Tag Archives: Science

Raising New Scientists: Kelsey Johnson and the Dark Skies, Bright Kids! Program

At my recent conference experience, I had the distinct privilege of meeting Kelsey Johnson, an associate professor of astronomy at the University of Virginia. Apart from her natural sense of humor and deep knowledge of astronomy and the early universe, Dr. Johnson is a writer in her spare time. She writes both fiction and non-fiction, and mentioned a current project of writing a non-fiction book to teach parents how to raise scientifically-literate, inquisitive children. We spent a fair amount of time one evening discussing the topic, and later I discovered that she has also started a non-profit program in Virginia to help bring more astronomy into children’s lives.

Dark Skies, Bright Kids! is a volunteer-run program founded to try to add to children’s existing science education in a way that both highlights astronomical concepts, and teaches them that learning science is fun. Dr. Johnson says it best in her interview with University of Virginia radio station WTJU’s Soundboard program: she hopes Dark Skies, Bright Kids! can teach kids that science isn’t about memorizing the textbook or taking tests; it’s about play. She touches on a really important phenomenon in science education, namely that kids start out in life curious, exploring their worlds, but later on often learn that science is boring, dry, or even scary.

This is something that I’ve mentioned before on this space and thought about on my own beyond that. So much of science outreach is aimed at “making science fun” for the target audience, but what if we could find a way to help developing minds maintain a mental association between their natural curiosity and scientific exploration? We wouldn’t need to correct the idea that science is boring because we wouldn’t let that idea take hold in the first place. To that end, Dark Skies, Bright Kids! offers after school programs, a summer camp, and even a website of resources for parents to create lesson plans or projects to do with their kids outside of school.

I’ve written before about how my first lesson on quantum mechanics came from a 10-year-old boy that I met as a counselor at a drama camp when I was in high school. Children are absolutely interested in science and want to explore, and having programs outside of classroom formalism is, in my opinion, one of the best ways to nurture this natural curiosity. And maybe by raising kids who don’t think science is scary or boring, we could find ourselves living in a world in the future where more people wanted to learn and understand scientific ideas from a multitude of disciplines.

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Research Nails: How the Lab Stays with You

The other day, I looked down at my hands and realized that, despite being out of laboratory research for over a year now, I still had “lab nails.” What are lab nails, you may ask. Well, when I was working in a lab, I had to keep my nails short and neat and generally unpolished. When I worked in optics, I would tend to use my finger nails as screwdrivers for tiny bolts, so I tended to keep them short to avoid this habit. Plus, I couldn’t have flaking nail polish. In my fabrication-heavy job, I needed nails that wouldn’t tear through gloves, and I wouldn’t bother with nail polish because I worked with solvents (which, yes, should stay off my hands if I’m properly PPE-ed, but things happen).

It’s these little ways that a lab environment stays with you. Physically, it took a little while before I felt fully comfortable dressing for my job without assuming I’d need to change pump oil during the day. Or wearing makeup on a regular basis. Or, yes, actually getting my nails done occasionally. But on a deeper level, I was coming from an environment where most of your coworkers treat their job, their research as one of their primary identities. They are Scientists, first and foremost. No one in my office now seems to think of themselves as primarily identified by their job. They have hobbies and outside interests. There’s the guy who’s really into baseball, or the woman who trains horses, or the guy who grows vegetables.

But in research, you are a Scientist. There are those who consider any serious outside hobby as somehow lessening your dedication to The Science. When I ran a marathon, I actually kept it a secret from my labmates for fear that they would assume I was somehow less dedicated to the research, even though I didn’t spend any less time actually in the lab. But just knowing that I was doing something with my time that wasn’t thinking about the research seemed taboo.

Even now, I look at D, who has finished his thesis and works much more manageable hours, and he spends so much of his time outside of work actually doing work. He’s reading papers. Or he’s hashing out plans for the lab while we’re chatting on our weekend run. Ironically, because I no longer work in a lab, I’m a bit more amenable to discussing lab things on the side. But that’s because all of a sudden, I get to leave my work at work.

And this was one of the ways that I decided to pursue work outside of the lab. To investigate ways to connect with science, to use my science knowledge, without working in a lab. This is how I decided to become a scientist instead of A Scientist. It never sat well with me, the idea that if you work in a lab, your life is the lab. I know there are people who can balance this, but it is largely implicitly expected, at least at the early stages of scientist pupation, that you are utterly devoted to your research. Any other interest takes a back seat. It’s one of the reasons I never tried to get back into community theater while in grad school, despite the fact that I had pretty flexible hours and didn’t tend to have to get to work early. I knew that if something came up, I’d have to prioritize the lab.

So now that I’ve moved out of grad school, and then out of research, I find myself opening myself to more new hobbies and interests. I can throw myself into acting projects without worrying that I might end up having to stay several hours later because something broke in the lab. I know my schedule because work is work and my time is my time. I am a scientist, yes, but I am also an actor and a writer. A baker. A crafter.

And yet, I still have stubby little nails, devoid of polish. Not because I don’t want to, but just because making them pretty isn’t a habit I got into. Because some thing stay with you.

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On Politics, Women in Science, and Being a White Woman in Science

There is a group who has gained some recognition recently, called 500 Women Scientists, which has published a pledge for all supporters of science and equality in the scientists to sign to show their support. I’ve signed it, along with over five thousand other people. And I recommend anyone else who supports science (woman or otherwise) sign the pledge.

But that is not what I’m here to talk about today. Because a new movement of equality founded and perpetuated largely by privileged white women has reminded me of another piece I read recently, one that has stayed with me longer, and one that I think deserves a larger voice. This piece, written by a black woman who has been through the trenches of graduate school, not just as a racial minority or as a woman, but as both, serves as a reminder that white feminism is not the only feminism and that white women are not just fighting for their representation in graduate school.

The author writes about her experience as the only woman of color in her mechanical engineering PhD program. The problem of not being able to find a woman to be your mentor? Well, you’re much less likely to find a woman of color. In fact, in my own graduate experience, I can’t remember one black student in my graduate class, and very few Latino students, plus a few South Asian. In fact, there was a black professor in our group who sent his white graduate student to a conference for Black and Hispanic Researchers as his representative because most of his students were white.

And while I would never want to minimize the struggles that face any minority group in STEM, it bears remembering that while my women colleagues may get together and think that things are getting better or not really notice that there’s any gender inequity in their research group, this is not the case for other minorities. The work still exists to be done and it needs to be inclusive. We need to commit ourselves to all diversity in STEM and not get lost in our specific struggle. I mean, if my undergraduate class thought I didn’t look like a physics grad student (and would say that to me face while I’m up there telling them how I’m going to be grading them), what would they have the nerve to say to someone who looks even more different than I do?

This is a bit of a short post for such an important subject. But that’s because it’s not really my topic to write about. Instead, I would welcome comments from those whose topic it is. Please educate me, and educate my readers, about what STEM is really like for all those who pursue it.

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Jenn’s Journal Club: Quantifying Scientific Impact

So since my current job involves a lot of reading of various journals, I come across a wide range of interesting papers on a regular basis. I thought I’d start sharing my thoughts occasionally if one really jumped out at me and today I think I have a perfect inaugural subject for this series: the study of scientific impact [1]. Impact in scientific publishing is a fascinating topic, to scientists and publishers alike. But for me, questions of impact speak to a deeper sense of self as a scientist. We constantly ask ourselves how we are doing professionally. We don’t necessarily get raises, promotions, or new titles often, but our work is constantly moving and changing. We can look at how well each paper does, but how can we tell if we’re poised for greatness, past our prime, or just plain missed the boat?

There is a feeling in Western society, at least, that people who are going to be great tend to show greatness from a young age. We look up to hear stories about Mozart, Pascal, and Gauss showing remarkable talent at a young age and we feel inadequate by the time we’re in high school. We hear about Bill Gates becoming a technology pioneer after dropping out of college and we feel inadequate by the time we graduate college and haven’t had our big break. And yet, the truth is that most scientists don’t have that one big break. This paper looked at the ones who did have a big break: Nobel Laureates.

For years, it’s been accepted that any most-significant output of a creative or scientific mind will come earlier in the career rather than later. And if you create a plot of the probability of a highly-significant (i.e., cited) paper from a scientist versus the time since that scientist’s first publication, you will find that this holds true. However, this plot is skewed by two things: one is that most scientists have a dropoff in publication frequency after an initial early-career rush, and the second is that papers published early have a longer time to gain citations. In order to remove these from the calculation, the authors plotted a different probability.

The authors of this study looked at over 200,000 authors who had been publishing in Physical Review journals for at least 20 years. They looked at a random paper in a given sequence of papers and plotted the probability that a paper will be significant versus its relative position in a history. So basically, how likely a paper is to be significant based on where it is in line. And with this change, they found that the probability distribution flattened, suggesting that the probability of a significant paper over time is actually random. They go on to fully develop and support this random-impact model, as they call it.

And this is major. This means that no matter when in your career you publish a paper, there is a chance it could be your most significant paper, over time. Sure, the paper that’s been out for 20 years is more likely to have more citations than the paper that’s been out for five years, but over time, this will flatten. Significant papers are random events, like cosmic ray bursts of genius. Which means that we don’t need to spend our youth frantically trying to make our mark and our middle years bemoaning that it never came.

1. Barabasi, et al, Science354, aaf5239 (2016).

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How to Be Like Me: My seminar on alternative science careers

Last month, I was invited to Northwestern University to give a seminar at the Department of Physics and Astronomy. Each semester, they invite one speaker who talks on a topic that is “outside of the box,” as my host put it. I was invited to share my experience moving from a research position into a non-research position as a scientist. As some of you may know, about a year ago, I left my second postdoc position to take a job at a scientific journal. It was an interesting experience to speak to a room full of young scientists about my career path, how I got there, and what I wish I’d known, and I thought I’d give some highlights.

First of all, I had a slight leg up on the average postdoctoral researcher, but only because I’d done enough government interviews to have an outfit that was appropriate for an interview situation. I could dress myself, at least. Apart from that, I was entering new territory.

But let’s back up a bit. As I told the audience, my journey to a publishing job really started years ago when I was trying to decide on a college major and what I wanted to do with my degree. I very briefly considered becoming a high school science teacher because the idea of teaching science appealed to me more than the idea of working in a lab. Now, while I currently realize that I do not want to stand up in front of a high school class every day for the next thirty years and teach them about force and reactions and how to blow things up and call it a “classroom demonstration,” I think I might have been onto something. I find current research fascinating. But I don’t want to sit in a lab and perform it. And working in science publishing gives me the opportunity to do just that.

So I guess the point is, you need to first know yourself and know why you’re looking at a job outside of research. Are you frustrated with the low rate of pay that tends to come with pursuing an academic career? Don’t go into publishing. There are plenty of non-academic and non-research jobs that will provide a higher starting salary to recent PhDs or former postdocs, but publishing doesn’t really seem to be one of them. But are you interested in learning about a lot of different new research without having to turn knobs in the lab? Publishing is where a lot of that research goes.

I suppose the biggest thing I wish I’d known before starting my job search was about the blog The Scholarly Kitchen. This is a blog that covers topics about science publishing and from which my boss sends me posts relating to my work regularly. I also wish I’d took a bit of time to learn more about the more advance capabilities of MS Word. And I had a brief section in my presentation about science writing credentials. While I don’t currently

What I did find useful were blogs about corporate life. I started reading Ask A Manager to get advice about navigating a more corporate interview process, but I stayed for the stories about crazy coworkers and bosses. I also referred to corporate style blogs like Capitol Hill Style (now The Work Edit, which is not quite what it was when I found it useful) and Corporette. As a woman, it can be hard to figure out what to wear to an interview, particularly since your choices are not limited to the color of suit, tie, and Oxford shirt to choose.

I definitely don’t regret leaving research, and I highly encourage anyone who’s considering it to at least check out their options. And organizing my thoughts about my career path has not only helped me organize my resources, but also reminded me just why I’m where I am. If anyone has questions about alternative science careers, I’d be happy to discuss in the comments.

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Great News, Guys: Sexism in Science is Over!

Okay, maybe not.

A recent study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences claims that they found that their hiring experiment shows that professors consider women twice as desirable as men when choosing candidates to hire from a stack of applications. Their conclusion is that the current lack of women in STEM fields is therefore not due to inherent bias, but due to women self-selecting out of the field.

Except their study bears no resemblance to an actual faculty search.

Scientists have responded to this study with a mixture of skepticism and outright anger, and they’re justified in doing so. By claiming that there’s no bias against women in technical fields, the researchers are placing the blame for the underrepresentation of women in the sciences squarely on the shoulders of women. They’re basically telling women to “stop underrepresenting yourself.” And yet, almost any woman could tell you some anecdote about being assumed to have less knowledge than a male at a field in which she is just as qualified as the guys. My own anecdotes are well-documented.

This article, written by a friend of mine, outlines in exactly which ways the PNAS study gets it wrong when they claim to study actual hiring practices. And in-person interviews are hard to study because there is no real way to make up for biases. Without being able to see the candidate, there’s no evaluation of body language that makes in-person interviewing useful. The closest examples that take into account a holistic view of bias might come from anecdotal evidence of scientists who have transitioned genders at a midpoint in their careers, although bias against transgender individuals is a whole different level of bias.

This article about the study also raises another important point: is it really the perception of gender bias that keeps women from pursuing higher education jobs in STEM fields? I would argue, no, that if a woman chooses to leave a STEM field, it is generally because there is little accommodation for the disproportionate role a woman is supposed to take in raising a family, or else because of some personal negative experience. I mean, I knew that it was “weird” to be a woman in physics, but that didn’t make the field less attractive. It just gave me a bit of advanced warning so I wasn’t surprised the first time I got patronizing comments from a professor.

And that’s the biggest problem I have with this study. If you tell women that this bias doesn’t really exist, then what does that say when they actually experience it for themselves? Without knowledge of bias as an existing issue, women in science who then experience bias might just chalk it up to one bad apple or, worse yet, their own oversensitivity. And that, I think, is even more likely to cause women to leave a field that they would otherwise enjoy. If you can take sexist comments, recognize them for what they are, and say “Eh, haters gonna hate,” it’s easier to go on with your career. Without a perception of ingrained bias, each negative experience becomes personal, which is actually worse.

So rather than declaring bias over based on one poorly-designed study, perhaps we should be addressing the causes of the very real biases in the sciences, not just against women, but against anyone who doesn’t fit the traditional perception of the nerdy, white, cis-male scientist.

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On Casual Prejudice and Remembering People’s Names

My colleague recently sent an email to the wrong person because they had a similar south Asian name to the person to whom he meant to send the email. He asked me, “Is that racist?” And, honestly, the answer is yes, a little bit. No, it’s not the kind of racist that causes people bodily harm, but it is an example of the little annoyances of standing out in a primarily white, male environment.

For another example: I used to be assumed to be a secretary by people I contacted from my old job, and now that I work for a female scientist, I’m often assumed to be her before I have a chance to introduce myself. As in, people say “Oh, you must be [boss’ name]” before I even open my mouth to actually tell them who I am. It’s not a problem with which most of my male colleagues have to deal. And, yeah, it’s kind of annoying to have it pointed out that, hey, what are the odds there are two of you in a single physics group?!

The really sad part is that I have a really common female name, and my boss has a very uncommon name. I mean, also we’re totally different people and look different.

Seriously, stop.

Because that’s the crux of the problem: it points out a person’s otherness. Yes, people with non-Western names are used to people mispronouncing their names. They’re used to being asked if they’re from the same country or city as another person who looks vaguely similar. It just highlights to them that you are judging them first and foremost by what you see, and that you don’t have the ability to distinguish between different people who aren’t the same race (or gender?!) as you.

Yes, I’m being hyperbolic. But it’s a real problem. Every time it happens, it’s an alarm going off, “you’re different, you’re different, you’re different,” in your head. It grates. As with the concept of “lighten up” in response to off-color jokes, it builds up. I promise you, your slip is not the first time this person has had to deal with this, even if you think it’s the first time you’ve made such a mistake. We notice the people who treat us like individuals, rather than a demographic group. But we’re going to be gracious and polite about it, because what else can we do?

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On Terry Pratchett, Discworld’s Scientists, and Profound Silliness

Terry Pratchett passed away today. He will be missed. In a way, he prepared his readers for this, both through interviews in which he expressed his wishes to die at a time of his choosing, and in his writing, where he never shied away from Death. In fact, Death was one of his best characters.

I always found his books enjoyable on many levels. On one level, I was utterly absorbed in his characters. On another level, his fantasy world was huge and comprehensive. It was explorable, like a video game. If you had enough of his books, it felt like you had traveled Discworld. And on another level, there was his depiction of academic sciences in the guise of the wizards. These academics — sorry, wizards — sat in their towers feeling vaguely superior and protecting their secrets. They had hierarchy and woe betide any who felt like messing with that. Pratchett outright said that magic is analogous to technology on Discworld in interviews, and the feelings of the general public towards the wizards is pretty similar to how much of the general public feels towards science.

So it was fun to see my own demesne mocked in a good-natured way. It reminded me to stay connected to the rest of the world, to learn how not to be a scientist-in-a-tower, but instead know how to bring this magic, even just a little bit of it, to anyone who was interested. And it reminded me that there is nothing inherently better or worse about a person because he or she chooses to pursue one career over another. Scientists aren’t smarter than other people, just different. Sometimes very different.

But it was Pratchett’s Death character that spoke to me the most. He took an archetypical character, one that is the epitome of fear, and humanized him. It’s like learning that the menacing shape in your closet is really just a sweater hanging from a chair. He didn’t make Death absurd, but rather turned him into a relatable character. In this way, Pratchett brought even Death into the fold of things that were familiar and not-scary.

That’s not to say that he wasn’t silly. He could be very silly at times. Just the names of many of his characters are extremely silly. He uses silly characters in absurd, exaggerated situations to prove the most profound of points. He speaks to human conditions left and right in his books. Beyond death, he covers workers’ rights and cultural prejudice. He explores government corruption and the plight of the common man (or woman). He even flirts with gender politics. But it never comes off as heavy handed or preachy (unlike some fantasy writers I’ve read) because it’s all sublimely silly. He makes a serious point palatable by seeming like he’s not serious. So you read through, but when you get to the end, you think, huh, that’s a good point.

And that’s important in the world. It’s important to have craftsmen of words who can make a profound point in a silly form so that the silliness coats the pill for swallowing. I don’t know that I’ve ever experienced a writer who has Pratchett’s gift with profound silliness, but I hope that someday I will.

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Good Enough and the Tyranny of Perfection in Science

In science, perfect is attractive. We talk about errors and deviations, but we always want to know that our equipment is working ideally. We spend our younger years in classes where we study concepts in a perfect world, and then we have the shock of going to a lab where things are decidedly messy. We may have an experiment held together with cable ties and electrical tape, but we want peak power out of it all the time.

When I was in graduate school, one of the banes of my existence was the frequency doubling cavity that gave me one of the laser colors I needed. I would take all my pump laser power, put it into this cavity, and get out a tenth of that in the color that I wanted. And that was on a good day. I probably spent at least a third of my graduate life fighting with the doubler power. There was always an elusive benchmark that if I could hit it, that would be enough power. In order to actually graduate, I had to step back and look at what I had, maybe do a couple rough calculations, and realize that I didn’t need optimal power, I just needed it to be good enough.

“Good enough” has become my rallying cry since then. Good enough means that you run your experiment as soon as it’s good enough to get a result. Because the result doesn’t really care if you had optimal power. The result cares that it was good enough to see an effect. And let’s face it, we’re probably not going to use the first data we take. We’re going to use that initial data to guide our experiments, refine it. So maybe along the way, we’ll see we need a smidge more power, an ounce more stability, and few more atoms in our trap. And maybe one day that will add up to “well, we need to overhaul the experiment.” But, in general, it’s best to save the obsessive perfectionism for those times when you’re waiting for your paper to be accepted for publication and have some down time to make big repairs. Which doesn’t actually happen that often.

Because let’s be clear, it’s really easy to get bogged down in the details. And the details are sometimes not even that interesting. Sometimes they’re even a bit depressing. Sometimes you’re turning two knobs back and forth, seemingly doing the same thing, but somehow getting a slow, steady improvement. And it’s boring and doesn’t have a lot to do with science. Or maybe you’re debugging code because you forgot to capitalize that ancient subroutine you called in the 268th line and also there might be a semicolon missing somewhere. It’s not adding to our understanding of the beauty of the universe, but it has to be done because things don’t work without it.

So why not let the things that don’t prevent forward momentum go? If you’re making steady forward progress, maybe it doesn’t matter that you’re operating on the edge of usefulness, just this once. It helps you keep sight of the big picture, of why you got into science in the first place. Because that’s important. Nothing kills dreams quicker than losing sight of them. And it’s especially important in graduate school because the tunnel gets really dark before you see the light at the end. So don’t linger in the dark places any longer than you have to, and listen to the adage: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

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A Bone to Pick with Bones

So it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that one of my favorite genres of TV is the crime drama. Criminal Minds, Bones, and even good old Law and Order. I watch them in hotel rooms and at home, and I’ve recently discovered them on Netflix. Bones is actually one of my favorites. Despite the caricature-like portrayal of Dr. Brennan at times, I find it a great representation of diversity in science. But the episode I watched the other night gave me pause. I apologize for writing about an episode that’s a year and a half old, but it’s new to me.

In “The Lady on the List,” the intern Dr. Wells returns. Now, I have a problem with him in general because he’s a perfect representation of the idea on TV that all science-y people know all science. I guess it’s good that they at least try to make it apparent that his expertise in multiple scientific fields is unusual, but it still galls me that this perception exists. But that’s not the problem.

The problem is that he’s a belittling jerk. And he is pretty exclusively a belittling jerk to Brennan, Cam, and Angela. That is to say, the women. And they don’t really ever call him on it. Brennan seems to buy his “I’m smarter than you” attitude and tries harder to impress him. At one point, she almost puts him in his place by bristling at him complimenting her for figuring something out and then asking her on a date, but it was just that she doesn’t like him. Not that he’s belittling her as a scientist with way more experience in this field than he has. Angela is the best at dealing with him, quietly showing him that he’s misjudged her, but doesn’t press it when he attributes her skill to luck. Cam tries to get him to behave with “respect” but makes it more about rank.

And everyone makes it about him being “likeable,” not about that fact that, even given the chance, he doesn’t pull any of this crap on Hodgins. Kind of fishy, that.

I was the most disappointed with the portrayal of Cam’s character in this situation because she’s been outspoken about insidious prejudices before. In fact, earlier that same season, she gets indignant about her boyfriend getting pulled over for “driving while brown.” Good for her for calling that out. But when she’s faced with an intern who is profoundly rude, condescending, and interrupts his superiors (yes, people who are your boss are your superiors), she can only come up with lame comebacks about how he’s not likeable.

Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to have the likeability burden foisted on a male character for once. But the punchline of the whole episode is that Dr. Wells ends up making friends with a computer program because it’s the only mind in the lab whose intelligence he respects. Apart from being a really lazy and stereotyping way of dealing with this character, this isn’t really a situation that demands humor.

This is a situation another entitled brat of a scientist who looks down on his female colleagues needs to be taught that that’s not okay, and it has nothing to do with whether or not someone wants to have a drink with you after work. It has to do with discounting the expertise of your colleagues, particularly those who actually have more expertise than you do. While this is a lesson that anyone, regardless of gender, must learn, it is particularly damaging in situations like this, where the male colleagues don’t get the kind of condescending attitude that the females see. Because we’re dealing with that sort of crap daily and don’t need yet another example of it. Particularly when it’s someone with whom we need to work to get things done.

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