Thursday, May 31st 2012

Link love: Parenting, SCIENCE, Boobs and Other Objects

I’ve accumulated a number of interesting readings over the last few weeks, most related in at least some way to ladybusiness, and I thought I would give my readers a chance to procrastinate too.


  • PhD in Parenting: 4 Ways Parents Can Help Break Down Society’s Gender Assumptions. This is the fourth in a four-part series on society, gender and kids. Annie does a great job being thoughtful about where parents can intervene, and how to have a healthy perspective on what we can and cannot do about kids’ need to conform. As a parent to a four year old girl, I’ve got a bit of a post related to these topics brewing myself.
  • Geek Mom: Mayim Bialik, You Disappoint Me. Marziah explains what it means to be a role model, and the difference between passive, personal beliefs and pushing them on others. A post I hope Bialik reads before continuing to promote not vaccinating her children.

Delight in science


  • Big Think Blog: “Breast” Behavior: A Q&A with Katie Hinde. Kayt Sukel interviews brilliant lactation biologist Katie Hinde (I can say this because she is a friend and book co-editor, and also because it is true). Katie shares her perspective on the current breastfeeding Mommy Warz.
  • The Primate Diaries: Out of the Mouth of Babes. Eric Michael Johnson also covers this current topic, providing some comparative depth by looking at some of our primate relatives and their breastfeeding practices. Nathaniel Gold also made the fantastic chimpanzee Time cover.

Don’t look away (for two very different reasons)

  • Wine & Bowties: Where Children Sleep. Provocative, often jarring images of the conditions in which children across the world sleep.
  • Io9: The mouth of a child is a terrifying thing to behold. Am I weird that I found this picture fascinating? I can’t wait to show this to my kid, because she is really interested in teeth right now. Oh, before you click, I should tell you it’s the skull of a small child with part of the jaw cut away so you can see the adult teeth sitting on top of the baby teeth, ready to descend.


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Wednesday, May 23rd 2012

Belieber or Thiever: Who came first, Bieber or this scientist?

Science Fair, by Richard Bowen via Flickr Creative Commons.

Science Fair, by Richard Bowen via Flickr Creative Commons.

Posters are one of the first ways junior scientists learn to communicate information. In high school students use those three-part poster boards for science fairs. In undergrad research symposia and beyond, scientists make a single flat poster, the dimensions varying by the conference but usually in a horizontal layout. The research poster is how much research is presented, and it’s a great way to get feedback from your colleagues, since you’re standing right next to it while they pore over the text and images as you try to decide whether it’s the right time to introduce yourself to Dr. Famous.

Posters are hard to get right. How much text is too much? What color schemes will draw people to your poster rather than make them cringe? Dr. Zen Faulkes has a series of posts over at his blog called The Zen of Presentations that provides some great insight; I regularly send my students his way. But I also wanted to develop a hands-on way for my students to think about how to communicate their science in poster form.

Earlier this semester, inspired by a talk by Neal Lerner on science communication where he did a similar poster exercise, I used half of my upper level reproductive ecology seminar to work with my students on how research is presented. First, I sent them off to the main hallway in our building that displays biological anthropology and archaeology posters, asking them to find the posters that were the most visually striking, the most interesting, and the least striking or interesting, and bring that information back. It was apparently going very well, because I eventually had to go find them to bring them back to the classroom.

Once we returned to the classroom, I asked students to share what they liked and didn’t like. Why was one poster successful where another wasn’t? In a few cases disciplinary biases impacted the posters they liked, but most of the time their preference was driven by design features. The posters that were striking, confident and accessible were the clear favorites.

In his talk, Lerner described four major design features one must consider in poster presentation: contrast (of color, space or size), repetition (repeating visual elements), alignment (each element should have a visual connection to each other) and proximity (items that relate to each other should be near each other). We talked about those posters that succeeded with these features, and how one would produce a poster that respected them.

Then the fun began.

Justin Bieber’s Hair

Once I was confident that my students understood the importance of poster design, I broke the class two groups. Their task? To provide an argument, and design a poster, based on this rather interesting correlation:

Figure 1. Can you tell who is who? Image from a Bieber look-alike contest, and yes, Ahern won.

Figure 1. Can you tell who is who? Image from a Bieber look-alike contest, and yes, Ahern won.

For the last few years, one of the running jokes in my lab has involved a striking physical (or rather, follicular) similarity between biological anthropology researcher Dana Ahern (now a University of Illinois graduate!) and multi-platinum pop superstar Justin Bieber. I thought this observed correlation would make an excellent foundation to help students think about how to demonstrate causality, present a convincing argument, and visually represent their ideas. So I gave the two groups about ten minutes to discuss and sketch out their posters.

Here is what they came up with.

Figure 2. The Illinois Department of Celebrity Studies poster, entitled “Separation at Birth: The Dana and Bieber Case Study.” By Sophia Bodnar, Jamie Cater, Kristin Ingstrup and Erin O’Neill.

Figure 2. The Illinois Department of Celebrity Studies poster, entitled “Separation at Birth: The Dana and Bieber Case Study.” By Sophia Bodnar, Jamie Cater, Kristin Ingstrup and Erin O’Neill.

Group 1 not only came up with an interesting argument for the relationship between Bieber and Ahern hair, the poster represented the inaugural research of the new University of Illinois Department of Celebrity Studies, of which these students are of course the founding co-chairs.

These co-chairs argue that Ahern and Bieber are long-lost twins. Plotting the major life events of the two individuals in question (note when Bieber met Usher, and when he “gained a sultry voice”), they claim the two have matured in eerily similar ways (well, except Ahern never met Usher that we know of, but her voice is surely sultry).

For the purposes of this exercise though, the design features are the most important. The poster authors came up with a compelling title, used the university logo in a top corner, and the traditional three column format. The authors also do a nice job with their image: a timeline is a great choice given their argument about long lost twins, and centering it on the poster draws the eye. In all, it was a thoughtful contribution to the exercise.

Figure 3. The second group’s poster, entitled “Belieber or Thiever: Haircuts as Power Tools.” By Dana Ahern, Elizabeth Cole and Allie Zachwieja.

Figure 3. The second group’s poster, entitled “Belieber or Thiever: Haircuts as Power Tools.” By Dana Ahern, Elizabeth Cole and Allie Zachwieja.

Group 2 had a conflict of interest in their project because Ahern was a participant, but I let it slide since their grade was again based more on the design features of the poster. This group argues that Justin Bieber has been secretly spying on Dana Ahern and stealing her style. They demonstrate that each of Ahern’s haircuts has preceded Bieber’s by as much as a week. They also claim that Bieber’s stolen hairstyle is largely responsible for his rise to fame, and indicate that Ahern then deserves a share of his profits.

As for design features, this group also chose a great title, used the three column format, and also have a timeline, though it falls along the bottom of the poster. This poster’s images are also in the center of the poster. I would have liked to see the Ahern and Bieber images side by side rather than separated by a glossary, and the glossary moved to a less prominent position. But again, I think these students did a great job thinking about format and style in putting together a poster in only minutes.

The most gratifying part of this exercise is that three of the seven students in this class went on to have posters in our university’s undergraduate research symposium (alas, none on Justin Bieber), and we workshopped early versions of those posters in later weeks. The final versions were all clear, strong, and compelling presentations of their work.

And to think, a great learning session on science communication that all started with Justin Bieber!

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Wednesday, May 16th 2012

Happy Mother’s Day: To All the Allomothers

The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

The kiddo at about five months with my sister.

Once a week I get four allergy shots and then sit in a small waiting room for thirty minutes to make sure I don’t have any adverse reactions. Today, my husband came along to spend some time with me and make use of the free wi-fi. We chatted quietly while he did some service work and I finished up my grading.

I noticed an older white woman, fifty or sixtysomething, balancing her checkbook while sitting at the kids table a few feet from us. She couldn’t seem to resist commenting on each patient as they came in to sit down (To one man: “Are you Egyptian? You’re dark!” To a probably male newborn: “What a strong boy you’ll be!” To my husband: “You must be smart, I don’t know all the words you are saying!”).

Eventually, a young woman enters with a little boy in tow. She starts to read to her child in a singsong voice. “Now can you find the TREE?!?!?” she almost screams. “How about the bird? DO YOU SEE THE BIRD?!?!?”

The older woman interrupts the book. “That’s so good that you read to him. How old is your boy?”


“And he already likes to read! That’s amazing. You must stay at home with him.”

“I sure do. I have three boys.”

“Oh, wonderful!”

“Yes, I quit medical school to be with them.”

“Oh well, yes, that is good. You know, God blesses mothers who stay at home.”

My jaw tenses, but I continue to grade.

“Yes, it’s where I should be. My husband is studying to get his MD/PhD, so it makes more sense for me to stay at home with the boys.”

My teeth begin to grind, but I continue to grade.

“That’s good, dear. School can always wait but your children cannot. I wish more mothers knew that. The children always turn out better when the mother stays at home. I used to be a teacher so I know.”

The mother nods and goes back to reading to her child. “Is that Oscar the Grouch? What COLOR is OSCAR?!?”

I try not to fantasize roller derby hip checks, and continue to grade.

The older woman’s time is up before mine and she leaves, which I regret. Because when it’s my turn to have my injections checked, I turn to my husband, calling him loudly. “Come on, FELLOW WORKING PARENT, it’s time to go!”

And I storm out.

* * *

Drawing by the kiddo that features her parents and her aunt.

Last week, the kiddo decided to draw a picture of her family. From top, clockwise: my sister, the kiddo, my husband, me.

In the car on the way to work, my husband and I talked about how often I come across this perspective, that there is a higher value in mothers who stay at home, and how he never hears from colleagues or friends that he would have higher value if he were to stay at home. But rather than enter into some debate that tries to place a working or non-working mother on the higher pedestal, I think it’s worth noticing that all mothers have help. All of them. Childcare and babysitting, school, camp, government support, a partner with a paycheck, family members’ time or money, all of these things support a mother as she raises a child. No mother does it alone, which means a mother who stays at home is not automatically more blessed or noble than one who does not.

Perhaps more importantly, our ancestral mothers did not stay at home and watch their children alone, the TV or radio the closest thing to adult company. My last post discussed the concept of pooled energy budgets, which requires cooperative breeding and transfers of labor and energy to maximize reproductive success. Our ancestral mothers likely got help from fathers (Marlowe, 2004), other mothers , lovers, friends, community members (Hill and Hurtado, 2009), grandmothers (Hawkes et al., 1997), even younger siblings (Kramer et al., 2009). Entire books have been written on this topic (Hrdy, 2009; Kramer, 2005), and conversations have bridged across genetics, anthropology, psychology and biology (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Fox et al., 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010).

There is substantial evidence to support the idea that in our evolutionary history, mothers who had helpers did far better than those who did not, and that the social and cognitive skills needed to give and receive help are part of what make us uniquely human and intelligent (Burkart and Van Schaik, 2010; Kramer, 2010; van Schaik and Burkart, 2010). When children receive allocare it helps their development of social coordination and tolerance as well as positive social behaviors, and when those allomothers (which I’m trying to use in a gender neutral way) learn to care for children it helps them build attentional biases and responsiveness to others. Allomothering, to some researchers, is the foundational mechanism for what has made us a socially intelligent species.

So today, soon after Mother’s Day, I want to celebrate Allomother’s Day and thank all of my allomothers.

  • Thank you to my husband, who brings home a salary, shares equally in housework and childcare, loves our child tenderly and fiercely, and is my staunchest supporter.
  • Thank you to my salary as well, for helping us to afford food, shelter, care, and fun stuff for our daughter.
  • Thank you to my sister, who lived in Illinois with us for a year and a half when our daughter was younger, and watched the kiddo many an afternoon or evening.
  • Thank you to my parents, who shower the kiddo with gifts, hugs and kisses and who help with pick ups and drop offs when they visit.
  • Thank you to my husband’s parents, who introduced the kiddo to Fancy Nancy and Angry Birds, and who cook up many inventive games when they visit.
  • Thank you to my roller derby leaguemates, who keep my kid out of danger, out of seeing when I get hurt on the rink, who take her to the potty, and who help to tire her out so she sleeps well. They have done this without being asked, out of sheer kindness and love, over and over again.
  • Thank you to our many babysitters who have loved our kiddo, taken her to the park, fed her dinner and tucked her into bed.
  • Thank you to the kiddo’s amazing, progressive, loving preschool teachers, who have taught her more social and emotional skills in two semesters than I ever thought possible, all while keeping her safe, building her motivation, and getting her to stick up for herself.
  • Thank you to our daycare provider, who loves the kiddo like her own and teachers all the children she watches to love and nurture one another.
  • Thank you to my friends and neighbors, who have taken the kiddo on play dates to their house when they see the haunted look in my eyes that I am behind at work, and who have said they will be my family and my backup because I live so far from my parents and in laws.
  • And finally, thank you to my internet posse, who provides emotional support even though I’ve met so few of you in person.

These kindnesses bring me to tears whenever I stop and think about it. It’s hard for someone like me who, though a potent swirl of genes and environment, has become a very, very independent person who does not like to rely on anyone. I have learned a lot about building a network and trusting others because of the cooperative breeding in my life.


Burkart JM, Van Schaik CP. 2010. Cognitive consequences of cooperative breeding in primates? Animal cognition 13(1):1-19.

Fox M, Sear R, Beise J, Ragsdale G, Voland E, Knapp LA. 2010. Grandma plays favourites: X-chromosome relatedness and sex-specific childhood mortality. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 277(1681):567-573.

Hawkes K, O’Connell JF, Blurton Jones NG. 1997. Hadza women’s time allocation, offspring provisioning, and the evolution of long postmenopausal life spans. Current Anthropology 38(4):551-577.

Hill K, Hurtado AM. 2009. Cooperative breeding in South American hunter–gatherers. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 276(1674):3863-3870.

Hrdy SB. 2009. Mothers and others: The evolutionary origins of mutual understanding: Belknap Press.

Kramer K. 2005. Maya children: helpers at the farm: Harvard Univ Pr.

Kramer KL. 2010. Cooperative breeding and its significance to the demographic success of humans. Annual Review of Anthropology 39:417-436.

Kramer KL, Greaves RD, Ellison PT. 2009. Early reproductive maturity among Pumé foragers: implications of a pooled energy model to fast life histories. AMERICAN JOURNAL OF HUMAN BIOLOGY 21(4):430-437.

Marlowe FW. 2004. What explains Hadza food sharing. Research in economic Anthropology 23:69-88.

van Schaik CP, Burkart JM. 2010. Mind the gap: cooperative breeding and the evolution of our unique features. Mind the gap: tracing the origins of human universals:477-497.

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