Wednesday, October 1st 2014

Ninety minutes


I’m going to share some vignettes from this week, because I am feeling disjointed. Each of them only took ninety minutes.

  1. I’m in a lunch meeting with fellow faculty who have won a prestigious campus award for our research. When we begin to discuss what we excellent researchers should do as a group, the administrator in attendance says that our job should really be to produce “grateful alumni.” He means donors, of course. And when I push him on this, and say I am uncomfortable with the idea that my research should ever be in the service of producing grateful alumni, he backtracks and claims that he meant our teaching. But this is a meeting about research, about researchers who have won awards for research excellence. This backtracking does not go unnoticed in the room. This uncomfortable lunch takes ninety minutes.
  2. I was a panelist at the Academic Freedom Forum on Monday. I am one of several people who share that, because of their identities as a woman or underrepresented minority or both, that their experience of this university and its supposed protections of academic freedom are quite different from the white men in the room. The concept that there are two (at least) Universities of Illinois starts to emerge – north and south of Green, but also the differences among male and female, black and white. Humanities versus the sciences. Tenured versus not. Of course they have always been there. But I’ve never been so clear on my place in the hierarchy as I was in the ninety minutes I was on that panel. I knew exactly where my identities and political positions put me, and I think everyone else was feeling it too. I knew who was in my posse… and who wasn’t.
  3. A mental toughness coach was scheduled to visit the University of Illinois, and I contacted him to see if he would meet with our roller derby league and offer his perspective. He gave us ninety minutes of his time, after we expected someone so famous to only be able to give us twenty to thirty. He says a lot of things that resonate with me, about leading a mission-driven life and being loyal to your own mission. He talks about finding success when letting go of an achievement-oriented perspective. Towards the end, he says (and I’m paraphrasing as closely as I can): “People say the grass is greener on the other side of the fence, but the grass is greener where you water it.” And I was swept up in that moment by a number of intense emotions.

I have been trying to water the grass, but this grass needs a lot of water. It needs a whole fucking irrigation system, and the people who have the resources to build that system are exactly the ones diverting the water. They look over the fence at our peer institutions and think their way must be better, so they mimic them, never once looking at those of us creating a human chain of buckets, desperately trying to water the grass they have been neglecting. I feel community among my bucket brigade, but I also feel faintly ridiculous. We are tending the lawn as those in power are discussing whether to re-landscape the whole thing. I wonder what it would take to tend this grass properly and help it flourish. I wonder if we could ever get those in power to see what we see.

Do we keep watering?

Do we build our own irrigation system with whatever resources we can muster?

Do we find our own patch?

I don’t know. I don’t know.

Wednesday, July 6th 2011

Off to bloggier pastures: bringing ladybusiness to the SciAm Network

If you’re on Twitter or read any other science blogs, by now you know that the Scientific American Blog Network has launched. And, I’m pleased to say that I am a part of it! Context and Variation has moved to new digs, surrounded by a network full of bright, interesting people with great communities and great things to say.

But of course, while I encourage you to check out Bora’s post where he introduces every one of us, I have to plug a few bloggers in particular.

First, the University of Illinois is the only university to be represented by three bloggers on this new network (yeah, we totally did a press release for it). Alex Wild of Myrmecos (you know, the guy who comes up if you just google insect photography) has created a blog called Compound Eye that will cover science photography. What’s exciting about this blog is that Alex, true to his nature, will be very generous with his space and will showcase the work of many other photographers.

Joanne Manaster, who you may know as sciencegoddess on Twitter, hosts the blog Joanne is a truly exceptional science educator and puts great attention on reaching young audiences, from exploding gummy bears, the science of makeup, and Kids Read Science programs. On the SciAm blog network, Joanne will be co-hosting a new blog PsiVid with Carin Bondar. This blog will continue Joanne’s work of thinking about engaging audiences and getting them interesting in science in new ways.

In addition to these great U of I bloggers, I also have to mention my fellow anthropologists. Krystal D’Costa is moving her fantastic blog Anthropology in Practice to SciAm. You can expect more thoughtful, detailed, yet readable and fun posts from Krystal. She is a wonderful observer of human nature, and I love how she forces me to be an anthropologist at all sorts of casual moments when I usually take my academic lenses off.

Then there is Eric Michael Johnson’s blog The Primate Diaries. Eric is another very talented writer, sharing insights from a great mind. I have enjoyed his posts on sexuality, primatology, sexism, and human evolution.

Oh, and need I even mention? There are lots of female bloggers on this new, kickass network. Check out The Mary Sue’s coverage. They’re right. The SciAm Blog Network does introduce us to about a zillion new women in the sciences. Incidentally, it does a pretty decent job of introducing readers to people of varying sexualities and ethnicities as well. We can always do better, but it is a strong start.

The people of this network have exceptional voices and important perspectives. And now more people will see what they have to offer. I hope you’ll all join me over at my new place, that you’ll check out the rest of my network peeps, and that you will enjoy helping me bring the ladybusiness to Scientific American.

Saturday, April 16th 2011

The Scorpion and the Frog: don’t try and tell me why I do this

On April 8th, I was fortunate to be in the company of Matt Richtel, Scott White, Diana Yates and Dan Simons as part of a talk and panel discussion sponsored by the Beckman Institute and the College of Media at the University of Illinois. Matt Richtel is a Pulitzer prize-winning journalist for the New York Times who has written on distracted driving, your brain on computers, and, as many of you know, neuroscientists on a raft. Matt also writes a comic and has published two works of fiction. It was a pleasure getting to know a journalist so committed to respecting scientists and getting the story, and the science, right.

Matt began the event with a short, engaging talk on the interaction between scientists and journalists. He started with the fable of the scorpion and the frog, yet never quite resolved for the audience whether he saw the scorpion as the journalist or scientist. He shared several experiences with scientists who were uninterested in talking to the press, some who pushed him to add complexity or uncertainty to a story, and some who managed to convey simple, compelling ideas in their quotes. I want to briefly describe what he said about these three populations.

For those uninterested in talking to the press, Matt suggested that, for some, this may be due to a distrust of the press, or fear of how one will be represented to colleagues. He described a time that a female scientist agreed to talk to him, on the condition of not having her picture taken for the story. She was a former model, she explained, and didn’t want her image associated with her science, lest her colleagues take her less seriously. Unfortunately, I think there are plenty of fields where this is a legitimate issue, if past issues in the science blogosphere are any indication. That said, I think he makes a good point that while you do take a risk in talking to the press, and there may be times where your work isn’t perfectly represented (and even times where it is grossly misrepresented), most of our colleagues know not to just blame the scientist. Besides, if you have a colleague that is that punitive, they aren’t a very good colleague!

Matt told a story about a scientist who worked with him on a piece, then backed out and asked that all of his material be removed. Over the course of a difficult conversation, the scientist revealed his fear that his colleagues would judge his quotes as overstating the results of the evidence. Eventually, they worked out an alternative quote that simply added in a qualifier (I believe it was the word “almost” but I don’t remember). Keeping the qualifier, or pushing for its inclusion, can satisfy a lot of scientists talking to the press, and in doing so it adds a necessary element of uncertainty. The scientific method s not about proving things, it is about disproving them. You want to disprove the null hypothesis (an example of this would be that your hypothesis is that estrogen varies with lifestyle, and the null hypothesis is that there is no difference in estrogen based on lifestyle). And, when you get evidence that supports your hypothesis, this doesn’t prove a thing. All it does is support the hypothesis in the context of that particular study’s parameters. Given this understanding of the scientific method, perhaps journalists could see how much scientists chafe at bold conclusions or words like “proof” or “fact!”

Finally, Matt described a class of scientists who are not only good to work with, but provide statements that convey complex ideas in an engaging, easy to understand way. He calls these scientists Quote Monkeys. Quote Monkeys not only distill a difficult idea for a lay audience, yet convey excitement and delight in science. He used the example from his “your brain on computers” series where one scientist said “Bring back boredom!” This captures the idea that not multi-tasking all the time, that having downtime to process events rather than always being plugged in, is good for our brains. (So, if you’re reading this on your phone in the bathroom, put the phone down. You know who you are!)

After Matt’s wonderful talk, Scott, Diana and I served as panelists, with Dan Simons moderating. Scott White is a professor in Aerospace Engineering who has had some media attention for his supercool self-healing materials. I appreciated his approachable, dry style. Diana Yates is a journalist who covers the life science beat for the University of Illinois News Bureau, and she has done an amazing job over the years showing the rest of the world why the science that happens here at Illinois is so exciting. Dan Simons co-authored a great popular science book The Invisible Gorilla (I bought it for my brother in law this past winter before I realized Dan was on campus), and has a social media presence as well, curating interesting material mostly on cognitive psychology. We each gave a little introduction to ourselves regarding our experiences with journalists; I largely talked about how social media is what has connected me to science journalists, and my experiences with and USA Today writers (both positive).

The questions we received were good ones, ranging from how to keep from looking like a fool while talking to journalists to how to write science stories without resorting to clichés or self-help hooks. For the first issue, we discussed the importance of asking a journalist for her/his timeline (is your story due in 20 minutes, hours or days?) and that one should request seeing the quotes that will be used before the story goes live. You also don’t have to say yes to every request; if the timeline is too short or you have looked up the journalist and they or their employer aren’t reputable, just move on. For the second question, I talked about reframing the question that captures the audience’s interest from “how does this affect me?” to “why should I care?” or “why is this cool?” I mentioned Ed Yong as an excellent example of a writer who delights the reader, regardless of whether he is discussing algae, racism, or bat fellatio. He shares his excitement and is a guide, not a sage; I think Ed’s work is compelling for the same reasons NPR’s Radiolab is so good. You get the sense the narrator is learning along with you, though in Ed’s case I think you also get the sense that he has scientific expertise to add credibility to his analysis and what he chooses to cover.

One audience member made a rather bold, critical claim that journalists and scientists were in cahoots to promote the journalists and get the scientists tenure. The other panelists handled this one delicately. I did not (what, you are surprised?). Academic readers of this blog are likely aware that writing a blog is a professional risk, as is talking to journalists, especially when one is a junior faculty member. As John Hawks said in his panel on blogging in the academy at Science Online 2011, blogging is at best a tertiary activity. But if you use your blog not only to reach out to layfolks but also to make broader claims about your field, you may have critics as well as fans. I know the risks I take every time I put up a new blog post or agree to talk to a journalist. But I have also decided that my enjoyment, and the benefits to my own goals of scientific outreach, far outweigh the risks. I want women to read my posts and pass them on to their daughters. I want readers of sites like Jezebel and Feministe getting excited about biology. And I want every person who has found evolutionary psychology claims intuitive to think on the bias that produces that false intuition.

When I was a child, my parents had the following Man of La Mancha quote in our bathroom, on a poster directly opposite the toilet:

Too much sanity
May be madness
But the maddest of all
Is to see life as it is
And not as it should be.

I learned to read with that quote. I sang it in my head. And when I was younger, it meant absolutely nothing to me. I don’t remember the moment exactly when it went from something I chanted in my head to something that defined my own outlook on the world. But I want to make this job into the job it should be, not the job it is. To me, that means blogging, talking to laypeople about science, and interacting with science communicators and journalists.

But don’t tell me I do it to get tenure.