Thursday, June 9th 2011

Why it’s cool to be a scientist (especially an anthropologist)

From here.

This month, I am taking part in I’m a Scientist, Get Me Out of Here! which is a program that links up teenage students with scientists all over the world. We put together bios, answer questions, and do live chats with them. I am looking forward to the chance to share my vast knowledge of ladybusiness anthropology — and biological anthropology more generally — with students who are looking to find out whether science is boring or fun.

The way this project is set up is that, over the course of the few weeks we interact with the students, they vote us off one by one; the last person left wins 500 pounds to use towards a science outreach project. If I win, I hope to put these funds towards a project that will link young people together to share their stories of how their lives vary, and what impact that has on their biology. My hope is that this project will achieve two goals: first, to get young people to observe their own bodies and biology in order to be more aware of the science that surrounds them, and second, to show them that variation is what is normal. In the teenage years (and even earlier), there is often a lot of peer pressure to fit some culturally-sanctioned definition of “normal.” But what is normal, really, when we all come from such different places and lead such different lives? When we can directly observe how our lifestyle and environment impact our biology, it becomes clear that difference, not similarity, is the true normal.

As a companion piece to my bio, I would like to share why I think it’s cool to study and enjoy science.

Science is fun

Found here.

I first got really interested in science because of my AP Biology teacher. Mr. Cabral demonstrated his excitement and zest for biology every day. One day I got so caught up in what he was talking about — the potential impact of genetically modified corn on crops throughout the country — that as soon as I got home, I got on our AOL dial-up internet and started digging (this would have been the fall of 1996). I used AOL’s clunky search engine and managed to find several interesting websites that talked about Archer Daniels Midland. I printed it out on three ring binder paper — I think we were out of regular printer paper — and brought it to him the next day. I remember how motivated I was to learn about ADM, and then how that internal motivation was reinforced by how excited Mr. Cabral was by my find.

This was my first experience with the kind of detective work science can entail. Yes you do experiments, you do labwork or fieldwork, you collect samples or make things blow up or work with stuff that smells. And there is a sense in adventure to that. But another important piece of the work of science is setting out with a question, and doing the sleuthing necessary to find out the answer for yourself.

That will never stop being fun for me.

Science is logical
Fun is what got me started on science, the constant sense of discovery and the enjoyment of developing expertise where no one else has it. But what has kept me in science has been an increasing love, even total devotion, to the idea of the scientific method.

Castle and Beckett, from one of my
favorite detective shows, Castle.

The scientific method is another place where the metaphor of the detective is useful. A detective has a question: “Who dunnit?” And then, if she’s a good detective, she develops a hypothesis about who she thinks did it, then methodically tests her hypothesis. If she finds her hypothesis is not supported, she produces a new hypothesis to try again, based on what she has learned. If her hypothesis is supported, she likely will want more evidence to continue to better support her hypothesis.

The reason I love this method is that, if you are willing to really become a good detective, you can detect unintentional and intentional bias. Some conclusions in science, especially the older stuff, and especially stuff on humans that is related to sex or race, was biased by the preconceptions of who performed and interpreted the work. The entire field of women’s reproductive physiology is tainted by early, false observations by a twelfth century monk that women are not human, that they have a seven chambered uterus, that women can decide on the sex of their babies by lying down a certain way, and wicked women will choose to have girls (Rodnite Lemay 1992). Even research in the twentieth century indicated that the sweat of menstruating women makes babies die and flowers wilt (Bryant et al. 1977; Freeman et al. 1934; Macht 1924). And of course, none of these things are true.

I believe that reality of science always wins. We are constantly becoming more aware of implicit bias and honest mistakes, we are constantly developing new methodologies to test our questions. My students, or my students’ students, will probably find things wrong with my own work and modify or correct it some day. This is very exciting to me!

Science solves important problems
I am a biological anthropologist. That means that I am interested in human evolutionary biology, and in understanding the interaction of biology and culture in the production of a human being. I think we can all come up with problems science helps solve, from making cars and homes more energy efficient, to saving endangered species. Biological anthropology can help answer these from the perspective of human ancestry, evolution and behavior. For instance, it’s great that we are making cars more energy efficient, but how do we change usage patterns? How do we get people to drive less? Really, how do we get a species that evolved to consider short and medium term problems and be selfish, to think altruistically and really long term?

In my corner of the field, bio anthro can help answer the following (and more):

  • How does environment and lifestyle impact our hormones?
  • Why do some people have a harder time having babies than others?
  • What is the impact of our changing environment, to one where we are sitting around more and eating more, on our health?
  • Does psychological stress impact our physical health? Can sexism or racism have real effects on the body?
  • How does moving from one country to another change your hormones?
  • Is taking the pill good for you?
  • Does what you do as a pregnant woman really matter that much to the health of your baby?

And that’s just the beginning.

Anyone can love science
I want more people, and more different kinds of people, to do science. But I also just want more people to realize how exciting it is to read and learn science. Becoming an engaged science reader, even as someone who already is a scientist, has been a wonderful experience for me. I have developed an appreciation for insects, found out about variation in circadian rhythms, and fallen in love with rivers.

I have realized that there is a lot of great science out there, not just biological anthropology, and it’s all worth fighting for. I have taught a lot of non-science majors since becoming a professor – literally hundreds and hundreds. And when I talk to them, many of them explain that the reason they hate science is that someone made them feel stupid: a teacher, a fellow student, sometimes a relative. I’ve heard several explicit stories where a student was told by a teacher that they weren’t good at science. I’ve had students break down in tears as they describe the sexism and racism that has made them decide science wasn’t for them.

And so, because of the rudeness of another person, the oppression of a system, or a series of incidents that just become too much to bear, they turned away from one of the most logical, exciting, and natural ways of thinking about the world. And many began to dislike it, then mistrust it, then not believe anything they heard about it. And who can blame a young person for turning away from a field, if that is what they are up against?

Nothing, and no one, should turn people away from science, because anyone can love science. Even if you never take another class on it or pick up a single textbook, even if you don’t become a scientist or educator or writer or any of the many jobs where you can use science, you can revel in the beauty of a photograph, the stories of triumph over adversity, the excitement of discovery. You miss out on the simple human pleasure of satisfying curiosity about the natural world if you don’t read science. In addition to improving access and eliminating oppression so that more people can excel in science, we need to make it possible for people to just learn and love it.

One of my favorite things about being a scientist is that I get to hang out with other scientists. At conferences, other scientists present talks or posters to talk about their latest research. If you listen closely to these conversations, along with the jargon, and the statistics, and the graphs and tables and lightning-fast discussions of various technical methodologies, you will also hear people abruptly and delightedly exclaim: “Isn’t this just so cool?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Bryant, J., Heathcote, D., & Pickles, V. (1977). THE SEARCH FOR “MENOTOXIN” The Lancet, 309 (8014) DOI: 10.1016/S0140-6736(77)92199-7
Freeman W, Looney JM, and Small RR. 1934. Studies on the phytotoxic index II. Menstrual toxin (“menotoxin”). Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 52(2):179-183.
Macht D. 1924. Influence of menotoxin on the coagulation of blood. Journal of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics 24(3):213-220.
Rodnite Lemay H. 1992. Womens Secrets: A Translation of Pseudo-Albertus Magnus’ de Secretis Mulierum with Commentaries: State University of New York Press.

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.

Tuesday, April 12th 2011

Come hang out with the cool kids: the 2011 American Association of Physical Anthropology Meetings, Minneapolis

Biological anthropologists are a cool lot. We study bones, death, fossils, phylogenetics (how things are related to each other), hominin evolution, behavior, reproduction, physiology, primates, communication, cognition, genetics, migration and more. We study how these things vary, what produces their variation, and why that variation is meaningful. So the AAPAs tend to be a fun conference full of lively conversation, strong sessions, and engaged attendees.

Plus, you see a lot of people wearing sandals with socks.

This year, that particular population might be slightly underrepresented, because we are having the meetings in Minneapolis, where snow is predicted on Friday and Saturday. While that has impacted the wardrobe that will be crammed into my carry-on luggage tomorrow, I still expect a great meeting, because there are several wonderful symposia planned, a lunch event for women in biological anthropology, and a BANDIT Happy Hour on Saturday at 5pm. Julienne Rutherford has curated a great list that can be found by reading the posts under her AAPA label.

Me? I’m going to self-promote, but I’ll encourage you to do the same in the comments.

On Thursday morning you can find me in Session 3, the invited podium symposium chaired by Grazyna Jasienska and Diana Sherry entitled “Evolution and Health over the Life Course” in Salon C. The session starts at 8am with what looks to be a great talk by Beverly Strassmann, “Evolution and health from infancy to adolescence in the Dogon of Mali.”

My talk is at 9:30am, is co-authored with my former students Theresa Emmerling and Ashley Higgins, and is entitled “Variation in adolescent menstrual cycles, doctor-patient relationships, and why we shouldn’t prescribe hormonal contraceptives to twelve year olds.” I’ll be talking about what we know of adolescent menstrual cycle variation, what we know of the impact of hormonal contraception on different reproductively-aged women, and some pilot data from our focus groups on doctor-patient relationships. I hope the last bit will provide a bit of framework for understanding how and why US women use hormonal contraception in such comparatively high proportions for off-label use.

On Friday afternoon, you can find me in Session 31, the invited podium symposium chaired by Julienne Rutherford and me entitled “Eating for Two: Maternal Ecology and Nutrition in Human and Non-Human Primates” in Marquette V/VI. The session starts at 2pm with a talk by Betsey Abrams and Julienne Rutherford entitled “Risky business: an evolutionary perspective on placental nutrient transport and postpartum hemorrage.” I am VERY excited to hear this paper!

My talk is next, at 2:15pm, and is called “Pro- and anti-inflammatory food proteins and their impact on maternal ecology.” This talk is co-authored by two of my students, Laura Klein and Katherine Tribble. I’ll be doing a bit of a review of the literature to place this topic in context, and discussing some pilot data.

I may be biased, but the rest of this symposium is pretty kick-ass.

  • 2:30 Yildirim et al speak on vaginal microbial communities and maternal ecology (University of Illinois research!)
  • 2:45 Milich et al discuss habitat quality and reproduction in female red colobus monkeys (University of Illinois research!)
  • 3:00 Julienne Rutherford has prepared a version of her talk to be shown at 3pm on energetics and life history plasticity in callitrichine primates as she is on maternal hiatus
  • 3:15 Valeggia shares insights into the metaboliv regulation of postpartum fecundity
  • 3:30 Nyberg discusses HPA activity in pregnant and lactating Tsimane’ women
  • 3:45 Miller shares recent work on breastmilk immunity in Ariaal women
  • 4:00 Pablo Nepomnaschy will be the discussant for the first half of our symposium.
  • 4:15 In our second half, Hinde et al discuss commensal gut bacteria and breastmilk
  • 4:30 Quinn and Kuzawa developmental trajectories in infants and later milk composition
  • 4:45 Fairbanks shares her work on nutrition, energetics and vervet maternal investment
  • 5:00 Piperata and Guatelli-Steinberg discuss how social support may impact the costs of reproduction
  • 5:15 Dunsworth et al look at some very interesting data on energetics versus pelvic constraint in determining human gestational length
  • 5:30 Finally, Leslie Aiello wraps it up as the discussant of the second half of our symposium.

Science bloggers and writers, like any of the topics above? Consider interviewing some of these symposium participants! You won’t be disappointed.