Friday links: women in science x 5, and SO MUCH MOAR (UPDATED)

Here’s a picture of what Meghan and I did this week:


Also this week [inhales deep breath]: how to think new thoughts, thinking like an ecologist (?), dean vs. Pulp Fiction, pick your battles (but not too many), PI vs. 7 year postdoc, [gasps] [inhales] British grade inflation, scicomm resources, awkward faculty job interviews, in Hollywood medicine nobody knows anything, incentives for replication, and MOAR! [passes out]

From Meghan:

Two senior women scientists at the Salk Institute have filed lawsuits related to gender discrimination at Salk. Salk has 31 tenured faculty, only 3 of whom are women. Read the linked article for a full list of the complaints in the allegation; they’re dismaying. And here are copies of the two lawsuits (1 and 2). (Friday morning update: a third woman is now also suing Salk.)

Maryam Mirzakhani, the first woman to win math’s presitigious Fields Medal, has died at age 40. Here’s an article on her math and her life from 2014. I think one important thing in that article is this passage, about her start at a prestigious middle school for girls in Tehran:

To her dismay, Mirzakhani did poorly in her mathematics class that year. Her math teacher didn’t think she was particularly talented, which undermined her confidence. At that age, “it’s so important what others see in you,” Mirzakhani said. “I lost my interest in math.”


The following year, Mirzakhani had a more encouraging teacher, however, and her performance improved enormously. “Starting from the second year, she was a star,” Beheshti said.

Thank goodness for her having a different teacher in her second year! And the article goes on to describe how her high school principal encouraged her to pursue math competitions, even though the Iranian team had never had a girl on it. And here’s a short (<3 minute) video where she describes her work. She was clearly an amazing person and mathematician, and it’s so sad that she died so young. (Jeremy adds: more recollections of Mirzakhani here.)

A new study has failed to replicate an earlier study showing an influence of stereotype threat on women’s math performance. (Jeremy adds: I’m far from an expert on this literature. But it seems like studies of stereotype threat–like many results in social psychology–aren’t standing up well to pre-registered replications, or to formal meta-analyses that test for publication bias. See here and here for some other recent links on this topic. As I said in an old post, even if stereotype threat turns out not to be a thing, we should still be alert to subtle biases, should still teach our students that they can improve, should still be mindful of sending unintended messages, etc. Indeed, those things still sound like good ideas to me independent of the experimental literature on stereotype threat.)

Many women of color feel unsafe working in science. This is why people talk about intersectionality:

“The study really reinforces a lot of what the literature already tells us — that women of color are more likely to experience multiple forms of harassment and feel more acutely the impact of a hostile work environment in the sciences,” Zuleyka Zevallos, a sociologist at Swinburne University in Australia, told BuzzFeed News.

Stop talking about “crazy” or “bitchy” senior women. From the post:

The next time we hear a crazy/bitch narrative about a senior woman, let’s ask ourselves: How much first-hand evidence do we personally have to back it up — does it resonate with our own direct observations and interactions with her? Do our male colleagues do the same things but escape such scrutiny or derision? Can they be “assholes” but stay influential and respected, and not get marginalized? If a senior woman does seem troubled, struggling, or isolated, is there a history of experiences that might explain her behavior? Might a senior woman not advocate for junior ones because of the costs of doing so, because she feels powerless to do so, or because the junior women have rejected her? How might the narrative about senior women be challenged or changed in order to respect these women who have achieved enough success to earn promotion? How do we stop this generational cycle so that women’s wings aren’t clipped as soon as they approach the power to soar?

And this sentence is one that is so pervasive:

Some of us attributed the negative reputations of the senior women a bit more kindly — to a generation gap: It must have been difficult making it in a male-dominated field when they were young, so they’d had to be steely and selfish to survive.

I heard that so much as a grad student. Worse, I believed it. Worse still, I’ve said it.

The Republican-majority US House of Representatives retained an amendment in a defense funding bill that says, “climate change is a direct threat to the national security of the United States.” That seems like a big step!

I need to remind myself of this periodically:

I really enjoyed this post by Melissa WilsonSayres, on how being a PI is not the awesomest 7 year postdoc. I love the 7 year postdoc piece by Radhika Nagpal, but also agree with all of Melissa’s points. For me, the 7 year postdoc piece is a piece about setting boundaries and not postponing life, and the 7 year postdoc framing is to indicate that it might be a temporary position. But Melissa is right that there are some really, really major differences between being a postdoc and an assistant professor, and I think she summarizes them well. One thing I still remember clearly is an incident that cemented for me that my interactions with people would be different as an assistant professor than as a postdoc: when I first got to Georgia Tech, I was talking with a graduate student who mentioned she was going to be giving a practice talk. I asked when it was, interested in hearing about her work and wanting to help out by giving feedback. In the awkward silence that followed, it became clear that I was not invited. It turned out that it was an informal seminar series that grad students organized that faculty weren’t invited to. It was a pretty minor thing, but it happened very early in my time as an assistant professor and really crystallized that my interactions with grad students and postdocs would be different than they had been just a few months earlier.

This Communication Learning in Practice for Students (CLIPS) website looks like a really great teaching resource. Here’s a screenshot showing the different modules that are available:screen shot showing short answer question, displaying data, writing, presentations, posters, communicating with the public, communicating with numbers, infographics, and referencing modules

From Jeremy:

Is it a good thing for science as a whole if scientists disagree? And is active disagreement among scientists different than mere diversity of ideas? Interesting accessible discussion, using a recent high-profile disagreement in paleoanthropology as an example. Related: why we need more contrarian ecology.

I recently participated in a workshop at which I met philosopher of biology Raphael Scholl. Here’s his interesting blog post on how to think new thoughts. Put another way, he asks whether hypothesis development is a totally inscrutable creative process, or if there are strategies one can use to come up with new hypotheses.

How to think like an economist (if you want to). Brad DeLong at his best. Raises the interesting question: is there such a thing as “thinking like an ecologist”? And if not, what does that say about ecology as a discipline?

How Twitter fuels anxiety. (ht @noahpinion)

California state funds can now no longer be used to pay for travel to eight other states that run afoul of California’s anti-discrimination statue. That includes travel to scientific conferences. Curious to hear what folks based at public universities in California, and based in the affected states, think of this.

The major incentive to replicate published studies is the possibility of overturning published results.

Caroline Tucker on the challenges of giving a good conference talk, given that your audience is likely to include people with very different levels of expertise and reasons for attending. She sees a trend towards speakers glossing over technical details too much, preventing the experts in the audience from giving them useful feedback. What do you think? I confess that, when I’m watching a talk on a subject on which I’m an expert, I get impatient when the speaker spends too long going over the methods. I know the methods already–show me the results! It’s when I’m not an expert that I want the speaker to walk me through the methods more slowly.

Via Andrew Gelman, news of an interesting online study of how scientists make their data-analytic decisions (what Gelman calls the “garden of forking paths”). Anyone can sign up to analyze a standard dataset however they want in order to answer a standard question (to do with gender, status, and science). All of your analytical choices–every command you run–is recorded, even exploratory choices that don’t end up in your final analysis. And you’re asked to provide justifications of all of your analytical choices.

Stephen Heard on the awkwardness of interviewing for the same faculty position a collaborator of yours is also interviewing for. I’ve had an interviewing experience way more awkward than that, though it turned out fine in the end.

The longtime EiC of the New England Journal of Medicine says “it is no longer possible to believe much of the clinical research that is published, or to rely on the judgement of trusted physicians or authoritative medical guidelines.” To which: ??!! I really wish I had more context for this so I could interpret and evaluate it. UPDATE: As a commenter points out, it was at least lazy and arguably irresponsible of me to link to something as eye-catching as this tweeted quote without checking its accuracy or providing any larger context, given that larger context would’ve been so easy for me to provide. Rather than link to this quote, I should’ve done what I just did: googled for 10 seconds and then linked to Angell’s entire piece in the NYRB. Fortunately in this case, the tweeted quote is accurate, and representative of the piece’s conclusions about the pernicious effects of drug company funding of medicine. My bad. 

Grade inflation is rampant in Britain universities.

Good tweetstorm on the difference between applying for a faculty position at a research university vs. at a college with bigger teaching expectations. I was aware of this, having gone to a liberal arts college as an undergrad. But apparently it’s not as widely known as it should be. (ht @hormiga)

The secret life of the (now former) dean of USC medical school. Ideally, you want your dean to be a lot less like a character in Pulp Fiction. (ht @kjhealy)

This isn’t universally true, but it’s true enough to be funny. 🙂

8 thoughts on “Friday links: women in science x 5, and SO MUCH MOAR (UPDATED)

  1. I have to disagree that the increase in first-class degrees has to be as a result of grade inflation. Given that just having a degree isn’t sufficient to get a decent job any more, could it not be that students are simply working harder? Every year we see complaints of grade inflation in GCSEs and A-Levels but no real proof, just lots of people complaining that ‘exams were harder in my day’. If students did better in their GCSEs and did better in their A-levels is it really such a stretch that they also do better at university?

    • Not sure. “Students are working harder” and “faculty are giving higher marks than they used to for the same work” are not mutually-exclusive hypotheses. The same pressure you describe is not just a reason why students might work harder, it’s also a reason why faculty would inflate grades. And the same pressure surely operates on both students and their teachers at A-level and GCSE level, no?

      I’m not aware of any data that would allow one to partition the contributions of these two hypotheses, but perhaps it’s out there.

      • They’re not mutually exclusive but neither is there any evidence to suggest that students are having an easier time in exams. Grade inflation is something that people perpetually complain about with little actual evidence beyond the fact that marks are increasing.

        As to A-levels and GCSEs, these are externally marked by markers appointed by the exam boards. There is pressure on the exam boards to give ‘good’ results (certainly when I was doing my exams in the 90s there were exam boards ‘known’ to be easier or harder than others) but again, much of it ‘evidence’ this is actually translating into easier exams seems to stem from ‘exams were harder in my day’.

        There’s also the fact that there’s no reason not to expect marks to get better. The students may be changing year on year but teachers have a much slower turnover and you’d expect them to get better at their job. Additionally our understanding of what is involved in teaching effectively is improving all the time. If things weren’t improving I think that would be more cause for concern.

  2. I can attest to the rampant gender discrimination at the Salk Institute. I received extensive training there in the late 1990s, under the guidance of a tenured female PI (I will not name her for obvious reasons). She has since left the Salk… i.e., she was essentially forced out by brutal and vicious gender-based politics. The place was a snake pit, and now that I see these lawsuits have been filed, I can only assume it has only gotten worse. Tragic, really- because it is a place of such enormous innovation.

  3. Rob Schneider tweeting an image of a (possibly fake) quote from who knows where doesn’t provide you with enough context to understand the quote? I think this nicely illustrates why Twitter is such a terrible platform for (attempted) substantive communication.

    • The quote isn’t fake. It’s from a NYRB piece by Angell arguing that drug company funding of medical research has seriously corrupted that research, and indeed, the conduct of medicine. The quote is representative of Angell’s piece.

      Having said that, you’re right that I should have searched for the context first before linking. Not doing so ran a risk of sharing something fake or misleading, even if in this particular case the risk wasn’t realized. You’re right that people should hesitate to share eye-catching quotes for which they have no context, even if they admit they have no context. I’ll update the post.

      • Sorry if I came across as argumentative. I was mostly just trying to joke about it. The fact that it’s a Rob Schneider tweet made the whole thing seem particularly ridiculous, even by twitter’s low standards.

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