Wednesday, July 6th 2016

Take the damn rollback

Dear junior faculty with aging parents, impending adoptions or pregnancies, medical issues or research setbacks,

Take the damn rollback (or stop your tenure clock, or whatever you call it at your institution). Stop worrying, stop losing sleep, stop hemming and hawing. Stop ruminating on Professor Crustypants and whether he’ll have a problem with your rollback. Stop wondering if you will be denied a promotion.

Here’s the thing. If you are a person of color, identify as female or a non-cis gender identity, or have any number of other identities that stray from Albert Einstein’s*, there are plenty of ways through the course of your career in which you will be discriminated against. It will happen. So rather than let that crap seep into your personal life and make it hard for you to choose elder care/bear a child/whatever, take the damn rollback. It’s not that your fears may not be real, it’s that you can’t let them affect every decision you make.

Play the long game. Play the game that means, in ten years, you’ll have the healthy relationships and thriving lab that you always dreamed of. Play the game in a way where your institution is the institution it should be rather than the one that it is. If the institution turns out to fail you, it would have failed you at some other point – better to know now and figure out how to deal with it.

Play the game so that you can be asking the questions you care about, doing the research that is important to you, over the next several decades. If this means a dip in productivity right now, so be it. Good institutions recognize human reproductive life cycles as a normal part of the life span of a good worker.

Play the game so that the people who come after you, the students you mentor and postdocs you chat with in the line for the bathroom at conferences, will have a better work climate. Be one of the people who makes things better, rather than tells her mentees to suck it up because that’s how it is.

Just take the damn rollback.

Love and kisses,


*If you will look like Albert Einstein when you’re old or you look like him now, be a good ally and not only take the rollback, but don’t be like these dudes and actually use it for its intended purpose. Don’t mess this one up for us.

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Monday, February 23rd 2015

What is your problem?

Recently, I got back a manuscript rejection with very constructive reviews, which, looking back, were more generous than I deserved. The manuscript suffered from some common problems: multiple well-meaning authors with their own ideas of the main point, a desire to include these variable perspectives in a single paper, and an anticipation of issues reviewers may raise. What resulted was a muddled argument, vague nods to all the different theoretical perspectives we thought might be relevant, and no resolution of our expert opinion to guide the reader.

It was, to be kind, a piece of crap.

As I started to go through reviewer comments to create a revision action plan (do you do this? I do so hope you do this), I realized that in my effort to include every piece of insight and every theoretical contribution, and yet not offend anybody, I had forgotten the first rule of writing I teach my students. The very first sentences of your paper or grant proposal should tell the reader what your problem is, and why they should care.

Here are the types of questions I ask my students, before their first draft and usually still after the first revision or two. These frame your introduction but also your paper’s argument. Since I can’t always seem to remember these questions, I’d like to think it’s because this is actually difficult to do well, and, in some cases, difficult to keep in sight when revising.

  • What problem do you face?
  • Why is it a problem (e.g., is there a gap in the literature, is it a new or emerging problem, is it that you are finding a problem others haven’t noticed because you are putting different ideas together)? Explain the gap or other issue, don’t just say there is one.
  • Why should anyone care? This should come from the theoretical context of your work – so in biological anthropology we frequently speak of responses to environment, life history theory, genes x environment, evolutionary theory, or sometimes feminist or other humanist/social science theories. Don’t muddle things with too many different theoretical contributions, because the introduction needs to focus and inspire the reader.
  • Now do a better job answering the above question – why should anyone care in a real, grounded way? Why, in relation to your particular problem and set of interests?
  • NOW you get to tell the reader, how are you going to solve it? What is your hypothesis/main argument?
  • What background information will the reader need next to evaluate your problem and the way you plan to resolve it?
  • How will you test your hypothesis? In a manuscript you also briefly tell the reader at the end of the introduction what you found. In a grant proposal the order of some of these last bullets will change.

Then, the discussion needs to reflect these problems and the theoretical framework. Often I find over the course of a revision I completely rewrite what the problem is, why anyone should care, and which background information the reader needs. But you won’t know the final version until you write a first version. So ideally you get to the discussion and need to do a little more work:

  • Restate the problem your paper seeks to address and the way you did it (whatever models you may have introduced into the methods and results, whatever specific hypothesis you have since described). Is there a way you might say it differently now, as the reader now fully knows how you did it and what you found?
  • What do each of your results contribute to the broader literature? This is your chance, if there were some neat side papers you wanted to talk about in the introduction, to talk about here. And this is where many like to employ a sandbox metaphor: if you imagine your discipline is actually a giant sandbox where everybody is playing together, you can imagine your contributions to mirror how kids play. I like this metaphor because it reminds us that many scholars are our friends and colleagues, and that when we are engaging with their work it always helps to be generous.
    • Are you tearing down a friend’s castle by challenging a scholar’s claims?
    • Are you admiring your friend’s castle by allying yourself with existing work and reaffirming their findings?
    • Are you adding a new tower to your friend’s castle by adding something to a scholar’s existing argument?
    • Are you tearing down one tower from your friend’s castle to add another, thus revising a scholar’s argument?
  • What are the limitations to your conclusions? None of us get to carry out our research exactly as we want due to limited resources. What are the things you want to say here to demonstrate you are conscientious and aware of what you can and cannot say?
  • What do your results, perspectives, and/or limitations help us understand about a way forward? What exciting new directions does your work offer the reader? How can you leave the reader thinking they wish they had performed your research? I have found myself worrying less and less about a bang-up conclusion sentence these days, because I think good conclusions emerge from answering these questions.

When you can answer these questions, even poorly (remember how important it is to write crappy first drafts), you have an outline or even a full draft. Then you often have to go through, once you see how it all looks together, and completely change whatever you thought was the main point, the supporting literature, and the way forward. This may depend on collaborators, or the journal you choose, or a new paper that came out while you were writing.

But you’ll never get there if you don’t start. You’ll never start if you don’t plan and schedule your writing. And you’ll never finish if you don’t commit to writing every day (yes, every day, a la Dr. Kerry Ann Rocquemore’s Faculty Success Program). So get off the internet and do it!

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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.