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.

Thursday, February 10th 2011

Who are you and what are you doing here? The results

National Women's Day

Thanks to Ed Yong and a number of other very smart people, I was inspired after Science Online 2011 to perform a survey of my readers to figure out who comes here, why they do, and what they’d like to see more of. I enjoy engaging with other science writers, bloggers, and fellow anthropologists, really I do. But I hoped to gain some insight into how I might reach an even broader audience, to increase awareness of the kinds of science I do and that I find interesting. There are political ramifications to having a lay population completely unaware of the basic functioning of the female body, particularly around reproduction, when we have so many strong feelings about it. Feelings will always win in a one-sided fight: put it up against evidence, though, and at least some people will start to operate more rationally.

Science Online 2011 taught me a few other things in terms of how to reach that audience. By bringing in a personal element, showing enthusiasm, or giving the reader more things to look at than a wall of text, I could invite different kinds of people in. As everyone now knows, you can try DMing Ed Yong (hee hee, sorry Ed!). I tried to do those things in subsequent posts. And so, this happened:

Figure 1. My hits from the first day of #scio11 to yesterday. Eep.

My survey went from the 17th of January until the 21st or so; I stopped at sixty respondents. As you might imagine, my readership has changed.

That said, I think I learned a lot from the survey, so I want to share it with you and see if we can broaden the conversation.

Who are you?

The people who filled out my survey were about my age, were my ethnicity (European), and were mostly women (I suspect the f:m ratio would have been even higher if I hadn’t taunted Twitter at one point that the female respondents were beating the males). Here are the graphs (notice that the bars/pie slices represent absolute numbers of respondents, and percentages are listed next to each choice):

I regret the way I wrote the ethnicity question. I was trying to figure out how to ask people’s ethnicity from a more global perspective — that is, I couldn’t exactly write European-American, African-American, etc, because I have readers from other countries. These ethnicities also mean something very different depending on where you live. This led to confusion in almost ten respondents, many of whom were white but not all, who just put in the “other” section that they were white/black/mixed race/etc.

Two last questions in this section were about the respondent’s education and vocation. Here is what I got.

A full third of respondents have PhDs. Damn, people. But I was pleased to see at least a handful of folks that were still in college (and I hope desperately that they aren’t just my current semester of students!).

So… I guess I and my doppelgangers read my blog. This demonstrates a few important things:

  • People read people who are like them.
  • If you want people who are not like you to read your blog, you probably have to step out of your comfort zone.

This is significant for a number of reasons. More prominent women sciencebloggers, for instance, likely means more female readers. Same goes with more sciencebloggers of color, of different sexualities, different physical capabilities, different countries, different ages. And since sciencebloggers can draw people into science, can excite them, inspire them to stay when they are feeling scared, and otherwise mentor them, having broader representation in scienceblogging is a Very Good Thing.

Conversely, if I want to reach something other than the white-female-straight-middle-class-academic audience, I need to be doing something different than what I’m doing right now. Some of that lies in promotion and marketing, but more of that likely has to do with voice, style and content.

What do you want from me?

Most of this section of the survey was freeform response, but I did have a few graphable questions.

What I find interesting here is that readers mostly want to read about the life of a scientist stuff (there are many women sciencebloggers who do this more regularly and eloquently than me), and more plain-old anthropology. Ladybusiness, reproductive choice, women’s reproduction, not nearly so much.

On the one hand, I think I would like to expand my writing a bit to try to write posts that have an anthropological perspective and broad appeal. On the other, if ladybusiness isn’t your top priority, readers, you don’t know what you’re missing!

I’d like to think that’s what I demonstrated last week with my iron-deficiency anemia post. If I weren’t scrabbling for tenure I could probably write a post a week on anthropological perspectives on women’s health like that post. Men and women commented on, and wrote on, that post. It made it to reddit, a few great feminism blogs, and lots of other non-science individual bloggers and livejournalers.

So ladybusiness is here to stay, but I am going to try to expand my reach. Anthropology is a discipline most don’t get in high school, so most people know next to nothing about it. It would be a great thing if I could expose more people to how cool the field can be.

What you had to say

I had two open-response questions, one on how I could attract more laypeople, and another that was just open for questions and comments. For the first question, you said:

  • Explain more terms, go for a less scholarly tone.
  • Many of you found me through Twitter, so continue using that medium.
  • Try for less of a wall of text (break it up, use pictures, etc).
  • Use more keywords so they get Googled.
  • Write “basics” posts that can be referred to again and again by laypeople, teachers and students.
  • Use surveys and other interactive widgets.

For the second, mostly you just said really nice things. Several women in academic positions more junior than me said they read me to stick with academia. I wanted to share just one quote, because it demonstrates what I’m aiming for, even if I don’t really think I’m there yet (but thank you!):

“…I really enjoy [your blog], and thank you for being one of the voices that makes ongoing work in science into something I feel I can read and follow, rather than some impenetrable ivory tower only accessible through poor mainstream media interpretation. (Even laypeople get tired of saying “They did a study! You know, the ‘they’ that ‘does studies,’ whoever ‘they’ are.”) The perspective on women’s issues is a particular bonus as well.”

I think those of us who want to write for a broader audience, if we can inspire this feeling in our readers, even some of the time, we’re doing well.

And finally, what I want from you

I didn’t write this post to inspire a conversation just about why you read my blog: I don’t need more of a lovefest and feel a little like I’ve reached Internet Saturation anyway! But I’d like to know:

  • Why do you come here?
  • Why do you read any science blog?
  • How do you think we can get your friends to read us too?

If we could inspire people to reach for other connections, with material and people they don’t know, instead of the zone of comfort they do know, it would be a marvelous thing.