Helping Women Achieve in Academic Science

Sequins_macroOver the past 6 months, 3 different colleagues have made comments that I have found odd. They have all made disparaging comments about wearing clothing with sequins. One colleague told some research experience for undergraduates (REU) students not to wear sequins to lab because, “the lab is not a night club.” Another colleagues mentioned his daughter was wearing a sequin-covered tank top and remarked that she looked like a “street walker.” While the first is perhaps a little silly, the second comment freaked me out.  My colleague was talking about his own elementary-school aged daughter. Shocked, I asked him why he would say something like that. He commented that the shirt yelled, “look at me!” and that is what prostitute clothing does. Actually, I never thought about what prostitutes wear and why, but I can see that what they wear should be attention-grabbing. I get that. But, I thought prostitutes were more about T and A. I associate them with spandex 5 sizes too small – not sequins. I associate sequins with fancy party dresses.

But, on the subject of your clothing saying, “look at me!” Is it really such a bad thing? As I have said before, maybe your boobs shouldn’t say, “look at me!” but so what if you wear a sharp suit, or purple loafers, or a sequin tank top under a nice jacket? Is it bad to grab for attention? I have had a number of prior posts about self-promotion (here, here, herehere), and sometimes in order to stand out from the crowd, you have to look a little different. Wearing sequins seems like a relatively innocuous way to do this. And why not? I already don’t look like everyone else. I am not balding with a paunch and a beard.

I am someone who often wears sequins – not to night clubs – but to work, to conferences, and even at my tenure-talk in my department. I even have multiple pairs of Converse All Stars covered in sequins.  I see sequins all over clothing, and I thought they were cute. So, I ask you: are sequins really so bad? What do you think? Post or comment your thoughts here. To get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

The Ups and Downs of Science

catenary_bikeMy kid was watching “Bang Goes the Theory” this morning (nerd mom, so proud), and they had a segment about making a bike with square wheels. Obviously, such a bike only rides smoothly on a surface that is humped. I wish I had a personal life bike like that, so I can navigate the ups and downs of being an academic.

Not sure if others agree with me, but I feel like this job is very cyclic in how it makes you feel. At some times you feel amazing, like you are invincible and you walk on water and can do no wrong (e.g. you get your first paper, you get your Ph.D., you land a tenure-track job, you get a big grant, you get tenure, you win a big award). At other times, you feel worse than the crap someone accidentally stepped on and are trying desperately to scrape off onto the side of a cement step (your reviews come back from a paper or grant and they say you are stupid, your colleagues are jerks and bully you, you get no respect, attention, or credit for your work). Somehow the great things flocculate to make the highs so high, but that only makes you have farther to fall when the crappy things also flocculate.

For me, the timescale of a full cycle (up to up) is about 2-3 years. I am currently in my second “down swing” after getting a tenure track job. I had one just before turning in my tenure packet and it lasted about a year. This one is even worse than last time, but I am trying to see the long-time trends. This too shall pass, and I just have to fight and scramble and push until I pull back out of it. This adds a lot of stress to an already stressful and (frankly) overworking and overtiring job.

Another issue is that the personal issues (your health, your family’s health, your fitness) all flocculate down together, too. So, that adds immensely to the stress, and you can easily downward spiral. I know just when this recent down swing started because I gained 5 pounds. In this down swing, my health got wonky and my baby most likely has asthma and is allergic to cats. So, we had to give away a cherished family member who was may older child’s cat. And we now have to clean the house top to bottom to remove all cat hair and dander. Right. Because I was cleaning my house so well before. I do have a cleaning service and grass cutting people (as previously discussed in prior posts about getting the help you need here, here), but now I need them to come every week. Cleaning people won’t move furniture and clean behind it – even if you pay them extra. Instead of spending more time having fun on the weekend with my kids, I spend time moving furniture, vacuuming and mopping behind it, and moving it back.

But I am a fighter. So I am pushing back. I am turning around and pumping out new versions of rejected papers. I am cleaning my house top to bottom. I am even trying to get back on the wagon with the gym to stay sane. I will survive. I am wondering if you have any tips? Have you battled your way out of a slump? What is the collective wisdom for reaching those high highs again? Or even just leveling out the ups and downs? Do people think it gets better or worse over time?

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Not So Subtle Harassment

drunkonginnojuiceBeing a woman in science is way harder than being a dude. Even enlightened dudes, of whom I know many, many and I love them all, and they have work-life balance issues and are good dads while doing science, etc… Even they don’t have to worry about actual harassment. I am pretty sure, they aren’t concerned about having their behinds pinched by old gross guys. I don’t think they have their colleagues ogling their chests while trying to have a science conversation. Were you being hit on at every turn at your first scientific conference? No, OK, so we agree that it is still harder for women in this respect. Actually, these things are not just issues for women in science, but they are issues for women in ALL OF SOCIETY. The difference is that women in male-dominated fields often don’t have cover from any other women being present to help them out or just have someone to vent to about it.

Just so we are all on the same page: What is harassment? I have several posts about subtle harassment, annoying harassment, perpetual harassment. Also, many other Women Bloggers (HopeTenureSheWrote) have discusses harassment and how men can be an advocate for women.

A fellow WomanOfScience recently relayed this situation to me. Hope you read and enjoy!


The scene: Conference dinner at a workshop-style conference, people milling about with alcohol and food and more alcohol.

Dramatis personae: Prof. ImpressiveSeniorGuy (Prof. ISG) and mix of faculty, postdocs, and graduate students

The action: Once he’s good and drunk, Prof. ISG systematically chats up most/every woman at the dinner, complimenting them and making flirtatious, direct comments about their attractiveness. So much so, and in such a public way, that the other men notice what is going on. I didn’t catch whether or not any direct propositioning happened, but from gossip I know that he has done so in the past, to students/postdocs. The only “positive” aspect was that Prof. ISG was too drunk and the environment too public for him to do more than clumsily flirt.

How it affected me that night: Embarrassment that members of my lab may have witnessed Prof. ISG hitting on me, and me giving him a cold shoulder. Yuck.

The next day: Some participants, male and female, junior and senior, compared notes. Some women had made excellent comebacks to Prof. ISG (yeah!), some just moved themselves out of the way. While he was privately mocked as a tragicomic figure, not all of the women he had hit on had the benefit of that post-game analysis. But, for me at least, it got most of the weight off my chest. Except ….

The big question: But what else? Obviously, I am never going to invite Prof. ISG to any future workshop/conference I organize. Do I tell the conference organizers that they invited a big old sleaze-ball? Express my opinion they shouldn’t invite him to future workshops they might organize, or even just say that I wouldn’t? Do this over email (yikes! no way!), or talk in person at the next conference we’re both at (still quite awkward!)? Decide privately that I wouldn’t accept an invitation if he’s a speaker at a workshop I’m going to? Ditto, but also tell those future organizers the reason why? Write pseudonymously to a women in science blog? So far, only the first and last ideas are in place.


Any solutions for this WoS’s big questions? Yeah, we all see these guys are out there, but how do we stop them? You feel like you can’t do anything that won’t jeopardize your own career. How can you call him out? Can you call him out? Any opinions, thoughts, ideas can be posted as a comment here. Hope to hear from you!

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PeerReviewZillaThere was a recent funny article on “How to be the Perfect Mother” from Huffington Post that was a hilarious look at how society tells us conflicting information about how we should act as mothers. You should go look at it if you are a mother, know a mother, or have a mother. Just go see it.

This article, combined with two recent manuscript reviews coming back, got me thinking about how reviewers also often write conflicting advice for your manuscripts. So, I decided to write a satirical version of a manuscript review as an example.

***Note: any resemblance to reviews you may have received or written are purely coincidental.


We have read and reviewed the manuscript, “This Science Thing is Important for this Other Thing” by Prof.Science. This manuscript investigates the ScienceThing and its interactions with OtherThing, a very important and understudied topic. This group performed many new experiments that had never been done before and had 6 figures each with A-J panels. Their work was executed well and revealed new information about the interactions of ScienceThing with OtherThing that we never knew before. Their clearly written manuscript had a simulation that modeled the results and showed similar trends suggesting a mechanism.


Major Concerns:

In performing these experiments, they used well-tested experimental methods along with specific tests to control for errors. They have used these methods to test for effects of ScienceThing on OtherThing and have quantified the effects. Since these methods are well-tested and accepted in the field, they are not novel. We want only novel experiments even if we cannot interpret the results we get from them. Thus, we suggest that the authors perform all new experiments. Further, did the authors investigate how ScienceThing affected OtherThingII? Only one paper on OtherThingII exists, from the OldFart Group, but it is clearly more important than OtherThing, and it should be explored even though almost no reagents exist for OtherThingII. Unless OtherThingII is also investigated, I do not think this paper is very worthwhile.

The authors display histograms of their work and how ScienceThing affects the OtherThing. It is important to be quantitative and have numerical data. For each histogram, they fit to a Gaussian and report the R-squared value of the fit to the data. They use these fits to discuss the results. Why do they do this? Why not use a simple p-value to the data? Isn’t a student’s t-test done on everything? It is clear that the two distributions do not overlap, so they should report the p-value.

The authors used a toy model to show that the ScienceThing behavior that they see could be due to a minimal number of simple rules. Being quantitative and having models is important. We want more quantitative work and models in this field of science. The simulation has the same trends as the experimental data, but it does not exactly match the data, so the model must be worthless. Why did these authors have a model? They are not theorists or modelers; they are experimentalists. They should remove the model, it detracts from the data.

Without the model, the authors do not have a mechanism. We want all science to be mechanistic. It is not good enough to simply observe something and report what happens. For instance, although their toy model uses 3 simple rules and has the same general trends as the data, they cannot rule out a model with 10 complicated rules. Thus, they have not revealed the mechanism behind the results they see, and thus the impact of the work is lower in my opinion. Until their work becomes more mechanistic, their results are purely qualitative, and the work is not work publishing.


Other Issues:

There are a number of sp errs in this manuscript. Don’t they care how they present thmseves? Its like thei didn’t even porrof read before they sent it out. They need to really fix this. There are way too many issues for me to helpfully point out.

They are missing a number of very important citations particularly from the OldFart group, “Science Stuff: A novel Regulator of Nothing,” JSS 1979; “Science Stuff Moves Science Thing,” JSS 1998; and “Science Stuff to Science Thing,” AJSS 2000. These important references about how ScienceStuff is connected to ScienceThing are important and should be added.

Their experimental methods are not good. They didn’t even present them! I suppose they could be in the supplement, but I didn’t read it, so I wouldn’t know. Even if they are in the supplement, they need to have them in the main text. Maybe, once they take out the model, they will have room in this 5-page paper to have detailed methods.


In conclusion, after having read this paper, I feel that these results were obvious and could have been guessed from deductive reasoning. Thus, the experiments were not necessary and the results are not novel. Further, to make the results important and novel, the authors would need to perform a number of extra experiments that were not in the original 60 plots presented, and they would need a mechanism, which they have not proven. Overall, it is clear that this study has no value and, thus, I recommend that this paper be rejected.

Anything to add? Post or comment here. Maybe we can add more examples? If you want to get an email every time I post, push the +Follow button.

HairdoneThe age-old woman’s issue: work-life balance. First, this is clearly not a “woman’s issue,” yet it is still labeled as such. Men make these choices, too. BUT, it feels different. I feel like, when I say I am leaving early to do a family-related activity, it is frowned upon, and I often do not reveal why I am leaving early. But, my male colleagues often use personal excuses for leaving early or not showing up to work and they seem fine with using these explanations.

Second, we have discussed many of the big work-life issues on this blog. For example: When should you have kids (see these blog posts: flexibility, grad school, pre/post tenure, postdoc)?  Should you take a job when you don’t have one for your spouse (see our posts on two-body problems: problems, surprisenegotiations)?

This weekend, I was thinking about the little work-life issues. Many of these issues are not about kids or family at all. Many times they concern myself – my personal well-being and how I don’t do things for myself because I am prioritizing work and other life choices first. I was thinking about it because I have been trying to dye my hair for about 2 weeks. The process takes about an hour, and I did not seem be be able to find that hour until today.  Here are some of the other things I prioritized over my personal activity: hanging out with my kids, making a figure for a paper, working on a grant report, writing this blog… You get the idea. And these other things are more important than dying my hair, so I was making the right choices, but I also want and need to dye my hair, too.

I always find the personal stuff hard to schedule and hard to prioritize such as hair, eye, dentist, and doctor appointments, or going to HR to fill out non-essential, but helpful, paperwork. Unless I am actually sick, I never go get regular check-ups. I should, but it seems like a waste of time. I go to the eye doctor once every 2-3 years and only because my glasses have broken and are hanging off my face.  I try to schedule a lot of this stuff in the summer, but that is also when I am busting my butt to get my papers out and get research done and traveling to conferences, so it still isn’t ideal. Are others like this? Am I a weirdo because I don’t keep my life on track?

I would think that it was just me except I have also been thinking back to my advisors, and I remember weird stuff coming out of their mouths. For instance, I had a graduate advisor who once told me that it was annoying when students (me, I was the only student) went to conferences because they not only missed 4-5 days from the lab for the conference, but they always had to leave early to do laundry and pack. My advisor also used to not go to the bathroom and do a sort of pee-pee dance. Maybe my advisor also didn’t want to waste time evacuating her bladder. I also had a postdoc advisor who told lab members that they should schedule dentist appointments on the weekends. I don’t even know any dentists who are open on the weekends.

So, maybe I was “raised” to be this way. I do try to be careful around my students so that I do not affect them the way I have been. I don’t want them to not go to the doctor or dentist. I don’t want them to not urinate because they feel they are wasting time. And I want to stop feeling that way, so I continue to fake it in the hopes that some day I will not feel weird about taking the time I need to clean my clothes and pack before a conference. (I am sure my fellow conference attendees also prefer I wash my clothes before the conference).

So, what about you? Do you have weird tendencies to be self-depriving spurned by an internal feeling that you are not working hard enough and still need to prove yourself? I do, clearly. I should say this is better after getting tenure. The removal of the feeling that you are going to lose your job if you don’t work hard enough hasn’t stopped me from working hard on science, but it has allowed me the freedom to go to the dentist. But, these feelings are clearly ridiculous. I try to stop them and “act normal.”

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The Chain of Command

WomenPilotsAcademia is weird. Each research group is a little autonomous fiefdom where the professor is the lord and master. Yet, we are tied to and answer to a departmental structure. The department holds the key to our jobs at tenure and promotion time. We need the department to help us with administration. As I have said before, I think of my lab as a small business. I think of the department is the administrative unit that helps me run. It’s like being a small craft shop with an e-store on Etsy. I need the department to find students and manage my business, but the department doesn’t have much say about what goes on in my lab. So that is why it is sometimes weird when you have to go through the department structure to do things that you need for your research.

Yet, we do have a department and there is a chair, or a head, who is the leader of that department. The chair/head is responsible for many things – depending on your department. They are likely in charge of assigning committee work and teaching assignments. They might be in charge of space allocation and can give support for cost share on grants. Many times your chair/head is supposed to be your advocate and voice to help you get difficult of large things done. But, sometimes things don’t work that way. You have to go Around The Chain of Command.

I have a friend/mentor who was appalled by this idea. He is a department chair himself, and he advised me to never, ever go around my chair. But, I still think their are times when you have to risk it and go over the chairman’s head. If you have to go above your chair because they are not advocating for you like you need, you should be aware of the risks. If you succeed, you might not even need to say you are sorry for having bucked the chain of command. Here is an example from another WomanOfScience. Enjoy!

In my second year in my tenure track job, I did a small lab renovation to put in more electrical circuits. Of course, I soon purchased a piece of equipment that needed 208V instead of 110V. Classic new lab screw up. No problem, I had just had 8 110V circuits installed, and you only need to tie two 110V circuits together to make a 208V, right. Easy peasy? No. The guy from facilities or alterations or physical plant (yes, we have three, seemingly redundant groups on campus to do renovations that, of course, don’t talk to each other) came to visit and basically told me he couldn’t make the change for me. What? It was ridiculous. So I called back, hoping to get a different person. He came back. He told me I didn’t have enough circuits. See, he was confusing “outlets” with “circuits,” and he thought I was doing the same. Despite the fact that I had the circuits installed only 3 months earlier, he continued to tell me that I did not have enough “circuits” to do what I wanted.

{I would also like to point out that: (1) The facilities dude refused to look inside the circuit boxes to see how many circuits there were. (2) I got the impression that he thought I didn’t know what I was talking about because I look like I am an 18-year-old little girl. (We all know that you should judge a book by its cover, so I was probably incompetent.) (3) I continued to insist that I did have enough circuits, and told him to look up the recent renovation information that one of the other on campus groups (physical plant? alterations? facilities?) did. That was when I realized that my university did not keep records of renovations, nor did they share any plans or records with the other groups that did renovations on campus. (That’s a good bureaucracy!)}

During his third visit, he finally took out his screw driver from his tool belt and used it to open the box on the wall (gasp! what an idea!), where he proclaimed that I had 2 circuits inside each box and he could, in fact, tie them together to make a 208V circuit. (Duh! I told you that!)  This pursuit of getting the job approved took a several months, but at least they were going to move forward, right? Wrong. After that, all advances seemed to halt.

I went to my chair to get his help in pushing the renovation forward faster. I wanted him to advocate for me with the renovation people. My department chair told me he couldn’t do anything. His advice: If I wanted 208V, I should just punch a hole in the wall of my dark room lab to the lab on the other side and pull a 208V circuit from my colleague’s lab. WHAT THE F*CK?!?

Here are several reasons why this is not a good idea:

  1. The walls are cinder block and require a hammer drill to get through them.
  2. My lab needed to stay dark for my experiments.
  3. Such activities are illegal. The building is a state building and any renovations must be done by contract union workers.
  4. Such activities are dangerous because the equipment and wall are dangerous and the walls are full of asbestos. Further, I had equipment in the lab that I didn’t want accidentally damaged by reckless activities such as this.
  5. My neighbor is using the 208V circuit in his own lab that I was supposed to take.
  6. MY NEIGHBOR WAS PULLING 208V CIRCUIT FROM MY LAB IN THE FIRST PLACE. The reason why I couldn’t use the 208V circuit from my own lab was because (a) my colleague was already using it, and (b) because the circuit box was so old the plugs looked like something from a Mary Shelley novel, and I couldn’t actually use it legally because it wasn’t up to CODE.

So, what else could I do? I went over his head. I contacted the Vice Dean for Research in my College. I told him the situation and how long I had been waiting, and asked if he could find out what was taking so long. Within a week, I had the answer. They were waiting for Environmental Health and Safety to make sure their wasn’t asbestos in the electrical box. I told the ViceDean that this was ridiculous, since the box was brand new, as of  6 months ago, and it was highly unlikely that asbestos was used in the installation, and could he facilitate moving this forward and getting the redundant and silly inspection sped up? He did, and within a week after that, I was getting the circuit fixed, which literally took 1 hour. So, for a one hour job, it took about 5 months delay in the building of my lab. If I hadn’t gone over my chair’s head, I think it would have taken even longer.

So, this story illustrates that, although you should try to work through your department chair, sometimes you have to go around to get stuff done. In this case, the chair wasn’t mad at this WoS. But, there are other cases where going above your chair can get you in big trouble. Do you have any examples of when you went over your chair’s head and got in trouble? Was it worth it? Comment or post here. To follow this blog, pouch the +Follow button and type in your email.

Daily Choices

GoodSenseCorsetWaists1886page153I read an interesting article from another science blogger, Rigoberto Hernandez, on his blog EveryWhereChemistry. He had a recent interesting blog entry about what to spend your time on daily, where he compared the choices to Horcruxes and Hallows. Please go to read it. But, it got me to thinking about the different types of tasks we have presented to us daily, and the choices we make. The specific tasks depend on what level you are at, but the fact that you have to make the choices never changes.

Graduate School: In graduate school the choices should be easier, but they still exist. Should you attend that friend’s defense, or work on your paper? Should you take more data today, or analyze the data you already got, but aren’t sure if it worked? Should you spend a few months learning how to program to make your data analysis automated, or should you analyze it by hand to get it out faster, and will it really be faster?

Postdoc: As a postdoc, you are still focusing mostly on research, and you might have similar daily decisions similar to graduate school. Presumably, you figured out which are the right choices to keep advancing. As a postdoc, especially if you are fairly good, you are probably offered the ability to work on multiple projects. This can be very good for your career and your training. Good for your career because you could possibly get more papers out faster, which you need to get grants and get a job. Good for your training because as a faculty member, you will have to manage multiple projects that your students will work on. On a daily basis, you will have to decide which project to work on. Maybe you already tackled this issue as a senior graduate student, but postdocs are usually given more responsibility and more projects than graduate students. With multiple projects comes all the same decisions as on individual graduate projects, except multiplied.

Pre-tenure: Starting this job is like jumping into cold water. Now you have to teach, manage, write/obtain grants, initiate new research, train students, and on and on. That makes your daily choices so much harder. Should you spend your time working on your new class, writing a review article, writing a grant, working on research, meeting with students? The myriad of choices are endless. I would often divide the days into halves or 2-hour chunks and work on one thing for a set time before moving on to the next thing.

Post-tenure: If you made it past tenure, presumably you spent your time doing the right thing to achieve tenure – congratulations. With tenure comes a relaxation of the pressure to do what you have to do in favor of being able to do what you want to do.  So, what will you do? What will you choose to do each day? Somedays I find myself just putting out fires – doing a lot of things that are urgent but not important. Other days, I opt to work in the lab with students when I probably should be writing that next grant. The daily choices are a bit harder when you don’t have the pressure or the excuse of looming tenure. It is harder to say no or to prioritize the way you did before. You often get piled upon with more service and larger teaching loads. Unlike at the other stages, when you are still trying to make it, there is less advise for this stage, so you try to do the best you can, but are you making the right choice? Should I work on that paper to resubmit it to a new journal, or write that new grant, or work with that new student in the group?

I don’t know if I have advise here, since we all navigate these waters alone. What do you think? Any good ways to keep your priorities straight after tenure? Post or comment here. Follow this blog but hitting the +Follow button.

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