Life Choices

(by potnia theron) Apr 26 2017

A while back I got into a spat with someone on Twitter. They were advocating for persons with disabilities. I have always tried to do so myself, and in fact, my research can fall in, has fallen in, is considered to be part of, rehabilitative medicine. I have gone to rehab medicine conferences, with my ears open, to learn what I can. Rehab was not my training, but I have worked hard to include it and have done more than lip service in terms of my NIH work. Working with people with disabilities is part of a Venn diagram that includes my work.

One of the things I know is that not all disabilities are immediately visible. And within the community of people who self-identify as having a disability, or a physical challenge, or a mental challenge, there is disagreement and contention about what constitutes disability or challenge. The person on Twitter demanded (and it sure felt like a demand to me) to know  if I had a disability and if so what it was. I responded that again, not all are visible, and that it was beside the point. She immediately blocked me and that was the end of the discussion.

Yes, that's twitter. That's our current view of tolerance. But mostly, I think she did not like the other part of my message, and what we were discussing (using 'discussing' in the broadest and most inclusive sense).

The source of our disagreement was "fixing from the inside" vs. "fixing from the outside". I maintained that "from the outside" would be less effective than from the inside, while acknowledging that everyone has, or ought to have, the right to make the choice to be inside or outside.

The point of this post is not about rights and respect for people with disabilities. The point of this post is being inside or outside and choosing where to be (but of course, its nice to vent about some idiot on twitter). At the time, I thought that being in or out was the point. I thought that advocating for an underrepresented group in academia, or in any nexus, is a function of having respect within that nexus, of having the currency, and credentials and chops to get people to listen to what you have to say. For example, patients can advocate for changes in the health care system, because they have some respect by the group to whom they are advocating. (we can argue about the extent of that respect, by health care providers for the people in their care, but that is another post).

My point, which I did not make effectively at the time, was that people who leave academia, in particular young people who drop out of a degree program, have little respect from, let alone credibility with, those who remain. Just the words "drop out" are loaded with negative connotations. I am not saying this is right, I am just saying it is. What I have seen is an attitude along the lines of "if you can't make it/succeed here, you are not worthy of our attention". Someone who leaves academia is not going to have a lot of success, in my experience, trying to change how academia deals with its problems and bad attitudes. This may be right or wrong, but it's there.

That the unknown Twitter spat-partner wanted to leave academia, in frustration, because, she said, of her disabilities, may be a good thing for her. That is not for me to judge. And I am strong supporter of people choosing. Not because academia doesn't want her, but because, to my sense, her commitment was to changing the world for people like her. I want for people who want to do science, who want to be researchers, to have the option to do so. But if something (professionally, we're not talking about family, etc)  in one's life becomes more important than doing science or research, then it may be time to move on. And move on without prejudice. If academia had been more welcoming to her, if her program had been more accommodating to her issues, would she have stayed? I don't know. I don't know that she knew. But that's getting back into the difference between something being right, or being the way it is.

This is not a statement about what academia *should* be like. It is not a statement about how academia fails (though it did, and continues to do so). This is a statement about living in the world in which we live, and choosing to do what we do.

So why write about this now? Because I have been thinking about why people stay or go from academia. Because I have been thinking about what is *my* responsibility, as a senior person, to keeping people in academia, those who want to stay and are feeling shuffled or herded or pushed out. But sometimes it feels like the voices and messages and information sources are overwhelming. This incident is the just the framework that got me started thinking.

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(by potnia theron) Apr 25 2017

from Marguerite Bennett @EvilMarguerite

When they were trying to bring Puffins back to islands on the US east coast they decided to do so with dummies. Puffins are very social, and as a result would want to land on islands that already have puffins. The dummies looked real from a distance, but were seriously lacking up close, held up by a single peg. Puffins, being social and wanting to fit in, followed suit.


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zen motorcycles

(by potnia theron) Apr 25 2017

Robert Perisig who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance has died. This interview with him is so-so. Image result for robert pirsig

I remember reading his first book in college. It was very big, in thought and impact, and discussed endlessly late at night in cruddy apartments. When I was in college, it was important, even for would-be, wanna-be, gonna-be scientists, to Do Philosophy. I think part of that came from this book.

It's funny, or maybe not so, that I remember little about the philosophical content of Zen, although I do remember lots about the philosophy courses I took in college. I do remember the conflict between world perspectives (whole-entity vs. detail oriented), and how working on one's motorcycle taught one a lot about philosophy. Perhaps if the fixation on detail had gotten deeper into my head, I would have been a better scientist. But its too late to run that ceteris paribus experiment.

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More almost knowing

(by potnia theron) Apr 25 2017

On the heels of this post I went to visit a mentor. This is the person who taught me to do the experimental techniques that grew into the mainstay of my current lab. The equipment is better, and no more Gould Brush Chart Recorders that put more ink on my hands than on the page. But the direct lineage is there.

This mentor is 90. His wife is 89. Yet, you'd never know it. They are vital active people. Our latest co-authored paper was the first I submitted in 2017. They are models to me on how to age, gracefully, inevitably, and with active decisions about life. That they do not have major illnesses, or dementia makes this possible. But they are 90, and they have many of the concerns that come with being 90.

I missed his 90th bday party, in part, because the idiots organizing it are snobs. He still works every day at the BSD dept in a BSD university. He was not my PhD advisor, I didn't come to work with him till my postdoc, but my degree is from this Very Important Place. With history! And Nobel Prizes! And nationally ranked departments. But my decision to leave a sister-ranked school and go to almost-MRU resulted in a kind of social death reserved for people who leave Manhattan and move to Traverse City. (Do you even know where Traverse City is?). Anyway, they got around to inviting me to go to a party, half way across the country, in a city notoriously difficult to find places to stay, the week before the party. In fact, I found out when I got an invitation for a third colleague (the three of us have published together for over 30 years now), who is old, but failing, and lives in the UK. My email said in part: Can you send us John's email address, so we can invite him, and oh by the way, are you coming? Needless to say, I couldn't make it. But I did feel dreadful about it.

Right after the party, my mentor invited me & my partner to visit him at his vacation house in a gorgeous place. His wife was glad to see me (not always the case), and we had a marvelous time walking and talking and playing with his new dog. This doesn't convey the walks in parks on the edge of rain and storm and cliffs and ocean. It doesn't convey the conversations: catching up on kids and grandkids and dogs and friends here and gone. I realized that I am now the age he was when we started working together. I realized I have people who look up to me, the way I looked up to him. I realized I have taught people much of what he taught me. I miss working with him as much as I used to.

It is not such a bad thing to do to visit the people one loves. If I had all the time in the world, or almost none at all, I think I would go visit people I love.


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If I really knew

(by potnia theron) Apr 20 2017

One of the legacies of my economics father is reading blogs that are very different from my life and political view. They are infuriating, sometimes, but I have learned.

One of these is Marginal Revolution, which my father would say is written by two rational economists, and I would say is written by... well ... more conservative thinkers. I recommend it as thought well written thought provoking and from a corner of the internet that scientists do not usually traverse.

One of the things I remember was a thought exercise that one of the authors posed (I love the internet. This was from 2005. It was still there.)

If  I thought, nay, if I *knew*  that I was going to die  very soon (a week? A month?) what would I do differently? And if I knew I was going to live for another (very productive) 30 or 40 years, or was immortal in their consideration, what would I do? The author's answer was "travel" to both conditions and the last sentence of the post was "I leave for a solo trek to Machu Picchu July 25. " (aside I am totally pleased with myself that I remembered he was going to go to Machu Picchu).

Lately I have been stuck, almost paralyzed. This would be surprising to anyone who sees me, as I have gotten great swathes of work done. I have done marvelous things with my friends, and I have planned three trips that matter, including ones to see aging mentors (something very important to me).

But I am feeling emotionally stuck. I am feeling time's winged chariot pressing on my back, and yet do not know how to deal with said chariot. So I asked myself: what would I do if I knew my lifespan?

If it was going to be measured in weeks or months, I would do what I think many would. One gathers loved ones close. One is more tolerant of children and partners and the next ring out: sibs and cousins and ex-s. For me, I would try (most futilely, I am sure, having tried before) to contact the brother who has not spoken to me in 30 years. I would tell the people that I love just how much I love them. And then, I would travel.

If it was going to be many, many years, what then? I am not so sure about this, and there is my problem. When one is young, when *I* was young, eternity stretched before me. Oh, there were immediate crises of funding and tenure and partners and children. But one didn't, *I* didn't think about dying and getting things done before the end of time. Who the heck does?

When one is young, even losing people, be it to the finality of early death, the negative unearned run that is someone else's fault, or the unmitigated stupidity of someone you once loved leaving you, may feel like unrecoverable. Yet, one figures out how to go on, one figures out how to pick up one's life and find some joy again. Not everyone. Not every loss. But mostly.

I have found, that as I have aged, and lost people in this, my seventh decade of walking the face of this earth, that finality seems, well, more final. And the emotional buoyancy that has served me so well is becoming frayed.

What would I do if I had 30 more years, of physical and mental health? I do not know.



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Making decisions part 2

(by potnia theron) Apr 19 2017

Here is part 1 of making decisions, based on a talk I heard from  Ruth Chang.

One of the points she made, and was made in a early talk in the show, was that decisions are hard because we don't have enough information. Or maybe we feel decisions are hard because we don't have enough information.

I recently had a young friend, the child of friend, who got into two graduate programs and was having trouble deciding which to accept. They were roughly equal in what they offered and the potential, but had different flavors to the program, and what my young friend would end up doing. I repeated to him one of the things I have always said about deciding what college to go to: the things that will make a difference to your ultimate experience, and your ultimate life path are unknowable at this point. Yes, you can maximize that good things will happen (i.e. take the grad school that offers you a stipend, which is non-trivial in the humanities). But, what will make a difference is going to be a casual encounter, a class you don't know that you will take with a professor you don't know exists. You cannot know what will be important, because it hasn't happened yet, and can't really be known.

One of the interesting points that Ruth Chang made about not knowing was that it doesn't even matter if you did know the outcome. Even if you had a video of what would be on either path, that doesn't mean one path is better, they may be equal, but different outcomes. We can't do everything. It's not that one is better, it's that they are different.

Sometimes we can go back and change recharge the path. She did, deciding between law school and philosophy, choosing the former, realizing it was a mistake and going back to the latter. But then, you've already changed the path. Going to get a PhD in philosophy, after law school, is not the same path as going to get the PhD right after college.

But, more often you can't got back and even do both options. This is part of the point from the previous post: make the choice and embrace it. Embrace the act of choosing.

I need to choose, right now, a couple of M1 medical students to join my lab for the summer as fellows. They will do work, learn research, and in some cases, keep a relationship to my lab and research over the next three years. The applications dribbled in last week, and I picked the 6 most promising to interview. Then, Sunday and Monday I got a flood of another 15-20. Yipes! I have to decide if I want to interview more (difficult because I have candidates meet with my lab group, too, as I value the lab group's perspective, and I'm asking my lab group to take their valuable time in making this decision). And then who?

I remind myself, Potnia, old thing, it probably doesn't matter. I've had mostly good but a few bad summer fellows. I can use some criteria to try and make sure I get good ones. But in the end, probably choosing among the 6 I will have talked with by the end of today is probably a fine decision, and that I'm not missing the one who will transform my research. Because, if there was one who could  transform what I do, I doubt I would be able to pick them out of the bunch with an reliability.


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quote of the day: looks edition

(by potnia theron) Apr 18 2017

Thoughts on look-ism from J.K. Rowling:

“Fat’ is usually the first insult a girl throws at another girl when she wants to hurt her.

I mean, is ‘fat’ really the worst thing a human being can be? Is ‘fat’ worse than ‘vindictive’, ‘jealous’, ‘shallow’, ‘vain’, ‘boring’ or ‘cruel’? Not to me; but then, you might retort, what do I know about the pressure to be skinny? I’m not in the business of being judged on my looks, what with being a writer and earning my living by using my brain…


What I felt like saying was, ‘I’ve produced my third child and my sixth novel since I last saw you. Aren’t either of those things more important, more interesting, than my size?’ But no – my waist looked smaller! Forget the kid and the book: finally, something to celebrate! --J.K. Rowling

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More Difficult Chairs and Difficult Faculty

(by potnia theron) Apr 18 2017

I've kept talking to Molly (see here and here for background) about her situation as a junior faculty with, to her perception, a difficult chair. There has been a lot of back and forth from my faithful readers on what is good advice to Molly. Read the comments to those posts for a sense of the debate.

Molly has, for now, decided to stay in academics. I know some of you will think that's a foolish decision. But I think it is a very personal choice, in the sense that liking Peeps, one's preferred time for waking up, and having children is a very personal choice. There are different levels of difficulty and significance of said choices (see post on making decisions), but this is Molly's decision to make. My ongoing commitment to her is to work with her, and help her, and advise her. I write about this in part to elicit your, dear reader, help, but also because I value the various responses I get.

Molly's chair sent her a list of expectations. It's actually two parts: a list for the entire department and a list for Molly and one other jr faculty. If I was chair, in my current PhD/non-clinical department, I couldn't imagine sending this to a bunch of academics. On the other hand, from my time in a clinical department, I can certainly perceive that in that setting, a department of people who have not come up through a standard academic pathway, that it might be necessary. I recall discussions I have had with junior clinical faculty who wanted to stay in academics and were baffled by some parts of the culture. Context, once again, is important here.

Molly was confused by the list. She was not insulted by the list (which would be an understandable reaction), but just didn't understand what it meant. I looked at it and thought, if I gave this to any junior faculty that I am currently mentoring, any basic science jr faculty, they would shrug and say "so what, I'm doing that already".

Here are some of the points (paraphrased):

  • Follow all AMRU institutional accounting requirements

Yup. You can't spend money on alcohol. You can't buy a computer from the equipment money on your federal grant without special procedure. You gotta turn in receipts. You gotta get authorization for over a certain amount.

  • Teaching: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review


  • Service: Should be aligned with department, college, and university goals. Should be agreed upon and approved by Chair during annual review

To me, these are just restatements of something I told Molly before. One doesn’t get hired because of some altruistic need on the part of the university to improve you, and help you, although that often comes along for the ride. One is hired because there are jobs that need to be done, jobs within the department and within the school.

Molly who worked as a consultant and a lone ranger, didn't understand why anyone else would care about these things, and why she needed to pay attention to them. Then there is the part of the list that might be a bit insulting.

  • Attend all department meetings and participate accordingly. Absences (excused and unexpected) should be communicated to the Chair.
  • Serve on departmental committees as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Participate in departmental strategic planning and implementation as agreed upon in consultation with the Chair
  • Notify the Chair or designee in advance if unable to keep a meeting
  • Follow institution guidelines regarding all human resources requirements, including timely submission of all reports (direct and indirect)
  • Follow institutional guidelines regarding all IRB requirements and expectations of compliance.

If I showed this the jr faculty in my department and asked what they thought, they'd probably say "you're kidding", in part because they trust me not to jerk them around. These are kindergarten rules. These are rules you give to teenagers who are thinking with their hormones, and have significantly screwed up something to the extent you need to lay down the law. (If you have a teenager who has never significantly screwed up, like drugs and arrest and hurting someone badly, you are very lucky. This, in my perception, is usually orthogonal to parenting, but that's another post).

But it makes me think that someone in this department screwed up pretty badly to make a chair think that these kinds of rules are necessary. I know some commentators will see this as proof that the chair is six kinds of BSD and jerk and ineffective as leader. Yet, I've seen enough evidence to the contrary and I know that he didn't institute these rules when he became chair, but in response to situations of which I do not know all the facts. These rules, er, guidelines, are a response to something, and not necessarily Molly. That doesn't make it any easier for her.

Molly's particular "expectations", which is not quite the same thing as rule, include:

  • Be familiar with and follow all tenure and promotion guidelines
  • Actively maintain a successful program of scholarship

So to whom of us are these surprising? Unexpected? Molly was adjunct in this department before this chair came on board, and moved to tenure track at the time he started. Thus he didn't have a hand in her hiring, which is when I would expect these things to be discussed. Molly wrote to me saying she didn't understand. I said these things I would tell any brand new faculty. The only problem is that the previous chair did not say these things explicitly to you when you were hired.

Part of what is most difficult for Molly, something with which I remember struggling as a new jr faculty are the expectations about research funding. Not that one should get research, but about how getting funding is overseen and regulated. Research should:

  • be aligned with strategic goals of department, college, and university
  • be limited to a manageable amount of required oversight
  • strictly adhere to institutional requirements for IRB, grants accounting, and human resources
  • be discussed with chair and approved by the Chair during annual review

Now, in my dotage, these seem reflexive to me. These guidelines are one (large) part you work for the university not yourself and one part we (the admin) need to make sure you don't screw up anything in public for us and one part I (the chair) don't want you doing more than you can reasonably do. Do not get more money than you can handle.

When I was younger, I bridled at rules like this: why can't I do whatever I want? Well, I couldn't and you can't. We live in a society with rules, and guidelines, and expectations and limitations. We work for an institution, that often reports to the State Government, and when we are so lucky to get NIH money, we are answerable to the federal government. When we use animals in our work, there is Federal Law that governs what we can and cannot do.

As I said to Molly: this is the job.  These are the guidelines and expectations.  If you cannot live with these, it's time to move on. If you want this job, then you figure out how to work and live within these limits.

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Making decisions - Part 1

(by potnia theron) Apr 17 2017

In the morning, I have taken to listening to podcasts whilst I do my morning stretching. In general, I find podcasts frustrating - by and large they are too slow and I just would rather read, and absorb the information more quickly. But since I can't read and stretch at the same time, I listen.

This morning, I was listening to a TED program. Usually I can't stand the TED talks, even the abridged "radio hour" version. The people talking are way too smug and sure of themselves. It's even a bit, as my Brit friends would say, Twee.

But this one, about making decisions, had some insight that I appreciated (thank you, my dear friend. Denise for suggesting this). The woman was Ruth Chang, a philosopher, talking about: How Can Making Hard Choices Empower Us?

I took away two core messages from this excerpt of her talk. Firstly, separate the concept of "hard decisions" from "important decisions". Decisions are hard to make because the resolution is not obvious, that doesn't mean they are worthy of great swathes of your attention. It may feel that making a choice is difficult, because you don't know enough, about your desires or about the outcomes, to make it. But, it is not worth losing sleep over what to have for breakfast.

Secondly, embrace the hard decisions, the ones that are not about what to have for breakfast. They are a chance to decide, but also a chance to make yourself into who you are. The decision gives you the chance to chose who you are going to be. Agency, she calls it. It is a chance to commit (her word) to who you are going to be, a chance to determine your path.

Embrace the difficulty. Usually we who like to embrace difficulty, or embrace the concept of embracing difficulty, embrace the difficulty of doing something. We want to climb the physical or intellectual mountain. It's part of the reason we are scientists. But the difficulty of deciding is, at least for me, harder to do. It's triggered a whole range of thoughts, some of which are part of the path through the end of my life. So this is just part 1. Parts 2 through n, to follow.





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Quote of the Day: Olde Farte Survival

(by potnia theron) Apr 14 2017

Apropos ongoing discussions about giving time of day to evil human beings:

If you wait by the river long enough, the bodies of your enemies will float by. ― Sun Tzu

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