Thursday, December 18, 2008

My own personal Christmas Carol

I thought I would have a good bit of time this week to get into the blogging groove before shutting down for the winter solstice, but the funding gods have laughed at me, so here I am working feverishly on two different proposals for the January NSF deadline. One of the proposals is important for my research future. The other, just rejected, proposal is critical for my research present. All I need is another proposal important to my research past, and I'll have my own personal Ebenezer Scrooge proposal trifecta. There are other ways I would love to spend my break than writing two proposals at once and I have been understandably grumpy this week. But, the posts by DrugMonkey and JuniorProf yesterday reminded me that I am lucky to have a job this holiday season which I am (to the best of my knowledge) not in imminent danger of losing. Perhaps I should see this not as a burden, but as a Xmas gift from NSF. Afterall, during the Xmas season with its whirlwind of family and socializing, we all need a little time for quiet reflection - I just get to do mine with a couple of my close, personal proposals!

Well, enough lollygagging. I have a show to run here (or at least write about running!). When I run into another writing block, I'll compile the department seminar statistics that you were all kind enough to send me and post them.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

A little search term fun

Once a week or so I check on the search terms people have entered into some search engine that have brought them to my humble blog. Much of it is rather mundane; I sadly get a lot of hits on academic bullies, thanks to the posts Academic Bully: Symptoms and Diagnosis and Academic Bully: Treatment and Side Effects. I also get a shocking number of people looking for: your carrier is not supported by blogger mobile (which of course had me all up in arms earlier this semester, too). But some of them really amuse me (either funny funny, or slightly horrified funny). So, for a little end of the semester fun, here are my favs:

excel smack my mole: honestly, I don't want to know what this person was looking for, but it seems a know.

how to get crappy ecology papers published journals: did this person wonder how crappy ecology papers get published or did they have a crappy ecology paper they wanted to get published? Inquiring minds....

how to make a professor chaos: you take 4 years of college, several years in a Ph.D program, some postdoctoral experiences, shake them up, and walla, your own professor chaos!

how to date a physicist: Use lots of equations to explain how you feel? Do they really need special handling?

just forms of gender discrimination: what? I think the word discrimination implies very clearly that is it not just. If someone is telling you otherwise, smack them.

may or may not be river tam: this one just made me laugh. I will neither confirm nor deny that I may or may not be River Tam.

Do you understand the woeds that are coming out of my mouth: LOL. No, I actually do not.

training for bullies in academic: I knew it. I wonder where one gets said training. Is there a special workshop at some annual meeting? "What do I want to learn this year? Structural Equation Modelling - useless, Uses of isotopes in ecology - pointless, ah, yes, here it is, how to be an academic bully! Perfect! Now that's going to come in handy"

general disarray blog: general disarray was touched that perhaps someone out there is interested in what he has to say. I'm trying to get him to guest blog, but he has been resistant. So sometimes I just make up things he has said to see if he'll come correct the record.

what would be the dress and grooming requirements for a ecologist: wait, we have grooming requirements? Have you seen some of the people at the annual meeting? I really don't think we do.

10 things that make you say holy crap: I hope this blog was not one of them!

The award for best series of search terms that have popped up over the the past month creates what I have been calling "The Doomed Love Saga":

The saga begins. Love blooms.: "i like my professor and i want to date him"

Does he like me too?: "signs a professor is attracted to a student",

Love reciprocated: "professor wants to date student"

Love ends, how do I extricate myself from this creep?: "best time to leave professor" (oh child. This is not a situation you should ever have entered into. But now that you're here, my advice is: break up after he has turned in your final grade)

Doomed love saga concludes: "i dated my professor"

While I seriously doubt these all came from the same person (I have not checked, too busy doing things that will actually get me tenure) but they did more or less come in sequentially like that (the last two came in almost simultaneously) so it was really too funny not to construct a story with them.

Ah, I do love the internet! What an interesting species we are.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

She was just invited because....

"As I seem to do at least once a week, I would like to point my readers over to a great discussion occurring at DrugMonkey."

That sentence was actually written for a post in Sept, but I've decided to just start using it as a heading to let people know this will be a DrugMonkey inspired post. So, once again, ladies and gentlemen, a DrugMonkey inspired post.

In Problem? What Gender Problem?,  DrugMonkey noticed at a scientific meeting that the representation of women was low. When I read his post this morning, I nodded my head sagely, thought "yep" and then spent the day working on a proposal and revising a manuscript. I had no idea that such a statement of truth could engender such a wild, interesting, and sometimes slightly bizarre discussion. Truly. I can't summarize it for you, you have to go check it out for yourself.

The truth of the matter is that the loss of women and minorities from the pipeline is a complex issue and I think the discussion over at DrugMonkey also shows that it is an emotional one for many of us. Many of us have heard, either leveled at us or at other women/minorities, "yeah, insert-name-of-speaker-who-does-not-look-like-everyone-else-here only got invited because....". Even when it's not explicitly stated, (shockingly many people do realize a statement that someone was only invited because they were female, black, hispanic, etc makes them sound like an ass), there are often enough undertones to make one seriously suspect foul play. I once had a reviewer spend the review explaining I wasn't as great as one might think from my CV....seriously, dude? The problem is, perhaps that asswipe does that crap to everyone, not just women, but there's no way to know so the recipient of such an interaction is left with the strong suspicion that this was motivated by other issues, which makes someone, like me, feel angry, betrayed, unsettled, suspicious, and worried this happens to everyone but I've become overly sensitive and unjustifiably paranoid. No wonder when those statements of "you're just an affirmative action placation invite"  come out clearly, we tend to go a little ape-shit.

But the emotional part for me is that the entire discussion made me a little sad. No doubts we've made some great strides in some areas, but as kiwi gal pointed out in her comment (#41) over at DrugMonkey:

In my field, ecology, we have a very large number of world class women scientists. At our national meeting in 2007, at an invited symposium reviewing progress in ecology over the last decade (to be published in a special issue of the journal etc etc), there was one woman speaker and 19 men.

Ouch. So much for my beloved ecology. The demoralizing thing is that this type of feedback (whether it is the review arguing why your record shows you are a hack despite how hard you worked to get those high profile papers or the lack of invites to give high profile talks when people of lesser records are praised like gods) reinforces the idea that you have to work twice as hard for half the credit.

I have to admit that after reading the discussion over at DrugMonkey, I was a little demoralized. I also have to admit, I always get demoralized when I get hung up on how I am perceived in my field, but - like always - I remember three things that make me feel better: 1) my science kicks ass. I didn't participate in the Scientiae  this month because every time I came up with something good it gave away my science (and thus me), but damn it my science is hot.  I routinely get it published in kick ass journals - despite some bizarre, occasionally angry reviews - and it is well cited for someone at my career stage.  2) I love what I do and I am a position where my gender might keep me from becoming a superstar, but it won't keep me from doing what I love. 3) I am deeply aware that I can say 1 and 2 because I was fortunate enough to have threaded some narrow, scary sections in the academia pipeline to be here today. Seriously, there was some major luck involved in my tango from undergrad to assistant professor.

So, I'm shaking off my malaise and tomorrow I'm going back to work to bust my ass on my proposal and my manuscripts that need to be resubmitted. Why? Because screw all those asses who want to come up with some reason why I'm not as good as I seem, who dismiss my speaking invites because I'm the "token woman", and my papers because its actually my co-authors carrying me, or whatever other excuse makes them feel better at night when they look at their own CVs. Besides, I have found that nothing pisses those people off more than a truly successful woman. And nothing would make me happier than to really piss them off.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Gender Ratio in Departmental Seminar series

So, ever since I wrote about Being on the Circuit, I've been wondering about the truth behind the General's Disarray new tactic for convincing me to actually get on a plane and give departmental seminar talks.

In my experience, invitations to speak at departmental seminars often arise from either a colleague issuing an invite and/or an internal nomination process with a committee (sometimes the committee is really just one person) deciding who to invite from the nominations. There are also other modes for generating speakers (i.e., press gangs roaming the department looking for students and assistant professors who may have promotion or Ph.D defense obligations), but General Disarray's argument has made me wonder what exactly is the proportion of women giving departmental seminars in a seminar series? Obviously, I have shown myself prone to obsessive compulsive data collection, but I thought this might be more fun, (and less detrimental to my tenure aspirations) if my readers helped me with this. So....if you have a few spare minutes (ha ha ha), and are also interested in this, feel free to send me the following information on whatever seminar series you tend to attend:

Number of speakers, number of women

It might also be interesting to know what the proportion of women is in the group the seminar is for (i.e. if it's a departmental seminar, then the proportion of female faculty -  I know, I know this ignores the grad students and post-docs but this can be difficult info to get) to get an idea if the gender representation of the seminar series represent the group for whom the seminar series serves (I actually suspect the gender ratio of those invited to speak is lower than the department's).... I could ask for much much more info, but its the end of the semester and I don't want to overladen people - besides this is just for curiosity. Feel free to either leave the info here as a comment or email me at (as I'm warming up to the idea that the blogosphere actually likes to talk back - not in a pejorative sense - I've decided to experiment with actually having an 'official' email address for the blog. If I decide it doesn't freak me out too much, I'll make it permanent)

To lead the way, here's the info for the seminar I attend:

8 speakers, 1 woman, 29% female at host institution

Thanks for indulging me! I promise to compile and present in a future post!

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Twelve months of Professor Chaos meme

Well, really it's eight months of blogging, since Professor Chaos didn't open its doors until May. In the spirit of Abel Pharmboy, the bit of introspection I've gleaned from putting this meme together is that a lot of my blogging is inspired by my fellow bloggers discussing things that resonate in my life. The sad thing is that I'm inspired more often than I have time to write. I have reams of half finished drafts, many in direct or indirect response to things other bloggers wrote that I found intensely interesting. Anyway, here it is, the 8 months of blogging:

May: My First Blog: "I just finished a semester of editing more Ph.D. dissertations than I ever care to do again in a two week period."

June: Advisors (Pt I): One size does not fit all: "Being a new Ph.D. advisor, I spend a fair amount of time thinking about what makes a good adviser."

July: The Rabid Reviewer: "Reading Female Science Professor's post this morning about inappropriate reviewing behavior, I was inspired to muse about a common type of review I receive on my submitted manuscripts: the rabid review."

August: Role Models: "A few days ago Isis mentioned that like many young, female academics, she worshiped at the alter of FemaleScienceProfessor."

Sept: What does the authorline of a paper represent?: "As I seem to do at least once a week, I would like to point my readers over to a great discussion occurring at DrugMonkey."

Oct: When five things need to be submitted NOW...: " end up with a slightly crazed week."

November: Dreams and Travel: "One of the things I both love and loathe about being an ecologist is the travel: travel to conferences, travel for research, travel to give seminars."

December: Why I love Fridays: "I love Fridays".

Hmm. My second bit of introspection: in the future use more fascinating sentences for the first post for each month!

Friday, December 5, 2008

Why I love Fridays

I love Fridays. I love Fridays with a passion. Every Friday morning I wake up and say to myself "Thank God it's Friday!"

You might wonder if this is a sign that perhaps I should find another job. Obviously River Tam is not really enjoying her academic life if she pines for Fridays so longingly. But you would be W-R-O-N-G. I love Fridays because it is a day I jealously guard from all demands. I sit at home, with a cup of coffee or green tea (depending on time of day) and do the science that is my reason for putting up with everything else. I write manuscripts and send them lovingly off to journals. I conduct analyses. I brainstorm new and interesting things to do. Friday is sacrosanct and I will (and have) gone to war to protect it. Department Head wants me to come in and do something? Sorry, I won't be on campus that day, let's reschedule. Student desperately needs me to come for a committee meeting? Sorry, there are four other days of the week where I am available. I know it sounds a little harsh, but I have learned that if I don't protect my ability to conduct research, no one else will do it for me.

Today, I am working on a grant. This proposal already had one go at NSF a couple of years ago as a CAREER (young investigator award), but it was obvious that the panel really wanted me to do some work that was outside my area of expertise, so I have assembled a top-notch team of co-PIs and we're retooling for a regular grant. After a few collaborative experiences recently that were less than fun, I decided to focus on working with people who I know are deep thinkers, hard workers and, most importantly, are not giant, raving assholes with a touch of misogynistic tendencies thrown in for fun. I think the last criteria is something that sometimes we do not have consciously on our checklist when we evaluate a potential collaborator, but really really should. My collaborators for this proposal are fantastic. They are fun to work with, great scientists, and have no problems working with a woman. I have seriously thought about making them sign exclusive collaboration agreements. I, the undersigned, agree to work solely in collaborative scientific projects with River Tam, who in return will acknowledge in every talk she gives that I am one of the most awesomest collaborators in ecology.

So, I am off to work on my grant. Have a great Friday, everyone! I know I will!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Being on the circuit

I have been traveling an almost obscene amount recently. My travel these days is almost completely driven by a combination of travel for research collaborations and a sudden spike in invitations to talk at various departments and programs. A senior colleague of mine once complained to me about the travel demands of being on the "the circuit" - the series of seminars and other appearances that professors often get invited to - and told me: "you'll see". I'm definitely seeing something right now and am beginning to suspect that this year marks my official entry on to the circuit.

Being on the circuit has been a double-edged sword for me. On the one hand, I realize that this is a great indication that my science is being noticed. And I realize it's a great "advertising" tool for both me and my science because people come to my seminars who might not otherwise read my work and I get to meet and talk science with people I would not ordinarily get to meet. I understand the subtle psychology of the importance of "being on people's minds" which increases a variety of potential opportunities for me because people invite people to do things who are "on their minds". It's also hugely invaluable because I get to hear about research that people are currently doing but not published yet and learn about areas I may not have been exposed to previously.

The downside is that I HATE traveling. I mean LOATHE. Let me explain - I love traveling around the world seeing new places. I hate the physical act of traveling. Airplanes, cars, trains, they tend to make me physically ill and I am deathly afraid of my plane crashing. (Yes, I know it's not logical). This obviously  makes getting work done while traveling....difficult. My advisor seemed like he was most productive when he was on a plane (which was good because he travels a lot) and General Disarray has written reviews and papers on planes, in shuttles and taxis, and all sorts of other places that I am highly envious of. Unfortunately, I have found that projectile vomiting on to one's laptop tends to be the antithesis of productivity. It also results in high anxiety while traveling. You put yourself in a small enclosed space where you are often severely nauseous and also certain you are going to die and see how often you want to put yourself back in that scenario. Add to this a deep anxiety of talking to strangers, and every time it is time for me to leave on one of these things, General Disarray has to pry my fingers off the doorframe and kick me out the door. Our conversations on the morning of my departure tend to go like this:

Me: I do NOT want to go.

GD: I know, honey, but you have to.

Me (hopefully): No, actually, you could go in my place. It's not too late.

GD: No, actually it is already way too late for that. The ticket is in your name and airport security will never believe I am you.

Me: Oh, God, why do I do this to myself. I so do not want to go. This is going to be awful.

At this point in the conversation, General Disarray would normally resort to some version of "You don't actually dislike these things once you get there, when was the last time one of these things went badly". The truth is he's right. These have not gone badly recently and most of my true horror stories really are confined to my days as a post-doc on job interviews. Recent trips are much less stressful and result in exponentially fewer horror stories. Unfortunately, logic does not always work on me - see reference to fear of my plane crashing above. Recently, General Disarray has been employing an alternative argument which I see as sneaky, underhanded and tends to leave me without response:

GD: You do this because it's important that you do this. Think of all the young female scientists that will be there. For many of them, you may be the only young female assistant professor that has been invited to talk this year. You may even be the only female invited to speak period - regardless of rank. You standing up there giving your kickass talk on your kickass research sends a message that they can do this too and that their department, regardless of whether it has its own gender issues, also has sent a message that they too think young females can do research worthy of giving a talk in their department. So get yourself on that plane and go be a role model.

Shit. He's a clever little bastard. But, that is why I married him.

Friday, November 28, 2008

5 things meme

So, I'm catching up on the blogosphere after my extended absence and realized I had not fulfilled my taggee obligations. Besides, it's a good way to get my blogging muscles warmed up!

5 Things I was Doing 10 years Ago:
(1)  Wondering if I was ever going to finish my Ph.D
(2) Feeling bad about myself because I had dated the wrong boy and it had gone badly - like keying his car badly (not that I would ever do that!...At least I don't think I did, but I was pretty drunk and very angry)
(3) Finishing up a research assistantship that still influences my research
(4) Going a little wild and going out dancing 3-4 nights a week (see #2 for motivations)
(5) Having an important discussion with my advisor about whether I should go into academia or some other scientific career path.

5 Things On My To-Do List Today:
(1) Work on an NSF proposal
(2) Wonder why I'm working on a proposal when funding rates are now less than 8%
(3) Trying not to vomit when I think about possibly ruining my Xmas break working on a proposal that will be sent to a panel with a less than 8% funding rate
(4) Buying yarn for my new knitting project 
(5) Dreaming about funding my research through the sale of my knitting projects

5 Snacks I Love:
(1) Cereal (comfort food since grad school when I frankly lived on the stuff)
(2) trail mix (especially with little or no peanuts and lots of dried fruit)
(3) manchego cheese (ummm, the king of cheese)
(4) Chocolate (nice chocolate not that fake Hershey crap) 
(5)  anything bought at an outdoor market in France

5 Things I Would Do If I Were A Millionaire:
(1) fund the Kiss My Ass Center for Ecology (only scientific rebels need apply)
(2) put aside some money for my parents
(3) buy lots and lots of girly bath accoutrements (I am not generally described as "girly" by those who know me but I have a gigantic weakness for bath salts, bubble baths, and other soaking in a bath materials 
(4) Refurbish my bathroom to be a shrine to hot baths
(5) Buy General Disarray a lifetime supply of fancy shaving lathers (he has sensitive skin that seems to sense the difference between cheap and expensive products)

5 Places I've Lived:
(1) In an apartment where I compulsively drew on the walls (I'll let you decide how old I was)
(2) In a 1 bedroom "house" with electrical problems, often broken heater, and a "chop shop" across the street
(3) In a two-bedroom apartment in a neighborhood where about once a year a drunk driver would ram a car into something 
(4) In a dorm on a party campus learning to hate drunk boys with a fascination for pulling fire alarms at 2 am 
(5) In a state with one of the highest percentages of Hispanics, which taught me an appreciation for other cultures and traditions.

5 Jobs I've Had:
(1) Scientist
(2) Library assistant (I put books back on shelves)
(3) Front office secretary (be nice to the person who sits in your main office answering the phone and putting mail in your mailbox - it's a crappy job)
(4) Maintained insect cultures in research lab
(5) Lecturer

There it is, everything you never really wanted to know about me!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgivings

I thought about just returning to blogging by ignoring that I've been gone for the past few weeks, but today is Thanksgiving and the past couple of weeks have given me much to be thankful for. Two weeks ago I went in for a routine checkup and my doctor found a suspicious lump in a breast. Since, within the past year, two people I knew from my graduate school were diagnosed with breast cancer, I was obviously worried. I embarked on an adventure in modern medical technology that I had not really been exposed to before; other than some stitches and a broken arm as a child, I have never really needed medical attention. It is truly amazing what can be done these days. I had my first mammogram and ultrasound....the ultrasound in particular amazes me. I have to admit, to me it kinda looked like my TV had gone on the fritz but I believe them when they say that some weird lines really are ducts. I have been poked and prodded by an amazing array of people and have become slightly blasé about baring my breasts to strangers. (General Disarray suggests that this might not be long-term acceptable and should definitely not be transported into other areas of my life such as committee meetings, lectures, etc). To add to the stress of the entire event, I traveled and gave a seminar in a high-powered department in my field. Let me tell you, though, there's nothing like being worried about having cancer to make a slightly aggressive question about one's research seem less important!

I went in for a surgical consult this week and, given my mammogram, ultrasound (both were apparently clean), age, family history, and the "feel" of the offending piece of tissue, the surgeon was "reasonably confident" that there was no need to even conduct a biopsy (actually, it was so small that they would have had to do a lumpectomy). I figure if a surgeon doesn't think they can justify cutting into you, you must be in pretty good shape. Some follow-up visits to make sure the lump doesn't change and that's it. So, as I said above, I have a lot to be thankful for. First, I'm thankful that I don't have cancer (that's a no brainer) and can spend a peaceful Thanksgiving with my wonderful husband who tried to keep me from worrying too much by quoting statistics to me as proof of why I obviously didn't have cancer. I am also thankful for medical advances which helped both my friends who did have cancer this past year to fight theirs - allowing them to also enjoy this Thanksgiving, and hopefully many many more, with their loved ones.

So, Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

(And Nat, best wishes on the birth of your daughter today!!)

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Scientific Dress - Pt 2

Before I get started, I want to say a huge thank you to everyone who commented on yesterday's post. I think it is safe to say that it is the most interesting discussion I have ever had here at Professor Chaos. Thank you all so much for thinking about what I said and sharing your thoughts and opinions on it. For those of you who did not comment, even if you did not like my post, please go read what these intelligent men and women are saying about the role of clothes in science - it is well worth it.

Because I had to be away from my computer last night, I didn't get to participate while it was unfolding, which left me in a position this morning where I could either leave a multi-paragraph comment on yesterday's post, or just write a new post. Because this is just my part of the discussion on yesterday's post, please leave any comments to this post on yesterday's post .

The first thing that I found really interesting about the comments I received was Rosie's null hypothesis: Many good scientists, male and female, have decided that putting more than a minimal effort into one's appearance is a waste of time that could better be spend doing science.

I agree that this is part of the reason for the similarity in dress, but I think it is clear - both in my experience and apparently in the experiences of various of my commenters - that what may have started as time-management has become de facto "uniform". If you have enough time to care about your appearance, you are not serious about science. For those who doubt this, I have two independent pieces of evidence aside from "I say so". If scientific attire was truly random drift, guided only by ease of choosing and dressing, I would expect a wider diversity of attire both within and across fields. For example, if it's really just about minimizing time expenditure and not about some uniform, we should also see men wearing this:


Ah, the velour jogging suit.  I'd pay big money to see a big name scientist give a seminar in one of these. Again, if people in your department tend to wear velour jogging suits, please let me know. I'll add it to Eugenie's clog story on the list of strange things in the world that convince me that life will always be interesting.

Yet, for ecologists, the predominant mode of dress is Tevas, fleece, and outdoor wear. This could be because our research constraints, such as those experienced by Silver Fox and Ecogeofemme, have directed our random drift through the universe of clothing. Those constraints are real. But, when ecologists show up at the annual meeting dressed like that and those ecologists include the theoretical crowd (some of whom I seriously suspect have never seen an organism in the wild and definitely do not have lab protocols to observe), I begin to suspect that our "careless attire" is not careless at all but a uniform. Second, go to school one day deliberately flaunting the uniform. Wear something different. It doesn't have to be flashy like those Naughty Monkey shoes, just wear something different. A nice long-sleeve shirt with a feminine cut, plain slacks, some nice feminine sandals and subtle jewelry would be enough for me to stick out in my department. How do people respond? Do they pass by without a glance or do you receive looks and/or comments? Better yet, do people keep asking you "what's the occasion"? Do they remember you because you wore something different? There is a graduate student in my program who wears heels - she's aware of the ecology dress code and refuses to submit and I love her for it - yet everyone, students, postdocs, and professors know exactly who is being referred to when someone describes "the one who wears heels".

I also want to assure JaneB and Becca that my argument is not that female scientists should be walking around looking like this:


I think Becca is right when she said: Another question is "If young women cannot see androgenous, or less-than-totally-hot women as living a life they would want, then isn't something terribly, terribly wrong?"

I agree, it would be just as bad for the recruitment and retention of women in science if we all dressed like Scientist Barbie. My point, which I apparently did not communicate effectively, was not that we all needed to doll up, but that we had allowed the androgynous look to become a uniform and it is not just our male colleagues that discriminate against women who violate it. If there really is no dress code in science (which I think is a concept we all find attractive), then why do we all look alike? Why do many of us feel like we have to follow some unwritten dress code to be taken seriously? I think it is explicitly clear from the comments by Yolio, Citronella, Zinjanthropus, and Peanut (I love the purple sequined flipflops), and implicit in some of the other comments, that I am not alone in this feeling.

I also did not mean to leave out my academic brothers. And I deeply thank Odyssey and Anonymous for pointing out that this is a broader issue. After reading my post, General Disarray came into my office to talk about how he loves wearing his $50 dress shirts (a huge splurge for an ecologist) tucked into khaki slacks, but he feels like he stands out like a sore thumb when he does, so he only wears those outfits when he teaches. He was so agitated about feeling like he was constrained by some dress code to prove he's "serious" as a scientist that he threatened to wear a suit today  to assert his independence (General Disarray may love his dress shirts, but he is most definitely not a suit-loving man).

Which brings me to my final point. I wanted to highlight a comment by anonymous: I don't want to "stick out" to the men in our department any more than I have to - they are the vast majority where I am, the ones with power eg to hire and fire, and the ones who most definitely judge female ability based on clothing and manner (not all of course, but there are enough. .).

I would never recommend that someone sacrifice themselves on the altar of couture. The point of this whole thing is that people should wear (and be) what they are comfortable with. Some of us may not be in a position to dress the way we want right now, but hopefully some day you will be. But some of us may feel that we are in safe enough positions in our careers, and have the inclination, to  "act out" a little. One of my clearest memories as a graduate student was sitting at the ecology meetings waiting for a highly respected young female full professor to give a talk. I had never seen her before, and when her name was called, down the aisle walked this woman in a black leather jacket, a black miniskirt, and knee high black boots. I was stunned. I thought, surely no one will take her seriously. You know what, years later she's still a highly regarded and respected female full professor. That moment made quite an impression on me, and I will admit, that this year I flaunted the ecologist code at Milwaukee as far as I felt comfortable. I wore embroidered, bright red Naot (Phagenista, I am totally with you on that one) sandals with a heel. They were quite....noticeable. I could have bought the brown ones when I was considering my summer footwear (I only have one pair of shoes for each season), but I deliberately didn't because I was feeling rebellious and I was tired of trying to "fit in". So this year, I wore bright red non-Tevas, with capri pants, and casual but feminine cut shirts at ESA and enjoyed every minute of it. Don't know that I changed the world with that decision, but damn, it felt good.

Thanks again, everyone, for the most interesting discussion I have had the privilege to be involved in, in a very long time!!!

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The conundrum of being a female scientist

I am a slow thinker, so sometimes it takes me a few days (and an insightful conversation with General Disarray) to figure out exactly what I think about something. I've been watching and mulling over the extended conversation about Isis that has been occurring around the blogosphere. This conversation has inspired me to talk about an issue that I have been pondering for a while: feminine scientists. My thoughts on this should not be seen as a direct comment on what anyone has said - it is the equivalent to those soundtracks which contain songs "inspired by" the movie, rather than songs from the movie itself.

In my field, it is not uncommon for female full professors to look like men. I'm not saying they look like Pat from SNL, but they are often as androgynous as possible: boy hair cuts, no make-up, and nondescript clothes which frankly could have been bought in the boy's section at JC Penny.


For those of you too young to get the reference, this is Pat from Saturday Night live. The joke with Pat was that no one ever knew whether Pat was male or female.


I understand why these women look this way. They came through the ranks at a time when it was hard enough being a woman in science, god forbid you actually looked like one too! Those of us who grew up with this older generation as our role models have been inoculated with this belief that to be taken seriously means we need to look like our male colleagues. I made a joke in August about the hordes of Teva and fleece wearing ecologists descending on Milwaukee for our annual meeting. It was only partially a joke. There is a strong phenotypic convergence in the male and female ecologists. I suspect that this is true in other fields as well.

I suspect that the response to Isis by other women is confounded with this training so many of us have received (I have to admit to my own twinges of uncomfortableness on occasion with the Isis-persona for just this reason). How can someone who is so blatantly female be taken seriously? Doesn't she know she is breaking the unwritten code that men will pretend we aren't women if we dress like men? What if one of us is seen wearing Naughty Monkeys? Will this cause the rest of us to have our "honorary male" statuses revoked? Afterall, most of us do not work in a department where the men are strolling around in these:


(Though if you do, please let me know. That's one of those pieces of knowledge that really makes life worth living)

Will women dressing and acting like women erode the decades of progress we've made?

Let me pause and tell a story that at first will seem like I've had a seizure and lost the thread of my post. A few years ago, when I was a beginning assistant professor, a bunch of current female Ph.D students from my former graduate school cornered me at a bar. The program they were in (and I used to be in) was pretty seriously lacking in young female representation in the professorial ranks at that time. The full professor ranks had several women, all of whom fit the mold of the androgynously dressing woman with male mannerisms and modes of interaction. These young women were deeply concerned about what it took to be a successful woman in science and wanted to know if women could be women and still succeed.  They were all very very clear that while they had deep respect for the female full professors, this was not the type of person they wanted to be.

So, I ask again: Will women dressing like women erode the decades of progress we've made?

I think that, in the end, women being women is a necessary step to increase the number of women in the academic scientific ranks. If young women cannot see someone in the department whose life they would want, who is the type of person they would want to be, then why should they take this path? They can make more money and wear nicer, feminine clothes by going into the corporate world (a sad message, perhaps, but true). If the message we are sending is that the only women who can succeed are those who dress and act like men, then we end up with only a small subset of the female population who think they can be scientists. When young female students can see female scientists confident in being themselves, then they can see themselves in that role too. I think it is the responsibility of those of us who feel that we are in secure positions to start breaking down this old era of women pretending to be men. I believe, in some fields at least, there are enough young women entering the faculty for us to start doing this. I believe that is what Isis is doing. If women cannot be women and scientists, then we will always have a retention problem with women in science. Isis' message (IMHO) is that it is possible to be a successful scientist, a mother, and a woman who loves her shoes all at the same time. And when I came to all these realizations over lunch today, it almost made me want to apply for Isis' Naughty Monkey giveaway - despite the fact that I'm very sure I would break an ankle if I tried to walk in them. I guess I will just have to find my own way to make it clear that I am a woman and a scientist. Not all of us will have a hankering for glamorous shoes, afterall....and that's okay. In fact, that's the point.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The League of Super Ecologists

One of my Friday morning rituals is to sip my coffee and look up my h index on Web of Science (for my biomedical peeps, that's our equivalent of PubMed).  For those of you who may not know what I am talking about, your h-index is the number of papers (N) cited at least N times and it is supposed to provide a metric for comparing the productivity and impact of researchers within a field. It is also supposed to integrate both the number of papers and the  "impact" of your papers. The idea is that having more papers will only help you if they are also cited well. As with any metric that purports to quantify scientists, it is highly controversial. (Does anyone else see the irony that we are obsessed with quantifying every aspect of nature but ourselves?) Regardless of its weaknesses, I have to admit I have recently become a little obsessed with my h-index.

I'm not sure I can tell you when or why my obsession began. One day, I looked up my h-index (which Web of Science does so easily for you) and then looked up the h-index of people whose league I am not in but desperately wish I was (henceforth referred to by their official name: The League of Super-Ecologists). At one point, when I was kicked by my promotion committee for not doing something "needed for tenure" that actually had nothing to do with getting tenure here or at any other university, I "showed" my university by wasting an inordinate amount of time developing an h-index graph for the League of Super Ecologists. (Since this was part of my mental discussion with myself about whether or not to try to leave Confused U, this was actually a necessary step for me to convince myself I had a shot in hell on the job market). However, in order to understand how I ranked comparative to the League of Super Ecologists, I had to correct for time since Ph.D (obviously more time out, the greater the potential for a higher h-index). For those of you who are curious, here it is (x-axis: year Ph.D awarded, y-axis h-index)


At this point, I should be clear that this is not exactly a random list. This is a plot of people whose work I respect and have some general name recognition in the biz. I collected data on 162 ecologists before I stopped being mad at my university. (I was really really pissed). I think General Disarray was a little worried about me during this time of my life (the words "unhealthy" and "obsessed" may have been used). And it is easy to become unhealthily fixated on these metrics as DrugMonkey pointed out a few weeks ago. In a job where criticism of one's performance abounds (I present as my evidence: proposal reviews, manuscript reviews, promotion and tenure reviews, the poor demoralized post-doc on the job hunt), the h-index can seem like it provides positive feedback. Every time the h-index clicks upwards, every time your citation count increases, it can seem like it is positive validation of your existence. Oh, it's a seductive and alluring siren call, which can end with your nerves wrecked on some scotch-and-rocks.

But my obsessed exercise did give me some interesting bits of information. First, I'll say I didn't do as badly as I thought when compared to members of the League. General Disarray thinks I undervalue myself (I can neither confirm nor deny). The data supporting that he might potentially possibly be right was important for my future planning. Since I do not count General Disarray as being objective, having data gave me confidence that perhaps I might not do that badly on the job market. Second, at least for the list created in my mind, there is a shockingly good relationship between time since Ph.D and the h-index. I mean, aside from some heteroscadicity evidenced by the increasing variance with academic age, many ecologists would kill for such a nice looking relationship from their field studies. I haven't decided how to interpret the graph, since it is from my imaginary League of Super Ecologists (not sure that selection criteria would fly in a Methods section, for example). I suspect that if one could really take a "random sample" of ecologists the graph would look more like a triangle, with dots filling on below the "edge" that appears in my graph, but that the low variance for the young people would remain and variance would increase substantially with age.

So, if I'm doing better than I thought I was, you may be wondering why I am still obsessed with my h-index. It's not because I'm unhappy with my number  or desperately want more people to cite me. Truth is, I am a shockingly small number of citations away from becoming a teen-h'er and watching my h-index teeter on the edge of a new number for months has been slowly driving my INSANE. Like watching a golf ball perched precariously on the edge of the cup but refusing to fall in. Or fingers on a blackboard.  Or waiting for a loved one to finally get off the plane and come through airport security. Or being a teenager who desperately just wants to be an adult. Auuugh. (Yes, I do have patience issues). Is this the week when it will finally teeter over??? NO. Well, crap. Maybe next week.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dreams and Travel

One of the things I both love and loathe about being an ecologist is the travel: travel to conferences, travel for research, travel to give seminars. I love experiencing new locations, being outdoors, meeting new people, eating new foods. But I hate being away from General Disarray, meeting new people, and gaining 10 pounds from all the eating out at restaurants. Oh, and coming home is also a bitter sweet experience. Climbing into my own bed is always a sublime experience of sheer joy. However, opening my email upon return is the academic equivalent of Nightmare on Elm Street.

One of the things I do love is catching up with what's been going on in the blogosphere - especially what has been happening at my own blog while I've been away. Imagine my surprise that my dream reference in my last post not only inspired copious responses, but was even worthy of mention in other blogs. I learned a great deal from the comments in particular: I learned about Candid Engineer's desire for a CPP dream, Nat's...personal problems, and that BikeMonkey believes there is a pygmy running around pretending to be CPP but with clean language and a penchant for mentioning the Ituri Forest. Wow, what one misses when one is away!!!

Anyway, for those of you who have wondered what this dream was, I am delivering on my promise. I suspect that it will fall far short of the expectations that have built up...

The scene opens on a nondescript hallway. It is standard hallway seen in many apartment buildings. There is no indication of what town this apartment building may be located. No windows are ever seen.

Entering the hallways from around corner is River Tam and General Disarray. The are very excited because they have been invited to dinner by the exalted PhysioProf (sorry, Isis!). This is a rare honor. Like invitations from the king, this chance to dine with PhysioProf is both desired and feared through the blogosphere and our duo is both excited and nervous. Dinners with PhysioProf are rumored to be the highlights of many people's lives; evenings of wit and sparkling conversation. But there have also been...stories...that PhysioProf can sometimes be...difficult. More than one previous guest has been thrown out of the apartment for saying something that PhysioProf thought was utter wackloonery and evidence that the guests were undeserving of his time and attention. River and General Disarray desperately do not want to say anything wackaloon.

They knock on the door and are met by PhysioWife, a gracious and charming woman, with perfect and intimidating manners who proceeds to deliver a dizzying array of rules and instructions: a laundry list of things not to do or say or else the evening with morph from delightful to hellish. The evening is to be carefully choreographed so that all may have a pleasant dinner. We are shown into the sitting room to await the arrival of our host.

PhysioProf enters the room. He is dressed like an 18th Century gentleman. In fact, he reminds me of Darcy from Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice (which I have to admit I watched shortly before I left town).

imageFig 1: It is my pleasure to introduce, Lord Comrade PhysioProf, esquire. The only real difference in attire is that PhysioProf was wearing a suit of sky blue.




He is intelligent, aloof, slightly disdainful. At this point, the dream gets a little fuzzy - I think from shock. I do remember that PhysioWife did a masterful job of managing the conversation, until dinner time when I said something unfortunate. I don't remember what I said, but PhysioProf indignantly leapt off the couch, pouted (yes, pouted) and stormed out of the room. I suspect, my comment was something about dinner. Given that this dream was occurring about the time that Isis was claiming victory, I will let my readers come to their own conclusions about what I may have said about dinner that might have elicited this response.

PhysioWife apologized profusely and ran after PhysioProf, leaving General Disarray (who looked at me disappointingly) and me sitting alone wondering if we should see ourselves out. However, the Physios soon returned...PhysioWife with a slightly stern demeanor that suggested she had conducted a conversation with PhysioProf that made it clear she was not about to have yet another pair of guests turned unceremoniously out of her house. I apologized for my gauche statement, he graciously accepted, and off we went to dinner.

End of dream.

I could attempt to interpret the dream, but I suspect it may be much more fun to see what you all come up with.....

Monday, October 27, 2008

Six things that make you go...hum

Well, i'm on the road again (the life of a vagrant ecologist) and like clockwork one of the meme things is passing around. I've been watching it pass through the circle of blogs I read like a nasty cold and I thought perhaps I had escaped this one since I've been out of contact, but no.....thank you, Dr Dr A, for making sure I "didn't feel left out". Very....kind. Oh well, I was going to write about this quite intriguing dream I had about PhysioProf the other night (no, Isis, it did not consist of PhysioProf washing your feet in lavender water as he worshipped you for the true goddess you are) , but maybe I'll remember it when I get a chance to write another blog entry next week.

Here are the rules:

  • Link to the person who tagged you.
  • Write six random things about yourself.
  • Tag six people at the end of your post and link to them.
  • Let each person know they’ve been tagged and leave a comment on their blog.
  • Let the tagger know when your entry is up.

1) When River Tam was a little girl, she had an invisible friend named "Little Girl", who had no problems telling River's mother when she didn't like what River's mother was doing.

2) River Tam used to go around every Spring, saving all the caterpillars by collecting them and putting them in the mailbox with handfuls of grass. River's mother kindly asked her to stop by pointing out that this was really freaking out the mail man.

3) Art museums are crack to River: addictive and exhilarating, she goes out of her way to find them, and they are a major drain on her productivity.

4) River's goal is to visit every continent except Antarctica (for an explanation of this see #5); she has currently visited 3 of them.

5) River thinks that winter is proof that God exists and hates us.

6) River's college minor is listed as Physics/Math/Chemistry...she has no idea why.

Holy crap, I have to spread this cold to SIX people? Let's about Fia, Nat, Cath@vwxynot (my chaos twin), and...ah screw it. I have no patience for coming up with six people who have not already received this! Enjoy!

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Goddess Isis v. Professor Chaos: the case of blog infringement

I have recently gotten into a bit of trouble for my use of Isis-esque pictorial references in my recent blog posts:

PS: Let's try to keep this obvious imitation to a minimum, though. You can't be stealing Dr. Isis's schtick or you may make it on to the list of people I call "bullshit" on.

I understand the Goddess' ire. And I am willing to be tried by a court of my blogging peers. So let me take the stand and present my case:

Am I guilty for imitating Dr Isis through the use of images? Yes. I will not lie,  your honors.

But I think the fabulously shod Dr. Isis is missing something important: When you revolutionize a field, is it then fair - nay, it is right! -  to ask others not to emulate you? I would argue that I am not alone in perceiving the superior aspects for communication illustrated by Dr Isis' brilliant and witty use of images. I believe it has really resonated with some of us as being a powerful way to communicate. I call to the stand:

FIA, CandidEngineer, even the beloved DrugMonkey

One might wonder why the use of funny pictures seems to work and why I cannot seem to resist using them now that I've seen it done by a master. My defense is feeble, but I lay may case before the court:

I love academia and I love being a scientist. I would not choose any other job for myself. But I do see things that I find...illogical. My desire is to discuss these things that I do not understand (or frankly worry me) in a way that at the same time conveys my love of what I do. I think from my earliest posts it is clear that humor has been my way of doing this. The use of images to help convey the humor when sometimes it is hard to write something funny is frankly what I consider the deeply and fundamentally brilliant aspect to Dr. Isis' style. In some ways, she is our equivalent to Jon Stewart. When the nightly news makes you want to throw yourself off the nearest building, Jon Stewart can wrap the same essence into something that makes us laugh and think at the same time.

Of course, Jon Stewart does not act alone. He has a nice foil and colleague in Stephen Colbert - who also uses humor to discuss things that would make us want to cry otherwise. Since the Colbert character was taken from the Jon Stewart show, perhaps there is an analogy we could discuss here. Perhaps, Dear Isis and members of the jury, you will allow me to play Stephen Colbert to Isis' Jon Stewart. Now, I imagine that Stephen Colbert pays some sort of royalties or has some other financial arrangement with Stewart, and I am happy to pay the Goddess royalties from every blog where I use images. Unfortunately, my blog royalties look kinda like my grant dollars:


With that, I throw myself on the mercy of the court.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

If I had a million dollars, I'd be...

I was going to write "a NIH* funded biomedical researcher", but it turns out that it would need to be more like "If I had $2.69-3.38 million..."


Figure 1. How I imagine biomedical researchers like Dr. Isis examine their grant monies. I need not remind everyone that Dr. Isis, of course, is way hotter*.

Before my ecology compatriots have brain hemorrhages and have to explain to their colleagues why blood is suddenly coming out of their ears, these grant amounts are not annual amounts but are probably the total award for the entire grant duration (yes, I know, ecology peeps, this is still beyond our comprehension, but hang with me....). For the edification of the non-NIHers who read my blog: NIH's website indicates that the R01*  can be up to $250k per year or more*  (this is the amount that goes directly to the researcher, the university F&A* goes on top of that) for 1-5 years.

To understand why I find this so deeply fascinating, you have to understand the differences between NSF funding in my field and NIH funding. To illustrate, I found a table on NSF's website with some basic funding rate information (there is also a report that makes very interesting reading as well). I have provided below the 2007 information for a few programs in DEB*:

Organization Mean Grant Duration (years) Median Annual Size
Division of Environmental Biology 2.73 $87,439
    Ecology 2.51 $24,995
    Ecosystem Studies 2.43 $73,741
    Population Dynamics 2.37 $66,833

I would like to point out that these amounts probably include F&A, because that's how we NSFers roll. (For those of you checking up on me, I reported the program figures and not the cluster figures because I think the clusters include CAREER, OPUS, and LTREB grants which have different budget and funding criteria than normal grants).

In the spirit of full disclosure, I suspect that these numbers are on the low side (and the funding rates on the NSF website are on the high side) as they probably include all funded proposals through those programs - including workshop and conference proposals, dissertation improvement grants (DIGs), and Small Grants for Exploratory Research (SGERs). When I went through the Ecology program awards, attempting to weed out those types of grants, the average I got was closer $63,482/ year for an average of 3.6 years (though I have to admit my calculation is based on a small sample size....I am an untenured assistant professor after all and shockingly this is not what they will give me tenure for). If you assume 50% F&A on average, then the average net per grant annual research fund for an individual researcher in ecology is more like $42,000. This is a  far cry from the $250,000/year net research dollars of our NIH colleagues.

image Figure 2. How most ecologists examine their grant money.




My hope right now is that a few of my biomedical/cellular/molecular/neurophys peeps blink at our numbers like I did at theirs. I do not begrudge them their superior funds (I have to admit that I see the use of MRIs and not bleeding people with leeches as huge advancements that benefit me personally). My intent with this post is education. When NIH and NSF funded researchers coexist within the same department (as happens in Departments of Biology and even Departments of Ecology and Evolution thanks to the genomics revolution), sometimes things can get....weird*. We have different cultures, different research programs, different graduate student training goals, different philosophies for authorship. I think this is great. Each science has developed its own approach to facing the challenges of its discipline. The problems arise when these different cultures are forced to coexist within a department. My favorite quote from this bizarre little culture war was to the effect that ecologists were departmental parasites because "the NIH money we bring in runs this department". I obviously cannot argue with the money part of that statement, but does that mean there is really no need for ecology as was not so subtly implied? It is apparently a sentiment that has played out more than once as I know of more than one Department of Ecology and Evolution has been created because things got so bad that the university would otherwise completely lose ecology and evolution.


Figure 3. How ecologists and cellular/molecular researchers often get along.

One of the things I would like to do (hopefully with humor and grace) is to take advantage of the blogosphere to help communicate across this divide. I have been using DrugMonkey as a training ground, learning how this other culture operates and helping me to understand why my cellular/molecular colleagues sometimes yell at me. Perhaps I can return the favor (minus the yelling) for someone out there in a Biology Department who is fascinated by their bizarre hippie-esque, Teva-wearing brethren who can apparently survive scientifically on research funding scraps and still occasionally get papers into GlamourMags (no blind acorn jokes, please). In my Gulliver's Travels through the blogosphere, I have found that while many things are different across the sciences, we also have many things in common. Perhaps you will too...


*NIH: I think most of us know what this is, but I thought I would take this opportunity to draw your attention to the glossary I've constructed at the bottom of the post. For most ecologists, all you need to know of NIH is that it is inconceivably better funded than NSF and is generally (with exceptions) not interested in us.

*General Disarray came in this morning, saw the pictures in my draft and said, "Isis is going to be SOOOOOO mad." I am hoping that this blatant flattery will assuage the wrath of the gods.

*Ro1: the NIH folks have a variety of different grant types referred to with such intimidating names as R01s, A2s, and R21s. Ro1 is their main grant type. In ecology, we just call them...grants. Though, to be fair, we too have special names for some types of grants. We just seem to prefer cute acronyms (DIG, SGER - pronounced Suger, CAREER, OPUS)

*250,000k/year: okay this doesn't need defining, per se, but the NIH budget issues are quite foreign to us NSFer's so deserve a little discussion. My understanding from discussions over at DrugMonkey and BlueLabCoats is that $250,000 is the funding limit beyond which you actually need to justify your budget.

*F&A (facilities and administration). Also referred to as "Indirect Costs", the "University Tax", and "my money that goes to our crappy athletics department". This is the cut from a grant that goes to the university to reimburse them for research related expenses. Institutes I have been at were around 50%, but I have heard rumors of rates much much higher.

*DEB: Division of Environmental Biology. One of several divisions within the Directorate of Biology. Most ecology proposals will go through some program within this Division.

*weird is obviously not a technical term per se, but by weird I actually mean unpleasant, ugly or "not good".

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

So, you want to date my academic daughter

Ever since my conversation about the case of the disappearing women, I have had one thought going through my head: I am a very lucky woman. To General Disarray's amusement, this thought is often followed with me telling him how lucky I am to have married him. (Right after the fateful conversation, I think I was telling him this every hour on the hour. I've pared that back a little since then - it was starting to impinge on my strong, independent woman image).

Not everybody can have such amazing luck, and I have begun watching my talented female graduate students and wondering...what if they end up with jackasses? Every time boys come sniffing around, I wonder....are you good enough for my students? I've contemplated a variety of ways to protect my students. My first idea was to padlock the lab and keep my students cloistered from the world. This had the advantage of also reducing a variety of distractions and focusing them on their work. Unfortunately, the lab does not have a toilet and the firemarshal told me it was a safety hazard (General Disarray also may have mentioned something about 'kidnapping'...I figured that meant he would also not be supportive of the chastity belt idea). So, ixnay on the Cloister of the Pure and Promising Sisters of Ecology.

I also contemplated installing Homeland Security's facial recognition software that would discern between male and female faces and trigger a Tazer whenever any male attempted to enter the lab.


Figure 1. New motto of the Tam Lab

This has the advantage of allowing my students to go to the restroom. Unfortunately, there are men in the lab... I suspect I may lose a few male students this way. I also suspect that General Disarray would have a few stern words if he  got Tazed every time he walked through the door.

I've also thought about hanging out in the lab throwing knives at the walls - this would give my students the "crazy dad" protection (though in this case it's the crazy academic mom). Unfortunately, weapons are frowned upon on college campuses and flinging plastic knives at walls doesn't have the same effect.  Besides, the really nice building maintenance man told me bad things might start happening to my office if I put holes in his walls.


Figure 2. River Tam action figure with the bodies of her student's suitors at her feet.

So, here I am, completely stymied about how to protect my students and stay out of jail. I guess I'll just have to treat them like they're adults and hope everything turns out okay. In the meantime, I'm practicing a really mean evil eye....


Figure 3. River Tam giving the untazed, undeadified suitors the evil eye.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Uh, because I do research?

I realized the other day that I have started cringing whenever one of my colleagues here at Confused U asks me a particular question. In fact, I have started reacting rather bizarrely in response to this question. It doesn't always play out badly, but it has happened enough lately, that it is causing me some mental angst. To avoid this question, I now deploy my extrasensory conversational detectors and when I sense said question is coming, I perform the conversational equivalent of "Wow, is that Charles Darwin flying through the air with a flock of angels? Oh my, look at the time. Gotta go."

You might be wondering what awful and intrusive question I am apparently being asked. Well, my friends, here it is: "How's your semester going?"

Right about now, I am sure you are quite puzzled. Perhaps I respond badly because my semester is a tragic disaster that I would prefer not to discuss. Perhaps I'm flinchy about accidentally telling my colleagues I'm on the job market. Perhaps I'm an antisocial hermit who hates talking to people. Okay that last one is true, but beside the point. No, the truth is I answer them honestly and the response I frequently receive has begun to agitate me. Here's the conversation:

Random Colleague: Hey River, how's your semester going? You look a little harried.

Me: What? Oh! It's going well (swilling coffee from cup super-glued to my hand),  I'm just really busy right now.

This is when will I know if the conversation is not going to go well. If it is going to go well, then the response to my statement is:

Random Colleague: Ah, yes, I understand. (nods sagely) What all you got going right now?

If it's going to go badly, the response is:

Random Colleague: Ah, yes, I understand. (nods sagely) What class are you teaching this semester?

And then the spiral begins....

Me: Oh, I'm not teaching this semester.

Random Colleague: Oh...(with that puzzled look and tone that says so clearly..."I think you just had seizure because your words make no sense to me")..."uh, so why are you so busy?"

This is where the conversation starts to go really bad. You see, I am lucky in that I have arranged my teaching responsibilities so that I do most of my classroom teaching in one semester, which is not this one. Since I'm currently trying to submit two new manuscripts, revise two other manuscripts for resubmission, apply for jobs, have at least 1 proposal that I need to work on, am actively supervising my very bright and active students, and am on more student committees than I can count on two hands (all of whom seem to be taking their comprehensive exams this semester). Call me crazy, but I feel that I am well-justified to say I am....busy.

And this is when things get awkward, because we blink at each other in shock for a couple of seconds, like we're seeing each other for the first time. On my side, I cannot comprehend how you cannot be insanely busy even if your semester is "only" research, especially since next semester will be primarily sucked up with teaching responsibilities. On their side, it is clear to me that they cannot comprehend how a semester can be considered busy unless one is teaching. Since many of them have the same teaching arrangement I do, it always causes me to wonder why their research semester isn't busy too...

So now I find it much less awkward  if the conversation goes thusly:

Random Colleague: Hey River, how's your semester going? You look a little harried.

Me: What? Oh! It's going well,  (swilling coffee) oh wow, was that a big ball of flame coming from your lab? Well, look at the time! Gotta go!

Friday, October 3, 2008

When five things need to be submitted NOW... end up with a slightly crazed week. Turns out when you have 4 papers and 1 job application trying to go out the door at once, you end up with a jammed door.  I did get the first application in - thanks to those who gave feedback to my earlier post (Especially DrDrA, I have to admit I checked out your advice and packets links quite a bit). We did in the end decide not to mention our status even though we were told by friends that the department I was applying to was "really into" the concept. We decided that no one was probably ever thrown out of the applicant pool for NOT being part of an academic couple, but we knew people who were tossed out because they were. After a day where I tried to work on everything at once (not a good approach for mole whacking or science, it turns out), I am back to a more sane approach of prioritizing manuscripts according to deadlines. Hopefully, by the end of next week I will be able to report all 4 papers being submitted!

In the meantime, I mainly wanted to take this opportunity to highlight for my ecology friends. The ScienceBlogs folks are running a donation challenge. is an organization that matches up teachers who need money for learning activities in their classrooms with people like us who may have some dollars to spare (at least for a little while!). Many of the activities the ScienceBloggers have highlighted are related to their disciplines and the ecology/environmental sciences are a little underrepresented. I'm all for more microscopes and all, but when I was a child what really sang to me was the more outdoorsy/organismal activities. If you're looking to invest in either creating future ecologists or at least a populace that understands why we're just as cool as our biomedical brethren, I've highlighted a few options:

If you want to donate through the ScienceBlog challenge, the following blogs chosen some ecology/organismal options (sorry DrugMonkey...):

Bioephemera (insects and trees)

Thus Spake Zuska (insect specimens)

Adventures in Ethics and Science (insect specimens, frog dissection)

Gene Thugz (soil/plant interactions)

Blog Around the Clock (coastal ecology, animal life cycles)

Zooillogix (forest ecology, animal life cycles)

The World's Fair (river ecology)

In addition, here are some alternatives that I think may not be represented in the ScienceBlogs challenge:

Trophic ecology (owl pellets!!!! How cool!)

Aquatic ecology (using cordless microscopes to go out and study aquatic organisms)

Field ecology (training students to design field studies)

Marine ecology (salt water tank for grade 6-8 marine biology class)

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When Leadership Died

When exactly the concept of leadership died in our country, I do not know. But the events of the past 24 hours focused a pretty strong spotlight on Congress and the White House. Of all the muddled, confusing, and frightening things that came out of the bail out debacle, one message was shockingly clear: there are no leaders in Washington.

It seems clear to me that we are experiencing severe effects of a long-term vacuum in true leadership due to a lack of people capable of both vision for their country's future and service to their country above service to their party or themselves. I am not talking about Republican leaders or Democratic leaders. I am talking about American Leaders. People with the ability to see good ideas, regardless of whether it comes from a Republican or a Democrat, the foresight to implement them, and the courage to explain themselves clearly to the American people. Instead, we have politicians who would rather be re-elected than make courageous choices in the face of party or constituent disapproval.  We have politicians who rather smear blame than bring people together when difficult choices need to be made. In a time of crisis, a house divided against itself cannot stand. Thank you, President Lincoln, I think I now understand your point.

I will leave it to more informed people than myself to assess how we got into this mess. I am an Independent, and I think both sides have brought us to this point. And this point is not good. We are at a point where there is no trust - there is no respect - within government or between the government and many of its people. Our government is obviously paralyzed by distrust between Democrats and Republicans. But it is also paralyzed now by a distrust between politicians and the American people. We have reached a point where politicians of both parties speak in convoluted phrases and out right lies, as if we are not smart enough to realize we are being lied to. The spectacular greed which has brought our country to this economic state has caused mistrust between ordinary people and our financial institutions. And special interest money coursing through Congress has caused the American people to suspect that our government is no longer Lincoln's "government of the people, by the people, for the people", but a government of the lobbyists, by the lobbyists, for the lobbyists. With all this distrust, yesterday's outcome was not a surprise. It was inevitable.

No good comes to any country at such an impasse. Especially one in the midst of two wars and potential economic collapse. While I privately hope that a real leader will emerge from this catastrophe, the truth of the matter is that right now we all need to be leaders for our country. Our politicians will not put our country above partisan politics until we demand exactly that. And by putting our country first, I do not mean 'my way or the highway'. I mean true intellectual discourse on the problems facing us, discussion of our differences on how to fix them, and real compromises across party lines. Until we ourselves say enough with partisanship and vote out of office those who insist on conducting themselves as if there can be only one political party, ... well, we get what we pay for. And I for one am not sure I like what we've bought.

The Job Packet - How much I hate thee

It's been a few years since I last constructed a job packet. In my memory, it was such a simple thing to put together. A short letter detailing why I was interested in/fit their job and selling the highlights of my credentials. A page on my teaching philosophy - which, for the jobs I was applying to, I figured would probably not even be read. A research statement, lovingly crafted with my current and future research plans. And, of course, my CV. My memory says I wrote these easily and quickly and birds sang in the background while the refreshing scent of flowers wafted over me.

After last night, I suspect that my memory was artificially constructed by my brain to protect me from a stressful experience....kinda like the hormone that supposedly wipes women's memories after childbirth so they forget the hours and hours of pain and actually want to have sex again.

Seriously, though, I really thought the packet would be easier to construct this time around. Afterall, I've now been on two job search committees. I've seen more job packets than I care to think about. I know exactly how much emphasis gets put on the CV versus everything else. I need a cover letter that explains why I fit their job and highlights my productivity in case they happen to start with the cover letter before the CV. It just has to not suck. I know this. But I spent three agonizing hours on the damn cover letter last night.

After a sleepless night, I know that the struggle actually had little to do with the cover letter itself. Part of it did....I had built up in my head that now that I was an assistant professor, I really needed a letter that sounded like one and I had no idea how to do that. But most of the struggle had to do with self-doubt. Was I really good enough to apply to some of these schools? Should I just be happy with having a job? Was I doing the right thing by hitting the market now in this time of economic crisis? Was I insane not to try and make a move right now, because only God knows if there will even be open jobs next year. What if I moved and that university collapsed under economic strains? (I imagine a lot of schools are watching horrible things happen to their endowments right about now). What if I don't get any interviews? What does that say about my quality as a scientist?

I'm better now....mostly. It can be so easy to get trapped in your own brain running frantically in circles after questions with no answers. The truth of the matter is, nothing is lost by hitting the market and potentially so much is gained. It may be a gamble, but when the worst case scenario for a gamble is that nothing changes, you only lose by not trying. And for those of you who are wondering about my cover's all good. It doesn't suck, but my CV rocks.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Oh yeah baby!

Challenged by the fact that PhysioProf could mobile blog and I couldn't, I perservered in my quest for remote blogging. My efforts have been rewarded. Yeah!

-- Post From My iPhone

Saturday, September 27, 2008

To admit or ignore: the conundrum of an academic couple on the market

For those of you following my little blog, you know that General Disarray and I have been contemplating hitting the market this fall. We're pretty picky about where we would go (afterall, no point jumping to an equivalent or worse situation) and finally a couple of jobs have opened up which have caught our attention. Two of these are of the generic "looking for anyone in the fields of ecology and evolution" type. So we're both applying for some of the same jobs. (Having served on two search committees of the 'someone who works on pink spotted (but not red spotted) people-eaters who only eat tall people (but not short people) coming out of Wendy's on Sundays' searches, I cannot imagine how one evaluates that many job packets from so many sub-disciplines. General Disarray and I have joked that they must just weigh each CV for their first cut through the applicant pool...but of course nowadays it's all electronic so maybe it's a byte count...anyway I seriously digress).

So, we dutifully emailed our letter writers, pinky swearing them to secrecy (seems funny to swear them to secrecy and then blog about it, but I guess that's why I'm (hopefully) anonymous). More than one of my letter writers asked if it was okay to mention General Disarray in their letter. I have to admit I was more than a little bafoozled by the question. The argument coming from my letter writers was that they thought it would not hurt, but would help our applications and since we would not leave our current university without jobs for both of us, there was no reason not to be upfront about this. I had to admit that the logic seemed reasonable. Afterall, no point wasting everybody's time and effort if there is no way a department can come up with a second job, right? And, letting them know at the outset would give them maximum time to secure a second job if they wanted, right? Except....have you all seen the Incredibles? There's a scene where Mr Incredible wants a cape for his new superhero suit and Edna (the eccentric superhero fashion designer) says "No cape!" and begins listing all the superheros done in by their cape.


Figure 1. Mr Incredible, Edna, and the 'Hobo Suit'

Well, like Edna, I can list very good academic couples that appeared to suffer on the job market from honesty. Some of these people were frankly superstars, who if on the market independently would have secured interviews at a majority of schools, yet surprisingly received 1 or no interview requests when the fact that they would need a job for their spouse was either in their cover letter or in their letters of recommendation. I suspect that when deciding who to interview, there is overt or subconscious bias against people who have admitted openly they need a second job for their spouse. To really test this, General Disarray and I would randomly choose half of our applications to be sent with cover letters admitting we were an academic couple and half where we did not and see if there was a statistical difference in interview rates....but I strongly suspect that we will not have a large enough sample size to make it meaningful.

On the flip side, I also suspect that General Disarray and I may be outted anyway since we will be opposite gendered people applying from the same university. Furthermore, we know people at these universities, and we know that they know about us. I have no clue how a committee would respond if they knew we were married but we hadn't brought it up. Would the search committee wonder if we thought they were stupid or assume we were getting a divorce?

Anyway, I am opening this question to you, dear readers. I'm working on my job packet this week, so there's plenty of time to incorporate your suggestions! Do we admit up front in our job applications that we're looking for two positions or deal with it if we manage to get an interview/offer?

Why mobile blogging with Blogger blows

This week I was away from my desk (yeah!) for an extended period of time (yeah!) in a scenario where I did not have computer access to the internet, but I did have phone access. I had some time on my hands, and missed my blogosphere peeps, so I thought I would figure out how to do some mobile blogging. Afterall, having advanced internet capabilities was one of the reasons I got that fancyass iPhone in the first place! (BTW, the iPhone is coolest technological gadget I have ever experienced. If you are like me and feel intense need for and satisfaction at instantly Google-ing for a piece of information you were wondering about, this thing is as good as it gets until they figure out how to implant direct connections to the internet into our brains).

So, first I tried it directly from my phone through the web browser, but apparently my phone did not recognize the giant-ass text box. Then I searched for an app...afterall WordPress apparently has a nifty app for blogging on your phone. Nope. So, then I scoured Blogger for info on how to mobile blog. By this time, I almost peed myself when I found the link "Learn how to start mobile blogging". Obviously, I was missing something important and could use a few lessons.

Here's how it "works". You email or MMS from your phone and it sets up a separate blog for you.  It sends you an email with a code that allows you to activate and link that blog with your real blog. Then, whenever you send an email to from your phone it posts that email to your blog. Simple, right? Well, actually I thought it sounded weirdly convoluted and slightly esoteric, but  was pretty desperate at this point.

So, in my few minutes of spare time I trudged through the various steps outlined above. I received weird messages that indicated something had gone wrong followed by the email with my code indicating everything was hunky dory. I linked my mobile blog with Professor Chaos successfully. Excited, I quickly spun off a test email, explaining to you all what I was doing so you wouldn't be confused by just some post saying "test" popping up and send in the cavalry assuming that it was an SOS message and PhysioProf had hijacked me because I had promised to vote for Isis every hour on the hour if she posted a recipe I could freeze...which she did! Anyway, I pressed 'send' and then started checking my blog. Nothing ever showed up. Later, when I had a few more minutes, I checked my email:

Your carrier is not supported by Blogger Mobile. Please try using Mail-to-Blogger or visit for more information.

What? My carrier is AT&freakingT! You kidding me? It's not like I'm on some pay as you go network or something! The link takes you to a form with this information:

"Request a mobile carrier

Thanks for your interest in Blogger Mobile. Please complete this form in order to submit your carrier for review. We will not respond to to these submissions, but will take it into consideration as we work to expand Blogger Mobile to more carriers."

Well it would have been nice before I started that whole mess to know what carriers exactly they did support.

Stupid... freaking... Blogger.