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.

Tuesday, April 26th 2011

#scimom and me

DSC03265I’ve been thinking on this #scimom meme for some time. To be honest, I’ve had a hard time figuring out what I could write that would be a useful or thoughtful contribution, despite the fact that I tend to be pretty comfortable mixing personal stories in with the science I write about on this blog. Heck, I’ve even shared my birth experience for all to read!

But writing directly on the intersection of science and mothering? That is somehow a much more frightening prospect, even though I am in a friendly discipline. It is hard to face the reality that my colleagues respect my reproductive decisions, in the historical context where that has not always been the case in academia, and in the personal context where my decisions are judged and challenged by others all the time, even if they aren’t colleagues: first because I am a woman, then because I was pregnant, and now because I am a mother.

So, I want to tell you two things: how I make my life work, and why I do it at all.

Putting in the time
I get asked a lot how I balance my life, how I get any sleep, how I have a tenure track job and a blog and am an amateur athlete and mother all at the same time. The answer is that balance is not attainable, but that I’m really happy exactly as things are.

The supermagical key to being a mother and an academic scientist is: you need to devote a lot of time to both. As romantic and wonderful as it sounds to try to do both at the same time, it almost never works. When young women ask me how I do it all, I answer that the two keys for success are social support and full time childcare. For me, that means a supportive partner and forty-five hours a week of childcare outside of my home.

Usually, the woman asking pauses. I can see the barely masked horror on her face as she realizes that I don’t have a happy existence where I do puzzles with my daughter with one hand while tapping at my laptop with the other. I look like a nice enough person, so she rejects what I’ve told her — that my child is out of my sight most of the work week — and tries again. “Okay, but really, how do you do it?” And I reply that I need social support and full time childcare. This is how I address the can’t-be-in-two-places-at-once problem. Some hours I do the puzzles, other hours I do the writing. I almost never mix the two.

At the beginning of each semester, my husband and I sit down with our schedules: our regular faculty meeting times, lab meetings, office hours, teaching hours, and how much time we want to exercise. We also look at our daughter’s schedule, since she has swimming twice a week. Then we slowly work out an equitable arrangement of pickups and drop-offs that we stick to, with the closest thing we can approximate to religious fervor, for the whole semester. I no longer go out for social coffees or lunches and stay at my desk the entire day (though at least I am standing). When our daughter goes to sleep, I often work for a few hours, though I certainly don’t do this every night unless I have a major deadline approaching. This is the reality of my job if I want to be a mom and academic.

Can you be a scientist and mom if you don’t have social support and full time childcare? Yes, though I would contend you need at least one of the two. And here’s why: I need a supportive partner because, when the mommy guilt kicks in, he is the one who encourages me to go to the extra team practice, or stay the extra hour at work I need to hit my deadline. He is the one who reminds me that he wants a close relationship with our daughter, too, so bugger off and let him cuddle her for once. You don’t need a partner to do these things for you, but you do probably need someone to hold the right perspective for you in those moments you feel crazy.

And I need the full time childcare because this whole idea that you can get all your work done during naps, or every night once your kid goes down, is a fantasy we need to stop entertaining. Just because our job is flexible doesn’t mean it can fit into fewer hours unless you, like Hermione Granger, got special permission to use a Time-Turner. And while this job doesn’t necessarily require a sixty hour workweek, it does require at least forty. So if you don’t have at least forty kid-free hours a week you will not make adequate progress.

Why I do this
I enjoy my job. I even love it. But I love it because I made it a job that I wanted. In its worst moments I am still filling out too much paperwork, dealing with too much bureaucracy, or student cheating, or people who do not appreciate the contributions one makes to the discipline by, say, blogging or teaching.

But this job’s best moments far outweigh the worst, and if I didn’t feel that way, I would find something else to do. So far, in this job I have gotten to pursue the research agenda I find the most interesting, which has had me pursuing new methodologies, new areas of study, and new ways of thinking about female physiology and health in a way I find exciting on a daily basis. I have been able to effectively mentor about a dozen undergrads and several grad students. I have created learning environments that make me proud to teach in a university setting. And I have been able to put on my ranty pants when it comes to evolutionary psychology.

I am going to tell you a secret. I do this job, I am this kind of person, because I want to be a role model for other young women, that they can have jobs and have kids and still have other things going on in their lives.

But really, most of all, I do this for my own daughter, far more than for any of you reading today.

I do this so that when my daughter plays house with her friends, she introduces the idea that the Daddy does the dishes, or puts the baby to sleep. Already my daughter likes to play gym or office as well as house. That’s not to delegitimize parenting and domestic work, but to simply place it alongside the other activities people do. None of these activities should be particularly privileged above each other as being more feminine, OR more important.

_MDF7458.jpgI do this so that she has a role model when her first teacher says girls just aren’t as good at math. I want her to remember that Mommy and Daddy do science every day, and that that science requires a lot of math.

Finally, I do this so that she has a role model to hold on to when her first classmate says that only boys are good at sports. I want her to remember that Mommy is the one with the big muscles in that moment, not only so that she can have big muscles one day but so that she knows I can kick that kid’s ass.

Being a #scimom
This #scimom meme is compelling for all sorts of reasons. I hope it will make scientist mothers less invisible, and de-scrutinize women’s decisions, whatever they may be. I’ve said before that there are ways in which women are conditioned to be risk-averse over the course of their lives, and a lot of this has to do with the scrutiny, the drama, the push and pull of differing expectations on our time, our lives, and our bodies.

There are external factors that need to be fixed like maternal leave, and people that need gentle reminders about their implicit biases. And there are changes that women need to make within, where they work to operate against their internalized sexism. These battles feel especially public, and make me at least feel especially vulnerable, as a working mother. That’s why this is all so hard to talk about.

Women are incredibly powerful, we just don’t act like it often enough. Perhaps the #scimom meme will contradict the risk aversion and provide us with the courage to gang up on the problems of the world. This story on Michelle Bachelet has been on my mind ever since I read it last week. Read about Bachelet, and think on her life and what she is trying to accomplish right now. She knows it takes women to create a revolution. Let’s move things along.

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.