science

I thought everyone could use a little good news for a change

My labwork is finally starting to work after months of troubleshooting and more months of planning! This is the first positive feedback I’ve had in grad school since I passed my general exam a year ago!

I’ve had my first straight week where I’ve felt “okay” instead of the crippling hopelessness, worthlessness, anhedonia and despair of severe depression!

I’m home with my family to celebrate my mom’s birthday and also get to hang out with my best friend that I’ve known since first grade!

But most of all…

My mom’s cancer marker levels are officially in the normal range and she only has three more chemotherapy sessions left!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

The sexual harassment floodgate has opened, and I add my own trickle

Prompted by the recent admissions from women in the skeptic movement about sexual harassment and the lack of proper response from CFI and JREF, others are opening up. Sasha at More than Men talks about his experience at Dragon*Con with DJ Grothe, President of JREF (emphasis mine):

I had admired his work on Point of Inquiry and when he became president of the JREF I thought it would be a great thing. When I got a chance to meet him that year I was excited. We encountered one another at a Skepchick party (one that had to be moved to the lobby because of noise complaints as soon as it started). He was drunk, but it was a social occasion and I’d had a couple cocktails as well. No big deal. I was fairly surprised though, when DJ turned to me and said that the reason everyone loved the Skepchicks was because they “want pussy”. That seemed to be a rather dismissive and insultingly sexist way to dismiss the work of your professional colleagues (not to mention the people whose booze you were at that moment drinking.

I’m embarrassed to say that at the time I was still a bit fame-struck and too shocked to really process it. I didn’t do what I should have done, and told him how rude, insulting, and unprofessional it was to say something like that, even while drunk. Even in a casual social setting. But then it got more bizarre and incredible. I’m a tall guy, chubby (fat, honestly) and bearded. If I were gay I would definitely be a bear. This was discussed and DJ then made an hilarious horrendous “joke” about how I should pay him a visit down in Los Angeles so that he could drug me and let some of his friends have some fun with me. You know, in other words so that I could be gang raped.

Wow. What the actual fuck. I don’t care if you are drunk or at a party – when the hell is that ever okay to say, especially to a complete stranger? At a work related social event?!

EDIT: Part of this post has been removed for reasons described here.

Two prominent skeptic women share stories of sexual harassment and assault

Get out your hard hats and run to the nearest drama bunker, because the floodgates have been opened.

A week ago Ashley Paramore released a video detailing her sexual assault at The Amazing Meeting (TAM) in Las Vegas, an annual skeptical conference put on by the James Randi Educational Foundation. At the time both Ashley and I gave kudos to JREF for handling the situation well. But now two more prominent women within the skeptic movement have started speaking out, and no kudos are going to be doled out here.

Dr. Karen Stollznow is a research fellow for JREF and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, as well as a co-host on skeptical podcasts and columnist for Skeptic magazine. She recently wrote a piece for Scientific American detailing the years of sexual harassment and even sexual assault she experienced from a coworker at her previous employer (emphasis mine throughout this post):

From late 2009 onwards I made repeated requests for his personal communication to cease but these were ignored. He began manipulating the boundaries by contacting me on the pretext of it being work-related. Then came the quid pro quo harassment. He would find opportunities for me within the company and recommend me to television producers, but only if I was nicer to him. One day the company offered me an honorary position that I’d worked hard for, but he warned me that he had the power to thwart that offer. I threatened to complain to his employer, but he bragged that another woman had accused him of sexual harassment previously and her complaints were ignored. According to him, she had been declared “batshit crazy”. Then, he saw me at conferences and took every opportunity to place me in a vulnerable position. This is where the psychological abuse turned physical and he sexually assaulted me on several occasions.

It didn’t take long for people to figure out the person. Her accused harasser and assaulter is Ben Radford, deputy editor of Skeptical Inquirer and host of Monster Talk. You may better remember him from his “take down” of a 4 year old girl where he insisted women like pink for evolutionary reasons, his dishonest representation of studies on eating disorders in order to support his hypothesis that the media doesn’t affect women’s body images, or his recent assertion that he is “over rape.

And the company in question was none other than the Center for Inquiry, who unfortunately did not handle the situation well according to Dr. Stollznow:

When I approached them with my accusations they appeared to be compassionate initially. I spent many hours explaining my story over the phone and days submitting evidence. Then they hired an attorney to collect the facts and I had to repeat the process. I provided access to my email account. I also devoted two days to face-to-face discussions about my ordeal. This “fact collector” also collected a lot of hearsay from my harasser, about how I’m a slut and “batshit crazy”. This tactic of the accused is so common it’s known as the “nut and slut” strategy. I soon learned that the attorney was there to protect them, not me.

Five months after I lodged my complaint I received a letter that was riddled with legalese but acknowledged the guilt of this individual. They had found evidence of “inappropriate communications” and “inappropriate” conduct at conferences. However, they greatly reduced the severity of my claims. When I asked for clarification and a copy of the report they treated me like a nuisance. In response to my unanswered phone calls they sent a second letter that refused to allow me to view the report because they couldn’t release it to “the public”. They assured me they were disciplining the harasser but this turned out to be a mere slap on the wrist. He was suspended, while he was on vacation overseas. They offered no apology, that would be an admission of guilt, but they thanked me for bringing this serious matter to their attention. Then they asked me to not discuss this with anyone. This confidentiality served me at first; I wanted to retain my dignity and remain professional. Then I realized that they are trying to silence me, and this silence only keeps up appearances for them and protects the harasser.

The situation has disadvantaged me greatly. I have lost a project I once worked on, I have had to disclose highly personal information to colleagues, and I don’t think that I’ll be offered work anymore from this company. Perhaps that’s for the best considering the way they have treated me. I have since discovered that this company has a history of sexual harassment claims. They also have a track record of disciplining these harassers lightly, and then closing ranks like good ol’ boys. Another colleague assured me this was better than their previous custom of simply ignoring claims of sexual harassment.

This news is especially troubling in light of CFI’s recent controversy with their CEO Ron Lindsay’s contemptuous remarks during his opening speech at the Women in Secularism 2 conference and their board of directors’ tepid non-response. The negative environment at CFI caused their Point of Inquiry podcast to jump ship and move to Mother Jones. CFI has posted a  vague reply to Dr. Stollznow’s article.

I am doubly glad that I asked to be removed from CFI’s speakers bureau (which they did, even though they never had the common courtesy to reply to my email at all or address my concerns).

CFI is not the only organization involved in Dr. Stollznow’s troubles. The assaults she described occurred at TAM. Carrie Poppy, former communication director for the JREF, has spoken out about how poorly JREF handled the situation:

1. Dr. Stollznow says that she was assaulted at the James Randi Educational Foundation’s (JREF) annual conference, The Amazing Meeting (TAM) on three separate occasions. Dr. Stollznow is a research fellow for the JREF, and is a respected speaker at TAM. The person who she says assaulted her is Ben Radford, another speaker at TAM and a long-time ally of the JREF’s. I am not speaking to the legal validity of these claims, as I have no legal expertise on the matter, but I believe Karen’s account, given the information she’s relayed to me in private, which I won’t recount here.

2. Dr. Stollznow says she made these alleged assaults known to JREF president D.J. Grothe several months ago, but according to Karen, he declined to do anything about the matter.

3. CFI told Dr. Stollznow that they would only be reprimanding their employee for his behavior. Dr. Stollznow let Mr. Grothe know that she felt her harassment and assault were being treated as nothing more than a grievance among friends, and Grothe responded, ” I am happy to learn from you that the CFI has responded to your complaints with the seriousness they deserve.” (see attachment 1).

4. Dr. Stollznow requested that Mr. Grothe assure her that her alleged assailant would not be at future JREF events, for her safety and the safety of others at future events. Mr. Grothe declined to ban the speaker, saying, “there are at present no such plans” to have Mr. Radford speak at a JREF event, more than a year before the next TAM, and well before speaking engagements are secured (see attachment 2).

5. Dr. Stollznow approached the JREF board, asking them to intervene in Mr. Grothe’s bizarre behavior, and make a commitment not to have the speaker in question at future JREF events. Their response: “JREF does not and will not have a blacklist” (see attachment 3).

Isn’t it comforting to know that JREF doesn’t have a blacklist, even for speakers who have sexual assault against other speakers? Those are some great morals you’re upholding there, JREF. I’m sure it has to do with “free speech” or something, right?

But that’s not the only issues JREF has. Carrie Poppy’s time there was short and ended abruptly, and she now speaks out about some of the reasons why:

 In my time at the JREF, I witnessed continuous unethical behavior, much of which I reported to the Board of Directors. I was assured on more than one occasion by James Randi that D.J. Grothe would be fired (I hear Randi denies this now, though he repeatedly promised it to another staff member as well, and that staff member and I represented the entirety of JREF full-time staff other than D.J. and his husband, Thomas), but after several months of waiting and being asked to wait, it became clear that D.J. was not going to be fired. The list of problems that I sent to the board was so long that my pasting it here would be comical at best, but it is relevant to note that although I didn’t list it, Mr. Grothe’s prejudice toward women was one undeniable factor. My predecessor, Sadie Crabtree, had warned me about D.J.’s misogyny and disrespect for women coworkers (she even advised me not to take the position, due to this issue), but I thought myself strong enough to endure it. I underestimated the degree to which such constant mistreatment can beat a person down. As I mentioned, I only lasted six months.

The final straw, for me, was that Mr. Grothe attempted to remove me as a speaker from the Women in Secularism 2 conference, going above my head (and Melody Hensley’s head) to her male boss, Ron Lindsay, and telling him that it would be bad for the JREF’s image if I attended a “feminist conference.” In defending his actions to me, D.J. told me he didn’t trust me to handle the event, saying I would be asked if he was a sexist (an unanswerable question in his mind, apparently) and that I might break down in tears crying about my own sexual assault, if the issue of rape arose. I was given no credit for the fact that I am a professional spokesperson with almost a decade of experience, that I have a successful skeptical podcast, am a published author, and that my personal assault experience makes my opinions on assault more relevant, not less. To him, I was a hysterical woman, nothing more.

This is ludicrous. I don’t even know what I could possibly say, other than this:

Thank you, Karen and Carrie. Thank you for having the bravery to come out and speak about your experiences. I wish it didn’t require bravery to do so, but sadly we’re a community that thinks the proper response to “guys, don’t do that” is years of harassment and rape threats. Thank you for speaking up, because the more people who speak up, the safer this community will be. I hope this gives the strength for others to be open about their experiences and start naming names. I know many women have come to me with similar horrible stories or specific examples of harassment from prominent speakers, but I can’t speak for them – the people who experienced it need to be the ones who speak up. And we need to create an environment where that is possible.

Thank you.

This is not an okay way to talk about depression and suicide

Warning – I’m about to break the hive mind and disagree with a fellow blogger.

Chris Clarke has a post up at Pharyngula “On using suicide as a rhetorical strategy.” His post is in response to Hugo Schwyzer admitting that he had just spent a week at a psych ward after he committed himself. Chris refers to this as a “passive aggressive” reference to suicide, and paints Schwyzer as an attention seeking faker. Why?

“And as a consequence, anyone who’s been subject to that kind of emotional abuse is likely to find new examples of rhetorical suicide threats like the one above supremely triggering, even if they’re made in, say, overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” blog posts or what have you.

[…] But if the statements are made where more than one or two people can see them, in a NYMag article or on Facebook or Tumblr or LiveJournal, the safe bet is on “abusive manipulation.

Public suicide threats, whether direct or oblique, should be presumed at first glance to be forms of emotional abuse. If they’re direct threatening statements, the best helpful response, if you can use it safely, is “do you need a ride to the hospital?” If the person’s really suffering — and again, I have personal experience with both sides of this interaction — it may either get them the help they need or put things in perspective.”

As someone who just spent months working up the courage to write what could probably be described as an overly dramatic “I feel sorry for myself” public blog post about my severe depression, this punched me right in the gut. Who are you to judge how people who are “actually” depressed or suicidal really act? Who are you to judge whose depression or suicidal tendencies are legitimate or fraud? Do you really think you can figure that out through the internet and with no psychological expertise?

I don’t defend Schwyzer’s previous actions. But policing the behavior of depressed people, trollish assholes or not, makes it harder for those with depression to be open about our illness. The stereotype of “depressed people as fakers” is a horrendously common one. No amount of qualifiers about how this doesn’t apply to people who are “actually” depressed helps, because you’re still perpetuating that stereotype.

It’s the reason it took me years to admit my depression to any of my friends, because I was terrified no one would take me seriously and would just think I was an attention whore. And you know why I had that fear? Because some of my “friends” did just that.

It’s the reason it took me another decade to seek professional help from a therapist, because they convinced me I was actually a faker who didn’t need help.

It’s the reason why I didn’t ever talk about my chronic depression when I first started blogging, because I was afraid Christians would use it as a weapon against me.

It’s the reason why it took me months of courage to talk about my depression now, because I feared my internet haters would scour my blog and twitter feed for any comment that could be interpreted as “happy” so they could label me a liar. If Chris had published this post a week ago, I may have never opened up about what has been happening to me out of fear that’s how people would view me. And I would never have experienced the relief I felt from releasing that pent up emotion and hearing all of your wonderful support.

I know Chris has experienced depression himself, but that doesn’t make his comments okay. Even though Schwyzer may be despicable for what he’s done, despicable people can also succumb to depression. Depression is soul sucking, and I wouldn’t wish it on even the worst of my enemies. So when someone admits they just came out of a psych ward – which is reflecting on something that already happened, not making a threat about the future – my instinct is to give them at least a little bit of empathy. Not to question their motives.

Abusers threatening self-harm as manipulation certainly happens, and it’s a serious issue. No one should have to just suck it up when they hear “if you leave me I’ll kill myself” or something similar. I hope someone with more training in that area (Miri?) will comment on how to deal with it, since I do not want to give uneducated advice about it. I want to be able to have that discussion without perpetuating stereotypes. So at the very least, can we not dictate what’s proper social media behavior for those with depression?

Her (recent) conference assault

Ashley Paramore has released a much-watch video about her recent conference assault at the 2012 Amazing Meeting in Las Vegas. Sadly, the adjective “recent” is necessary since this is hardly the first or second or third time Ashley has had this unfortunate experience at one of the many atheist and skeptical conferences she has attended.

Thank you, Ashley, for sharing this. She goes more in depth about this in the video, but speaking out about harassment and assault is difficult. If you’ve been paying any attention at all to… well, the internet over the last couple of years, you know the kind of horrible treatment that women get for speaking out about these things. When she was employed within the atheist movement, she was too worried that speaking out about her assaults would negatively affect her job and future job prospects. Thank you for having the strength to speak up now.

And I also have to thank the JREF for handling her situation well. They’ve received a lot of flack lately, but I have to give credit where credit is due.

Hopefully this video and the harassment policies that have been implemented across cons will help more women feel safe to speak about their experiences and make atheist spaces safe spaces.

Paid vacation and graduate school

No, the title isn’t meant to be a punchline.

I was reading an article about the United States’ abysmal paid vacation and holiday policies. What makes them so abysmal is that they don’t exist. A study from The Center for Economic and Policy Research explains:

The United States is the only advanced economy in the world that does not guarantee its workers paid vacation. European countries establish legal rights to at least 20 days of paid vacation per year, with legal requirements of 25 and even 30 or more days in some countries. Australia and New Zealand both require employers to grant at least 20 vacation days per year; Canada and Japan mandate at least 10 paid days off. The gap between paid time off in the United States and the rest of the world is even larger if we include legally mandated paid holidays, where the United States offers none, but most of the rest of the world’s rich countries offer at least six paid holidays per year.

I really encourage you to read the rest of the article if you’re interested. It addresses things like the paid vacations given by employers (they still suck compared to other countries) and how it breaks down depending on your pay level (poor people get screwed, what a shocker). It baffles me why employers wouldn’t want to make their employees happy, since happy employees are more loyal and productive and ultimately benefit a business in the long run. Everyone wins!

As someone who has been a perpetual student her whole life, I’ve never really experienced a “real job.” Working minimum wage at a golf course doesn’t seem to count for this discussion, since I didn’t have any benefits. But grad school has its own unique situation when it comes to things like paid leave, partially thank to the weird student-employee limbo it puts you in.

Other programs may work differently, but I’m paid on a stipend through a fellowship from the National Science Foundation. What that means is I get a paycheck deposited into my bank account every 2 weeks no matter what. It doesn’t matter if I’ve worked 80 hours or 8, if there were national holidays, if I took a vacation, if I got sick, etc.

It’s both a blessing and a curse.

The blessing part is obvious – I get paid no matter what. The potential problem is that because of this lack of regulation, workplace standards are basically up to your adviser’s whim. My adviser happens to be extremely hands-off and doesn’t care what hours you’re in lab, if you’re working from home, or if you’re taking vacations. He just cares that you’re getting good work done, even if that takes less than 40 hours a week because you’re efficient. He allowed a grad student to work from abroad a month at a time because she was in a long distance relationship and her work was purely computational. You don’t have to approve vacation times with him ahead of time, or even really warn him about it . He expects you to be motivated enough to manage your own schedule and only take vacations if you think you can. So when I wanted to see the Postal Service play in Portland last Wednesday, it was no big deal to take a day off in the middle of the week. The downside to all of this is that our lab tends to get empty thanks to our random hours not really overlapping, and sometimes I wonder how long it would take him to notice I was gone if I dropped dead.

But the curse is more obvious if you have a more stereotypical, demanding professor. From talking to other grad students, the following experiences seem all too common. Many professors expect you to work weekends and put in more than 40 hours a week despite us not having paid overtime, arguing that’s just how grad school is. If your vacation request isn’t outright rejected, expect emotional manipulation to try to guilt you out of it. You’ll be compared to “harder working” grad students and be told “this is just how things work in academia.” Your desire to want your job to be treated like a job will risk you getting labeled as unmotivated and not willing to make sacrifices in the name of science. You’ll worry that attempting work-life balance will lose you that letter of recommendation, regardless of the quality of your research. Yeah, maybe what you did was excellent, but you could have always done more.

PhD comics by Jorge Cham

Regardless of the type of professor you have as an adviser, there’s another element to the curse: Without set hours and policies, you feel like you’re always working. Your research never stops. You may have headed home for the night, but you’re still thinking about how your experiment went wrong or what analysis you can do next. You feel obligated to read another paper or keep working on that code you couldn’t debug during the day. There’s always something more you could be doing with your project. But when you feel like you’re working every minute of the day with no reprieve, you become exhausted. It’s harder to focus when you’re actually at work because you’re burnt out. And that in turn makes you feel guilty for not working hard enough, so you keep working when you’re at home, which makes you exhausted…etc, etc, cycle of doom.

But without set policies, it’s difficult to set a regular schedule. Having “sick days” you can use lets you know its okay to take off work when you’re sick, instead of feeling guilt to come in or keep working from home. Having “vacation days” encourages you to actually take time off for your physical and mental well-being instead of burning out from feeling required to work 24/7. Some people are great at self imposing work restrictions, and I think that’s often a key to success in academia. It’s still something I’ve yet to figure out, and its made more difficult by the “You Must Always Be Working And Only Care About Your Science” mentality that grad school promotes.

Unfortunately that mentality is pervasive through academic culture. You see it when academics tell students they shouldn’t care where their postdoc or faculty position is located because they should just be happy they have a job. They should be nobly pursuing SCIENCE; the fact that the job is located in a place that makes them miserable or separates them from a significant other should be irrelevant.

I’m certainly not trying to say grad students have it the worst. With the right adviser and self control, we can have amazing flexible schedules that don’t drive us crazy. I’d say I’d wish grad school was treated with the same standards as a “real job,” but then I remember the sad facts I presented at the beginning of this post. Many Americans don’t get paid vacations at all. Even when paid sick leave is required, employers don’t necessarily give it. And all of this isn’t even getting into bigger workers issues like minimum wage vs. living wage, or wage theft, which arguably also happens to graduate students in the form of required student fees. In what other job would it be acceptable to have to pay 5% of your salary to keep being employed?

I guess I have to keep things in perspective. At least I don’t work for Walmart.

No atheists in Intensive Care Units

One week had passed since I flew out to be with my mom. Our spirits were high thanks to recent progress – my mom had woken up, seemed to have all of her mental faculties and remember who we were, and was just getting enough strength to communicate by pointing at letters on a board. The fact that those things sounds so insignificant should tell you just how bad things had been.

My dad and I were going through our new routine – sitting next to my mom in the ICU while she slept. We kept pretty quiet to try to not to disturb her, since good sleep in the ICU was rare. This unit was grandfathered in, which meant there were no walls between patients despite that being the new regulation. And I can see why that regulation passed. Machines beeped and droned constantly. Visitors yacked loudly on cellphones making personal calls (against a rule that apparently no one would enforce). But the worst was when something was going wrong. One patient tried to tear out all of his tubes while swearing up a storm and thrashing around the unit. Even more disturbing was when nurses would swarm a patient when something was going terribly wrong.

It wasn’t a good place for the kind of peaceful rest you need after you almost died.

But since my dad and I were trying not to make my mom’s space any noisier than it already was, we mostly sat and listened. And I’ll always remember one of the conversations we silently listened to, only communicating with each other through mutual eye rolls.

A man had been admitted in the bed next to my mom for triple bypass surgery (yes, you hear that much detail and more – if I had been taking notes I could have told you his whole medical history and current medications…so much for medical privacy). It seemed to have been pretty routine and uncomplicated – he had been wheeled out and back and was pretty much instantly looking back to normal. He was immediately eating solid food while resting in his lazy boy. To put things into perspective, my mom had just been given her first nutrient IV bag after almost a week of no food at all, and still couldn’t stand.

The man called a nurse and she promptly came to help him with what he needed. He said to her, “My brother says if you thank nurses, you get better service. So I guess I should say thank you.”

The nurse looked at him incredulously for one moment before squeezing a “you’re welcome” through gritted teeth.

I was kind of stunned. Who thinks that way? You think the only reason you should be polite and thank someone is because you selfishly want better service? You know, not because that nurse was part of a team that saved your life? More so, who says that out loud without realizing how incredibly rude it is?

It irritated me, but I tried to ignore it. Maybe he was hopped up on drugs or something. Maybe he was just a jerk. Whatever. I didn’t need to worry about him because I was just happy my mom was alive. (And to illustrate one of the reasons I love my mom: After she was able to communicate clearly through writing, she overheard the nurses placing an order for their dinners over the phone, and she tried to insist that we pay for her nurse’s meal since she had been taking such good care of her all week. The nurse politely declined, but that’s the kind of lady my mom is – even in sickness she’s thinking about others.)

Pretty soon his family filed in to visit. My irritation returned because the conversation for the next couple hours can be summarized as “Praise Jesus and the power of prayer for this successful surgery.”

Excuse me? Praise Jesus? Praise prayer? This coming from the same guy who only thanked his nurse because he wanted better service? Yes, let’s snub the human being who was instrumental in your medical care and instead pat ourselves on the back for clasping our hands together and wishing things go well. Let’s thank Jesus but not the doctors and nurses who have devoted their lives toward training to do this. And definitely not the scientists and engineers who developed the methods for your survival. Thank Jesus.

The arrogance of it drove me mad. They probably found their religious beliefs comforting, and never considered what this may sound like to people around them, since in Indiana it’s pretty much assumed you’re a Christian. It’s not just the snubbing of science that irritated me. It made me think, “Why do you think your God saved your husband, but put my mom through so much pain? Why is he worth saving but she’s made to suffer through all of this? What kind, just God would do that?”

That’s when I was glad I was an atheist in that ICU. While my Greek Orthodox grandparents were weeping and distraught, asking me desperately why God would punish my mother like this, I understood that nothing divine decided this.  It did not reflect a flaw in my mother’s character or some sin that god was punishing. It did not reflect the frequency of prayers from all the church lists she had been added to, nor was it punishment for having rabid atheists for a husband and daughter. It was bad luck, a random mutation in the wrong spot at the wrong time.

I was distraught enough over my mother’s well-being – I’m glad I didn’t have to be distraught over god’s will as well.

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.

kthx,

Jen

Paleofantasy: When people act like cavemen because they misunderstand evolution

I’ve been waiting so long for someone to write this book.

Salon has a great interview with Marlene Zuk, evolutionary biologist who just wrote “Paleofantasy: What evolution really tells us about sex, diet, and how we live.” The Paleo diet? How evolution surprisingly supports 1950s gender roles? Yeah, those ideas aren’t actually supported by evolution after all – something that should come as no surprise to my readers.

It is striking how fixated on the alleged behavior of our hunting-and-foraging forbearers some educated inhabitants of the developed world have become. Among the most obsessed are those who insist, as Zuk summarizes, that “our bodies and minds evolved under a particular set of circumstances, and in changing those circumstances without allowing our bodies time to evolve in response, we have wreaked the havoc that is modern life.” Not only would we be happier and healthier if we lived like “cavemen,” this philosophy dictates, but “we are good at things we had to do back in the Pleistocene … and bad at things we didn’t.”

The most persuasive argument Zuk marshals against such views has to do with the potential for relatively rapid evolution, major changes that can appear over a time as short as, or even shorter than, the 10,000 years Cordain scoffed at. […]

There are human examples, as well, such as “lactase persistence” (the ability in adults to digest the sugar in cow’s milk), a trait possessed by about 35 percent of the world’s population — and growing, since the gene determining it is dominant. Geneticists estimate that this ability emerged anywhere from 2200 to 20,000 years ago, but since the habit of drinking cow’s milk presumably arose after cattle were domesticated around 7000 years ago, the more recent dates are the most likely. In a similar, if nondietary, example, “Blue eyes were virtually unknown as little as 6000 to 10,000 years ago,” while now they are quite common. A lot can change in 10,000 years.

Read the whole piece, as it’s a great summary of why these sort of standard evolutionary psychology arguments are so flawed.

Now, I do think evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential. Obviously the brain evolves like any other organ, which has fascinating effects on behavior. But the field is in its infancy, and is currently propped up on arm chair speculation and frequently unfalsifiable claims (claims that are impossible to prove wrong).

My favorite example of this comes from the Evolutionary Psychology class I took in undergrad. Now, I was originally super excited about this class. As someone who was interested in human evolution, behavior, and sex, I thought that evolutionary psychology was my calling. That was until we got to a specific lecture on human sexuality. We were discussing a study that was investigating patterns of human promiscuity, and the professor asked us to come up evolutionary explanations to describe the data we could potentially see. Most people came up with something along the lines of “Female humans will not be promiscuous because pregnancy has more cost to them and they need a monogamous mate to help rear the child, where men will be very promiscuous  because they want to spread their seed as much as possible.”

I’m sure you’ve all heard that argument somewhere before. But I presented an alternative hypothesis: “Female humans have cryptic fertility – it’s hard to tell when they’re ovulating – so they will be equally promiscuous, because then no man will know if the child is theirs so they will all pitch in to help rear the child.” I presented this idea because evolutionary psychology often looks to primitive tribes for its hypotheses, and we see my scenario happening in many tribes of South America.

My professor nodded and said that was a good alternative explanation. I asked how we would be able to distinguish between the two hypotheses, but he didn’t seem to understand why that mattered. He saw evolutionary psychology as being able to explain either situation, so in his mind it only supported the field of evolutionary psychology because it was able to explain anything!

But the ability to come up with an explanation for anything is not what makes something scientific. Creationism can come up with an explanation for anything – “God did it” – and that is not scientific. To be scientific you need your predictions to be falsifiable, and unfortunately right now evolutionary psychology is closer to creationism than it is evolutionary biology.

Like I said, evolutionary psychology has a lot of potential because the brain evolves. But I think we need to establish a much larger base of information before we can even remotely accurately interpret data. We need to understand the staggering complexity of the brain and the genomic contribution to that complexity before we can really start investigating what’s going on, and even then it will not be as simple as thinking “What would cavemen do?”

Happy Darwin Day!

It’s my annual excuse to post my favorite Darwin related image:

Unfortunately I don’t have time to write up a substantial Darwin-themed post… ironically because I’ve been working on a group presentation for my Philosophy of the Genome class on the eclipse of Darwinism and the following modern evolutionary synthesis.

Are any of you taking part in Darwin Day celebrations?

My current feelings on the skeptical movement and blogging

I must not be the only one feeling disenchanted, since all of these other people can speak perfectly for me. From PZ, in response to Steven Novella’s piece about the scope of skepticism:

As for that awful, dishonest, destructive claim that “Political, moral, and social ideology are ‘outside the scope’ of skepticism because they remove objectivity” — I ask, OK, so would you claim that there is no rational, evidence-based argument against, say, slavery? That it is impossible to make an objective argument in any domain against treating people as property?

If that’s the case, well then, fuck skepticism. It isn’t relevant or useful anymore. It has abstracted itself into the realm of a private academic circle-jerk, and we can stop arguing, because just maybe atheists, who apparently have more rational minds, can just leave the party voluntarily.

Improbable Joe responds to the second paragraph with this comment:

A-fucking-men! If all that skepticism is for is dismissing the same silly claims that have been dismissed for sometimes hundreds of years, and not for creating positive change in the world, then what goddamned use does it have? “Hey, let’s all get in a room once a week and talk about how homeopathy is still quackery, and that Bigfoot is a hoax! And then we can pat each other on the back for still not believing the same daffy shit we didn’t believe last week, and didn’t believe the week before either!” Wow, yeah, that’s really inspiring me to join a “movement” that seems to be fixated on not moving, not budging a single solitary inch, if in doing so it moves beyond smug self-congratulation.

And to close, sawells perfectly summarizes why I’m sick of dealing with the skeptic movement:

I think there are two unspoken arguments which people want to make and can’t (publicly).

Argument 1: skepticism is fine if you point it at things which very few people really believe (bigfoot;alien abduction) because if they get angry we can laugh at them. Don’t point it at things which lots of people believe! There are lots of them and if they get angry that might be scary!

Argument 2: skepticism is fine if you point it at other people who are wrong. Don’t point it at me! I’m not wrong!

Hence the massive pushback against applying basic skepticism to things like mainstream religious claims and mainstream gender stereotypes.

This. Oh, so much this.

I’ve grown reluctant to deal with the egos of skeptic celebrities and politics of skeptical organizations who, frankly, aren’t the great skeptics they think they are. But I’ll still keep writing and speaking about science and skepticism because, well, I find them important and interesting. I’ve realized I don’t need to be an official part of a group or a movement to do those things, nor am I personally responsible for spending my time and energy in improving a movement that is so stubbornly resisting improvement.

Because when my time and energy is spent on repeatedly explaining why diversity matters, why harassment policies are good to have and are already widely implemented at other events, why Obviously Sexist Statement from Skeptic Pope X is problematic, and why certain topics are not exempt from skepticism…then I don’t have the time to write about those certain topics that matter to me. I don’t have time to create unique material about science and skepticism when I’m stuck meta-blogging about how some atheist yet again told me to go kill myself on twitter because I’m an ugly bitch who’s ruining skepticism.

And I didn’t realize how obnoxious this meta-blogging was until I took a break from blogging and spent some time as just a blog reader. All of the blogs I had once loved now hardly ever produce unique material about atheism or skepticism because they’re too busy reacting to trolls or debating some “big name skeptic” (who is really just some shmuck* only known to a small group of people whose opinions have little effect on the world at large). Even the rare unique posts are frequently filled with snide offhand remarks about people they don’t like or vague comments alluding to past drama. And you know, if that’s what they want to do, that’s fine. One of my main pet peeves as a blogger is when people tell you what you should be writing about, when it’s a blogger’s prerogative to write about whatever they find interesting.

I personally no longer find the meta-blogging interesting.

So consider this meta-meta-blogging my long-winded way of saying that my attitude toward blogging is changing. From now on, trolls and haters will be ignored instead of further publicized, and I encourage my readers to do the same in the comments. I will not feel guilty about moderation or banning in order to make a harassment-free environment for me and my readers. I will only comment on controversies if I feel that they have effects outside of our tiny little skeptical bubble. And most importantly, I will concentrate on writing unique material about the topics I care about instead of just endlessly replying to blogs, comments, and tweets.

That’s what I want to spend my time and energy on, not fixing a stubborn skeptical movement’s academic circle jerk.

*I count myself in the category of “random shmuck that other people care way too much about.” I wish my haters would spend less time obsessing over what’s effectively an open access creative writing journal for a random grad student, and maybe take up some sort of constructive hobby, like actually promoting science and skepticism, or at the very least, knitting.

Welcome to Pokébiology 101

PokebiologySmall

Hello there! Welcome to the world of Pokémon! My name is Jen! People call me the Pokémon Grad Student!

…Okay, I don’t think anyone has actually called me the Pokémon Grad Student. But I’m a PhD candidate studying evolution and genomics who has been playing Pokémon since its release in 1998. My friend showed me his Red version, and soon after I owned my first video game – Pokémon Blue. I’ve been hooked since then.

As I progressed through my training as a biologist, I started to look at the Pokémon world in a new light. At first, it was irritation. Everything seemed wrong. They confused metamorphosis for evolution. Breeding didn’t make any sense – different Pokémon species could interbreed, but the offspring were always the same species as mom. Gender ratios didn’t reflect biological mechanisms, but rather a game designer’s attempt to keep certain Pokémon rare. Why, it was if they were trying to design a fun game with no regard to biological accuracy

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darwin heart piplup by claudetc

But as I learned more biology, I started to realize nature isn’t as simple as it seems. There are all sorts of strange biological phenomena that result in counter-intuitive mechanisms, traits, and organisms. Nature is really, really weird. So I started viewing the Pokémon world as a puzzle. If I were Professor Oak, what experiments would I be doing? Are there any natural processes in the real world that could explain Pokémon biology?

Bulbasaur Anatomical Study by JoshuaDunlop

Some of you must be thinking, “Jen, it’s just a game. It’s not supposed to make sense. Chill.” I know, I know. I don’t expect all games to be 100% scientifically accurate at the expense of fun. But I like daydreaming about how the biology of Pokémon could “work.” It’s as if I’ve discovered a whole planet of alien life to study, and what biologist wouldn’t want that?

But more importantly, I see the Pokémon world as a great way to teach people about actual biology. And I’m hardly the first person to think this – the creator of Pokémon originally conceived of the game as a way to share his childhood hobby of collecting insects with the children of a modern, urbanized Japan. But I’ll be discussing what I know best: evolution and genomics. How do Pokémon species differ from species here on Earth? What does genomic imprinting have to do with breeding? Can an organism like Eevee actually exist? I’ll be exploring these topics in future PokéBiology 101 posts.

Now, there are some things in the Pokémon Universe that are above my pay grade. I’m not even going to attempt to explain how a tiny mouse generates thunderstorms or how some Pokémon have psychic abilities. I have no clue how a Pokéball can transform Pokémon into pure energy and back again (maybe a bored Physics grad student can hazard a guess). And there’s certainly no explanation for how Onix, a ground/rock type, suddenly becomes vulnerable to electric attacks because a sprinkler system came on (yes, I am still bitter about that episode).

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 I have no idea how this works.

For all of those things, I’m willing to suspend disbelief. But when it comes to the biology of the Pokémon world, I’ve found it’s not necessary to invoke “magic!” as an explanation. Because oddly enough, that bizarre biology is already happening here on earth.

Welcome to PokéBiology 101!

Next in series: “Evolution” and the enigma of Eevee