Take the nomination pledge!


Boahemaa Adu-Oppong received a university-wide service award from the Gephardt Institute!

Anyone who follows the awards given by just about any scientific society will notice the lack of women. I could start listing awards given seldom to women from all our various societies. But instead, I ask something simple. Pledge to nominate a deserving woman or under represented minority for something every year.  Just one, though of course more are great. It could be anything, from NSF’s Waterman to a local university prize, to something from a society you belong to. Just get in the habit of doing it every year. I am still basking in the glory of seeing Boahemaa Adu-Oppong get a much deserved service prize for mentoring, for tutoring, and for directing the Wash U program of grad student tutoring and teaching, YSP. It was easy for me to nominate her and to get co-nominators.

One more thing. Ask someone else to nominate someone deserving for a specific award. Help them get this done if necessary. This will increase the nominating pool. Also encourage people to self-nominate where that is a possiblity.IMG_0118

This is not the only problem and this will not solve the whole problem, but it is a step. So take the pledge. Nominate one deserving person every year for something. Get someone else to do the same.IMG_0114

Posted in Awards and prizes, Broader Impacts, Gender bias, prizes | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Do you have time for recess?

Usually I read a novel, or listen to a book on tape or music on a flight. I listened to a bit of German for fun today, flying again to Washington D. C.. The flight is a bit long so I tired of my book and remembered I had a manuscript from our group to read and comment on. It is a lovely study of mating and cannibalism in social amoebae, so I read it for about an hour, then stopped so it would only have my freshest attention. You see, I don’t work all the time. I want time for novels, time for family and friends, time for cooking and gardening, and time for birds. Sometimes getting everything done feels overwhelming, but the adult equivalent of recess should not be sacrificed.


Star stone skipper!

When we were looking for a school for my 5 year old to attend we had a lot of choice because Houston had a magnet program. Magnets could be for anything and the idea was to have voluntary mixing of students from different populations. How that worked out is another story, but one thing it meant was that parents could think about what was important to their child. Do you want art or science, a gifted program or a foreign language? How do you choose?

Perhaps the most coveted public school was in the fanciest neighborhood, River Oaks. We went to the open house and were led through the schedule minute by minute along with the other eager parents. I raised my hand to ask about recess. I saw a bathroom break of 5 minutes, but no recess. The smiling magnet coordinator kindly told us that there was no time in their 8 AM to 3 PM day for recess. In fact, the district as a whole had done away with recess, we were told.

Then I discovered that our neighborhood school, Longfellow Elementary, a magnet for creative and performing arts, had a sort of guerilla recess, with parent volunteers helping out. We looked no further for a school for Anna. After all, we knew our five-year-old had time for recess. And she still does, now a fancy professor at University of Chicago.

There is lots written about the power of restorative breaks, whether it be music, sleep, friends, or nature. In fact, I basically view this festive meeting I’m about to attend as a big break, but I also hope I learn something.

Posted in Creativity, Managing an academic career, Organization of a scientist, work/life balance | Leave a comment

Learning German from Jenny Erpenbeck

Jenny Erpenbeck writes a poetic, clear, and sad German. She reads herself on Audible with a crystalline German that reminds me of a young Mosel wine, or the ring of a toast  from my grandparents’s hundred year old wine glasses. My crash course in German will be based entirely on Aller Tage Abend, The End of Days.

I love being able to talk to people in their language, even if only a few words with a grammar that might be called unusual. I feel it creates a bond, indicates a level of respect and commitment to communication. Unfortunately, there is little call for speaking or writing in a language other than English at scientific meetings these days. But if you go to another country, there will be chances to try your rusty language.

If you are like me you had three years of German in high school and a semester in college. You might even share a German heritage and years of listening to your father talk to his parents on the phone in their natal language. Later, like me, you might have tried to talk to that same grandmother, called Omi in my case, in German. She laughed a lot, never corrected me and anyway that was 20 years ago or more.

So, now I turn to Jenny for help. I chose her because I wanted to read good contemporary fiction. So I browsed around and found a site that listed German books worth reading. I decided to read a woman, because, why not? If I thought about it I would probably also have chosen an Ossie. But really, my main criterion was that the book be available in both Kindle and Audible in German. Aller Tage Abend was. I might have preferred a book with  more dialogue, but now I’m into it, I’m happy with this choice.IMG_9997

Here is my technique. I listen to a chapter or two. Then I think about what went on. I try to focus on how many words I miss. My vocabulary in German is fairly terrible. I listen again. I catch more. I repeat listening to this 10 minute or so piece at least four times. With Aller Tage Abend, I get that a baby has died, but at first I think she died at birth. By the second or third reading I understand she was 8 months old when she died. Other things slowly become clear on repeated listening.

But ultimately I also turn to the written word. It is almost irrelevant; after all, my goal is to speak and understand. None of us learned our natal language from writing, so why should we learn new ones that way? It is harder than listening. My mind wanders. But after many times listening to Jenny, I can hear her lovely voice as I read in print. I touch words I don’t know and the Kindle offers up the English translations. Some I try to remember. Others I doubt I’ll ever need, like die Amme, for wet nurse. I get even more of the story. I know the woman fell, but I did not get that she landed on a pile of bedding until I looked at the print.

I am not a neurobiologist, so I do not understand well all the mechanisms behind the differences between hearing and reading. On a kid’s site from my university, it is explained that language is processed in Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area, but comes in either in the auditory or visual cortex and these are separate. I’m a big fan of putting the auditory spot to work for learning to speak a language.

Every ten minutes of Jenny’s lovely voice will take an hour or more to work through. Then when I’m done with this book, I’ll probably listen again to the whole thing, enjoying it for what it is. I know it will awaken, restore, and enhance German learned long ago. My colleagues at EMBL in Heidelberg certainly know more English than I will ever know German, but I might get a chance to chat with the likely Turkish taxi driver, or buy some currants from a vendor. Next up, French. My husband has already picked the book.

Posted in Communication, Travel | Tagged , , , , , | 3 Comments

Training for creating safe spaces for students on gender issues

An ungendered perspective on students

An ungendered perspective on students

Richard Dawkins talks about the moral zeitgeist of the times in The God Delusion. It is something that is generally accepted at a given time, but can change. When we look back, we can be horrified at past standards on many issues from the horrors of slavery to corporal punishment to unequal treatment of women. At some times the zeitgeist is more fluid than others. Right now attitudes and feelings are changing fast around sexual and gender identities.

As an educator, mentor, and friend to developing students, I want them to feel comfortable and free to be themselves, to explore ideas wherever they go. I do not want them to limit the ability of their minds to soar because of fear about attitudes towards their gender, dress, or any aspect of their identity. Nor should they fear stereotypes from race, mental or physical illness, social class or anything else. How do we achieve this?

If it were easy, we wouldn’t have so many problems. If even nice people unwittingly say things that hurt some people, we have a problem. How to solve it may come largely from fields like psychology.

Of course we should first have a clear idea of the basics. At its most fundamental, we should treat everyone with respect. A person’s gender identity should not impact how we treat them. We can use different pronouns if requested. We can advertise in our offices and labs that we are supportive of all our students. In some ways it is sad that we need to indicate a safe space with a rainbow. We don’t do the same for other forms of bias. But this is the current zeitgeist, so do it if you are supportive.

At Rice University when I was on the faculty, if you wanted to display a rainbow indicating a safe place, you were given one. At my current institution, to get this you have to go through a training program that is supposed to be updated every few years and your date of training can be policed because you have to put it on the card. I signed up. It was a very small group of faculty that came to the 1.5 hour session. I thought about what a good training session might look like.

To me, effective training would go straight to the subtleties. After all anyone voluntarily there wants to be helpful. I imagine such training would talk about implicit bias, maybe mention thinking fast and slow, and such things. If I were designing it, I would probably start by asking people to tell their neighbor why they came to this workshop and maybe ask them to tell each other a relevant story. Then I would launch straight into a series of videos where we would watch for five or so minutes and then discuss with our neighbors what we saw. There might be a list of questions on the board, like what did you see, was this biased behavior, were there communication problems, and the like. I would have maybe four such videos of different sorts and they would be ambiguous and hard to decide. After all, it is on the borders that decisions are hard. Discussions would all be with small groups with the facilitators floating around. Maybe someone else has a better idea of what to do. This is what I thought of.

Unfortunately it is not what we got this morning at Wash U. Instead we got a really long list of terms we might hear from queer to cis-gendered to pansexual and about 15 more. I had already heard all of them, but then my daughter did go to Wellesley. We got some interesting information, some information I think was erroneous, and little interaction. I can hardly believe they started the session by telling us they had a lot of material so they were going to “talk at us.” These are well-meaning people who care a lot about the issues, but surely they know there is no greater turn-off than to be told this. If you must lecture, make it telling a story.

So, give those cards with lists of resources on the back to whomever wants to display them. And while you are at it, treat the big issue of the scandalous lack of toilets for all on campus. We should not need a special map. Just take out the urinals and make all the men’s rooms for everyone.

Posted in Undergraduates, Workshops | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Five reasons to hire you for our open faculty position

Faculty brainstorming about diversifying

Faculty brainstorming about diversifying

Hiring is one of the most important things we do. A new hire is a colleague for years, possibly decades. The new professor will figure out things we don’t know, will even completely change the way we view a major area of biology. The new professor will join us in figuring out curriculum, effective teaching, and mentoring. Our new colleague will teach us to think differently. She or he will attract a team of great researchers at all levels. How do we pick the best person?

The most important thing to remember is probably that there is not a best person. There are probably at least ten people in any pool that are excellent and would do splendidly. Our applicant pools run from over a hundred to two hundred self-selected people, so this is not too surprising. Also, I have generally viewed nearly all the people we interview as potentially great picks. So how do we decide?

I should say that it is never solely up to me. This is a good thing. Who would want all that responsibility? But I have been deeply or peripherally involved in three searches in our department and have heard job talks in two others just this year, so I have some insights. Here are five things I think are most important.

First is collegiality. Are you a cooperative person who will help others thrive and not put them down? Can you communicate your ideas in ways that encourage rather than terrify others? I put this first because it is probably the only thing we really need the interview for. All the other things can generally be learned from reading your papers, looking at your CV, and reading the letters that recommend you to us, though only the committee will take the time to do this. Perhaps there are some universities that would hire brilliance even packaged in a mean, selfish human being. Not us. I’ll include in this category evidence that you will be good at teaching, mentoring, service, and possibly outreach. This is simply because you care to share and to help others. Almost no one that I have seen interview has failed this criterion, but it is possible, and has happened.

Second is what you have done. What ideas have you pursued and what have you figured out? This is our best guess as to what you will do in the future. We read your papers and see if they are interesting, address big questions and arrive at answers. We get a sense of how careful you are and how willing you are to make clear what you can and cannot answer. If you reach the interview stage, you have certainly succeeded with this one. Generally we have to make tough choices and lots of people we do not interview also succeed with this. Just be sure you go for big ideas and break your stuff into publishable units. Really thorny problems you might never feel are ready for publication can still be published at some point. Just make it really clear in the methods what you did and what the shortcomings might be.

Third is your promise for the future. Do you make clear where you are going? We want to see big ideas in your five or ten year plan. Some universities expect that you will fundamentally change some part of your field with your research in ten years. So don’t pick a tiny corner but go big. Part of this is intellectual plasticity. We want to see that you can bring in different collaborators for different projects. We want to see that you can lead as well as follow. We want to see that you can add new techniques fearlessly to your approach. Think about your big contributions. Here are a few that I think David Queller and I have contributed. Early adoption of microsatellites for measuring relatedness in social insects. Insights on costs and benefits in insect sociality: fortress defense and life insurance. Bringing social evolution theory to the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Redefining the organism. There are others, but I digress.

If we can figure out where you stand on categories two and three largely from your written material, if we have interviewed you, it is likely we think you are great on these two categories. I would also argue that we have very little power to foresee the future and predict which of you will most shine in the coming years. This brings us to the last two categories and they are things that matter to us but you can’t do much about.

Fourth is diversity. We do not want to exclude faculty because they are not part of the traditional pool of faculty members. We particularly want our students to see themselves in our shoes, not because we want them all to become professors, but because we want them to see all choices as open to them. Remember that great photo of Barack Obama bending down so a small boy could run his hand over Barack’s hair? I would like to think that when that little guy felt hair just like his, the world opened a bit for him. He may have thought he too could be president some day. Or even if this is not so likely, he may have generally felt more positive about his options, more fearless about trying for something big. In my view, this means we should hire under-represented minorities and women whenever possible, and certainly if our department is below the average in the pool  in these categories. We should also remember that we have implicit biases that color our assessment of people even if we don’t want them to. Therefore I think we should identify and carefully evaluate every applicant in these categories a second time after the first  evaluation.

Fifth and last is fit in the department. We are not Noah’s Arc. We can’t have one or two of everything. Small foci encourage collaboration, give graduate students interested in a particular area choices, and may generally make a department more collegial. This is also why students should choose their graduate programs carefully, for all universities do not do all things. These categories are usually informal, often arising organically. I do not think fit should be too tight or narrow. Generally we advertise broadly, for a neurobiologist, or an ecologist, or a biochemist. We do not specify exact subfield or exact organism. We want the best, but fit does come into it. Some get excluded as being too close to someone we have. This one is tricky to generalize but matters.

That’s it! Just remember to apply broadly and don’t second guess your applications or the places until you get the offer.

Posted in Interviewing, New assistant professor | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

NSF’s Collections in support of Biological Research on hiatus: What does it mean???

Did you get word that NSF funding for collections is on hiatus? The minute I saw this, I worried. I know that hiatus does not mean an end, but it is the first step all too often. The  next thing I did was to wonder what exactly they fund. Sometimes this can be different from what one imagines. Going to the recent funding page of CSBR I found two kinds of collections, living ones and dead ones. The living ones on the top of the page include algae in Texas, cycads and palms in Miami, Chlamydomonas in Minnesota, lemurs in North Carolina, and Arabidopsis in Ohio. The historic collections on this first page include plant anatomy at Cornell, paleobotany at Kansas, reptiles and fishes at LSU, genomic resources at New Mexico, and birds at Berkeley.

Yes! This is exactly the sort of thing such a program should be funding. In this time of world wide loss of diversity, we need collections. So why a hiatus? Why a revisiting? What is the back story? That is never easy to find out, so I contacted Jim Olds, Assistant Director for Biological Sciences. This really means he is the head of biological sciences at NSF. Only the director of the whole thing, France Cordoba, gets the title of director. Jim is someone I have talked with before since I’m on the Biological Advisory Committee. He is not afraid of hard questions and is no apologist for the status quo, but he operates under a set of formidable constraints which he also talks about. He’s just the kind of  director I most like, open, clear, looking to make a difference.

Ann Nickerson holding a box of Dictyostelium samples she lyophilized in the 1960s!

Ann Nickerson holding a box of Dictyostelium samples she lyophilized in the 1960s!

So apparently lots of programs go on hiatus regularly for re-evaluation. I’m not sure which ones or why, but apparently this is a normal thing. It does not mean the field is ending, but don’t get too complacent. Do your civic duty and contact everyone you can think of about the importance to your work and to society for the collection nearest your heart and collections in general. I hope someone can write something on the best way to do this since I’m no expert.

And Jim also said to me that if there were a collection based project in urgent danger and funding were needed it might be possible to find funding at NSF even with the program in hiatus. So it is time for concern and worry but not despair. Figure out action plans to make your collections known as important. We all need to be civic scientists always, for nothing is permanent. Why NSF itself was only established in 1950.

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There is a new self-sign-up list of women and underrepresented minorities in ecology and evolution

Paul Turner and I support diversity in the next generation of scientists.

Paul Turner and I support diversity in the next generation of scientists.

Are you wondering where all the women are? Are you tired of meetings with only a couple women in prominent speaking spots? I think even well-meaning people do not think of us quickly.  Or they think of the same handful of women. How often have I heard as a defense for a meeting overwhelmed with white males that women were on the original list but they all said no. No wonder, if they are asked repeatedly.

The situation is even more difficult for under-represented minorities who are even more lacking in meetings. Why?

Well, now there is a list where women and under-represented minorities in ecology and evolution can sign up. If you want us, just go to the list. Regina Baucom and Megan Duffy put it together. It is self-nomination only, so sign up. It will only work if lots of people do this. Be sure to link to your web page and think about some key words because the ones they chose as main categories don’t divide the field very clearly, in my view. No social interactions, evolutionary conflicts of interest as a category, for example. Not even mutualism. But they tried, even put out a call for help on this.

Do we really need such a list for women? Aren’t there so many women in the field that there are many ways of finding them? Look at any department, at the member lists for any of our main societies and you will find plenty of women. The list was inspired by a similar list for neurobiology where there may be fewer women. I have heard of such lists for computer science and physics, but can’t put my hands on them right now. My opinion is that this list is just one way to go. If it stays open, self-select only, and well-publicized, then maybe it will become something we can point to when meeting organizers fail to discover women. I support nearly all efforts to diversify.

I think the list may be even more necessary for under-represented minorities because there are fewer in our disciplines and they  are not identifiable by name. So sign up! I wish the list had an additional category for this to distinguish from the thousands of women.

Posted in bias, Gender bias, Talks, White male bias | 2 Comments