Improv for scientific communication with Aniek Ivens

Children get improv, naturally

How I wish I understood you, but I have no idea what you are talking about. You seem friendly and animated and clearly love your research, but what is your question? Why do you like this figure so much? What is important? How does your work fit with what has gone before? How does it fit with what I already know? Oh, right, you don’t know what I know any more than I know what you know, so how do we ever move forward?

Steve Pinker calls this the curse of knowledge. Alan Alda asks you why he’s making this face if he understands you. Figure this one out and not only will you communicate your work more effectively, but you might also learn to ask bigger questions and answer them more ingeniously because you have learned to communicate across boundaries.

It is hard to communicate because the details are things you think about all the time. How could anyone not know them? The broader the audience, the deeper the chasm. National meetings may seem to be the most challenging of all because the audiences are so varied. However you should also be talking about your research with people who do not share your background at all, which is another set of skills. If we did this better, maybe our governments would get the importance of investing more in research.

Learning to bridge to others may best be done with tangential exercises. Learn to explain something you are not invested in, then apply those same skills to your science. This is sort of like cross training. The fastest runners don’t get that way just by running, do they? Or maybe a better analogy would be a team sport where you have to figure out the actions of others, not just your own. This is key.

Pay attention to your audience. Pay exquisite attention to your audience. Talking is not communicating, after all. Communicating is a dance of talking and listening, building your story according to what your audience is getting. Know your audience is a start.
Improv? Isn’t that where you keep a blank mind and say or do something that follows only from what another participant said before? Isn’t it where you get to put others in embarrassing positions, setting them up for a story that cannot easily be continued? No! Actually in improv the actors try to set each other up to shine, something that requires exquisite between actor connections. Improv in front of an audience might seem like a party that you don’t get to attend, only watch. But of course the whole point of improv is an intimate connection to the audience, almost as if they were another actor. How the script goes depends on the audience reactions in the best cases.

We were fortunate enough to have Aniek Ivens teach us in a too-short workshop an introduction to improv for science communication. We started with learning each other’s names. Besides Aniek, there were 14 of us, a challenging number to learn quickly. We all got in a group and chose an adjective and an action to attach to our first names. Aniek started as anxious Aniek who showed us clawed hands in front of her. We had juggling Jenna, miming juggling, ecstatic Erica who jumped up spreading her arms up. We had yucky Yunji who made a face and artistic Allison, who air painted. We had fast Freddie, extended Ethan, and terrible Tony. We went around the circle a few times saying our names and showing our actions. Then we all did each person’s action, passing around the circle. Would this work in class? I might give it a try. After all, this was an easier way to learn the names than what Aniek would call dry names, without the accompanying adjective and gesture.

Clearly we still had a lot of loosening up to do and I could see Aniek was mentally sorting through hundreds of possibilities. She chose a circle game in which we clapped our shoulder on one side counting to six, then arced our arm over our head for seven. After a few rounds of this, she added a twist. It was that the direction could reverse if we simply used the other arm to slap the other shoulder. And we still had to keep track of the different gesture for seven. It sounds easy, but speed it up and we made mistakes, missing the seven, or failing to detect a change of direction indicated by our neighbor. It got fun.

Then Aniek broke us into two circles. If we made a mistake we had to run to the other circle. No one else could tell us to go. We had to self-police. I suppose we could always use more self-policing and less other policing. This got crazy and fun. We could hardly stop laughing. Maybe the point of it was to loosen us up and to make us comfortable with mistakes.

We did some other things before we got to explain stuff to each other. All of it had to do with communicating, I think. Here is one that was intense. We stood opposite another person. One of us was the leader. That person had to do movements that the other had to mirror so exactly that a third person could not identify the leader. This meant we had to move slowly and look the other person in the eyes continuously. I still remember channeling Aileen’s every movement as she moved slowly and carefully. It helps in doing this to follow some kind of pattern. Clearly Aileen had some familiarity with ballet moves, but I did not, just as she did not know yoga moves I fell back on when I was the leader. I like to think we were pretty good at slow, symmetrical moves that were not too hard to match. But what did this have to do with either improv, or communicating science?

I guess it isn’t too hard to figure out that the connection has to do with exquisite communication. You can’t follow a predetermined script if your audience doesn’t follow you. How can you tell if you are actually communicating the ideas you care about? Only by having a great connection to your listener. I suppose you get better as you do this at guessing what your listener gets so that you get better with even a huge audience in a dark auditorium. This exercise was mesmerizing, even though we weren’t using it the way others have here, here , here and here.

The next exercise we did was lighter. Someone began with a word and around the circle the story grew, each person adding a word to the previous one to tell a story. Aniek reminded us a story begins with a scene, has a problem, then has a resolution to a problem. Your science stories should be the same. She also reminded us to keep a blank mind, so we could best respond to what the person before us said. I could say a lot about the power of a blank mind, open to discovery. If you really listen to what your audience is saying, you may begin to avoid the curse of knowledge.

Now that we were all loosened up, comfortable with making mistakes, in touch with our blank minds and the supremacy of the audience, we were ready to do some activities that got really close to actually explaining our science. Aniek told us we had to do a kind of role playing, explaining a modern device to 15th century people. This required us to imagine our audience and their world. It made us think about the world they knew as different from the world we know. This is an important skill for explaining to any audience, particularly those with less of a science background.

Finally we got to the actual science part, which was just as interesting as the rest. I wonder how we would have done if we hadn’t gone through the earlier exercises. Frankly, I believe they made us much more in touch with the goals of science communication, actual understanding of what our partners understood and when we needed to back track. As before, we each took a turn being actor and recipient. The actor told the recipient what role they should take. I paired with Tony and he wanted me to be a prospective graduate student since he is starting a new lab. When my turn came, I wanted him to be a recalcitrant editor that keeps rejecting my papers without review. One person worked through a two-minute presentation, then a 1 minute, a 30 second, and finally a 15 second spiel. After the two-minute one, we answered questions about what we understood.

It was transformative. If ever I felt I had time to ramble in two minutes, it was after having said essentially the same thing in 15 seconds. I think it not only helped me communicate better, but also helped me understand what my real message was. It helped me think about where the weaknesses were also.

We wrapped up with some group discussion and then one last exercise. We got back in the main circle, juggling Jenna, artistic Irene, angry Aileen, basic Brandon, and all the rest. Then we started with the one word thing but instead of going around the circle, the person that said one word pointed to the next speaker. When we felt the idea was complete, we indicated it with all yelling out ‘right on!’ These were sort of like proverbs. We did a bunch of them, then ended the fabulous 100 minutes with applause for amazing Aniek.

Can I keep everything I learned that afternoon? Will I actually find and take an improv class?Or I could look for TJ and Dave, or, according to Aniek again, read Jagodowski or  Keith Johnstone,

But really, I hope I get to work with Aniek again. If you want to, here is her contact:
Or you could try your local improv groups, or Alan Alda:  or lots of other publicity on the role of improv in communicating science, like this.

So, have fun, pay intense attention to your audience, help everyone shine, and figure out what your big ideas are and what the evidence for them is.

Advertisements
Posted in Communication, Creativity, Science writing for the public, Scientific meetings, Talks | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The best job for an undergrad premed student

Nancy combs my mother’s hair.

Before medical school in the USA, premed students can major in anything, provided they take a certain number of science courses and some other requirements. In addition to college, they shadow doctors, observe in clinics, and go on service trips to hospitals in other countries.

It seems like diligent premed students really want to learn about the profession they will give their lives to. But how much do these activities really make a difference once they are doctors? Here I describe an activity that I hope will give them a kind of enduring empathy that will make the a much better physician for their whole career. It is something simple. It is something that pays, that has flexible hours, and offers a unique perspective.

The point of it is to help premed students see their future patients as people with real lives, with families, with preferences for food, for music, for television, and for friends. But how can a premed student intimately embed themselves into a patient’s family? They can do this by working in  home care. This does not require a nursing degree. In fact, it does not require any degree. A weekend CPR course is helpful. You should be up-to-date on your vaccines, flu, and more. Some even do a short course to become a Certified Nurse Assistant, but it is not necessary.

It is not hard to find in-home care jobs. They are advertised locally. Or you can join an outfit like Home Instead. The pay may be low and benefits few, but you are doing this for the experience. In some cases you might be able to tie it to a college course and get credit. It embeds you into a family for priceless experience of life outside of clinics and hospitals.

Chris helps my father find something he wrote.

Why is this such a great idea? It is because in home care lets you see patients that will show up in the clinics in their homes where they love, are loved, and live. They are people who once had lives as vibrant as yours. They did not choose to become old or ill. These things happen to real people who continue to have their interests and passions, whether they can act on them or not.

Why should you develop the empathy that seeing patients as whole people will give? Because it might slow you down a bit. You may know the treatment for a given patient, so you don’t feel like listening to that soft, raspy voice. But giving all the dignity of being listened to helps a lot with health outcomes. If you get it at a visceral level that this is not just an ill body in front of you, but someone’s mother or daughter, your job will be both easier and more fulfilling.

Nick, at Michigan State University figured this out and did it before I knew about it. Now he has graduated, his friend Chris is helping my parents. Both are wonderful and I hope what they learn on the home side of care makes them better physicians in the future.

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

What can you give others at a scientific meeting?

A meeting in Florence in 1993, Polistes as a model system, where I was seated between Bill Hamilton and Mary Jane West Eberhard.

My undergraduate advisor, Richard Alexander of the University of Michigan once told me that there was nothing I could do better for my career than to give a great talk at a national meeting. Unfortunately, the converse was also true, that there was nothing worse I could do than to give a poor one. Ever since that advice I have taken giving talks extremely seriously. After all, if only 10 or 20 people read any particular paper carefully, there could be 30 or 40 in a talk audience. Some of them are even listening. But I only partly jest. Everyone wants to tell about their own work at a scientific meeting, either with a talk or a poster.

But there is something else perhaps just as important that we can all do. It is something that becomes more and more important as we advance in our career. It is to help someone else at the meeting. This is easily done if people come up to you and ask you questions. Make time for them. Ask if they have lunch plans. Pay for their lunch. You probably have more funds at your disposal than they do. You could after all make a real difference in someone’s career.

If people do not come up to you, approach them. Approach the younger people, particularly those that are alone. Be friendly and get them to talk about their research. This is easier if you came out of the same talk, or if the meeting meals are together. Try to make a difference to someone every day. Try to figure out what you know that might be useful to them. Listen.

Taking the time to talk to people thoroughly at posters is another way to do this. Look at them and listen to their story. If they don’t have a summary point, ask for it. If they don’t have what’s next on their poster, ask for it. Don’t just go to the posters of your friends, or your friend’s students.

As scientists, it is wonderful to discover new things and to solve puzzles. It is also wonderful to make the path easier for the next generation of inquiring minds. Meetings offer an excellent opportunity to do this. So while you are keeping track of what you are learning at a meeting, also be mindful of how you are helping.

Posted in Scientific meetings, Undergraduates | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Undergrads: present your poster effectively!

Rory explains his poster to Justine, keeping to the strict time limit.

You have your poster and have tacked it up at your assigned place on a rickety stand. People are starting to wander in. They walk down the middle of the poster isle, trying not to make eye contact so they don’t get engaged inadvertently with a hungry poster presenter. That is the challenge of poster presenting. No one wants to be captured for too long at any one poster. How do you get people to stop and hear your pitch?

The scientist that stops at your poster has made a choice, kind of like speed dating free-for-alls. They want to learn something and they want to be released quickly, or at least have that option. They stopped because it looks like you will offer this. First, your poster is simple enough that it won’t take forever to hear about. Second, you look friendly and engaging. You might have made eye contact with the person and asked if they want to hear the story, promising that it is short. Third, your poster looks interesting. You understand that posters are short advertisements for your research, not the whole story.

We had a practice poster session for our undergrads, with a timer every 5 minutes and rotation.

So, how do you deliver an excellent poster visit experience? Practice presenting your poster. Tell a story. Make sure that it takes no more than 4 minutes. Yes, 4 minutes. Keep it under that! This is essential!

Look at your audience, not at the poster. Never point at the written words; only point to a figure or two. When you are talking to someone, you should let your words carry the day. Likewise, your visitor should look at you, not at the poster. If they look at the poster instead, gently tell them you can just tell them the story more quickly and you’ll point to the few bits they need to look at. The promise of speed is a good one.

After 4 minutes or less, release your victim. Encourage her to move on. She usually will. If she wants to stay longer, then it should be her decision. Don’t desperately cling to each poster visitor. Bring them in, entertain them briefly, then release them. Have fun!

You could also in advance email a few people you particularly want to see your poster. Tell them when it will be up and what number it is. Choose people that are in related labs and not just the PI. Their students are probably more fun. Some societies, like SSEvolution, have a formal way to do this. They also talk about permanently sharing your poster on figshare, also a great idea.

If you are lucky, additional people will join your poster as you are talking to the first person. Bring them in with eye contact, but do not go back and start over. That would be discourteous to your first person. Just keep going, making eye contact with both, and be sure to be open constantly to questions.

Erica explains her poster to Dave

Oh, one more thing. Some people will look at your poster when you are not there. It should tell the story enough that you don’t have to explain it. These people are really a completely different audience.

One last thing I should mention is that the poster should be great. There are lots of places to turn to see how to make an effective poster. In sum, it should have few words, under 300 if you need a number. It should tell a story, generally one story, not everything you do. It should have clear figures. It should flow in 2 or 3 columns, top to bottom, to accommodate several people looking at it at once. It should be simple, large, and clear.

I’m at a meeting now, looking forward to the poster session this afternoon. Almost no one will effectively follow these guidelines. Do so, and you will talk to the most people and excite them about your work.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

An undergrad primer for attending scientific meetings

Former Rice Undergrad, now Emory grad student, Erica Harris, at her first Gordon Conference, Animal Microbe Symbioses.

Undergraduates can benefit from attending scientific meetings even more if they have a plan. This plan should be focused around what you want to learn. The meeting overall will be broader than your specific interests, so it is good to pick something in particular to learn. For example, at one Evolution meeting, I decided to learn more about phylogenetics. I used that goal to guide me towards both useful talks and people to talk to. I didn’t ignore more general discussions and talks, but with this focus I could judge how well I was getting something out of the meeting.

You can achieve your goal by going to talks, going to posters, and talking to people. The first two are much easier than the third, but the third is at least as important as the first two. So choose people you want to talk to. The easiest way to do this is to figure out who the lab heads are on topics you are interested in, then find someone else in that group who is attending the meeting. You can talk to the PI, but others will have more time and be as good or better. You can also meet people at posters to talk with further. You can email people also. It is crucial that you look at who is coming to the meeting and figure out in advance both your goal and a few people you want to talk with.

Conversations with new people about science work best if you have read some of their papers and have some specific questions to get the conversation going. It is fine to have these written down. Even if you just do three people and their papers, that will be a good start. Really the whole meeting will be less intimidating if you do some homework first.

Oh, and while you are hunting down the famous and their lab members, don’t forget to talk to your peers. There will always be someone more alone than you, someone whom you can befriend. Who knows, this could be the start of a delightful collaboration. So even if you feel you are struggling, remember you have something to give to someone with even less confidence. Be alert to them, and see what you both can learn.

You may also be giving a poster, so this is another important part of your meeting experience. Both at the poster and elsewhere you have a chance to share what you are doing. I’ll write more about this in another piece, but the key is to make it short. Have a summary of a few minutes or less. Tell the big question, what you have discovered and what you are struggling with. Listen to comments even if they are not that helpful.

If there are any specific events for undergraduates, go to them. Go to the receptions. Sign up for field trips. Use any opportunity to learn from people. Don’t be shy!

After the meeting, try to solidify what you have learned. Write down a summary. Look back at the papers you read before and read more. Make a list of what you have learned. Contact and thank the most important people you met.

Posted in Posters, Presentations and seminars, Scientific meetings, Travel, Undergraduates | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to do an external review, particularly of a university department

Yes, dear reader, I got to do a review in Uppsala in glorious May!

There is a sameness to human organizations. This means that if you are conducting an external review, you can probably do a surprising amount of it without knowing anything about the particular group at hand. Knowing this, then looking for the particulars of the group will both save a lot of time and keep you from missing something important. Another thing that is important from the start is to not leave everything about the structure of the review to the organizers. For example, I would like plenty of time for brainstorming. I would like time for one-on-one informal conversations among the people in the department and the committee. No one says anything very controversial in front of a group of peers to an entire committee. The most interesting news comes from leaks for a reason. As a reviewing committee, we want those leaks! And we want time to follow up on them.

Here are some thoughts on reviewing. These lists are overlapping, beginning with an overview in case you don’t have time to read the more detailed list of questions. The point is to do this carefully and critically. You will learn as much about yourself and your own institution as you do about the one you review. This is another reason why it is worth doing.

1. What is the goal of the review from the perspective of the party that is paying for it?
The more clearly articulated review goals are, the more straightforward they are to conduct. If the goals are too vague, the review will be difficult to do.
2. What are all the functions of the entity you are evaluating?
3. Who are the participants?
4. Follow the money.
5. Be sure to have time for one on one interactions.

Likely issues:
1. Procedures are not clear.
2. There is a lack of transparency.
3. Communication problems – expectations unclear, information hard to get
4. Unfairness, unevenness, erratic behavior
5. Weak leadership
6. Poor balance of top down and bottom up.
7. Lack of democracy
8. Poor mentoring
9. Unprofessional, even abusive behavior
10. Bias, decision making conversations outside of formal structure.

An external review committee can help a program or a department by simply focusing on goals, structure, procedures, communication, transitions, and leadership. First, help the group articulate what their goals are. Until this is established, it is hard to do anything else. What is the structure of the group? What procedures ensure smooth functioning? Communication is important so everyone knows and understands goals and procedures and shares information of all kinds. Any human enterprise will have transitions. Handling transitions requires clear procedures and careful mentoring so people take the next step easily and gracefully. Finally, a strong and caring leader can keep the whole group focused, happy, and can keep the members on task and within guidelines. Here are more detailed questions.

ADVICE FOR PROVIDING AN EFFECTIVE REVIEW:
1. Make the review match what was asked of you to review.
2. Get information from different groups separately, so they can talk more freely.
3. Make frequent use of 3 x 5 cards or sticky notes on which people write their opinions and turn them in for openness, independency, and anonymity.
4. Have time for one on one conversations between review panel members and constituents.
5. Try to get a clear idea of what level controls or limits function so you don’t ask for change from a party that cannot provide it.
6. In the review have only a handful of main points, carefully documented and articulated.
7. Follow the main points with a longer list of smaller points.
8. The oral summary given at the end of the review may be more powerful than the later written review, so work hard to make that strong.
9. Separate issues you identify as problems from your suggested solutions because the group may arrive at different, better solutions from their better self-knowledge.
10. Be timely.
11. Ask for a follow-up to you or two another body, perhaps a new outside review committee.

Questions a discerning review committee should ask:

REVIEW QUESTIONS:

1. What is the goal of the review? Who asked for the review and who might benefit from a careful review?
2. What issues do the stakeholders think need to be addressed? If there were no issues, it is unlikely there would be a review. The constituents are most likely to know their own issues. Be sure that all stakeholders are talked to and not only in big groups, but also in mingling scenes so there can be one on one conversation.
3. What kinds and quantities of resources will be available to address concerns raised by this review? If there are no funds for change, for example, the reviewers should know that.
4. When was the last review, what concerns were raised, and how were they addressed? Prior reviews should be given to the committee. Reviews that raise concerns that are not then addressed do not bode well for future reviews.
5. Who will see the review?

GENERAL QUESTIONS:

6. What are the goals of this unit? If it is a university department, the goals may seem obvious. They are likely to put excellent research and teaching as major goals. More specific goals can be really useful. Does the department
7. What is the structure of the unit? This should include information on the decision-making power, levels of autonomy, and how the money flows.
8. What are the formal procedures? Clear, written procedures are essential to the smooth functioning of a unit. They allow for fairness and for both rewarding excellence and dealing with challenges.
9. How much power over their own courses, research, schedule do individuals have while meeting programmatic needs? We know people work best for themselves, but we also know that core needs need to be met.
10. How is information communicated within the group and to others? There is no point in having excellent programs and opportunities if the right people don’t know about them. Redundant communication is essential.
11. How are transitions handled? Few are in the same position for very long. Consider undergrads, graduate students, postdocs, longer term non-permanent people, professors, and program or department chairs. A clear trajectory and careful mentoring make transitions at all levels go more smoothly. When new people are hired, the process should be open and fair.
12. What is the group leadership structure? A good leader can make or break a group, but effective goals, structures, and procedures will limit the harm of an undesirable leader.

ETHICS, CLIMATE, AND BIAS QUESTIONS:

13. How are members educated about scientific integrity, implicit bias, respectful climate, and fairness? This should be understood to be important. There are some good materials out there that take the general form of scenarios that can be discussed. A strong leader will make it clear that bias and abuse are not ever tolerated.
14. What is the make-up of the group with respect to under-represented categories? If your junior people are more diverse than your senior people, you have a problem. What procedures are hurting diversity? Bad history is no longer an excuse.
15. How is hiring and promoting kept fair and open? This is a huge topic I have written about elsewhere, as have many others.

EXCELLENCE QUESTIONS:

16. How is excellence judged and rewarded?
17. How are individuals or groups that are struggling helped?
18. How are big new initiatives encouraged and supported?
19. How is collaboration fostered?

SPECIFIC QUESTIONS:

20. How is the building maintained, shared, and kept functioning as a safe workplace?
21. How is new equipment obtained, maintained, and shared?
22. How are teaching needs identified, provided, and publicized?
23. What is the outreach situation? What do you do? How do you support it?
24. How is funding handled? What are the plans for replacing term-limited external funding?
25. If there is a sub-group structure, is it supported by actual collaborations within (network diagram) and is it useful?
26. How are students and more advanced people mentored?
27. How are newcomers helped with housing, visas, and settling in?
28. How often do you meet in various constellations (different chairs, students etc.)
29. What does each stakeholder identify as the biggest strength and weakness?
30. How are difficult people handled?
31. Do you have ways of facilitating large changes when desired?
32. What else do you want us to know?

Another perk of a review is getting to know the others on the committee. They will be amazing and you will learn from them so much.

Posted in Department Evaluation, Department politics | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Radical thoughts on awards, or who should get into the National Academy of Sciences

The annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences ended with a President’s Dinner at a museum, and the business meeting, with announcement of new members. There is intense silence as we stare at the three screens of names. The first two are the 84 who made it in. The third screen shows those who nearly made it, but did not, beginning with the most unlucky number 85. We cannot photograph the screens, but that third screen is what has our most attention.
I look at those names and think of how many great scientists all three screens represent. I wonder how joining this prestigious body will change these people. I hope that the change is for the better and that it will mean they will bring a broader perspective to their home community and their home perspective to national issues.
And those thoughts bring me to my more radical thought. It is based on two things. The first is about the point of the National Academy, to be a pool of experts to advise the government. Does that not mean that it would be good if they come from diverse areas in all respects? And won’t they be good for their home community with the broader perspective I like to think Academy membership brings? They will get that perspective from the duties of members, whether attending meetings, editing for our journal, or serving on National Research Council committees. If this is the case, then it is also a good thing for as many communities as possible to benefit from NAS members. It is not good for our nation to have regions that lack NAS members. It is not good for our nation to have members concentrated in a few places. This is my first point, that the nation’s interests are served best from diverse perspectives. I do not think this is a radical thought.
My second point is the radical half of the idea. This opinion I am about to present is verifiable, though I am not social scientist enough to know the literature in this area. It is that we are very poor in making fine judgements about excellence in people. We try to do this for many things. We try to be fair. First, we divide knowledge into disciplines and evaluate what we know. Someone who studies stars will not know the nuances of discovery in microbes. We divide things up more finely, often conceptually. Biology is divided into several sections My section is 27, evolution, and my secondary section is 26, genetics. But even within evolution there are areas I know better and areas I know less well, though the experience of being an academy member broadens one.
Once we have divided science and scientific approaches into sections, we can make lists of excellent people more easily since we can read their papers and understand their scientific advances. When we do this, it is easy to see that researchers are not all equal. Some simply have better ideas, test them more rigorously, advance the field more than others. So don’t think I would ever claim everyone is the same when it comes to science. I do not think that.
But what I do think is that truly phenomenal advances are rare. If we relied on them alone for giving recognition, in most years no one would be recognized, perhaps not even in most decades. What is more common is that someone takes a certain area and explores it thoroughly, making excellent advances in both understanding that area and in using

Mike Donoghue and Jane Lubchenco calling a brand new member.

understanding of that area for more general conceptual advances. But these things occur on many fronts, so how do we choose between people advancing in similar ways but different systems? How do we choose between the snake person and the monkey flower person?
I would argue that we cannot really use excellence alone as the final criterion. If we already have 5 monkey flower people and no snake people, take the snake person. If we have people from a given place in excess, take the person from elsewhere. The same of course goes for diversity in gender, race, and ethnicity.
Would it be true that if you make it to the final ballot, you are indistinguishable from those at the top of that ballot? Maybe, maybe not. How about top half of that ballot? Surely at some point you would say that you cannot distinguish people, so then use other criteria. Pick someone from a non-coastal state. Pick a woman. We are only human and cannot make these fine decisions easily. Why do we pretend we can?
How about other honors, awards, and the like? I would argue there too that we cannot make the final judgements very clearly very often, so use other criteria once the field is narrowed down. How many more women might NSF’s Waterman award go to if they decided they could not distinguish in excellence among the top group?

Posted in Awards and prizes, equity, Judging | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment