Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Going It Alone

I just finished a major writing project--a book chapter--which is why I've not been blogging lately.

I was given the option of having co-authors, since the topic was fairly broad.  I toyed with the idea of inviting several colleagues to help write sections on topics with which they were more familiar than I.  This approach--working with co-authors--is the more usual one for me.   

In the end, though, I opted to go it alone.  The main reason was that I didn't want to have to deal with asking co-authors to revise (reduce) their sections to fit into the page limit as well as with merging the inevitably different writing styles.  Then there would be the time spent sending drafts back and forth among the authors, dealing with their objections (to having their section cut down), and getting everything done by the deadline.  I weighed these reasons against the option of working alone, which would require me to become (more) familiar with some topics, and possibly taking more time.  I would also lack the feedback that co-authors could provide on the chapter as a whole.

As it turned out, I'm glad I worked alone.  I learned a lot about a number of topics, read a lot of papers I had not seen before, and enjoyed synthesizing the information. The book is aimed at undergraduate/graduate students, so authors were asked to write in a "less technical" manner and to transmit our enthusiasm for the subject.  By being the sole author, I was able to maintain the same "voice" throughout the chapter.  I was also able to organize and present the information in the way I thought best.  Once I got a good draft finished, I then had to polish and cut down the length (I was several pages over the limit).  That stage was relatively painless, since they were my words being cut out or condensed.  I could readily reduce sections that were less important or less interesting without worrying about stepping on toes. 

Although I enjoy working with other people and generally have few problems in doing so, I find that I feel less stressed when working alone and am ultimately more satisfied with the finished product.  That turned out to be the case in this situation.

I submitted the final version to the editors a few days ago and already heard back that the chapter sounded fine and that they would go ahead and send it out for review (meaning that it met their expectations for content and format).  That's a relief.

Now, on to the next writing project....

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Few, The Proud, The Underestimated

A report, just released by the American Association of University Women, “Why So Few?”, found that although there have been gains, stereotypes and cultural biases continue to plague women in the sciences.

A few highlights from this report:

1. A study of postdoctoral applicants found that women had to publish 3 more papers in prestigious journals or 20 more in lesser journals to be judged equally productive as male applicants. [Edit added 3/26/2010: note that these extra papers represent what a female applicant would need to achieve the same "competence" score as a male--and is not what was typical of the productivity of applicants (for fellowships in the Swedish Medical Association). In other words, this is what it would take for female applicants to overcome the prejudice in this competition.  See Comments for more information.]

2. Another study found systematic differences in letters of recommendation for academic faculty positions for female and male applicants. More often mentioned attributes for males: achievements, research, abilities; for females: compassion, teaching, effort. These were judged to be unconscious stereotyping as opposed to conscious bias.

3. Being discouraged from entering a science field was cited by female and minority chemists and chemical engineers as the leading contributor to underrepresentation in those fields. Many in this same survey specifically said that they had been actively deterred in college, most often by a professor.

4. The “double-bind”: being competent and well-liked. Studies indicate that likability and competence both matter for workplace success. One study found that when information about performance was not provided, the woman was rated much less competent than the man, whereas when prior success was made explicit, both men and women were rated equally competent. The opposite pattern held for likability. When success was unclear, men and women were judged similarly likable, but when success was clear, the man was judged more likable. This outcome was only true for “male-type” jobs (successful women in “female-type” jobs did not experience the same negativity). See the figure at left.

5. An experiment that tested “contrast sensitivity ability”, a skill made up by the investigators, showed that when men and women in a group were told there was no difference between the sexes in ability, rated their own ability equally. Not surprisingly, when the group was told that men were better, men rated themselves much higher than did women. They were tested by being asked to detect the proportion of white and black on a screen, which actually were equal or nearly so—so there was no real correct answer. However, they apparently did not test the outcome for the situation in which the group was told that women were more skilled. It would have been interesting to see if men still rated themselves higher. In any case, the upshot is that individual aspirations for a career are influenced by one’s perceived ability or potential ability in that field.

6. Some research indicates that even when individuals consciously reject gender stereotypes, they can still be biased at an unconscious level.

7. An interesting part of the report dealt with differences in male and female spatial skills. When administered the Purdue Spatial Visualization Test: Rotations (see example below), women were more than three times as likely to fail as were male peers. However, when failures (male and female) were given a 10-week spatial visualization course, their average scores increased from 52% to 82%. This might be a case in which male-female differences are due to previous exposure to activities requiring spatial skills (playing with erector sets, etc.).

Some positive observations:

1. Small things can make a big difference: a course to acquire a special skill (such as the spatial skills course mentioned above); assurance that ability (in a particular field) is not fixed, but grows with experience.

2. Teaching girls about how stereotypes affect performance can diminish such effects.

3. Mentors are very influential.

4. Where there are clear criteria for judging individual performances, women are more likely to be judged competent and have a higher probability for success.

5. A highly successful, competent woman can improve her likeability by increasing her “communal” nature, e.g., being seen as a nurturing “mother” type. I don’t think this observation should alter one’s behavior, but it does provide some insight into sources of negativity (seeing women as competitors rather than nurturers).

In any case, the report is fascinating reading.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Time is Relative

Another thing I like about traveling is how it seems to alter my sense of time.  You know the feeling.  You go on a week's trip, and after only a couple of days it feels as if you've lived two lifetimes.  You can often be heard to exclaim, "Wow, it feels as if I've been away forever!"

In the meantime, the folks back home have experienced the same passage of time as if it occurred in the blink of an eye.  They will often remark upon hearing that you've just returned from a long trip, "Were you away? I didn't notice."

This strange alteration of sense of time is reminiscent of our changing perception of it throughout our lifetimes.  Remember when summer vacation seemed to last a really looonnngg time?  On that first day out of school, the summer stretched out before you, and the next school year was in the very distant future.  Each day of the summer passed leisurely--almost at a snail's pace.  From the first moment your feet hit the floor until your head flopped exhausted onto your pillow in the evening, your days seemed full and packed with activity.  As we reach early adulthood, time begins to speed up, and those summer vacations are definitely not as long as they once seemed to be.  Advance forward to middle age, and the days flash by like cars speeding past on the Autobahn.  As each year goes by, we marvel at how much shorter they seem to be.

I understand from reading about this phenomenon that most people attribute it to the fact that as we age, time units (such as a year) represent smaller and smaller fractions of our lifespan.  For a two-year old, one year is half of a lifetime.  For a 90-year old...well, you get the picture.  However, time perception researchers have other hypotheses, some relating to changes in brain chemistry as we age or to the effect of visual stimuli (marking time intervals).  I'm sure there are some interesting experiments going on in this field....

So back to the effect of travel on time perception.  I guess that the perceived slowing down of time while away from home has to do with being jostled out of your routine and exposed to new experiences.  You are in new and unknown surroundings, usually doing something different from what you would do at home, meeting new people, and probably learning a lot of new things (or at least being exposed to new information and experiences).  Novelty is also a feature of early life when we are constantly learning new things.  One wonders, then, if it is the new experiences that actually influence our sense of time, rather than the fraction of our lifespan each time unit represents?  Perhaps new experiences alter our brain chemistry and a side effect is altered time perception? 

In any case, travel might be a means to slow down time.  Time may not actually be changing--just your perception of it.  But perception is reality, as they say.

It's hard to know, though, if this phenomenon would persist if you travel frequently.  I imagine not, since the routine of travel would come to be as monotonous as the routine of daily life stuck in one location.  I was thinking about this while watching the recent movie, "Up in the Air", starring George Clooney as a guy who travels 320 days a year firing people for corporate executives too wimpy to do it themselves.  He has the airport, hotel, and restaurant routines down pat.  He also gives motivational talks--or rather the same talk, called "Unpacking Your Backpack", over and over.  His goal is to reach 10 million frequent flyer miles.  This is not the type of travel that slows time.

By the same reasoning, one should be able to slow time down by simply altering daily activities to include something new and different.  Unfortunately, when we need this time dilatation the most (old age) is when we have the least energy and inclination to do new things.  We tend to develop and cling to routines as we age.  They seem familiar, safe, and, most of all, require little brain-power to accomplish (an important consideration for those of us over a certain age).  Retired people have the most flexibility to incorporate new activities or experiences because they are freed from the routine of a regular job that involves repetitive tasks carried out at specific times. But all retirees seem to do is play golf!

There must be an intermediate mix of home and travel (or new activities) that yields an optimum (i.e., slowed down) time perception.  I'm not sure what this ratio is, but will let you know when I figure it out.

What's Luck Got To Do With It?

Since it’s St. Patrick’s day, I thought I would say a few words about luck.

One theme that I see in science blogs, particularly among those who are struggling with their science career (both moderators and respondents) is the idea that successful scientists are somehow luckier than everyone else. This is rarely true, and to believe that luck has anything to do with success (or lack of it) is self-defeating. The “golden child” types have been mentioned on some blogs as people who lucked into their wonderful situations (by knowing the right person, by accident of birth, etc.).


But perhaps they only seem to be “golden”. Maybe they’ve figured out how to work the system or maybe they just work really hard without letting on. I’ve heard people refer to me as being successful because I’m luckier than they are or have been “given” extra help or resources. My response was, “Whaaat?” I worked extremely hard for everything I’ve achieved—nothing came easy. My scientist husband has worked hard, too (although he did not face the same obstacles that I did). We stuck to it and are now a successful professional couple.

We didn’t start out that way, though. I faced some really negative situations (discrimination, vindictive bosses, harassment), and my husband was affected by my problems. So for someone to suggest that we’ve been “lucky” in our careers or been given special treatment is just naive.

There always will be challenges, especially in such a competitive field as science. If the challenges (both technical and political) are too much for you, it’s best to figure this out early and go into something more compatible and rewarding. But be forewarned. Those “issues” that you blame on your boss, your obnoxious co-workers, or The System, may follow you to your new endeavor.

The reason, of course, is that problems often result from an inability to handle challenges well or a failure to understand other’s expectations of us. Some people learn early, some late, and some never. If you consistently seem to have problems when everyone around you seems to be enjoying much better “luck”, then it’s time to reassess your approach.

Monday, March 15, 2010

More Inspiring Women

Meg Loman just published an article called "Inspiring Women in Science".  I found it interesting that she asks a similar question of her students as I do: Name three famous women scientists (I ask for five).  She gets a similar response: almost none can name three and many struggle to get even one.  A few name their professor.

She reports a list of top women scientists from a poll conducted by New Scientist magazine.  There are a few in that list that I did not include in a previous blog in which I provided pictures of famous women scientists and naturalists.  Check it out and see how many you know.

Loman additionally mentions a poll of 10,000 members of the Ecological Society of America, which found that: 1) women members still earn on average only two thirds the salary of male counterparts and 2) only 10% of the leadership in this field is occupied by women.  I've not reviewed this particular report yet, but readers can check it out on the ESA website.

Friday, March 12, 2010

All Washed Up

One of the things I like about traveling is leaving behind personal paraphernalia (clothes and various other possessions) and all the various problems, deadlines, appointments, etc. They are still there, but I seem to be able to stuff them into a portion of my brain where they stay submerged until I head home again. Then they start popping back into my consciousness like rising bubbles—usually not until the flight home, if I’m lucky. In the meantime, however, I enjoy brief (if delusional) freedom from the daily grind.

I tend to travel light these days, taking only a few changes of clothes and washing things out as necessary. Husband ALWAYS takes advantage of the hotel laundry service—sometimes quite expensive. We once got a bill for about $70 (he failed to check the prices first).

I prefer to do my own. This is especially true when traveling in places where the “laundry service” is a person scrubbing your laundry by hand in a basin. I just can’t imagine making someone else wash out my underwear; whereas Husband says, “What’s so terrible about that?”

On our last trip to a remote region, I was amused to see that the hotel refused to wash people’s underwear (there was a prominent sign to that effect in our bathroom). Husband apparently didn’t see it and put all of his dirty clothes, underwear included, in the provided bag. The staff, apparently fully aware of the male aversion to washing underwear, sorted through the laundry bag before leaving our room. They left my husband’s skivvies in our sink with the provided container of wash powder resting jauntily on top of them.

I immediately started snickering upon spotting this, clearly envisioning the women who cleaned our room shaking their heads and saying, “Another spoiled man. We’ll show him.”

When my husband came in to see what was so funny, he couldn’t believe his eyes and glanced at me with a horrified, yet hopeful, look. My response was, “Don’t even think about it.”

I find this male aversion to doing hand laundry pretty widespread. At a field station I frequent, there is a rustic laundry area set up outside next to the cistern with a hose, large shallow washbasin, an authentic washboard, and stiff-bristled brush (for those hard-to-remove stains). You can pay the field station cook to do your laundry, but in my 25 years of fieldwork there I’ve never availed myself of this service. In contrast, most of the male scientists have her do their laundry.

There are a few who solve the problem by simply not doing any wash and just wear the same clothes over and over (until they get home and their wives do it for them).

Sometimes, though, if a male scientist (on their first trip) happens to ask me about the laundry, I’ll point them in the direction of the washbasin and even give them a lesson in the proper use of the washboard. Then I retire to the shade to be entertained by their tentative poking, dipping, and splashing. I’ve even gotten a few good photos that are useful at later seminars.

All too soon, though, the fun ends when the station manager walks past and says, “Hey, man. What the heck are you thinkin’? The cook’ll do your skivvies for ya!”

By the way, the term “skivvies” is nautical slang for “underwear”--of unknown origin, but was once London slang for “female domestic servant”. Hmmmm….

I have to admit, though, that I did once meet an aberrant male scientist who falsified my Male Aversion to Laundry Hypothesis. A plant biochemist I encountered years ago, who was staying at the same field station, had me beaten in both the laundry and the streamlined travel categories. He had brought for a three-week trip only a briefcase containing his critical laboratory chemicals and one change of clothes. He had two polo shirts (a red one and a green one) and two pairs each of slacks, socks, and underwear. Every evening he would wash out the set he had worn that day. I would pass his cabin each morning, and there on the clothesline would be his daily wash waving in the breeze.

I was so impressed at how diligently he performed this ritual, that I cooked him an old-fashioned Southern meal of fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and cornbread (and I don’t fry chicken for just anyone). When he admitted he could barely boil water, I realized that he was practically starving to death (we were 40 km from the nearest restaurant and without transportation).

I’m not sure if he was an outlier (in the male population) or if his behavior was somehow associated with the field of biochemistry. My sample size is just too small to say.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I Am A Scientist!

How are scientists viewed by the public?

Check out this hilarious video I stumbled across on YouTube:

A few stereotypes persist, but at least young girls now seem to believe they can be scientists...

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Are Scientists Creative?

I previously asked the question, "Are scientists likeable?"  This query was aimed at our "image problem", i.e., scientists typically come across as dull, pedantic nerds.  As a result, the public turns off and may fail to hear the science message, which might be quite important.  The failure of scientists to participate effectively in science communication is a problem, particularly with the decline of accurate science journalism and an increase in anti-science groups.

But there are glimmers of hope.  Several initiatives exist that are designed to stimulate science students to become better communicators and be more creative in doing so.  The most recent one I've discovered is called Chlorofilms, a nonprofit project whose mission is "to promote the creation of fresh, attention-getting and informative video content about plant life and to make the best of these videos easy to find from a single website".

I was amazed at the imaginative films that have been submitted--well thought-out, creative, and quite sophisticated.  Here's one winner of a recent contest hosted by this organization:

fantastic vesicle traffic

You'll notice that this video likely required the creator to synthesize what is known about vesicles and to envision how they look and work in order to develop this film.  Enhancing your creative or artistic side just might spill over into your left brain (analytical side) and stimulate some new scientific insight or idea.

Besides, I'll bet these young videographers had fun creating their films.

Monday, March 8, 2010

On The Margin

Recently, I attended a wetland conference at which I had been invited to speak in one of the sessions.  My husband accompanied me on the trip and also attended the conference, but did not speak.  He mainly came along to keep me company.

Instead of staying in the conference hotel, we made reservations at a local bed and breakfast situated in a more pleasing and relaxing area on the outskirts of the city.  The B&B host was curious about why we were visiting the area, so we explained about the conference.  He immediately jumped to the conclusion that it was my spouse who was going to be speaking.  My husband quickly corrected him (in a joking way) and explained that it was he who was the "trailing spouse".

The man was clearly embarrassed at his presumption and said, "Oh, my.  I really stuck my foot in my mouth, didn't I?  I should have realized in this day and age that it's a mistake to make such assumptions."

I assured him that I did not take offense.  And I didn't.  I suppose my lack of concern was partly due to self-confidence (and having experienced this many times), but mostly due to the fact that he apologized immediately and seemed to be genuinely appalled at his mistake.

I would contrast this experience with other situations in which I'm put into a subordinate pigeonhole by someone, and it's clear that nothing is going to change that perception.  These situations (in which I do become annoyed) usually occur in a professional (or professional-social) setting.  The most frustrating ones are those in which another person begins talking about a topic in which I'm an expert, and they deliberately ignore my expertise and anything I might have to say.  In some cases, though, it may be a complete lack of recognition on their part (of who I am).  They assume I'm just "the wife".

What do you do in such cases?

Speak up and say, "You probably don't realize it, but [subject] is my main area of research."


"That's interesting.  I just published a paper in Science on that very topic."

Or should you just save your breath and move on to talk to someone else?  I suppose for me it depends on my mood and level of energy.  I get weary of correcting these misperceptions.  Also, I think an offended reaction often makes you look defensive and lacking in self-confidence.

On the occasions when I've said something along the lines of the sentences listed above or offered an insightful comment about the topic, the reaction has been a blank stare and a continuation of conversation as if I had said nothing.  This happens rarely to me now, but was a very common experience when I was younger.  I've also noticed now that sympathetic male colleagues will often speak up and try to include female colleagues and students in the conversation, especially if it's obvious that they are being excluded.

It's a difficult situation and one that male colleagues rarely experience.  My husband is always saying, "Just don't be so sensitive and don't react to every [imagined] slight." Well, my response is that it's easy to overlook a social or professional slight when it has rarely happened to you.  However, when it has been a life-long experience [to be marginalized], you look at such seemingly minor interactions quite differently.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Female Scientist Adventures

Do you like to write stories or keep a journal that describes your travel experiences as a scientist or student of science?  Or perhaps you just like to read about other people's adventures, discoveries, or wrong turns.  

I've set up another blog site where readers can post stories about their experiences doing fieldwork or labwork, interacting with colleagues, attending conferences, or whatever topic you’re inspired to write about.

Anyone may submit something for posting. Submissions may be serious or funny, introspective or irreverent, long or short, fact or fiction, narratives or photo essays, or even video, but focused on providing insight into what it’s like to be a scientist from a female perspective. I'm hoping people will be creative and contribute a variety of topics and media.  You can submit anonymously, under a pseudonym, or with your real name.

I have posted a few stories to get things going.

Photo: May Theilgaard with Henry Chandler Cowles (Library of Congress American Environmental Photographs 1891-1923)