Scientific illiteracy

Reading scientific papers helps me understand why so many people hate or distrust scientists.

Let me clarify briefly. This is not meant to be me bitching about my graduate school workload. This is not me thinking my PhD was going to be a cake walk. I was prepared to finish undergrad feeling like a genius and walk into grad school feeling average. I was prepared to learn, and learning requires feeling stupid first.

This is me trying to think what science looks like to an outsider.

The last couple of weeks I’ve been doing pretty much nothing but reading scientific papers – that is, peer reviewed research papers published in academic journals. Some of these have been historical, the oldest being from the 1940s, and some have been from the last couple of years. Some have been good, some have been excellent, but the majority have made me want to stab my eyes out with the nearest pipetman. I’ve been reading primary literature for the last three years, but dealing with so much recently has made me realize one thing:

Most scientists are terrible writers.

And when I say terrible writers, I’m not just talking about English skills – though that certainly is a problem. When I had to read some of my classmates’ papers in undergrad, I was often thankful to find a sentence that wasn’t a fragment or a run-on. I don’t have perfect grammar, especially when informally blogging, but I can usually get general concepts across. And don’t even get me started on the organization of some papers. Your methods are where?

But most science writing is simply impenetrable. Everything seems to be lingo and jargon, to the point where they might as well be speaking another language. This problem gets worse with time, since fields are becoming more specialized, not less.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, so many scientific papers are drier than Indiana on a Sunday. You would never guess most papers were authored by the same person who will perk up with excitement when you ask them about their research. Obviously papers are meant to be impartial, but that doesn’t mean they have to be devoid of all liveliness. When a paper does include a rare joke, or even a clever ribbing of another study, readers get excited. We like being reminded that humans wrote these papers, not some computer program (unless simulating papers is what your research is about, then…). I nearly pooped myself when I saw a paper use an exclamation mark once. Needless to say, exclamation marks should not provoke this amount of surprise.

So why is this an issue outside of my own graduate school woes? I hate tooting my own horn, but allow me to prove a point. I have a BS in Genetics and Evolution from a respected university. I have three years of research experience in a laboratory. I have one published paper and at least one more on the way. I won the award for Outstanding Biology Student every year I was at Purdue. It’s safe to say that I am more trained in biology than your average person, yet I still have to spend hours reading a biology paper to grasp even the most basic concepts.

I look back on all the times I asked people if they read the original research before passing judgment on a study. Or all the times I sighed at another bad piece of science reporting. Now I just sympathize. If I’m having such a hard time, how do we expect laypeople to understand science?

I’m but a lowly first year graduate student, so I obviously don’t have all the answers… But I’m also a blogger, so here’s my opinion on two things we can do to improve science communication:

Relax pointless publishing rules. Journals are so focused on word count, formatting, figure size, supplemental material… Are you really communicating in the best way possible when you’re worrying about having to spend hundreds of extra dollars for every page you go over? Or when you sacrifice clarity in a graph because it’s cheaper to get it printed in black in white?

One of my papers recently was rejected, and I cringed at some of the questions reviewers had. We clarified all of those points in the initial draft, but they were eventually cut due to word limit restrictions. This is made all the more ridiculous when you consider that most people access journals electronically now. Is the internet not big enough for that extra pdf page? We obviously want some limits so people don’t get excessively verbose, but this is just silly.

Encourage more scientists to be journalists. And I don’t just mean recruiting science majors after they’ve been taught how to write (though for the love of FSM, someone please do that too). I mean encouraging scientists to blog about what they know, and then utilizing those bloggers who have proved their communication skills. It’s hard enough to understand the primary literature, let alone translate it into something people can understand. We need to exploit that talent we have.

The thing that worries me the most? That this is probably just the first of many disillusionments I’ll have about science over the next couple years.

Dance Your PhD finalists are up!

If you’ve ever had a hard time explaining what your research is about, maybe you should consider interpretive dance. That’s what the Dance Your PhD contest at Science asks grad students to do. It’s fun, but the winner also gets a $500 dollar prize.

You can vote for whichever one you like the best here. To show I’m not inherently biased toward biology, my favorite was actually the chemistry one. I thought it did the best job at actually explaining the concept, while having the least abstract dancing. Oh, and I loved the part with Taq polymerase in the middle. Seriously, just watch it.

…Okay, it still had to do with DNA, shush.

Maybe in a couple of years I’ll be able to do this, though I kind of suck at dancing. Right now my lab rotation project wouldn’t be too interesting of a video though – not sure how to interpretively dance to coding in Python…

I already like this site way more than Facebook

I received an email earlier today from Nature Publishing Group advertising their new social networking project, GenoMate:

We at Nature are pleased to announce our premier academic social networking/graduate relationship development website. New multidisciplinary fields, particularly Systems Biology, require a greater degree of collaboration and shared expertise. Nature GenoMate combines cloud-based productivity tools with a social networking engine that includes your colleagues and citations.

At first I thought this was going to be super lame – I mean, do biologists really need a separate social networking site? But when I looked at the features, I realized how awesome it is. It’s really pertinent to the needs of grad students. For example, they give great advice that first years like me may not know:Or their Erlenmeyer-Briggs personality questions that match you with others:Go check out the rest of their features here!

I feel so lucky that my department received one of the first invitations. Helps that the main developer apparently works here, though I’m not sure who it is… hmmm

Well, I feel less isolated in my stupidity now

Thanks for all of the nice comments you guys left on my post last night. Thanks to your comments, I’ve learned two things:

  1. I have a lot of well educated blog readers. Seriously, I was amazed at how many of you guys have pursued PhDs, are professors, etc… We’re definitely not the average American demographic. I guess that could make me feel even more intimidated, but I’m going to try to think positively about it – you guys stuck around even though I’m just a 22 year old starting grad school, so I must have something intelligent to say. Or at the very least, something entertaining to say. I’ll take that.
  2. My woes seem to be pretty common. I think the better question now is if anyone hasn’t experienced impostor syndrome.

But I also feel better after attending class and reading more papers. My Monday class is a three hour discussion of multiple related papers, and it actually went really well. Our professor guided us through the discussion without giving away the answers, but still explained parts that we were confused about instead of letting us totally flounder – aka, he did an excellent job. I realized I understood a lot more than I gave myself credit for, and even more light bulbs went on during the discussion.

Then I read even more papers for my class tomorrow (seeing a theme here?). At first I felt doomed, again. But then tonight I was in a little study group with some of the other students, and:

  1. Everyone seemed just as confused and lost as me. And
  2. I actually got to explain a concept to a couple people! A concept that seemed simple to me (gel electrophoresis of DNA segments) only because that’s basically what I spent the last three years doing, not to mention teaching. That really helped make it clear that we all come from such different backgrounds, that sometimes you’re going to feel completely in the dark, but other times you’ll actually know what the heck you’re talking about.

I’m still tired, but I feel slightly less doomed. I think I’m partially writing this post so I can come back and read it when I’m feeling completely idiotic again.

…Like tomorrow when I try to fix my Python code. *gulp*

For the people who told me to read PhD comics…

I’ve already been reading them for two years. This is probably part of my problem.

And while I could generally relate to them thanks to undergrad research, I’m now convinced the artist has a spy camera set up in my apartment. Take today’s comic for example:I read this comic cuddled up in bed exactly like the main character, skimming Google Reader while I decided if I wanted to hit snooze again or get out of bed.

I got out of bed.

And here comes the Impostor Syndrome

I was going to make this massive upbeat post about starting graduate school, how excited I am, and how proud I am to be the first person in my family to pursue a PhD, or really, to study science at all.

Then I actually went. And now I’m having massive Impostor Syndrome.

In summary, feeling incredibly stupid, overwhelmed, and unprepared is not what I needed heaped on top of the general melancholy I already felt for being utterly alone in a new city. Did I mention I suck at making new friends? Well, I do.

It doesn’t help that all of my grad student friends are telling me to get used to it, because it never goes away. Or that when I’ve tried to confide in some of my fellow first years, they look at me like I’ve sprouted a second head because they totally understand the papers we’re reading. Or that I feel like I can’t even discuss it here on my blog, since apparently everyone in the department knows about it. I say apparently because within five minutes of me showing up to a department event, someone new approaches me and goes, “So, I hear you have a blog!”

I mean, that’s a great thing for people in your new department to read, right? “I have no idea what any of these papers mean, not to mention I’m completely uninterested in them, and I’m not quite sure how I got accepted here anyway.” The whole point of Impostor Syndrome is that you feel like you need to hide your ineptitude. Maybe if I voice my concerns on a popular blog, I’ll be cured!

…Or not.

I just can’t shake the feeling that I don’t know what I’m doing. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy science and doing research. And I have about a million different research ideas running through my brain. My problem right now is I think all of my research ideas are surely retarded, which is why no one has thought to do them before (not because, you know, they’re potentially innovative or something). So instead of piping up when someone asks me, I sit quietly and seem totally uncreative and stupid.

It doesn’t help that on top of that, I look back at how much I enjoyed my summer. Right now I would love to do nothing but write books, blog, speak for student groups and conferences… I’m not sure if that’s just me having escapist fantasies, or if that’s what I should actually be doing. I always told myself you need training to be a research scientist, and that you can paint and write books on the side, not the other way around. But then I come home exhausted from a day in the lab, realize I haven’t done any artwork in the last four years and that all of my novels sit half completed, and I wonder if I’m just deluding myself.

Of course, if I tried to make a career out of writing, I’d probably be sitting in my apartment starving, wishing how I could be off in a lab discovering some new aspect of evolution and actually getting a paycheck.


I apologize that this post is so crappily written and without a real point*, but I just needed to think out loud for a bit.

*Ugh, apparently I have Blogger Impostor Syndrome too. Sorry.

During my first day of grad school

I was walking around the building with the professor I’m doing rotations with this quarter, and we ran into (who I now know is) one of the secretaries in our business office.

Secretary: Hi! *pauses awkwardly* …Is this…?
Me: ?
Prof: *long confused pause, then realization* …my WIFE?!
Secretary: *nods*
Prof: *laughing* No, this is my first roton!
Secretary: Oh, I’m sorry! I just remember someone saying your wife was younger than you, so…

Real thoughts about grad school to come later, you know, when I’m not actually busy with grad school.

Atheist groups in less religious areas

Last night I attended a planning meeting for the Secular Student Union at the University of Washington. It’s equivalent to the group I started at Purdue, and also an affiliate of the Secular Student Alliance. What was interesting to me, as a Board member of the SSA, was how little regular members they had attending meetings.

You would think a liberal area like Seattle would produce way more members than an area like West Lafayette, Indiana. And obviously there are many variables that could contribute to this issue – leadership differences, advertising, event planning… But this is a trend I’ve seen talking to lots of student groups across the country. It makes sense when you think about it: When your non-theism is in the majority, or at the very least when no one cares about it, there’s less incentive to have a club.

In Indiana, clubs like the Society of Non-Theists are the one thing people have keeping them sane from the surrounding area. It’s the only place you can be completely open, safe, and accepted. Seattle isn’t a religious area, so there’s no reason to stand on the rooftops shouting about atheism.

Or is there? I personally think so. Yes, community was one of our main goals at SNT, but it wasn’t the only goal. At UW, you may not need a club to find friends, but you can still use it for volunteering, intellectual discussion, and debates about more controversial issues. For example, many people in the area may not be religious, but you can show how important it is to speak up for your secularism. You can have events educating people about the Catholic Church’s stance on condoms, or how some Islamic beliefs interact with free speech.

What do you think? Do secular groups still serve a purpose in less religious areas? Or is our job here already complete?

Dan Savage's "It Gets Better Project"

Last week an Indiana teen committed suicide thanks to merciless anti-gay bullying at his school. It stings that it’s from my home state, but it hurts more that this isn’t shocking. Gay teens are four times more likely to commit suicide, especially if they don’t live in urban areas. Which is why Dan Savage thought of this wonderful project:

I wish I could have talked to this kid for five minutes. I wish I could have told Billy that it gets better. I wish I could have told him that, however bad things were, however isolated and alone he was, it gets better.

But gay adults aren’t allowed to talk to these kids. Schools and churches don’t bring us in to talk to teenagers who are being bullied. Many of these kids have homophobic parents who believe that they can prevent their gay children from growing up to be gay—or from ever coming out—by depriving them of information, resources, and positive role models.

Why are we waiting for permission to talk to these kids? We have the ability to talk directly to them right now. We don’t have to wait for permission to let them know that it gets better. We can reach these kids.

So here’s what you can do, GBVWS: Make a video. Tell them it gets better. […]

Today we have the power to give these kids hope. We have the tools to reach out to them and tell our stories and let them know that it does get better. Online support groups are great, GLSEN does amazing work, the Trevor Project is invaluable. But many LGBT youth can’t picture what their lives might be like as openly gay adults. They can’t imagine a future for themselves. So let’s show them what our lives are like. Let’s show them what the future may hold in store for them.


I faced a lot of anti-gay teasing in middle school and high school even though I was straight. Because, dontcha know, anyone who’s friends with gay people must themselves be gay. I can’t imagine how bad it would have been if I actually was a lesbian, or if I hadn’t had boyfriends. Not to mention the fact that our principal fought tooth an nail against us forming a Gay Straight Alliance my senior year. Heaven forbid we form a safe community for harassed students.

If you’re a GLBT adult, please consider uploading your own video and submitting it by emailing Dan (mail (at) savagelove (dot) net). This may be our best chance to reach kids who need to hear that life is worth living, yes, even if you’re gay.

People warned me about the Seattle rain…

…but not the spike pits and Wall of Death.I’m going to be walking past this every day on my way too and from school. I hope this isn’t an omen.

On the bright side, I’m happy that my new iPhone 4G (yes, I broke down) takes such nice photos! My old camera was 4 years old and being held together by duct tape, so this is a nice replacement. And while I’m rambling about iPhones, App suggestions are welcome.

The illustrated guide to a PhD

Well, my PhD studied have certainly been put into perspective. At least this final frame was good motivation:
(Hat tip to Alex)

Surving a religious college

From Do you have any advice for surviving college at a very high theist density school?

Start a secular group.

I can tell you from personal experience that it makes life on a religious campus significantly more enjoyable. It’s worth whatever amount of time and effort you have to put into it. While I had made friends prior to starting our group at Purdue, the vast majority of my current friends were made because of our club. It brings like-minded people together. And if you’re feeling overwhelmed by a high theist density school, I assure you other people are too.

But don’t just take it from me. Here’s a excerpt from a review of the Secular Student Alliance conference by Coltara Cady, a new leader in the student freethought movement:

The conservative area of Northwest Arkansas often leaves me feeling alone amidst a sea of indoctrinated blind faith where I rarely find conversations of any depth and often feel hesitant to let people know what I think out of fear of condemnation. I avoid commentary when told things such as ‘bless you’, ‘god provides’, ‘you’ve been blessed’, ‘why weren’t you at church this Christmas’, and other such assertions with a politeness that condones the continuance of their assumptions. I can remember an instance when I corrected a woman on my ankh not being a cross when she happily informed me that she was “also a Christian” and liked my “cross” and was met with almost immediate coldness and disregard: her entire personality did an alarming one-eighty. All I said was “oh, it’s not a cross – it’s an ankh”. I stated nothing more when I easily could have pushed the topic further, such as noting that the symbol was representative of humanism and my love of Ancient Egypt, as well as that it predates the use of the crucifix as a religious symbol by at least five thousand years. It is more likely even older.

…This step into the world of activism and networking with colleagues in critical thinking have filled me with the fire to stand up for myself and evidence-based reasoning. It has given me the fuel to keep my confidence aloft. It has given me the strength to pursue my goals and fight irrationality and injustice. Every penny I spent on this trip was worth it. I feel enriched and stronger as a person, truly emblazoned and full of the drive to make a difference. For some time I’ve considered the thought of leaving the area to more accepting grounds, but now I know that NWA needs me and there are others like me who need the support and assurance I have gotten this past weekend. I will not abandon them in such a time of change and growing awareness that skeptics of all kinds do indeed exist alongside the religious.

Not only is it worthwhile for personal reasons, but you’ll be doing a world of good for your community. Just imagine how many people are too afraid to question their beliefs because of their overwhelming popularity.

Now, I admit starting a secular group can be difficult. It does take a bit of time, so finding at least one other person to help you can be a start. But you don’t have to have particularly lofty goals for your group, especially not at the start. Even five people getting together monthly for coffee is a success. You don’t have to be bringing Richard Dawkins in your first week and have 500 members.

Of course, you may not want to start a group for personal reasons. Maybe you’re not out to your family, and you’d like to keep it that way for a while – totally understandable. Maybe you’re at a religious institution that can’t officially approve your group. Try finding a local non-student group on or MeetUp. That may satiate your non-theist needs, or maybe even network you with another student who can be the figurehead for your group.

You should also contact the Secular Student Alliance. They’ll be able to tell you if someone has started or has thought of starting a group on your campus already. And if not, they’ll be able to help you start your own group. They are a resource you should be exploiting!

And if all else fails…at least you have the internet. Read atheists blogs and be a part of the virtual community. It may not be as good as meeting in person, but it really does help keep your sanity in check.

This is post 7 of 49 of Blogathon. Pledge a donation to the Secular Student Alliance here.