not sane.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007


Years ago, a certain senior professor in my field slammed my nomination for an award, saying that I published 'too much' and therefore my getting such an award would only reward this behavior. The award went instead to a young male scientist who had published too much. Fast forward to this week.. this same senior professor wants to collaborate with me. He sent me an email, proposing a project that relies on my expertise and my lab. Should I write back and say "OK, we can do this, but only if we don't publish the results?". Of course I won't. I'll say sure, we can do this.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Equal Opportunity Invisibility

This morning I was at a meeting with 6 other scientists. None of us had ever met before, and for the first 10 minutes I was the only woman at the meeting. Then, in rushed another FemaleScientist. She went around the table, shaking everyone's hand. Except mine. No eye contact, no recognition that I was sitting at the table. I introduced myself, and noticed her surprise when she realized I was a scientist too. I don't mean knock down the (northern) European science environment yet again, but the other FemaleScientist is from a northern European country. Perhaps she had never encountered a FemaleScienceProfessor before? Once I established myself as a real participant at the meeting (i.e., not the secretary), she was very friendly and the group had no trouble discussing the topics at issue.

Even if I had been attending the meeting as a FemaleSecretary, I still think she should have acknowledged my existence, but, alas, it is not unusual for scientists (male, female) worldwide to lack some pretty basic social skills.

I wonder how many of these petty slights would disappear if scientists mastered some fundamental skills of social interaction. Perhaps someone could make a little laminated card for us to carry around, with useful instructions.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

More Medieval History

More from my far-flung correspondent (see previous post for first part), reporting on his recent experience on a search committee at his European university; note that the letters "A.H.", as in "Professor A.H.", are not the person in question's initials:

"The university in question has an equal opportunity policy and an equal opportunity officer is allowed to sit on committees, but practice is quite different. Officers will sit on committees only if they are invited to do so, and they are rarely invited to do so. Yet, a report must be written to justify why female applicants are not selected for an interview, which is most of the time. So Professor A.H. had an obvious solution for the report: 'Since there are very few women in this field, of course no female candidates will be selected for an interview'. When I pointed out to him that there are nearly as many women Ph.D.s as men in this field, he said that this may be true in the parts of the field involving 'softer' science but certainly not in hard science."

Friday, March 23, 2007

Letter From (Medieval) Europe

One of my European colleagues has just relayed to me a description of an all-male search committee meeting he recently attended. With his permission, I relate some of the more amazing things he reported:

- One committee member remarked that he was glad a particular female candidate included her photo on her CV because it was good to know that she is ugly, so he didn't have to have any qualms about disregarding her application.

- A committee member grumbled about how applications from Americans did not include information about marital status even though this information is important in the job search.

- A committee member said that women can be in 'soft' types of science disciplines but certainly nothing hard, and that is why there are so few women in the physical sciences and why the committee didn't need to justify not interviewing any.

Certainly there are some members of this committee who are not outright hostile to women scientists, but I think a woman would have to be Marie Curie to get an interview at that place, and maybe not even then, depending on whether committee members found her sufficiently attractive.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Mommy Card

This has been one of those academic 'perfect storm' weeks in terms of having a huge number of events occur in the same week, sometimes at the same time. At one point today, I realized I needed to be in two different places on campus at the same time. I have not had breakfast or lunch for days. Adding to what would have been an insanely busy week anyway, my husband has been out of town most of the week, our daughter was in a school play, I organized a 2-day workshop, and I am hosting two international visitors. I leave town this weekend, soon after my husband returns, and I am not yet ready for that trip or for the 2 trips that will follow it in quick succession. Add to that some teaching, meetings, deadlines, students, the undergrad class I am taking.. You get the idea. It's actually been a fun week, albeit hectic.

I've been doing just fine, mostly, and even worked things out so that I could have several dinners with the visitors (thanks to help from babysitters). Tonight, however, The School Play was taking place in the evening, so I arranged for four of my grad students to have dinner with the visitors, one of whom is leaving tomorrow. This afternoon, a postdoc (not one of mine) criticized me in front of a group of faculty and students for not having dinner with the departing guest on the last night of his visit. This postdoc is from the same country as the visitor, and on that basis felt compelled to point out my apparently rude behavior. Perhaps I was violating some etiquette rule in that country, but my visitor was aware of why I wasn't dining with him tonight -- we had dinner together last night, and spent some time talking about our families -- and he was looking forward to spending time with the students. My grad students are perfectly capable of entertaining a visitor. They are doing exciting research, and are friendly, interesting people.

I explained to the concerned postdoc that my daughter was in a school play this evening, but I got the feeling that this only partly excused me. The "mommy card" is not an ace, by any means.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Real Men & Diversity

Discussion at a faculty meeting:

Department Chair: Some of you may be interested in an upcoming visit to the university by a group from University A to share information about their program to increase the participation of women in science, engineering, and math. [hands around an informational memo, including the list of names of the visitors]

Young Male Colleague: Hey, I know X! [mentions name of one of the visitors]. What is HE doing going around talking about women's issues? He's a real scientist! And a guy!

Me: Men can be involved in helping solve the problem of the underrepresentation of women in science, engineering, and math.

Young Male Colleague: No, I mean, this guy isn't effeminate or anything. He's really a.. a.. a.. a guy!

Senior Female Colleague: Perhaps he is transgendered.

Young Male Colleague, missing the obvious sarcasm, and offended on behalf of the Real Guy: I can assure you that he is nothing of the sort.

Me: He must be a eunuch then.

[Chair steps in and changes the subject]

I wish I were making this up, but alas, I am not.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Ethics Overload

My university has had some Issues over the years with ethical lapses of one sort or another, mostly involving biomedical faculty and researchers. Their occasional lapses result in an ever-changing set of university-wide requirements for ethics training for all faculty, researchers, and grad students.

I didn't mind this at first, and even volunteered to lead some of the ethics training sessions for grad students, as it was clear that there were some ethical issues that needed to be discussed with students: plagiarism of course, but also issues like authorship, data ownership, lab safety, etc. I also wanted the students to have access to resources for help with problems that might arise, or at least to know where to look for resources.

Faculty were initially required to attend 6 hours of workshops in ethics training. These workshops were completely useless. The people running them were not faculty, and had no experience with managing grants or people or labs or anything relevant to the topics being discussed. This requirement has gradually been expanded. There are some training activities we have to participate in every year, others every 3 years; some are online activities, some are in-person activities. All have been useless in a practical sense, and only have value in reminding us to take ethical issues seriously. If we don't get checked off for all the required ethics training activities, we aren't allowed to have grants.

If I were perfect and 100% in compliance with ethics requirements, I would have 4 different printers in my office, or I would have one printer with 4 different sets of ink cartridges and 4 sets of paper, and I would only print items for a particular project with that project's designated printer or printing materials. I would have all my office supplies designated by project as well, and would never use the X Project pen to write something related to the Y Project. I am not making up an obviously absurd situation -- this is what faculty were advised to do in one of the ethics sessions I attended. The person leading the session admitted under torture that she didn't really expect us to do this, but that she had to tell us to do it so that her responsibilities were covered and she wouldn't be to blame if we were busted by our funding agencies for using the wrong pen or printing supplies.

I am not a biologist; my scientific research does not involve human or animal subjects or their tissues or bodily fluids or thoughts or cultures or anything like that. Yet I am supposed to educate myself about policies regarding the Acquisition, Use, and Disposal of Human Bodies, just as an example. Is this a good use of my time? In fact (confession of ethical lapse!), I don't read those things. Instead, I peruse some of the nifty relevant things in the ethics training documents, like that I cannot use my NSF travel money to pay the difference between an economy airfare and a higher-class airfare. It wouldn't have occurred to me to do that, but I suppose there are those who gave it a try. So I check off the box that says I have read everything, but I do not print out the form to remind myself of all the important things I have learned. I don't know which printer to use.

Perhaps as more people acquire expertise with ethical issues in science and academia, the training activities can be better tailored for specific disciplines, but for now, these one-size-fits-all requirements and enforced workshops with talking head administrators seem to be generating widespread faculty contempt and loathing for ethics training requirements.

Monday, March 19, 2007

For What I'm Worth

Today I did something that I knew in advance was guaranteed to annoy me: I acquired the publically-available list of faculty salaries in my department. I could have done this at any time in the past decade or so, but never cared to. Now it turns out that it is useful information for me to know what is possible for a salary range, in preparation for negotiations about whether to stay at this university or go to another one.

Did it surprise me that my most coeval male colleague makes $11k/year more than I do? Yes, the magnitude of the difference surprised me, but I am not surprised that he makes more than I do. For the most part, salary correlates with productivity and prestige, scaled with seniority (or time spent as an administrator). My husband and I are both outliers on the low side (salary seems low in the context of our seniority/productivity), and there is one outlier on the high side -- a long-time unproductive senior faculty member who makes a much higher salary than most others in the department. He's up there with the big guys in terms of salary, despite decades of not having grants, not publishing etc.; and he has never been an administrator nor has he ever been recruited by another university. At my present rate, I would never attain his salary.

My husband and I mused about whether our salaries are unusually low compared to our peer group of faculty because the previous department chair considered us as a 'unit'. Our two faculty salaries combined might have seemed large to him (especially since his wife doesn't work?), and he kept both our salaries lower than the average (but the combined sum was higher than most -- but not all! -- of the other individual faculty salaries). It's just a hypothesis, but it might explain why, year after year, our merit raises are smaller than those of colleagues who are less productive.

I can't say I'm glad I know all these salary numbers now, but the data will be very useful.

Professor Ego

Lately I've been talking to academic friends and acquaintances who have made mid-career moves to other universities. In particular, I have been talking to those in academic couples, in which 2 senior hires are involved.

In one case, one member of the couple didn't have a tenure track job at the first university and doesn't at the new one, but the non-tenure track position at the new university is slightly better, and the new university is better overall for both of them.

In another case, one member of the couple is giving up a tenured professor position at the old university to take a research scientist position at the new university, so that they can both move to a better university. This is the case that has been making me really think. I'm not going to say whether it's the husband or the wife giving up the full professor position to become a research scientist (reluctantly, I should mention) because what I have been thinking most about is whether it matters. And whether I could do that myself -- that is, give up being a Professor to become a Research Professor. There's no real difference in status in my field between the two, so that's not the issue. Even so, I don't think I could, and I don't think my husband could. Even if I were allowed to teach as a research scientist, I would still feel like I was giving up something important, perhaps in part because I worked so hard to get where I am.

For me, this is just a thought exercise because all the positions my husband and I are considering at the moment are full professor positions for both of us. But what if one of us were offered our 'dream job' and the other were offered something else? This was our fear way back when we were searching for our first tenure-track positions, and I thought that kind of anxiety was over and done with. This is different (we do have jobs), but the stress of wanting to finding 2 jobs that we both like in a place we both like feels the same.

It's strange to think that it would be so hard to give up being a Professor. If I were a research scientist instead of a professor, the things I would be giving up are the things I like the least -- meetings, meetings, and more meetings. In addition, my opinions are ignored now, when I am a Professor, so what would be so different about being in a position in which I officially had no say in department governance? It would be different, and I guess I'm realizing that that difference is important to me.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Passive-Aggressive Control-Freak Slacker Advisor

Advising grad students is probably the most difficult part of being a professor at a research university. I enjoy it immensely, most of the time, but it is impossible to get the right balance of giving 'just enough' advice and assistance but not too much or too little. Too much = controlling; too little = uncaring, disengaged. And every student is different in terms of their abilities (intellectual, self-motivation etc.) and preference for amount of advisor input. It is a stressful relationship at times. It is very easy to accuse even the most caring advisor of not giving enough information/structure/advice, or being too critical, or of expecting too much.

My advisor was totally disengaged from what his students were doing. He had a sink-or-swim attitude, and many students sank. I thought that all I would have to do to be a better advisor to my own students was to be tuned in, accessible, and encouraging, and to provide them with sufficient financial support to do their research. Wrong.

My approach is to be as accessible as possible, as consistent and fair as possible, and as calm as possible. Or, I should say, that is my goal. My success varies depending on the situation. Some situations are difficult for everyone: students with depression, disabling physical illness, substance abuse problems, family/personal crises, in addition to all the academic problems that can arise even without these issues. There doesn't seem to be a how-to manual for things like "How To Advise a Heroin Addict". I could write one, but it would be short, as the answer ended up being "You can't".

A student once said to me "My therapist says you are passive-aggressive towards me." This student had previously told me that he had been diagnosed with an 'anxiety disorder', and I was glad that he was getting help, but not sure I wanted to know what his therapist thought of me (and what information that was based on). I asked my student to give examples so we could talk about it, but he didn't want to give me any examples. I thought that was rather passive-aggressive of him.. (and no, this student did not finish his degree).

Passive-aggressive is a rather easy (and unfair) label to give to any advisor. For example, I think many of us hold back on criticism at particular times, but are more open with it at others, depending on the context of the situation, but thereby giving the impression that one is 'secretly' critical at some times, only to attack at others.

Fortunately or unfortunately, grad-advisor relationships have years to develop and evolve, and, in most cases, over time we can figure out a way to work well together.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

100% Men

One of my most excellent male colleagues currently has a research group that consists only of men -- all the research scientists, grad students, undergrad research assistants, and technical people are male, much to my colleague's dismay. It hasn't always been so, but in a male-dominated field, random fluctuations in a lab population can result in this situation. My colleague's fear is that he will be unable to attract women students or postdocs to his group because of it, and the all-male situation will self-perpetuate. He has been unable to recruit any women to his group for the past few years, the same length of time his group has been 100% male, although he has tried hard.

He has advised women students who have gone on to successful careers, but they went into industry rather than academia and so are not widely known in academia. His male graduates are all still in academia, so when academics think of my colleague and his former advisees, they think of these guys.

When recruiting prospective students and postdocs, my colleague highlights the accomplishments of his past students, not only because he is proud of them, but also in part to show that he has successfully advised a diverse group of students. He also doesn't mind being asked by prospective students about his record of advising women.

He is very aware that the dynamics in the lab are different when it's a group of guys, and he wants to change that, but it can be a challenge when he's competing for students and postdocs with some excellent women faculty at other institutions. If everyone felt like my colleague, just think how many great options there would be for women scientists -- and eventually these womenless research groups would no longer exist.

So, for anyone out there who is considering their options regarding potential advisors and research groups, if there are no women in the group currently, it's worth asking about the history of the advisor/group. If you don't feel comfortable asking the faculty member, you can probably get the information some other way -- from the director of admissions/graduate studies, other students, your undergrad advisor, or from some web-searching. You might find that the lack of women is an anomaly that the advisor wishes to fix, or you might find out that there is an insidious reason for it. Both are worth knowing so you can make the best decision.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bad Science & Literature

I didn't think I was one of those people for whom a book (fiction or non-science non-fiction) was ruined because of 'bad science' in it, but maybe I am. My husband is definitely one of those people. He will throw down a novel upon encountering a sentence -- or even a phrase -- that shows ignorance of some scientific principle or event. It ruins the book for him completely, and he loses all faith in the author as someone with worthwhile things to say, even in a novel. I am more accepting of 'bad science' in literature, but have encountered a few recent examples that gave me pause.

There is a lot of goofy science in "Special Topics in Calamity Physics" (Marisha Pessl), but I didn't mind that. The whole book is an over-the-top crazy jumble of analogies, scientific and otherwise. On the other hand, I recently stopped reading an award-winning biography of a non-scientist because the author had a section on an ancillary scientific issue, and it was so wrong it was absurd. I stopped reading the book after that section, even though it wasn't important to the overall content of the book. Perhaps I had a negative reaction because it was a non-fiction book -- if the author got that part wrong, what about the rest of it? Didn't the author show that part of the text to a scientist for checking?

On a few occasions in the past decade, I have been contacted by fiction-writers asking me questions about my field of science so that they could get a particular scene, concept, or scientific character 'right'. I enjoy doing this, especially if it increases the visibility of science and scientists in an accessible and fun way. Alas, most of these books have been thrillers, and the scientists have been evil men using their brilliant brains to acquire power and/or money, not caring if they destroyed some or all of the world in the process.

By chance, a few years after one of these books was published, I visited a particular university that was mentioned by name in the book, and asked people there about the book. They hastened to assure me that their department chair was not actually a homicidal maniac out to destroy the world, nor did he manipulate grad students or prey on women students. I wasn't sure whether to admit having seen this novel in manuscript form, in case people thought I had approved of the ghastly depiction of science and scientists. In fact, the author ignored essentially all of my advice, and fortunately I am not acknowledged by name in that book, although I read and commented on several chapters .. which makes me wonder if other examples of 'bad science' or misconceptions about academia in books are there despite advice to the contrary.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Anti-Mentors, part 2

A while ago, I wrote about anti-mentors who actively discourage young scientists (in particular women) from pursuing their careers. I wrote in particular about 2 evil ones I had encountered in my academic life. There are other kinds of anti-mentors, though, including.. me.

I have long been aware, even in the pre-blog era, that I am an anti-mentor to some people, in the sense that they see what my life/career is like and decide they don't want to have that kind of life/career. Anti-mentor isn't really the right term for this, as I am not actively trying to discourage students who would otherwise have a happy, fulfilling career in academia/science. But the effect is the same in the end. I have seen this effect on some of my own students (male and female), and I see it in blog comments from time to time.

To put a positive spin on it, perhaps people who wouldn't enjoy this kind of life are finding that out by seeing examples of what life is like for a science professor at a big research university, and perhaps it's better to find that out sooner rather than later. I think I have the greatest job in the world and can't imagine doing anything else that I'd enjoy so much, but maybe if I didn't have that passion for research and teaching and all the rest of it, the negative aspects of the job would drive me crazy.

I hope that all the anecdotes and other reports about how women are treated unfairly do not discourage anyone who is passionate about science. It's still worth pursuing this career if you think that's what you want to do. It's worth pursuing it at a personal level, and it's worth it at a global level: the world will be a better place when there are more women scientists and science professors.

There have been major positive changes for women in science in the decades since I was a student. We can continue to change the culture of academia for the better by being a major part of the culture instead of existing mostly as isolated individuals. I hope, therefore, that overall more women are encouraged than discouraged.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Assortative Mating

There have been a number of stories in the news in the past year or so about the social and other implications of 'like marrying like'. In this case 'like' doesn't refer to cultural background or social class, as marrying within those groups has occurred for eons, but in the context of education and career achievement level.

The reasons why well-educated, high-achieving women tend to marry similarly well-educated, high-achieving men are obvious.

There is an op-ed essay by Judith Warner on this topic in the New York Times today.

"Some economists worry that the concentration of income in high-achieving two-earner homes is aggravating the wealth gap."

I can see how assortative mating of high-income people might have economic implications, but isn't this a second order effect compared to the phenomenon of significant numbers of women having high-paying jobs and high-achieving careers for the first time in history? My knowledge of economics is quite low, but I would be surprised if assortative mating has a more significant effect on the gap between rich and poor than do the regressive economic policies of the current administration in Washington DC.

Where I have trouble following the thread of the discussion about the negative implications of assortative mating is when I read statements like these (also from the op-ed article):

"Some evolutionary psychologists say that pumping up certain kids' genes for intelligence will increase the achievement gap (by creating supersmart kids)..."


".. assortative mating among people with great skills in understanding and building systems, like engineers and economists, may be linked to the greater number of autistic children." (and not just autism, but also bipolar disorder and anorexia)

I am of course quite willing to believe that a college education does great things for one's mind and intellectual abilities, but surely there have always been smart women, even if undereducated and underrepresented in certain careers? For the quotation above to be valid, marriages between very intelligent women and much less intelligent men must once have been very common, and this must have been a good thing for the gene pool; the term "hybrid vigor" is mentioned in the NYT article -- what a repugnant phrase when applied to humans. Clearly, less-educated women used to marry better-educated men, but is that a rigorous indicator of "hybrid vigor"?

Is anyone keeping a list of how many of society's ills are the result of women having increased educational and career opportunities?

Friday, March 09, 2007

Rose-Colored Review Glasses

One of my students just got reviews back for his first paper ever. I think the reviews are great, but he was devastated by them. To survive the review process, you've got to look at reviews through a certain type of lens or filter that allows you to ignore the useless comments from cranky reviewers and extract the essence. In this case, the essence is very positive. One reviewer, an associate editor, and the uber-editor used words like "superb", "will have a major impact", "of broad interest", and "very well-written". The cranky review is short and vague. We will do a serious revision, write a thorough and thoughtful cover letter, resubmit the manuscript, and I have every confidence that the paper will be published.

I think my student's disappointment comes in part from an unrealistic expectation that if you work extremely hard on an interesting paper and have excellent data, well-written text, beautiful figures, and all the rest, that the reviews will all be positive. That does happen occasionally, but when it doesn't.. it's not the end of the world (or your career). I hope his disappointment will be short-lived and supplanted by the thrill of his first paper's being accepted and published in the near future.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

On Middle Age

I've always wanted to write a paper with a title that begins with "On..". Well, not really, but maybe when I'm older and wiser I will.

In the meantime, today I was thinking about something that is great about being a Middle Aged Professor. I am young enough that my former professors are still active but old enough that some of my former students are now professors. It's hard to explain why this is so great, but as an example, later this spring I will attend a small meeting that will also be attended by my advisor from college and by one of my former students who is now a professor. They are my 'academic family', and, at least in this case, it is a family of people who like each other.

Why am I being so positive today? Even I need to take a break from complaining once in a while. Also, I have a colleague who is trying to decide whether to stay at or leave the university where he is now, and we were talking today about what we like and don't like about where we're at with our careers. Today we avoided talking about the stupid details of what we like and dislike, and kept the discussion a bit more cosmic about being a mid-career professor and how to decide where to spend the rest of it. The where part is tricky, but I feel more confident about the other aspects of my life/career: why I do this job, how I do this job, and so on.

And in case anyone is worried that I spend too much time being analytical about myself rather than scientific things.. I also submitted a paper.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Who Wants To Know?

If a faculty member is considering leaving their department for another university, but isn't at all sure whether he/she will stay or go and doesn't want their department (other than a few close colleagues) to know about his/her potential departure and has grad students who would be stressed out (perhaps unecessarily) if they knew and who is in the middle of trying to recruit new graduate students.. what's the best way to deal with all that? Being completely open about everything doesn't seem like the best plan, but being secretive doesn't feel so great. Providing partial information seems pointless. It is important to note that this person would never abandon their grad students and researchers and would work out the best possible arrangement with lots of lead time (1 year at least) to organize things.

In reality of course, it's not up to the possibly-departing faculty member to control the flow of information because rumors fly anyway. So maybe it is best to be open with people who would be affected, if they are going to hear possibly unsettling information from other sources anyway.

Monday, March 05, 2007

STEM cells

By coincidence, just as I was spending a lot of time in the past week being a Role Model and advisor for groups of graduate and undergraduate women in science, I also saw the movie "The Gender Chip". If you haven't seen it, it's a movie, available on DVD, that follows the undergraduate careers of a small group of young women at Ohio State University as they work their way through science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.

An aspect of the movie that rang very true was the clear depiction of the dedication and energy of the women, even while plagued with some doubts about what their futures will be like. Such doubts are normal for most undergraduates, but for these and many women, the doubts focus on whether their careers will stop completely when they have kids, perhaps just a few years after they get started with the careers they have worked so hard to achieve.

Another 'true' part of the movie is the contention that young women today won't put up with being treated as less able than men in an academic setting. I saw this in action last week when I met with a group of young women (undergraduate and graduate students) who made it very clear that they know how good they are. They know that they are smart, dedicated, and hard-working, and that this should lead to many opportunities. Most of their stories about being treated as having inferior abilities or intellects compared to men came from their experiences with jobs and internships, not from academia. If there is a bright side to that, it's that these women are gaining a lot of self-confidence from their academic experiences.

I saw the Gender Chip movie before I looked at the movie/project's webpage, and was surprised to see that it is being promoted as a tool for encouraging, inspiring, or recruiting young women to pursue careers in STEM. I'd be interested to see how successful it is at that goal. I liked the movie overall, but I didn't get a very good sense for "What is it like to be a young woman training in college for a career in the high stakes professions of science, math, engineering and technology?" or "When gender collides with our cultural assumptions about who can flourish in these fields, how are young women changing the real and practical terms of engagement?" [quotes from Gender Chip website].

I suppose it helps for pre-college girls to see 'real' women doing well and being passionate about science, engineering, math. One of my favorite parts of the movie was when one of the young women talks emphatically about how much she loves concrete, steel, and asphalt.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

It's The Thought That Counts

Our department doesn't pay visiting speakers other than covering their travel expenses, except when we bring a speaker in as part of a college/university wide program, in which case there is a small honorarium. However, we typically give a small gift emblazoned with the name of our department and university, just for fun. We recently changed the type of little gift we give, and the decision about the new gift item was made by an administrative assistant. I think she made a rather strange choice, but these are just tokens anyway, so it doesn't really matter. However, it got me thinking about all the various items, gizmos, and assorted other tokens I have received in recent years when I've been a visiting speaker. Once or twice a year, I give a talk at a place that gives a small honorarium, but more typically there is either no tangible gift (this is very fine with me) or there is some token gift. A brief inventory of my office turned up the following items emblazoned with the names/logos of places I have visited:

- several mugs
- a couple of T-shirts
- a lapel pin/cufflink thing
- a laser pointer/pen
- miscellaneous office supply items (folders, pens, pencils, mousepad)
- a hideous but fortunately small clock

I use the mugs, pens, and laser pointer. The T-shirts are all much too large for me; I suppose I am smaller than most visiting speakers in my field. The pin thing gets the designation as the most useless token gift, but I had a nice time at the university that presented me with the pin, so mostly I think of it as a memento of an interesting trip.

Perhaps I should collect all these things in one place and make a little display -- a sort of weird academic token collection/museum.

If anyone reading this has ever given a talk at a university and been presented with some of these types of things: what's your favorite item and what's the weirdest item you've gotten?

Friday, March 02, 2007

Some Days Are Stranger Than Others

Today I met for the first time a certain scientist from another country. I had read some of his papers a while ago, and I was interested to talk to him. He was also interested to talk to me, so a colleague arranged for us to meet today. When I was introduced to him, he looked really surprised and he stared at me in a rather strange way. I just started talking anyway, but after a few minutes, he asked me if I were really the same person who had written the such-and-such paper in 19xx and the so-and-so paper in 19xx and some others he listed. Yes, indeed I was that person. He just shook his head and said "I was not expecting you to look like you do." Hmm. If I had more social skills than I do, I might have had a ready response to that, but as it was, I was perplexed into silence. I waited for him to explain, or not. Finally he said "I've been reading your papers for so long, I expected you to be old and have gray hair." "And glasses?" I asked, helpfully. "Yes, and glasses!" he replied. Then, with that out of the way, we talked about Science for a couple of hours. It turns out we are the same age and have been publishing for the same length of time, so I don't know why he expected me to look so much older than he does.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Not A News Flash

Today I was talking with some women colleagues about Research, Careers, Life etc. I don't know these women well, if at all, so it was interesting to hear about their lives and how they are managing the cosmic balance between family life and a job that requires an infinite amount of time. The women whose husbands/partners do a substantial amount of childcare, cooking, housework etc. are doing fine - their lives are crazy, of course, but they are feeling like the career-family thing is doable. These women each have 1 child. I include myself in this group. The women whose husbands/partners do not help much at home were also doing OK, but were a lot more worried about their careers and their families: they worried more that they weren't doing well with either. In this group, these women all had 2 or more children. I think what they are doing is amazing, even if I don't understand their family arrangements (why don't their husbands help more?). It would have been interesting for comparative purposes if there had been a woman with an equal-partner husband and multiple children and a woman with an unhelpful husband but only 1 child, but there were none in this group.