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.....