Archive for: January, 2016

The loneliness of a scientist

Jan 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

There was some talk on the tweets a while back about how lonely it is to be a scientist. That being an assistant prof is the loneliest job. That no one really can ever understand you. That as you get older it gets worse. That is lonely at the top. I can't speak to the last of these, as I have not spent time at the top. But I do have an opinion.

My sense of "being at the top" is that it, like much else in life, is a function of who else you are. And, like much of science that is neglected, the variation is larger than we suspect. I think many Big Dogs like to think they are lonely at the top. It plays into their sense of their uniqueness and that no one else is quite like them, i.e., quite as good as them. I think other Big Dogs are too busy being Big Dogs to know wtf loneliness is. Think Scott Kern (but also see this). I only think here. I don't know. It is not so much that the top eluded me, is that it never called for a date.

My memories of becoming an Asst. Prof. were ones of being ecstatic. My partner at the time was an ecologist, finishing up a PhD in tropical ecology on the other side of the world. I missed my partner, acutely, and sometimes with anger and sometimes with love. And, I could parse that loneliness into "personal life" vs. "scientific life". But getting a job: woot! eleventy1!`1!woot, before woot existed. When I started I reached out to people in other departments, and I still am (albeit distant) friends with those folks, many of whom were senior and very good to me (3 uni's later). Everything wasn't smooth, but mostly and I was already perceiving the borderline neuroses of  "will I get tenure?", but I remember the Good Stuff, not the bad. I don't think that is as much a function of my situation as it was, and is, of my brain chemicals.

Now the impact of 'older', that is something I know. I have been partnered and not. I have had family and not. And I have been lonely and not. And while I have been funded and not,  I have had jobs I liked and ones that were eating at my soul and making me miserable (see the series on Shit My Department Chair Sez at my old blog:, and yes I know that I need to renew the domain).  Any loneliness was more correlated with the first two and not with my funding status.

So, am I lonelier at work now that I am older? I don't think so. I liked this reminder from May Sarton (who I read obsessively when I was much, much younger):

Loneliness is the poverty of self; solitude is the richness of self. May

— ADF (@AlinaDal_F) November 17, 2015

One of the things that has always been important to me is having a life outside of work. From what I can judge of my friends who are in similarly intense careers elsewhere, they feel the same thing. When I was in a biology department, I always had (and still do) friends in Chemistry (and their experiences make Biology look like a cakewalk). So does getting older, as a professor, mean getting lonelier? Perhaps if you felt that being lonely was a function of being a professor, maybe.

But... that doesn't mean loneliness isn't real, and that it isn't a significant health problem:

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quote of the day: Political Parties via P.J. O'Rourke

Jan 15 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

The Democrats are the party that says government will make you smarter, taller, richer, and remove the crabgrass on your lawn. Republicans are the party that says government doesn't work, and then they get elected and prove it.

The Democrats said, "We don't know what's wrong with America, but we can fix it." The Republicans said, "There's nothing wrong with America, and we can fix that."

Both 1991.... Parliament of Whores

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Early Scientific Failure and the Values of the Scientific Community

Jan 13 2016 Published by under Uncategorized


”Males have more teeth than females in the case of men, sheep, goats, and swine; in the case of other animals observations have not yet been made.”

Bertrand Russell has made much of this:

“Observation versus Authority: To modern educated people, it seems obvious that matters of fact are to be ascertained by observation, not by consulting ancient authorities. But this is an entirely modern conception, which hardly existed before the seventeenth century. Aristotle maintained that women have fewer teeth than men; although he was twice married, it never occurred to him to verify this statement by examining his wives’ mouths.”

This has generated some significant discussion and the need to "rescue Aristotle":

The problem is that, as we have seen, Aristotle did not arrive to his conclusion through logic, but via faulty data.

And... arriving at bad conclusions because of faulty data is not as bad as through failed logic?

We, as scientists, value being "smart" and "clever" and "insightful" to an extreme. Sometimes, we perceive bad reasoning as worse than bad data. Bad data could be someone else's fault, as was Aristotle's problem. But bad reasoning or logic is a fatal flaw in a society that values thinking.

data badTwo problems exist with this line of thought. Firstly, bad data implies bad thinking at some level. If one puts one's conclusions, based on bad data, out there in the literature, it is our responsibility to make sure that the data are right. There are lots of reasons data can be bad. Sloppiness and a rush to publish. Bad technique by trainees or others collecting the data. Errors in methodology that are not to know to the data collector, or the PI, or anyone for that matter. Willful ignorance, abject confusion, or even genuine lack of knowledge: these are things that need to be considered.

Secondly, if the end product is what counts, then it doesn't matter why one gets the wrong answer. The data and the logic are partners and collaborators in the results, and I am not sure why one should have the priority over the other. This is a discussion I have had with a lawyer friend, at great length with much scotch. Lawyers accept, nay promote, the idea that motivation is important. Most people do. Taking the other side (which I do not totally believe, but am happy to for the sake of a good argument with a better scotch), it is defensible to argue that motivation is irrelevant. What those results are is what counts. Sometimes I think that the knowledge that it could be an "honest mistake", sitting in the back of a PI's mind, gives them permission to less rigorous, less exacting, and push that data out even sooner. My lawyer friend says that I'm a cynic.



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quote of the day: for our imposter syndrome friends

Jan 07 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

“Don't listen to those who say, you are taking too big a chance. Michelangelo would have painted the Sistine floor, and it would surely be rubbed out by today. Most important, don't listen when the little voice of fear inside you rears its ugly head and says "They are all smarter than you out there. They're more talented, they're taller, blonder, prettier, luckier, and they have connections." I firmly believe that if you follow a path that interests you, not to the exclusion of love, sensitivity, and cooperation with others, but with the strength of conviction that you can move others by your own efforts, and do not make success or failure the criteria by which you live, the chances are you'll be a person worthy of your own respects.” - Neil Simon

Just keep saying: Sistine Floor, Sistine Floor

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Jan 06 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

An op-ed in the NYTimes about being ugly hit some good points, but sort of skirted some of the important issues. The main message was don't lie to kids and tell them they are beautiful when they're not.

One of the points the author,

I loved the Lord of the Rings, books and movies. I still go back and watch the scene where in the movie of The Two Towers, the elves show up to help defend the men when I need to remember I have allies in this world. I listen to the soundtrack when I need inspiration.

But, in books and movies,  it was very clear: evil means bad teeth, bad skin, bad hair. Good means clear skin, even teeth and occasional bathing, even in battle. One of the strong points about Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (the books, not the movie, read the books) is that evil comes cloaked in a pretty package.

The op-ed is mostly about raising children and their perceptions. What's not discussed (and really, one can only do so much in an op-ed), but worthy of consideration are the adult repercussions. We are judging all the time: not just grades and papers and grants, but which undergrad to take into our lab, who the work with, who to ask for help. The unconscious biases of race and gender and age play a part, but so do how people look. The intersection between look and race and age and gender is pretty strong, too. Older women in particular have issues (as does the internet, trying googling "older women" and just about anything, or even by itself - oye), since in females age and beauty are strongly linked (and evolutionary psychologists, please don't tell me we evolved for this, we also evolved to fight wolves, but don't do that so much any more). We can't solve all the problems in the world. But, keeping it in mind is a simple way to fight it.

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Disagreeing on the Internet

Jan 05 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

CORRECTION: Got the right blog this time!!!!!


A post from Complex Roots called Culture of Silence talked about how its hard to sometimes disagree in comments or tweets or even in posts.

I've had a bit of this myself. I'm probably not as far left as some (recalling the quote: if you're far right in your youth you have no heart and if you're far left in your agedness you have no brain. Not quite, but there is an element of truthiness in the quote). I'm not smarter. I'm not better. I am just older. I've seen more life than, well, everyone younger than me, which is a lot of the part of the intertubes where I hang out. This coupled with the banal fact that we are all individuals, means that I've got some different ideas.

One of my, well not quite resolutions, but self-commitments, for the new year is for less self-censorship.

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Repost: Grant writing advice: grey, grey, grey or green, green, green

Jan 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

From my old blog:

There’s nothing further here for a warrior. We drive bargains. Old men’s work. Young men make wars, and the virtues of war are the virtues of young men. Courage and hope for the future. Then old men make the peace. And the vices of peace are the vices of old men. Mistrust and caution. It must be so.

—Alec Guinness as Prince Feisal in Lawrence of Arabia

One of the other vices of old men, implicit in the advice, is compromise. The non-black and white nature of life is something with which I wrestle . Less now than when I was young. But as I was struggling with my last grant proposal, I was reminded of how grey the world of grant writing can get. And how difficult that grey can be.

There is an axis of risk that runs through life, but I don’t think about it much till it comes to writing a proposal.

high risk <————————— funded —————————> tried & true

This is not an issue of right or wrong, good science or bad science. This is an issue of what gets funded. And please, spare me your pure-boy tantrums about you do science for science, and not what gets funded. That attitude falls into the bucket of the virtues of war. Study sections and program officers and reviewers want to know that you can do the work (not too high risk). And, they want the work to be interesting and exciting, also known as significant and innovative (not too tried and true).

I also hate Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

Here is another way to frame it in your head. Rather than black and white (which also has religious overtones, etc), think about blue and yellow. You want green. It bluish yellow or yellowish blue. Now, that doesn’t seem so bad.

Where one can run into trouble of course, is when one considers problems that are reddish-green

Our brains (hard-wired color processing) don’t do well with “reddish green”. Or “bluish-orange” for that matter. What is a reddish-green grant problem? Something you want to do that NIH isn’t interested in (right now): evolution of almost anything, physiology of obscure animals with no human relevance, almost anything to do with abortion, contraception or other hot button topics. Invasive research on children. A study that doesn’t include ethnic diversity and gender balance, when it is a health issue that impacts all. Something for which compromise doesn’t really exist. Stay away. There be dragons and monsters and triage.

aside: my favorite hot button issue is still:


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More thoughts on Imposter Syndrome

Jan 04 2016 Published by under Uncategorized

I've written a bit on imposter syndrome in the past: here (this post has lots of nice links) and here. I was talking with one of my favorite junior faculty today, and she had a number of wise things to say. That's not surprising, she's in her year before tenure, and is a smart and thoughtful person.

We were talking about the levels of imposter syndrome. We recognize that lots of times we feel like we have imposter syndrome, and that the first step in dealing with it is the recognition. Not so hard. But the next step: saying to one's self "this is not real, its just something in my head", and importantly, not being paralyzed and moving on, this is not so easy. We laughed and agreed that clever people take it another step and say to themselves "well, I really fooled them, this time". That perceiving imposter syndrome and saying "I'm really good" is something for other people, people who are really good, and not me.

There was a book review in the NYTimes this Sunday about two books, Amy Cuddy's "Presence" and Shonda Rhimes's "Year of Yes" touched on these issues. As a scientist, I have trouble with Cuddy's solution to imposter syndrome, which can be summarized as "fake it till you make it", or as the book review says "fake it till you become it". From the review by

Her central idea was simple: By assuming a pose associated with power, you can actually make yourself feel more powerful before an important job interview or presentation. Somehow, power posing inspires you to be more authentic, more passionate and more present, Cuddy asserts, thereby enabling you to demonstrate your worth with ease and conviction.

Why would scientists have trouble with this? Because we are taught, overtly and implicitly, covertly and explicitly, to value truth and honesty as the foundations of what we do. Cuddy may be correct in saying that diminished self-worth sets up a loop that make us loose confidence, and ultimately (in my view) the passion we feel for what we do. I think it if you are schooled in "being honest above all else" then that bleeds into the sociology and psychology of being a scientist. The moment you use the word "fake it", a large set of negative feelings kick in, and exacerbate the imposter feelings.

Later in the review, talking about Rhimes's book, Havrilesky says and quotes:

Even in the last chapter of “Year of Yes,” in which Rhimes is engaged in an ecstatic photo shoot (of all things) set to a Beyoncé soundtrack, and she thinks, “I am on my own mountain standing in my own sun,” it’s difficult to step back and evaluate the narcissistic nature of this postmodern, high-capitalist scene. Instead, we long for our own mountain and our own sun.

And that, I think is part of the secret: finding our own mountain and sun. Mine can be generated by music that perhaps, is a bit beyond its use-by-date for millenials. But, I can remember, the night before I went on my first (asst prof) job interview, listening to Springsteen's Dancing in the Dark, and dancing in my apt, and feeling exactly the sun and the mountain. It wasn't whether I was fooling anyone or not. It wasn't whether I was even good or not. I was just alive in the moment. (And dear reader, I got the job).

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