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Posts Tagged ‘school’

Mediocrity

Let me warn you, readers, that the following is a rant brought on by a meeting with my advisor, and that I’m well aware that I’m probably repeating what other scientists have been saying for years. Still, let me say it.

The scramble for limited resources (both funding and places in prestigious journals, not to mention tenure-track jobs), while encouraging innovation, also discourages thorough comparative studies, cataloguing of natural history, and replication.

In Heliconius butterflies, for example, there’s a glut of work on finding the genes involved in speciation, especially those that control wing colour pattern and mating preferences for said patterns. It’s increasingly hard (according to my advisor) to convince reviewers—whether for grants or for publications—that simply looking at the same genes in yet another Heliconius species is novel enough to warrant money/a place in a prestigious journal.

And yet, these studies are exactly what we need. It would be fantastic to have a suite of speciation genes identified in every Heliconius species; the comparisons we could make would be useful and perhaps more generalizable than just a handful of studies on a small fraction of the genus’ members. Think of how we could test hypotheses about speciation with such a dataset! We could look for a snowball effect with a sample size of more than three! We could figure out how often the same genes are involved in different speciation events, and how often hybridization promotes or prevents speciation! Yet amassing that much data would take up several PhDs’ worth of effort, and once a minimum threshold of species is reached, the research program ceases to be novel, and therefore becomes non-competitive. It’s also work that requires too much effort for a side project (assuming you ever want to graduate) or to hand off to an undergraduate minion. So it doesn’t get done.

Oh, and if you want to try replicating some else’s study, the way the scientific method allegedly works? Definitely not novel. This is also a problem. (Seriously, read this paper if you have access to it. Every scientist should read it.) Or if you want to pursue as a side project some outstanding question on your study organism’s behaviour in the wild? That’s extremely labour-intensive, and not likely to get you a “good” publication. But these sorts of studies can lead to important innovations.* Not always, maybe not even often, but eventually.

If I had my way, I’d try churning out as many of these uninteresting/redundant studies as possible. I don’t particularly want to be a brilliant scientist, just a competent though mediocre** one. But given the current PhD to academic job opening ratio, mediocrity doesn’t cut it.

*In fact, we argue in a similar vein when governments try to divert resources from basic research to applied (I’m looking at you, Harper Government): we can’t predict what basic research program will eventually lead to important innovations.

**Sometimes this word does not have a negative connotation!

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Your intrepid blogger is going to be studying Heliconius butterflies for her PhD.  And she promises to actually write blog posts once in a while.

She’ll also usually use the first person. Usually.

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File under “I can’t believe we still have to protest this shit.”

About a week ago, a small tempest erupted in the science blogosphere over a remark made by Dr. Dario Maestripieri, a professor at the University of Chicago, on his Facebook page. The comment read, in full:

My impression of the Conference of the Society for Neuroscience in New Orleans. There are thousands of people at the conference and an unusually high concentration of unattractive women. The super model types are completely absent. What is going on? Are unattractive women particularly attracted to neuroscience? Are beautiful women particularly uninterested in the brain? No offense to anyone.. [sic]

Screenshots of the offending status have been spread far and wide, and a few good commentaries on why this statement is problematic and offensive have been written by, among others, Dr. Isis, DrugMonkey, and Janet D. Stemwedel. I encourage you to read these posts, and at least some of the comments, because I don’t intend to explain in detail why this post is so unfortunate here. Suffice it to say, in DrugMonkey’s succinct words,

Don’t do this. It’s sexist, juvenile, offensive and stupid. For a senior scientist it is yet another contribution to the othering of women in science.

There is still sexism in science. I am most pleased and heartened to see established scientists, like the bloggers I linked to above and (allegedly) some of Dr. Maestripieri’s colleagues on Facebook, speak out against it. Behaviour like Dr. Maestripieri’s contributes to an uncomfortable work environment for female scientists, an environment that makes many of us question whether having a job in the field we love is worth putting up with such condescension and objectification.

Don’t believe this? (cf.¬†these guys, and kudos to the commenters who have already thrashed them.) Let me tell you something.

I am a young female scientist.

And Dr. Maestripieri holds an appointment in one of the academic sections to which I’m applying to do my PhD.

His comment, while extremely distateful to me, is nowhere near brazen enough to make me withdraw my application, and isn’t likely to weigh very heavily among all the other factors I’ll have to consider when I decide which school to attend. But if all else turned out to be equal, this comment could damn well tip the balance. Do I want to have to potentially interact with a man who’s made it clear that he judges female scientists based on their looks first?

And you know what else? If I had been considering joining Dr. Maestripieri’s lab, I would be running the fuck away from that application right now. If I were working for him, I’d have to assume that he’s judging me based on my appearance, and that he’s perfectly comfortable talking about my appearance to me or to colleagues. That’s the sort of academic environment that I want to avoid, and one that I shouldn’t have to put up with.

To be clear, I don’t care whether professors, or anyone really, mentally rate people’s attractiveness; I think most of us do this at least some of the time. But when this thought process leads to unprofessional behaviour, be it overt harassment, subtle differences in treatment based on looks, or comments like this that both make their female colleagues uncomfortable and tacitly endorse this sort of behaviour in others, it is not acceptable.

Dr. Maestripieri’s comment is far from enough to drive me away from a science career. But it could well drive me, and other women, away from his lab, his department, and his university. As far as I’m concerned, it’s their loss.

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Consider this a public service announcement.

Do you know the warning signs of satire? Many don’t—til it’s too late, and they’re left saying, “Well, it’s not very well-written anyways”, or “That’s certainly not as good as A Modest Proposal“.

You may be at risk of satire if you’re reading about a controversial topic. If you notice plentiful stereotypes, a cliche-laden or overly-serious style, and an opinion that just seems too outrageous to be possible, consult your sense of humour immediately*.

Satire can be hard to spot, but remember, early detection saves face. Learn the signs. Together, we can defeat satire.

###

Okay, serious time now. I only found out about this microcontroversy after the fact, but it got me right in the pontifical cortex (a part of the brain that I just made up).

This sort of story happens relatively often. Someone writes a satirical piece; some people interpret it as serious and FREAK OUT; then they realize they’ve been had and make bumbling statements like “well it was bad writing so OBVIOUSLY no one could tell it was satire” and/or “well it’s not even good satire”.

Actually, it often is.

The best kind of satire is the kind that almost makes you believe it’s real**. Often that’s because it’s on an extremely polarizing topic, so that there may exist people loony enough to hold such “satirical” beliefs. As a result, there will always be a number of people who get taken in by clever satire and react to it publicly. Then they look pretty stupid. And yeah, maybe they should feel stupid for a little while, but you can’t blame them very much. But those standard defenses they mention—bad writing, and bad satire—annoy the frak out of me. For one, given a basic level of writing competence, perfectly polished prose is not required for biting satire—though it always helps. And anyways, the writing in question is not always bad! Take the “perfect husband” editorial at the centre of the most recent controversy as an example. I’d say the writing is about average, maybe a bit ahead of average, compared to what I’ve seen of undergraduate-level writing. It does shed cliches like a cat sheds fur (ahem), but it does so effectively, using them to make the tone flippant and parody the breezy style of women’s magazines.

The other reflex defense is to claim that the satire itself is bad. This is mildly amusing, but mostly annoying, because the fact that they believed it at first demonstrates that it was good satire. This particular claim also always seems to invoke Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. As if it were the Platonic ideal of satires. I suspect that fewer people have read it (or remember it, at least) than refer to it. (Here, you can discreetly visit this link! I won’t tell.) A Modest Proposal is undoubtedly a classic, but saying “It’s not that I can’t recognize satire; it’s just that you can’t write it!” is such an obvious tell. Don’t be embarrassed about it: congratulate the person who duped you!

There are, of course, cases where the converse was actually true. This usually happens when truly tasteless racist/homophobic/sexist etc. things have been said or written, and then fauxpologies claiming that satire was intended were issued. I would argue—though data on this are probably nearly impossible to obtain—that in most of these cases, the vast majority of people reading/hearing these things did not take them as satire. Is satire, then, entirely in the eye of the beholder? To gloss over a myriad of issues, the context, author’s identity, and writing style should at least provide a few clues either way. And, though it hurts me ever to have to identify something explicitly as satirical (e.g. with mock-html <satire></satire> tags), sometimes those are a good idea. I once casually mentioned how *excited* I was about the Sex and the City movie in an email, and the recipient wasted hours of his life watching several episodes and writing me a concerned reply to say “Is this really you?”

Or we could go back to the 90s, and end all our sarcastic statements with an eyeroll and “NOT!”

…NOT…

*Or stop listening to Rush Limbaugh. Sometimes the real thing is indistinguishable from parody. Sometimes you have to pretend the real thing is a parody in order not to lose all faith in humanity.

**You’d think that The Onion can’t get away with this any more, but apparently it can.

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Epiphany

Finding a PhD supervisor is exactly like finding a husband in a Jane Austen novel. There, I said it.

Seriously. Faculty member with a big grant = young man in possession of a large fortune. Postgraduate fellowship = dowry. Stupid administrative hurdles = the clueless but well-meaning relatives/other upstanding members of society whose disapproval messes everything up. Taking the GREs, ordering transcripts, etc. = going to balls, orchestrating time alone together, etc. The power dynamic is exactly the same.*

I used to have mixed feelings about Jane Austen—I understood why her work is important but found the whole “trying to snag a husband” theme a bit uninteresting—but now that I basically see myself as an Austen heroine, I think she deserves a lot more credit.

Also, just cuz: a topical poem.

*Thought I can’t think of an analogy for Lydia Bennet.

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Pond withdrawal

The minor blog hiatus of the past two weeks was due to my defending my Master’s thesis. Take that, science!

This past week, I officially ended my habitat choice experiment (explained here). Yes, I continued this experiment virtually up to the day of my defence; don’t ask—like all experiments, it did not go smoothly. Anyways, I removed all the remaining fish—which will be used by other grad students for their own projects—from my ponds, took out the enclosures, washed them, and packed them away for some future scientist’s use. It was a little sad. But it was impressive to see how well those enclosures held up after more than a year exposed to the elements. What was even more impressive was how they became part of the pond environment: there were plants and algae, especially Najas flexilis, growing up through the mesh, so that the bottom edges of the enclosures were almost sewn into the pond bottom. The enclosures were also crawling with tiny tree frogs, as well as a legion of baby water scorpions, so I had a lot of fun just picking creatures off the enclosures as I pulled them out of the water.

The frogs are funny creatures: being tree frogs, they’re mostly terrestrial (okay, arboreal), and so not actually all that keen on being in the pond once they’ve metamorphosed from their tadpole form. They don’t swim very well at all—as soon as they stop actively propelling themselves, they float upright (it seems as if their heads are more positively buoyant than the rest of their bodies). And when they’re in open water they make a beeline for the nearest shoreline-like objects. This resulted in many frogs trying to climb up my legs.

Here’s a gratuitous frog picture. This little dude was sitting on top of a pole that was propping up one side of the enclosures. I thought this spot looked too hot and dry for a frog, but it seemed perfectly happy there—this funny hunkered-down pose, with legs tucked underneath the body like a sleeping cat’s, is their favoured posture.

So I guess my “Pond county almanac” is coming to an end. I have a couple of follow-up posts lined up, but I’ll no longer be at the ponds on a regular basis. This is a weird feeling, especially since it feels like summer’s only just started—as I’ve mentioned before, we’ve had unseasonably cold and wet weather this year. I think this has translated into fewer insects emerging from the ponds, although there are other variables that could explain the pattern I’ve seen. Here’s a picture of a section of enclosure from roughly this time last year: it’s covered with insect exuviae. When I took them down, there were about half as many exuviae as there were last year.

And finally, what the hell, here’s another frog picture. They’re so darn cute.

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Well, that’s a slight mischaracterization—one tale involves an entire province’s schools rather than a local school board. But please indulge me in my shameless Dickens-parroting cliche, since I’m about to go on a “think of the children” rant and there will be a happy ending.

First, meet Paul Picard, the director of the Windsor-Essex District Catholic School Board* in Windsor, Ontario. He is a man with a vision, and his vision is this: a modernized role for libraries in his schools, with readier access to computers and the internet and with teachers assisting students with their online research. No doubt some good would come of this arrangement, for skill using online media is absolutely essential for many careers these days.

But he’s also fired nearly all of the school board’s librarians.

He wants, instead, teachers to spend time manning the libraries. Where this time will come from no one seems to know—they won’t be teaching less, so it must count as part of their extracurricular activity/club supervision (which I think Ontario teachers are required to do?).

Oh, and these technitastic libraries won’t have any books.

The books aren’t being destroyed or anything; they’ll be put directly into classrooms (at all levels from elementary to high school). But there won’t be a central place where students can browse books for fun or research, and there won’t be dedicated librarians to guide them through such a search.

What?

I’m all in favour of students learning some basic computer/online research skills. It’s actually important that they get such opportunities in school because some, perhaps many, of them won’t have access to a computer at home. But that this should come at the expense of paper-based research skills (at the high school level) and dedicated reading-for-fun time (at the elementary level) appalls me. It is simply the stupidest idea I’ve ever heard. The powers that be in Ontario are concerned about the failure rate on their grade 10 literacy test and this school board wants to get rid of its librarians?

This isn’t even about the “death” of print media, though that’s how Mr. Picard seems to be trying to frame it. Because there shouldn’t be a conflict between maintaining libraries with books and offering computing facilities. They would serve different, though obviously overlapping, purposes.

Now, before I get too angry about this, the second tale: meet Timothy Habinski, a luthier (that is, a maker of harps) near Bridgetown, Nova Scotia. He too has a vision, and his vision is this: a sturdy, well-made harp for every school in Nova Scotia, made locally and provided at-cost.

Perhaps some of you think that a harp is the last thing a school needs, a mere indulgence. You are wrong.

A school with a harp can give several students the opportunity to learn to play it. Perhaps some of them will become professional musicians, but most of them won’t. That doesn’t matter. Some of those kids will stay in school because they get to play that harp. Some of them won’t be at risk of dropping out, but that harp will be something they live for when other things, their grades perhaps, are making their lives miserable. I don’t have any data to justify those statements, no; but I know music teachers who can name students in exactly those situations.

It didn’t have to be harps. Harps won’t do it for every student. For some it will be clarinet, or violin, or the school choir, or the swim team. Schools providing these sorts of activities, I suspect, produce better students. The produce graduates who have something they do for fun in addition to their diploma, something that might or might not become a career, but something that makes them happy. Every time I hear about a school board cutting music programs—or other arts programs, or sports teams, etc.—I realize that some people still think schools are just for learning things that can be covered on standardized tests, and I despair a little.

But here is someone doing the opposite. Providing a musical education unasked, and solely because he knows the good it will do for so many students. So there is a little hope.

*Yes, that’s a public school board! Not only does Canada have an unelected senate (though that might change soon), it also has state-funded religious schools!

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