Can we fix inequity in awards for women scientists?


Our wonderful undergraduates at their poster session look towards a world with less bias.

Unfairness to women in academic recognition is common. Anne Lincoln and co-authors, for example published on the Matilda Effect on awards and prizes in science. Women achieve much more for much less recognition, if they get credit for their own ideas and inventions at all. Shelley Correll has written about biases against women, as have many others. I am not going to review this work today. This is an action plan and some principles.

  1. My most basic principle is that no one wants to be biased and no one, not men nor women, consciously favor men, male-led projects, or erroneously attribute ideas to men. I start from this perspective that scientists are good, well-meaning people who try hard to be fair. Of course there are the others, but if all the good people formulated an action plan of their own, the problem would largely go away.
  2. We do not understand our own motivations very well, or even at all. We are evolved creatures, evolved to behave in certain ways and to make judgements quickly that were good enough sometime in our evolutionary past. Assuming these judgements are unbiased is silly. This is true for the legal system where one study found that judges gave much harsher sentences before lunch (blog here), to others that show the shortcomings of the simultaneous line-up instead of a sequential one for identifying ill doers by eye witnesses. I think it is true for pretty much everything. I get a lot of insight from reading a lot of social science literature. Daniel Ariely comes to mind, but that could be a false attribution because he spoke twice at Wash U. These two principles motivate the action plan in the next three points.


    Ursula Goodenough, mentor to many, wonderful colleague, and scrupulously fair, at her retirement festivities.

  3. Take the nomination pledge. With this you agree to nominate worthy women and under-represented minorities for awards broadly and in your discipline. These can be society prizes, university prizes, or others. Educate yourself as to what is out there and nominate.  You decide what is a good number for you. It could be one a year, one a month, or one for some particular awards. Make it a normal part of your academic responsibilities, like letters of recommendation are.  Encourage your colleagues to do likewise.
  4. Don’t use recall to choose whom to nominate. It gives our brains too much leeway for bias. I suppose we would all think spontaneously of the same handful of people. Instead use recognition. Get lists of society members. Look at editorial boards. See who on those lists is worthy and unrecognized. Keep a list of people to nominate and fill them in when something comes up. Don’t just stick to people from your own institution or own sub sub discipline. Remember, recognition, not recall.
  5. Finally, if you find yourself on a judging committee, remember how bad we are at evaluating quality or predicting who will shine in the future. Remember to be broad about discipline and to avoid cliques and narrow windows of prestige. Think broadly. Choose women and under-represented minorities. Look at ideas and outcomes. Don’t count citations or publications.

I think we can fix this problem with these two perspectives and these three simple steps. After all, there are plenty of outstanding scientists in the target communities. Help get them the recognition they deserve!

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Grant review: best proposal or most needy scientist?

Budding scientists hard at work on their posters.

In a few short hours I read nine proposals from graduate students interested in funding for their research. Because this was a focused call, they were largely similar. They all involved field work, natural history, and queries into the relationship of humans and their environment. But they varied in all the details, some including more anthropology and archaeology, others more systematics, or ecology, others behavior and economics. Some had simple techniques and others more complex ones. The questions asked varied and were all more empirical than conceptual. I wanted to fund all of them, but we could fund only one or two.

How could I rank them? Why should it be so hard? After all, I had their resumés, their letters of recommendation, and detailed proposals that included budgets. Some were clearly more polished than others. Some students had already published or attended scientific meetings. The letters of recommendation were not from people from the USA and so had a different tone, one I found harder to parse.

But my real problem was not any of these. It was that what I really wanted to know was where the funding dollars would do the most good. If I could answer that question, then whom to fund should be clear. But this brought up another question, how to define the most good. Assuming I could judge these things, it could be the best person, the best proposal, or the most needy person. Ideally, it would have to be a mix of these to make the most difference to science. A stellar person who also had other funds might not be the best choice. Likewise, a very needy researcher whose proposal was very weak might not be a good choice either. What I wanted to identify was the person for whom these funds could really make a difference, someone for whom these modest funds could launch a career.

Isn’t where the funds can do the most good a worthy goal for all funding decisions? I think it should be. Now I will digress from my recent experience to that with which I am most familiar, the US National Science Foundation. My sense is that what we do on panel there is judge the best science and the best broader impacts. But this does not mean that the other things are not considered. It just means that it is more efficient and accurate to separate judging the science from judging other things. That is why the panels do not make final decisions. I totally agree with this. After all, what if there were no proposals from say 10 states (you pick) that were scientifically as high as the ones from Harvard? Would it make sense for us as a nation to just fund Harvard and never fund those other states? I say no. For that would mean a promising students from, say Alabama, would have no opportunity to be exposed to teaching and research from someone with NSF funding. It would reinforce our already too strong class structure and be bad for a nation that wants excellence from all regions.
Continuing along the line of considering our national funding agencies, I do not think it is best for our nation to put NSF and NIH funds into the hands of a few. I think it is horrible that one person can receive many NIH grants, for example. It is bad for discovering the best science, bad for encouraging the most scientists, bad for discovering the best ways of dealing with our human predicament. What the limit should be in these days of collaborative science might be complex, but that is a solvable question once the principle is accepted.I think the earlier people are in the education spectrum, the less we should judge and the more we should encourage. I think science fairs for kids that pick nationwide winners are a joke. They reward access to labs as much as anything. At the grad student level, I am also in favor of smaller grants for more people.So I ranked the nine proposals and the nine proposers since I had to. I hope they all shine.

Posted in Awards and prizes, Graduate school, Grant proposals, Grants, NSF | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Can you answer this crucial scientific question?

“Where did you see that,” may not seem like the most crucial question, but for natural science, history, geography, archaeology, and many other fields, provenance is crucial information. The volunteers that keep eBird useful will challenge you if you claim to have seen a bird at a time or place it was rare. Fossils are not nearly as useful and are useless for many questions if they have been dug out of the rock layer they come from since that takes away age information. Some of my systematics friends are unwilling to identify samples that lack their GPS coordinates.

Every field biologist knows that putting the date and the location on notes and samples is an essential first step. We use GPS for our soil collections for our social amoebae, but even back in the salad days of research for me, I mapped things. I could tell you where each wasp nest was in a field, and where that field was on a map. I knew counties of states and countries. For some nests, I knew paces and compass directions.

Even researchers that never get outside need to know the provenance of their cell lines. How many studies have claimed one line but actually been on the overpowerful HeLa lines? The careful researcher verifies the provenance of their cell lines, assures themselves that the knockout is in the gene they think it is.

Why is provenance so important? It is because nothing is alone and everything happens in context. Provenance helps us understand that context. Provenance helps link the studies I do with the studies others do. Appreciating provenance is a characteristic of a careful researcher.

This is not just true for natural sciences. It is true for archaeology where relics without their context are lost of their meaning. It is why theft at archaeological sites is so terrible. It is particularly true for history. How can we know the why and what of events without clear documentation of when and where? Provenance is what allowed my husband’s father, Donald Queller, to make the links he made in his books on Venice and the Crusades.

So imagine my horror when I went downstairs and discovered my 90-year-old father, not senile at all, thought it would be a good idea to separate from their envelopes the letters my grandmother who was still in Germany wrote to her husband who had made it to the USA in 1936? The family soon followed, and those letters are history. The envelopes are their provenance. I sure do hope I can convince him to put them back together, but I’m not optimistic. Those of you who know me, will now know where I got my attitude.

For you, just be sure you can answer the crucial questions about your data and your samples and can tell the world exactly where and when you got them.

Posted in Communication, Field work, Research | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Will your paper meet the reporting checklist requirements for Nature Ecology and Evolution?

Perhaps one of the biggest shocks to students new to research is how slow and painstaking it is. More than one has decided it is no fun at all, nothing like reading cool articles or watching nature videos. And I’m not here to tell you otherwise. If anything, you should start out even more slowly and carefully. Worry about everything. Record everything. But what does that even mean?

Well, the new journal from the for-profit line from Nature (actually Springer Nature and don’t get me started), this one being Nature Ecology and Evolution has a very useful checklist. I suppose a lot of other journals have this too, but here is the one I came across. For every figure, you have to have in the caption (or methods if too long)

sample size as a number,

sample collection methods and if technical or biological replicates (what these mean with microbes can be challenging)

how many times the experiment was replicated

definitions of statistical methods and measures

for sample sizes under 5 each data point has to be plotted

clear information on tests, whether one or two sided, indication of centrality and error bars.

Then they have several other sections where you have to report exactly where in the text something was done, like sample size selection, inclusion criteria, randomization and blinding procedures, normality of data and more.

Then you have to make it clear where your data will be publicly available and how your code will be published. They encourage Data Descriptors “to maximize data reuse.” but that link did not work for me.

Plos Biology also has some lists for good standards for meta analyses and the like, here.


Chandra Jack and Neil Buttery know all about careful science

So pay attention to these standards when you are designing your experiments. I’ve always said when students have asked me to consider how something will look in the Methods section. This is more specific. I particularly like the requirement that if there are fewer than 5 points, to show them, not make a misleading bar graph.

I also feel like our statistical analyses are stuck in the pre-computer days and we should probably ditch them and start over, beginning with randomization tests as the standard, but that is a post for another time.

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What is your anxiety telling you?

Megan Duffy had a thoughtful post on not inducing anxiety in others. She mentioned the specific case of reducing anxiety in others by being really clear. Instead of saying something like meet me Thursday, say why. I agree that getting asked to meet a professor or a boss is a scary thing, so the detail she suggested is great.


For the moment, not anxious?

But today I’m thinking more about my own anxiety, and yours. Anxiety is so often a problem, we may lose sight of its positive side. So I think we should embrace our anxiety, for it is a big part of what makes us empathetic humans. I think anxiety is fundamentally a social feeling. We feel anxious if we think we will let someone else down. We could also feel anxious anticipating the reactions of unreasonable people. Miscommunication is also a rich field for anxiety.

What exactly is anxiety? What comes up on Google for anxiety is “a feeling of nervousness or unease…typically about an uncertain event or outcome.” Obviously life throws all kinds of events and circumstances at us about which we are uncertain and worry. I guess worry has to be the first cousin of anxiety. Together and in a helpful way, they can help us do what we should do, pay forward the debt to our future self, so she is as happy and fulfilled as she can be.

So the best thing to reduce anxiety is simply to do what needs to be done, so you won’t have anything to be anxious about. If you are worried about being late, be on time. If you are anxious about a test, study more. Oh, if only it were so simple. Sometimes you cannot do what you must do. Conflicting demands on your time can make you anxious. If I let anxiety run my life entirely, I would never do anything new or creative, just follow the demands others put on my time.

Sometimes anxiety gets higher and higher because not doing something makes you anxious, yet you somehow keep failing to do it. In this case, listen to your anxiety. What is it trying to tell you? Do you actually not want to do the thing you think you want to do? Or is it something else? Try to figure it out. A healthy level of anxiety we all need. Sometimes it will build up to nearly unbearable levels, simply to tell you you don’t really want that career, that project, that relationship.

In some ways, this is a very simplistic post because it is not addressing how crippling anxiety can become. But the basic message is not simple. It is that anxiety is a part of being human, so fundamental that no anxiety would be as troubling as too much anxiety. And our anxiety is telling us something. Listen and try to figure out what it is.

Posted in Managing an academic career, Mentoring, Social interactions, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

How do you get into that popular course?

Perhaps the most important thing to learn from this blog is that people who are confident will not let the rules restrict them if there is something they want. I’m not talking about scary serious rules like driving on the correct side for your country, but about getting help mentoring, getting into classes, or getting a rejected paper reconsidered.

Some choice classes are hard to get into

How does this work? In all cases it works with careful, respectful, fact-filled communication. Make your case as strong as you can. An early time in your career is to use this to get into classes you want to take that might be full, or will fill before you get a chance to register.

Remember, neither the students nor the professors like the standard registration system. We professors want the best students in our classes. We want people who are engaged, hard working, committed to coming, to listening and participating, and helping others. Show them you are that person.

So, email the professor early, even before registration period. Make that first email tell. Include as much information as will be helpful. Say why you want to take the course, what your career goals are, what other courses or experiences you can bring to the class, what great things you have heard about the class, and attach your resume and informal transcript. Ask how you can get into the class. At this point the teacher should want you and make it happen.

Don’t make that first email a query as to whether this stuff is even possible. Just do it!

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Grading ruins teaching

I do not want to hear one more word about grade inflation. I do not want to hear one more word complaining about today’s students. I want to hear about why so many professors and teachers have decided we are judges and hangmen rather than encouraging mentors. I want to know why we have stopped teaching and instead simply sort students by things that boil down to wealth and opportunity. Why have we stopped helping people learn? What has happened to our schools and universities?

This may be long-winded, but I am talking about something very important and do not know how to do it another way.

Imagine a child learning to tie her shoes for the first time. She knows this is something worth learning and has come to you to learn it. She wants to learn it.

You might show her how you do it with your shoes. Then you will break down the steps. First you make the cross, tucking one lace under the other and pulling tight. Then you form a loop. I learned to then wrap the other end of the lace around that loop and pull a bit of it through the hole left by my thumb to make the other loop and pull tight. Voila! Two loops easily untied by pulling on either end. You could make a simple knot of the two loops to hold the bow tighter. You could tie the shoe in a different way, by forming two loops and then simply tying them together, one over the other, the way my husband learned.

A child might not learn how to do this all at once. She might learn the first bit, then get you to do the bows. She might have trouble holding the first loop in place while she wraps the other lace around it. She might have started trying to tie her shoe before she could master it and get frustrated. She might put this aside for awhile and then return to it. But ultimately, she will tie her shoes easily, rapidly, and well.

Many things we learn are like tying your shoe. These include learning the connection between written words, speech, and meaning, often called reading. Riding a bicycle, flying a kite, pouring milk over cereal, cooking an egg, buttoning your shirt, calling your grandmother on the telephone, planting beans, combing your hair, making your bed and sweeping the floor are all things we learn how to do. You might think these are simple tasks that can be learned easily and in ways that have little to do with the kind of learning we hope goes on in our universities. But I disagree.

To do any one of these things you have to follow a series of steps. I think you have to want to learn them too. I suppose these steps can be broken down in a lot of different ways, but here is one dissection.
1. Understand the point of learning to do the thing. With this you learn to want the outcome.
2. Understand both the starting point and the final outcome. If you don’t know where you begin and where you will end up, it will be hard to learn the new thing.
3. See clearly how to break the activity down into specific steps. Doing anything can be hard at first if you cannot see that it is made up of easier steps that can be learned one at a time.
4. Have the time, the space, the materials, the independence, and the encouragement to practice. No one gets much of anything right the first time.
5. Have a teacher that is patient, responsive, encouraging, and knowledgeable. You have to want the learning but having someone that can help show you the steps and answer your questions is key.

There are other important things about learning, but these are essential. But what if every time you started something you got graded on your performance? How many times would you fail tying your shoe before you finally got it? Or, to make a more precise educational analogy, what if you did not figure out how to tie your shoe, but the teacher simply gave you a low grade on it, then moved on to buttoning your shirt, zipping your coat, and riding a bike? What if the mentor marched you through those activities too, grading as she went so you never learned any of them properly? Your shoes would be untied, your shirt unbuttoned, your coat unzipped, and you would fall off your bike.

I know this sounds ridiculous. I know these activities do not necessarily get learned in this order, or even get learned at all. But the point is, any child wants to master them. Anyone who effectively helps them learn will keep at it until they do. If what you teach is important, why do you rush on to the next topic when everyone has not mastered the earlier one? How will grading help? I do not think it will.

What are we supposed to do? We can’t throw out the whole university system, can we? After all, they pay us. They also let employers rank their future hires. Have we really become the servants of the employers rather than the inspirers of brilliance?  Students learn differently, some fast, some slow, some are better prepared, some are worried about something at home, some lack confidence, and some do not want to learn something specific. All of these things come into how fast we learn. Do we want to teach our students they are simply no good by giving them low grades and rushing them ahead before they master earlier material?

I haven’t even talked about creativity, about learning to push back the borders of knowledge, or creating great art. We fail in teaching so long before that.

Do I have a solution that fits in today’s framework? I think I know where to start. It is to throw out competitive grading and to give evaluations based on what the students ultimately accomplished, not how fast they did so. This could result in grades that look just like grades, but everyone could get an A, some more quickly than others.  Simply let students work on material until they have mastered it. You think this isn’t practical, but it is. Focus on the student and let them keep trying until they get it. More later.

Posted in learning, Teaching | Tagged , , | 1 Comment