academia

Gender Salary Equity in Higher Education

I’m an active member of Women in Genome Sciences, a group in my department that works to make our field more accepting and welcoming to minorities. Today in belated honor of Equal Pay Day we hosted Dr. Laura Meyers who did research here at the University of Washington on the gender pay gap in higher education. I figured it was a topic my readers would be interested in, so here’s a summary of her talk:

Even though the Equal Pay Act and the Civil Rights Act were passed over 40 years ago, female faculty still make less. The average salary in 2009-2010 for men was $80,885, while for women it was $66,653. Dr. Meyers wanted to investigate potential causes of such a pay gap, like:

  • Segregation of women to lower paying jobs/fields (Education field is predominantly female and not well paid)
  • Nonmarket responsibilities as mothers/caregivers
  • Higher attrition rates in tenure-track positions
  • Devaluation of women’s work. Women are more likely to have  more teaching and service tasks (being on committees, running events and seminars, participating in outreach). However, research gets paid better than teaching or service
  • Lack of training and on-the-job education
  • Salary negotiation – are women not as good at it for whatever reason?
  • Organization behaviors and equity/salary/promotion policies

Her work takes three main categories of variables into account:

  1. Gender (Your gender and the percentage of your field that’s female)
  2. Human capital (Amount of training, rank, tenure status)
  3. Structural effects (Average faculty class loads, percent of faculty with funded research, average number of publications)

What is the effect of gender on things like base faculty salary, base faculty salary by discipline type, and base faculty salary by institution type? What is the effect of being in a female dominated or male dominated field? To answer these questions, she used the 2004 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty, the most comprehensive survey of faculty out there. It includes 11,257 Faculty affiliated with 26 disciplines and 860 institutions. The downside is that it’s a single snapshot of time and from 8 years ago, but it’s really the best data we have.

Her major findings were:

  • When looking at gender alone, there is a 14.3% gender salary gap. This is reduced to a 4.8% gap when you take the other variables into account. The variable that had the most effect on reducing the gap was rank and status. This is because there’s a high attrition rate for women in tenure track positions, especially in STEM fields, mostly due to policy and climate. So professors who are farther along in their careers and have tenure get paid better, but there aren’t as many women in these positions.
  • Controlling for other variables, the gender salary gap increases as you move toward institutions that offer higher levels of degrees. Associate’s programs are the most equal, followed by Baccalaureate, then Master’s, with Doctoral institutions being the worst with a 5.7% gap.
  • The gender gap is larger in research based positions than in teaching or service positions. Male faculty receive a larger benefit by focusing on research instead of teaching.
  • A higher proportion of female faculty in a discipline is associated with lower overall faculty salaries in that discipline
  • The gender salary gap is larger in institutions with less female faculty than in institutions with more female faculty. This results in male faculty benefitting financially by working in institutions with less female faculty, but females benefitting financially by working in institution with more female faculty

Dr. Meyers made the following suggestions on how we can combat this remaining pay gap:

  • Have flexible tenure/promotion policies and encourage/require faculty to take advantage of them. Often times alternative policies are in place, but there’s social pressure to not take them.
  • Recognize and reward alternative/varied ways that faculty contribute to a department institution. Women tend to do teaching and service more, and these are often seen as less important as research
  • Female faculty should focus on research that is aligned with mission/goals and tenure/promotion policies of their department. If your department is focused on research, limit service and teaching responsibilities. This is especially true when women are basically guilted onto being on every committee or every outreach event because they’re effectively the token minority. Feel safe in saying “No.”

A professor from my department asked if having publicly available salary data makes a difference. Are women more likely to ask for raises if they know what other people in their department are making? Dr. Meyers said she didn’t know for sure because no research has been done looking at that specifically, but she guessed having that knowledge would help. Someone floated the idea of making this gender gap data publicly available so people could see which institutions suck and with the hopes of the public shame changing things. Dr. Meyers responded that research institutions were the biggest offenders when it came to the pay gap, so you’d have to some how tie it into them receiving grant money for them to care.

Another academic accomplishment!

A new paper that I’m an author on has just been published in DNA and Cell Biology!

It’s a slightly atypical paper, though. When I was a senior undergraduate at Purdue, the Department of Biology staff nominated me to help develop the curriculum of a new NSF-funded, research-based, freshman honors biology laboratory course called CASPiE (Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education). That description is a mouth-full, but it basically means these freshman Biology majors were doing real research for a semester, instead of your typical cookbook lab experiments where the outcome is already known. The class was taught by a professor, a graduate student, and me. I like to say that my main duty was making sure the students plated their bacteria on the correct media and didn’t set themselves on fire*, but I also got to give a lecture on evolution and help out with general concepts throughout the semester.

And now that research has been published in a special undergraduate research edition of the journal DNA and Cell Biology. And it’s atypical because the subject matter is vastly outside of my normal field and interests: Isolation and Preliminary Characterization of Amino Acid Substitution Mutations That Increase the Activity of the Osmoregulated ProP Protein of Salmonella Enterica Serovar Typhimurium. That is going to look bizarrely random on my CV.

But the main congratulations go to the undergrads. They’d be juniors now, and having a paper published by then in a major accomplishment. So kudos to them!

*Though one somehow managed to set the rubber tubing connecting to the gas source on fire. I had a moment of “WTF” and then calmly turned the gas off, and the fire went out. Yay lab classes!

*insert academic joy here* :D

This fell into my inbox this morning:

“Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive a 2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship.”

:D :D :D :D

Can’t say anything else. Too busy dancing around the room.

Grad school update

As I’ve been talking with non-academic friends and family, I’ve realized that not many people understand what actually happens in grad school. I also realized that I don’t talk about it a lot on my blog. I guess it’s one of those things where after doing something all day long, I don’t exactly want to come home and write about it. But I’m in an interesting stage of my grad school career, so I thought I’d fill you in.

I’m currently in the second year of my PhD program. PhD programs in the biological sciences are similar but not identical, so what I say here doesn’t necessarily apply to everyone. For example, my program has first year rotations. We spend fall, winter, and spring quarters doing research projects in different labs. This is to give us exposure to different types of research that we may not have experienced before, and to figure out if the personality of the lab is a good fit for us.

And yes, labs have very distinct personalities. Some expect you to be there 9 to 5, others don’t care when or if you’re physically there as long as you get work done. Some PIs (Principal Investigator – the professor who runs the lab) micromanage, others can be impossible to get a hold of. Some labs are close knit and do lots of social activities together, and others are more distant. These are all things you have to take into consideration in addition to the research, because you actually want to be happy for the next four years.

After your rotation, you pick a lab. With programs that don’t do rotations, you join a lab immediately.

In year 2, you’re deciding your thesis project. What the heck are you going to be researching for the next four years? What questions do you want to ask, and how are you going to investigate them? What kind of experiments are you going to do? What’s your backup plan in case everything goes horribly wrong?

For the curious, my thesis topic is the evolution of microRNA in primates. And that’s about all I can say before I publish anything, unfortunately.

The real purpose of the plan is to make sure you have some goals and guidelines and show that you can think scientifically. It’s not necessarily set in stone. If one of your research ideas just isn’t panning out, there’s no point in continuing down that road. On the flip side, if something completely unexpected and awesome pops up, you should definitely pursue it. The plan is flexible.

But again, you need to prove that you can come up with a general plan and think scientifically. The first step is forming a thesis committee. In my department, your committee has three main components:

  1. Your PI, who serves as committee chair. They’re theoretically supposed to act more as a moderator, but some professors have a problem not throwing in their 2 cents (shocking, I know).
  2. Two or more committee members who can give insight into your project. If you’re collaborating with another lab, their PI will usually be on your committee. Otherwise you try to bring in people whose expertise will help with your project. For example, I picked someone who specializes in human population genetics, in human evolution and statistics, and in classical genetics and evolution.
  3. Your Graduate School Representative (GSR). I think this is something fairly unique to the University of Washington. Your GSR is someone outside of your department who’s your advocate and makes sure your exams are conducted fairly. They can be utterly unrelated to your field if your heart desires or if you have a random professor you really like, but many people use their GSR as a way to fill a missing expertise on their committee. For example, I picked someone with a computational background.

I just formed my committee, and my next step is to have my first committee meeting (in a couple of weeks, gah). The point of committee meetings is to give an update on what you’ve done so far and what you plan to do, and for your committee to give criticism and guidance. The first committee meeting is basically a “This is what I plan to do for my thesis” overview, and your committee sends you off with 438294742 questions about your plan that you need to figure out before your…dun dun dun…General Exam.

In my department, your General Exam is in late May or early July. I like to describe it as the time where people decide whether or not to kick you out of grad school. You get two to three hours to present what you’ve accomplished so far and what you plan to do. Most of the time is spent answering questions from your committee. You’re expected not only to have a solid research plan, but to be extremely familiar with all the prior research and biological concepts relating to your project. It’s basically a 45 minute presentation that’s turned into a 3 hour oral exam. It’s accompanied by a written proposal of your project, but the general consensus is that your committee will read that 30 minutes before you exam (if they read it at all) and it’s not as important. Yes, Professors are procrastinators too.

If you have no clue what you’re talking about, are obviously unprepared, and there’s no hope for improvement, your committee can outright flunk you. You’re done with the graduate program, and if you’ve accomplished enough maybe you can leave with a Master’s degree. This is pretty rare, though. Most of the times you pass, or pass with revisions – you have to edit your written proposal or write extra information about how you’ll deal with your committee’s major concerns.

And then you go drink heavily.

So, if I haven’t been blogging as frequently, or blog even less frequently in the future, that’s why. My first committee meeting is in less than two weeks, and then I’ll be preparing for my General Exam. Which is kind of a Big Deal, in case I didn’t make that clear. I’m especially busy since I’m still trying to do some speaking events, because I’m crazy like that. …And because I can do my work on planes. Hooray for computational work!

Scientific publication title of the day

Desperately Seeking Stable 50-Year-Old Landscapes with Patches and Long, Wide Corridors” in PLoS Biology.

I’m not sure if the authors purposefully came up with a title reminiscent of a personal ad, or if it’s just my overactive imagination. Either way, it makes me giggle. I mean, “long, wide corridors”? What a size queen.

For anyone wondering what the paper is actually about, the authors are looking for particular types of environments in order to investigate if corridors effectively conserve biodiversity. Human urbanization (roads, housing developments, Walmarts) serves as barriers that plants and animals have a hard time crossing. This fragments large populations into a lot of smaller ones that can’t interbreed as much. Small populations are more susceptible to events that reduce genetic diversity, like inbreeding and genetic drift. Decreasing genetic diversity is generally considered Bad, because…well, I’m lazy and Wikipedia does a good job at explaining:

“Genetic diversity serves as a way for populations to adapt to changing environments. With more variation, it is more likely that some individuals in a population will possess variations of alleles that are suited for the environment. Those individuals are more likely to survive to produce offspring bearing that allele. The population will continue for more generations because of the success of these individuals.”

Corridors are often used to attempt to make up for this fragmentation, and the authors want to see if the corridors are actually successful in promoting gene flow between populations. Thus their personal ad that made me giggle.

More damning revelations about Burzynski’s “research”

Yesterday I picked apart the Burzynski clinic’s list of “scientific studies supporting antineoplason research since 2006.” Unsurprisingly, a majority of these citations were just abstracts of conference presentations lacking peer review, and a couple studies published in terrible (and even sketchy) journals. I wasn’t able to comment on specifics about the papers since I didn’t have access through my university.

A reader sent me a pdf of the first paper from Pediatric Drugs, which is even more incriminating. For one, it’s a review paper. Review papers summarize the current state of scientific knowledge about a certain topic. Sometimes they perform meta analysis on multiple papers, but they don’t always add any new information. Burzynski’s review falls into the latter – that is, it does not have any new peer reviewed data. And the studies about antineoplastons that the paper cites are from multiple conference abstracts, a patent from 1995, his report to the FDA, and an entry in a book by Nova Science Publishers (aka, also all not peer reviewed).

The only peer reviewed research paper the review cites was on the previous list – it was the one published in the crappy alternative medicine journal. I haven’t gotten hold of the paper, but commenter joshtriska summarized it thusly:

[2] A report on 18 patients with “High-Grade, Recurrent, and Progressive Brainstem Glioma” picked from 4 of his clinical trials. The conclusion states that typically less than 10% of patients with this condition survive 2 years, but in his group 22% (or four whole people) survived past 5 years. The conclusion also states that “Because a small number of patients have been evaluated, a larger study is required to confirm these results”. No kidding!

And that final paper – the one published in the sketchy as hell “Cancer Therapy” journal, was also a review:

[3] A review paper, not a study. Antineoplastons are mentioned and a line of data from one of Burzynski’s trials is included in a table. The discussion states that the data concerning antineoplastons was from from conference abstracts, and not peer-reviewed.

The Burzynski clinic is claiming that it’s libelous to say “There are no scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006.” But it’s not libelous because it is true. Results that lack peer review cannot be said to support something. Abstracts at conferences are not peer reviewed. Review papers do not include new, peer-reviewed data. The only published paper he has itself states that it is inconclusive without a larger study to confirm the results.

Plus, they don’t even understand what the phrase “since 2006” means. It means published starting in 2007. From that alone we throw out the first two papers. You’re left with a review paper that cites conference abstracts, and conference abstracts.

So no, Burzynski clinic. There aren’t any scientific studies supporting antineoplaston treatment since 2006. But there are plenty falsifying it.

A look at the Burzynski clinic’s publications

The Burzynski clinic has responded to the flood of skeptical bloggers with a press release. They’ve apparently fired (in so many words) Marc Stephens for his harassment, yet still plan to send attorneys after UK bloggers. I’m not sure if the targeting of UK bloggers has to do with UK libel laws, or if the Burzynski clinic is oblivious to the dozens of American bloggers also pointing out their harmful pseudoscience.

But the part of the press release that intrigued me was that they finally attempt to give some evidence for all that scientific research Burzynski has to back up his claims. Wow, a list of citations! To a non-scientist, it certainly seems impressive, what with its big words and journal names and such. But as a scientist, I was still skeptical, and decided to do some digging.

Why was I skeptical? Because not all journals are created equal. Lay people know this to an extent. It’s much more prestigious to get into journals like Science and Nature because the peer review process is way more rigorous. Your research not only has to be pretty damn air tight, but it has to make a significant contribution to scientific knowledge. We can measure how good a journal is by a metric known as an “impact factor.” It’s complicated, but generally the higher the impact factor, the better the journal.

So let’s have a look at Burzynski’s research, shall we?

1. Burzynski, SR. Treatments for Astrocytic Tumors in Chiìdren: Current and Emerging Strategies. Pediatric Drugs 2006; 8: l67-178.

Pediatric Drugs: No impact factor.

Off to a great start! (Hint: That’s sarcasm)

2. Burzynski, S.R., Janicki, T.J., Weaver, RA., Burzynski, B. Targeted therapy with Antineoplastons A10 and of high grade, recurrent, and progressive breínstem gliome. Integrative Cancer Therapies 2006; 5(1):40­47.

Integrative Cancer Therapies has an impact factor of 1.716. What does this number mean? Compared to other journals in the category of Integrative & Complementary Medicine, it’s ranked 6 out of 21. Not bad, but “Integrative medicine” sets off my Pseudoscience Alarms. Suspicions confirmed, the  journal describes itself as emphasizing “scientific understanding of alternative medicine and traditional medicine therapies.”

To quote the brilliant Tim Minchin:

“By definition … alternative medicine … has either not been proved to work, or has been proved not to work. You know what they call alternative medicine that’s been proved to work? Medicine.”

What happens when you compare this journal in a more legitimate category, like Oncology? Its rank unsurprisingly drops to an abysmal 134 out of 185.

3. Burzynski, SR. Recent clinical trials in diffuse intrinsic brainstem glioma. Cancer Therapy 2007;5, 379-390.

When this journal’s website loaded, I started laughing and dragged my laptop to my fellow-scientist roommate. It looks like a relic from the 90s. Even more sketchy and unprofessional than the white-text-on-black-background and ugly use of frames is its repeated mentioning of its “rapid review process.” I couldn’t find out anything about the editorial board other than there’s some guy in Greece you should submit things to. And after a lot of digging, I couldn’t find an impact factor at all.

Super sketchy.

4. Burzynski, SR., Weaver, R.A., Janicki, T.J., Jufida, G.F., Szymkowskì, B,G., Kubove, E. Phase Il studies of Antineoplasîons A10 and AS 2-1 (ANP) in chiìdren with newly diagnosed diffuse, intrinsic brainstem gliornas. Neuro-Oncology 2007;9:206.

[etc]

The final nine of his citations all seem to come from the Journal of Neuro-Oncology. Upon first glance, it seems legit. It has a relatively high impact factor of 5.483, which makes it 24 out of 184 in Oncology. Not bad at all, especially for a specialized oncology journal (the neuro part).

Not bad until you search the journal for articles by Burzynski. The result?

Burzynski has not published a single paper in this journal. Every single citation is an abstract from a presentation made at a conference. For those of you not in academia, we like to hold conferences where people can present their research and network. However, you’re allowed to present preliminary results that haven’t been published yet. Any scientist can submit abstracts in order to speak at conferences, and if that single paragraph sounds interesting, you get to give a talk. It’s pretty much impossible to judge how legitimate research is from an abstract (or presentation) alone, and some conferences are not competitive at all when it comes to who gets to speak – they have plenty of spaces to accept all presenters. Journals often act as archives for conferences they’re affiliated with, and will list those abstracts.

This means that none of Burzynski’s research from this journal has actually been peer-reviewed by the journal. The fact that he never actually published this data says a lot. Seriously – if you legitimately found something that helped cure cancer, prestigious journals would be tripping over themselves to have you publish in them. The fact that you can’t publish your research anywhere except in the occasional bottom-of-the-barrel shady journal means your research is terrible.

There was a final citation that stood out to me. It was the only citation that wasn’t research that Burzynski himself had done. Another key facet of science that makes it robust is that other scientists must be able to confirm your findings. And if they falsify your hypothesis, it’s back to the drawing board. So lets look at this one last citation:

11. Ogata, Y., Shirouzu, K., Matono, M., Ushìjima, M., Uchida, S., Tsuda, H. Randomized phase H study of hepatic arterial infusion with or without antíneoplastons as adjuvant therapy after hepatectomy for liver metastases from colorectal cancer. Ann Oncol 2010;21:víiî221 .

Again, this was a presentation made at a conference, specifically the 2010 European Society for Medical Oncology. Again, that means this research has not been peer-reviewed at all. In addition to the lack of non-Burzynski studies replicating his results, the National Cancer Institute also points out multiple studies (in legitimate journals) that are not able to replicate his results.

I would really like someone to take a look at the few papers Burzynski has published to see what the science looks like. One, I can’t access the couple of journal articles he actually does have because the journals are so crappy that my university doesn’t bother subscribing to them. But two, my area is population genetics and evolution, so I’m not really equipped to do an in-depth analysis of cancer research. But as a biologist I can safely remark on the quality of the journals his research was published in, and what that means.

So, Burzynski. Do you have any actual science to support your claims?

Update: I discuss further damning revelations about Burzynski’s research in this newer post.

A bully, plain and simple

Wow.

You know, I certainly understand the concept that not every stupid thing someone says is worth responding to. It’s the reason why I don’t devote a post to every time Ken Ham or Focus on the Family update their blogs. I also understand that sometimes people post terrible things with the sole intention of getting you riled up, and responding probably gives them some sort of smug satisfaction.

But sometimes, even the craziest of tirades deserved to be shared. Not because I think I’ll change the mind of the writer, but because people deserve to see what pure, unhinged, vitriol looks like.

This is a message to me from Abbie Smith of the blog ERV, with my response:

btw, my response to Jen:

Jen–
Rebecca Watson is a loser. She leeches off the skeptical movement to exist. Its disgusting.

You have (had?) potential to be more. And you are flushing it down the toilet.

You are in graduate school. That is your job. You spend way too much time going to these stupid conferences (hey, like Skepticon this weekend), that are not even tangentially related to your job (contrary to what you wrote in the small portion of your proposal I read).

Indeed, graduate school is my job. It is not, however, slavery. I thought you would understand that since you’re also a biology graduate student, but maybe they’re particularly rough over at the University of Oklahoma. You see, people – even graduate students – are allowed to have free time. Yes, we’re allowed to unshackle ourselves from the lab bench and head home for dinner. Some of us will read books or watch movies. Some will head out for beers with friends and coworkers. Some will even – gasp! – take vacations. We are allowed to have lives, and hobbies.

It’s intriguing that you claim I spend way too much time at these conferences, since you don’t know my schedule at all. Like how I purposefully did not schedule any speaking engagements for August, September, October, and early November because I knew I would have to spend extra time preparing for my Research Reports departmental presentation and the NSF fellowship proposal. Or how I’m not scheduling anything January through February because I’m preparing for my committee meeting and have to, as my 2nd year PhD student duties, run graduate student recruitment weekends. Or how I never schedule speaking events in back to back weeks, because I wouldn’t have the time. Or how if I have to miss a half day or day of work for travel, that I make up the time earlier that week or while traveling (which I can do since my project is currently completely computational).

But I’m sure all of the graduate students who decide to attend skeptical conferences will be glad to know that you have deemed them to be a waste of time.

And as for them not being “even tangentially related to my job”… Are you really saying that communicating science is not related to being a scientist? Would you say the same thing to students who spend their weekends helping with science fairs, or giving talks to classrooms or the community? I, like many scientists, want to be more than a pipetting machine.

These speaking engagements have given me much more practical experience in public speaking than most graduate students ever get, and it shows. I am consistently told by multiple professors in my department how excellent my speaking abilities are, and how clearly I can communicate my research.

You are behaving in an utterly unprofessional manner, posting pics of seminars you attend making fun of them, accusing your professors and classmates of being anti-science. The portion of your proposal I read was horrible, to the point of being shockingly horrible for someone of your education and writing experience. It bears absolutely no resemblance to my NIH proposal (which was funded).

This is a drastic distortion of what I’ve talked about here. Yes, I giggled at some particularly horrendous slides from a single seminar (not seminars) that the department as a whole was publicly cracking up about. And I have never accused my professors and classmates of being anti-science. I explained how because of the religious culture surrounding creationism, even some evolution-accepting scientists become uneasy about aggressively supporting evolution.

And while your comments about my proposal were probably meant to hurt my feelings and pad your ego (you got funding, good for you), it just makes me laugh. For one, the NIH fellowships don’t require a personal statement at all, unlike the NSF fellowships. And I explicitly stated my excerpt was from my personal statement, where you are required to talk about your motivation for becoming a scientist and doing outreach.

Second of all, it’s ludicrous that you think you can judge a 6 page application from two paragraphs of a personal statement. A draft personal statement that I openly admitted still needed revision, nonetheless. Unless you’ve been hacking into my computer and reading my finished application, I’ll just assume you’re bitterly taking pot shots. Especially since multiple professors and classmates have told me my application is excellent and very well written.

Which brings me to the worst part of your behavior, and why I know you are well on your way to becoming a professional loser– your proposal sucked, and you blamed your critique on your colleagues supposed anti-science. Youve already said your proposal isnt going to get funded ‘because youre an atheist’ or something stupid like that. And do I remember right, you didnt get into Harvard ‘because youre an atheist’ too, right? When you were properly chastised for behaving inappropriately and unprofessionally, you declared that it was because they couldnt handle you speaking out. Poor you for fighting the system! Career suicide! Bitch, please. I killed a Godfather of Retrovirology, and Ive still got a career (technically, it opened up locked doors for me). Heaven forbid your brain entertain the thought, for a moment, that you just fucked up. You are too stuck up your own ass to take responsibility for your own actions. Youre too old for this kind of immaturity.

My brain almost exploded from the irony that the same person who’s writing an unprovoked diatribe and coined the phrase “Rebecca Twatson” is the one calling me immature.

I’ve never said my proposal isn’t going to get funded because I’m an atheist, or that I didn’t get into Harvard because I’m an atheist. I don’t know why I ultimately didn’t get accepted to Harvard after my interview. And if I don’t get the NSF, it’s probably going to be because they don’t always like discovery based research without clear alternative hypotheses. My point in writing those posts is that I hate that I even have the inkling in the back of my brain that it may be because I’m an atheist. Because sadly, that shit happens. I know people who have lost their jobs because they were atheists, so I can’t help but worry and wonder. It’s one of the reasons I’m an activist – because I don’t think people should ever have to wonder that, even for a fleeting second.

But you can continue thinking I’m a sucky scientist with no social skills who can never admit she’s wrong. I don’t care, because I know it’s not true, and I know the people around me know it’s not true. I’ve demonstrated multiple times on my blog that I’ll edit, clarify, or even remove posts when I find conflicting evidence. I’ve greatly changed my talks because of feedback people have given me when they dispute certain points. And hell, in grad school I’m excited when I’m actually right. Classes challenge the way you think and what you think you know, and professors and classmates constantly challenge your data and interpretations. It’s how science works.

Oh, but right, I suck at that. Moving on.

If you went to my uni and you were in my department, you would be kicked out this coming Spring. And it would have had jack shit to do with your atheism.

But I am not your mother and you are not my problem. If you want to bitch on the internet for a living, more power to you. But you need to deal with the fact that people are going to call you a loser if that is what you choose to do with your life. Because you will be.

If you want to grow the fuck up and be a professional scientist, I would be happy to have you and happy for you.

But I just dont think its going to happen.

The irony of someone bitching on the internet about how I shouldn’t bitch on the internet.

It’s great to know that you would fire me just because you dislike a couple of things I’ve said about feminism (even though you apparently used to think I was awesome), and that you would make that decision knowing literally nothing about my academic achievements. How about the NIH training grant that I’m currently on? How about my two published papers? My grades? Work ethic? Scientific ability at all?

Nope, you know nothing, but you’d be childish enough to fire me.

You’re worried about my ability to become a professional scientist? I’m worried that you will become a professional scientist. We don’t need people who are so divorced from reality that they go on public, outrageous, denigrating rants. I’ll be the first to say that sometimes I can be a bit blunt, or rude, or abrasive. I don’t mince words when I have something to say. But what I’ve never been described as is pointlessly mean. Mean to the point where it’s frankly scary.

But really, it just makes me sad. I used to love your blog, but after “Elevator-gate” you did a Jekyll and Hyde. I can forgive people for occasionally saying something dumb or sexist or mean. But your cruelty isn’t occasional – it’s become an unhealthy obsession, with you lashing out like this at many different people. It’s not my place to psychoanalyze you on my blog, but I sincerely hope you find peace somehow. It’s one thing to strongly disagree with someone, it’s another to say stuff like this.

Keeping your mouth shut to advance your social standing

The thing in the title?

Yeah, doing that makes me miserable.

As you know, I initially wrote a post that references things some people in my department had said. I had already waited a couple of days to write the post, figuring I should give myself time to think about it instead of reacting emotionally. I later removed it because a colleague said it could be perceived as burning bridges within my department. Maybe I needed more time to think. After talking with more people within my department, within academia, and outside of academia, I decided it should go back up with some edits. I think the topic of how we view evolution acceptance and education is profoundly important. How shitty my NSF fellowship draft was not the main point of that article (though thanks to those of you who gave constructive criticism).

I know not everyone agrees with me on my decision to restore the post, so I want to try to explain.

When I was younger, I was shy. Cripplingly shy. I never spoke up because it seemed every time I did, someone would make fun of me or judge me for what I said. I was that nerdy awkward kid with no friends on the bottom of the social totem pole. When I was switching schools, I knew I’d be meeting new people and had a chance to start anew. I resolved myself to not caring about what other people thought about me. I would speak my mind and share my thoughts, and screw anyone who had a problem with it. If they thought I was abrasive or weird or offensive, did I really want to be friends with them anyway?

Doing this changed my life immensely. I was finally happy with myself. There were certainly times where my plan hurt. Like many girls, I had been socialized to be soft spoken and modest and to want everyone to like me. I still feel twinges of panic when I know someone thinks negatively of me. But overall, I find myself much happier – and surrounded by much better friends – because I embrace honesty.

And frankly, I don’t think the social dynamics of the real world – be it business or academia – are all that different from a high school cafeteria. I know that by speaking my mind, I will probably accidentally burn some bridges. There will be people out there who see me as a rabble-rouser and a trouble maker that they don’t want to be associated with. Most people expect you to Play the Game, or to at least Play the Game long enough that you can subvert it from the inside forty years later.

I refuse to play that game.

Is this going to totally ruin my potential career as a scientist? Honestly, probably not. Because for every person who sees me as a liability, there are people who respect a willingness to speak up when it’s risky. I’ve had numerous biology professors and biologists in industry across the country – almost all of them strangers – say how impressed they were that I was doing what I was doing. I’ve even had some try to recruit me to work in their lab. Being an outspoken blogger is going to be seen as a positive by some people. Do I really want to be working with the people who think otherwise?

But a fairly well-known skeptic told me recently that he hoped I was looking into alternative careers, because he thought I was screwed. No one was going to hire me. You have to wait until you have tenure to be so outspoken!

What if he’s right? What if after four more years of grad school, I find out I’m totally wrong? If I realize I can’t get a job anywhere in academia, because people have blacklisted me?

Then I’d be happy to leave academia.

I don’t want to be somewhere where I’m miserable. And being forced to play that game – the game I realize the vast majority of people have to play – is not what I want in life. I rather live my life to the fullest instead of constantly being fearful that anything I do may ruin my Grand Plan. To steal sage advice from Greta – I rather be hated for what I am than loved for what I’m not. If that leaves me trying to get by on freelance writing and blog earnings, or doing who knows what, then so be it. For all I know, it could also leave me as the next celebrated popular science writer. Who knows.

But what I do know is that I will be surrounded by people who like and respect the real me, not someone who is too fearful to speak out, or too busy kissing ass. I’m sure some of you will think I’m a naive idealist, and that I should just hunker down and play the game like everyone else. But the virtues of being honest and outspoken are more important to me than climbing the social ladder or making a couple more dollars on my paycheck.

Accepting evidence is not dogmatic

Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.

Hrmph.

I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.

I was too “dogmatic.”

The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:

            “College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.

The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.

That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. […]”

Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.

Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.

If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.

That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”

I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.

I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.

1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.

2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.

In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…

3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?

4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding.  But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.

5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.

Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?

Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.

Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.

Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?

I hate that I even have to wonder about it.

The shackles of academia

You may have noticed that I took down my previous post. Why? Because apparently it was being perceived as burning bridges with people in my department, which was not what I intended. I just thought it was a starting point for an important and relevant discussion about evolution education.

And if I had to name the number one thing that I hate about graduate school, it would have to be this. I feel like I can’t be as intellectually honest as I used to. I can’t talk about certain things. I can’t explain what cool projects I’m working on or I may be scooped by another researcher. I can’t criticize…well, anyone even remotely related to my field, especially not people in my department, because it would basically be the end of my career. Because academia is like pretty much everything else in this world – who you know is the most important thing. If people don’t like you, good luck ever getting a job anywhere.

So, you guys notice how I haven’t been blogging as much? It’s pretty much because of this. I have interesting things running through my mind all the time, but my tongue is tied. I’m not a tenured professor like PZ.

Bah.

EDIT: After much deliberation, I have decided to restore the post with some edits here.

Open Thread

Grad school is totally owning me this week. The second year PhD students all give a big research presentation to the department in the fall that describes what they achieved this summer, and my presentation is this Friday. Our presentations always make us frantic, but it’s extra crazy this week. Today and tomorrow is our 10th annual departmental symposium, so it’s two full days of talks from superstar scientists. Oh, and Svante Paabo (the guy whose group is behind the Neanderthal genome) decided to publish a paper on Thursday related to my work, and that has given me 1988472 new analyses to run. Thanks, Svante. Oh well, at least he didn’t totally scoop me.

Unfortunately this means I’ve been neglecting my blog. You know, for my real job. Sorry guys! Consider this an open thread to talk about whatever or plug your own stuff. The default of the efficacy of machine gun arms on dinosaurs is a good fall back if you run out of things to talk about.