Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Don't Be Such a Romulan!

Another presentation I attended at the AGU meeting was entitled "Fostering Science Communication Via Direct Outreach by Scientists" and given by M. Vinas.  The focus was on getting scientists and their science into the public eye.  Part of the effort is to foster volunteer scientists who are interested in communicating to the public.  This presentation highlighted three programs by AGU to encourage science communication by scientists: 1. "a suite of blogs that were launched in Fall 2010, written by external Earth and space science bloggers for an audience of scientists and the lay public", 2. "The Plainspoken Scientist", a blog emphasizing science communication (more about this below), and 3. professional development workshops held at scientific meetings in 2009 to teach communications skills to scientists.

Vinas made the point that many scientists complain about the press and what they view as inaccurate science reporting by the media...yet are unwilling to do anything about it.  She noted that mostly graduate students have attended their workshops on science communication. Also, most attendees have had some experience in science communication.  Vinas also described one of the most effective teaching techniques: making videos of the workshop participants speaking and then having everyone critique the performance.  She reported that seeing themselves on camera was worth hours of lectures telling people how to communicate science.  When people could see the mistakes they were making or how they came across on camera, this insight convinced them of the necessity of making changes (or paying closer attention to the recommendations of the instructors).

The Plainspoken Scientist is a blog site that has posts by guest bloggers.  There is a series called "Why I Blog"--scattered posts written by different scientists.  One of the most popular posts is called "Dude, you are speaking Romulan" by Chris Reddy, whose writings I've mentioned here previously.

The most recent post is a Q&A with the host of "The Skeptical Scientist".  In it is mentioned the existence of an iPhone app called Skeptical Scientist, which contains all the major arguments by global warming skeptics and links to the real science that counters these unscientific and often politically-driven stances.  It's designed for those of us who often get into "discussions" with our skeptical relatives and friends.  When your outspoken uncle challenges you with some skeptical argument, you can whip out your iPhone and pull up technical information in a flash with this app.  I downloaded it to my phone and tried it out.  The information is conveniently categorized by topic:  It's not happening, It's not us, It's not bad, and a full search option.  Within each of these categories are more detailed questions, such as "CO2 effect is weak".  When you click on each question, you are led to a page that begins with the skeptic argument, followed by the science facts.  Very useful app.

Image Credit: still from Star Trek, the original series on NBC TV picturing the female Romulan commander, who captured the starship Enterprise.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Moving Beyond "An Inconvenient Truth"

Continuing my report on presentations at AGU, I will describe one that provided some tips for scientists who wish to communicate their research to non-technical audiences.  The presentation,  entitled "Communicating Science" was authored by G. J. Holland; M. S. McCaffrey; J. T. Kiehl; C. Schmidt.

The talk began with a quick review of how the communication media is rapidly changing--in some ways for the better and other ways for the worse.  The latter includes the disappearance of science journalists and presenters who are being replaced by internet reports and blogs, YouTube, and journalists with little or no scientific training. There are still some journalists and writers who do an excellent job of reporting science, however.  The presenter, McCaffrey, mentioned the book by Bill Bryson, "A Short History of Nearly Everything", which I've described here previously.  He pointed out how such science reports, written for the lay audience, can be successful at getting across complex ideas in simple language (without errors or "dumbing down" the information.

Anyway, the point of the presentation was that scientists were increasingly needed to fill the communication gap, but who were ill-prepared for doing so.  Scientists may be excellent communicators when it comes to talking to their peers, but are less effective when speaking to non-technical audiences.  McCaffrey listed the qualities of a scientist: attention to detail and logic, open acknowledgment of uncertainties, and dispassionate delivery.  These qualities become liabilities when talking to the non-scientific audience who expect to be entertained with attention-grabbing information or visuals in 15 seconds or less....and the presenter must convey complete confidence in themselves and what they are reporting.

The presentation reported on a program initiated by UCAR (University Corporation for Atmospheric Research) and NCAR (National Center for Atmospheric Research) to develop new approaches to science communication and to equip current and future scientists with the necessary skills to be successful science communicators.  Most of the talk and the examples were focused on climate change and how to convey science information about that topic.  However, the basic concepts are applicable to other science topics.

One of the recommendations was to target audience attitudes and beliefs, which some studies indicate is key to effective science communication.  McCaffrey particularly mentioned the common image of a polar bear on an ice floe (which was photoshopped) as a "framing trap".  Reference to far away places and environments outside the average person's experience often backfires because they do not see how changes in the Arctic, for example, directly affect them.  Another "framing trap" is the "inconvenient truth"...dire predictions about hurricanes or air pollution, which leads to resignation by the public because they see these problems as so overwhelming that there is nothing they can do to change them.  

McCaffrey and colleagues recommend targeting specific communities and not waste time on audiences who are strongly resistant to the message.  Along with this is the idea that the message must be tailored to the specific audience.  Logical and dispassionate delivery of science facts works well for a scientific audience, but not necessarily for a non-technical audience.  Alternate targets would include factors that people are personally concerned with:  economics, cultural concerns, immediate impact to community (e.g., sea-level rise on coastal areas).  (My observation is that there are many people out there who are open-minded, but ill-informed....they've been fooled by the "merchants of doubt" whose misinformation campaigns about climate change have drowned out the voices of scientists.  Such an audience is open to being informed by the facts, especially if the message is tailored to their interests.)

The second recommendation is to shift the primary emphasis from the "science" to the "art" of communication.  This is a tricky point because the science communicator can't play loose with the facts in order to get attention or to support a particular position.  Included in this shift in perspective is the recommendation to resist advocating particular policy positions.  It's possible, for example, to present both sides of an issue and then show which is supported by scientific facts and which is not--and let the viewer make up their own minds.  I've found this approach to be very successful with fair-minded people, but even makes some headway with people resistant to a particular viewpoint.  Simply by acknowledging other viewpoints sends the message that you are open-minded--at least to the fact that others may hold different opinions and beliefs. 

I think it's also appropriate (and important) to distinguish between your opinion as a scientist and your personal feelings or beliefs.  It's also important to clearly distinguish between an opinion based on your expertise and one based on your understanding of a research conducted by other scientists. I'm often asked questions about climate change science with which I have no first-hand experience. My response is usually, "That's outside my area of expertise, but based on my reading of the scientific literature...this is what I understand to be the prevailing opinion of scientists working in that area...". 

Many of the points made in this presentation are common-sense.  However, I found it interesting and informative to have the common approaches to conveying climate science (drowning polar bears, apocalyptic warnings, etc.) dissected and shown to be ineffective in getting the appropriate science message across.  

Much of the information and the recommendations given in this talk were based on studies conducted by these programs (NCAR, UCAR) into science communication. Such studies can help science communicators move beyond the "inconvenient truth" approach to conveying science information. 

Image Credit: The above image from iStockphoto.com accompanied a letter in Science Magazine decrying recent political attacks on climate scientists.  The journal (not the letter authors) included the image of a polar bear isolated on a shrinking ice floe, which turned out to have been photoshopped.  Oops. If you look at the Science letter now, it has been replaced by a real image of two bears on a somewhat larger ice floe. The erratum accompanying the image reads: "Due to an editorial error, the original image associated with this Letter was not a photograph but a collage. The image was selected by the editors, and it was a mistake to have used it. The original image has been replaced in the online HTML and PDF versions of the article with an unaltered photograph from National Geographic."  The unfortunate outcome of this error is that climate deniers have used it to further their claims that climate scientists are faking their data (aka "Climategate").

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Who's Got Our Backs?

This past week, I've been attending the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.  Not being a geologist, I've never attended AGU before. However, I was invited to give a talk on carbon sequestration in one of the sessions, so here I am.  Don't worry, though. I'm not going to talk about that.

Instead, I wanted to report about the interesting sessions that were held on science communication and also blogging.  First of all, this was a huge meeting--around 19,000 attendees from all over the world. Easily the largest scientific conference I've ever attended.  I can only imagine the planning that went into this conference.

Anyway, there were several sessions devoted to science communication and associated topics. In one session, I heard Michael Mann (Penn State Univ.) talk about his experiences with harassment due to his climate science work ("hockey-stick" temperature pattern).  Mann has been the target of personal attacks and investigations by various special interest groups, certain media outlets and politicians who have sought to discredit him and his work.  His presentation, "Climate Scientists in the Public Arena: Who's Got Our Backs?", focused on the dilemma of scientists who are out-funded and "outmanned" in the battle, especially if their institutions do not back them up.  He described his experiences in the public arena, into which he was pushed. It was a chilling story he told.  He was ultimately exonerated by investigations into his involvement with "Climategate".  He is currently being pursued by the attorney general of Virginia (Ken Cuccinelli), who is also working to get the state seal changed.

One point Mann made, however, stood out.  He wondered how the attacks on climate scientists would affect recruitment of students to the field, if they saw how their future research might lead to similar harassment.

I'm on the road, so will describe some of the other talks/sessions in the coming days.

Image credit: IPCC 2001 Report

Friday, December 10, 2010

Does Science Need Cheerleaders?

Apparently some think so.  Literally.

The science blogosphere was abuzz a short while ago with postings about science cheerleaders: neurodojo, scicurious.  For those unaware of the topic, this is a group of scientists/cheerleaders whose goal is to motivate people to learn about science and perhaps become scientists themselves (citizen scientists).  The movement was initiated by Darlene Cavalier, a scientist and former professional cheerleader, who "founded the Science Cheerleader to unite the citizen’s desire to be heard and valued, the scientist’s growing interest in the public’s involvement, and government’s need to garner public support. The Science Cheerleader serves to get the conversation going, rally the troops, solicit views from all sides and change the tone of science and science policy in this country."

When I first saw a link to a post about the phenomenon, I thought that it was about science communication--a favorite topic of mine.  Instead, it seems that this group is actually cheering, with pom-poms and sexy outfits:  

As you can see, the science cheerleaders are composed of several attractive women who have some training in a science field and who also happen to have been cheerleaders at some point in their lives.  Randy Olsen, scientist-turned-film-maker, helped the group create the video above. 

There are several aspects of this issue that I've discussed previously on this blog: Dress Code, The Librarian Version of Angelina Jolie?, Are All Female Scientists White, Skinny and "Hot"?, A Shot in the Arm: Challenging Hollywood's Portrayal of Women in Science, The CSI Effect--Good for Female Scientists?

The cheerleading idea is one that warrants a bit of discussion.  So here's my take on the idea of "science cheerleaders"--as implemented by the group in the video.

What image does the cheerleader model convey?

First, it's important to point out that traditional cheerleaders are not actually participating in the central event being cheered, i.e., they are supporting a sport and the (typically) male participants in that sport.  One can argue about whether their activity is athletic, important to the team, conducted by both sexes... or not.  The point is that cheerleaders are on the sidelines and are peripheral to the main event. Why select such a model to promote science and especially women in science?

The cheerleader model conveys the subliminal message that the role of women is to lead cheers for the real scientists: men who are on the playing field smashing atoms or doing other amazing things.  That's obviously not the intent of these science cheerleaders, but I'm afraid that that is the message their approach sends.  One wonders what the young children in the video think about these science cheerleaders.  All they see is a group of attractive women dressed up like real cheerleaders, shaking pom-poms, and prancing around.  The women are not shown in labs or out in the field doing science.

Having the cheerleaders talk about their careers in science doesn't counteract the negative image their skimpy outfits convey.

What is the cheerleader message?

I understand that the women who have formed this science cheerleading group are trying to show that women can be scientists and also be attractive and sexy.  It's true that scientists have an image problem and are often viewed by the average person as nerdy, awkward, non-athletic, and fashion-challenged.  I'm not saying that scientists are like this--just that the general public has this inaccurate image of us. Most people have never met a scientist, and so their perceptions about what a scientist looks like and how they behave are molded by what they see on TV and in the movies.

But do we need to go to the other extreme to counter the unattractive, nerdy image of scientists?  The opposite end of the spectrum is beautiful, sexy, and cool.  Is that a superior image to strive for?  The cheerleaders for science seem to be taking a similar approach as the creators of the "Rock Stars of Science".  That idea is to show that scientists can be just as cool as, say, rock stars.  The select group of scientists, including some Nobel Laureates, are depicted alongside real rock stars.

Huh?  Why would someone who has done something scientifically awe-inspiring need to be shown alongside a rock star, whose societal accomplishments pale in comparison?  I would be insulted that my image would need to be enhanced by association with some celebrity.

I get the basic idea behind this effort, but I think it is an ineffectual one.  Does anyone really believe that the average fan (in awe of celebrities, athletes, or rock stars) will be fooled by such a campaign to promote scientists?  Will the rock star approach really change how the public views scientists and science?

Is there another way to change the public's perception of scientists, particularly of female scientists?  I think so.

What image should (women) scientists convey?

Let's first consider what would be an appropriate image for a scientist.  Not a rock star.  Not an athlete.  Not a sex symbol.  Not a cheerleader.  How about just a regular person who happens to have a talent for science?  Someone the average guy could have a beer with?

Part of the image problem for scientists, maybe the central problem, is that most people find it difficult to visualize scientists as normal people with normal lives, families, and hobbies--in other words, just like them.  They also cannot see themselves in the role of a scientist, partly because no rational person would choose to be a nerd (or whatever image they have in their heads).  Therefore, they cannot empathize with someone who is a scientist.

So I can't see how promoting an image of scientists as rock stars or sexy cheerleaders is going to improve the perception of scientists by the general public.  If anything, it will make us look like silly wannabes.  Most adolescents would laugh at the idea that a scientist is just as cool as a rock star or famous athlete.

For women in science, attempts to convey a sexy or physically attractive image can backfire and sometimes send the wrong message (see Dress Code).   My approach (after years of trying various "looks") is to dress and behave so as not to call attention to the fact that I'm a woman (or anything other than a professional and a scientist).  Dress in the same general style as the male scientists (business casual, jeans, or whatever style your (successful) colleagues' tend to select) and appropriate to the occasion.  Note that this doesn't mean you should dress like a man or be unfeminine.  You can even work out a fashionable style that is your own "look".  The idea is not to go to any extreme--too sexy, too high-fashion, too sloppy, etc.    

Be careful what you wish for.

If the rock star/cheerleader idea is to attract more young people to science, is the portrayal of scientists as "cool people" going to work?  Will it attract the type of person who is going to be able to succeed in science?  Or will it attract people who are only interested in the "image".  Those of us who deal with students every day know that a percentage are just not cut out for it.  They have unrealistic expectations, are unaware how difficult and often tedious the work is, and/or don't have a real passion for science.  I think we need to convey a realistic image of science--one that is exciting, rewarding, and interesting--but also that it takes a person who's ready to work hard at it and who can deal with setbacks.

We don't need more students who will ultimately become disillusioned and drop out.

Toward a better model for the (female) scientist image.

To attract more people to science, especially women, I think it takes more of us showing that we are normal people who happen to be very curious about the world we live in---curious enough to make a career of it.  I made a list of ideas/images that counter some of the stereotypes surrounding scientists:

--We like to figure things out and use the information to make the world a better place.  This image counters the stereotype of the scientist as only focused on an esoteric science question and uncaring about the world around them.

--Interviews with scientists who are excited and passionate about their work sends a positive message and counters the stereotype of scientists as cold, logical Spock clones.

--Images of scientists who are average-looking, but normal, happy, and confident people. Counters a major stereotype of scientists as odd, peculiar characters who are unpopular.

--Images of scientists doing their work along with colleagues, students, and other people sends the message that we don't work alone in our ivory towers (another stereotype).

--Scientists have hobbies, just like other people.  Some of us draw or paint; others are wine connoisseurs; still others are good athletes.  Counters the notion that scientists have no life or skills outside the laboratory.

--Some of us get to travel to fascinating places and see and do things that most people don't. Such images counter the stereotype of the scientist confined to a cold, clinical laboratory.

--Images of scientists doing research, teaching, or outreach in different environments shows the variety of places and jobs that a science career can take them.

--We also have families--who are supportive of our careers and proud of our accomplishments.  I've worked alongside colleagues who did their field research while pregnant--such images belie the notion that a science job means a choice between career and family for women.

--Many scientists are religious, and their work in science affirms their beliefs.  The stereotype of the scientist as non-religious is apparently a big turnoff for many people.  Even scientists who are not religious can have high moral standards that are consistent with the beliefs of many religions.

--Women often prefer careers in which they can help other people or society and think that science does not offer such opportunities.  Examples of how scientists directly and indirectly help society (biomedical research, restoration of ecosystems) will help counter this false perception. 

Programs that expose adolescent students to the scientific process are excellent ways to break down stereotypes, but can be expensive, time-consuming, and reach a limited population.  Promoting positive images of scientists in the media and on the internet can potentially reach a larger audience.

I imagine you can think of many more images that would show what it is really like to work in a science job.  In fact, if you have any images you particularly like and don't mind showing, send them to me (drdoyenne@gmail.com) and I'll post them here (can be anonymous, but be sure to get permission from anyone depicted in a photograph).

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Why Being Good at Art Is Important to Me as a Scientist

I previously described a study that found female students who participated in a writing exercise (to reflect about their most cherished values) performed better in a physics class.  I thought it might be worthwhile to show the full set of choices presented to the students.  Glancing at the list, I made my selection of the top three with little hesitation.  I then went on to write down why these values were important to me.  It definitely makes you think about what is really important and why.  The exercise also gives you an idea of what you might want to focus upon in the event you suffer some setback or are feeling down about yourself.
Here are the twelve values presented to the students in the writing exercise:
1.     being good at art
2.     creativity
3.     relationships with family & friends
4.     government or politics
5.     independence
6.     learning and gaining knowledge
7.     athletic ability
8.     belonging to a social group (community, racial, school club)
9.     music
10. career
11. spiritual or religious values
12. sense of humor
The investigators avoided values that dealt with science and math. The students were instructed to circle the two or three values that were most important to them.  Students in the control group were asked to circle the two or three least important values.  Then they were asked to describe in a few sentences either why the selected values were important to them or why they might be important to someone else (controls).  They were later asked to look at the values they selected and list the top two reasons why they were important. The final part of the exercise reinforced the choices by asking the student to rate their agreement with statements about the selected values (e.g., “in general, I try to live up to these values”).
This is a sufficiently broad list that most people would have no trouble finding three items that they think are important to them (or to others in the control group) as well as choices that would likely not be important.  Which three would you select and why?

One of my choices was being good at art (hence the title of this post).  Answering the question of why my choices are important was a bit more difficult, but very interesting. The reasons for my selections are personal and not really of interest to anyone else--so I will say no more about my choices.  What is important are your selections and why they are important to you.  This writing exercise is a way to bolster one’s resilience—the ability to bounce back from adversity.  It’s not so much the specific writing exercise, but the fact that it forces you to recognize what you value most about yourself and reinforces your overall sense of self-worth.

I think that leaving science or math-related attributes off the list is critical to the success of this exercise.  We might make the mistake of dwelling on the science or math skill (that we feel is a weakness) and magnifying it out of proportion to reality.  This reaction is human nature, and especially likely for women, e.g., what’s wrong with me that I can’t finish this project, get this paper accepted, get along with my adviser, etc.?  Having non-science capabilities or sources of support (family, religion) are powerful antidotes to career setbacks.  However, one first must be aware of what those values are and why they are important to us.  Identification is the first step.  It’s also important to actually write down our thoughts.  As I’ve talked about previously, the act of writing stimulates parts of our brains that are not otherwise tapped by just “thinking” about a topic.  Writing down our values and reasons also serves to solidify our confidence in those values.

As I noted in the previous post, this writing exercise is like cognitive therapy, where the patient is taught to examine dysfunctional thoughts and replace them with more positive ones.  People who are subjected to frequent scrutiny and harsh criticism can develop a distorted view of themselves.  Everything we do as scientists is scrutinized and assessed—by our peers, by advisors, by supervisors, by funding agencies. We are told to develop a thick skin, which may work well for men who generally tend to externalize such criticism (“What’s wrong with that reviewer—my work is superb!”).  That approach may not work so well for women who tend to internalize criticism and failure (“What’s wrong with me?”).

We can begin to see why this simple writing exercise might have such a powerful effect on women, but not men.  Instead of trying to emulate men (by externalizing), we might do better by re-balancing our self-image.  By placing the momentary criticism or problem within the overall context of our entire lives and skill-set, we can see how those professional setbacks are not as momentous as we think.

This insight is also helpful because it shows how important it is to develop values, talents, and resources outside of our science career.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Plugging the Leaky Pipeline

A recent study suggests that a simple writing exercise can bolster the confidence of female students taking a difficult science course.  Social scientists, led by Akira Miyaki, found that female students who wrote an essay about their positive attributes performed better in an introductory physics class.  The broader implication of the work is that plugging the leaky pipeline may only require an intervention that enhances self-worth of women in STEM fields.  A detailed description of the study and its findings can be read here.

Briefly, the students (286 men and 116 women) were randomly assigned to one of two groups: those who were asked to write about (1) personal values such as relationships with friends and family or the importance of learning (they selected 3 values from a list of 10) and (2) values that were least important to them, but that might help others (control group).  The results indicated that the women who wrote about values important to them did significantly better in the class than the control group; there was no difference for the males.

I was interested in why such a simple exercise could have such an effect.  Although the researchers did not experimentally determine the "why", they speculated that it had something to do with ameliorating what they termed, "stereotype threat", i.e., the negative effect of the belief that women are less capable than men at science, particularly fields like physics, math, and engineering.  They hypothesized that the values-affirming exercise took the women's minds off the stereotype.  Can that be true?

I doubt that "taking their minds off the fact that women are inferior in science" is the explanation.  However, it clearly affected something.  An alternative explanation is that the writing exercise, which took place at the beginning of the class, initiated a self-affirming chain of thinking (or short-circuited a negative chain).  Other studies have shown that women are particularly sensitive to set-backs, and a single negative event (criticism, poor grade on an exam) can trigger a cascade of failures as each one lowers the woman's confidence in her abilities.  Women internalize (it must have been my fault), whereas men externalize (it's the other guy who's wrong).  When this self-blaming is combined with other negative thinking (e.g., magnifying problems out of proportion to reality), women ultimately come to believe they are unsuited to science.  If minor setbacks tend to undermine your confidence, then being forced to ponder your positive attributes and capabilities might act as an inoculation against negative thoughts (or self-blame).  Challenging negative or dysfunctional thinking is a well-known psychological practice--cognitive therapy

Regardless of the validity or purported novelty of this study's findings, I think it holds an important lesson for women in science.

Negative thinking potentially can have a really destructive effect on us--perhaps more so than for men.  I see this negative behavior in a lot of blogs written by young women in science.  I'm not saying it's bad to talk about the stuff that happens to us---just that it's important to put things into perspective and perhaps go an extra step to affirm our ability to deal with negative events and people.  If a short-term writing exercise can have such a dramatic effect on women in a physics course, imagine what daily or weekly blogging might be doing?  Are you dwelling on the negative, especially ranting about being powerless to change your fate?  Or are you mostly affirming your strengths and overall resistance to negative events?

By focusing on our capabilities and accomplishments (at least the majority of the time), we might change our overall outlook and self-confidence.  We might also have a positive influence on readers who are trying to decide whether to go into science or to stay in science.  Wouldn't you rather read about someone who figured out how to overcome an obstacle, rather than how they were so crushed that they decided to leave science altogether?

Image Credit: modified image based on "The Scream" by Edvard Munch (1893)

Friday, December 3, 2010

Sensitive Scientists Need Not Apply

If you are described in letters of recommendation as being “supportive”, “nurturing”, “kind”, or “sensitive”, do such words help or hurt your chances at a job in a STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) field?
A new study suggests that these qualities are most often associated with women, and job candidates who are described in such terms are ranked lower than those described with terms such as “confident”, “aggressive”, “independent”, or “daring”.  The researchers found differences in the types of words used to describe men and women in an analysis of 624 letters of recommendation for 194 job candidates (junior faculty positions at a research university). 
Both male and female letter writers were more likely to ascribe “emotive” traits to female candidates than to men, and such praise was more likely to lower their chances of being hired.  Presumably, university hiring committees, upon reading that a candidate was a caring, kind person, might envision someone unable to develop an ambitious research program.
What was striking to me about the study was that letter writers could unknowingly create a feminine stereotype that might negatively influence a hiring committee.  Some letter writers might praise a woman’s gentle nature, not realizing what message this might send to a potential employer.   
I wondered if I had used such words when writing letters for females in the past.  When I looked back at some former letters, I found that I occasionally described someone as “caring about students” or being a “congenial team member”.  However, I found that I had rarely used “feminine” terms and had instead used words such as “assertive”, “confident”, “tenacious”, etc.   
I don’t know if I subconsciously avoided feminine descriptions.  I always try to emphasize those qualities that I know will be important in succeeding in a science career.  Apparently, my instincts were right.  It's aggravating that praising someone for being sensitive and kind hurts their chances at a science job (or maybe it's just academic faculty positions?), but I’ll definitely be careful in the future about what words I choose to describe someone. 
 Photo Credit: modified still image from Legally Blonde

Saturday, November 27, 2010

My Pet Python Tried To Swallow Me!

Not really.  And this is not a post about snakes (which I've written about elsewhere). 

This post is for those of you who conduct fieldwork and spend lots of time outdoors--as well as those who like to bask in the sun--by the pool, ocean, or backyard (hopefully, no one is foolish enough to go to tanning salons).

On Wednesday, I had my third basal cell carcinoma removed--this one from my upper lip (technically, the philtrum-that area between the nose and the pigmented border of the mouth). The previous ones were on my forehead and hand.

These are slow-growing lesions that are readily cured with surgery. I've also had dozens of pre-cancerous lesions burned off with liquid nitrogen.

I'm fair-skinned--freckles, auburn hair and therefore more vulnerable than most to skin cancer.  Growing up, I avoided the sun due to my sensitivity.  I could be burned to a crisp in 30 minutes at mid-day in mid-summer without any skin protection.  I can thank my father for my skin type.  My mother and her mother both had very dark skin that tanned readily.  During family outings to the beach, they were lying all day in their swimsuits in the direct sun, while my father and I were usually huddled in the shade somewhere.

Although I now always use a total sunblock and wear protective clothing while outdoors, I did slip up on occasion when I was younger.  I can recall a few times that I managed to get a moderate to severe sunburn--especially in the days before good sunscreens. However, that was enough, apparently, to set the stage for later skin cancers--little time-bombs that would pop up decades later. 

This lesion was very innocuous-- a scaly patch (about this size: o) just below my nose that would not go away.  Most people would have ignored it until it became an ulcerated crater.  However, having experienced other such tiny lesions that turned out to be cancerous, I suspected it was a problem.  The tip-off was that it bothered me--I was always aware of it even though it was almost invisible (even when I pointed it out to people, they couldn't see it). 

So, I made an appointment with my dermatologist.  I had several other spots that I wanted checked--mostly on the backs of my hands.  He glanced at those and said, "We'll burn them off."  Then I pointed to my lip.  He took a close look through a magnifying glass and said, "Biopsy".  The nurse shot my lip up with lidocaine, and the doctor shaved off the suspect patch.  I got the call a few days later--basal cell carcinoma.  Please make an appointment to have the area surgically excised at your earliest convenience, which turned out to be the day before Thanksgiving.

Most people would be shocked at how much tissue is taken in the procedure.  However, it's necessary to get a good margin of healthy tissue to ensure that there is no recurrence (which you definitely want to avoid).  For my lesion, the elliptical incision was 1.4 cm in length and about 0.5 cm wide at the center, running vertically between nose and lip margin. The surgery was done under local anesthetic, and the incision closed with about six stitches. I was in and out of the doctor's office in 30 minutes.

Later that day, I looked like I had been in a fist fight and gotten a fat lip.  I left the dermatologist's office thinking of good stories to make up about my appearance..."If you think this is bad, you should see the other guy...".  Ironically, the evening of the surgery, Avatar was showing on cable.  I was amused at the character in the movie (the brutal Colonel Quaritch) who had chosen not to have plastic surgery to repair the impressive scars on his head, instead saying, "I kinda like it. Reminds me every day what's out there [referring to Pandora's jungle]."  Hmm.  He has a point there. 

Scars, in fact, seem to enhance a man's overall masculinity.  In Quaritch's case, his scars say it all: "Don't mess with me. I'm a bad dude."  It's a classic way for a male character (usually the bad guy) to be visually depicted as a very macho type who will be hard to kill.  Quaritch calls attention to his scar under the guise of explaining to the new recruit (Jake Sully) how dangerous Pandora is.  However, it's clear that he's proud of his wounds...they affirm his macho image.  They are apparently the result of an attack by a vicious animal, which left a triple slash across his scalp and onto the side of his face.  He keeps his hair short, so the scars can't be missed.

The entire scene is a classic set-up between the hero (Sully) and antagonist (Quaritch). Sully's character has also suffered a major war wound, which has unfortunately left him paralyzed from the waist down and with pitifully-atrophied legs.  Definitely not a macho look. 

At the end of their initial meeting, Quaritch magnanimously assures Sully that he will make sure he "gets his legs back...his real legs", if he helps Quaritch subdue the indigenous people of Pandora.

It's interesting how he disparages the avatar "drivers" while strutting around in an "Ampsuit", a heavily armored robot suit that mechanically increases the driver's size, strength, and firepower. Quaritch also disparages the scientific program, "The avatar program is a joke -- buncha limpdick scientists."  Quaritch especially despises the lead scientist, Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver), who runs the avatar program and who is unafraid to confront Quaritch and his greedy corporate employer (shades of Ripley!).

If you read my earlier posts on stereotypes of female scientists, you'll recognize that Augustine is a cross between the "male woman scientist" and "the lonely heroine".  The movie amusingly tries to portray how devoted Augustine is in a scene in which she is dying (from a gunshot wound inflicted by Quaritch) and is being carried by Jake Sully's avatar to a place sacred to the Na'vi (and usually off limits to scientists).  Augustine, upon being told where she is, says wistfully, "I should take some samples."  Now that's dedication....

The whole movie is, of course, an (adolescent) male fantasy....a paraplegic (i.e., powerless) guy gets a new and much better body, wins the girl, is accepted into a new society, beats up a lot of "bad guys" (especially his main adversary, although technically it is his Na'vi girlfriend who finally nails Quaritch), and eventually becomes leader of a new world...and during it all gets to fly around on a colorful dragon steed.  How much better can a guy's life get? 

Another famous "scar scene" is in the movie "Jaws" when Quint (Robert Shaw) and Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfus) compare their "war wounds".  In this classic scene, the two protagonists go through a male bonding ritual during a drinking interlude on their shark-hunting trip. Who's got the most impressive scar? Hooper shows his scar from an encounter with a thresher shark.  Quint shows his wound from a bull shark.  Chief Brody, who's feeling left out, surreptitiously looks down at his appendectomy scar....   
Hooper, however, thinking he's got the trump card, points to his chest, "Mary Ellen Moffat...broke my heart."

The scene concludes with Quint telling about his experience on the USS Indianapolis:  

"Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. We was comin' back from the island of Tinian to Leyte... just delivered the bomb. The Hiroshima bomb.  Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in 12 minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour. Tiger. 13-footer....."

Quint is the clear winner in that contest. 

If I were a guy, I suppose I would be thinking up a good story about how I got my scar.
  • Bar fight--got a broken bottle right in the mouth.  Ouch!  
  • Fishing buddy snagged me in the mouth. Double-ouch!
  • Terrorist bombing...a piece of shrapnel hit me. 
  • My pet python tried to swallow me. 
  • Hang-gliding in the Andes and was attacked by a condor.

But being a woman, I'm thinking that scars are not so great for the feminine image.  However, I usually don't scar badly, so I'm hoping this one will fade quickly--as the others have done. If not...well, I may have to use one of the above stories.  I'm leaning toward the condor attack.....

Photo Credits: NASA (image of the sun), Twentieth Century Fox (modified still image from Avatar), Universal Studios (modified still image from Jaws)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Blast from the Past

I just watched the new HBO documentary about Fran Lebowitz by Martin Scorsese.

For those of you who are thinking, "Who's Fran Lebowitz?", here's a short bio.  Lebowitz is a New York intellectual who is best known for her witty, sardonic commentary about American life.  She's a 60 year old Jewish lesbian who got her start writing for Andy Warhol (the magazine, Interview) back in the 60s.  Although she published two successful books in the late 70s/early 80s, she's since suffered from writer's block and has only produced short pieces for magazines (she's a contributing editor at Vanity Fair).  She refers to her problem as a "writer's blockade" due to its severity.  In the documentary, she says that her blockade was in many ways like the Vietnam War.  Her block lasted for years (like the war), and she doesn't know how she got into it or how to get out of it.

To make a living, she gives lectures at colleges around the country.  The documentary has several clips from these lectures as well as a lengthy, unscripted interview with her at her favorite hang-out in New York.  After one university lecture, a (very young) student asks her if she agrees with how she is often characterized as a modern-day Dorothy Parker and if so, is Parker someone she strives to emulate?  She replies that, first, she's heartened by the fact that someone so young has even heard of Dorothy Parker and second, that she's happy to be considered a modern-day "anything". She says she's not big on, like, emulating. 

She's asked by the interviewer if she believes in luck.  Her answer is yes and that one of the biggest pieces of luck is gender.  She says, "Here's what a big piece of luck it [gender] is. Any white, gentile, straight man who is not president of the United States.... failed."

At a lecture, she's asked what are the innate differences between men and women.  Her answer is, without a moment's hesitation, "testosterone". She points out that testosterone is not "learned".  If it were, we could study up on it.  She says that testosterone "gives people, men, who have it, an advantage. Because it is what makes men aggressive." Men don't want others (women) to have power because then they (men) have to give up their power, and they don't want to.  She goes on to talk about how having babies puts women at a disadvantage.  Her point is that women become fascinated with their babies to the detriment of their careers. On the other hand, babies don't hold a similar fascination for men, so the impact on them is different. She claims that modern men who are heavily involved in child care are just following a fad; that it's not biological.

I imagine many people would disagree with Lebowitz on these (and other) points, but her objective is to shock people out of their comfort zone and make them examine their beliefs.

The interviews and other bits with Lebowitz are intercut in the documentary with clips of James Baldwin, William F. Buckley, Truman Capote, Gore Vidal, Toni Morrison and other writers/intellectuals of the day (there's one clip in which Vidal calls Buckley a "crypto-Nazi").  There's also a short clip of Lebowitz in an acting role as Judge Janice Goldberg on the TV show, Law and Order.  I mention this because I used to watch Law and Order and remember the character, but never recognized Lebowitz.

Anyway, the documentary is entertaining.  Lebowitz is an interesting character.  She seems totally comfortable and confident in front of an audience.  She loves to talk--the more people listening, the better.  I saw little difference between her speaking her mind to one or two people vs. hundreds of people.  She is a master at one-liners and scathing comebacks.  Once, she was heckled by a frat boy at a lecture in New Orleans.  Her hair had gotten frizzy from the humidity, and the guy yelled out, "Who does your hair?" She shot back, "Why, do you want to meet him?".  

The title of the documentary is "Public Speaking".  You can see a trailer here.

Image Credit: Image modified from a portrait photo by Christopher Felver (for more of his portraits and art, see http://www.chrisfelver.com/portraits/writers2.html)

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mangling Science

A researcher recently spoke out about the way the media have mangled the science being done on the Gulf oil spill.

Dr. Christopher Reddy of the Coastal Ocean Institute at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution describes his experiences with reporters and how they skewed information to tell a story unintended by the scientists.

He co-authored a paper published in Science (August) that reported the existence of a subsurface plume of oil in the Gulf.  The media were naturally interested in their findings and sought interviews with Reddy and members of his team.  However, the science story got turned into a soap opera when reporters tried to make more out of the disagreements between the findings of different groups of researchers.

Reddy especially took issue with reporters who interpreted his team's findings as challenging the Obama administration's (NOAA) report on how much oil remains in the Gulf.  His essay posted on CNN Opinion describes how his work should not be taken as evidence for or against the government's or other researchers' findings, but an incremental piece of a scientific puzzle that may take years to ultimately solve.  He draws a nice comparison with the Exxon Valdez spill, which took many years and dozens of studies before a complete oil budget was finalized and accepted by the scientific community. 

The description of his experiences with reporters is not unusual.  I've also been interviewed about the spill and potential impacts to the environment--and other issues in the past.  Some reporters get it right and some don't.  In some cases, what I see in the newspaper bears no resemblance to what I said.  Part of it is a lack of understanding by the reporter (and sometimes can be the scientist's fault for not explaining scientific points well).  Some colleagues doing research on the oil spill have stopped talking to reporters altogether because they have been repeatedly misquoted or because the information they provided was deliberately misinterpreted.

I've talked about this conundrum in past posts (see science communication) and why I think it's important to talk to the media--even if there are mistakes on occasion.  If the media cannot get a scientist for their information, they'll turn to people who are less qualified and who may have some agenda to push.

Anyway, it's unusual to see a scientist bothering to correct inappropriate/inaccurate reports made by the media.      

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Coping Skills

In the last post, I mentioned a new website called CareerWISE, which was just launched by an NSF-supported group.  It provides resources for women in STEM fields to cope with the interpersonal challenges we face.  We receive extensive technical training, but often do not get any formal help in developing other critical skills required to succeed in a science career.

CareerWISE website provides strategies, training, and informative videos (of successful women) to assist us in coping with challenges. On the front page is a great interactive problem-solving exercise, which guides you through four steps in solving whatever issue is bothering you: Assess the problem, Specify the outcome (you want), Strategize, and Execute and evaluate.

Another option offered is LearnSkills--a page with dozens of guides to learning about yourself and skills to address specific issues that arise.

A third option is HerStories--videos of interviews with dozens of female scientists (by discipline) talking about their experiences and coping skills: lack of female role models, pros and cons of an international advisor, the upside to children prior to a tenure-track job....

This is a rich resource for women--particularly targeting women currently in Ph.D. programs. The idea is to help women develop these critical skills at a crucial point in their science training.

Do yourself a favor and check it out.  Both male and female students and post-docs can benefit from these resources.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


….is defined as the capacity of a system to return to its original state after being disturbed (e.g., stretched, bent, compressed, moved).  For humans, a more specific definition is the ability to recover readily from adversity or setbacks.

I’m taking a break from the discussion of the Blue Ocean Strategy to mention a new program that researchers at Arizona State University have designed.  It’s called CareerWISE and will be an online resource that offers personal resilience training for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. This program is designed to enhance skills in coping with personal and interpersonal challenges that women face in working toward graduate degrees and developing careers in STEM fields.  It is specifically designed to address the loss of women from science and engineering doctoral programs.
The new website is scheduled to be launched on November 4 at the National Science Foundation headquarters in Arlington, Va. NSF funded research on psychology and behaviors of women while pursuing careers in STEM.  The website is a product of this research.
Some of the features to be offered on the website:
-Multi-media, web-based training using both text and video examples from interviews, focus groups, and the literature.
-Hundreds of HerStory clips from video interviews with women who have successfully navigated the sometimes treacherous waters of graduate school in various STEM fields
You can sign up to attend NSF’s public briefing for the release of the CareerWISE website here.
The briefing will include an introduction by Joan Ferrini-Mundy, NSF Asst. Dir., followed by a demonstration of the CareerWISE website.
Location: NSF headquarters, 4201 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA, Stafford 1, Room 110
When: Nov. 4, 2010, 4:30-6:00 pm EDT

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Alternative Strategies

We're talking about the Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS) (see previous posts for background).  The second approach in the BOS is to look across alternative strategies to identify potential blue oceans. An example in the automotive industry would be manufacturers of expensive luxury cars vs. low budget, practical cars. Two different groups of customers exist within a larger industry. The luxury car makers (BMW, Mercedes, Jaguar) compete with each other, but not with the low budget car manufacturers. A blue ocean strategist might combine some of the luxury features with more practical aspects in an intermediate-priced car--and potentially creating a new market.

An example of a company that merged alternative strategies in an industry is Curves, a popular women's fitness company. They looked across strategies in the fitness industry and came up with a combination of health club and home exercise program.  They reasoned that women who were struggling to stay fit avoided health clubs where they were intimidated by complicated exercise machines and hated being scrutinized by men. Women who used home exercise videos could work out in private at a fraction of the cost of a health club and with little or no equipment.

The reason women switch from home exercise to health clubs is because of the difficulty of sticking to an exercise routine at home alone. Curves combined the advantages of the two exercise strategies and eliminated all other aspects (complicated machines, pools, spas, locker rooms). They established a club for women where  hydraulic exercise machines (simple and nonthreatening) are arranged in a circle to promote socializing. Few mirrors are on the walls to remind customers of their less-than-perfect bodies.  Women move around the room to different machines at their own pace. The routine can be completed in 30 minutes. The cost is more than a home exercise video, but a fraction of a normal health club membership.  They created a blue ocean--one that has been highly successful.

What might be a situation in science analogous to the automotive and fitness examples described above?  We might consider the expensive, complicated research program vs. a research field that uses inexpensive, simpler methods.  For example, we might combine molecular biology (with expensive instruments, complicated or meticulous laboratory techniques, specialized knowledge) and ecology (with few or no instruments, simple or less demanding methods, and basic knowledge).  We might also combine basic and applied research approaches.  An ecologist might be studying how "nurse" plants facilitate establishment and growth of other plant species (by trapping seeds or ameliorating environmental conditions).  The initial interest is in understanding how natural ecosystems function and specifically plant-plant interactions.  By incorporating molecular techniques into a basic ecological study, one might gain better insight into the underlying mechanism of facilitation.  Different genotypes within a nurse species might vary in their "nurse" characteristics due to morphological or other features.  Such genotypic differences could be exploited to identify suitable nurse plant material for use in ecosystem restoration projects at sites where environmental conditions are stressful to the target species to be restored.  The genotypes identified in the laboratory would then be field tested and evaluated using standard ecological methods.  The results could be used to guide restoration of disturbed or degraded ecosystems.  Ecosystem restoration sites could be prepared by introducing the selected nurse genotype(s), which might promote natural recruitment of the target species or modify the site for later planting (reducing overall project costs).  The work would address basic science questions related to plant-plant interactions, but also address important applied aspects.  An ecologist might team up with a molecular biologist and perhaps seek funding from sources that they would not normally consider or be successful with separately. Or, the ecologist could acquire the knowledge and some basic equipment to incorporate a few molecular techniques into their repertoire.

In the past, scientists trained in different disciplines rarely talked, much less interacted to address a research question.  Although this segregation is dissolving, many ecologists, geologists, microbiologists, etc. are still working primarily within their disciplines and do not seek partnerships with those outside their specialty.  However, that interface between scientific disciplines is one place where blue oceans exist.  If you take a look at major breakthroughs in science, often one sees the collaboration of two or more disciplines.  Many of our most difficult scientific and societal challenges (environmental pollution, climate change) will require multi-disciplinary teams combining disparate knowledge, methods, and approaches to come up with viable solutions. 

So to summarize:  the key is to identify alternative strategies (e.g., scientific disciplines) that when combined lead to a blue ocean--one in which there is little or no competition--at least in the beginning.  Once your approach or idea is published, others will follow.  However, you will have a head-start on the crowd and hopefully will be well-established as a leader in this new field by the time the competition catches up.

Image credit: www.flickr.com (modified from a photo by M. Smith)

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Uncharted Waters

This post continues the discussion of the Blue Ocean Strategy (BOS)--a business concept that strives to make the competition irrelevant by creating new, uncontested market space. I've been attempting to apply some of the strategic moves of this approach to building a science career and dealing with competition.

There are six assumptions underlying the strategies used by businesses.  I've modified them here to apply to the science professional:

1. We define the profession similarly and strive to be the best within it.

2. We view science through the lens of accepted strategic groups (e.g., basic and applied research).

3. We focus on the same user group: other scientists (research), students (teaching), private clients (consulting), or the public (government).

4. We define the scope of science products and services similarly.

5. We accept the scientific profession's functional or emotional orientation.

6. We focus on the same point in time in formulating strategy.

The more you adhere to this conventional wisdom, the greater the overlap with competitors (a red ocean).  BOS says that to break out of this red ocean, you have to look outside the conventional boundaries to create a blue ocean.

BOS suggests several paths that one might take to break free of the red ocean.

In this post, I'll consider one path:  Look across alternative professions for inspiration.  BOS focuses on alternative industries that provide very different services, but provide a similar function.  An example would be restaurants vs. cinemas.  These industries have very few features in common, but serve the same purpose: pleasure and entertainment.  Another example would be in transportation: driving and flying.  Southwest Airlines looked to driving as the alternative to flying (rather than competing with other airlines for customers). Their goal was to provide fast travel by air at the price of car travel.  In one fell swoop, they eliminated the competition (other airlines) and created a blue ocean.

What are the alternatives for science professionals?

First, let's consider what we do as science professionals.  Our ultimate goals are to discover new knowledge and to educate others. We conduct research in a scientific field and publish the findings in a professional journal or government report.  Some of us teach science to students who go on to do research and teaching (academia), take government jobs (science policy, resource management, regulation), or do consulting (private industry).  A few of us participate in "outreach" activities--taking science directly to the public.  Most, however, typically leave the latter to "science writers" and the general media.  Scientists typically feel that it is their job to conduct science, not to translate it for the non-professional.

However, the interface between the scientist and the journalist is a potential blue ocean.  A number of scientists have succeeded as "science popularizers": Carl Sagan, Jared Diamond, Oliver Sacks, David Suzuki, Stephen Jay Gould, etc.  Many have written popular books or articles; some host science shows on TV; a few have written screenplays that were made into movies, some have popular blogs (Pharyngula).  I found it interesting that of the 100 or so science popularizers listed in Wikipedia, only three women were included, of whom only one appeared to have worked as a scientist (Kirsten Sanford).  There seems to be an opportunity here for female scientists who have a talent for explaining science to the public.

I'm not proposing that all scientists should become science popularizers.  I'm simply pointing out a unique niche by looking across alternative professions (science and journalism).  This niche is occupied mostly by non-scientists (with a few notable exceptions as listed above), which creates an opportunity for those with a science background.  The difference is that the role of science reporter is filled by a scientist who is more knowledgeable than a journalist (who may have only a rudimentary understanding of what they write about). If the scientist is an equally good communicator, their science background clearly gives them a decided advantage over the typical journalist (in-depth understanding of science topics, credibility, contacts in the science community).

That's just one example.  Look across other alternative professions: art, architecture, history, horticulture, information technology, law, museums, philanthropy, religion, transportation...to name a few.  Lots of potential ideas.

The point is that we limit our opportunities by defining our roles as scientists in a restricted way (researcher, professor) and thinking that the only way to succeed is to be the best within that limited definition.  By breaking free of these traditional roles, we can see new ways to succeed and make a contribution--in non-traditional roles that may be better suited to our talents and where we have a competitive edge because of our science background.

As I said in earlier posts, however, striking off on your own into uncharted waters is risky and scary.  But for those who succeed, the payoff can be hugely rewarding.

Image Source:  Modified from the painting "Lewis and Clark at Three Forks" by Edgar S. Paxson. Image courtesy of Lewis and Clark 2001, the Montana Historical Society, NOAA/OER.  Individuals from left are Coulter, guide; York, Clark's servant; Captain Meriwether Lewis; Captain William Clark; Sacagawea; Charbonneau, Sacagawea's husband.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Darkside of Scientific Competition

In the previous posts, I started out talking about self-promotion, then moved on to competition (and ways to avoid it), and finally, to ethics in science.  In this post, I'd like to examine how competitive atmospheres can contribute to unethical behavior by scientists.

In earlier posts, I described the Blue Ocean Strategy, a business concept in which the competition is made irrelevant by creating new market space free of competitors.  An example I gave was self-funding by scientists--who use a portion of their income (e.g., from consulting) to cover their research expenses, freeing them from having to write proposals and suffering criticism at the hands of harsh reviewers and panelists.  Another example was the idea of submitting proposals to smaller or unusual funding sources where the competition is less intense than at NSF or NIH.

Competition in science can be good when it serves to ensure that resources and other rewards are fairly distributed after an evaluation of the qualifications and merits of all eligible parties.  Without such a system, cronyism prevails.  However, when competition becomes intense, it can become counter-productive and even lead to pathological behavior.  Such an atmosphere becomes particularly problematic within research organizations when PIs are pitted against each other.  In some instances, scientists might be forced to compete for limited resources within the organization or to share lab space (a recipe for disaster, in my opinion).  We've all heard tales of sabotage, in which one laboratory group interferes with the experiments, equipment, supplies, data, etc. of a rival group.  Some of us have experienced sabotage first hand.

My experience (at a previous organization) was quite distressing--not only because of the sabotage itself, but because the lab director failed to correct the atmosphere that encouraged such behavior.  One of the instances that stands out in my mind was an occasion in which I had submitted a proposal to the sponsored research office (SRO) for final approval and submission to the funding agency.  The submission deadline was near (close of business that day), and I was anxious about this particular proposal, into which I had put a lot of effort.  I had walked the proposal through the university system to ensure that there were no delays, and had gotten a final approval signature.  I thought everything was clear for the SRO to submit the proposal--and went back to my office.

The contract specialist at the SRO, doing a final check of the proposal, found a problem with the proposal budget that needed to be corrected and called the lab to speak with me.  However, I was out of my office at lunch when the call came.  The secretary took the call, wrote down the urgent message that I needed to call back immediately, and put it into my mailbox (this was before voice mail).  In this particular institution, our mailboxes were simply open slots into which mail was placed--and where anyone else could see it.  I came back from lunch, checked my mailbox and finding nothing, proceeded on to my office.

About mid-afternoon, I had a nagging feeling and decided to call the SRO contract specialist.  I caught her just as she was leaving (early) for the day.  When she did not hear back from me, she either forgot about my proposal or didn't care (that's another story).  We quickly fixed the budget problem, and the proposal was submitted on time.  I later questioned the secretary who took the phone call, and she insisted that she put the message slip in my box.  The next day, the phone message mysteriously appeared in my mailbox.  Not only had someone tried to sabotage my funding, but they made sure I knew that I had been sabotaged.  I suspected who had done it (another PI), although I had no proof.  I can't remember if I complained to the director about this instance or not.  There were so many of them, and my complaining never resulted in any action.  I gave up at some point.

My point with this tale is that in this particular lab, competition among research groups was strongly encouraged.  We also had an open lab plan, which was an open invitation for unethical people to sabotage other's work.  Fortunately, most of my experiments were conducted in the field or greenhouse (where access was limited), and I never left any of my samples in unlocked drawers or lab analyses unattended.  I don't think any of my experiments were ever sabotaged (that I could detect).

The director of this lab sincerely thought that the competitive model was the one that would yield the greatest scientific output.  He never considered the cost--lost opportunities for collaboration (by the rival groups), time wasted on security measures or repetition of compromised experiments, and low morale and a pathological workplace.  The biggest danger is that someone will eventually do something so unethical that it casts suspicion on the research of the entire lab and/or leads to severe sanctions against the lab.  This almost happened as a result of this particular PI's underhanded ways.

He (Dr. X) and another PI with similar lack of ethics (Dr. Y) plagiarized the proposal of a group of scientists in another department.  Dr. Y apparently got access to a draft proposal by this second group (I think he may have gotten a copy from a post-doc or graduate student).  Drs. X and Y wrote their own proposal and lifted whole pages of text from the other group's proposal, which they used in their proposal--perhaps thinking it would never be discovered.  Both proposals were to be submitted to NSF.  The contract specialist in the SRO noticed the similarity of the two proposals, and an investigation ensued.  I thought, "At last, Dr. X has gotten caught with his hand in the cookie jar."

I should have known better.

Amazingly, Dr. X weaseled his way out of this dilemma.  Here is what happened.  Instead of attempting to deny or defend his and Dr. Y's actions, he scoured the publications of the authors of the original proposal.  He found a recent book chapter in which one of the authors had reproduced a figure from one of Dr. X's early papers (a famous one).  The figure in question was used in the chapter to illustrate a well-known phenomenon, but the attribution to the original source somehow was omitted from the figure legend (an oversight caused by a careless post-doc helping with the chapter preparation--not deliberate plagiarism).  Dr. X produced this figure as evidence that his work had been plagiarized by the other group.  The university administration, faced with this conundrum, decided to sweep it all under the rug.  They forced both groups to withdraw their proposals, but no one was sanctioned for plagiarism.

An interesting paper in the journal Science and Engineering Ethics by Melissa Anderson describes the counter-productive outcomes of competition among scientists.  The abstract:

Competition among scientists for funding, positions and prestige, among other things, is often seen as a salutary driving force in U.S. science. Its effects on scientists, their work and their relationships are seldom considered. Focus-group discussions with 51 mid- and early-career scientists, on which this study is based, reveal a dark side of competition in science. According to these scientists, competition contributes to strategic game-playing in science, a decline in free and open sharing of information and methods, sabotage of others’ ability to use one’s work, interference with peer-review processes, deformation of relationships, and careless or questionable research conduct. When competition is pervasive, such effects may jeopardize the progress, efficiency and integrity of science. 

The authors point out that none of the scientists in the focus groups had anything positive to say about the impact of competition on their work--just the opposite.  Some of the participants felt that part of the reason is that science is much more competitive today than in the past (when it was easier to be collegial).  They pointed out that patents and other related issues are more often at stake, making secretiveness more prevalent today.  Increased competition may not be the whole story, but it can obviously exacerbate unethical behavior.

What's disturbing is that those who fund, manage, and regulate scientific research may not be fully aware of the negative impact of competition on a field that thrives on openness, sharing of ideas, and collegiality.  There is renewed emphasis on scientific integrity (as evidenced by the formation of new offices throughout government agencies charged with identification and punishment of scientific fraud).  I wonder how many of these science managers recognize the role of competition and the pressures it imposes on scientists?  My little example above suggests that some managers assume that competition is good--that it leads to healthy rivalry and greater scientific output.  My own experience and apparently that of other scientists suggests otherwise.

Image Credit (modified from photo at flickr.com)

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

But I Didn't Cut and Paste Text!

A commenter recently questioned my definition of plagiarism as well as my recommendation to avoid using students or other trainees in conducting manuscript reviews.  These are important points that warrant further discussion, so I'll spend a bit of time in this post expounding on my views.  Note that these are my views, based on my experience, my discussions with colleagues, and my reading about the issues.  Others certainly have the right to their own opinions (especially what is acceptable within their specific fields), and I'm not trying to say that my view is the only acceptable view.


The American Association of University Professors defines plagiarism as..."...taking over the ideas, methods, or written words of another, without acknowledgment and with the intention that they be taken as the work of the deceiver." The Office of Research Integrity (ORI) also defines plagiarism as involving the taking of words, ideas, etc. from an author and presenting them as one’s own.  The Office of Science and Technology Policy (1999) defines plagiarism as: "... the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results, or words without giving appropriate credit, including those obtained through confidential review of others’ research proposals and manuscripts."

I would define plagiarism similarly, even without having read these organizations' definitions. However, I recognize that some may wish to limit the use of the term "plagiarism" to the appropriation of text only.  The problem with this (aside from not being an accepted definition) is that students may get the idea that the taking of other things (ideas, methods, hypotheses) without attribution is OK because it's not "technically" plagiarism.  I've encountered students who expressed this belief to me.

Plagiarism of ideas is "Appropriating an idea (e.g., an explanation, a theory, a conclusion, a hypothesis, a metaphor) in whole or in part, or with superficial modifications without giving credit to its originator." The ORI goes on to say "In the sciences, as in most other scholarly endeavors, ethical writing demands that ideas, data, and conclusions that are borrowed from others and used as the foundation of one’s own contributions to the literature, must be properly acknowledged. The specific manner in which we make such acknowledgment varies from discipline to discipline. However, source attribution typically takes the form of either a footnote or a reference citation."

The ORI offers an interesting example of a situation in which an ethical author cited an unusual source of inspiration for his theory on light perception:

"Even in such cases, we still have a moral obligation to credit the source of our ideas. A good illustrative example of the latter point was reported by Alan Gilchrist in a 1979 Scientific American article on color perception. In a section of the article, which describes the perception of rooms uniformly painted in one color, Gilchrist states: 'We now have a promising lead to how the visual system determines the shade of gray in these rooms, although we do not yet have a complete explanation. (John Robinson helped me develop this lead.)' (p.122; Gilchrist, 1979). A reader of the scientific literature might assume that Mr. Robinson is another scientist working in the field of visual perception, or perhaps an academic colleague or an advanced graduate student of Gilchrist’s. The fact is that John Robinson was a local plumber and an acquaintance of Gilchrist in the town where the author spent his summers. During a casual discussion, Robinson’s insights into the problem that Gilchrist had been working on were sufficiently important to the development of his theory of lightness perception that Gilchrist felt ethically obligated to credit Robinson’s contribution."

Some scientists would scoff at Gilchrist's acknowledgment of a plumber and argue that this was unnecessary.  I think his action shows integrity and, moreover, a deep understanding of the concept of plagiarism.  Gilchrist clearly recognizes that his reported insights on light perception would not have occurred (or would have been quite different) had he not had the input of the plumber--and was obligated to acknowledge that source of inspiration.

If students are taught that plagiarism is only the cutting and pasting of text, they may think that appropriation of ideas, hypotheses, methods, etc. is not unethical (or at least not labeled as plagiarism and therefore not subject to sanction).  This would be a serious mistake with potentially severe consequences.

Even if one is aware of this aspect of plagiarism, it is very easy to inadvertently appropriate someone else's idea or concept (sometimes called "unconscious plagiarism").  Our minds can play tricks on us, and an idea that we think is original may in fact be something we read and later remembered as our own (as my memory deteriorates with age, I'm more concerned with this point now than when I was younger).  Most of us, however, are careful to cite the originator of major theories, hypotheses, or concepts in our papers.  But sometimes, the way the text is worded, the impression may be given that another's idea is our own.  Another error is when an author, working from notes, inadvertently uses the exact wording of another author, thinking that the notes were his/her own words summarizing the other work (always place word-for-word notes in quotes so that you do not make this error).

One exception to the plagiarism of ideas is "common knowledge".  It is appropriate to make statements based on widely-recognized phenomena without attribution, e.g., "plants capture CO2 through the process of photosynthesis".  A rule of thumb offered by the ORI is that if the idea or concept is widely-known among high school and college students, then it is common knowledge.  What about ideas that are not common knowledge of students, but are widely recognized by experts in the field?  Here's where things can get tricky, and the decision requires some experience and understanding of what's common knowledge and what requires citation (students often need guidance here).  If the work is to be published in a technical journal, and the target audience is the expert, then statements based on a large body of work might not need a citation.  For example, one might have an opening statement such as "The sensitivity of higher plants to elevated concentrations of CO2 depends on the specific photosynthetic pathway of each species.....we compared the responses of C3 versus C4 species." Not perhaps common knowledge of the average student, but certainly so for people working on photosynthesis.  However, if you made the statement that 82% of C3 species respond to elevated CO2 with increased rates of photosynthesis, then this would require citation(s).

Another possible exception is the semi-technical article or book chapter requiring a less "formal" style of writing.  Editors may ask for text that is unbroken by numerous citations (as one would expect in a technical paper) so that the writing appeals to the non-expert reader.  In these cases, the article or chapter would be accompanied by a list of "additional reading", which was used in the preparation of the piece and contains the cited material.

I plan to write more about plagiarism in future posts--it's a complex topic, many aspects of which authors are not always fully aware (including me).  Even the most experienced can unknowingly commit errors or may be uncertain how to proceed in specific situations.  I'm certainly no expert on plagiarism, but hope to explore the topic by writing about it and, in the process, refine my understanding of its various forms.

The views of readers of this blog definitely help shape such explorations.

Students and Trainees as Manuscript Reviewers

The concern here is about using students or other trainees to perform manuscript or proposal reviews for their mentors (who were asked to do the review).  As an editor, I would question the capability of a trainee (especially someone who has never authored anything) to provide an expert review--which is what the journal expects (or should be seeking in soliciting a review). As an author, I would be concerned that my work was reviewed by an inexperienced trainee, even under the mentorship of a senior person.  I'm expecting a fair evaluation carried out by a peer who is well-versed in the topic of my work and who has published (i.e., is an expert and therefore qualified to assess the quality of my work and if it contributes significantly to the field).

No matter how good or conscientious a trainee, they are not equal to an expert.  If they need "close supervision" by a senior person, one might argue that this confirms they are unqualified to be conducting an official peer review.  How would the journal or funding agency defend such a review, if challenged? They would have no way of determining whether the PI closely supervised the trainee or instead simply forwarded the trainee's review without looking at it.  I know the latter happens because I was often asked by a previous lab director to do his reviews for him (when I was a graduate student).  Back then, I did not know any better and never questioned this practice.  One might argue that I probably did a better and more thorough job than the director would have, but what if I had not?  He did not even read the manuscripts or proposals, so he did not know if my reviews were fair or accurate. 

The point is not whether a trainee can provide a passable review (some certainly can) or that they are supervised by a mentor.  The concern is the author's expectation that their manuscript or proposal has been assessed by an expert and that the scores and ultimate acceptance/rejection are based on the evaluations of those qualified to make that judgment.  The trainee (especially a student) may not meet that expectation.  A post-doc who has published at least one first-authored paper or prepared one proposal may be qualified to conduct reviews of manuscripts/proposals.  However, if the mentor is the one asked to do the review, s/he should inform the journal that the review is to be carried out by a trainee and how much supervision will be involved.

If a trainee (e.g., a post-doc) has the necessary credentials to be considered a "peer" and is capable of performing a review (based on the mentor's judgment), then it would be safe to recommend that trainee as a reviewer.  If the journal or funding agency has a mechanism to allow the use of "assistant reviewers", then at least the review can be assessed with that knowledge.  More importantly, the identity of all contributors to the review are formally documented and known to the journal or funding agency (in the event of a challenge).  Journals in my field, however, have no such mechanism (that I'm aware of).  In that case, it seems most appropriate for the mentor to suggest their post-doc as a substitute and let the journal editor extend the invitation--which provides a means to formally document the person who actually carries out the review.

Personally, I would not want to become embroiled in an investigation in which an author claims that a review was unfair (and it's discovered that my review was mostly written by a trainee, a substitution that was not formally documented by the journal).  So, my advice would be to proceed with caution if you have trainees doing....I mean helping with, your reviews.

I don't think that the need to train students is a valid reason for using trainees to conduct reviews.  Students can be trained to review manuscripts without involving them in the actual review process. A mentor can use published papers ranging from excellent to poor (there are plenty in the literature to choose from) and use them to train students to conduct reviews.  Another possible method is to use unpublished manuscripts that the mentor reviewed in the past, have the trainee conduct a mock review, and then compare the trainee review with the actual review submitted by the mentor (caution would need to be exercised in ensuring that the trainee not know the identity of the author or make use of any information contained in the manuscript).   

Training may be the motivation of some PIs in using assistant reviewers, but such training may be accomplished in other ways.  In my experience, the reason that some (many?) PIs use assistant reviewers is simply to relieve themselves of the task (and justify it as training).  As I said before, if you don't have time to do the review, you can decline the request.

What distinguishes this situation is that there are two competing obligations. A mentor definitely has a moral obligation to help their trainees, but there is also the obligation to ensure an "expert" review.  If the journal welcomes "assistant reviewers" and has a mechanism for documenting their involvement, and the trainee is capable, then the PI may be safe in using them.  A side benefit may be experience for the trainee, but that should not be the primary justification.

Image Credits (created with images from Flickr, iStockphoto, and http://www.rmu.edu/SentryHTML/images/gallery/students/group2/student_professor3.jpg)