science

Welcome, Town Hall attendees!

Thanks for not only remembering my website, but actually visiting it! I guess that must mean you were at least vaguely intrigued or entertained by my talk, so hooray! If you’d like to check out some of my favorite science communication pieces from the past, I’ve compiled a little list of favorites for your viewing pleasure:

And if you’d like to know more specifics about what I actually study instead of just the vague research field, I have 4 short posts that explain the wonderful world of microRNA [1, 2, 3, 4]. I hope you’ll stick around for more science ramblings in the future!

Come see me speak at Town Hall Seattle this Monday!

Come see me speak at Town Hall Seattle this Monday!

I know I’ve been in a blog/speaking hibernation for a while – grad school can do that to you. But I’m happy to announce that I’ll be coming out of my cave to give a talk about my research at Town Hall Seattle this Monday, May 11. This talk is specifically tailored for non-biologists and will not be overly technical or jargony – at least, that’s my goal!  Here are the details for all of you locals:

What:
What Makes Us Human: Decoding Our DNA
“What makes us human? Scientists and philosophers have been asking the question for years. This age-old query is also the subject of UW genome sciences student Jennifer McCreight’s research. She’ll compare the DNA of humans to chimpanzees, monkeys, and lemurs, sharing how genetic differences help paint a picture of how Homo sapiens walk, talk, and have larger brains.”

When:
6:00PM, Monday, May 11, 2015

Where:
Downstairs at Town Hall
1119 Eighth Avenue (enter on Seneca Street)
Seattle, Washington 98101

Cost:
$5, UW students (with Husky card) get in for free.
Double feature with Leonard Mlodinow’s talk “The Evolution of Scientific Discovery” at 7:30pm.This event is part of the University of Washington’s Engage program, which teaches effective communication skills to scientists who may not otherwise receive that training. I absolutely loved the class and recommend it to all UW grad students, and I’m excited that it gave me the opportunity to speak at Town Hall.

Please spread the word, and I hope to see you there!

My odds of becoming a professor

Not good, and worse because I’m a woman.

Now, I’ve known that for a long time. But it’s not until today that I could see a number representing just how lousy my odds are. In a paper published in Current Biology, three scientists were able to take citation data from PubMed to calculate your odds of becoming a PI (Principal Investigator, or in layman’s terms, a professor who is the head of a research lab). They built a statistical model that took into account how various factors – number of publications, highest number of citations on a paper, gender – affected your chances, which you can figure out using their app.

PI_Predictor

My current odds of becoming a PI are 14%, but they’d be 26% if I were male. If I publish at least two first author papers before I graduate (a reasonable assumption), my odds go up to 23% (still not as much as a male scientist with my current status), while a man would have 34% chance.

Just to give these numbers some perspective, they’d be depressing even without the glaring gender differences. Most grad students nearing their defense are going to have odds around mine; some better, some worse. I have three papers (one first author), they’re in average journals and have almost no citations (hey, kangaroo rat copulatory plug genetics is a pretty niche field, ok?). I’m pretty average when it comes to the variables that affect your chances. And our odds are still crummy. Or at the Onion put it in “New STEM Education Initiative Inspires Girls To Earn Less Than Men In Scientific Career,”

“”Today’s girls have the potential to become the physicists and chemists of tomorrow, powerlessly watching as their male counterparts are promoted over them, their intellects are ignored, and their research is underrepresented in scientific journals. Our mission is to let every young woman know that such a future isn’t a fantasy; it’s a reality they can most certainly achieve.” Grant admitted, however, that such opportunities depended upon the slim chance that these girls even managed to be hired from a predominantly male applicant pool in the first place.”

The Role of Genetics in Civilization: Beyond Earth - Interview with Co-Lead Designers

The Role of Genetics in Civilization: Beyond Earth – Interview with Co-Lead Designers

It’s not often that my day job as a geneticist overlaps with my love for video games, but that’s exactly what’s happening in the new Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth. In early interviews about this sci-fi edition of the Civ series, it seemed like genetic engineering would play a large part in shaping your space colony’s future. As a genetics grad student and a Civ superfan (I’m not sure if I should feel guilty or proud when Steam tells me the number of hours I’ve played), I was itching for more information. I was lucky enough to interview Co-Lead Designers Will Miller and David McDonough about what role genetics will be playing in Beyond Earth.

Q: Civilization: Beyond Earth has been called the “spiritual successor” to Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri. In Alpha Centauri, one of the first techs you can research is Biogenetics, which enables you to make the Human Genome Project. Co-lead designer David McDonough mentioned, “When you start the game, you’re not really that far from where we are today.” What real life biological research inspired some of the genetic techs we will see early in the game?

A: There’s more than one piece of biological research that’s been an inspiration to us, going all the way back to the cloning of Dolly the sheep. But growing human organs in pigs and other transgenetic medicine and biocompatibility developments have been particularly interesting to us. The recent developments in custom-designed viruses as weapons for medical sciences – is incredibly fascinating to us. For example, the genetically engineered measles that selectively kill cancer cells as is the idea of taking something that is bad for us and turning it into something that has a positive result. Selectively infecting mosquitos with a disease that prevents them from developing the saliva necessary to transmit dengue fever is another example of research we find fascinating. We think the most interesting research has been channeling forces that are at best neutral (and mostly harmful) and turning them into things that are helpful to us.

Q: Alpha Centauri was released in 1999, and the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003. While still incredibly useful to scientists, we consider the HGP old news. Are there any technologies in Beyond Earth that are currently science fiction, but you believe may become reality in the next decade?

A: The tech that we most hope gets adopted in the next decade is the thorium reactor, which is a building that you unlock through the Engineering technology. Dave McDonough in particular will talk your ear off about its many upsides and how it has potential to revolutionize our power. So please don’t ask him about thorium reactors in the next decade or we won’t have time to finish this interview.

Q: Were there any particular books, movies, or TV shows that shaped how you treat genetics in the game?

A: Slant by Greg Bear is a great source, taking the theme of genetic manipulation as form of fashion, and science as a plaything as our vanity. Older and darker but also important is the graphic novel series Transmetropolitan, which has some absolutely fascinating ideas in it, not only about biology but about the future more generally.

Q: One of the most memorable characters from Alpha Centauri is the leader of University of Planet. Can we expect to see another scientist leading a Faction in Beyond Earth?

A: Yes! Daoming Sochua is the leader of the Pan-Asian Cooperative. She’s a certifiable genius with a quad Ph.D. in nanoelectronics, nuclear physics, bubble physics, and electrical engineering. That last degree was a lagniappe from working on the other three. In addition to her formidable research skills, she’s also a talented administrator. While defending her theses, her committee became acutely aware of their impending obsolescence.be_daoming_sochua1

Concept art for Daoming Sochua Source: GameCrate

Q: Could you tell me more about the new “Gene Vault” wonder? Are there other genetics-themed buildings or wonders available to players?

A: There are quite a few Wonders based around genetics, and Gene Vault is the earliest of these, as well as the Stonehenge of the new planets. The Gene Vault is a Svalbard for the new world – a massive, secure repository of the genetic library the settlers bring with them to their new planet. Think about how incredibly important this library would be for space colonists! The Gene Vault is also important because it represents a strong link back to the aspirations and hopes of Old Earth.

Q: One major feature of Beyond Earth is the three affinities: Harmony, Purity, and Supremacy. Harmony specializes in embracing the alien planet, and will “allow the planet to change them right down to their very own DNA.” Will other affinities utilize genetic manipulation, or will this be specific to Harmony?

A: All three affinities would have their own take on genetic manipulation. A Purity civ, for example, would probably find genetic manipulation perfect for eliminating genetic disorders like Huntington’s or other disorders with a strong hereditable component. A Supremacy civ would see it as another tool in the proverbial toolbox of adaptive technologies, although they’d be more likely to point out that it’s a lot easier to update firmware than nucleotides. But in the end they see everything as code that can be reprogrammed.

Q: Harmony also allows you to get “alien creatures on your team and breed new units based on their genes.” Can you tell me more about how this breeding system will work?

A: Right now these are units that are unlocked by researching Harmony-affiliated techs. The notion of breeding is reflected in the fact that these units are not identical to those you find wandering out in the world.

CivAliens

Wolf beetles and a siege worm

Q: What is Harmony’s relationship with the alien life like? Is it a mindless swarm doing the bidding of their leaders like the Zerg, a symbiotic beneficial relationship like Avatar, or something completely different?

A: Harmony can have any relationship towards the planet’s native life, and in fact, part of the Harmony approach usually means clearing out nearby alien nests as part of your own city development. Preserving humanity is usually an overriding priority over preserving the planet! A Harmony civ will be trying to change humanity to be a better biological match to the world, but that doesn’t mean rejecting technology or ignoring existential threats – the world will certainly need to be changed a bit to accommodate the Harmony civ. They’re just less interested in radically changing the world than Purity, or rejecting the environment entirely like Supremacy.

It’s also not true that a Harmony civ is inherently more peaceful than any other civ. An aggressive Harmony civ is a tidal wave of mandibles and chitin directed consciously at its enemies.

Q: In Firaxis’s other incredibly popular game X-COM: Enemy Within, you have the ability to give your soldiers various abilities through genetic engineering. Will this be an option in Beyond Earth’s new Unit Upgrade system?

A: Yes! In fact, certain upgrades are tied specifically to your Affinity, and require a certain devotion to your affinity in order to unlock. This helps differentiate the Affinities and their approach to combat.

Harmony_Soldier_Harmony_Unit_Progression_GA_flat

Source: 2K Games

Q: McDonough has mentioned that most of the game’s technology will be realistic/plausible, but by the end you’ll see “pretty fun wild crazy things, very fictitious stuff.” Can you hint at any crazy genetic technologies you may unlock? Should I be looking forward to an “X-Gene” that enables my soldiers to shoot laser beams from their eyes or read minds?

A: Artificial Evolution is probably the most out-there genetics tech, and it’s got some impressive leaf techs underneath it (aggressive Harmony players, this is one tech to aim for). It won’t do anything for your soldiers per se, but keep in mind that your soldiers are only one part of your arsenal.

Q: Genetics is already a divisive topic in our world, with many differing opinions on the ethics of GMOs, personalized genomics and medicine, and “designer babies.” Will this division play out in Beyond Earth? For example, am I going to get a diplomatic penalty with Purity aligned Factions if I decide to make an army of mutant super soldiers?

A: Yes, but it will be predominately because you as a Harmony civ (which I’m assuming here) will have a wildly different vision for the planet than the Purity civ. You will want people to live more comfortably on the planet by changing people, and the other civ will feel the planet needs to be turned into a new Earth. However, you can still go heavily into genetic techs and focus on Purity as your affinity, and so you may have more in common with that other Purity civ than you might expect.

Q: Religion in Alpha Centauri was limited to a few Factions. But in Beyond Earth it seems that everyone will have access to religion, suggesting it will be more customizable like in Civ 5. Will we have the ability to make a religion centered around genetic engineering or opposed to it?

A: We’re not looking at implementing specific religious themes or proscriptions. Certainly you can think of the Affinities as being sort of larger meta-philosophies in terms of how they perceive the best path for humanity going forward, and as you increase in your devotion to an Affinity you’re making a conscious rejection of the other two. Whether or not that rises to the level of “thou shalt not” for your people is up to the player.

Q: In Alpha Centauri, the player was able to engage in genetic warfare that would reduce the population of a city by half and greatly damage military units in the city. Will genetics or biological warfare play a role in combat or as part of the new espionage system?

A: Biological warfare is something that’s hard to feel good about, as a player. We were trying for a more optimistic tone with Beyond Earth, and not browbeat players for the choices they make in the course of the game. Designer plagues don’t really fit the tone we’re trying to achieve.

Harmony_Naval_Fighter_Harmony_Unit_Progression_edited-1_GA_flat

Source: 2K Games

Q: Sci-fi books and video games frequently have a dystopian view of genetics that can disappoint researchers who see a lot of good coming out of their field. What sort of philosophy did you take when addressing the role of genetics in Beyond Earth? Are you going to leave the morality up to the player? For example, will a Harmony aligned Faction be able to make choices that allow them to play as a utopian society that’s free of disease, a dystopian society with genetic classes like Gattaca, or some ethical gray area in between?

A: The approach to the technologies in the game was driven by a larger approach we take in design which is: players should feel like the decisions they’ve made were positive ones. We don’t want players to make a choice and then immediately regret it because of something the game says. Now, consequences as a result of those decisions – that’s perfectly appropriate! So to that end, we’ll let players decide what the moral valence of their choices should be.

Q: How do you think your job as game developers affects public perception of science? For example, Carl Sagan’s Contact greatly inspired me to fall in love with science and become a scientist, and clearly had an impact on Beyond Earth since it is effectively one of the victory conditions. Do you see Beyond Earth as playing a similar role in inspiring others to appreciate science?

A: We’re not setting out to give a science lesson in Beyond Earth, although we do like to think we’ve paid attention to actual science and our speculative courses are at least plausible. If someone experiences something in the game and then says: “Gee, I wish I knew more about these ‘thorium reactors,’” and they go out and educate themselves, then we’re incredibly happy and proud. Sid always says that people like to learn, and there are plenty of opportunities to dig into the science behind the game here. We also do a lot of research after the game gets made, so we’ll keep reading up on science long after the game ships.

Pokébiology 101: "Evolution" and the enigma of Eevee

Pokébiology 101: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee

PokebiologySmall

(Click here for the introductory post to Pokébiology 101)

You know I had to start my Pokébiology 101 series with the most famously scientifically inaccurate part of Pokémon: evolution.

In the Pokémon world, “evolution” means something different from what you might have learned in your biology classes. …Well, what you should have learned in your biology classes, assuming the religious right failed to push their agenda into your science classroom. Pokémon evolution is when a Pokémon transforms into a different looking creature once some criterion is met. Most often this means reaching a certain level (levels increase as you gain experience, experience comes from participating in battles). Some Pokémon evolve under weirder circumstances like being exposed to a particular item, being traded to another player, reaching a certain level of happiness, and so on.

For example, a Bulbasaur evolves into an Ivysaur at level 16, and an Ivysaur evolves into a Venusaur at level 32.

BulbasaurEvolution

This is not evolution. This is metamorphosis.

What’s the difference? Why are Pokémon actually metamorphosing, and not evolving? They both imply some sort of change is taking place, which is why the terms are so easily confused. But there’s a major difference in when and where that change happens:

  • Metamorphosis is the change in body structure of an individual that happens conspicuously and abruptly during their lifetime. The most common real world example is a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. This is exactly what happens in the Pokémon world. Well, instead of forming a cocoon, Pokémon flash a bright light and make cheery beeping noises…but I’m going to chalk that up to the games being from the point of view of a ten year old with an overactive imagination. Wee, shiny!
  • Evolution is the change in heritable characteristics of a population over successive generations. A characteristic is heritable if it is genetic, and thus will get passed on from parent to offspring, and from that offspring to its offspring, and so on. The key here is that this change happens over many generations and affects the whole population.

What would be a hypothetical example of actual evolution in the Pokémon world? Let’s say we’ve stumbled upon a population of Venusaurs in some jungle untouched by Pokémon trainers. Most  Venusaurs have pink flowers, but a rare individual has a gold flower because of a mutation. In case you’re wondering, this alternative color scheme exists in-game and is known as a “shiny,” and shiny Pokémon are incredibly rare. Like, “I’ve probably played 1000 cumulative hours of Pokémon games and I only found one shiny Sentret a decade ago” rare.

shinyven1

Now, let’s say that shiny Venusaur is very successful in producing a lot of baby Bulbasaurs for whatever reason. Maybe gold flowers attract more prey, so shiny Venusaur is well fed and can have more babies (directional selection). Maybe other Venusaurs find the rare gold flower extra sexy, so shiny Venusaur has more mates and thus more babies (sexual selection). Maybe it’s all due to random chance and shiny Venusaur just gets lucky (genetic drift). When that generation of Bulbasaurs grows up, the new generation of Venusaurs might look something like this:

shinyven2

If we’re still around to observe this population many generations later, it may look like this:

shinyven3

The shiny trait has now become “fixed” in the population – that is, every individual now has the gold flower. Now the population of Venusaurs looks different than it used to – and that is evolution! If this population is isolated from other Venusaurs and continues to evolve novel traits, one day this population might be so different that it can’t even mate with other Venusaurs anymore. And that, folks, is when you have a new species.

But back to metamorphosis. The common caterpillar example is linear: a caterpillar makes a cocoon and becomes a butterfly. But not all Pokémon have a set fate. I give you the most enigmatic example, Eevee.

eevee-evolutions

Eevee is special in the world of Pokémon because it has the largest number of ways it can evolve depending on your actions. Want a Flareon? Give Eevee a Fire Stone. Espeon? Make Eevee very happy and level up during the morning or day. Leafeon? Level up while near a mossy rock.

It seems like this couldn’t possibly exist within the confines of our natural world, right? How does an Eevee have the ability to metamorphose into such different creatures just from what its exposed to in the environment? How can a Vaporeon, Jolteon, Flareon, Espeon, Umbreon, Glaceon, and Leafeon all have the same genome as their starting Eevee, but such different traits?

Not to erode Eevee’s specialness, but this happens right here on Earth.

This is known as polyphenism: when multiple discrete phenotypes (a set of observable characteristics) can come from the same genetic background because of differences in the environment. The most common example is different castes in bees. You may know that within a hive, one female gets to be the queen bee, and the other females are worker bees. A queen bee is made by feeding a larvae what’s known as “royal jelly,” which contains chemicals that alter the larvae’s development. If that larvae has a twin sister that didn’t get a special meal, sis will grow up to be a worker. They’re genetically identical, but very different thanks to their environment.

The only thing distinguishing bees from Eevees are the number of choices in development.

eeveebee2

In which I speculate on what would happen if you gave a bee a Fire Stone or Macho Brace.

It will forever irritate me that the game designers chose the term “evolution” instead of a totally accurate, also cool-sounding alternative word. My best guess is that “Bulbasaur is metamorphosing” took up too many pixels, so “evolving” won out. Sadly, this kind of sloppy terminology can cause a lot of misconceptions about what evolution really means. But hopefully now that you’ve learned some Pokébiology, you’re less confused.

EvolveMankey

 

So confused.

The derpiest fish in the Seattle Aquarium

I’m about to fail you as a biologist because I have no idea what the name of this fish is or anything about it as a species. But I do know that I’ve spent way too much time laughing at this photo:

20140426_151900

The Homo sapiens boyfriendii in the background agrees that this is indeed a silly looking fish.

First US case of deadly MERS-CoV arrives in…my hometown in Indiana

My hometown of Munster, Indiana isn’t exactly the most exciting place in the world. As high schoolers we referred to it as Funster, precisely because it wasn’t. There don’t tend to be a lot of news stories coming out of that suburban sprawl, so I was a little surprised when I saw in the news that the first US case of the deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus has appeared in Munster, of all places: 

virus

“The infected patient, a health care worker, flew April 24 from Saudi Arabia to London and then to Chicago.

The person rode a bus from Chicago to Indiana, health officials said.

On Tuesday, the patient experienced shortness of breath, coughing and fever. The person went to the Emergency Department at Community Hospital Wednesday and was admitted that day.

Because of the patient’s symptoms and recent travel, doctors tested for MERS-CoV. MERS-CoV is a viral respiratory illness which was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012.”

It’s a little bizarre reading this, especially since I spent a ton of time in Community Hospital over the last year because of my mom’s cancer treatment. I think I’ve also ridden the same bus from the airport in Chicago to Munster.

What’s especially eerie is that while I was most recently visiting my dad, we watched the movie Contagion, which is about a pandemic of an unknown deadly virus spreading in the US. Whenever we watch sciencey movies, my dad always asks me, “Okay, tell me if this could really happen.” Most of the time I’m rolling my eyes at scientists harvesting unobtanium or sequencing genomes  instantaneously in our current era. But this whole movie I was going “Nope, THIS COULD ACTUALLY HAPPEN.”

Hopefully it’ll turn out to be nothing. Though if my hometown turns out to be ground zero for the zombie apocalypse, at least something interesting will have finally happened there.

Blag Hag Grab Bag 9/10/13

Today’s theme is how elated I am to not be officially involved with the atheist movement anymore:

Why are you calling my texting device?

I have massive phone anxiety.

I feel a bit silly saying that, since using a telephone seems like the simplest task possible. But thanks to my brain cranking my anxiety up to 11, a phone call can be pretty daunting. I’ve tried to encourage people in my life not to randomly call me, but most quickly go back to their own telephone habits and my phone is ringing soon enough. They think I’m just part of a younger generation who prefers texting and email, and a little phone call won’t hurt. Part of the problem is this particular anxiety makes me feel fairly pathetic due to how simple and universal the task is, so I’ve never wanted to explain precisely why I’d prefer texts or emails. But I’m trying to be more open about mental illness, including anxiety, so I want to explain exactly why I hate the phone so much.

What my anxiety boils down to is basically this: Social situations terrify me because I’m certain I’ll be rejected or mocked for saying something embarrassing or foolish. I’m overly concerned with how others judge me (thanks childhood bullies and overly demanding adults!). Phone calls are a particular source of anxiety for a couple of reasons:

  • I have a difficult time understanding what someone is saying from their voice alone (which is the same reason why I tend to hate podcasts). I think it’s partially not having the greatest hearing, and partially relying on some lip reading to fully understand people. Add the usual static and terrible reception of my cellphone, and I feel like an idiot. I feel like a burden asking people to constantly repeat themselves, and like a fool when I reply with a non sequitur because I thought someone said something totally different.
  • I prefer written communication because it gives me time to think about what I want to say, and to digest what others are saying. A phone call has the pressure of instantly responding to what you just heard. I can never fully understand and process what I’m hearing, and I’m never eloquent about what I’m saying. It makes me feel ignorant and like I’m bumbling through a conversation. The anxiety is even worse when I’m talking to someone who knows I’m a writer, because all I can do is wonder if they’re thinking “This person is actually a dumbass, maybe they’re a fraud.”
  • When the option of writing is taken away from me, I will try to imagine the conversation ahead of time, scripting out all the potential things that may be said. This is a neurotic waste of energy, since I can rarely predict what will actually be said and will just feel anxious anyway. The only reason I can order take out is because I mentally practice “I would like the carne asada tacos” a dozen times before dialing the number. Most conversations are not so simple. And even with the simple ones, an unexpected “flour or corn tortillas” is enough to fluster me for a moment, and then I’ll hang up stewing over how stupid I sounded stumbling over a simple question.
  • Most people prefer phone calls to discuss more detailed, difficult, or involved topics, but to me that is the very worst time to use the phone. Everything I said about preferring writing is multiplied here: I need time to process and think. I also find it extremely irritating to use for organizational stuff, since then you’re left with no written record of what everyone said and it’s easy for details to fall by the wayside. Board meetings with the SSA were especially stressful for me. A dozen or more voices speaking at the same time is like phone hell, as is the need to vote on stuff that you’ve only had a half hour of phone debate to think about. But the absolute worst situation is when someone wants to call me to aggressively discuss something we disagree about (I’m sure you can imagine how often that happens to this blogger). Putting a hostile situation over my baseline anxiety has literally given me panic attacks and will leave me feeling miserable all day as I wait for the angry call. I don’t feel like I can articulate my views well in a quick, verbal argument, which leaves me feeling totally unable to defend myself.
  • As an anxious introvert (no, that’s not redundant) I usually have to psyche myself up for any sort of social interaction. From going out to dinner with friends to giving a talk where I know I’ll be expected to mingle afterward, it takes mental preparation for me not to totally stress out or feel immediately drained. Getting an unexpected phone call is like someone saying “Drop whatever you’re doing – you must interact with me right now.” I don’t know what that person is about to talk about, and that lack of preparation makes me panic, not answer the phone, and then wait for a voice mail to see what they wanted to talk about. That voice mail has four main options:
    1. Specific message about what they wanted to talk about. Now that I’m prepared for the discussion I’m about to have and I can think ahead about some of the things I will probably say, I call back fairly quickly.
    2. Vague message saying to call them back. It may take me days or a week to psyche myself up enough to call back, or I may forget to do it before I gather the mental energy.
    3. Vague message saying they’ll call me back. I stare at my phone in terror every time they call and wish they would just leave a goddamn message.
    4. No message. I obsessively wonder why they called in the first place if it wasn’t worth leaving a message, and wonder what I have yet again missed out on because of my stupid irrational anxiety.
  • And that’s all talking about phone calls from people I actually know. Unknown number? Yeah, I’m never answering those.

Now, I do think there are times where a phone call is way more useful than a text or email. Emergencies are obvious exceptions. It’s also way more convenient to call someone when you’re trying to meet them or find them somewhere, but those situations don’t trigger my anxiety because I’m prepared for the brief calls in that context. Surprisingly, I’m slightly less anxious doing interviews, mainly because I know the topic beforehand and the questions are either known to me or highly predictable. At this point I have canned responses for most questions, so there’s no fear in thinking up something on the spot.

I wanted to write about this because I want people to better understand where I’m coming from. This anxiety does interfere with certain aspects of my life, and it’s extra frustrating when alternative tools (text, email) are super common but some people refuse to use them. Ironically, this anxiety is the reason why it took me so long to find a therapist. Most therapists require you to call them as the very first step, which felt like an unconquerable step. The only reason I was able to meet with my current therapist was because he allowed email inquiries. Phone anxiety was also one of the reasons I stepped down from the SSA board: they had a new requirement that all board members would have to call a certain number of donors, and I just couldn’t do it. The board meetings were hard enough. Calling strangers and asking them for money? Even thinking about it made me feel like puking.

I fear that I often come off as unreliable when I’m ignoring or putting off phone calls, but in reality I’m fearful or trying to psyche myself up. I’m worried that my friends think I’m avoidant or just don’t like them when the truth is it’s the phone call I’m scared of. I feel annoying constantly asking for the conversation to be switched to text or email. I wonder how weird people think I am when I reply with a text to a missed call. And then there’s a whole layer of meta-anxiety where I feel bad that I have this problem at all, even though I know I shouldn’t be ashamed of symptoms of mental illness and that I’m probably not the only one with this problem.

I hope writing this will encourage my friends to stop calling my texting device by helping them understand where I’m coming from. And I suspect this will resonate with some of my readers who also deal with anxiety. If you relate, I hope you’ll share your stories in the comments so people can better understand living with anxiety.

Mandisa Thomas adds some pertinent information

I want to highlight this comment by Mandisa Thomas left on my post “On silencing anger to silence minority voices”:

Greetings,

Mandisa Thomas here – the person to whom the Black on Black crime question was directed.

My talk on the day in question was about how the Freethought community can learn from the Hospitality Industry – which was well received by the audience. I touched on my organization briefly, and I did not speak on the problems in the Black community that particular day. So for this woman to come out of left field and ask a question that wasn’t related to the subject at hand was not only rude, but it also implied that just because we are an orgainzation that focuses on Blacks that we are supposed to take on such a gigantic problem on our own. It also seemed to imply that I should ONLY be speaking on issues relating to the Black community. She may not have been meaning to come across as insidious or oblivious, but I also don’t think she was paying attention to my presentation, or even cared much about the issue at hand. She certainly did not speak with me afterwards to either clarify, or even offer assistance on such efforts. I certainly did not go off on her, but she receives no sympathy from me either.

Bria has my full support with this matter. I also think there should have been a better effort to involve the primary organizer of the convention if JT, Mark, and this woman were truly concerned. This obviously didn’t happen, and it is disappointing.

Funny how JT didn’t think to mention that in his post. It makes the whole situation even more blatantly racist, and his reaction even more problematic. But seeing that he has already doubled down and is painting my mere disagreement with him as a toxic evil attempt to destroy him, I expect this revelation won’t change much either.

It’s a sad day when you have the blinders of friendship ripped off.

Belated raging

Today I found out from my dad that when my mom was in the hospital recovering from a serious surgery to remove the tumors from her ovarian cancer, some evangelical Christians came into her room uninvited during a rare moment when my dad was away to try to convert her and ask if she’s heard the good word about her lord and savior Jesus Christ.

Is there anything more fucking reprehensible than preying on the vulnerable who are recovering from a near death experience and undergoing a battle with stage 4 cancer? It fucking disgusts me.

They should consider themselves damned lucky that my dad and I weren’t there, because we would have NOT been friendly atheists.

Assholes.

No, Rick Warren, we’re not “all mentally ill”

Rick Warren, pastor of the infamous Saddleback Church, recently gave a sermon where he attempted to de-stigmatize mental illness…but did the opposite. Warren, whose son suffered from borderline personality disorder and recently committed suicide, said “We’re all mentally ill” and “You have fears, you have worries, you have doubts, you have compulsions, you have attractions…”

Greta Christina has a great response up at Salon:

Mental illness is many things. But there’s one thing it most emphatically is not — and that is everyday fears, worries, doubts, and attractions. (Of the items on Warren’s list, “compulsions” is the only one that belongs.) Seeing mental illness as ordinary emotions is a fundamentally flawed view,  one that harms people actually living with such illness.

It’s common for people with mental illness to have our illnesses treated as just life’s ups and downs. People with clinical depression are seen as just mopey or sad; people with clinical anxiety are seen as just worriers; people with obsessive compulsive disorder are seen as just neat freaks. But these attitudes trivialize mental illness. They frame it as something people should be able to handle on our own — and make any failure to do so seem like a character flaw, a weakness of will.

Read the whole piece here.