Thought of going to a Gordon Research Conference on talking plants?

If I had some spare time, I would love to learn more about plant volatiles, so I would go to the GRC on them. Sometimes the best meetings are farthest from your expertise. If you go to such, GRC meetings are a good choice. I’ve been to microbial cell adhesion, to genes and behavior, to human population genetics, or some such thing. I’ve been to microbial population biology, and to symbiosis. From all I learn.

But there is something really alluring about plant volatiles. After all, how sweet does a rose smell? These volatiles are plant’s ways of talking, from a silken and sexy whisper to a scream from a caterpillar’s wound.


For me, my most Proustian memory is of a smell, the eucalyptus of Chapultepec Park, an early childhood haunt in a Mexico City that is no more.

I think I like the topic also because it crosses kingdoms and fields. Volatiles are a plant’s way of behaving. They interface with insects and microbes. They are a summer’s day. So check out this and other Gordon Conferences, now at the darkest time of the year!

Just don’t forget Tweeting is forbidden!

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Why those recommendation form checkboxes are meaningless

Choosing the next graduate class is one of the most important things we do besides choosing new faculty. We have a fairly typical application form with two essays by the student, three recommendations by faculty that know them, standardized test scores, and grades. With this information we need to decide what the students are interested in, how passionate they are about those interests, how talented they are in pursuing those interests, and how good their fit is with what we have to offer. Are we good at this imperfect process? Perhaps, if you judge by the success of the students we have admitted. But we cannot know what the others might have done. We cannot know who is just inexperienced in the academic tradition and didn’t know what to put down. But ours is a tiny program, this year aiming for only a handful of acceptances, not even one per faculty member, so we do our best.

I feel it is important to remember what we cannot do and what the letter writers cannot do and that is either predict who will do well or measure the soul of a person. Yet our amateurish forms ask the recommenders to do just that. It grates every year. ticksrecommendA form with tick boxes done by different people with different pools to judge and different biases on different applicants is likely to have so many problems as to be worthless. Yet professor after professor happily ticks off those boxes as if they were little gods, or idols.

If these are the things we want to know about, have people write about them in their letters. They could give an example of independent functioning, for example. Then we could distinguish someone who did a taught assay on their own from someone who did a whole project alone, or who came up with a big solution. Those tick boxes don’t let us discriminate.

Some of the categories are more amenable for judgement than others. They talk the most about Motivation and Industry, I suppose. They hardly ever know anything about Understanding of the Fundamentals of her/his major, of course. Who came up with this list anyway? Surely no social scientist was consulted. It isn’t a bad list in terms of things that would be nice to know. It is just that tick boxes on a general form will not actually tell us anything about them.

The one that makes me most uncomfortable and even upset is Overall intellectual ability. You seriously think someone can judge this? You think that across many advisers, many students, the judgement will be so uniform that we can use this? Of course not.

You do not have to use those columns. You can simply check the top box for everyone. But don’t forget to write a letter that makes the person come alive with what they do and what they have discovered. Overall, I find these letters are better at that than are the letters I read for faculty candidates.

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How to write a letter of recommendation: 5 essentials


I’ve written letters for these three great postdocs.

“Kind to pets” is what a colleague calls positive letters of recommendation that don’t really say anything. Even worse is “word salad,” a series of highly predictable sentences that could be said about anyone.  I write tons of letters every year and read hundreds more. What makes a letter good? What gets your student or your colleague the job, the prize, or admission to grad school? What if you have to write for several people from your group for the same job? This is both harder and easier than you think.

It must be hard because I have just read hundreds of letters of reference for the 3 open positions we have and generally each one has only a paragraph or two of real substance. Here are some guidelines I hope are helpful.  Generally, think about what we want to know. Think about how to make people come alive as individuals. I like to think that readers of fiction probably know better than others how to write a good letter. Show don’t tell. Remember that many of the letter readers do not know the field well, or even at all, so we need to be educated.

1. Begin with an overview. Let us know if this is a positive letter, an extremely positive letter, or the best letter you have written for anyone. You won’t necessarily rank them this way, but we will. The adjectives we will be looking for include smart, scholarly (reads the literature) creative, collegial, and productive. We would also like to know this person is an independent self-starter with grit. But saying this is not enough. The letter must back up your opinion with stories. Be careful to avoid sexism in your choice of adjectives.

In this first paragraph you can also tell us what general area the person works on. Don’t make this too long or too grandiose. A surprising number of the ecology candidates had letters that I could not tell at all what they did from these first words.

2. Tell us how you know the person. I prefer letters that do not give an overview of a person’s whole career, unless you know something special. Focus on your direct experience and let us know what and when it was. I avoid saying things like “last year” and instead put the actual year in, because last year goes out of date rapidly and chances are I will be writing for this person for years to come.

3. Tell us what this person has discovered and why it is important. This to me is one of the most crucial parts of the letter and yet many leave it out entirely. Do not tell me what area the person works in without telling me what they have discovered.  Why do so many people not do this? When you explain what they have discovered, remember that I am not in your field. I might not even be close to your field. You need to tell me in concrete terms what they discovered and also why it is important. Tell me that there was this problem in the field and no one knew the answer to this and then along came this candidate and did this amazing experiment/observation/analysis and all was solved, or advanced. This can take two or three paragraphs.

4. Make your person come alive with stories. Who is this person? What can you tell us about them that will make us like them, look forward to having them in our university, department, or program? Tell a couple of anecdotes that illustrate the wonderful characteristics of the person that you mentioned in the first paragraph. These perhaps more than anything are what we can grab onto and remember.

5. Tell us the special skills your person has. These days people like to hear your person has special tools at their command, whether it be experimental design, modeling, big datasets, genomics, GIS, microscopy or something else. Usually this does get mentioned and might even get over stressed, but don’t leave it out entirely. It can be built into a story also.

The whole letter is ideally only 2 single-spaced pages, though major professors can go longer for their students. A single page letter must be really pithy or we will view it as weak. Remember, the best letter will not necessarily get the person the job, but feeling like you know someone already from the vividness of the letter is a great start. And never, ever use the same letter entirely or partially for different people applying to the same job.

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What is in your email signature?

We all have various things in our email signatures. Title, contact information and links are common. Little trite phrases are too. Since these things seldom get printed out, there is no harm in making them longish. I took the actual connection to my blog out of my signature because sometimes things that are WordPress get screened out of some servers. At the end of this piece, I’ll put what I have.


What will electronic communication look like when this little fellow gets big?

But today I saw something new that I liked. It was a link to the person’s latest publication. Thomas Pradeau is the person that did it. I really like the idea. It is presumably changing often and gives people a way of keeping up with you, even if it is a quick look only. Here is his signature:

Thomas Pradeu
Full time permanent researcher in Philosophy of Science at CNRS
Immunology Unit
Group leader “Conceptual and theoretical analysis of immune activation and biological boundaries”
PI ERC Starting Grant Immunity, Development, and the Microbiota (IDEM)
CIRID, UMR5164, CNRS & University of Bordeaux
146 rue Léo Saignat
33076 Bordeaux, France
& IHPST Pantheon-Sorbonne University
13 rue du Four
75006 Paris, France
Personal webpage
Latest paper: Toolbox murders: putting genes in their epigenetic and ecological contexts (Biology and Philosophy)
Latest books: Individuals Across the Sciences (ed. with A. Guay, OUP, October 2015)
Towards a Theory of Development (ed. with A. Minelli, OUP, 2014)


Here is mine:

Joan E. Strassmann
Charles Rebstock Professor of Biology

Department of Biology
Washington University in St. Louis
One Brookings Drive
Campus Box 1137
St. Louis MO 63130

phone: (314) 935-3527
fax: (314) 935-4432
cell: (832) 978-5961
skype: strassm
http://strassmannandquellerlab dot

Blogs: http://sociobiology dot
http://slowbirding dot
http://goodbyehouston dot
Twitter: @JoanStrassmann

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How scientific and fair can faculty hiring be?


If you have a committee of 6 choosing the 4 or so biologists to interview for a single position, what would a really accurate way to do it be? I think you would look hard at the error factor. If smart, unbiased professors are doing the choosing, shouldn’t they arrive at broadly similar conclusions? What are the odds that even the first sorting of the long list into a shorter list for everyone to look at will be scientific?

There are several kinds of errors to consider. One I really worry about is bias. Are we reading women and minorities differently? Being aware of bias helps, I think.

Another error comes from reading files too quickly. You might miss something important because you have so many files to read and there is a deadline. It is important to divide up files so people don’t read too many too quickly.

A third kind of error comes from weighting anything besides scientific excellence and promise of future success on the first pass. We need to cut down the pool by considering this crucial factor alone.

The fourth kind of error comes in especially in really broad searches. It can be difficult to compare very different kinds of people. I was dumbfounded at how little our top neuroscience candidates publish, but that is apparently standard for their field. If they were in our search, we would not choose them, possibly missing the best person. Even in a more narrow search like ours for an ecologist, different fields are hard to compare. Theoretical vs. empirical foci, for example, result in different levels of publishing. Women are generally known to publish fewer but  more substantive papers.

We could search much more narrowly of course, for an ecologist that studies the mites on buffalo, for example. We would have a better chance of picking the best person that does exactly this, but we would miss brilliance in nearby fields.

How do we overcome all these potential errors in choosing? We don’t. We can’t be fair. In fact, one might think it is not our job to be fair since it is so impossible. Our job is to hire an excellent scientist, colleague, and teacher. There are likely to be others even  better in the pool, but not discoverable by our imperfect techniques.


What having 8 people reading 60 folders and choosing the top 8 might look like.

Wow! That sure is sobering. How can I be so sure? Well, for starters, say we took our 200 candidates and had each person read 66 or so, choosing the top 8 from their pool. Further say two people read each folder. Shouldn’t there be broad consensus across readers? Has anyone ever studied this? I’m speaking hypothetically here, but I bet it is common for there to be very little overlap between the two readers. If there were no overlap, we would end up with 48 people to take to the next level if everyone kept to choosing just 8.  I bet in most searches the number after a first cut like this is over 35, a surprising lack of consensus.

If this were science, we would go back to the beginning and say our process was not discovering what we want to discover. But we do not do so. There are a couple of reasons. First, we do not have the time. Second, maybe it is likely that the very best people each person reads will make it to the top. It will be interesting to see if the final candidates were among the few chosen by both readers. By the way, the two readers are typically randomly paired in all combinations in the best processes.

Who are we likely to miss at this stage? I think it is the people with big ideas who do not publish prolifically. Or it might be the people with big ideas and excellent work who focus, as so many do, on what they are asking rather than what they have figured out. But probably most of the people we miss are just random errors, no good reason to have chosen Hannah over Isabel.

For better or for worse, this process will narrow the field to 48 or fewer people chosen by someone and the whole committee will read those files and discuss them. Will this lessen arbitrariness? We can again see how much overlap there is when everyone is reading everything. The goal of the next step is to cut this list by half or more in a process that begins to consider fit, collegiality, and teaching.

This is the process I most often see. But there are no rules from my university as to the best way to do this. I wish we could be informed more by social scientists who might have studied this and can tell me how best to optimize outcome and fairness while not sacrificing undue faculty time.

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Can a rubric help with faculty hiring?

Rubrics seem to be all the rage these days, whether they are appropriate or not. A rubric is simply a system for assigning points to different aspects of an assignment. They can be very useful for communicating to a student where they got points and where they did not. I have given a rubric for writing here. I have pointed out some of the problems with grading by rubric here. So isn’t using a rubric for choosing a new faculty member a great idea? Won’t it even avoid bias? After all, you could give extra points for minority status, or to women?

Here I argue that using a rubric for hiring is a terrible idea. Why? After all, we can all easily think of the elements that might go into a rubric. Here are a few: importance of the research area, research accomplished, independence, collegiality, teaching excellence, gender or minority status, and fit in the department. You might think of others. Yes, you might be thinking, those things are important, so why not weight them and pick the people with the highest points?

The problem comes from the very nature of the task of picking a new faculty member. Ultimately we will only hire one person from the more than 200 possibilities. A rubric evaluates all the characteristics at once. This inevitably devalues any given attribute, even if it is weighted higher than the others. Someone who is mediocre in research but fabulous in other characteristics could rise, for example.

What is a better process for choosing? It is a hierarchy of selection. Think of it as a series of successive sieves with the first one selecting only on the most important characteristic. What this is might differ among institutions or searches. In our searches for a tenure track faculty member, I think this first most crucial sieve should retain only the most excellent researchers. These people have chosen important research problems and are showing every indication of making fundamental advances. This is what CVs are about. This is what the letters talk about. This is what will get these people funding and international recognition. These are the people most likely to have a career of sustained excellence and interest. These are the people that will make our institution shine and get ranked highly. Anyone that is not the very best in research, a star or someone who gives every indication of being a rising star should simply not be chosen, no matter what their other characteristics are.


Use a sieve, not a rubric.

When you first select on this ground alone, the initial discussions by the committee will be about research. What is an important question? What exciting progress has a candidate made in a given area? What are new and important research areas? What areas are playing out? Where might the field be in a decade? In two decades? Is this person moving in an exciting direction? These are the fun conversations because they are about science, what we all love.

Out of our 200 candidates, this sole focus on research might yield a pool of ten or fifteen people. This selected pool might even be larger if the committee has diverse perspectives on research, but it is not likely to be much larger because we will educate each other in the discussion focused on science.

Only when we have this smaller pool of amazing researchers should we start worrying about balance, fit, collegiality, and teaching excellence. We might have more actual sieves, ruling out people that seem to be difficult, for example, but we need to be sure that we are not introducing bias at this level.

Yes, what about women and under-represented minorities? How do we get them in our final pool and on our faculty? I would argue it is not by giving them a point or two extra with a rubric. After all, that cannot overcome our very well documented tendencies towards unconscious bias. We have to think about that bias and its consequences at every step of the way, from the first screen of research excellence to the final screens that yield our interview slate and ultimate hiring decision. Take out that bias and women and under-represented minorities will naturally make up a big percentage of that final pool. After all, we have survived in an often unfriendly system because of our passion for research.

Oh, I hope I don’t even have to mention that there are a lot of things that should not be a part of the discussion at any stage. Some of these are illegal to consider. Others are pointless. After all, we do not have perfect information on them. So don’t talk about who might move. Don’t talk about the partner of the potential candidate. You get the idea.

Our task is challenging and vitally important for our department and our university. Let’s not forget what it is all about.


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Explain the oddities on your resumé or we’ll make something up

You have a four year gap in your timeline. Please explain it or we might think you were in prison instead of simply taking time out for family. Your job is in Houston but you are living in Boston. Don’t think we won’t notice. No one mentioning this or its reason screams a lot louder MYSTERY than any actual explanation.

We humans are story telling animals. We want to know your story. If you don’t tell a part of it, we’ll make something up. We can’t help ourselves, though of course we know it is fantasy and we won’t share it. You may think we don’t read your file closely enough to notice your quirks, but we do. Especially if you get high up on our list, we’ll comb that professional narrative very carefully. Once you explain something, it ceases to interest us and we get back to the really challenging business of choosing as carefully as possible a few people to interview who shine and are a good fit.


Great colleagues that had clear applications

Of course there are things you do not have to tell and things it is illegal for us to ask. Whether you have a partner who needs a job falls in this category. In fact it is probably the biggest thing that falls here. I am of two minds as to what to do about this. You don’t have to tell us and these days most of you do not. Why even bother telling us you do not have a partner needing a job in the same field if we are not allowed to ask this?

It is not something I ever hid, but I guess after a certain point hiding it would have been impossible. What happens if we know? In the best scenario it gives us more time to think about how we can get you both here. Would we write you off and move on to the next single person? At the institutions I have been at, this is unlikely since generally everyone has something complicated about their situation. We are humans after all.

So, share what you want. Hide what you choose. We will pour worry into oddities and gaps and that might not be in your best interest.

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