Academic protection

I read a recent article in The New Yorker magazine that discussed liberal arts colleges and how they are tackling the fight for/against safe spaces, trigger warnings, and the fights that females have against misogynistic faculty members. The entire piece was well-written, and gave numerous examples of what was going on at the front lines of Oberlin College, a liberal arts school that is bowing more and more to student demands.

While, the piece was insightful I had two major complaints and one large comment. First, my complaints: there was a massive lack of information on how schools are combating this massive issue and that students see schools as a microcosm of the “real world,” when in all reality college is not the real world. Both topics go hand in hand, yet I will try to separate and tweeze both apart.

Lets tackle the first issue.  Students have a right to protest; they have a right to their own “safe space.” In my mind, this is their dorm room, that’s an easy answer, no? Why should there be a separate designated space on campus that serves only one type of student? Isn’t that bigotry? Isn’t that being partial to Caucasian heterosexuals, if there is a safe space devoted ONLY to the LGBT community? Isn’t that argument the exact same argument that Harvard has against fraternities and sororities? Both organizations only take those students who want to be a part of the organization and who choose them; it’s a mutual desire by both parties. According to Harvard, these groups, which provide, in all reality, for their members to have a safe space among their peers, that this is a direct issue with Harvard’s mission statement of inclusiveness. Where do we draw the line? This fact, is one major flaw that I saw with this article. The author did not provide any insight as to how to approach this epidemic; it’s almost as if they painted a picture of this problem being rampant and out of control, never to actually be addressed. I don’t quite know what the answer is, if any, but I would have liked for a little more elaboration on how school’s such as Oberlin, are addressing the issues that rear their ugly head. Or major instead of addressing the issues, they are just bowing to student’s needs to take their tuition money?

My second complaint is on the crux of most students assuming that college is a representation of the real world. I went to a small liberal arts college for undergraduate (5 years), a large yet still small well-known graduate school (4.5 years), and worked in both academia and the private sector. Students: college is NOT the real world. Where can you work M-Th without coming to work before noon and ending by 5pm? That’s, by my calculations, is part-time work (20 hrs/wk). You cannot afford a house, family, or any technology (ahem, Netflix account) on that employment salary. Moreover, when I worked in the private sector, I shared an office with two other ladies. We had to always keeps mindful of our conversations, making sure we did not take personal conversations during work hours and if we did we did not disturb our fellow office-mates. To broaden this, millennials enjoy open office areas, in which no one has a cubicle, but everyone works at table-tops, so there is no hiding what one is doing. By inspection, there are no safe spaces in these areas. College is not the real world, and it was never designed to be the real world. If it was, its structure would not be what it is. College was also not designed to be a consumer-driven service. Yes, you pay an exorbitant fees in college tuition, but it’s not like a cell phone bill with a contract. Take “The Great Courses” if that’s what your aim is for attending college, but don’t attend a liberal arts school thinking that you are the driver and it’s a pay-for service.

Now, onto the next topic which incited me. The author told a story about a female student who waged a complaint against her professor for she thought he was being a misogynist. She went to the department chair, who then called the professor in and made him sign a formal complaint. The Dept. Chair, would not allow the professor to provide evidence in his defense, and said that the girl provided enough evidence for a Title IX complaint of a hostile work environment. My comment is not whether the professor was harassing the student, but how easy it was for her to wage a formal complaint against a professor with “he said, she said”-like proof. This paints a very poor picture of the issues that plague females in academia, for it down-plays the real situations that are VALID Title IX disputes. From personal experience, a stack of written evidence was provided to Deans and a formal Title IX complaint was never offered. In fact, a mediation had to be done, in order to even conclude if a pursuit of Title IX injustice was found. It’s one thing to have a disagreement with a professor, it’s another to be harassed because you are a female. My biochem professor from undergrad hated me; I know he did, I had proof. However, it wasn’t because I was a Caucasian female. It was just me. He loved other Caucasian females and thought the world of them, but was disgusted with me. I got over it, and saw it as what it was: him being a donkey (insert alternative simile here). I wasn’t about to file a complaint against him. It would downplay the real situations that entitle those students to the assistance they deserve. In other words, slight complaints should not be awarded with formal recognition by a university. The real world IS where your boss doesn’t see eye to eye with you, but it’s not because you’re a female, but because they have a different outlook.

Anyway, the article is definitely a worthwhile read. I have left out the title until now: “The New Activism of Campus Life” by Nathan Heller. It’s very interesting, but it’s also a little disturbing that this is what a liberal arts education will get you. Don’t even get me started on the career prospects of those with a “Gender and Women’s Studies” major. That’s a topic for another day.

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Giving a Presentation 101

I’ve given a few professional, research-oriented talks in the past couple years while in attendance at international conferences. Not only this, my department hosts speakers on a weekly basis, so analyzing how people give presentations, their presentation style, and the manner by which they conduct themselves with the audience is somewhat of interest to me. I came to the conclusion that I’d like to contemplate the subject of presentations in this post because I just gave a talk to my entire department (nerve-racking) and it was really well received, which pleases me.

I was one of three presenters and each of us had our own way of presenting which was a great way to showcase all of our unique skills to the department and students much younger than us. My presentation was similar to that of ones I have given before, in which the audience cannot see the speaker, but only the slide show. So I stood primarily behind the lectern, used the mouse heavily, and spoke to the audience but kept behind the lectern for the entire talk. Alternatively, my female colleague stood in front of the lectern and used a pointer to specifically point to each of the items she was speaking about. My male colleague stood behind the lectern and also used a laser pointer to specifically reference each part of his presentation. Both of my colleagues had some videos that helped in the explanation of their scientific theories, while used animations and subtle transitions throughout my presentation.

Our speaking styles were also very different from eachother’s, and I think this primarily stems from our different personalities. I spoke to the audience as if they were friends and I was trying to convey what we were doing in our research group that was at a level understood by all. Alternatively, my female colleague used more scientific-heavy vocabulary in her discussion. My male colleague was much more quiet and had exactly what he wanted to say memorized prior to his talk, so his presentation came off a bit stiff, and in some cases he forgot what he was going to say which threw him off balance. I would not recommend memorizing exactly what you are going to say for a presentation. Most people, in the instance of high stress, suffer from “brain farts” in which they forget everything they are supposed to say. As an alternative to this, if one memorizes the major thematic statements that one wants to emphasize per slide you won’t forget, just present them in alternative ways.

Now that’s the different perspectives on giving presentations; what about being an active audience member? I will preface this discussion with the inclusion that some departments are different from others in that chemistry usually allows for a speaker to give his/her presentation followed by a round of question and answers, whereas business interrupts the speaker whenever an audience member feels the urge to question something. In my opinion, I enjoy listening to the story that the speaker weaves and then coming to my own conclusions given all of the information and data and taking that and asking questions. During the presentations of me and my colleagues, I was allowed to finish my talk and one student and a faculty member asked individual questions. Alternatively, my female colleague was interrupted by a faculty member with a question. It threw the speaker’s flow off, and her answer was a bit “duh!” if you get my drift, mainly because the question was a bit assumed. Anyway, I find taking notes helps think about the problems being posed throughout the talk and coming up with your own answers is helpful as well.

Last concept I want to touch on is slides and what’s the easiest way to make your slides visually appealing and  well-understood. I like simple slide layouts, a white background with a bold header is perfect, in my opinion. On the flip slide I LOVE animations. Personally, they allow for the speaker to have some help in discussing their topics and focusing their talk. Instead of one slide with a million things going on, the ability to have figures show up as your talk about them really helps in training the audience’s eyes as well as focusing the speaker’s discussion points. Even if you do have animations however, a complex slide makes it fairly challenging for both the audience to grasp the key concepts of the talk and to tell a story. A presentation is a glorified story, and the speaker is the story-teller. So thinking about a presentation, the figures, and how to convey big picture concepts in a manner relating to a story really aids in a successful presentation.

This post was a bit longer than I anticipated, but I had quite a few thoughts to talk about so I hope you take what I say as one person’s advice and use some of it or none of it. The ideas work for me, but everyone’s unique and I will be the first to accept it, so hope you enjoyed and hope this was a thought provoking discussion!

Ethics in Research Part II: Authorship

It can be argued that the main goal of graduate school is to co-author on as many papers as possible in the most seminal way as possible. For some, this may take six full years of research, while others can graduate in under four. I consider those in the last category, extremely lucky, and the former chose the wrong area of science. Just kidding. Regardless of how long the entire PhD process lasts for a graduate student, the key contribution to the end result is quantity and quality of publications. This Ethics in Research discussion will consider the pathway to authorship, what constitutes authorship, and some of the unethical issues that can arise when considering who to place as an author to a paper. I will forewarn you, much of my examples that I will provide during this discussion have actually happened to colleagues, including myself. They are not fictional, but quite the opposite, very true.

To begin with, you see a paper with the Title in large font and directly below that a list of names in some kind of order with their affiliations demarcated. Which name is the most important and who made the decision to 1.) include all of these individuals and 2.) in what order to include them?

In my opinion, it is the latter question that is less prone to ethical dilemmas. Usually, how the process goes is that the main contributor to the article (usually the person who does most of the work and/or the person who authors the article) is first author. The last name on the list is usually saved for the Primary Investigator (so the faculty advisor) or the person who used the most funds to support the project. When co-PIs author an article, the names at the end tend to be in order of percentage of work being done in their lab (last did the most work, second to last did major work, and third to last did minor work, and so on). There are the players in between the first author and the last which provide a good inkling as to how much of their work was contributed into the paper. A second author contributed a lot more man hours than the third author, and so on. Who places the authors in that order? This tends to fall on the PI in distinguishing in what position to list people. Now, it’s not an issue when a paper has three authors, but becomes a major problem in papers that have 12+ authors. Then, beyond the third author the PIs group authors into groups and by affiliation (or at least I’ve seen that). Obviously, some projects are really long and have a huge scope so groups all participate together and then write the paper with another group so it makes sense to group their names with each other. As I said, there isn’t too much ethical dilemmas that arise with authorship ordering, but I can speak to some extent on when an author deserved a higher placement than what was given. Moreover, there are some problems when a student needs a first authorship to graduate, so the PI places their name as first, when in reality they did not contribute to the extent as what a first authorship deserves. Otherwise, much of the ethical issues are who is placed on a paper.

Authorship is defined by many as a reasonable level of intellectual thought provided by an author on a project. However, this definition can be a bit misleading. Does it take intellect to deliver a sample into an instrument? Does it take intellect to prepare samples? Does it take intellect to analyze the data that has already been run via instrumentation and draw conclusions from the results? What if a student didn’t run any of the samples, or analyze any of the data, but wrote the article; would that constitute first authorship over someone who ran and analyzed every aspect of the study but did not write it? These are the types of questions that must be answered by individuals prior to a publication’s submission. I know of a situation where a colleague contributed a figure to a paper, but no intellectual analysis other than the figure and received authorship for the paper. He wasn’t a part of the review process of the article, nor did he contribute to the section written about his figure. But, because he generated the figure he got onto the author list. Some may argue that this is acceptable. Some may argue that his contribution deserved an acknowledgement and not an actual authorship. Additionally, what if a paper was discussed during group meeting and some colleagues provided good insight into next steps or data interpretation. Would this kind of sparse intellectual contribution translate into authorship? A past PI drew the line at: if a student didn’t analyze data (even calculating averages) they did not deserve authorship. My current mentor is more gray when it comes to authorship, in that an individual really has to contribute in a tangible way in order to get onto a paper. These are very different ways of gauging authorship, I do understand that, and sometimes have caused some whiplash for me mentally because I see both sides, but I don’t know myself who to believe.

So, in considering these issues, how does the scientific world remedy these circumstances? Unfortunately, this is not an easy question to answer, moreover is one that is heavily dependent on quite a broad range of people and circumstances that there really isn’t a “great” remedy. In my personal opinion, and for what it’s worth, I think the ultimate onus lies on the journals for publication. Papers may be the intellectual children of their authors, but the end rights are held by the journal for publishing material that could have a potential for ethical issues. Perhaps journals should require authors to stipulate the contribution of each author for the publication? From there, the agreement would be that if the submitting authors provide false claims as the intellectual capability of each author (and what they in turn contributed to the article) they (the authors/submitting parties) would be held accountable and NOT the journal. This would also inhibit PIs from placing undeserving parties on papers, as well as give credit where deserved for respecting authors. This method potentially does not take an obsessive amount of time and would really add a sort of validity to the publishing process. But, on the flip side, maybe journals enjoy having 20+ authors on papers? Maybe Science thinks that their publications which usually have a ton of names attached to a piece of work is under the impression that the more the merrier? I’m not sure, but I am sure that the publishing world needs to take a step in the right direction for this authorship battle is getting out of hand.

Ethics in Research: Sexual Harassment

I’m not sure how many of you non-scientists know of the journal PLOS One. It’s an open access, freely available journal online. Here is the link for the site: www.plosone.org/ I would suggest that you peruse the journal, taking in all of its useful information! Some individuals regard the ability to gain access readily on such topics as biology, genetics, and physiology (among others) to be a success of the internet. Please note, this journal is not wikipedia or webmd; these are articles written by scientists, for scientists, concerning original studies and analyzed data. This point of contention for some scientists that disagree with PLOS.

In order to be published in a high impact journal, an article goes through a rigorous peer-review process. This process is defined by peers selected both by the authors and the journal editor reading and critiquing the work. This can take both time and a lot of energy by the reviewers but holds to the validity of the journal and the work published in the journal. PLOS is a peer-reviewed journal but because it is readily available to any readership does not have the clout as such journals as Cell or Science.

Regardless of the contention of the journal, there are many interesting articles published, one of which I chose for this Ethics post. This article’s topic concerns harassment and assault in the field. A link to the article is here: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0102172

Perhaps before reading the rest of my blog it would be wise to read the article, but fair warning, it’s a lot of science!

I’m not going to go into great deal about the plot of this article. If you want that, read the abstract (thank God for abstracts)! So I’m just going to jump directly into some comments about this work. To preface, however, I will not be critiquing the study, just commenting on the results gathered, the figures generated, and some of the quotes from the work.

As a female in science, the underlying theme of this work speaks volumes. This theme is fairly well captured in the first sentence of the fourth paragraph of the Introduction: “A hostile work environment is not only harmful to productivity and psychological well-being, but reduces job satisfaction and increases job turnover.” This is probably one of the best stated ways to convey the repercussions of harmful environments to employees. Moreover, this is not just applicable to scientists but to anyone in the working world. Gender discrimination, harassment, and assault can rear its ugly head in science, social science, or honestly any industry. It’s unacceptable, and is disgusting. Unfortunately, it’s a reality. But, this article only covers those working in science in the field.

A statistic that is brushed over but stated appears on page 4 in which only 18% of respondents who reported harassment are satisfied with the outcome of their reporting and 19% of those who reported assaults. That is less than a quarter of the respondents who reported. Translation: 82% are dissatisfied. I’m shocked the authors did not state the higher numbers. Regardless however, that is such a low percentage! But leads to another question: why are such huge numbers dissatisfied?

Another striking data point is Figure 1. This figure report the “Frequency of Inappropriate Comments at Field Site.” The finding is visually conveyed, but when you look at the numbers, the majority of both women and men never or rarely experience inappropriate comments. By this data point, further exacerbated by the previous paragraphs point, provides that the most telling aspect of this study are those that have experienced inappropriate comments and report them and are dissatisfied by the conclusions. I’m personally really glad that not many instances of inappropriate comments are reported. But, it’s those that do happen which make me upset at the system. The system of reporting is put in place to protect those that unfortunately have to deal with instances such as these, and they need protection.

Lastly, oh Figure 3. I hate to sound like a child, but there is so much pink! Pink means women, and the number of pink dots are so depressing to men. Yet, what was encouraging to me is not that it looks like women are experiencing more sexual harassment/assault than men (that’s not surprising), but that women outweigh male trainees (sited in the article). Females in STEM programs have had a really challenging time, but it’s encouraging for me to see that the males are outnumbered by females.

My last point will be addressing the last section of the article: moving forward. How are this situations combated? If anything is learned through this piece, it’s not as though individuals need to know what not to do, but it’s the processes that are put in place after inappropriate actions are done that need to be fixed. The mechanisms by which institutions recognize that assaults and harassing situations have taken place and making certain the person committing the crime is brought to justice should be the first act. Also, encourage people to come forward. Individuals should not have to deal with the psychological drain that surrounds harassment. I’m a woman in science, and I don’t know what the mechanisms are in my institution to contact if I experienced anything wrong. Let alone if I was out in the field. It’s unfortunate that it even happens, and it shouldn’t. Hopefully publishing in PLOS One helps bring this issue to light, and I hope the amount of people who read this article.

Ethics in Research Part I

Ethics is such a challenging topic to not only write about and discuss, but also to just think about. This is especially the case in research and academia for much is based off of results: tenure, publications, dissertations, grants, and so much more. On the flip side, it is because so much rides on productivity and results that cause people to travel down a path that is ethically incorrect. It’s a discouraging day to learn when someone has sacrificed their ethical values in order to get published or progress into their graduate studies.

I have dedicated this first blog post to the discussion of data manipulation, which falls under the umbrella term of Ethics in Research. What comes to mind when you ponder data manipulation? Is it changing one number from 0.4 to 0.5 thus allowing it round up? OR could it mean deleting a data point that is a far outlier, but statistically cannot be discounted from your data set? These are questions that plague graduate students on a daily basis, and it’s really really quite unfortunate that they do. Graduate students already have enough stress in completing a rigorous 5+ year degree, that to infringe on their moral compass in order to get ahead slightly is almost a daily test they must face.

Data manipulation includes all of the scenarios above and encompasses many others beyond them. For those that either have never been in the science industry or it’s been a long time since you have, you may not realize how times have changed with respect to the speed by which data can be generated. For instance, in my lab, we can generate 9 hours worth of data, taking a data point every 0.016 minutes for an entire 9 hour study. And that’s only for one analyte, multiply it by 15 and that’s the total for a mixture that I work with on a daily basis. Seeing this vast quantity of data, it would be simple to just “overlook” a data point. Or see that the relative standard deviation is so close to 5%, if we could just delete one time point, we’d have our optimal value. **Note, these are things I don’t do, but could do. This is an example of the pressures on grad students to have the best data.**

As the years have progressed, science has more and more heavily relied on instrumentation in order to ascertain theories and proof of concepts. The more sophisticated the instrumentation, generally, the more parameters to change. Along those lines, the more parameters to change alternatively leads to more data generated ( as a per parameter basis). Obviously, this is almost like falling down the rabbit hole of science. More data equals more instances to ethically infringe upon, and right there lies the problem.

Not only are there more opportunities to manipulate data as the amount of data increases, but one also has to consider sources of stress. Stresses lie at the student, faculty, and institutional levels. In my opinion (and yes I come from a warped because I am a graduate student), graduate students have the highest levels of stress placed on them. They face stresses from themselves to push themselves as far as they can (to finish as fast as possible and to graduate as fast as possible), from their mentor to produce data, and the institution to graduate on time and in good standing. But graduate students are the ones that are also in the lab acquiring the data, so they are the ones that can manipulate the data. Unfortunately, many times, through the varying pressures that are placed on graduate students, they feel the need to force their results to show the hypothesis they expect. Many time, mentors will pressure students to make the data fit hypotheses, which is completely negating the entire process of research.

From my point of view, graduate school is a training ground for future researchers. It’s also a training ground for establishing one’s moral compass and values. When is it right to put one’s foot down and say “this is NOT what the data is representing.” It’s almost as if a doctorate degree is earned upon making one’s mark in his/her area of specialty all the while challenging hypotheses and developing a thick skin towards the pressure to produce what is desired and not what is seen in a research lab. It’s a development of one’s ethical values as a researcher and how far one will go to prove or disprove a point.

Unsung heroes

I entitled this piece unsung heroes because that’s what I think many of the people who work in the background are. What do I mean by background? Lets begin the discussion with an example regarding a situation that has people in prominent and not so prominent roles. The first and best example that comes to mind is the recent conference I attended in Baltimore, MD.

At this conference there were over 10,000 attendees, 700 posters a day for four days, 30 presentations, and about 50 company booths. Now, clearly I do not lose sight of the fact that without the great minds presenting their work the conference would not occur. I understand that piece. However, the great minds are not the ones organizing everything. Take for example, the coordination of compiling, organizing, and printing the conference program. You KNOW that no one with a PhD did that job. Yet, obviously, someone did. The program looked well done, was well organized, and overall achieved its goal. Now, was there any recognition for the individual (or even committee) that went through organizing this endeavor? No. It’s one of the greatest understatements to say this.

Now, alternatively, one may argue that these employees are in fact just doing their job and their salary or wages is just compensation for completing their task. Again, I can see that point of view. However, I think the amount of time that is needed in order to problem solve when disasters arise, or just in dealing with problematic people in planning such a huge conference most likely surpasses  the time stipulated by the employee’s contract. So any additional time spent is not compensated, hence the need for some sort of thank you by the conference organizers.

The above instance is just ONE example by which I’m using in my case. Additionally, I like to think of this one scenario that I heard myself in which someone I knew essentially said how excited they were to be an organizer for a presentation section. I replied, “Oh you talked to Sheila (the conference organizer)?” They replied, “No, she’s just a secretary.” Now, I know what secretaries do, my own mother was one for years. I also know the Sheila’s (name changed for this blog) job was not secretarial duties. I thought to myself after this conversation: “You know, YOU can barely manage 4 people. Just think how you’d fair in managing 10,000.” But again, the person who said this thought the their PhD glorified their feelings towards others.

As I was envisioning this blog, I wanted to take a step back and think about how these issues arise. Why do people as a group rarely acknowledge the work of underlings? As in my post regarding Monuments Men, WW II would not have been won if there were men in the infantry who died serving their country. The same comparison can be drawn to situations like this conference. A conference cannot occur if there is no one to organize it and do the manual labor.  Just with my own personal thinking regarding this issue, I think it’s mostly stemming from a very simple concept: ego.

Ego is a very complex monster (and yes, it is a monster when it rears its ugly head). I honestly think that many people wish they are recognized for their service (even when it is compensated) and when they are not, they’d prefer no one to be recognized. However much I can speculate on what is the root cause of this, all I know is I have experienced this type of ego influence and that leads me to believe that it is a cause for selfishness of modern people.

In contemplating this issue and why it is prevalent, I believe there is only one way to combat it. If you see a janitor doing his/her job, do not avert your eyes but say thank you. Most likely they will be surprised that you even acknowledged them. In a more broad theme, pay attention to the people that may play a critical role in your activities or events and perhaps just go up to them and compliment them on a great job. Honestly, they, like the janitor, will most likely be surprised that you even thought to approach them, even with a thank you. Everyone works a tremendous amount and try to stay afloat in life. So just to say a quick thank you takes very little time, brightens someone’s day, and creates that “good feeling” in you. Very simple if you ask me.

 

Mentoring Part I

I was recently in a meeting in which a few undergrads were presenting a research update to fellow students, grad students, and professors. The UGs started working in labs about three weeks prior and the aim of this meeting was (as I see it) to share what each was doing in their respective groups and to force them to get some data to present. Now, it should not be any news that faculty are a bit tough and that they enjoy questioning EVERYTHING, so they of course, will ask questions of the presenter. However, it was disheartening for me to see that the faculty were asking questions of the UGs that a grad student or someone who has been on a project for a long period of time would know. Moreover, none of the grad student mentors were coming to the aid of their mentees.

The question I pose from this situation is: when is it all right to step in? In other words, when should one be on the defensive or offensive with respect to mentoring?

I will have to say grad school is all about defending one’s work, and using others’ work to formulate theories and conclusions about one’s own findings, so needless to say one is constantly on the defensive throughout the journey. However, another responsibility of a grad student is to oversee UGs and high school students and mentor them. Something that goes hand in hand with this process is the guidance one shows how to be to a mentee. In other words, how one should approach difficult questions, how to solve a scientific problem, and most importantly, how one should act in a professional environment.

From my point of view, it is my duty as a mentor to stand up for the people who work in my lab and on my projects and guide them. Not make them constantly feel defeated. This is not an interrogation, brawl, or contest of whit. The students are here to gain experiences to reward them later in the future, not be defeated or discouraged. They are here to learn and it is the job of their mentor to be supportive and help them through difficult events.

So, in my opinion, the answer to my question is to never be on the offensive. Do the best you can, be supportive, be realistic, and get to know your mentee and what kind of mentor they respond to. Some like black and white. Some like more laid back. But all like supportive and encouraging. Just always remember this for the future.