Archive for: June, 2013

Research Blogging: Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia

Jun 28 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Rarely a week goes by when I don't notice at least one comment in my twitter feed about the lack of female speakers at a particular conference. I've noticed this in person and it is certainly a general topic of discussion in the blog-o-sphere. So, when a paper on the topic came into my email this week, it piqued my interest. Spoiler: the title kinda gives away the punchline.

Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia

The authors set up the issue by looking at the general stats in the EU:

In 2006, 36% of EU PhD graduates in Science and Engineering were women, reducing slightly to 33% among post-doctoral researchers (Grade C), then falling dramatically to 11% of the senior academic ranks (Grade A; European Commission, 2011; figure II.3.13).

Then they use six years (2001-2011) of the biannual ESEB conference to test two hypotheses:

1. Because the scientific achievements of women may be less visible than the achievements of men (Thelwall et al., 2006; Fernandez et al., 2009), female scientists may be overlooked more often for invitations to talk.

2. Symposia organized only by men will have fewer female invited speakers than symposia that have at least one female organizer.

In order to test these hypotheses they tested for gender difference between all presenters, controlling for population differences (in the field) and career stage factors. In order to get at a slightly more amorphous topic, they also tested gender ratios of "top quality" researchers in the field and those invited to speak.

To calculate the baseline numbers in the field, the authors examined gender ratios of three TT career stages at the top 10 universities for life sciences (as ranked here). To account for major recent discoveries leading to a conference invite, they searched Nature and Science for the genders of first and last authors.

The data from the meeting look like this:

The take home is that women presented fewer talks, proportional to their representation at the meeting (dashed line). The differences were especially pronounced for invited and plenary talks. In addition, they found that women were significantly underrepresented when it came to symposia organizers, but that the presence of women on a symposium organizing committee made no difference in the gender ratio of invited or regular speakers.

As for invittee based on career stage:

Fig. 3 The percentage of invited speakers that were women, in symposia (black bars) and plenaries (white bars), at ESEB congresses in 2001–2011, in comparison with the percentage of women in baseline populations of first and last authors in top-tier journals (dark grey bars), and faculty members (light grey bars; Fell. = Fellows, Lect. = Lecturers, Prof. = Professors). Horizontal lines under the x-axis indicate the specific category groupings that the bars belong to. The horizontal continuous line in the plot indicates the sex ratio among the realized invited speakers at ESEB 2011, and the dashed line indicates the sex ratio among all initially invited speakers at ESEB 2011, including those who declined to participate.

And by "impact":


Fig. 4 The percentage of invited speakers that were women, selected by randomizations from baseline populations of authors in top-tier journals (first and last authors) and faculty members (error bars = 95% confidence intervals). Horizontal lines under the x-axis indicate the specific category groupings that the data points belong to. The horizontal continuous line in the plot indicates the sex ratio among the realized invited speakers at ESEB 2011, the dash-dotted line indicates the sex ratio among symposium organizers at ESEB 2011 and the dashed line indicates the sex ratio among all initially invited speakers at ESEB 2011, including those who declined to participate.

Based on these data, the authors propose three (non-mutually exclusive) reasons for the male bias in speakers at ESEB:
(1) the pool of scientists that could be invited to speak contains fewer women than men, for example due to the ‘leaky pipeline’
(2) women turned down invitations more often than men
(3) there was a bias for selecting men as invited speakers.

Reason (1) is quickly ruled out, based on the data. Interestingly, the process of inviting speakers appears relatively unbiased for the 2011 meeting, as the invitation rate for women was roughly equal to the population levels. However, in discussing (2), the authors report that 50% of women declined the invitation, compared with 26% of men. The authors note that child care is not yet available at ESEB and suggest that further research into the reasons for (and solutions to) women declining speaker invitations is needed. Encouragingly on front (3), at least for the most recent ESEB meeting, there was no bias for invite rate or related to invites from syposium committees
with female members, suggesting progress on the overall gender bias of invitation.

Alright, so all well and good. It's the declines that are resulting in apparently biased meetings! But is that a good excuse? As @scicurious also pointed out when she linked to this, is it even a real excuse?

I think we need to do better than balancing the invite rate if the data are telling us that declines by women are higher. If that's the case, invite more women. If you can't think of any, ask your colleagues. Ask your fellow symposium organizers. Pick up an issue of your favorite journal. Don't take the easy way out and throw up your hands.

Schroeder J, Dugdale HL, Radersma R, Hinsch M, Buehler DM, Saul J, Porter L, Liker A, De Cauwer I, Johnson PJ, Santure AW, Griffin AS, Bolund E, Ross L, Webb TJ, Feulner PG, Winney I, Szulkin M, Komdeur J, Versteegh MA, Hemelrijk CK, Svensson EI, Edwards H, Karlsson M, West SA, Barrett EL, Richardson DS, van den Brink V, Wimpenny JH, Ellwood SA, Rees M, Matson KD, Charmantier A, Dos Remedios N, Schneider NA, Teplitsky C, Laurance WF, Butlin RK, & Horrocks NP (2013). Fewer invited talks by women in evolutionary biology symposia. Journal of evolutionary biology PMID: 23786459

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The third installment of #IsisVsTomasson went down last night, and.... it was a wide ranging discussion. There were some extremely lucid statements, some cancer and a proposal for a new reality show: GuerrillaPimpPI. If you don't have time for anything else, skip to 1:15:00 when the latter discussion takes place.

But there was a lot of circling around the idea of communication, both to the public and to granting agencies. I'm on the record as thinking the ability to "sell" one's work to any audience is critical. Who your target is depends on how the message is packaged, but the ability to make a convincing case for why your work is The Best Thing Eva! is a really important skill.

Additionally, NSF has a Broader Impacts requirement, which has taken on increasing importance in the last few years. Although outreach, specifically, isn't required, it's one of the BI options most people engage in. Despite the perception and popular Ivory Tower myth that scientists and holed up in labs and can't speak to the public, many of the people in my field are engaging the public regularly. Hell, I've spent several weeks myself with over a total of 100 local teachers, working with them to increase their capacity to educate students of my state.

But anyone who has managed to get funding in the current climate should know how critical communication is. It's what we're forced to do and if you can't pull it off things don't go so well. I've mentioned before that part of what I really enjoy is the story telling aspect of grant writing. You're building a case and talking about what is possible, which is very different than describing what was done, in the case of manuscript writing. But as we have discussed at length, review panels are not just people in your field. In many ways, you are writing a general document meant to excite, especially at the NSF preproposal stage. Engaging your audience is the difference between getting invited and not.

So, in many ways I think we sometimes make a false dichotomy between scientists and communication. The science comes first and foremost, but if you don't get it funded, published and discussed at meetings, you might as well set your lab books on fire now.

4 responses so far

Minority recruitment in biology

One topic I have been mulling over for a while but have resisted posting on is minority recruitment. Everyone knows that attracting grad school applications to life science programs from minority students is an issue, but the million dollar question is what to do about it. I don't have the answer and it is something I have been banging my head on for a while.

The problem of getting applications, in reality, is an institutional issue. If you look at any success story, such as the UMBC Meyerhoff Scholarship program, two things jump out: A university commitment to attracting and retaining minority faculty, and 2) Putting money towards minority grad student recruitment in the form of scholarships. The good news is that my university is already doing #2 and working aggressively (at least in my college, I can't speak for others) towards improving on #1. However, as it currently stands, we get next to zero (and actually zero last year) minority applicants for the life science graduate programs I am associated with. We have scholarships NOT BEING FILLED because we don't have the applicants. This drives me crazy.

Unfortunately, our college minority recruitment effort is aimed exclusively at undergraduates. When I talked to the individual in charge of this effort, it was clear that they had never considered grad students. The grad school also has someone in charge of minority recruitment, but in after a half hour meeting I was more convinced than ever that the grad school is ineffective in this charge and does not appear to have a strategy beyond "hand out fliers". At all.

So, how does a white male PI recruit minority students to his lab? IME, the only time I have been able to cultivate any interest has been after individual discussions at conferences. Even then, I can't compete with some of the programs that can swoop in and offer more money and a bigger name. The student needs to make the best choice for them and I need to continue to attempt to make my lab an attractive place to minority students. But the catch22 remains - it's hard to foster a diverse lab culture when applicants are so non-diverse. I'm going to see what I can do to help the recruiting effort this fall, so ideas and suggestions would be welcomed.

31 responses so far

Something good

Jun 24 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

One response so far

Why choose to blog pseudonymously?

Jun 24 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Since we've been on the topic recently and a Science Careers article just came out about social media in science I thought I might take an opportunity to reiterate a couple of points about blogging as a pseud. There are a number of good ways to use social media as a scientist, but career stage and intended audience matter in how you approach an online presence. Who are you trying to engage? Just as importantly, who are you trying not to engage?

I established this blog with the intention of discussing what it's like to take on a faculty job at a research focused institution. I absolutely could have done so under my real identity, but I wanted to be as honest as possible. Sometimes my role as the PI of a lab and my role as a blogger being honest about my job are in direct conflict. I want to be able to discuss the weight of worrying about getting people paid without freaking my people out. I get overwhelmed sometimes, but that doesn't mean I need to share that with those counting on me as a mentor. A PI isn't always in the position to share the challenges of the job with their trainees.

Now, this is the internet and it's very possible that anyone could stumble across the blog and put some things together. It has happened and it will again. So I also blog with that in mind. The times I do engage someone on a topic, I make sure I do it in a way that I would if we were talking face-to-face. As others have acknowledged, pseud bloggers are still accountable for what they say, because there is a history and a link to you, even if you think no one can figure it out.

There are those who make exceptional contributions to the blogging community as TT faculty across a wide range of institutions. I don't know what went into their choice and how they approach their blogs, but I am guessing that their target audience is different than mine. Social media is a great way to engage in scientific outreach and maybe even fulfill some Broader Impacts, but that's not my goal here.

Another consideration is whether you want to build credibility from scratch or let your CV make your case. Anyone can start a pseud blog claiming to be whatever they can think up and not everyone is going to take a pseud account seriously. It takes time to establish yourself, but only a crazy person would try and pull off blogging about a lifestyle they weren't living for nearly five years - it's up to you to decide if I am who I say or a 60yo hoarder living with several hundred "pet" rats. Some will demand that they can't discuss something with you unless they know your academic standing, but it's not worth letting their insecurities affect your social media choices.

So if you're thinking about setting up a blog, I would encourage you to do so. It's been an incredibly valuable tool for me, and I gain from it in a lot of ways. Deciding whether you want to use your real name or create a pseud is a matter of choice, and likely comes down to your target audience and what you plan on discussing.

4 responses so far

The pseud debate is ever rolling #moreinvolved

Jun 19 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

If you missed it, the latest installment of #IsisVsTomasson went down last night. I couldn't watch it live, but I caught up with it this morning. We talked about the first installment two weeks ago, and this one is just as juicy. Tomasson makes a good straight guy foil for stimulating these discussions and the comments of both @Isis and @DrRubidium were typically on point.

It's already made some people think about their experiences and decide they want to share them. I'de like to focus on the first ~35min, before the discussion moved to getting more research subjects, and after in the last ~15min.

It seems like there is always someone either asking what the value of pseudanonymous voices is, or what someone using a pseud is hiding. I get the question a lot and anytime I am critical of what someone has said or written, it is always they first thing they attack. The sentiment "you wouldn't be stating your opinion like that if you were using your REAL name!" is so common I feel like I should have stock text in the about page to refer to.

Of course, that's the whole point. One of the easiest ways to silence someone is to flex a power differential - using the subtle (or not) implication that This Will Go On Your Permanent Record. As a non-tenured faculty member, I've used a pseud to separate myself from the blog for exactly the point that Isis makes in the video - I want to be known for my lab's science and not for my ramblings here. When I'm at a conference I want people to seek me out to talk about the paper we just published or the grant we just got funded, and not to discuss my feeling on overhead. That's not to say that I would not discuss anything and everything I've written here with anyone, but I don't want it to be attached to my scientific identity in the way my research is.

I am also strongly against the idea that people should judge my opinions here based on looking at my publication list or my scientific lineage. The second of two points (we'll get to the first in a minute) I want to touch on that were brought up in the last 15 minutes by @eperlste was that all discussion of science should be open and using real names. The ONLY reason why people feel strongly about this is because they want to be able to place their critics in the academic caste system and see where they stand - maybe measure the length of each other's ivy. Rather than deal with criticism of the science, alone, they want to predetermine whether to take another person seriously. Is there any wonder why pseuds are rampant when that attitude is so blatantly stated?

BUT. And a huge BUT. I could get rid of my pseud today and I doubt I would suffer much, professionally. Enough people know who I am, from colleagues to the halls of NSF, that there is very little separating my comments on the blog from my identity. But as @eperlste appears to unironically state near the 101 minute mark, "I'm a white guy, so I can get away with it!" Unlike Tomasson, who is intentionally playing the white douche (again, because he can), Ethan unapologetically and unintentionally nails the whole thing home. The whole point of the #moreinvolved tag, as I understood it, was to talk about ways in which we get more people into the folds of science. The early discussion regarding minorities mirroring those in power to conform, should make it more clear to the White Guys why so many pseuds exist and why so many people who are in the majority group are happy to associate their names to their on-line presence and think You Should Too! If only there wasn't a contractual obligation to talk about cancer research in these things, that discussion thread mightn' have been broken.

In any case, find the time to watch the video above and think about where the different perspectives are coming from. I could've watched another hour on this topic. Next time we need to make sure Isis' office stash is better stocked.

25 responses so far

The funding rabbit hole

Jun 12 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For the first time in a Very Long While, I do not have a grant proposal pending. Anywhere. As much as I thought this might be freeing, it's subtly unsettling. I'm trained to find this unsettling.

With an active grant and a if-sequester-doesn't-kill-it grant in the works at the beginning of the year, I planned on taking last January off. Then I had to resubmit my 2012 preproposal just in case and a collaborator contacted me with an idea right up my alley. From zero to two proposal, just like that. Now that we've had official word on our second grant and some other funding sources have paid off, it's time to dig in and get the work done, right?


Last week I saw the NSF CAREER reminder come out and it immediately made my mind start to click. We have projects that need funding. This is my last year of eligibility. I was on a preproposal panel so I could submit to that panel and actually know the competition!

Click, whiiiiir. Click, whiiiiiiir*.

But at what cost? I'm currently in paper writing mode and I'm optimistic that we can get a healthy number of manuscripts submitted this summer. This is important because I feel like papers from my lab are the area I need to shore up on my CV before my tenure dossier gets submitted. Submitting a proposal this summer is going to cost me time that could be focused on those papers and likely result in one or two not getting out in the time frame I need it to. Besides, my trainees need those papers for their careers, too.

There's a relatively loud voice in the back of my head yelling "GET THE MONEY AND LET THE PAPERS SORT THEMSELVES OUT!" but I'm inclined to ignore it, this once. As someone I talked to about the situation reminded me, the money is simply a means to an end. That end is getting the work done and the papers out. There's a justifiable focus on funding in this line of work, but with two new projects to get started and one that is going into it's final year it's time to let a proposal deadline go by**. Fighting the urge to send in a proposal now is also going to help put the lab in a better position to compete in the 2014 round, as well.

Sometimes the big picture means going against what seems right in the moment. Let's hope the decision still looks good in a year or two.

*Isn't that what it sounds like when you think?
**Yes, that makes me feel a little sick.

16 responses so far

Not a complete digital convert

Jun 10 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Most things I do on a daily basis have become digital - I spend far more time touching a keyboard than a pen. On the whole, I'm fine with this change. I find PDF annotation to work well when reviewing manuscripts or grants and track changes is great for collaborative writing.

But the one time I just can't manage to avoid killing some trees is in the final stages of writing something. For me, I need to print the document out and see it in the broad sense - spread out the pages and make sure sections and ideas are where they should be. I can't confine that part of the process to a screen, even a large one.

I wonder if that will make me old fashioned in the years to come.

18 responses so far

What do you ask your NSF PO about a declined proposal?

Jun 07 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

By now everyone knows the fate of their IOS or DEB preproposals. The decline rate is high, even at this stage, so don't get all bummed out if your preproposal didn't get picked up. The most critical part of learning from the reviews is to separate the science from you as a researcher. This isn't personal.

No matter what the outcome of your preproposal, I suggest contacting your PO to set up a time to talk. Set up a time by email and include your proposal number so they can quickly find the information they need. The first thing I want to find out about a proposal relates to how it fell in the context of the panel. When you first open the reviews window in FastLane most people dive right into the panel summary and individual reviews. But an important piece of information lays below those links: The Context Statement. Below are the percentile break downs from two of my recent preproposals.

The panel placed 12% of the pre-proposals in the "High Quality" category, 52% in the "Medium Quality" category, 31% in the "Low Quality" category, and 5% in the "Not Competitive" category.

High Priority for Invite (21%), Low Priority for Invite (7%), Not Invite (72%)

As you can see, there are substantial differences that extend beyond the terminology. In the first example, the "Not Competative" category is a pretty clear signal that you should probably scrap that proposal. It was universally despised, time to move on. "Low Quality" is less harsh, but you're not even cracking the top 60% and it's probably worth considering different ideas. Medium is where it gets interesting and if your proposal lands in this pool, you need to figure out if it was closer to competitive (some mediums were invited because only 12% made "High Quality") or hanging around closer to the riff-raff in LQ. Your PO can shed some light on this and give you more information than "You were in the middle 50%".

In the second case, the "Not Invite" category is a pretty inclusive bunch. Again, were you near the top of this group but might not have justified your approach, or are you better off coming up with a new approach? Some of this will be evident from the reviews and summary, but the POs can hopefully point you in the right direction for that particular panel.

You may also want to inquire whether a different panel might be better suited to review your proposal. NSF does tend to move proposals if they think there is a better panel fit, but sometimes the reviews expose this more than initially thought.

Finally, it's critical to have a good conversation about what the PO thinks will make your proposal a fundable one (Generally. They're not going to plan experiments for you). This is true whether your preproposal was invited or not and this is where the value of the conversation lies. The panel summary will certainly provide you with important information, but the POs have the benefit of the umbrella view. They know the typical range of their panels, who are the panelists who are coming back to do the full proposal round and what their particular bugaboo was. If you explain what you see from the reviews and inquire whether there are other things you should be taking note of, the PO might point out something you're not seeing because you happen to be overly-focused elsewhere.

Also, the panel rankings are only recommendations, so there may be things the PO believes are important that the panel summary does not convey. Perhaps important comments were made in discussion that did not make the summary. Sometimes those things are written under a certain amount of "duress". However, I have had the most success with proposals when I have asked the PO what they think it will take to make the proposal competitive and then tried to focus on those points. Sometimes it's all laid out in the panel summary and sometimes a phone conversation can really help you target certain things. Questions like "Would the proposal be more competitive if we were able to address xxxx?" can help you hammer out a plan for resubmission. Maybe you need data or maybe you just need to better justify an approach.

Even if you learn nothing new from your conversation with your PO, it never hurts to get on the horn and see what they have to say. Remember that they didn't write the reviews or the summary statements, so calling them when you are upset about either of those is simply counter-productive. Let the reviews breathe, then figure out how to make an improvement and get funded.

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All the pie for humans!

Jun 05 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

I finally got a chance to watch the discussion that grew out of the #modelorg debate last week. You can skip about the first ten minutes of scientists just trying to figure out how to use the internet and get right to the point: @MTomasson thinks it's silly to spend federal dollars on anything that can't be in clinical use with a year or two, unless funds are unlimited.

It will surprise almost no one that I think that's the dumbest, most short-term, view of science funding I have heard in quite some time.

Let's assume for a second that we're just talking about NIH*. With the announcement yesterday that NIH is going to have to kill 700 grants in the coming fiscal, it's clear that things are getting tighter in the short term, not better. From a "boots on the ground" perspective, I can understand the interest in focusing the remaining dollars on work that is clinically relevant in the foreseeable future. But let's make a sports analogy to that situation.

Basically we're talking about a baseball team deciding to trade away all it's farm system for the big-contract super stars of other teams. In the short term the team is stacked and plows through the competition, producing results. But in a couple of years those stars decline and there's no one waiting in the system to step up. Maybe you can throw money at a few free agents, but you end up with a bloated payroll and a mediocre team.

If we concentrate resources on research in humans that we can get into the clinic next week we're going to wipe out entire fields that pave the way for understanding how humans and their diseases even work. As was pointed out in the discussion, there is virtually no disease treatment that did not go through an animal system before being applied to humans. Yes, part of that has to do with FDA regulations, but the MAIN reason is because many model organisms are tractable in ways that humans aren't. Some discoveries don't translate to humans, but so what? Most clinically relevant innovation wouldn't have been worked out in a human system to begin with. Our generation times aren't exactly good for a research model and there are apparently some issues with knock-out studies, I hear.

When times get tight everyone wants to justify the solution that best suits their particular goals, but some proposals are more blatantly self-serving and egregiously arrogant than others.

* Mostly because clinical people aren't aware other science happens.

27 responses so far

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