Saturday, May 30, 2009

You’ve NOT Come a Long Way, Baby

Did you know that Marie Curie (photo) was banned from her academic laboratory until after she won her second Nobel Prize? Or that research funding to support female scientists was withheld by the Federal funders of the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center during the 1960’s. Or that as recently as 2005, the president of Harvard, explained that there are so few tenured women scientists and engineers because of innate gender differences in abilities?

It seems that although some progress has been made, women in science still face some serious obstacles to realizing their career goals. That’s the message of several reports summarized in this month’s Academe (Bulletin of the American Association of University Professors) article entitled: “Why Are We Still Worried about Women in Science?”

In many fields, women have reached parity with men in the percentages of degrees received in science, engineering, technology, and mathematics (STEM). In the U.S., women even earn more bachelor’s and master’s degrees than men.

However, the findings indicate a problem when one considers how many women actually make it into senior science positions: “Despite grades and other academic attainments equal to or surpassing those of the men who remain in STEM fields, more women than men leave science and engineering. As a result, few women are in senior or leadership positions in the STEM workforce.”

An Example of the Numbers:
Percentage of Doctoral Degrees (Biology) Awarded to Women: 46.2%
Percentage of Full Professors Who Are Female (Biology & Life Sciences): 19%

Barriers: Some are new, but the AAUP article states that “issues from thirty years ago remain, appearing today in somewhat different language, behaviors, and structures. “ One interesting aspect mentioned in this article was the effect of being half of a dual-career couple. A 2008 report, Dual-Career Couples: What Universities Need to Know, indicates that 83 percent of women scientists have academic partners who are also scientists (compared to 54 percent of men). For many such women, their dreams and aspirations are put on hold or abandoned in favor of their husband's career.

Why Do Women Leave Science? The data indicate that “women outperform men academically, receive more awards, and have higher graduation rates and better attitudes toward education”, but that women leave the STEM workforce soon after beginning academic employment. Why? The reports point to two factors: the need to balance career and family and lack of professional networks. Several studies have documented that lack of networking and mentoring contributes to women leaving science. They have fewer graduate and postdoctoral students and less diverse networks compared to male counterparts.


1. Grant-making organizations need to allow all applicants to allocate funds for family care, including child and elder care.

2. University departments should train students in project management, leadership, and business skills, including proposal writing.

3. Enforce existing anti-discrimination laws (6th, 7th, 9th titles of the Civil Rights Act). A Study on the Status of Women Faculty in Science at MIT (1999) reported that male faculty were give greater resources (lab space, salary supplements, start-up packages, university funding, and prize nominations) than female faculty.

4. Expand and redirect the National Science Foundation’s ADVANCE program.

5. Aggressively promote qualified women to science advisory boards, journal editorial boards, and science policy positions.

6. Reject the portrayal of women scientists as a special interest group. Women earn more than half of the undergraduate degrees in science, but are not achieving their goals because of cultural biases and outdated policies.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Rejected and Dejected

You’ve been waiting for weeks, maybe months to hear from the journal about your submission. Finally, you see an email in your inbox with the subject heading: “Decision-MS#xxxxx”. Your heart skips a beat, you take a big breath, and you click on the email to open it. It says, “Thank you for your submission, but we regret to inform you that…..”.

What now?

For some female scientists (especially early-career), this is the end. The paper goes into their file, never to see the light of day again. Their most frequent thought is, “What did I do wrong?” Or worse, "What's wrong with me?"

In contrast, most male scientists think, “What’s wrong with that journal editor and those ignorant reviewers? Can’t they see that my paper is fantastic? I’m sending it somewhere else!”

In graduate school, it’s rare for students to get advice on how to handle rejection. Advisors may not recognize that male and female students handle rejection differently and perhaps fail to give some extra encouragement or specific advice to female students. If the advisor is male, he may assume that female students and post-docs will react the same way he would to rejection.

But knowing how to deal with rejection can make the difference as to whether you are successful or not in a science career. How you react to rejection is as much of a test of character as your ability as a scientist.

A little-known statistic: some of the most published scientists have the most rejections. This is because they do not give up until they get their papers published and often suffer numerous rejections along the way. If you automatically assume the problem is with you when your paper is rejected, then you will tend to give up. If you instead believe the problem is not necessarily with you or your inherent ability, then you will realistically assess the reviews, make necessary revisions, and persist until you succeed.

If your work deserves to be published (i.e., it’s good), then giving up with the first rejection is a mistake. If the work is flawed, then heed the comments of the reviewers and editors (they’ve done you a favor) and revise the paper and resubmit somewhere else. If the problem is not fixable, then you might be able to salvage a portion of the study and publish it as a note.

For more discussion of what to do when your paper is rejected, see this article, “When a Journal Says No” by Wendy Belcher. The advice she gives is far more comprehensive than what I could cover in this blog post. I highly recommend it if you are at all unclear as to how to proceed when getting a rejection letter.

Instead, let me tell about my own personal experience with rejection.

A number of years ago, another scientist (female) and I collaborated on a paper, which we submitted for publication at a moderate-impact journal. It was rejected. We revised and resubmitted somewhere else. It kept getting rejected, and we kept revising and resubmitting it. We were determined to get the paper published because we thought it was a great study. She lived in a different city, so we met at another city mid-way between us to work on the paper. We holed up in a hotel room with our computers, a printer, and lots of coffee. Each time the paper was rejected, we would meet over a weekend and revise. We were getting very frustrated because some of the changes (based on previous reviewer comments) were later criticized by other reviewers. We started referring to it as the “Paper from Hell”.

Finally, we went back to our original version, incorporated some of the suggestions that seemed reasonable, and resubmitted to a high-impact journal in our field. The paper was accepted with minor revision. The week it was published, the editors of Science selected it for their “Editor’s Choice” section. The journal that published our paper was delighted that one of their publications was mentioned by Science, and the editors would subsequently thank us profusely whenever they saw us at conferences.

I guess the moral is: Be persistent; don’t give up too easily. I don’t know why our paper got so many rejections. It could be the reviewer lottery was not in our favor or simply that we had failed in earlier versions to write a sufficiently compelling paper. In hindsight, I see many things that I would do differently today—but by persisting, we ultimately got it right.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Why is Public Speaking So Stressful?

Standing in front of an audience is a stressful experience, even for seasoned speakers. An experienced speaker may not feel nervous, but there is stress nonetheless. For novice speakers and particularly for people with stage fright, the stress can be enormous--causing physical symptoms (shivering, stuttering, dry mouth, quavering voice, shaky hands, tunnel-vision, fainting, nausea, vomiting, etc.). This stress also causes changes in the brain, so that you may not be able to think as clearly as when you are just having a conversation.

There must be something in our ancestral behavior patterns that tells us to flee when a lot of people are looking at us—or perhaps it’s just an overwhelming sense of self-consciousness (imagining how we look to others and what they will think if we screw up). The symptoms we experience (pounding heart, sweating, shaking, etc.) are the same as when we feel physical danger. These physical reactions are very difficult to ignore.

Some people are successful at overcoming performance anxiety by consciously avoiding thinking about themselves, e.g., by focusing on something else (however, I don’t recommend the common suggestion that a nervous speaker imagine the audience naked—it doesn’t work). If your physical reaction is primarily shivering or shaky hands, it’s important to stay warm prior to your talk (which is difficult in most icebox conference rooms). I find that if I keep my hands warm (keeping them in my pockets or even sitting on them), any shakiness is minimized and my nervousness automatically diminishes. I always have a sweater or jacket with me.

Fearful speakers who've been advised not to read their talks may try to memorize their entire talk, which is a mistake. I heard a post-doc give a presentation recently, and it was clear that she had it memorized because the delivery sounded exactly as if she were reading. The effect was the same—it was difficult to maintain focus on what she was saying. Some people can read in a conversational style while frequently looking up at the audience and succeed in giving a good talk---but these are rare (and I think this takes a lot of practice).

Another reason not to memorize: if your brain locks up, it’s much more difficult to recover. Instead, incorporate into your slides reminders of the points you wish to make (you can be creative and use photographs or other graphics that simultaneously serve to inform your audience). You can also use the animation function in PowerPoint to introduce elements (arrows, highlights, etc.) that jog your memory and help the audience focus. Only memorize the general point you wish to make, not the exact words. If you are very confident, you can memorize your opening and closing statements (to avoid rambling), but practice describing your points in different ways in case you forget the exact words.

I do recommend memorizing your sequence of slides and knowing what, in general you wish to say—in the event the projector fails. Back in the days of slide projectors, I witnessed the amazing presentation of a colleague whose presentation was almost derailed by a klutzy moderator. When a slide got stuck, the moderator removed the cap on the slide carousel and turned it upside down, dumping all the slides (over a hundred) onto the floor. The speaker proceeded to give one of the most entertaining talks I’ve ever heard.

I think the only way to truly overcome performance anxiety is lots of practice, which leads to confidence—and ultimately a lack of fear of performing in front of others.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What is The Number One Fear?

Based on some surveys, the top-ranked fear of modern humans is the fear of public speaking--even greater than the fear of dying.

Most of us probably have horror stories. This is what happened to me during my Ph.D. defense seminar. My advisor introduced me, I stood up and looked out at the audience, and I completely blanked on my opening statement. There was an uncomfortable pause. Just as I saw a few people beginning to look worried, I remembered what I wanted to say. Note that I did not feel unusually nervous beforehand; in fact, I was pretty confident when I stood up. So it was quite a shock to just blank out like that—at the worst possible moment. Fortunately, I did not panic; I finally glanced at my slide, which jogged my memory, and once I started speaking everything went smoothly. I managed to sound confident and authoritative throughout the talk. I also paused at various points in my talk (pretending to think about my next statement) so that my initial hesitation seemed to be part of my “style”.

If the above story about blanking out makes you cringe, you probably suffer from some level of performance anxiety (aka “stage fright”). My impression is that women tend to be more susceptible than men. Some men clearly love to get in front of an audience and never have the slightest twinge of nerves (although I can think of some exceptions). But I think most people experience this fear to some extent at some point in their career. Some overcome it eventually; others never do.

If you have this problem, you likely feel the need for crutches to get through a talk. The ultimate crutch is having the entire text of your speech in front of you. Having the text at hand is insurance against stumbling through a complicated explanation or even completely blanking out, as I did. It also allows you to avoid eye contact with the audience and puts you behind a podium, a barrier between you and your audience. For someone with performance anxiety, avoiding the audience is the whole point of these behaviors. However, one of the goals of a good speaker should be to connect with the audience and make them (not you) feel at ease. Speakers should make frequent eye contact with the audience and come out from behind the podium (if possible).

In some fields, it is standard practice to read entire papers--complete with footnotes—at conferences (e.g., in the field of law). But for most scientists, it is performance anxiety that underlies the decision to read. I once had a post-doc who insisted on reading her talks—that she could not remember what to say because of nerves. After much coaching and encouragement, she was finally convinced to give a talk without notes. She did extremely well and was ecstatic at the reaction she got from the audience.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Don’t Make This Mistake When Giving a Talk

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in giving a presentation is to treat it the same way as you would a paper. Some speakers think that the way to give a talk is to simply read the paper they've written on the topic. Variations on this include reading detailed notes or putting the text on the slides (and then reading it). Reading your paper can make for a very boring talk that is often difficult for the audience to follow.

It's not only the droning voice that's a problem, but the underlying belief that talks are not different from papers. Failure to recognize the difference starts you off on the wrong foot. By all means, use your paper or thesis as a guide, but create a presentation, not another document.

It’s important to plan your talk for your anticipated audience and always keep your audience in mind when designing your presentation. You need to: 1) select a limited number of the most important points from your work that you wish to make (preferably one memorable “take-home message”), 2) prepare a brief, but good introduction that places your research in context (the more interesting, the better), 3) design very simple, easy to read slides, 4) provide only enough methods detail for your audience to understand what you did, 5) redraw graphs, diagrams, and other illustrations (don’t just cut and paste the figures from your thesis or paper) that help your audience understand your results in a few seconds, 6) come to a simple, memorable conclusion (or at most 2 or 3 important points).

The listening/viewing audience is very different from the reading audience (who can take their time to ponder your statements and illustrations or reread sections they do not at first understand). People now are accustomed to getting information accompanied by lots of visuals, so the lack of it seems boring (even if it's not). Note that it's possible to give a compelling speech without visual aids (see previous post: “Ain’t I a Woman?”). But in most scientific presentations, it’s expected that you will be showing data and diagrams. So, how that information is presented can make a huge difference in audience understanding and retention of the information.

Most importantly, if you fail to design and deliver a talk that helps your audience understand your work, they will get the message (either consciously or subconsciously) that you do not care about them or their needs. There is no incentive then for them to make an extra effort on your behalf and may turn off completely. Why should they pay attention to you if you so clearly do not care about them?

So why do some people insist on reading their papers? See the next post to find out.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Media Policy: How US Government Agencies Compare

The free exchange of ideas is the life-blood of science. All scientists, including those who work for government agencies, should be able to freely exchange ideas with each other and to state their opinions. At the same time, a strong democracy is dependent upon citizens who are well-informed and have free access to government-supported science.

Unfortunately, a number of federal scientists have become reluctant to speak freely about their research to the media, and some have been muzzled or even punished for speaking out. The Union of Concerned Scientists has conducted a survey of 15 federal science and regulatory agencies to assess the "degree of freedom with which science is communicated". Their results are summarized in the scorecard on this page. The full report can be accessed here.

Clearly some problems exist, worse at some agencies than others.

The UCS has two recommendations, which I list below verbatim:
"Agency media policies should respect two fundamental tenets of scientific communication:
  • Scientists, like any federal employees, have a right to express their personal views outside of certain narrow restrictions. As long as they provide an explicit disclaimer that they are speaking as private citizens and not as a representative of their agency, scientists should be allowed to speak freely about their research and to offer their scientific opinions--even in situations where their research may be controversial or have implications for agency policy.

  • Scientists have the right to review, approve, and comment publicly on the final version of any document or publication that significantly relies on their research, identifies them as an author or contributor, or purports to represent their scientific opinions."

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Communicating Science

The phone rings. It’s a reporter from the NY Times who wants to interview you about a recent paper one of your colleagues has published in Science and the general topic of “global warming”. Do you:

a. Hang up.

b. Say “sure,” and answer the first question, followed by a long monologue stating your opinions and giving details about your own research; basically taking charge of the interview.

c. Ask for more details and the reporter’s deadline, and then suggest a better time to talk, giving you some time to prepare.

The answer is c. It is always appropriate to ask a reporter for time to prepare for an interview as well as for a list of questions. This will give you time to not only think about your answers, but to develop concise, accurate answers illustrated perhaps with a vivid analogy to get your point across. Rambling on and on, interrupting the reporter, and failing to note the reporter’s impending deadline will increase the chances that most of what you say ends up being cut (maybe your entire interview).

Here are some tips from a science and technology reporter, Robert S. Boyd (from

What are you looking for from scientist sources?

I look for scientists who will respond to my questions in clear layman’s language, with a minimum of jargon. They should be well-qualified in the subject matter and be able to explain complex topics.

How important is the scientist to your story, generally?

The scientist is essential to my stories, either in person, by telephone or email, or by his published papers and books.

How do you handle the balance between scientific accuracy and "dumbing down" information?

It is a major challenge to maintain the right balance between scientific accuracy and successful communication with ordinary readers. That’s a science writer’s job. I don’t like to think of it as “dumbing down information.” I use a mental yardstick: the scientist is at one end, the reader at the other end, and I want to be nearer to the reader than to the scientist.

What suggestions would you give scientists for how to successfully communicate to journalists and the general public? What should they keep in mind?

To successfully communicate with journalists and the public, a scientist must first engage their interest, which is not always easy. He/she has to supply context and explain why this material is important. He cannot assume that his audience has a lot of background information. Scientists who appear on Public Television usually are very good at this.

Talk about some ways scientists have been useful to you in covering a story.

Scientists have been extremely helpful when they let me observe them at work. For example, I camped out with geologists in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. I spent 20 days on a research ship in the Northeast Pacific studying underwater volcanoes. I visited the hot springs in Yosemite with biochemists like Norm Pace and WOMAN. It’s also good when a scientist corrects misunderstandings, supplies papers and photos, and refers me to other experts.

What would you like to see scientists do differently in interviews with you?

I would like scientists, in interviews, to try very hard to explain their work in clear, vivid language that I can pass on to my readers. A punchy quote, colorful analogy or catchy sound-bite, is always welcome, but not at the expense of accuracy.

What's different about your medium/outlet/format that scientists should keep in mind?

My medium, McClatchy Newspapers, deals primarily in words. But we are always eager for pictures or graphics to illustrate the story. And now, like everybody else, we are on the web, and can use video and audio.

Friday, May 1, 2009

From "Publish or Perish" to "What's your H-Index?"

Everyone is familiar with the cliche' "publish or perish". But how many know what the H-Index is? The latter has in recent years become a common metric used to assess scientists.

I had an interesting conversation the other day with an administrator about assessing the performance of scientists. We ultimately began talking about the citation index and the H-index as useful metrics of science impact (for those unfamiliar with these, the citation index is a measure of how many times a scientist’s work is cited by other scientists; the H-index reflects both the number of publications and the number of citations per publication).

Mr. Admin was dismissing this metric as valid because it does not distinguish between negative and positive citations. The implication is that a scientist who publishes poor (flawed) papers might get citations, but those citations that are critical of the work are mixed up with positive ones. So he was arguing that the citation rate is not a good measure of the quality of a person’s work.

Of course, the answer is that evaluators should also look at the work itself and where it’s published, in addition to the times it is cited.

But then I thought about this some more. Are papers that get criticized necessarily wrong or fail to impact science? I think that many controversial papers or ones that report novel findings are immediately attacked (especially by competitors or those whose previous work is threatened). The consequent citations reflect criticisms of the work. Does this mean they are not relevant or should not be counted in quantifying a scientist’s impact? On the contrary. I think they are very relevant and reflect the very essence of science impact.

Even papers that are based on flawed data or incorrect interpretations, but that stimulate a new direction of research have a valuable impact. Early work using standard techniques available at the time may later be reinterpreted when newer, better methods become available. But these early pioneers have performed an essential service to their field of science. We honor them by citing their work, even if the later body of work shows that the original theory needed some tweaking. Even if initial ideas are completely overturned, the subsequent work often reveals new insights that might never have been discovered if those later researchers had not been stimulated into looking into the topic further.

Scientists who consistently publish thought-provoking work and challenge the current dogma tend to have high citation rates. Scientists who routinely do pedestrian work that just repeats what others have done tend not to be cited much, if at all. People who do really poor, flawed work tend not to get published.

There are other, possibly more valid criticisms of citation indices, such as the fact that all the authors on a cited publication receive a citation regardless of their contribution. Here is a compilation of some pros and cons of the h-index.

What do you think? Is the Science Citation Index/H-Index a valid measure of a scientist’s impact? Do you know how many times your work has been cited? Are you aware that academic search committees often use this metric (along with others) to decide whether you are a worthy candidate? Do you regularly analyze your citations to see which papers (and topics) are being cited most/least? Do you use this information to modify your research questions/approaches/writing style/journals? Do you know how you stack up compared to your peers?