The ‘Mother’s Curse’ in Canada

The idea for the mother’s curse goes like this. Most human genes are on chromosomes, but a tiny number are in mitochondria, little power factories in human cells that for reasons of evolutionary history have their own loops of DNA. Sperm do not pass on any mitochondria, but eggs do. Therefore, all sons and daughters inherit their mitochondrial DNA from their mother (great mother’s day present idea: sequence yourmitochondria, make into cool figure, give it to your mom thanking her for the DNA). If a harmful mutation in mitochondrial DNA ends up in a woman, she will be less evolutionarily “fit” and thus less able to pass it along. But if the mutation ends up in a man, nothing happens. He never passes along mitochondrial DNA anyway.

However, this hasn’t been tested all that often in humans. Until a perfect system arose. You see,  the first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America. And so they did.

One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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Master of Something

Since last week’s post, you’ve decided to go to graduate school. Congrats!

The big question now is which degree are you going to pursue? I don’t mean the subject area you going to study (please see last week’s post to remind yourself that you should have a passion for what you’re studying before your start), but whether you’re going to get an MS or go straight for the PhD*.

There are pros and cons of each approach. Spoiler alert:  I got an MS before I started my PhD, but a lot of my friends did not. So hopefully I’ve got enough perspective on both sides. No guarantees.

The MS isn’t “easier” than the PhD in terms of work, because you have so much less time in a MS program to accomplish an awful lot. I found that my MS was WAY harder in terms of hours working every day than my PhD. There are a lot of ways to view the “MS” vs. “PhD” dichotomy. So I’m going to frame this post as a flow chart.

An MS could be a good option if one of the following applies to you:

The MS is if you are kind of interested in a subject, but aren’t sure you want to commit to graduate school forever. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon. You’ve decided to go to graduate school, but aren’t sure you’ve got it in you to get a PhD. No worries! There’s a degree for that.

The MS is if you want to gain expertise, but you don’t want to go into academia, for which you need a PhD. Let’s say you need to develop  your expertise in an area, either in base knowledge about a particular subject, e.g., machine learning or in research techniques, e.g., statistical analysis. You start learning about it on your own and decide you want to learn more.  An MS is a great way to gain that knowledge in a formal setting (and make clear on a future resume that you’ve developed that expertise, preferably with honors). If that’s what you want/need, then an MS is great.  So stop to think, “Do I really need a PhD in this subject?”  Generally, unless you’re going into academia, the likely answer is “no.”   That makes an MS a great option.

The MS is if you are sure about graduate school, but unsure about what you want to study and need more time to figure it out. You’re super excited about a certain subject, like the sex life of ants, the eating habits of grizzly bears, or the genetics of salmon (yes, deja vu all over again), but you’re not sure what aspect of those subjects you want to study. Are you interested in field work? Are you interested in experimental work? Do you hate statistics and get the urge to throw your computer out of the window when R boots up? If you don’t know how you might respond to these situations, and you’re worried about it, take some more time to figure it out. I’ve found most of the people I know who have a MS come into their PhD more focused and with a better set of skills. They’ve already done the graduate school transition, and know what to expect.  They’ve crystalized what they want to study, so they are ready to go out of the gate.

The MS is if you want to get your PhD, but your undergraduate GPA is really low. Did you spend too much time finding yourself in college, plunging energetically into the social scene, prioritizing partying? Did you discover your love of research only after this extended adolescence had taken its toll on your GPA? Getting an MS can help. In general, it can be easier to get into an MS program for biology than a PhD program. There is less risk to the professor, because MS students don’t stick around as long (2-3 years instead of 5-10 (yes, I know someone who did a 10 year PhD)).  Moreover, if you have an MS in hand, some schools are more likely to overlook your undergraduate deficiencies. You’ve demonstrated that you can do the graduate school thing, and so people are more willing to see that you’ve left your misspent youth behind you.

What if you’ve enrolled in a PhD program, and you find that things aren’t quite right?

The MS may be a good solution if you start your PhD and then decided after two years that graduate school is not for you. There is no shame in realizing this. Seriously, in the previous post, I mentioned that graduate school isn’t for everyone.  You may not discover that before you start but when the romance has faded and you take a hard look, you need an exit strategy.  It may that you decide that you really don’t want to be an academic (see above), and so the PhD stops being the entry ticket to that life career.  You may just decide that you’d rather stop going into debt and start making money, but you want something to show for your time in graduate school.  Then getting an MS might be an option.  (It actually may be a good idea to discreetly explore how viable this is before entering a particular PhD program.  Life happens.)

The MS is if you start your PhD, but after a few years you realize you and your advisor really aren’t compatible. This is a big one, that I don’t think people use enough (entirely anecdotal evidence). We’ll talk next week about picking a PhD advisor, and how important it is that you have someone with whom you are compatible. If you get a few years in, and realize that you and your advisor just aren’t working out, this doesn’t have to be the end of your career. Leaving might be a good choice, and if you leave with an MS, it could open doors to other, better, situations. Importantly, the professor benefits from this situation as well. It’s good for them to get their students to finish (this is a statistic many departments/universities track on their professors), and if you’re not going to work well with them long term, then they lose nothing by you finishing earlier. If you’re miserable with your boss, but you still want to keep pursuing academia, explore this option as a solution.

*This post is American system specific. In the European, Australian, and New Zealand systems, one is REQUIRED to have a MS before pursuing a PhD. I’ll likely talk about the pros and cons of these systems in a later post.

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From Octopolis to Octlantis: where to move if you’re a cosmopolitan octopus

It’s no secret that I love octopuses, and other cephalopods. I have also not made it a secret that I think they are going to take over the world (I’m only half kidding here)(seriously, they may be our overlords some day… soon). Which is why the discovery of not one but two octopus cities is both exciting and frightening. The two locations have been given names (and Buzzfeed, if you want me to write a listicle about the 10 greatest things about living in an octopus city I will) and are being studied for their anomalous appearance/existence.

“Like any urban environment, Otocopolis and Octlantis can be tough places to live. Citizens must be scrappy. The company and food are abundant but all the activity in the cities also attracts predators, including sharks.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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A man accidentally started a social media war between two of London’s biggest museums

With this seemingly non-confrontational tweet, a London man started a battle between museum greats:

Do you remember that argument when you were little “my dad can beat up your dad”? It’s like that only with awesome specimens, and cool science. Hats off to the curators… this was well done.

See below for the beginning of the feud, or read it all here.

 

Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough

Double whammy this week about diversity in science and how to change your lab/department/field. I’m not complaining, bring on the diversity!

And in an interesting twist, both of the posts this week (this one too) are peer-reviewed papers, rather than blog posts. Which is awesome.

Abstract below, paper here. And let’s keep talking about this/doing something to contribute.

Summary

Diversity among scientists can foster better science (12), yet engaging and retaining a diversity of students and researchers in science has been difficult (3). Actions that promote diversity are well defined (4), organizations are increasingly focused on diversity (5), and many institutions are developing initiatives to recruit and enroll students from underrepresented minority (URM) groups (racial, ethnic, gender, sexual identity, or persons with disabilities). Yet representation of URM groups in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields lag behind demographics in society at large (35), and many URM students feel unwelcome in academic departments and in scientific fields. Why is progress so limited (67)? We see a widespread and under-acknowledged disconnect between initiatives aimed at increasing diversity in academic and professional institutions and the experience of URM students (including many of us authors) (67). We argue that failure to grasp foundations of this disconnect is the crux of why diversity initiatives fail to reach the students that they were made to recruit. We believe that addressing this will resonate with other individuals and groups and help advance discussion in the scientific community.

Citation:

Chandler Puritty, Lynette R. Strickland, Eanas Alia, Benjamin Blonder, Emily Klein, Michel T. Kohl, Earyn McGee, Maclovia Quintana, Robyn E. Ridley, Beth Tellman, and Leah R. Gerber. Without inclusion, diversity initiatives may not be enough. 2017. Science Vol. 357, Issue 6356, pp. 1101-1102. DOI: 10.1126/science.aai9054

Scientists really aren’t the best champions of climate science

I spend a lot of time thinking about the best way to communicate science (you might have noticed) and a recent video by Vox makes a good point.

Communicating about climate change might not be up to the scientists… because people are tired of hearing us talk about it.

Let me know what you think, could you become a voice for climate change?

Should I go to grad school?

I have spent the majority of my life as a student. Not too many 33 year olds can say that.  If you include college, people who haven’t spent time in graduate school will now be reaching the break even point on the school/no school ratio, unlike us fools who went to graduate school.

As a result, I get asked “should I go back to school” A LOT. It’s almost always from friends who have been out in the workforce and are thinking of coming back to get a graduate degree. Luckily, since I’ve had to answer this question so many times, I have a well formatted/throughly thought out response.

My short answer is usually, “no”. But here’s why. There are only two reasons you should pursue a graduate degree:

  1. You wake up every morning thinking about the thing you want to study. You are frighteningly passionate about mantis shrimp! You can’t imagine not wanting to know more about the diet of grizzly bears! You wonder about the processes that change organisms over time and can’t help but wonder what parameters affect these processes! In your SPARE TIME you pursue these questions, whether out in nature or on wikipedia. If this is true, then go to graduate school. It’s a number of years (sometimes too many) where you get to study what you want, and answer the questions you find interesting. You will be stimulated by people who are also frighteningly passionate about studying similar questions, and they understand your desires to learn more. If you’re really lucky, you get to teach undergraduates and inspire young and impressionable minds to be as passionate about what you’re passionate about. Go for it – grad school is made for people like you.
  2. You are facing a serious glass ceiling at your current job and getting that graduate degree will allow you to earn SUBSTANTIALLY  more. The first category of people aren’t motivated by money (because despite what you’ve heard, there’s no money in academia, we’re all broke), but if you are, don’t be embarrassed.  Earning a good income and having money is nice, and if getting that masters degree immediately allows you to have greater earning potential, go for it. Get that degree, check those boxes, and get that raise, you deserve it!

If one of these two reasons is not true for you, then you should probably not go to graduate school. There are moments when graduate school is awesome, but there are also long periods when it takes everything out of you. This is true for every graduate student I have ever met. We all look back fondly on those wonderful moments where we bonded or stayed up late studying/working together (some of my favorite memories). But the truth is that you get paid very little or not at all, to do a job that requires all of your time. You’ll always feel like you’re behind, imposter syndrome is a real thing, and it is HARD to get through a graduate degree. But if one of the two bullet points above are true, then you might have enough passion and perseverance to get through. And you might even look back at it fondly.

However, if one of those two doesn’t apply, then I urge you to consider if you’re wasting your time and money.  It is important to be realistic – graduate school years are marked by low pay, and high cost (tuition and living expenses).  Student debt is a national problem, but manifested in your own life, it is a significant mortgage on your future and the choices you will be able to make.  If the reasons below apply to your consideration of graduate study, then you might want to think about a different career trajectory:

  1. You remember college fondly, wouldn’t it be fun to do that more? -Grad school isn’t college. It’s not all football games and frat parties. If you thought you had good time management skills in undergrad, you ain’t seen nothing yet. It is a 60-80 hour a week job, it is meant to grind you down and rebuild you into something better, it is a slog through massive amounts of thankless work. It is not keg stands and afternoon naps.
  2. You don’t know what to do next with your life. – That sucks and I’m sorry. The economy is hard,  and getting a meaningful, professionally satisfying job is difficult. Entry jobs are rarely glamorous or exciting, and “paying your dues” looks (and is) a long and painful process.  None of this will change if you go to grad school. Unlike undergraduate schooling, you have to start grad school having some idea of what you want to do, otherwise you’re just going to leave with more debt, and still not have that job described above. Sorry.

I have had this conversation with dozens of people, and I don’t want to discourage people who are passionate from pursuing their passion. Go for it! The work is hard, but it is sometimes rewarding. The people around you all understand the difficulty of what you are going through, because they are going through it too. Like any group that suffers together, this will make you infinitely closer and build stronger bonds. The friends I have from graduate school are “lifetime” friends, and I still talk to most of them every week. But you need to be sure that you’re going for the right reasons.

What do you think? What were your reasons for going? Do you have regrets?

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My PhD cohort: Roxanna Hickey, Genevive Metzger, Hannah Marx, Tim McGinn, Matt Singer and Tyler Heather. I honestly wouldn’t have made it through without their support.