Are women allowed to joke?

Is it true that a good measure of how well you know a foreign language is that you get the humor? If so, I failed German a decade or so ago when the Lufthansa agent in Frankfort very dryly told me that all seats in coach were taken because my connecting flight had gotten in so late, so I would only be able to fly across the Atlantic if I accepted business class. He said it in such a negative tone, I looked at him in disbelief and switched to English. Then he started laughing and I got it.

Another humor moment that stands out was at a chair’s meeting at Rice many years ago. I guess it had been a long meeting, or this would not have happened. I don’t remember the specifics, but we chairs, math, physics, chemistry, geology, etc., normally a rather dour group, devolved into a kind of humorous double speak. Bonding was increasing and we were on the verge of solving the problem that had led to the humor escalation. Unfortunately the dean did not get it and thought we were all fighting with each other, so  dismissed the meeting early. Giggles were heard in the hall afterwards to the confusion of our well-meaning dean.n1026872938_30199725_7354598

Humor of all kinds has been prized in my family, perhaps from my father’s roots as a half-jew in Nazi Berlin, or just perhaps because of the famous humor of Berliners. Humor takes different forms. My husband is the master of the perfect pun. Sarcasm and dry humor can confuse those not used to it, but can make the intolerable survivable. It would not surprise me if humor were an under-class thing, but I am not a social scientist.

There was a time when feminists were said not to have a sense of humor. This always baffled me. If the jokes made women the butt, of course they would not find them funny, but not to have a sense of humor at all? It sure didn’t match my experience. But maybe in humor as in so many things the rules are different for women.

Richard D. Alexander, my mentor from the University of Michigan, has studied all things human from an evolutionary perspective. Part of his work might relate to women and humor. In 1986 he wrote a thoughtful piece on humor, ostracism, and indirect reciprocity, reprinted with an excellent companion piece by Stan Braude in the Summers and Crespi volume that reprints many of Dick’s works on humans. Dick’s goal with his piece is to develop a set of hypotheses for the advantage of humor. The main idea is that humor is a form of ostracism to those that do not get the joke, or to oneself as a kind of false modesty. It is a way of increasing the bonds within groups at the expense of those outside. He also comes up with a taxonomy of humor from shaggy dog stories to puns.

Stan Braude in his introductory piece begins with a joke which most of us will not get at first, beginning “So two orthopterists walk into a bar…”. He moves on to say how tedious and counterproductive it is to explain jokes, summarized Dick’s views on ostracism, then talked about some really interesting ideas on humor and scenario building skills focusing on increasing ability to anticipate surprise. He ties this to music and art appreciation and development. Youngsters might only get simple melodies with easy surprises. As we listen to more and more music and learn to pick out ever more complex themes, our capacity for surprise becomes much more nuanced. If the same goes for humor, then the most advanced forms would be so dry as to be often missed, but very valuable for connoisseurs making their way through this complex world.

Have I tread too far into this realm? Why just yesterday my youngest son on the phone commented that he was missing my jokes that day. The one I remember was pretending I thought LOL means lots of love.

Humor is what lets a liberal survive Texas and makes Molly Ivins our patron saint. But humor is not so apparent in the nice corridors of my Missouri department. So maybe that is why I got into so much trouble for a joke misunderstood late last year.

That unpleasant event has me rethinking humor, women, power, and regionalism. It makes me understand better those who conform religiously. The rules are different for women, really different for powerful women. Ignore them at your peril. No one expects you to joke, so you better not do it, even with people you thought were your friends, I’m sad to report.

Posted in Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career, Politics, Social interactions | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why gifts from students are problematic

A recently graduated student regularly brought our group delicious and sticky baklava that she made when she went home. We looked forward to it, shared it, and tried to resist eating too many of the flaky, nutty layered treats. Other students give chocolate, or little trinkets, often from another country, typically after a letter of recommendation is submitted.

Most treasured for me are personal notes about how my class or mentorship helped them take the next step, or proved meaningful at a difficult time, or simply are thanks for being a teacher they valued. There is no ethical problem with these notes, but what about tangible gifts? Is there a limit? What should it be?IMG_4762

I’m inclined to feel uncomfortable with any gift of more than token value. What might that be? The federal government sets the limit for employees receiving gifts from outside at $20. Alabama limits school children’s gifts to teachers to $25 or less. This makes sense to me. A colleague simply announces to her class that no gifts will be accepted. Any that come in anyway are donated.

So what is the problem? Why do I feel uncomfortable with gifts? Certainly no one can influence my letter of recommendation in this way, but might a bigger gift give the appearance of influence? Is it really true gifts can’t influence? Of course they can. I think there is a problem even when the gifts  come after all official contact is over. If gifts are part of the culture, it makes it that much harder for students with fewer resources. To me gifts muddy the relationship of mentorship and teaching.

Maybe you see it differently, but I think the best gift is the heartfelt note. Inexpensive food to share is also all right. Anything more should be donated, or gently refused.

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PNAS is now tracking Online Impact. How do you fare?

The Cozzarelli Prize was just awarded to some excellent researchers who published last year in PNAS. The first was on the timeline for the Permian mass extinction. I turned to that paper and saw at the bottom of the page a very interesting graphic on the paper’s impact online. I wish I could copy it here, but can’t, so you’ll have to go to the paper itself. It is a kind of colored braid that shows the paper was picked up by 20 news outlets, 5 blogs, 55 tweets, 8 Facebook pages, 1Reddit, 31 on Mendeley, and 1 on CiteULike. In other places they list things like downloads.

What to do with this information? The responses I hear in discussions fall into two camps. Older people tend not to care at all. Younger people are obsessed with this and worry about how to get their work more attention. The answer should be the same for both scientific communities. Do your best work and publish it carefully and clearly. Don’t salami science each little bit. Wait until you have a full story, then tell it clearly and in context.

A bit of salesmanship is fine, but be sure you have a product worth selling. Educate yourself by looking at how papers you read do on these metrics. What soared? What slumped? Was it the science, the context, or the communication?

Posted in Public Communication, Publishing your work | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The essential broader impact for all NSF proposals

There is one component of your broader impacts that you should always include. It is crucially important not just for you but for the continuing funding of science. It is essential for the ultimate application of your research to the betterment of our world. Betterment of the world can come from technical advances, but it can also come from the glory of understanding for the first time what is out there on our planet and how these things, organisms, molecules, or anything natural are interconnected.

You may not even realize that this topic I am building to is a broader impact, let alone the most important one of all. I would argue if you do not excel at this one broader impact, you will struggle with all the others. This essential broader impact is the clear communication of your science.

Communication implies at least two partners, the signal sender and the signal receiver. The first receiver of scientific information you might think of is other scientists. But even this first category varies from people very close to what you do to the broader scientific community that you must reach if you hope to publish in PNAS, Science, Nature, or PLoS Biology. Outside of science is usually divided into two communities, the public and young students. These groups are even more diverse than the scientists. The more we as a community fail to reach them, the lower trust of science will fall, with concomitant reductions in funding, and all the positive consequences of an educated public on the issues of our time.

Publishing and giving talks at meetings are the standard first ways of communicating your science. In fact, if you do not publish your results in a peer reviewed format, it is not really viewed as complete. But this is only the beginning.  Find a way of communicating your science to other audiences. This may be through blogs, through talking to reporters, through your lab web page, by making videos, or many other ways. You don’t have to target all audiences with all your work. You can pick and choose, perhaps leaving the most narrow and technical work for your colleagues. But I would say every paper you publish should have a few sentences intelligible by the educated adult public. These sentences should be easy to find on your web page.

Don’t be surprised when someone on your daughter’s soccer team asks you what you have discovered. Don’t stammer in the elevator when you try to explain your work. Be prepared to understand and explain exactly why what you do is important. Put it in context too. Think about always mentioning someone else who also works in your area and how your work fits with advancing the field.

Being able to communicate your science effectively may not be something you learned in grad school. But there has been a lot done on this topic. The very interesting two Sackler conferences on the topic are a good place to start, here and here. By the way, this isn’t just me. It is a topic that comes from our recent discussion on NSF’s Biology Advisory Committee, chaired by Kay Gross and reporting to Jim Olds.

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You are not reading enough! Take a hierarchical approach

I hope by now you have subscribed to a bunch of topics using Google Scholar, including any citations to your own work. This will keep you informed on topics closest to you, even if you don’t read the papers through.

For teaching and future projects, it is a good idea to be more broad. One way of doing that is to subscribe to tables of contents of a few of your favorite journals. It takes only a few minutes to browse though those lists, occasionally clicking on the most interesting looking titles.

If you are responsible reviewer, you will see a lot of new work that way. If you are not reviewing as much as you would like, please let your friends on editorial boards know.

If you are writing a paper or a proposal, odds are you are reading intensely in a few areas.

In my Dropbox so I can get at it anywhere I have a file called Read This!. It is supposed to let me read articles effectively. If a paper is in that box, I have read the abstract. Sometimes I get to the rest of the paper, but mostly they languish there, gradually falling down the list.

But why do I say you don’t read enough if I struggle with it myself? Because it is a constant challenge. Because I don’t hear conversation on papers as often as I would like. Because students discussing their time use do not usually bring up reading papers.

It is all right to read some things more thoroughly than others. Even reading titles can give you an idea of what is out there. Keep reading through the abstract or even turn to the figures and you are likely to get most of what you need.  So read thoroughly and carelessly. Don’t necessarily keep track of everything. The mind is a complex place where ideas can sort around and stick together in exciting ways. Maybe if reading were allowed to be haphazard and fun you would do more of it.


Posted in Creativity, Managing an academic career, New ideas, Scholarship | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

Teach to do not to know

Last week a student came to talk to me. In the course of discussion he said that he learned a lot from a class in the business school here at Wash U, even though he wasn’t particularly interested in the subject. The problem was that the course required group work to solve problems, so he couldn’t help but be engaged.

Is it really that simple? If we simply have students do things they will learn and if we just try to teach information they will not? Is this why labs are more engaging than lectures? Is this why teaching is the best way of learning? Is this why the best teachers all use action?

Obviously this is not news. It is why I have my students write for Wikipedia and teach high school students. I imagine that even something as small as doing problems counts as doing. But how much doing is there in the big cell biology classes? In intro biology? In chemistry? We teach to know overwhelmingly. Knowledge is a lot easier to get and retain if we need it to do something. What if we accepted that it is impossible to teach to know if there is no action after the knowledge is acquired?

How many of the changes we need to see in education would come naturally if we always had to teach to do and not teach to know? One change would be in the extent to which we cover subjects. We could not feed students from the fire hose of all cell biology. They would have to choose something specific to solve, ideally something that helped them learn generally so they could get the information later as needed.

There are tons of problems out there. Let’s have our students solve problems related to the things we want them to know. Then they will learn along the way. It can even be fun. I wonder how much the students assembling the activities for Thurteen carnival are learning.

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How to creatively work the room at an NSF meeting

You’ve arrived at NSF, or NIH, or at any kind of small meeting with a job to do. You walk in the door, see the big table and find your name plate. Do you sit down and get to work, or check your email? Do you get a cup of coffee and one of those dry muffins, or do you look to see who else is there? The right way to play this is to realize that for the next few days you will be in a room with fabulously talented people. They collectively know a lot. Your challenge is to figure out who knows things that might be useful to you and vice versa. So don’t let your common panel tasks get in the way of expanding your knowledge and your contacts.

The first thing to do should be done before you arrive. That is to look at the web pages of your fellow committee members. What do they do? What might you learn? Make a list of things you would like to learn, but also be prepared for novelty, for things you want to know you didn’t even realize. Pick some people to meet and learn from. Be open to other people who want to contact you.

Don’t be shy when you walk in the room. Walk up to people. Introduce yourself. Ask them something right away. Find common ground with people you don’t know but are interested in talking with. You might even be able to move the name tags around to position yourself next to someone interesting. Go to the group dinners. Don’t be timid.

Don’t stick to just a few people. Talk to several. Sit next to people at meals that are not the people you sit next to at the table. If you are NSF be sure to make time to visit your program officer. Move surely towards learning whatever you identified as interesting. Be surprised. You will get a lot more out of meetings and panels if you make a plan and figure out how to learn from your colleagues.

Posted in Collaboration, Grants, NSF, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment