Category Archives: Academia

The privilege of the forum

As anyone in the atheist/skeptical/feminist blogosphere has heard, there is a massive kerfuffle going on about Rebecca Watson’s response to being creepily propositioned in an elevator1. I really don’t have much to say about it because far better writers than I have covered all the bases I can think of. What hasn’t been addressed is the fundamental fuck-upedness of one of the underlying assumptions of Rebecca’s critics: there is such a thing as an appropriate forum.

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Over the course of the last ten years I’ve learned that it’s generally not a good idea to have a plan. Plans, yes, but every time I don’t have a back up I get screwed. Screw myself. Whatever.

I’ve switched career goals twice since I started college. As I started my freshman year, I was dead set on international law. I declared my double major in biology and rhetoric early on, joking that I would be the first prosecutor at the Hague to call a dolphin as a witness. Two of my high school friends and mock trial teammates half-seriously planned the law firm of Tan, Wertz, and Collins.

Somehow during my first year I changed my mind to medicine. I honestly don’t remember why. I think I might have just burnt out on rhetoric and needed a change. That didn’t last long, though. I had two major back surgeries in nine months. I had to withdraw from one class, and take a leave of absence for an entire semester. I came back too early, and nearly drowned in the course work. The idea of 48-hour shifts as a resident made me vomit. I couldn’t possibly be a doctor, and that made me hate myself.

Thankfully, at the same time I was struggling so hard, I took my first research class. My group’s project was, in retrospect, ill-conceived, unfounded, uninteresting, and likely violated university rules on human experimentation. It still got me hooked. I also went to my first science conference that year, an evolutionary biology meeting in Washington, and that gave me a glimpse of the excitement academia offered me*.

Since then, my goals have never waivered. It’s been over two years and I’ve never considered any options other than getting my Ph.D. and eventually a professorial appointment. Of course, this lack of a plan B has screwed me over. Again.

This semester has sucked. Between fibromyalgia, being on Vicodin, and some weird neuropathic pain that no one’s been able to figure out, I’ve barely been able to attend class, I’ve needed to withdraw from at least one class and take incompletes in others. I’m taking at least a year off before applying to graduate school, and I’m faced with the terrifying prospect of spending more than a few months doing something that doesn’t involve research for the first time in two years.

And of course I’m totally unprepared for it. I haven’t had a “real job” since May. I don’t know how I’ll manage not having a major project on my plate. And if I never end up going to grad school? I have no clue what I’ll do with my life.

*That’s not to say I didn’t, or don’t, have regrets. Even though I love research, and could never imagine abandoning it for practicing medicine, I still have the subconscious resentment at being forcibly shunted away from medicine.

The three scientists

I just got done schmoozing with the people who funded my summer research. It was two minutes of trying to dumb down complex ecological and population genetics concepts to the level a couple of 70-something former liberal arts majors could understand, and an hour of waiting for them to look at the other student researchers’ posters. In other words, purgatory. On the other hand, I got a chance to look around at how the other students were presenting their research. I like to put things into categories (sort of the hallmark of a biologist) and I started developing an idea of what makes science so diverse. I think there’s three basic types of scientists.

First, there’s the Tinkerer. The Tinkerer is interested in finding out what makes things tick, but mostly in figuring out how to put things together. The three chemistry student researchers fit into this. They’re playing around with some funky cyclic molecules, trying to synthesize them more efficiently and in a more environmentally friendly way. Dr. Frankenstein was a Tinkerer, as are the chemists that design drugs and agronomists that breed or genetically engineer crops.

Then you’ve got the Puzzle Solver. Puzzle Solvers look at the universe as a giant sudoku puzzle: they start off with a curious observation, and try to find the variables that make the data work. These are the people for whom “the scientific method” was made. Science is a series of hypotheses and tests, but the puzzle solvers treat it as an end in itself; the journey is the thrill, the endpoint an afterthought. It seems like Puzzle Solvers occur in all disciplines. Watson and Crick were certainly puzzle solvers, as were, I think, Marie Curie and Elizabeth Blackburn and her collaborators.

Finally, there’s the Story Teller. Storytellers are interesting because neither the result nor the test is particularly interesting on its own. A fact or even a truth can only illuminate a historical pattern which is itself of interest. We might call these people natural historians. Darwin is an excellent example: his theory of natural selection was the common thread in all the smaller stories of how the multitudes of organisms came to be in their current forms, habits, and locations. Jack Horner is another of my favorite scientific Story Tellers. Each fossil is a bit of a story about how dinosaurs lived.

Of course , most scientists have aspects of some combination of the three. I am predominantly a Puzzle Solver, but I’ve got aspects of a Tinkerer and Story Teller as well.

How to recognize a geek

There are occasions when I wonder if I’m cut out for the life in academia I’ve been planning for the last two years. This usually happens when I’m reading a depressing post by the grad student cum blogger extraordinaire Scicurious, or an experiment isn’t working, or I have a flareup of fibromyalgia, or I despise the subject we’re studying **cough**molecular genetics**cough**. But then something happens to bring me back.

This happened last night. I was insomniating, which happens far too often, and I decided I might as well make the skeleton of my research proposal for my molecular ecology class. I kinda hate doing field work in November, so I’m doing some modeling to try to explain the time-dependency of molecular clocks. (If you can’t understand the linked article, don’t worry; it’s not important.) I was looking over the manuals for the programs I’ll be using and papers of previous attempts (failures all) to explain it. As I read and wrote out a tentative procedure, I had this conversation with myself*:

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Happy Labor Day America, fuck you Nestle

Today’s Labor Day in the U.S., and while the rest of the country is off to the beach or having barbecues, I’m sitting in front of a computer. I’ve got to finish the abstract for my presentation (how, exactly, are you supposed to explain an entire project in 250 words?) and the presentation itself. Presentations are always a problem for me because I have that horrible trait combination of procrastination and perfectionism. I finally sat down to make the PowerPoint on Friday, and discovered that I needed to make or steal 30 figures. Ugh.

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It’s not that extra X chromosome

Amazingly, discrimination and low expectations aren't keeping women out of science.

Amazingly, discrimination and low expectations aren't keeping women out of science.

Looking at most colleges’ graduating classes, you’d think that the gap in science professorships between men and women is primarily generational: women earn a majority of science bachelor’s degrees (some colleges have begun to give preference to male candidates), and no field other than computer science and engineering is made up of less than 40% women. And yet the advancement rates are depressing: over 50% of chemistry bachelors degree’s are awarded to women, yet less than 32% of PhDs and 22% of assistant professorships are. Why the discrepancy? Apparently, it comes down to lifestyle.


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