Should you ask that question? Thoughts from NSF

I’m at the Advisory Committee for the Biology Directorate of the National Science Foundation. We have just had a powerful talk by Jim Olds Assistant Director of Biological Sciences on biology generally. (Assistant Director is Director as far as I can tell; nearly everyone is interim, or acting, NSF is really baffling for titles, but it is because many of the most important people rotate through, which is good). He is interested in the origins of life, in pruning rules, in big data, in connections of all kinds, and much more. Now is time for questions. Questions are essential and can move things forward, but how? What are people doing with their questions? Here is a light-hearted take on it, including some questions not heard today but heard before.DSC03498

A taxonomy of questions:

Less helpful:

Here is something that happened to me once.

I know something from a powerful source you haven’t mentioned.

I have an important job.

I really loved your talk.

Why didn’t you talk about this?

People at my institution are not getting funding. Why?

Here is something I would have said if I were giving your talk.

More helpful:

Can you give us more information on this particular part of your talk?

I did not understand this piece of the talk.

Here is something I know that is directly relevant to your talk.

Here is something we might do to help a specific goal of your talk.

Perhaps the best questions get the speaker to tell us more than might be wise about a specific controversial topic. There are a lot more categories of questions, but the real problem is that a table with more than 10 people at it are unlikely to get all the ideas. Indeed, how many people are even paying attention? Is it a sad truth that the people with insight are not necessarily the people talking? But at least here we have a good way of calling on people. We just stand up our name tags.



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An easy way to get your photos into Wikimedia

We need photos of all the living things! Even if you make your living on photographs it will not kill you to put one image per species out there for people to use when they volunteer their time to write for Wikipedia!

The building blocks of all biology are the living species that make up our planet. They have changed the oxygen in the air, inspired much great poetry, and share a common ancestry with us. Perhaps the most basic thing we biologists can write for Wikipedia is a description of a species and what is known about it.

My students this year are writing about bees, mostly social bees. They find articles and digest them for the Wikipedia audience. Even really important bees did not have Wikipedia pages, like Plebaia remota. But now they will.


Photo taken by Joan Strassmann CC BY SA

The problem is getting images of these bees. There are plenty out there, but they are not available to us because they are not properly copyrighted. For Wikipedia they need to be CC BY SA which allows even for-profit use provided the image is properly attributed and retains the same license. I suppose a serious for-profit place would not use these images since they would have to still be freely taken for other use.

PLEASE if you have an image, particularly of a social bee, get it on Wikimedia. It is not hard to upload images yourself but if you just don’t have time, you can just email them to the loyal volunteers of Wikipedia and they will do it. Let them know the images are yours and that you are fine with a CC BY SA 4.0 license. Or you can put them entirely in the public domain.

Alternatively, you can ask the authors to send an email with the
photos attached directly to Here is
an email template. Or just use what I used from that page:


I hereby affirm that I am the creator of the attached photos (or you could provide a URL, say to FLICKR or the like). 

I agree to publish the above-mentioned content under the free license: Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International. (THIS IS THE STANDARD CHOICE; YOU MAY CHOOSE ANOTHER ACCEPTABLE FREE LICENSE, IF YOU WISH TO)

I acknowledge that by doing so I grant anyone the right to use the work in a commercial product or otherwise, and to modify it according to their needs, provided that they abide by the terms of the license and any other applicable laws.

I am aware that this agreement is not limited to Wikipedia or related sites.

I am aware that I always retain copyright of my work, and retain the right to be attributed in accordance with the license chosen. Modifications others make to the work will not be claimed to have been made by me.

I acknowledge that I cannot withdraw this agreement, and that the content may or may not be kept permanently on a Wikimedia project.

[Sender’s name]
[Sender’s authority (If applicable. E.g. “Copyright holder”, “Director”, “Appointed representative of”, etc.)]


Wonder which end is which of this monarch caterpillar? Look for the frass! CC BY SA photo taken by Joan Strassmann

Please note, if you send the images to me, I cannot upload them for you. I tried that last year and got in trouble. These are the only routes, though I suppose if you put on FLICKR etc. that they were share and share alike, CC BY SA 4.0, that would make them usable for my students.

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Have you tried the new Wikipedia Visual Editor?

One of the things that keeps some people from making a quick edit to Wikipedia is unfamiliarity with the HTML markup code. It isn’t hard, especially if you do some of their great tutorials, but you can also use their new visual editor.  I got this email from Helaine Blumenthal who explains it all:

Throughout the month of August, the Wikimedia Foundation (the nonprofit that runs Wikipedia’s software) began to automatically enable a Visual EditorIMG_7652 for new accounts. Wikipedia accounts created during the month of August may or may not have the Visual Editor enabled; all accounts created after September 3 should have it enabled.

The Visual Editor enables students to edit articles like they would in a word processing software, rather than requiring wikicode. In tests we did last spring, students who enabled the Visual Editor found it extremely useful; therefore, we recommend that all students enable it before trying to edit Wikipedia.

Because you created your course page before September 3, some of your students may have the Visual Editor enabled and some may not. We suggest you forward this email to your students and encourage them to check if they have Visual Editor turned on; if they do not, we encourage them to turn it on.

Here’s how to tell if you have it enabled:
1. Log in to Wikipedia.
2. Look at the tabs on the right side of the editing interface. If you have “Read,” “Edit source,” “Edit,” and “View History” tabs, you have the Visual Editor enabled. You do not need to do anything else.
3. If your tabs say “Read,” “Edit,” and “View history”, you do not have the Visual Editor enabled, and we recommend that you turn it on.

To turn the Visual Editor on:
1. Log in to Wikipedia.
2. In the upper left part of your screen, after your username, click “Preferences”.
3. Click the tab that says “Beta features”.
4. Check the box that says “Visual editing.”
5. Scroll to the bottom of the page and click “Save.”

Wikipedia is doing a lot to make teaching with Wikipedia easier and more educational. I find it really powerful for teaching. My students’ first big assignment, adding 1200 words to a page on a bee, or starting a new page was just due. Can’t wait to see how they did!

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No, I will not give you an extension on the assignment!

The paper is due tomorrow and I haven’t started working on it. I just discovered that I can’t find enough references. I know the professor said to line up the references up front, but I started writing with only a couple of references. What to do? I can’t skip my other classes because I have a buncIMG_2689h of exams this week. I guess I’ll just ask for an extension. She seems nice, after all.

We’ve all been in this kind of crunch. We know the options. Work too hard, skip sleep, eat poorly, throw one exam under the bus to get a decent grade on another one. What or who is going to give? How long does it take students to get a planner and organize their time so nothing is entirely neglected?

One of the reasons I do not give extensions except for the required, documented medical ones is that I feel they go to those most comfortable with the system, to those who feel entitled, that their poor planning is my emergency. I think about the students who put it on themselves and just turn in what they have. If there is an extension to be given, there should be a good reason and it should go to the entire class. As I recall, Hurricane Ike was a valid reason for extensions. Hurricane Rita was not.

Besides being preferential, another reason against extensions is how they throw the whole class off. If you are teaching in an active learning way, then there will be a lot of assignments and a lot of interaction. My class has 8 assignments, some involving commenting on other student’s work and that is not even counting the day we teach high school students or the 12 quizzes.

I suppose getting work done on time is one of those grown-up skills we need to help our students toward, by having them see the consequences of failing to turn in work. Extensions let the few manipulate the system to their benefit, but it is only temporary. So, turn those papers in on time!


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Apply for our job in evolutionary genomics!

I hope by now you have your research and teaching statements ready for the hiring season. I hope you are not trying to think about where you might fit, but are leaving that for when you have offers. Just send out those applications! Send broadly to anywhere you might possibly qualify, and even for some you don’t.

We letter writers don’t mind. We have the letters ready. Don’t agonize over the jobs. Just apply! And don’t forget this one at my own institution, in evolutionary genomics.

Washington University in St. Louis

Department of Biology




The Department of Biology at Washington University in St. Louis ( invites applications for a tenure-track faculty position at the Assistant Professor level from candidates whose research employs computational and/or genomic-scale approaches to answer important biological questions.  We seek an innovative and accomplished scientist whose research program will complement and diversify existing departmental areas including epigenetics in plant/animal/microbial systems, developmental biology, and evolution.


The successful candidate will have an appointment at the rank of Assistant Professor in the Department of Biology and is expected to establish an externally funded research program. Contributions to both undergraduate and graduate teaching and research mentoring are essential. Duties will also include serving as a formal advisor to select undergraduate students and participating in departmental committees and university service.


Qualifications include a PhD degree and strong research, mentoring and teaching credentials.   Competitive start-up funding, laboratory development resources and ancillary support commensurate with the candidate’s qualifications and needs are available with this position.


Consideration of applicants will begin on October 1, 2015 and will continue until the position is filled. Applicants should submit the following materials in a single pdf file format: cover letter; current curriculum vitae; separate statements of research and teaching interests; and the names and contact information of three individuals who can serve as references upon request. Application materials must be submitted electronically to: Questions regarding the search process should be directed to Douglas Chalker (, Chair of the Search Committee.


Washington University is committed to excellence through diversity, and we particularly encourage applications from persons from underrepresented groups.  Washington University is an Affirmative Action Employer


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Get rid of age requirements for awards, NSF in particular!

Perhaps I missed the most important problem in writing about NSF’s Alan T. Waterman award, just now. I focused on the dearth of women in the last decade. But there is another perhaps more general issue: age bias.

The rules for the award say that it must go to a US Citizen or permanent resident who is 7 years or fewer past the Ph.D., and under 35 years old. CORRECTION. IT IS ACTUALLY OR UNDER 35 YEARS OLD FOR THIS ONE.

What does the age limit accomplish that the years since Ph.D. does not? It may exclude women (and men, but that is more rare) who have taken time off to have and care for children. It excludes people who have taken more time to get their degree. This can happen for many reasons, but is more likely to affect poorer, sicker people. They may have had to care for their parents, or for their siblings. They  may have had to work, unable to take the vow of poverty that is part of US higher education. They may have had cancer, lupus, fibromyalgia, or any number of other illnesses that slowed them down. They may have simply been unfamiliar with the routines of academia and taken longer to figure it out.

Why should we penalize them? Doesn’t this hurt women, under-represented minorities, first generation college, and people that qualify for assistance under the Americans with Disabilities Act more than traditional students? After all, what we are ultimately recognizing is scientific excellence. If we want to do that particularly for early career people, doesn’t the rule of 7 years since Ph.D. suffice? That one also might have its issues, but if it is for early career people, there needs to be some sort of objective boundary.

Hmm, where was I at 35? Why did I not get nominated for this award? You should ask yourself that too, because it might give insight on this process. Well, at the time I had never heard of it, for starters. For me, the year was 1988. I had an 8 year old and a 5 year old. I had published 26 papers, including 2 in Science and a respectable number in places like Ecology, Evolution, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, and Animal Behaviour. Of those papers, 17 were first or single author. But actually I was 9 years past Ph.D., so the real year to look at was 1986. In that year I had 17 papers, including all the same journals, and a 6 year old and a 3 year old.

By 1986 I had figured out some important things for my field. They generally had to do with kin selection in Polistes wasps since I had not branched out to other wasps yet. I discovered honey caches that influenced quality and social structure. I found satellite nests that differed in their popularity with the home nest wasps according to relatedness. I looked a lot at advantages and disadvantages of grouping, including impacts of parasites and predators. I did some physiological work on caste and cold hardiness. I found social IMG_0309variation in latitude, in sex ratios, and a hierarchy based on age. And a lot of other stuff too, but it is too much to digest here.

The next decade was transformative as we brought molecular techniques to the questions of social behavior and relatedness and expanded the wasps we studied to the tropics. In 1987 my collaboration with David Queller began, allowing an amazing and fun expansion.

So I was not a person that would have been hampered by an age limit. But I had all the advantages of an academic family that paid for my undergraduate education and taught me how this crazy discipline works. I do not want the field to be limited to people of my background, for reasons of fairness and because we need everyone!

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Let’s nominate fantastic women for NSF’s Waterman Award!

I just got an email from France Córdova asking for nominations for the Waterman Award. It goes to a US Citizen or permanent resident under 35 and not 7 years past Ph.D. It needs 4 letters of reference. Nominations are due 23 October this year.

IMG_8046Women have not gotten this award since 2004 when Kristi Anseth received it.  In fact, from 2000 to 2004 three of the five recipients were women, adding Angelica Amon and Jennifer Doudna. I’m guessing Jennifer is soon to get much larger recognition.

Meghan Duffy has written about bias issues with this award here. There are likely to be issues with both the nomination process and the selection process. I’m not on the committee, so the only one I can influence is the nomination process. It takes four letters of reference.

If you are 35 or younger by 31 December 2015, or know someone who is, and is an excellent female or underrepresented minority scientist, let’s get them nominated and awarded!

Posted in Awards and prizes, equity, Gender bias, NSF | 3 Comments