Having Dinner with Women in Science

Here at the University of Idaho (Go Vandals) we have some awesome resources in the biology department (IBEST, BCB program, BEACON to name a few).

But by far the most interesting an influential for me over the course of my graduate career has been the Randall Women in Science seminar.  It’s not that each seminar has deeply touched me because as a woman I am able to better connect with other women when they speak about any topic in science. Nor is it that each seminar happens to be exactly what I want to study/do when I grow up. But it has allowed me to talk to women have not only survived but thrived in science.

Jane Randall

Jan Randall and her gardening skills

But first, some history. The seminar series exists because of Dr. Jan Randall, who is on the faculty at San Fransisco State University. She is also an alumna of the University of Idaho’s Department of Biological Sciences (Go Vandals). She studied social structure in animals once thought to be asocial. Additionally she was (among many other things): a Fellow of the California Academy of Sciences, the Board of Directors of the Endangered Species Coalition, and Secretary of the Animal Behavior Society, and a Fellow of the Animal Behavior Society. Her website notes that she is enjoying gardening and traveling in her retirement.

In addition to all her accomplishments in science, she put an emphasis on promoting women in science. And one of her iniatives is the Randall Women in Science seminar. Since 2003, twice a year, women in science, often at the top of their respective fields, are brought to give a talk at the University of Idaho. It is an amazing opportunity as a department to bring excellent seminar speakers to the Palouse to talk about their work.

And yes, the free food and drink is wonderful.


But by far what’s more wonderful is the opportunity to sit and talk candidly with women in science who are on the other end of the career ladder. We are all just starting, working on PhDs and postdocs, while the seminar speakers are well established and completing their careers. So we have questions about how to do this science thing as a woman, some of which we make a point to ask every speaker. It occurred to me last night (at a wonderful Randall seminar dinner) that I’ll be leaving the Palouse soon, and perhaps it’s time to reflect on the answers to these questions we have asked so many influential women.


Question 1: When is a good time to have children?

This is usually the first question, as it is something all of us are thinking about. Science is EXTREMELY demanding early in your career. During your PhD we are flirting with the poverty line (dependent on your discipline/department), and having babies is expensive. Your postdoc is all about getting papers out and finding a job, which requires long hours and a fluid location, especially given it’s not likely that you’ll stay in the same town you postdoc in indefinitely. And then once you have a faculty position, the tenure clock is ticking and you have very little time to get funding and papers out the door. Financially and professionally, when in there is a good time to have a baby? What’s that you say? You can just wait till you have tenure? What about fertility?

One was a VERY successful scientist who waited till she was established (and was actually pregnant at the dinner).

Another told us how they decided to start having children during their postdoc. You’ll notice I say “they”, her husband was her co-PI and the shared child rearing 50-50.

Yet another one told us she didn’t think it was possible to have children and be successful. That she had had a number of VERY supportive partners, and made the decision to put her career first.

One other speaker told us how she had had her first child during her PhD and the department wrote her off, and didn’t think she would finish. But she (this is a theme among the success stories) decided that she had to be more efficient with her time. She could only work from 9-5 so she did nothing during those hours EXCEPT work. No reading the paper, no socializing, no talking. Like a Jedi master, she focused on the tasks at hand so she could do more with the hours she had available.

You must have the efficiency and mind control of a jedi

You must have the efficiency and mind control of a jedi.

What struck me the most is how each woman had a different strategy. There is not really good answer to this question. So the overall pattern was “This science thing is important to me. How can I make my life work within its confines?”.

Question 2: Have you felt discriminated against as a woman in science?

Surprisingly most people said no to this question. But there were some exceptions:

One scientist told us how she had tried to report a professor in her department for sexual harassment. He had propositioned his graduate student and threatened to kick her out of the program if his advances were rebuffed. The student went to our seminar speaker, who promptly approached the dean. The dean told her it wasn’t an issue, and she handed in her resignation the moment she found another job. This was the most extreme example, and we had a long discussion about how to avoid departments where the good old boys club still reigns supreme.

Another scientist told us she had only once felt discrimination. She had an established lab, a few successful graduates, a number of grants, and an impressive publication record. She is inarguably at the top of her field. But when she went for a job interview (a lateral move, she already had an established lab) she was told that she was too timid and the chair of the department doubted Women_in_Science3whether she would be able to run a research lab of her own. She laughed and left.

And another told us how she had been told that she couldn’t have an extra year on her tenure clock because she was having twins. So she jumped over the chair, the dean of science and the dean of the college and went to the president of the university and asked for the extra year so that she could spend time with her children. She was one of the first women granted this extension.

Question 3: How do you deal with the two body problem?

Most of our speakers have a spouse outside of science. But there were a few that faced the difficulty of balancing two careers.

One speaker gave us the whole love story of her marriage with her husband. They worked together, both with respect to their family and with their research. I have seen this work in a number of situations and find it admirable but difficult to achieve.

Another, both her and her husband were in the same field. They applied for the same jobs. He got a job, and she was a spousal hire. The department chair thanks her husband almost daily for bringing her to their department.


We all face these questions and concerns, especially early in our career. What has amazed me is how much variety there has been in answers. How differently each of these women have tackled these very fundament and challenging problems. It has been inspiring, not knowing that it will be easy, but knowing that we can figure it out, as many have before us. And that there are places/ways for us to succeed in this academic realm.


A science-y tweet makes my heart skip a beat

When I first heard about Twitter (several years before I actually understood what it was) – I remember thinking it sounded silly. Who cares what celebrities are thinking (Figure 1)? I dismissed everything Twitter-related as irrelevant and continued on my merry way. I think it was during Evolution 2011 that Jeremy (from this blog) suggested I join Twitter because you can follow interesting talks and remain engaged throughout conferences. It took a little while for me to work up a real affection for Twitter but the longer I’ve been a member (and perhaps the longer Science and scientists have had to assimilate it into our work world), the more useful I find it (Figure 2).

Figure 1: An example of the "Why bother?" side of Twitter. Why 103,000 people thought this was worth repeating via "retweeting" is beyond me because it gets dumber each time I read it...

Figure 1: An example of the “Why bother?” side of Twitter. And why 103,000 people bothered repeating this via “retweeting” is beyond me. It gets dumber each time I read it.

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin's posts include (top to bottom) - passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Figure 2: Why you actually should bother. Devin’s posts include (top to bottom) – passing along a job opportunity, interesting publication, a professional interaction about science spam, a second paper and link to our blog!

Regarding social media and scientists in general, Bik & Goldstein have written a great introduction. They discuss the pros and cons of several platforms (i.e., blogs, Facebook, Twitter) and how to choose amongst these depending on your interests. For example – are you most interested in communicating science to the “general public”? TO THE FLOW CHART! Perhaps creating your own content in the form of a blog is for you. Alternatively, are you more interested in compiling cool stuff you’ve found from across the world wide web? Consider Facebook.

Despite the ubiquity of social media in our world, many scientists are reluctant to embrace it. That’s somewhat understandable – “Why bother?” is an easy question to ask and get no answer to if you’re “unplugged”. Bik & Goldstein outline four major “research benefits from an online presence”.

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Should scientists be more subjective?

Peer-Review-Nick-Kim-cartoon3-resizeThough the goal of scientific research is to objectively follow evidence to advance our knowledge of the world we live in, it has become increasing apparent that there are some substantial road blocks in our way.  For example, a number of recent articles have argued that (A) we get the wrong answer – a lot, (B) the hotter the area of research, the more likely we are to get it wrong, and (C) the higher the profile of the journal we published in, the more likely we are to have got it wrong (Ioannidis 2005, Pfeiffer & Hoffmann 2009, Brembs et al. 2013).  Ideally, science is self-correcting process, allowing us to reach the correct answer over time, in spite of such misleading results.  However, the authors of a recent Nature article argue that a phenomena they refer to as “herding” can prevent or severely delay the process of self-correction and their proposed solution is quite surprising: add more subjectivity to the peer review process (Park et al. 2013).

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Friday Coffee Break, Official Springtime Edition


Every Friday at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense! our contributors pass around links to new scientific results, or science-y news, or videos of adorable wildlife, that they’re most likely to bring up while waiting in line for a latte.

With the official start of Spring this week, at least depending on where you are.  For me, I’m currently sitting in Ithaca, NY where the high for the day is still only squeaking into the above freezing range which only makes me miss Richmond, VA right now all the more.  So without further adieu, which is apparently my new catch phrase, your links for the week.

To start things off on a light and happy note.  Sarah has some wonderful news that she passed her dissertation defense!!  She is so excited, as she should be, that her link this week is a ton of dancing GIFs.  Of note, she things either Carlton or Ace Ventura match her mood best.  Congrats Sarah!

This week CJ wonders about the possibility of a gender gap in pain perception as discussed in the NYTimes article.  She also thought this article gave a good break down of the process of becoming tenured and is indeed quite helpful (and makes me glad to be in the field that I am in).  And finally, an opinion piece on why De-extinction would not work.

From Jeremy, a piece from the blog Why Evolution is True on why science writing is tedious and often boring and what it takes to write good science.

From Amy, a depressing story on the passage of an amendment limiting the funding for NSF research regarding political science and the letter from Senator Tom Coburn justifying this measure.

Finally, I’d like to end things with a video.  I’m a big fan of TED talks and also of U2, so when I saw that Bono gave a TED talk about his passion of helping to fight to end poverty I thought it was worth a look.  I loved his analogy of how poverty could end in as short a time period as about 3 more Rolling Stones farewell tours.

Self-confidence of women in science and a camel

Science kind of has a lady problem. While nearly equal numbers of males and females begin the path to a career in Science/Academia, more females drop out as they progress on the trajectory than men. This has been called a “leaky pipeline” – at each progressive career stage, there are fewer women. There are many publications about this and the surrounding causes/effects (I’ve included a non-exhaustive list at the end of the post). One recent “Spotlight” in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution by Cameron et al. caught my eye. In it, they summarize much recent research on the topic – including that women:

– publish fewer papers.

– have lower grant success and receive lower grant amounts.

– get promoted more slowly.

– have lower retention rates.

The reason I’m bringing up this topic at this time is because Cameron et al. raised an issue that really rubbed me the wrong way. Cameron et al. construct a flow chart of interacting factors that contribute to women choosing to leave science. Central to their diagram is “Lower self-confidence in women”*. The authors say the way women “experience the scientific community” lowers women’s self-confidence which initiates a feedback loop through lower publication rate, lower grant success and lower professional success that inevitably spits a woman out at the bottom. In this framework, women are less competitive and therefore they don’t get hired or fail to get tenure. This may very well be true. But I don’t like it. I don’t like that the underlying reason women would leave science is low self-confidence.

Figure 1 from Cameron et al. (2013). Does lower self confidence cause attention to detail? Hmmmm....

Figure 1 from Cameron et al. (2013). Does lower self-confidence cause attention to detail? Hmmmm….

How important is self-confidence in Science? How important is the generally unbearable stress of it all?

Science is difficult. Despite the belief that professors have low-stress desk jobs, people in academia have to work almost all the time because we have no upper limit on our job – there’s literally always more to do and it’s always up to you to do it. Relatively few job openings and relatively many people with doctorates ups the stress and competition factors as well. You really have to want to stay on this career path. Like really, really. But there’s got to be a limit for how much any one person can take before the cons outweigh the pros and the reasonable thing to do is leave – the amount of straw that breaks the camels back, if you will. No matter how strong (i.e., self-confident) the camel is. Right? I wonder if it’s less about self-confidence and more about the sum of all the parts. I’ve reworked Cameron et al.’s flowchart into something I call: “Not a flowchart but instead a hand-drawn picture of a camel”:


The cumulative load of obligations, stresses and environment may be the ultimate reason women leave science (in my opinion).

All the above facts/observations make it seem (to me) that women may just have more straws on their backs – i.e.,  more reasons to leave academia. Maybe I’m splitting hairs because I like the framing a little better. But all of the ways and reasons that there is a gender bias in science add up to a (however slightly and not in every case) less good environment that women may feel less loyal towards.

Cameron et al. conclude with “Enhancing self confidence and expectations may be the single most significant step in encouraging and retaining women in science.” I’m not sure how to do this – especially on an institutional scale. I think we should focus on lessening the number of straws for women, the biggest of which may be family oriented.  So maybe we should work on institutionalizing allowing time off the tenure clock for maternity and paternity leave and increasing affordable childcare on campuses. Maybe actively recruiting female mentors/mentees in STEM disciplines will help (programs like this!). Maybe the fact that I’ve never been told women aren’t good at math is a sign that we’re growing out of an outdated way of thinking. We all need to apply for things we think might be out of our league and we’re all susceptible to low self-confidence from time to time. A good social support system (of men and women and four-legged friends and beer) is invaluable to me personally when I begin to crack. For the record, I have no evidence – it’s just what I think.  My opinion is that this is important and to fix the leak, we need to keep talking about this subject.

One final point – they discuss these concepts under the title question: “Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric?” Apparently, the answer is “no”. Strictly looking at the number of someone’s publications doesn’t accurately summarize their publication history (or worth as a future colleague/grant recipient/whatever) and they argue this puts women at a disadvantage. Regardless of how realistic or useful a “quantity only” metric system is, this article has prompted me to action! How about including number of citations and/or journal impact factor on the publications section of a C.V.? Instead of a traditional citation, perhaps this?:

Hird SM and Sullivan JS. 2009. Assessment of gene flow across a hybrid zone in red-tailed chipmunks (Tamias ruficaudus). Molecular Ecology, 18: 3097-3109. Citations: 16. 2011 Journal Impact Factor: 5.522.

Including these metrics makes sense for anyone – it allows your publication record to be most fairly evaluated. Well, that’s enough from me but I’d love to hear from you. What do you think of Cameron et al.’s flowchart? How important is self-confidence in science? Should we put quality metrics on our C.V.s? Please leave comments below!

* There is no hard evidence that I could find that women in science have lower self-confidence than men, which is central to the Cameron et al. argument. If you know of any studies regarding this – please let me know!

References and further reading (additional suggestions welcome):

Barres BA (2006). Does gender matter? Nature 442: 133-136.

Bedi G, Van Dam NT, Munafo M (2012). Gender inequality in awarded research grants. The Lancet 380: 474.

Cameron EZ, Gray ME, White AM (2013). Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric? Trends in Ecology & Evolution 28: 7-8.

Damschen EI, Rosenfeld KM, Wyer M, Murphy-Medley D, Wentworth TR, Haddad NM (2005). Visibility matters: increasing knowledge of women’s contributions to ecology. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3: 212-219.

Holmes M, O’Connell S (2007). Leaks in the pipeline. Nature 446: 346-347.

Hutson SR (2006). Self-citation in archaeology: Age, gender, prestige, and the self. Journal of Archaeological Method and Theory 13: 1-18.

Martin LJ (2012). Where are the women in ecology? Frontiers In Ecology and the Environment 10: 177-178.

McGuire KL, Primack RB, Losos EC (2012). Dramatic Improvements and Persistent Challenges for Women Ecologists. BioScience 62: 189-196.

Moss-Racusin CA, Dovidio JF, Brescoll VL, Graham MJ, Handelsman J (2012). Science faculty’s subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 109: 16474-16479.

O’Brien K, Hapgood K (2012). The academic jungle: ecosystem modelling reveals why women are driven out of research. Oikos 121: 999-1004.

Symonds MRE, Gemmell NJ, Braisher TL, Gorringe KL, Elgar MA (2006). Gender differences in publication output: towards an unbiased metric of research performance. PLoS ONE 1: e127.

Predatory Open-Access Journals: Part 2

For much of the last week, I have been looking for a solid reason to either go ahead or not ahead with a manuscript I submitted to HOAJ Biology, a journal I later discovered made Beall’s List of Predatory Open-Access Publishers. There were many good reasons, in my mind, to just do it – it was peer-reviewed, my article and software are sound (though a minor contribution) and I would like closure on this project I finished a year ago. It turns out, there are some even better reasons not to publish with this journal. First and foremost, there is a FICTIONAL PERSON on the Editorial Board.

Shortly after this post, Dr. Todd Vision, with NESCent and UNC Chapel Hill, emailed me and asked if he might be of help. After sending him the manuscript with some additional details, he replied with this advice:

As for HOAJ Biology specifically, <an editor’s name deleted> may be legitimate, but that doesn’t mean he actually helps oversee peer review. I suggest you look up the credentials of another one of the editors, Peter Uhnemann, before you draw any conclusions about the involvement of the editorial board: http://phylogenomics.blogspot.ca/2012/01/scary-and-funny-functional-researcher.html

I highly recommend people read that whole post, but for those in a hurry: “Peter Uhnemann” from the “Daniel-Duesentrieb Institute” is a fictitious person from a fictitious institution. And he’s listed plain as day on HOAJ Biology’s Editorial Board! (I did contact one person on the Editorial Board via email to make sure he was actually affiliated with the journal, which he confirmed, but I guess that didn’t cut it.)

So, I am retracting my submission and going instead with either arXiv or figshare, which are non-peer reviewed, but citeable places to deposit research articles and/or software.

Dr. Vision also shared this advice with me for future manuscripts:

There are technical aids to finding the right journal in which to publish (like http://www.edanzediting.com/journal_advisor) but in the end one still needs to make a personal judgement about how to weight the many different factors. And while I am personally a strong advocate for gold OA journals, paying for publication upfront does require us as researchers to be more informed about the choices – library subscriptions no longer keep the low-quality publishers out of the market. In the future, if you are trying to decide among OA publishers, members in the OASPA (http://oaspa.org/membership/members/) is generally a reliable indicator of being on the up and up.

So what to do if you say no? If you aren’t interested in sending it to a more reputable outlet for minor contributions (like, say, BMC Research Notes), you could simply post it as a technical note on your website (a very common thing in CS) or on a preprint server like Figshare.

We’ll support you whatever you decide.

I am grateful to Dr. Vision (and Dr. Jonathan Eisen for the original post about “Peter Uhnemann”) and to all the commenters here for advising me when I really wasn’t sure what to do. (Final note: I suppose I should say that my experience with HOAJ Biology doesn’t mean all the smaller, open-access journals out there are Bad. Doing my homework paid off, though!)