Archive for: September, 2015

Thoughts on Pseudonmity and the Power of Literature

Sep 28 2015 Published by under Alzheimer's disease, dementia, Uncategorized

The other morning SuperKash tweeted a haiku, with a reply from Zoe MCElligott:

My reply was:

It got me started thinking again about my mother. Not that I needed much prompting. She is not far from near the top of my thoughts, and I see her frequently. Here is what I wrote about her and her Alzheimer's disease.

As I have said, my mother was a powerful figure for me. But we did not get along when I was younger. Was she a good mother? How can anyone know? She fought against the legacy of her background of poverty and neglect, and tried to be a much better mother to me and my sibs than her mother was to her and her sibs. Both of her sibs ended up being alcoholics, although neither of their parents was.  She fought against all of this to establish a different life for her, and for her children.

Part of why I write what I do is because she moves me so powerfully. There is no question that she supported me in my quest to be a scientist in a way that still blinds me with her love. There is no question that I would not be who I am, that I would not have succeeded in my career without her.

She was a brilliant researcher in her own right, establishing a now flourishing field at a time when people laughed at the idea of such a discipline. There is part of me that really, so very much, wants to talk about that. I want to link to her important publications and show what she did. But I can't, not and maintain my Potnia-identity, which makes me sad.

But there is something beyond that sadness in this decision. Now, you need to take my word on who my mother was. It forces me to find the words to convey her to you without falling back on the specifics of what she did. The latter is science - the data of what she did and how she did it when she did it. That would convince you. But would it convey the emotions of what I feel? What you begin to know my mother from that?

What I am doing is the former, finding the words. This is the power of literature. My haiku, dashed off in a minute needs editing. There are syllables I would tweak, words I would move. I'm not making a claim for great literature. But if I try to write and show and bring my mother to life with words, is it not more powerful? Is it not a better tribute to her this way?

4 responses so far

Quote of the Day: hopeful for the future edition

Sep 25 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

He now appears as a footnote to his brother. But his ideals and speeches moved me when I was a child.


A Meeting Of Great Minds: During his 1966 visit to South Africa, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy met with anti-apartheid activist Chief Luthuli and later spoke publicly about their meeting. Because of a government ban on media coverage of Luthuli, it was the first news many had of their leader in more than five years.

"Give me a place to stand," said Archimedes, "and I will move the world." These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation....

It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

 "If Athens shall appear great to you," said Pericles, "consider then that her glories were purchased by valiant men, and by men who learned their duty." That is the source of all greatness in all societies, and it is the key to progress in our time.

The whole speech, given in South Africa, is found here. It is worth you time to read.

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Attention Ben Carson: What the Constitution Says

Sep 25 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

From Wikipedia:

The No Religious Test Clause of the United States Constitution is found in Article VI, paragraph 3, and states that:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.[

Sorry, Ben, you views about Muslims are not constitutional. Perhaps you should re-read the document. Here are a couple of  links to get your own pocket copy.

Frustrating aside: the .gov link to the constitution is broken. The Wikipedia link works.

6 responses so far

quote of the day - sensory modalities

Sep 23 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

The ear tends to be lazy, craves the familiar and is shocked by the unexpected; the eye, on the other hand, tends to be impatient, craves the novel and is bored by repetition.  -- W. H. Auden

Unless of course you are a child demanding another reading of The Paperbag Princess.

One response so far

You don't have to live in the Glam World of Science

Sep 22 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Over at Portrait of the Scientist as a Young Woman Sweetscience put up a post titled "I've made a huge mistake" that includes:

Over time, I’ve been exposed more to the side of research I really detest – the cutthroat, competitive, nepotistic, money squandering, high-impact-chasing side of science. Or rather, scientists. I’m pretty sure I could play the game my way and maybe even change some things for the better, but I don’t even want to be a part of a world like that.

This follows on the heels of Jean-François Gariépy's post on leaving science (my responses here and here), where he talked about the "highly-competitive environment... [with] scientists to be more preoccupied by their own survival in a very competitive research environment than by the development of a true understanding of the world",  scientists who do pretty much what Sweetscience says above.

I wrote  at length that my world isn't Gariépy's world. He was skeptical of my response, but that's his right and his perspective. I'm not going to try and persuade Sweetscience of anything. Her post is well-reasoned and she, as did Gariépy, is making a hard choice. The quote above comes from her third point, the first 2 (really 4) points are very much about who she is and what she wants. Her post differs from Gariépy's in that she believes she has made a mistake. I'm not sure it's her mistake, but I wish her well in moving on.

What strikes me is that I think, no, I know that it is possible to be in a different world. Not all parts of science are cutthroat. There are subdisciplines and labs that not competitive, nepotistic and glamour-chasing. There are mentors who believe in promoting, protecting, and cultivating their mentees. There are mentors who support not just students and postdocs, but junior faculty, not just the glamourous ones, but the solid ones doing good work in the trenches. And, it's not just one or two, here and there. There is a  reason the journal Cell gets lumped with Science/Nature. But there is lots of biology that is not cell biology, or molecular biology or optogenetics. There are whole fields where people are not pushed the way they are in the "cutting-edge" labs.

I do not deny that the exciting pathological world of glam-chasing exists. Its why I left MRU. It's why lots of folks I respected left my Old-MRU. But if one doesn't wish to live in that world, one doesn't have to. There is some choice in the matter. It's not always easy, and often it involves compromise. But how does that make it different from any other decision in life?  It's different only if you believe that that either the world owes you an R01 or that your snowflake-ness will mean you glide through the problems. And, hey, stop looking at that person at the other bench who, to your eyes, had a cakewalk through life. She's just making different decisions and choices than you.

Sweetscience seems to be making the right choice for her. But for the rest of you out there nodding your head in agreement with the assessment that it's a totally ugly world out there... there are alternatives, you just have to find them. As my grandmother said "if ya' lay down wit da' dawgs, ya' gonna git up with da fleas".

12 responses so far

What you can do...

Sep 18 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Dr Wrasse, a very thoughtful person (and if you're not following him, you're missing), tweeted this in the middle of a convo about Ben Carson:

Aside: The convo started with Carson's view on student debt, the short version of which is (including my reasons for not being able to watch the man talk):

Lots of other discussion followed this, but Dr. Wrasse stayed with me this morning, as I heard this bit on NPR about a new museum The Broad Museum, on Grand Avenue in downtown Los Angeles, opens Sunday. Admission is LA. The Broads who made a fortune, invested a lot in art (and yeah, yeah, lots of it went to the 1% of the art world, not to struggling artists, and their money is dirty, etc etc), but they decided to build a building, put the art in it, and make it free to everyone. Its not my taste in art. But I do understand the impulse. I'm not rich, but I did buy art when I lived in Australia. I'm not buying things for value, but because they speak to me. My dear friends, the farmers who have a more precarious existence than a postdoc, once said to me when I hesitated to spend money on art for very first world reasons: "Potnia, if you buy this painting, you will be supporting a whole family. The artist is an aborigine, and her family has a very different sense of money and worth than you do."

But I also try to give away money. Here are things you can do: is long-standing favorite of Scientopia. Pick a classroom that appeals to you. Lots of science to support. I've often tried to find more local groups, and given directly to them. There are many groups to support women, TG people, other marginalized types. Remember to check in with Charity Navigator to learn about where your money is going.

For the refugee crisis, one of my Jewish friends pointed me to this group:  HIAS, Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. They've got a top rating from CN, and are the world's oldest organization to protect refugees. They are working hard on the Syrian Refugee issue, and here is a list of things you can do to help. Not all of them are giving money.

So, I can hear you saying (because I have): but Potnia, I am a grad student/postdoc/junior faculty who earns nothing. Well, actually you don't earn "nothing". You earn less than you would like to earn. I have to pay daycare/commuting/health benefits. Yes, you do. But look at what you earn, and ask yourself, what is 5% of my monthly net income? And how many people in the world live on that? Or less? Are you in grad school or are you in a refugee camp? Do you worry about your thesis or whether your child will be sleeping in the open tonight?

Make what you give a percentage of your income, and if you start now, you will make a difference. On one hand there are lots of rich assholes donors who try to use their money to determine the direction of this country and the world. They give huge amounts of money to idiots who, among other things, don't believe in science and think Dred Scott is the law of the land. We all spend lots of time bitching and moaning about them. But there are also rich (perhaps not so idiotic) people who collect art and donate it and subsidize a museum so everyone can see something different. The Broads are worth billions (plural) and perhaps they will do other things with their money. Perhaps not. But you cannot base your life on what other people do or do not do. You can chose right now to be better than you have been. To acknowledge that if you are doing science, you are in a privileged position. Not every, and probably not most, Malala's get to have an education, get to make the choice to be a scientist.

Dr. Wrasse knows this. Now, you do too.


4 responses so far

My lab this morning

Sep 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

Can I haz sum data, pleeze?

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quote of the day: historical wisdom

Sep 17 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

When you say you agree to a thing in principle you mean that you have not the slightest intention of carrying it out in practice.  --  Otto von Bismarck

and as a small side thought from Herr Bismarck:

People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.


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Self-evaluation is tough

Sep 15 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This morning I mused that:

I am not sure what prompted the musing, but muse it did. I've been at almost-MRU for a while, but maybe its the start of the new teaching year.

I moved as a full professor (yes, I'm old). I took my R01 with me, but no trainees (I offered, they didn't want to move).  Almost-MRU wanted me to come, they gave me what I needed to get going here. I have superlative colleagues, one of the main reasons for moving.

But there a bunch of signs that it wasn't the cakewalk I thought it was going to be. Or even now, looking back, as easy as I felt it was whilst in process. Signs? I've gained a bunch of weight. Various parts of my aging body hurt. From time to time I indulge my abstemious  side - either no caffeine or no alcohol for a couple of weeks, it's hard for about 36 hours and then its okay. Except, now its not. You don't have to approve or even understand, what's important here is the delta.

I've done this before, but I thought this time I was old enough, senior enough, wise enough that it wouldn't be a problem. Oh there would be the inevitable little problems, but it would be easy for me. Maybe it is only now, comfortable in where I am and what I'm doing that I can look at that view and say: bullshit. Moving is fucking hard. With or without family. Making friends, real friends, is hard. With or without the time to invest in other people. Setting up a lab, with or without a tech, with or without knowledge of the equipment, is fucking hard.

So, I'm here and Things Are Good. What's the problem? Well, I am in danger of slipping back into "that was easy" and not giving myself credit. Because I am doing well here. I am happy here. I have made friends, some very very good friends (and some of you are reading this, and you may not even know how much I love you), found a new almost-maybe-partner, have my lab up and running well. Oh, and have a gorgeous apartment filled with the challenging artwork that says home to me.

I need to say to myself: Potnia, you have worked your fucking ass off, and dammit, you've done a good job. And that, dear readers, is a hard thing to do.

It's not quite imposter syndrome. It's being able look dispassionately at your accomplishments and sort out what is good and what is not. The poles, the extremes are tempting. One can't be a snowflake and think all one's works are gifts of genius. But one also can't look at accomplishments and think that if it is good, it must have been easy.  To acknowledge what was hard to do (jumping off the edge of the earth, leaving a top MRU for the almost-variety) and not only say "yup, did it" but "yup, did it and it was fucking hard" is tough, but in the end, satisfying.


3 responses so far

quote of the day... for Gen Xers as they age

Sep 11 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

“When someone reaches middle age, people he knows begin to get put in charge of things, and knowing what he knows about the people who are being put in charge of things scares the hell out of him.”  -- Calvin Trillin

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