Archive for: September, 2014

Klingon Academics

Sep 10 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

One of my favorite twits. You must Follow.

 

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Rice, Sterling, TMZ and Remembering Kent State

Sep 09 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

One of the current thoughts in the twittersphere is that everytime you show the video of Janay Rice you are making her relive the incident. That you give power to the abuse. That publicizing it is voyeurism. That it was as bad as looking at the invasive naked pix that were stolen and posted.

Then this tweet got me thinking:

(h/t drugmonkey)

It made something nebulous in my head coalesce about this situation. Yup, if not for TMZ and twitter, Ray Rice would likely still be a Raven. Donald Sterling would still be doing and saying whatever occurred in his executive-function-less brain. There is a power here, for good and for bad, and yes we've all seen the examples of both.

I was going to add to that list "that Ferguson would  not be a place we know or a source of change".  And that got me thinking about the late 60's/early 70s.

In 1970 Young Potnia was starting high school. I absorbed the newspapers and Newsweek magazine and was taking a computer class with a machine that was as big as a car and a little less powerful than the chip in a greeting card that flashes a red light when you push the clown's nose.

When the students got shot at Kent State (5/4/1970) there was no twitter or internet. But the country erupted. This picture was everywhere. It affected me profoundly.

220px-Kent_State_massacre

 

I look at this picture, and I am back to being a teenager and filled with horror. [Brief Aside:  I was at Kent State over this past summer and visited the memorial. It is moving. And worth seeing.]

The youth of the  country mobilized, without twitter and the internet. From Wikipedia:

Shortly after the shootings took place, the Urban Institute conducted a national study that concluded the Kent State shooting was the single factor causing the only nationwide student strike in U.S. history; over 4 million students protested and over 900 American colleges and universities closed during the student strikes. 

There are many, including Nixon's advisors, who believe that Kent State was the prelude to the end. That his paranoia and response led to Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, and most of all, the use of -gate as a suffix of getting caught at bad things.

It has been pointed out that Kent State happened because it was white kids, and that when black people get shot no one cares. It is my hope that what happened in Ferguson, given that we've got twitter and the internet, will prompt more change in America.  I really don't believe we are so jaded that none of this matters. We've got enough outrage to go around. And remember, everything is a mixed bag. Even TMZ.

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Things that irritate me about the Ice-Bucket Challenge

Sep 08 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

This is not about the waste of water. This is not about ALS being an orphan disease that needs attention. This is about what the  public can do about science funding.

The amount raised is non-trivial, over $100 million  (1 x 10 ^8) by last count, three times the NIH allocation. The NIH budget is on the order of $30 billion (3 x 10 ^10). The amount raised is more than the NIH budget for ALS.

Are there 100 diseases that are as important/severe/deserving of our attention as ALS? Depends on what your mother is dying from, how uncomfortable the old prostate glands sitting in Congress are, whether your beloved is HIV positive, or you have friends in West Africa right now. Are there more than 100 conditions/situations/problems that NIH addresses, I would guess yes. How does one decide what is important?

The Libertarians would argue this is better than NIH, as people are choosing where their money goes. And people should be able to chose where the money goes.

But what if all those people who donated took the time to write their Congresscritter (or leadership in other countries, which are worse at funding scientific research than the US, afaik)? What if all those people took the somewhat less sexy/viral/interesting route to do something to promote spending for research?

So I see two problems here. First, how do we decide what gets funded? I'd argue that right now NIH is going through a spasm of short-sightedness wanting things that produce results right now. The second, how do we get people interested not in just the short-term/sexy/popular causes, but to do more to change the resources for research?

 

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Bunny Hopping IRL

Sep 05 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Just in defense of evolutionary and organismic biologists. I've met someone who really does study bunny hopping. I knew of him before I knew he was now working on bunny hopping. For the record, he is incredible, his work is addressing bigger questions about biomechanics, the interaction between form, function and ecology. Hopping in the lab with lots of bioengineering, and hopping in the field with survival and performance assessment. Bunnies are just his model system. Not only is he a superb scientist with NSF grants, he has never, to my knowledge, published in Proceedings of the Royal Lagomorph Saltation Society.

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Lego Academics go wild

Sep 05 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Bombay Sapphire and Appletini

 

IMG_2104_1

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Things that Do Not Encourage me about my new almost-MRU

Sep 04 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

Two paws up: they gave me a new fancy computer. Two paws shaking: it won't let me logon this morning. Two paws down: when I called IT the woman who answered the phone says "oh I forgot my password, can you call back in five minutes?"

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Insecurity, Postdoctoral Fellows, and Success as a Junior Faculty

Sep 03 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

InBabyAttachMode, a whose tweets and blog posts I've enjoyed for a while now, has recently decided to leave academia for industry. She has a new post up explaining why.  A post she claims "might be ranty, angry and disillusioned". I don't think so. It is valid and heartfelt and talks about some of the very real problems in academic science a career, particularly for the homogametes with parasites (ie mothers). I think many of her concerns apply possibly even more so to URMs and people with disabilities or physical challenges.

Thinking about this brought up a  problem I had many years ago, when NIH was not "in crisis". [Note this person is NOT AT ALL like InBabyAttachMode!]. Although to be honest, even when it wasn't in crisis, relative to today's funding levels, when I was a junior faculty, it always felt like crisis. It always felt like it was 1 grant away from disaster. As a junior faculty, you can't help everyone. You can't always see where the train is going, and how close you are to crashing.

I had a wonderful postdoc. She was smart. There was sufficient evidence that she was hardworking. I liked her as a person, and felt she was honest and upfront about issues. She had had a disastrous postdoc, with someone I knew, and counted as a sort-of-friend. Her story and explanation of the disaster rang honest to me, and I felt I perceived both sides of the story about commitment and mentoring and why the situation had gone bad.

She came to my lab and things went well. I had a paper from a symposium I had given right when she joined the lab (or I would have let her give it), that was in her interest and gave it to her to write up. It got submitted and published. And then little problems started. She had problems with others in the lab, most of which were worked out. The first project she took on was with an outside collaborator, and it ran into major personality conflicts. She was in the right, I felt, but she let it get so out of hand we never got more than one set of experiments done. That would be a publication, but she never got that pub done. She moved to another project (my suggestion) that was on another collaborative project, slightly off of my mainstream, and got on another training grant to do that work. She didn't get anything published out of that either. So, things weren't perfect, but I was still working with her, and hopeful about publications. We'd set deadlines and they would come and go. I still believed in her.

Then came The Big Problem. She had 3 years on the training grant. In my experience, if you could make a could argument for extending the T32 to a 4th year it was nearly always granted. Evidently that policy had changed at the IC funding this T32, and her request was denied. At this point I knocked myself out to find funding. She was not willing to work on my mainstream research, although I had funding for that (which she said didn't interest her). She called a previous mentor (who was a friend of mine from post-doc days) who laid down the law to her: you haven't published, you don't have anything to show for the last 5 years (this postdoc and the other). If you want to make it academia, you need to produce. I thought I had been saying this to her, but she had not heard me say it (fault not assigned here).

I got her interviews, at our institution for other PD positions, I talked to 3-4 other potential (funded) mentors in things closer to her new interest. All of them talked to her, and said to me "nope, too high risk for me" or "I asked her to follow up on this that or the other, and she didn't". At this point the postdoc got very very angry at me. Why didn't I know that it would be only three years? Why couldn't I just give her my grant money to do the things she wanted? I even found a job for her, a teaching job, as a res. ast. prof, but she declined to move, which is a fair decision. But her anger was huge. She complained about some of the things that IBAM mentions in her post. The insecurity. The lack of support for mothers. The lack of autonomy, because she was clearly ready to be a professor. The small salary. The fact that everyone was prejudiced against her. But mostly that I had failed to provide for her.

I had spent a huge amount of time trying to help. Yes I could have put her on my R01, but it would mean that I couldn't do the work involved, even if I lied to NIH about what the money was used for, which I was not going to do. In my view,  she had multiple opportunities which she turned down. I came away feeling with I was dealing with someone who felt entitled to the job, but hadn't produced what she needed to.

As my brilliant friend, Teh Chemist sez: Everyone is the hero of their own story.

 

 

 

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Thoughts about ABD & Snowflakes

Sep 02 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

A while back there was a discussion about ABDs (all but dissertation) and how such people had worked hard, done a lot, and left academia with nothing to show for it.  Another in Slate, subtitled "What’s worse than getting a Ph.D. in today’s job market? Not finishing one."  It's been floating around in my head, and getting me irritated. Thus a post to expiate my irritation.

Evidently there was a lot of hate in the comments to the post. People were called "failures" and other people objected to being called "failures". I thought that much of the discussion focused around humanities/social science ABDs. But ABDs have existed well before the Snowflake generation, and I have heard the same discussions & name calling back to when I was a student, in the mid-Miocene. I had a couple of good friends from grad school who ended up ABD (often women, often getting married, often getting pregnant).

The slate article by Rebecca Schuman has a few weird things to say, including that a dissertation is "trial by fire" and only extreme (or evil) people think that this is an "apt initiation".

Maybe they couldn’t. But that’s nothing to be ashamed of. Dissertations—some 250 pages of original research in the humanities, and topping 400 in the social sciences—are objectively, indisputably difficult. It sometimes takes years just to collect data or comb through the necessary archives, and then the damn thing must be written, often in total isolation.

This of course can be true in the sciences. Over at DM's, a discussion on writing has produced the argument that some people are fully capable of writing on their own and don't need to share drafts. But, mostly the total isolation is something that can be avoided by bio types. Even if you are not a lab-type, but a field-type, in most depts., including eco/evo departments there is a good strong graduate student community. Swallowing one's pride and showing those less than perfect drafts to others is A Good Thing. One piece of her advice is solid:

Finally, here’s what ABDs can do to help themselves. Dare to stop reading and start writing, and revel in an early draft that is an unabashed hot mess. Realize that the greatest misconception of dissertation writers is that the project must be perfect. In fact, for a career academic, the dissertation should actually be the worst thing you ever write. [well, no not this one]

So yes, not getting a PhD is a failure of sorts. You were trying for a PhD and you didn't make it. It's one failure. People who get the damn degree have all sorts of other failures. Failure is part of life. If you only do the easy stuff, you will be bored. Get over it. No, there should not be a "special certificate" for ABDs. For heaven's sake, not everyone gets a trophy. Finally, there are lots of reasons, probably even lots of people at fault, for the reason any individual does not finish their PhD. But no one, but no one, goes to grad school because someone held a gun to their head and said "I will shoot your brains out if you do not go into a PhD program". It was a damn choice. It could be a bad choice, or it could have been a good choice at the time that turned bad. There could have been a stack of dead white men who hated you, harassed you, doubted you, and made your life so miserable you could not finish. That is not right. It needs to be fixed. But you left the program. You made some more choices. Giving you an "intermediate degree" isn't going to change what you have and have not done. And it certainly isn't going to move you forward in life. Do not get your personal desires mixed up with what is the goal and purpose (mission, if you must) of academia. As manifest by the university or program, its is to educate. As promulgated by a PI, it's to train and get science done (and to avoid service as much as possible). The order and relative weight of those varies both among PI's and within an individual PI. Getting an "in between" degree doesn't show up on any of those scales.

The weirdest thing Schuman says is

But it is the academic establishment’s treatment of those who fail initiation—disowning, shame, refusal to reveal attrition—that is one of its dirtiest secrets. 

Bad treatment? What is she thinking about? Compared to people who get fired from jobs? Compared to people to people who get denied tenure? Yes its hard on the folks who leave. Yes they are bitter, and hurt, and have experienced, yes, failure. But what treatment is she talking about? Disowning? The only interest my alma mater has in me is money. And my thesis advisor was not warm and cuddly, but he's dead now.

I think there are other dirty secrets, but indifference to those who leave? Because it is indifference, and just like Mother Nature, most of the world and most of the people in the world are indifferent to all of us.

 

 

 

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Joy and Thoughts on working on Labor Day

Sep 01 2014 Published by under Uncategorized

When I had my second knee reconstruction surgery in 1981,  arthroscopic surgery was not yet common. Or available. Or whatever. It was also before they had light polymer casts. When it was over I had about 20 lbs of plaster from my ankle to my thigh.  And it itched like hell for months.

One of the things that has stayed with me in the many years, was the anesthesia regime during surgery. I had an epidural (the original numb nuts treatment), but they also gave a sedative, in this case, IV valium. I remember silver, glowing dots going up my arm as the drug started. They were amazing. I thought so. I also thought the nurse was amazing and smiled big at her. Then I realized the surgeon was amazing.

At that point a small part of my sane brain said "dingbat, its the drug". I thought that perhaps I should make use of this state and do a little positive reinforcement. I was  in grad school, and struggling a bit. I was not in my advisor's favor.  My thesis wasn't interesting to him. He was probably right, but for the wrong reasons. And was whatever the opposite of favorite was.

phd033009s

 

So, I thought, its time for Good Thoughts. I love my thesis. The silver dots had turned golden and were pulsing with numbers and symbols (it was a theoretical thesis). It is a brilliant thesis. In fact, I love my advisor, ugly pseudo-humble arrogant ass that he was. He is a wonderful advisor, I thought. And really felt it. Other brain part replied: He is not.  First part: Oh shut the fuck up and enjoy the situation. (I don't need another person to have a great argument). I spent the rest of surgery having profound thoughts about how wonderful my thesis was, how great the program, how marvelous my friends. And a few brilliant ideas, which alas, disappeared with the gold dots.

Anyway, the surgery taught me the idea of pure, uncompromised, unconditional and unearned joy.

The unearned part was important to me in grad school. Subsequent joy and its quiet younger sib, pleasure, were, and still are, earned. Grad school was and still is tough. Being The Woman in the program is hard. I succeeded, but I always knew what it cost. That the uncompromised joy was not real and was brain chemicals has stayed with me. The earned joy is more complex, and richer for it. (But you should also go read Ursula LeGuin's story "The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas" )

This morning, for reasons I know not, I woke up filled with joy. I was simply happy. So now I am work. Writing a grant and helping trainees with data exploration for  meeting abstracts. There are things not perfect in my life (imagine that). And it cost a lot to get here. But damn, sometimes I look at this grant, these data and think: not bad Potnia, not bad at all.

 

 

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