academia

Female scientists: They're super effective!

Exciting breaking news, everybody! This is a monumental step for female scientists everywhere. I just found out that we have the first female professor in a scientific field long dominated by men. I’d like to introduce Professor Araragi…the new Pokemon Professor!

Yes, I’m excited for Pokemon Black & White to be released. Don’t judge me for hanging on to a piece of my childhood – the games are addictive and fun! I did geek out about the Professor being a woman, though. Hey, when popular culture starts recognizing that scientists can be female – especially an attractive female instead of a frumpy stereotype – that’s a step in the right direction.

Thoughts on grad school

“What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?”

I’m most looking forward to finally be studying what I’ve always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don’t know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven’t been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much – I think mainly because we don’t have a medical school.

So no, I’m not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn’t my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I’ll be able to talk more about them here once they’re officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I’m excited to be furthering my education and becoming an “expert” in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn – I’m geeking out about all the advanced classes that I’ll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

…Okay, and it’s nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I’ll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.

No talking about animal sex in academia!

A while ago a paper was published that discussed oral sex in bats. Now, if you’ve ever hung around biologists or evolutionary psychologists for more than five minutes, you know that we tend to be a little obsessed with sex. Seeing papers like this greatly amuses and interests us – I know I was sent this paper by at least 10 different biologists I know.

So what happened to Prof. Dylan Evans of University College Cork surprises me. I’ll just repost his letter so you get the whole story:

Dear Colleagues,

The President of University College Cork, Professor Michael Murphy, has imposed harsh sanctions on me for doing nothing more than showing an article from a peer-reviewed scientific article to a colleague.

The article was about fellatio in fruit bats. You can read it online at http://www.plosone.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pone.0007595

It was covered extensively in the media, including the Guardian – see http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2009/nov/10/oral-sex-bats-improbable-research

The colleague to whom I showed the article complained to HR that the article was upsetting. I had been engaged in an ongoing debate with the colleague in question about the relevance of evolutionary biology to human behaviour, and in particular about the dubiousness of many claims for human uniqueness. I showed it the colleague in the context of this discussion, and in the presence of a third person. I also showed the article to over a dozen other colleagues on the same day, none of whom objected.

HR launched a formal investigation. Despite the fact that external investigators concluded that I was not guilty of harassment, Professor Murphy has imposed a two-year period of intensive monitoring and counselling on me, and as a result my application for tenure is likely to be denied.

I am now campaigning to have the sanctions lifted. I would be grateful for your support on this matter. I have created an online petition at:
http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/freedebate/

I’d be grateful if you sign the petition and ask your colleagues to do so. If you also felt like writing directly to the President of UCC, his address is:

Professor Michael Murphy
The President’s Office
University College Cork
Cork
Republic of Ireland.

Your support would be greatly appreciated.

Dylan Evans

If someone gets upset for you bringing up something sexual (that’s relevant) during a biology discussion, something is wrong. Just because us humans like to be puritanical about things doesn’t mean nature follows suit. I’ve blogged before at the diversity of sexual behavior in living organisms – we shouldn’t be ignoring that because “oral sex” sounds gross or sinful. It’s still part of the discussion, whether you like it or not.

I wonder what would have happened if Dr. Evans showed this colleague papers about homosexuality, polygamy, rape, necrophilia, traumatic insemination… I’m betting on fainting and pearl clutching.

(Via Pharyngula)

The Evolution Litmus Test

A couple days ago when I was waiting for my Biomedical Ethics exam to begin, I started chatting with this girl sitting near me. She was in my recitation class, but I didn’t really know anything else about her. Somehow I mentioned I was a biology major, and she brought up the one biology class she took as an Animal Science major: it was my favorite Biology class at Purdue, Evolution of Behavior.

Now, even though one of my research advisors teaches that class, I promise I’m not being biased – every day I left that class absolutely amazed at how interesting and inventive nature was. I’ve always been more of a lab rat and genetics nerd, but this gave me real appreciation for natural history and behavior. We talked about insanely interesting topics like the evolution of echolocation, altruism, dominance regulated ovulation suppression, and electric fish communication. And as a perk, I thought the class was pretty easy; if you just understood basic evolutionary principles and paid attention at all (which was a given, since it was so cool), you’d do fine.

So when this girl brought it up, of course I gushed about how much I loved that class. To which she replied,

“Oh, I don’t believe in evolution. I just took that class to see what the different opinion was like.”

The only thing that kept me from calling her out on the stupidity of her statements (EVOLUTION IS NOT FUCKING OPINION) was the fact that I didn’t want to totally upset myself right before I had to take a difficult exam. But of course, she had to go on,

“It was so hard! I didn’t understand anything he was saying all semester!”

I asked her if she took the required introductory evolution classes before taking this one, and she said no – her Animal Science advisor said the class was easy and she waived the requirements. This made me fume. Evolution of Behavior is a 500-level class meant for upperclassmen and graduate students. We spend about a day reviewing the principles of evolution because it’s assumed you’ve already learned them in the various required classes. So if you stick a creationist in that class with no knowledge of evolution, of course they’re going to be totally confused. And now they can proudly claim “well I took a class on evolution and so I know it’s wrong” just because they didn’t have the skill set to understand the class!

The thing that annoys me the most is that this person is graduating with a degree in Animal Sciences. If you are getting a degree in something biology-related, you should understand and accept evolution. Hell, I know Biology students (mostly molecular or pre-med people) who don’t accept evolution, so it’s not a matter of curriculum*. But to know that we’re giving degrees to people who fail to understand – no, outright deny a basic tenet of biology is shameful.

Would chemistry give degrees to someone who thought the five elements were more accurate than the periodic table? Would physics give degrees to a someone who thought gravity was fairies holding us down to the ground? Would earth and atmospheric sciences give degrees to flat-Earthers? Would astronomy give degrees to people who think the moon is made of cheese?

Maybe with the way American education is set up, you can’t stop someone from graduating based on these things. Maybe they adamantly believe in fanciful superstition, but are smart enough to give the desired (aka correct) answers on exams. How do you hold back someone with crazy beliefs if they got As in all the classes?

And while I hate giving creationists undeserved credentials (“I got a degree in Biology, and I know evolution is false, trust me!”), I guess they can go have jobs where evolution doesn’t matter as much. Go pipette for hours at some company for all I care. But when these people are going on to become teachers or scientists, it’s scary. You need to be able to understand and accept evolution to 1) Teach it to others so we don’t keep perpetuating ignorance, and 2) Come up with plausible hypotheses, do good research, and interpret results correctly.

This is why I think we need an Evolution Litmus Test in these fields. Do not accept people into your school or Masters/PhD program unless they accept evolution. I don’t care how you do it – a written test, an essay question on the application, a simple check box to weed out the honest, asking pointed questions during interviews, sending grad student spies to mingle and get the truth out… But figure out what people deny basic science before you turn them into scientists. A friend shared with me a story about a fellow grad school interviewee at a very prestigious university who was a unabashedly proud young earth creationist around the other prospective students (but not current ones or professors) – do not let this ignorance infiltrate your program.

I know people are going to claim I’m just putting an “atheist requirement” on studying biology, but I am not. There are many many biologists who are religious but still accept evolution. I have friends here at Purdue who go to church weekly, are in religious clubs, and will still laugh at Intelligent Design for it’s anti-science lunacy. This is just a scientific standard. If you don’t believe in a fundamental of the field, you should not be able to claim some sort of expertise in it. It’s as bad as graduating in History with a focus on WWII and believing the Holocaust was a hoax. It proves you do not understand the topic, and it is embarrassing to the school.

But really, is it that outlandish to require people to understand the field you’re hiring them in?

*Note for non-Purdue people: AS is part of the College of Agriculture, and Biology (what I’m in) is part of the College of Science, so we have very different curriculum. Hence why she didn’t have to take those intro Biology courses that teach evolution (though those still fail to educate some bio majors).

I’m just a stupid undergrad, apparently

I stopped by our Send an Atheist to Church event between my classes to see how it was going. A professor (I won’t say from which department, don’t want to identify him) was debating with club members working the table. He had initiated the discussion, and I wasn’t paying much attention until the topic turned to evolution.

It was a bit odd. He mostly accepted evolution, but believed that Intelligent Design was a better explanation for what guided the process. He argued that atheist philosophers and scientists outright rejected ID, and it never gets a chance to be debated or discussed.

(Not exact quotes, but fairly darn close)

Me: That’s because ID isn’t scientific.
Him: Yes it is.
Me: No it isn’t. Name one testable prediction for ID.
Him: Well there a many, but the complexity of structures like flagella.
Me: First of all, it has been explained numerous times by numerous people how the flagella could evolve in a stepwise natural fashion. Second of all, that’s not a way to support or falsify ID. It would falsify evolution, but that doesn’t mean God is the answer.
Him: Well all the great scientists were religious. Newton’s religion helped him figure out physics.
Me: …You can be religious and be a scientist. That doesn’t mean your religious beliefs are correct too.
Him: Well, how about Francis Collins? He was the head of the Human Genome Project and is the head of NIH.
Me: That’s just argument from authority. He’s brilliant at genetics, but that doesn’t mean he knows everything about evolution.
Him: Are you head of the NIH?
Me: No, but I study genetics and evolution.
Him: Do you have a PhD?
Me: I’m going to start working toward my PhD in the fall, maybe you’ll listen to me in five years.

Seriously, how demeaning. Yep, I’m just a dumb undergrad. Obviously I have no say on anything because I don’t have a PhD and I’m not the head of NIH, even though evolution is an easy enough concept for teenagers to understand.

I was pretty much done with him at that point. He may as well have said “little girl, go back to your corner and shut up.” What a disrespectful way to treat a student, especially when you are the one who has no idea what he’s talking about.

I would be sorry for anyone who was in this guy’s class. Disagree with him? Nope, you’re just dumb and immature. Come back when you have more letters after your name.