Sunday, February 28, 2010

How to Handle Sexual Harassment by a Subordinate

A reader wrote in a few weeks ago about a problem with an undergraduate assistant, sent as a comment on an older post. I am reproducing her statement here in case anyone would like to suggest a response or relate a similar experience.

"Hi, I was recently referred to this blog by a friend. I realize this is an older post, but I was hoping that someone might have some good advice. I am a woman PhD student and my research is in remote areas. I am a pretty small woman often mistaken for being a bit younger than I am and I have a pretty causal personality. Due to funding, I am only able to hire one field assistant and last year it was an undergraduate male. I wanted to have a relaxed work environment especially as we were camping. Unfortunately, my assistant began making inappropriate comments such as "you're a such a cute little boss" when I would outline his tasks. I found this pretty surprising (and inappropriate) and I wasn't sure what to do. I believe I indicated that I found this to be out of line, but such comments still occurred sometimes. This year, the top candidate for my technician position is again an undergraduate male. I was hoping someone might have advice about how to set the correct tone from the beginning and how to handle any comments over the line. While I prefer to be pretty casual and relaxed, I believe that I should be a little more formal this time?" Anonymous

Here's my take on this type of situation.

In some cases where subordinates overstep their roles and behave inappropriately (making sexist remarks, challenging their superior's authority, undermining the boss by making disparaging remarks to other employees, etc.), the problem may arise from the subordinate's problem with authority. It may also be inadvertently encouraged by the boss who tries to be "friends" with the employee. The worst case scenario is a combination of the two.

The potential employee with authority problems may be difficult to spot during interviews, but sometimes they might drop some clues in response to carefully crafted questions. You have two opportunities to deal with this type of person:

1. During the interview and hiring process, you can eliminate those candidates that do not appear to fit with the work situation (taking orders from a superior or working with a woman) and

2. On the first day of the job when their duties are explained. In the case of fieldwork in a remote setting, you can explain that because of safety and various other issues that your instructions must be followed. Be clear that any inappropriate behavior or failure to follow directions will result in their being sent home immediately. I take this approach with all undergraduate and graduate students and field assistants who accompany me on field trips or in field courses. Some PIs or field course instructors write out rules of conduct and safety precautions, which the student must sign in order to participate. You must follow through with the stated consequences. This can be inconvenient if it means making arrangements for their transport or cancellation of the trip. However, the consequences of ignoring warning signs can be much worse, especially if you are a lone female with a threatening male assistant.

The other situation involves the attempt to have a friendly, less formal relationship with subordinates. People usually have strong feelings about this-both for and against informal relationships. I personally think it's a mistake to set up a less than professional relationship with subordinates. The reason is that you cannot be truly friends with someone who is not your equal, and as a supervisor you have power over that other person no matter how friendly you are. By encouraging an informal relationship, a supervisor may eventually have serious behavioral issues to deal with in the future, but also puts the subordinate in a precarious and unfair situation. Your attempt at friendliness or informality may invite inappropriate behavior if the subordinate misinterprets your intentions. It's particularly important for females to consider the consequences of establishing an informal relationship with subordinates. It can be difficult enough establishing one's authority without inviting unwanted challenges from those who might take advantage of your good nature and desire to have a relaxed work environment.

Can you have enjoyable interactions with your research group and still retain a formal, professional relationship? Yes, definitely. I joke around with my group and we discuss general
topics of interest, have group lunches, etc.  However, I maintain a professional distance and socialize with my own peer group. 

Graduate students, post-docs, and technicians may have particular difficulty establishing authority over undergraduates or others because they are often not perceived as having any real power. If someone is helping you with your project and is being paid for their time, then you should speak up immediately if they fail to show respect for your position. You have to judge just how to react based on what they do or say.

Comments of a sexually harassing nature should be dealt with immediately and forcefully--not doing so can be a mistake if things escalate and you have to report it later.  There is no excuse for that type of behavior, especially if it continues after the harasser is warned.  The law is based on the victim's perception, not the harasser's.  So if you perceive a co-worker's or subordinate's actions as being threatening, then you are justified in reporting it.  If anyone tries to discourage you from reporting harassment, this is illegal and also grounds for complaint.  The US Equal Opportunity Employment office has useful information and guidance.

The situation described by "Anonymous" would not normally be terribly threatening (in an office or lab), but the remote field setting puts a different slant on things.  I doubt he realized that his comments, in combination with the remote setting actually may have created an intimidating/hostile environment, which meets the definition of sexual harassment.  The correct way to approach such a situation is to first tell him that his comments are inappropriate and upsetting to you.  If they continue, then this is a warning that this person does not view you as being in control, and it might be best to cancel or cut the trip short (first calling your supervisor to let him/her know what's going).  In the future, projecting a more authoritative, professional attitude (at least initially until you get to know your assistant better) might help in preventing a similar situation.

If anyone has had a similar experience and would like to tell how they handled it or what you think should be done in such a situation, please comment.

Sunday, February 21, 2010


….is otherwise known as jet lag. I just completed a long, international trip and am suffering from this annoying affliction, which is usually not a big problem for me. But for some reason, this trip really threw me for a loop.

As a frequent traveler, I’ve searched in vain for a way to fool my internal clock into thinking that I’ve not crossed several time zones and that instead of yesterday at 10 pm it’s really today at 8 am. I’ve tried diet, meditation, and drugs with varying success.

On the internet, you can find various remedies, including mysterious homeopathic tablets. Yeah, right. Do they really think that I’m going to order some pills with unknown ingredients and that have not been approved by the FDA from a website called Pharmaceuticals R Us? On second thought, if they prevent jet lag, I might be tempted--even if they later cause cancer of the big toe (I can do without one or both).

These herbal supplements remind me of a time years ago when I was flying on China Airlines in what was clearly an ancient jet they had purchased from the Soviet Union (the message on the tray table about fastening your seatbelts was written in Russian). Instead of peanuts, the flight attendants passed out pills. I had seen a lot of things on flights, but this unusual handout startled even me.

I accepted the package of pills out of sheer curiosity. And who knows? They might even work for jet lag. The pills were separately enclosed in see-through plastic tabs glued to a cardboard backing. On the back was writing in both Chinese and English. Presumably, both described the same thing, but I had no way of knowing.

I was quite amazed to read the list of ailments that these little pills could cure:

Gastrointestinal distress


Female problems (all of them or just gynecological, I wondered?)





Cold sores

Bad breath

Cirrhosis of liver

Gas (I guess this wasn’t considered to be distressful enough to include in #1)

Consumption (that’s tuberculosis, in case you didn’t know)


Gunshot wound (Were you supposed to ingest the pill or sprinkle the ingredients in the wound? It didn’t say.)

I had suffered from several of these ailments at one time or another in my life (except for the gunshot wound and a couple of others), so I carefully scrutinized the gelatin capsules filled with an off-white powder and random dark specks.

My traveling companion was eyeing me suspiciously by then and finally said, “You’re not actually thinking about taking one of those, are you?”

I sheepishly said, “No. I just didn’t want to be impolite by not accepting them.”

In any case, jet lag was not listed.

Getting into the sun upon arrival, and never, ever going to sleep until the new bedtime rolls around are helpful in speeding the time adjustment. I’ve tried melatonin, but the jury’s still out on that one (and I’m not sure where the FDA stands on this). Diet and meditation don’t really work (for jet lag) in my experience, but they won’t hurt you, either.

There are drugs that do help with jet lag, and these are readily available from your local drug dealer—aka, your primary care physician. I’m talking about sleeping pills—Ambien, Lunesta, Siesta (OK. The last one I made up, but would be a good name, I think). These little gems also help you deal with the egregious conditions in economy class.

In the old days, airlines were not so concerned with filling up international flights, and you could often have an entire row to yourself to stretch out and sleep for the entire fifteen-hour flight. You could even get away with sleeping on the floor. Now, it’s rare to see a single empty seat, and everyone is crammed so tight that even with your seatbelt unfastened, severe air turbulence wouldn’t dislodge you.

Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to have an empty seat or two between me and the next person. However, the last time that happened, the elderly woman sitting in my row (who did not speak English and did not appear to be aware of airplane etiquette) spent the entire flight with her feet in my lap. I tried to indicate to her through pantomime that this arrangement was not mutually beneficial, but she just grinned and nodded at me enthusiastically. We eventually reached a sort of compromise. I would push her feet away, and she would gradually sneak them back onto my lap when I dozed.

This was the same flight that sat on the tarmac for seven hours prior to a sixteen hour flight to Tokyo or Shanghai (I forget which). I knew we were in trouble when the original flight crew disappeared five hours into this hiatus. Apparently, we exceeded their allowed flight time, and the airline had to send for a replacement crew. They weren’t concerned about exceeding the passengers’ endurance, apparently. You may have heard about these infamous flights, which made the major news shows and eventually led to rules prohibiting airlines from keeping passengers hostage. Someone finally had pity on us and brought on board a bunch of Burger King Whoppers, which they literally threw at us like they were feeding a pack of wild animals (which I guess we were by then).  I don’t know what the people who had pre-ordered special meals got. I eventually got to my destination, but you can imagine the condition I was in.

Anyway, it is in such circumstances where being unconscious is a plus. This is where a good sleeping pill comes in. However, if you’ve never taken one before, beware. Be sure you are sitting down (in your assigned seat, not the toilet), have emptied your bladder, and put away all breakable objects. The first time I took one was on a flight to New Zealand with about 100 thirteen-year-old exchange students (not mine). I remember pushing my seat back and dropping my napkin onto my dinner tray about five minutes after downing the pill. The next thing I knew we were landing twelve hours later in Auckland; my dinner tray had not only been removed at some point, but according to the person next to me, I had been served a mid-flight snack and breakfast. I was afraid to ask if I ate it.

Needless to say, these sleeping pills are great. You are blissfully unaware of all the indignities being heaped upon you in economy class. You don’t care if the entire row puts their feet in your lap. With my first sleeping pill experience, they could have done brain surgery on me and I wouldn’t have known it.

Of course, the best way to reduce jet lag and various indignities is to fly business or first class. Unfortunately, the upgrades we used to score occasionally have gone the way of the Dodo. You now need about a million frequent flyer miles even to get on the upgrade list.

I’ll put in a plug here for Air New Zealand, which has really comfy economy seats with a lot more legroom than your usual carrier; individual, sizable TV screens and huge choice of entertainment; and a number of useful webbed pouches in the adjacent seatback for water bottles, books, laptop, etc. Overhead compartments are actually built to accommodate roller bags. No seat is more than one seat away from an aisle. All in all, very well designed—for the passenger’s comfort.

Unfortunately, my most recent flight on ANZ was only four hours long and then it was back to the sardine can on another airline for a fifteen hour flight. I was spoiled. As I sat in coach, I kept thinking about that Seinfeld episode in which Elaine tries to sneak into first class. Just as she settles back into her seat and sighs, the first class flight attendant comes over frowning---and it’s back to economy. In the meantime, she’s missed the meal service in both sections (No soup for YOU!).

Hmmm. Maybe they wouldn’t notice me in business class? What’s the worst they could they do, kick me out over the Indian Ocean?

Oh, well. I came to my senses, downed my Ambien CR, and aimed my feet at my neighbor’s lap.

So, I’m still searching for the perfect jet lag remedy. If you’ve got one, I’d like to hear about it (and no, an alcoholic hangover on top of jet lag is not one I’m interested in).

I’ll also accept donations so that I can buy a first-class ticket on my next flight.

Friday, February 19, 2010

The TED Talks

The previous posts have focused on science communication and its importance to combating the anti-science backlash. I wanted at this point to provide some inspiration to younger scientists and science students about becoming effective science communicators. If you have not heard of the TED conference and talks, I highly recommend them to you ( TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, a non-profit devoted to “ideas worth spreading”. The conference highlight is a series of talks by the world’s leading thinkers and doers, many of them scientists. All of these talks are archived and viewable online at the TED website where they are conveniently catalogued by topic, speaker, etc.

I frequently recommend this site to students to learn how to develop and deliver outstanding presentations. The videos of these talks are certainly worthwhile for gaining tips on improving your “style”, but they are also some of the most fascinating talks I’ve ever heard. Here is a sprinkling of example topics:

“Medicine Without Borders” (43 talks)
“Numbers at Play” (17 talks)
“Tales of Invention” (132 talks)
“Design Like You Give a Damn” (54 talks)
“How the Mind Works” (73 talks)
“Evolution’s Genius” (57 talks)
“How We Learn” (51 talks)

Some of the scientists who have given TED talks will be familiar to you, but most will not. If you ever doubted that scientists could be fascinating speakers, however, this site will change your mind.

Warning: These talks are so entertaining, it’s easy to spend a great deal of time watching them.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Science Talk: Dos and Don'ts

The previous posts talked about communicating science to the general public.  It's also important to be skilled at communicating your science to colleagues.  Here is an amusing video that focuses on giving science talks at conferences:

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Who Is Mr. X?

For those of you who’ve never heard of Bob Newhart, he was the star of a TV sitcom back in the 70s. One of the most hilarious episodes was called “Who Is Mr. X?” in which his character (Bob Hartley) is ambushed during a live TV interview. Bob is a psychologist and has been invited to appear on a local TV show. This episode is used quite extensively in media training programs to show how NOT to give an interview.

Although some complain that this video is out of date, I still find it incredibly funny and a great way to get across some of the pitfalls of being interviewed. Unfortunately, the video is not freely available. However, here is how the interview begins:

Bob expectantly arrives at the TV studio fully expecting an interview in which he will be asked various softball questions about himself and his profession. However, he’s not done his homework and just shows up with no knowledge of the show, the show’s host, or what questions he’ll be asked. Host Ruth Corley introduces Bob and says, “It’s been said that today’s psychologist is nothing more than a con man, a snake-oil salesman flimflamming innocent people, peddling cures for everything from nail biting to a lousy love life—and I agree. We’ll ask Dr. Hartley to defend himself after these messages.” It’s all downhill from there….

The first time I saw the Bob Newhart interview episode was at a scientific conference during a workshop on how to interact with the media. The viewing of this episode was a great way to break the ice among the participants and get them thinking about what to do and not to do in an interview.

If you have an opportunity to see this episode, you won’t be disappointed.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Sagan's Rejection

Carl Sagan was undoubtedly one of the most influential science communicators in recent decades. Most of you have likely heard of him, if not seen one of his TV series (Cosmos: A Personal Voyage) or read one of his books (The Dragons of Eden). His book, Contact, was a best-seller and eventually made into a major motion picture. The latter was one of the most effective portrayals of how women scientists can be (mis)treated by their colleagues and superiors I’ve ever seen.

The public loved Sagan. He frequently appeared on the Tonight Show and was a sought-after speaker. He died in 2006 at age 62. That is sad, but what’s even sadder is what happened to him in the latter part of his life. A group of scientists headed by Stanley Miller (abiotic origins of life on Earth) nominated Sagan for admission into the National Academy of Sciences. Sagan made the first cut, which apparently virtually guarantees entry because at that point only an objection raised by a member can stop the final entry.

Sagan was only the second person in the history of the Academy to be rejected in the second vote. The reason? Some Academy members felt he was a lightweight scientist, in spite of having published over 100 peer-reviewed papers and numerous books. Some of his science accomplishments in astronomy were major contributions. However, all the objecting members saw was his enormous popularity as a science communicator. One person referred to his efforts at communicating science as “symptomatic of an inadequacy in doing science.” Despite the efforts of many well-known scientists who defended him, the Academy ultimately rejected Sagan.

The point of this story is to convey the potential risks to scientists who attempt to communicate science broadly to the public. This negativity comes from the scientific community, not the public and is surprising considering the requirements of some government funding agencies (NSF) to demonstrate in proposals the “broader impact” of their work (e.g., outreach, education, etc.).

I’ve personally experienced this negativity from some colleagues.

In recent years, I’ve been more active in science communication to the public. I’ve given talks in local middle schools, made videos describing some of my work that are on YouTube, set up websites devoted to showing aspects of science of interest to the public, implemented non-technical publications for a science society I belong to, established a foundation to provide travel funds to students, and, of course, host a science blog.

Many colleagues are extremely complimentary regarding these activities and often ask for more information about how to go about initiating something similar themselves. But then there are the others. The ones who make snide remarks about “wasting one’s time on frivolous things” or “thinking you are better than the rest of us”. I don’t pay much attention to the latter folks. However, I bring it up because it is this fear of colleagues’ rejection that stops many scientists from engaging in science communication.

The other objection is: “I just don’t have time to do any science communication. I’ve got my hands full just doing my research, teaching, and keeping up with the science literature.” I understand this feeling, because that’s how I felt even as recently as five years ago. However, after seeing the major change in the public’s view of science and scientists and the rise of anti-science groups, I decided that it was important for each scientist to be an effective communicator.

This negative perception really must change if we are to develop a new generation of scientists who are as comfortable and effective at speaking to the general public as they are while working in their laboratories. Some universities are beginning to recognize the need to train science students in communication and are implementing informal and formal workshops and courses.

Not everyone is cut out to be a science communicator of course. But even if only a fraction of students become effective communicators, these emissaries will greatly improve the communication of science to the public.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

The Future of Science Communication

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned the rapid changes that are taking place in how science is communicated. Some people think that we are at the cusp of a revolution in how science is reported by scientists. I described earlier how some scientists are beginning to delve into the use of video or similar approaches to showcase their research on websites or as a way to illustrate a scientific method rather than a text description.

When I mention such ideas to colleagues, I get three reactions: 1) I’m already using video to illustrate my work, 2) that’s neat--how do I learn to do that?, and 3) I don’t have time to fool with that stuff.

I remember when Powerpoint was first used at science conferences.  There was a lot of grumbling from participants about newfangled computer graphics and how their 35 mm slides (or overhead transparencies!!) were good enough. I can even remember when the first scientists switched from black text on white background to white text on blue background (diazo processing). That caused quite a stir!

There were always lots of skeptics who said these new ways of giving presentations were just fads and would never catch on.

I also distinctly remember trying to convince my spouse that he needed to get a computer. This was the early 80s and I was one of the first in the lab to get a computer (a Mac). His response was that he had a secretary to do his typing and in any case he thought personal computers were not going to catch on. A bit later, I recall going into his office and saying, “You know, I think this Microsoft company is going to be big. Maybe we should invest?” Eventually, of course, he got a computer, but dismissed the idea of investing in Microsoft (and now claims he does not remember these early conversations).

My point is that things are constantly changing. Some people have to be dragged into the future while others are madly sprinting ahead of the crowd. Scientists are natural skeptics (as they should be) about new ideas, methods, etc. However, things are changing so fast, that it’s easy to get left behind if you don’t make an effort to be somewhat open to new ways.

Probably most of you who read this blog are relatively young and are wondering what I’m talking about. But I imagine you know some dinosaurs in your departments who resist every single change that comes along. Don’t let them discourage you from trying new approaches to communicating your science.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Voice of Science

If you’ve been following along, you know that I’ve been talking about how scientists are slow to recognize the new media environment and the need for us to step up and participate in the communication of science to policy makers and the general public. In recent years, there has been a huge change in modes of communication: blogging, YouTube, WiKis, Twittering as well as new ways of presenting technical information (see the Article of the Future). Although some organizations are promoting the idea of better science communication, their efforts do not always involve scientists directly in the planning or delivery of this information.

The government agency I work for has traditionally employed “science writers” who are basically journalists with a little science background. Although most of them mean well, it can be extremely frustrating for a scientist to work with them at times. What typically happens is that the science writer wants to write about a particular topic (e.g., my area of research). They gather some materials and put together a piece about that topic. Then they would ask a scientist (e.g., me) to read it over to see if it is accurate. Sometimes it’s fine, but more often the information is slightly “off”. Not exactly wrong, but not right either. I remember one piece that I tried to “fix”, but finally threw up my hands and said that it would be easier for me to just rewrite it from scratch rather than try to figure out how to correct all the statements. That did not go over well.

After a few more frustrating interactions like the one described above, I began thinking about science communication and why it was not being done by scientists. After complaining (OK, whining) to close colleagues about this for a while, I decided to do something about it. Or at least make a step in that direction. I wrote a proposal to the governing board of a science society to initiate a non-technical publication, one that would summarize in lay terms technical papers published in the society’s journal and would be free to download as pdfs from the society website. The key aspect, however, was that these would be created by the scientist/author of the technical paper. After some initial resistance, the idea was approved. I created an electronic template that was easy to use whereby the author could insert text, graphics and photos. These articles would go through a modified review process and once accepted would be posted.

The next hurdle was convincing authors that this was a worthwhile thing for them to do. I pointed out that since these articles would be freely available (and searchable) on the internet, that they should boost the citation rate of the technical paper. A number of people agreed to write these, although expressing some initial reluctance (they later admitted that they “enjoyed” preparing these articles). Several of these non-technical articles have now been published and are amazingly popular. We put counters on each one, and some have been downloaded hundreds of time in the few months they’ve been online. Some of the authors have told me that these have become very useful to them--to give out to policy-makers, land managers, students, and others who would not likely want to read the technical paper.

My hope is that this experience will demonstrate how easy it is for scientists to communicate their science to broader audiences and encourage more scientists to participate.