Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Does Visibility of Women in Science Matter?

Apparently so. According to a study published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (Damschen et al. 2005), how women are presented in ecology textbooks and what is taught about women’s contributions to ecology can influence student’s awareness and possibly their long-term interests and abilities in science.

Obama’s speech this week to the NAS reminded me of this paper, which I had read some time ago. So, I thought I would reread it and summarize some of the key findings.

Scholars of women’s studies have repeatedly stated that the absence of women in science course materials leads to “an invisible curriculum”, with the effect of discouraging women from pursuing science careers. Of course, there are many reasons why female students drop out of science curricula or why female scientists do not advance into higher-level positions (see previous posts). But exposure to materials that illustrate the participation of women in science (and particularly their successful integration of professional and personal lives) encourages female students to view science as an attractive career choice.

In a review of introductory ecology textbooks, Damschen and coauthors found that women were depicted less often than men in various categories (authors, founders and innovators, working scientists, photographs and drawings, scientific reviewers, editors and publishers and names in indices). Most jarring was their finding that the proportion of women founders and innovators (5%) almost matched the percentage of women who were first authors on publications in the 1970s. The only category in which women exceeded men was as editors and publishers.

Note that this finding is contrary to the general perception that there is equality between the genders in the field of ecology (prevalent among female ecology students).

They conducted an additional study in which half of the students were given material enriched with examples of women’s contributions to ecology. Those given the enriched materials were able to list more female or minority scientist’s names than the student controls.

My own personal experience is that female students are almost totally unaware of women’s contributions to science. A routine comprehensive exam question that I ask of female students is to name five well-known female scientists in different fields and what their contributions were. Rarely do any of them name more than one person (usually Marie Curie). I find, though, that this sparks their interest and many of them later tell me that they’ve gotten a book or looked up articles about women scientists.

The paper by Damschen et al. ends with several recommendations for improving the visibility of women in ecology (applicable to any field of science):

-Ensure visibility of women as contributors to the production of ecological knowledge.
-Women founders and innovators should not only be documented in traditional accounts of history, but a repository should be established to collect such materials for inclusion in textbooks and courses.
-Women currently working as scientists should be included in textbooks and their gender identified.
-Textbooks should include discussions of social and cultural impacts of gender on research questions, language, and methodologies.
-Scientific organizations and societies should engage in regular assessment of female representation (and develop benchmarks).

I would add to this that women can take an active role in promoting their contributions to science by developing interesting websites in which they highlight their activities and accomplishments, provide information and advice to students and the public, and write about their professional and personal experiences.

The Internet is a great equalizer—it’s up to us to take advantage of it.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Obama: “We are restoring science to its rightful place”

Today, President Obama addressed the annual meeting of the US National Academy of Sciences. If you have not heard this speech or read the transcript, I encourage you to do so—it was not only excellent, but inspiring. The key message of that speech is given in the blog title above.

Here are a few excerpts:

“At such a difficult moment, there are those who say we cannot afford to invest in science, that support for research is somehow a luxury at moments defined by necessities. I fundamentally disagree. Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment, and our quality of life than it has ever been before.”

“And we have watched as scientific integrity has been undermined and scientific research politicized in an effort to advance predetermined ideological agendas.”

“So I’m here today to set this goal: We will devote more than 3 percent of our GDP to research and development. …… This represents the largest commitment to scientific research and innovation in American history.”

“So we double the budget of key agencies, including the National Science Foundation….”

“Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation –- and our values as a nation –- are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy. It is contrary to our way of life.”

“We also need to engage the scientific community directly in the work of public policy.”

“In environmental science, it will require strengthening our weather forecasting, our Earth observation from space, the management of our nation’s land, water and forests, and the stewardship of our coastal zones and ocean fisheries.”

“And so today I want to challenge you to use your love and knowledge of science to spark the same sense of wonder and excitement in a new generation.”

"...will create research opportunities for undergraduates and educational opportunities for women and minorities who too often have been underrepresented in scientific and technological fields, but are no less capable of inventing the solutions that will help us grow our economy and save our planet. "

“And some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long-held views. Science can’t answer every question, and indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics or our values, our principles or our faith. But science can inform those things and help put those values — these moral sentiments, that faith — can put those things to work — to feed a child, or to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this Earth.”

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Are Your Presentations Memorable?

Do you wonder why people don't seem to be impressed with your presentations? Do you see people in the audience nodding off or busily texting their friends instead of paying attention to what you are saying? Want to make sure your audience gets your message? This post provides some answers to these questions.

I took a break from working on my presentation “Rise to the Occasion: How to Design, Prepare, and Deliver Outstanding Presentations” to go hear a series of talks given by graduate students.

Let me preface my comments by stating that these and most student presentations I hear these days are far superior to the ones I gave while in graduate school. So my comments are meant to be constructive, not dismissive.

The main thing I noticed today (and this is a trend I’m seeing more often) is that the students crammed a lot of information onto their PowerPoint slides—information that they then repeated verbally. Although none of the students in today’s seminar read their slides verbatim, I’ve seen this done on a number of occasions (and students are not the only ones who do this). Inexperienced speakers use this approach as a crutch because they are nervous and having the information on the slide is a safety net in case they forget. Also, they tend to put more information on a single slide, in an attempt at brevity.

But by having the information written fully on the slides prompts the audience to try to simultaneously read and listen to what the speaker is saying. There are several problems with this.

One is that people can read faster than the speaker can speak, so that the audience has already read the message and then has to listen to it repeated by the speaker. This translates into a boring presentation, and the audience’s attention wanders (perhaps when you are trying to make your most important point). If the slide contains a long list of items, each several lines long, the audience then goes into a brain lock trying to reconcile what they are reading and what they are hearing.

What is the solution? The best solution is to use a photograph, diagram, or other graphic (uncomplicated) to illustrate the point to be made; then explain the point verbally. If the point is one that is not easily represented visually, then a single word or short phrase suffices to focus attention and serve as a reminder without giving away what the speaker will say about the point. If you have several points to make, introduce them one at a time using the custom animation function in PowerPoint or split information across several slides.

A combination of visual examples, short text, and animation gives your audience everything they need to follow your line of reasoning, especially complex concepts, methods, or findings.

In the example above, I show how information is typically presented as a bulleted list (top slide). In contrast, the second slide gives the same information, but the points are illustrated with photos and diagrams from earlier in the talk. There is a brief text with each illustration, which the speaker then elaborates upon verbally. By presenting information this way, you link back to information presented earlier and also connect with both visual and auditory learners in the audience. Even kinesthetic learners can more readily understand by seeing a photo of someone carrying out an activity.

One of the students actually used this technique very well. Her topic was one that might have been difficult to follow, but her slide design and delivery made it easy to understand (and remember) her points. She broke down the information into understandable bites and introduced them gradually, using lots of illustrations and photos. As I write this, I can easily recall her talk, most of her slides, and what her main points were. The other students all used slides with long bulleted lists of information. I can’t remember anything significant about their research and would have to really concentrate hard to remember what their overall goals were.


Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Ain't I a Woman?"

This post is a follow-up to the discussion about presentations.

I’ve chosen to write a post about Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree) a slave, because her story is a great illustration of how a woman who was illiterate and with limited rights became a compelling speaker against slavery. She gained her freedom in 1827 and began speaking out at gatherings. Her most famous speech was known as “Ain’t I a Woman?”, which was delivered at the Women’s Convention in Akron, Ohio, in 1851. The speech was recorded by Frances Gage, a feminist activist, who was presiding at that meeting. Other speeches and information can be found at

Below are excerpts from Gage’s description of the event, followed by the transcript of Sojourner Truth's speech (converted to modern dialect).

“One of the most unique and interesting speeches of the convention was made by Sojourner Truth, an emancipated slave. It is impossible to transfer it to paper, or convey any adequate idea of the effect it produced upon the audience. Those only can appreciate it who saw her powerful form, her whole-souled, earnest gesture, and listened to her strong and truthful tones. She came forward to the platform and addressing the President said with great simplicity: "May I say a few words?" Receiving an affirmative answer, she proceeded:”

“Well, children, where there is so much racket there must be something out of kilter. I think that 'twixt the Negroes of the South and the women at the North, all talking about rights, the white men will be in a fix pretty soon.

But what's all this here talking about?
That man over there says that women need to be helped into carriages, and lifted over ditches, and to have the best place everywhere. Nobody ever helps me into carriages, or over mud-puddles, or gives me any best place! And ain't I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And ain't I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man - when I could get it - and bear the lash as well! And ain't I a woman? I have borne thirteen children, and seen them most all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother's grief, none but Jesus heard me! And ain't I a woman?

Then they talk about this thing in the head; what's this they call it? [member of audience whispers, "intellect"] That's it, honey. What's that got to do with women's rights or negroes' rights? If my cup won't hold but a pint, and yours holds a quart, wouldn't you be mean not to let me have my little half measure full?

Then that little man in black there, he says women can't have as much rights as men, 'cause Christ wasn't a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.

If the first woman God ever made was strong enough to turn the world upside down all alone, these women together ought to be able to turn it back, and get it right side up again! And now they is asking to do it, the men better let them.

Obliged to you for hearing me, and now old Sojourner ain't got nothing more to say.”

Gage continues her description:

“Amid roars of applause, she returned to her corner leaving more than one of us with streaming eyes, and hearts beating with gratitude. She had taken us up in her strong arms and carried us safely over the slough of difficulty turning the whole tide in our favor. I have never in my life seen anything like the magical influence that subdued the mobbish spirit of the day, and turned the sneers and jeers of an excited crowd into notes of respect and admiration. Hundreds rushed up to shake hands with her, and congratulate the glorious old mother, and bid her God-speed on her mission of "testifyin' agin concerning the wickedness of this 'ere people."

Are You Putting Your Audiences to Sleep?

I’m in the midst of preparing my presentation for the upcoming SWS meeting in Madison (June 21-25). It is something of a departure for me; the title is, “Rise to the Occasion: How to Prepare, Design, and Deliver Outstanding Presentations”.

Coincidentally, there is a discussion at another blog about presentations. It started as a discussion of whether it’s appropriate for members of the audience at scientific conferences to take photos of people’s slides (both the disruption and the taking of information without permission). That discussion has evolved into one that touches on some of the information that I plan to present in Madison.

In particular, some bloggers think that presentations (or lectures) are like written documents that can be posted on websites for people to look at and download if they wish. Aside from the permission and copyright aspects, there is another view that I think is worthy of further discussion.

Why bother to deliver a presentation if the audience is not paying attention to what you are saying? People roaming around the room taking photos are not listening (and they are distracting others so that they are also not paying attention to the speaker). Students who know that the lecture (or information in it) will be available later are probably reading their email instead of paying attention to the lecturer.

Why should anyone waste time attending an oral presentation that they can read later at their leisure? Why not just post your presentation on a website and not even bother to appear in person?

Think of all the famous speeches given in history. We can read the text of (some) speeches long after the speakers are dead, but imagine what it was like to hear Patrick Henry (Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death), Abraham Lincoln (Gettysburg Address), Sojourner Truth (Ain’t I a Woman?), Susan B. Anthony (Women’s Right to Vote), Winston Churchill (We Shall Fight on the Beaches), Mahatma Gandhi (Quit India) and many others deliver those famous speeches in person?

Is it the same just reading the words they spoke? No. (See the next post about Sojourner Truth for an example)

I’m not suggesting that we all should be (or can be) famous orators. Most of the people listed above delivered a speech in order to motivate people. Sometimes that might be our goal, but mostly it’s to transmit information about new findings in our research to our peers or to teach students. How we perform this task, however, influences our colleagues’ and students’ view of us as scientists and teachers. I know which colleagues in my field are excellent speakers, and make a point to attend their talks, even if the subject is not of special interest to me. I’ve made job offers to students whose presentations at conferences impressed me.

What is a presentation? Is it meant to be a stand-alone document crammed with information—like a written article? Or is it an exposition in which the speaker is central to the message being delivered?

The problem with PowerPoint and similar applications is that people using it seem to be forgetting the art of oratory (and rhetoric) and instead produce a Frankenstein creation, which is neither oratory nor document. They stand and talk to the screen, looking at their slides (usually reading what’s written) with their backs to the audience. I attended a seminar yesterday, for example, and the speaker stood for almost the entire time with his back to the audience, occasionally glancing over his shoulder (but he missed seeing the people who were sneaking out of the room throughout his talk).

It’s fine to create a summary of your work with PowerPoint and post it on your website, but I would not recommend using it to deliver the information orally (at least not the version crammed with data and verbiage). An audience cannot take in a lot of information (there is no opportunity to reread or stop to ponder the data), so the speaker must take this into account in developing a talk.

I think it’s important to make a distinction between these two purposes: 1) a PowerPoint summary that transmits detailed information and that can serve this purpose without our participation (e.g., posted on a website) and 2) a presentation. Trying to do both (create a document and a presentation) yields something that is unsuccessful for either purpose.

I'll add more information to this topic as I develop my presentation.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Is Talent Overrated? Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post on talent vs. "deliberate practice". In the book by Geoff Colvin, the author argues that world-class performers get that way not because of innate talent, but because of the way they develop their skills.

At this point, people typically bring up the names Mozart and Tiger Woods. What about them? Weren’t they child prodigies? Yes, but according to Colvin, what made them such was not innate talent, but deliberate practice. Both had mentors (fathers) who were highly skilled themselves at music (Mozart) and golf (Woods) and devoted themselves to teaching their sons. The other key aspect was that both Mozart and Woods began their deliberate practice at extraordinarily young ages (under age three). Woods was given a miniature golf club at the age of seven months, for example. Both were started on a rigorous training program that was focused and consistent--by a parent who was highly skilled themselves.

Colvin quotes a number of studies that show a person must invest at least ten years (about 20,000 hours) to developing a skill before they become “accomplished”. If someone starts at the age of 2 or 3 (as Mozart and Woods did), then by the time they are 12 or 13, they are experts. So they are way ahead of competitors who take up music or golf at the old age of 16—such people will never catch up with these “child prodigies”.

I did not realize it at the time, but when I was in high school band (I played the flute), I applied a form of deliberate practice. Not that I was ever destined to be a music prodigy—I simply did not have the desire--nor did I put in the practice time or have any of the other characteristics listed above. But I discovered a way to improve one aspect of my performance that allowed me to outperform most of the other flute players. The flute section had about 15 chairs, and we were ranked at the beginning of each year during tryouts. During the school year, however, anyone could be challenged by a lower chair. This challenge involved having the two members play an assigned piece (anonymously-behind a curtain), and the band director judged their performance. Typically, one of the lower chairs would challenge the next chair (nothing to lose), and a domino effect would ensue until the entire section was involved in the challenge.

This ongoing stress (of having to be constantly preparing for weekly challenges and the potential embarrassment of losing one’s chair to an underclassman) was not fun. I was second or third chair, so was challenged almost every week. In many cases, adjacent chairs were pretty well matched in skill, so could play the assigned piece equally well. When that happened, the band director would break the tie by having us sight-read (play a piece of music we had never seen before). The though of sight-reading struck terror into every band member. Except me. I deliberately practiced sight-reading, which built up my confidence to the point that I did not get nervous when faced with it during a challenge. Other flute players avoided even thinking about sight-reading. I consistently beat my opponents during the sight-reading tie-breaker. (By the way, I rarely challenged the chair ahead of me because I did not want the responsibility (and the extra practice) involved in being first chair.)

Can we apply “deliberate practice” to the field of science and in particular help women get ahead in a male-dominated field? Absolutely. In fact, I would suggest that women think very carefully about what scientific skills they need to improve and develop a focused plan for improvement. Don't just leave it to chance. Seek out mentors who excel in those areas and ask for advice or specific help in devising a plan for improvement. You can also do a lot on your own. For example: Pick apart scientific articles that are considered to be classics and figure out what made them so. Another example: attend presentations by scientists who are known to be excellent speakers and analyze how they do it. Then deliberately practice until you can do what they did.

No matter what your particular job is in science (researcher, manager, consultant), you can figure out what sets apart the highly successful from the run-of-the-mill and focus your strategy accordingly.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Is Talent Overrated?

This post deals with what distinguishes good performance from outstanding performance.

I just finished an interesting book, entitled “Talent is Over-rated” by Geoff Colvin. The subtitle of the book is “What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else”. His main argument is that highly successful people in fields such as music, chess, mathematics, or sports got that way not because of innate talent but due to something called “deliberate practice”.

Regardless of the field, he claims, the consistent characteristic of high performers is that they all employ “deliberate practice”.

So what is “deliberate practice”? The term refers to a behavior characterized by several elements: 1. It’s designed specifically to improve performance, 2. It can be repeated a lot, 3. Feedback on results is continuously available, 4. It’s highly demanding mentally regardless of whether the activity is intellectual or physical, and 5. It isn’t much fun (normally).

When I read the explanation, I immediately knew what it was and recognized it as something I have done in some areas of my life. I also remembered something that my high school band director (an early role model for me) always used to tell us: “Practice doesn’t make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect.”

Colvin provides a number of examples from different fields to illustrate “deliberate practice”. But basically it’s practice in which the performer focuses not on those aspects they’ve already mastered, but on those that they have not mastered or on areas that will give them an edge over competitors. Most of us, if we practice something (tennis, playing a musical instrument, etc.), we repeatedly go over those things that we know well and usually avoid the stuff that’s difficult (and not fun). World-class performers do just the opposite.

In some cases, top athletes have discovered short-cuts that greatly improve their performance. One example is top tennis players and how they respond to fast serves. A tennis ball, served by a top athlete, travels at about 150 miles per hour. An average person will try to follow the ball with their eyes, but this is too slow to allow them to position themselves and hit the ball consistently, if at all. A top tennis pro instead looks at the position of the opponent’s shoulders, hips, and general form as they are preparing to serve and then predicts where the ball is going to go. They are then able to get into position and be there before the ball arrives. However, in order to apply this bit of knowledge, one must have thousands of hours of experience observing and responding to tennis serves to develop this ability to “read” one’s opponent.

And that’s where the deliberate practice comes in. One must be aware of what aspects of the performance need to be practiced and then focus on those. It is a conscious choice, and the practice has a definite goal to it. The average person, on the other hand, will just mindlessly practice the same movement or activity over and over and never improve beyond a certain point.

More about "deliberate practice" and what this might mean for women in science in the next post...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Male-Female Pay Gap

The American Association of University Women (AAUW) has several useful reports on gender issues on their website. In this post, I summarize the findings of one report that examines the gender gap in pay for university graduates (2004-2006).

Women graduates working full-time earn only 80 % as much as their male counterparts at one year out of college. By ten years post-college, the gap has widened, with women earning only 69% of male salaries. This site has a map showing the earnings gap by state and for the entire US. The smallest earnings gap is in Maine where women’s earnings are 83% of male’s. The largest gap is in Louisiana where women’s earnings are 64% of male’s. There are no major differences in the proportion of women versus men with a four-year college degree.

Several factors influence the discrepancy in earnings by men and women. One is that female students are concentrated in fields with lower earnings: education, health, and psychology. Higher-paying fields (engineering, mathematics, and physical sciences) are dominated by males. But this does not entirely account for the pattern, since pay gaps occur for men and women with the same college major. For example, in biological sciences, which is a mixed-gender major, women earn 75% of what men earn. So choosing a high-paying major will help women close the pay gap, but other factors may prevent a woman from achieving similar earnings to males in the same field. One additional factor, time off for parenting, often leads to lower wages when the woman returns to the workforce (compared to those who are continuously employed). Other factors include a work ethic characterized by “masculine” values of competition and individual achievement. Those female (and male) workers who choose not to work long hours are often viewed negatively and do not advance at the same rate as those who do.

What about numbers of women versus men who graduated, attended “selective” schools, performed well academically, or earned a professional license or certificate? Turns out that more women than men graduated in 1999-2000 (57%). Men and women attended similar types of institutions, but of graduates working full-time, men were more likely to have attended “very selective” institutions (35% men to 28% women). Women outperformed men academically in all majors (GPA of 3.16 women vs. 3.04 for men overall), including science and mathematics. Women were more likely to have earned a professional license or certificate after graduation (34% vs. 28% men).

One interesting analysis was to identify discrimination by eliminating other explanations for the pay gap. The authors of this report used a regression analysis to control for different choices that men and women make. They basically asked the question: “If a man and a woman make the same choices, will they receive the same pay?”. The answer was no. After controlling for all other factors, they found that college educated women made about 5% less than their male counterparts.

In addition to the pay gap, male college graduates have greater flexibility, autonomy, and supervisory responsibilities in their jobs (after 10 years) than women counterparts. The unexplained portion of the gender gap also widens with time.

What can be done to reduce the gender gap? These are the suggestions from the report:
1. Integrate majors and occupations (eliminate gender segregation) by:
a. Promoting careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in ways that are appealing to girls and women
b. Encourage women to negotiate for better quality jobs and pay
c. Encourage girls to take advanced courses in mathematics
2. Support mothers in the workplace
a. Encourage employers to offer high-quality part-time employment opportunities
b. Rethink using hours as the measure of productivity
c. Protect and extend the Family and Medical Leave Act
d. Increase women’s employment options by supporting high-quality child care in conjunction with other family-friendly policies
3. End gender discrimination
a. Individuals must take action at work (women should collect information and become advocates for themselves and other women)
b. Leaders in the workplace must embrace change
c. The public sector should be the model employer
d. Strengthen national legislation

Photo Credit: modified photo from

Sunday, April 12, 2009

The PuppyScientist Syndrome

This post is an expanded version of comments I offered at another blog in response to the question, “Does sexism get worse as you get older?”. Note: I’m referring here to any behavior (male or female) in which people are treated differently because of gender as “sexism”. The idea originally posed was that males are fine when they mentor younger women, but when the woman becomes a successful colleague (re: competitor) some males react negatively and begin various disrespectful and sometimes outright aggressive behavior toward females. Most of the older respondents to this question at the other blog stated that they had experienced increased sexism by male colleagues and/or superiors. Several of the younger respondents said they were not sure, since they were still students or post-docs.

I think that the experience of increased sexism with age can be the result of two processes: 1) sexism is actually greater for older than for younger women and/or 2) as women age, they become more aware of instances of sexism (better able to spot it). I think both are probably valid explanations.

Let’s take a look at the first explanation. When women are students or post-docs in laboratories run by a male scientist, they tend to be supported and encouraged because they are still in a subordinate position (to the male) and therefore not a threat. I think of this phenomenon as the “PuppyScientist Syndrome”, which arose out of conversations with another senior female scientist. When you are young, cute, cuddly and bursting with enthusiasm, everyone wants to pat you and encourage you. Both female and male students experience this to some degree.

But the similarity often ends when the female advances to become a successful colleague, especially at another institution that did not know her as a PuppyScientist. She may be treated well in the beginning, due to the lingering PuppyScientist effect. As the PuppyScientist matures, this perception fades, especially if she begins to growl or bark (speak out) at faculty meetings. The weaker pack members (faculty who are not productive) also will be threatened if she shows signs of being highly productive (e.g., brings in a multi-million dollar grant or publishes in Science). Not all male colleagues will react negatively, but some will. Not all females experience this change in treatment as they advance, but many do.

Her male counterparts, however, are naturally accepted into the pack and treated with increasing respect with each successive accomplishment. They are automatically assumed to be in line to be an Alpha Male someday.

One of the most telling stories I’ve heard recently regarding gender bias was told by a scientist (Dr. Ben Barres) who underwent a sex change (female to male). Some time after changing sex, Barres gave a seminar. Afterwards, two (male) faculty members were overheard discussing the seminar. One said to his colleague, “Dr. Barres’s seminar was outstanding, wasn’t it? He is a much better scientist than his sister.” Barres, of course, does not have a sister. Dr. Barres also tells of the dramatic difference in his treatment as a professional before and after his change from female to male gender. One of his talks “Dearth of Women in Science” discusses why he thinks there are still fewer women than men in the sciences. A video of his presentation can be seen here.

Let’s now consider the second explanation, that women become more aware of sexism or are better able to spot it as they mature. I had a conversation recently with a young female scientist who has just completed her Ph.D. In the course of our discussion, I asked how she perceived her experience during graduate school (as a female) and her expectations for the future (I try to ask this whenever the opportunity arises). Her response basically was that she had experienced no bias and did not anticipate any disadvantages due to her gender.

I responded that it was great she had had a positive experience, but that I and others had not been so lucky. I had been discouraged from pursuing a career in science from childhood (being told that women are innately incapable of being successful as scientists). Later experiences involved less blatant but no less discouraging actions. I went on to suggest that failure to recognize the more subtle forms of bias might lead to a false sense of security.

She asked for an example, so I described a common behavior (of males) that involves the male offering to help the female with something. I’m talking here about a situation in which the female is perfectly capable of carrying out the task independently, but the male is interceding either in a chivalrous (and unconscious) gesture or in a very deliberate way. Regardless of the reason, the effect is to undermine the authority and confidence of the female. When challenged, men often protest that they are “just trying to be helpful”. There is nothing wrong with chivalry, but when it’s applied in a setting that should be gender-neutral, it is inappropriate.

When I finished this description, she said that this reminded her of something that happened when she was in graduate school. A technician working for her advisor frequently tried to tell her how she should carry out her project. She ultimately had to tell him to back off. She subconsciously recognized that allowing this to continue was harmful to her efforts to develop as a scientist and took action. However, she had not identified this experience as a type of bias.

The experiences I describe above derive from gender stereotyping (men are strong and women are weak—and therefore need help). Again, there is nothing wrong with helping others. It’s when the helpfulness is applied inappropriately that poses the problem.

I don’t have a good answer for overcoming biased treatment (more about this later), but being aware of some of the subtle ways in which it might occur is a start. So, for the younger crowd, think about this the next time someone approaches you with:

“Cute puppy…..let me help you…”

Photo Credit: modified photo from Tinypic.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Science Journalism—On the Decline?

OK, now that March Madness and April Fools are over, we must return to more serious topics….

Nature has a new article on the decline of science journalism and the rising influence of science blogging. The author, Geoff Brumfiel, asks the question, “Can science blogging replace science journalism?”

He reports that journalists, who have in the past relied solely on the public-relations departments of scientific organizations for story ideas, are now turning to blogs for information and topics to write about. At the same time, news outlets are downsizing their science-writing staff, so that science coverage is declining in quality and accuracy.

With this change, the need for fast and accurate science content is being filled mostly by press releases and other sanitized content from public relations departments. Some science editors admit that when they’ve got a deadline and several stories to prepare that they often take the short-cut of relying on the information provided in the press release (although they prefer not to).

So, what’s the problem, you might ask? Well, having just been through the process of dealing with my (unnamed) agency’s communications office, I can attest to the problem of having ill-informed “communications specialists” translating my science for public consumption.

I prepared a press release about research being published in a high-profile journal about a “hot topic” and submitted it for approval to my local public relations office. The local office thought what I had written was great—accurate, written in every-day language, and sufficiently in-depth that the work and its significance could be understood by a 10th grader. They sent it up the line to the next level for approval (regional office of communications). That’s when the nightmare began.

A long series of “rewrites” ensued, each one with increasing numbers of factual errors and subtle misinterpretations of my research. I struggled to correct each version (this often took longer than it did to write the original text). Once each version had been corrected by me, it went to yet another “communications specialist” who had to try their hand at rewriting it. We ultimately went through 14 versions. We are talking here about a piece no longer than 250 words.

By this time, the high-profile paper had been put online; co-authors at another institution had already put out their own press release; the story was being picked up by major news outlets (with no mention of my agency’s or my contribution). Extremely frustrating.

Our press release was finally approved and published, a week after the event. It was greatly watered down and although not exactly inaccurate, was not a good summary of the research. In other words, a day late and a dollar short.

I was quite flabbergasted (and actually fascinated) at how someone could take a perfectly fine science story and mangle it. The experience showed me how dangerous someone with a limited understanding of science, but the authority to write about it, can be. The worst part was how little control or influence I (the scientist responsible for the research) had over this process.

Now, I’ve dealt with science reporters before, who were great—they knew the topic, understood the science basics, asked intelligent questions, even came to hear my presentations at conferences and accurately reported what I said. So, I’m not saying that science cannot be reported well by non-scientists. Good science journalists are incredibly important and much appreciated by me.

But “communications specialists” are not in the same league as good science journalists. My recent experience adds to a growing belief that scientists need to take a more active role in explaining their science to the public, and especially not rely on “communication specialists”. Unfortunately, scientists are slow to catch on to some of this because they are still working with the outdated model of pre-internet (limited ability to reach large numbers of people quickly). In those early days, scientists published their work in specialized journals and that was that. Today, many scientists are still unaware of the blogosphere (or if they are aware, just don’t understand it) and the rapid changes taking place in science communication.

However, science institutions and some scientists are now increasingly seeing the need to communicate science directly to the general public, who are expecting and demanding it. Based on my latest experience, cutting out the “middle man” in the communication chain may improve things.

A few scientists have started their own blogs in which they talk about a range of topics. Some of these, such as Pharyngula, are enormously popular, getting more than a half million page views per week. That’s just mind-boggling, especially when I think about how many people read my scientific papers—a mere handful by comparison.

I’m not sure that blogs are the answer to the “science communication gap”, since bloggers, even science bloggers, are often expressing opinions about science and other topics. Science journalists, on the other hand, are trying to provide a balanced coverage of a science topic. The latter is often put through some type of review, even if only by the editor, and a fact-checking process. Not so with blogs (at least not most blogs). But with personal blogs, you get the uncensored, raw experience as perceived and reported by the scientist. One might think that to be a negative. However, that is what seems to attract readers. Quite a conundrum…

Some major universities (Princeton and Yale) are starting websites aimed at providing scientifically accurate news coverage. They report opinions of scientists and reports from journalists on subjects like climate change. It’ll be interesting to see how these fare compared to the popular science blogs.

Anyway, the Nature website has quite a few articles and other information on the topic of science communication, if you are interested.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

The Rumors Are Flying!

On his blog,, Len Bahr reports on anticipated goings-on in the upcoming 2009 fiscal session of the Louisiana legislature (April 27). Rumor has it that several legislators from the “far north” (north of Alexandria, LA, that is) have formed a “Yankee Caucus” that will introduce an amendment known as “The Coast is Toast”.

For those of you unfamiliar with the travails of Louisiana, USA, the coast is rapidly subsiding along with rising sea-level—leading to wetland loss rates of around 25 square miles per year. In the past century, an area the size of Delaware has been lost. The flooding of New Orleans that occurred following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 focused international attention on the vulnerability of low-lying areas in this region.

The amendment, if passed, would move the official coastline of Louisiana north from its historic position to just below Baton Rouge. Presumably, this idea is based on inundation maps showing most of south Louisiana underwater with a rise in sea level of one meter or so (predicted by some models for this century) (see map above). This EPA site shows maps of Louisiana and other areas vulnerable to sea-level rise.

Anyway, the LaCoastPost received an email from the secretary of an anonymous member of the Louisiana House of Representatives that describes some of the wording in the rumored amendment:

“Whereas, beginning in FY 2017, significant revenues derived from oil and gas leasing and production in federal waters offshore Louisiana will accrue to coastal parishes under the Minerals Mangement Service Coastal Impact Assistance Program (CIAP); and whereas, the science tells us that by the year 2020 most of Louisiana south of I-10 and I-12 will be under water; and whereas, the previous whereas implies that the southern third of Louisiana will soon be mostly uninhabited; therefore, We the undersigned petition the legislature and the voters of Louisiana to officially amend the Louisiana state constitution to declare that the official coastal zone of the state shall be shifted north approximately fifty miles.”

Not to be outmaneuvered, legislators from districts in south Louisiana are reportedly organizing a counter-attack, calling themselves the “Rebel Caucus”. They are apparently confident that Louisiana is not threatened by sea-level rise (or subsidence)—a conclusion based on biblical scripture.

I don’t know if these rumors are true, and those of you who are unfamiliar with Louisiana politics are probably shaking your heads by now. But one must keep in mind that this is the same Louisiana legislature that recently passed a bill mandating that biology teachers in public schools teach “creation science” as the “scientific alternative” to evolution. So, anything is possible….

On the other hand, today is April Fool's Day.