Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Unscientific America by Mooney and Kirshenbaum

I just finished Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens our Future by Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and it was a little depressing. The book is about how science and scientists are perceived in general American culture, with the main thrust of the argument that science and technology are becoming even more critical to our lives while the number of Americans that understand and trust science is dwindling. Carl Sagan is presented as the ideal citizen-scientist, someone who was able to present science in an interesting and accessible way to the average American. He was also apparently denied tenure and Harvard and not seen as a serious scientist, despite his Nature and Science articles. The authors would like to see scientists take responsibility for making their work accessible to the general public, though I think the story of Carl Sagan is a bit of a warning: even if you are well published, it may still be difficult to be seen as a “real” scientist if you are too interested in public communication. The most interesting thing about the discussion of Sagan was his approach to public communication. I haven’t read or seen too much of Carl Sagan’s work, but the authors describe it as being question focused. He addressed questions that nonspecialists were interested in, like: what happens to us after atomic bombs go off? What does science have to say about God? What are other planets like? This sort of receiver-oriented approach is easy for the public to understand, as opposed to a sender-oriented approach that scientists tend to use, where the scientist explains a topic in as much detail, and as technically correctly as possible.

The (recent) history of science and the media was also discussed. I was amused to read that in their opinion, the best TV science reporting was on The Daily Show with John Stewart.

The authors’ proposed solution to the communication breakdown is that starting with graduate students, scientists should be trained in communicating with the public. As a graduate student, I would definitely take advantage of this training if it existed. The problem as I see it is that I don’t personally know anyone who is good at communicating science with the public, and the problems in communicating science stem from structural things about science like the fact that progress is slow, progress is uncertain and has to be replicated, and progress may have to be interpreted in a sophisticated or nuanced way.  As for the book, it's an interesting if somewhat lightweight read.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

The many forms of assertive women

This last season of Project Runway has gotten me thinking about how people perceive competent and assertive women.  I have run across quite a few forms of assertive women in my undergrad/grad training.  In fact, I am one myself.  I am always interested in which of these women are termed “bitchy” or mean.  Assertive women may be any combination of:

-sharp-witted/sharp tongued
-rule sticklers

In my experience, being sarcastic along with being sharp witted and a rule stickler is the surest combination for having people perceive someone as bitchy.  Some people don’t like being reminded that they’re not the smartest person around.  I have also noticed that being cold (i.e. not smiling a lot or not generally projecting that you like people) is a bigger problem for women than it is for men.  People expect women to be “nice” and friendly so if a woman is unfriendly, it’s a strike against her in a way it isn’t against a man.  In fact, men may get a bonus for being friendly, while women can only get points taken off if they are not.

When I was an undergrad I was a bit intimidated by assertive women.  I was unsure of myself and wondered how they could be so confident.  Now, a few years later, I find I really like assertive women- the more outspoken, the better!  I’m glad to see women that have been successful and still have rough edges- more importantly, I’m glad that there’s not only one personality type for successful women.  As for Irina from Project Runway, while she didn’t go out of her way to be nice, she never did anything unfair and everyone else knew they were competing against her.  If she’s honest when she said she would never say anything behind someone’s back she wouldn’t say to their face, then I don’t see what everyone was complaining about.  Or more precisely, I do see why they were complaining- she wasn’t sweet or friendly- but I don’t think that’s a legitimate complaint about a competitor.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Academic Love

In grad school (and beyond, I imagine), hardly anyone ever tells you "Good Job!"  There are few formalized performance reviews and no bonuses for doing good work.  My strategy is to look for things that are like telling you "good job" without explicitly saying those words.

One of the other grad students in my lab and I trade the good comments our advisor says about the other one.  Sometimes when I'm talking to my advisor about my project, it's all very technical and the discussion is focused on where the project is going and how I'm going to get there.  But if my advisor mentions my project to one of the other grad students in the lab, he tends to be a lot less technical and focus on how great my project is or how far it's come or how excited he is about my latest result.  If my advisor mentions how awesome another student's project is to me, I always remember to tell that student that our advisor thinks their work is awesome, and there's another student that does the same for me.  It's always nice to hear that my advisor is excited about my work!

However, the real currency in the research world is time and attention.  If someone spends time with me talking about my work, and thinks hard enough about it to ask me good questions, that's academic love.  My friends have spent hours grilling me to help me prepare for qualifying exams-  and I think that's the nicest thing they've done for me.  The people who have really ripped in to my research are telling me a few things aside from all the things I need to address in my work: that they think I am capable of doing excellent work and they respect me as a researcher.  After one particularly grueling session with me, my advisor, and some big name researchers, my advisor made some comment about how I seemed elated.  Of course I was elated, big names were paying thoughtful attention to my work!  It was awesome.

Ironically, this means that someone just saying "good job" without any further comments is about the worst feedback I can get.  I suppose "terrible job" with no further comments would be worse, but I haven't had that happen. Yet.   Anyway, these short comments generally mean that whoever hasn't really thought about whatever I'm working on.

As for showing academic love, I really enjoy helping people (well, people I like) with their work when I can.  Reading application essays,  listening to people talk about their grant ideas and asking questions, teaching people software, and listening to someone talk through the homework problems when they are stuck are all things I have done for people I like and truly believe will succeed.  I do try to be explicit and tell people when they have done a good job, or at least when I first started being in a position where I could tell people they did a good job I did.  Lately I have been forgetting.  I think the longer you have been in the academic system the easier it is to forget to say the implied "good job."  Would it make research a nicer or easier place to be if we remembered to say it, or is the implicit system good enough?

Monday, October 26, 2009

If you don’t like work… (a mini rant)

Why the hell are you in grad school?  One of the new students in my lab seems incredibly lazy.  Sure, this person is fine with discussing project ideas (as long as they don’t involve any actual work on their part or them coming up with ideas from scratch instead of critiquing other's ideas), but if you actually ask them to do something?  A bunch of excuses, blaming other people (while the other people can hear the complaint!), and general lack of doing real work.  When we do work together, this person is full of commentary about how the experiments could be done faster (hint: by not doing them!), how we should blame people who aren’t around when we make a mistake, and general issues with authorities like our advisor or the older grad students who have taken time to help them learn. 

I have to wonder if this person was smart enough to get by in undergrad without working and now expects the same thing will fly in grad school.  Or perhaps this person was the best student in their undergrad class and just likes the recognition for being the best but is not very engaged with the subject material or research questions at hand.  The part that really bugs me is that this person’s undergrad degree would allow them to get a well-paying job that they probably wouldn’t actually have to work that hard at!

Once again, if you don’t like work (actual work, not metaphorical gold stars for being the best,) WHY THE HELL ARE YOU IN GRAD SCHOOL?! 

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

I can fix that...

I’m currently in an engineering grad program, but my undergrad degree is in a science.  I occasionally feel like I stick out because I am female, but more often I feel like I don’t quite have the right “engineer” personality.  I have been around quite a few engineers over the years, so I do have ideas about what engineers are like!

… know how to use power tools
… do woodworking
… make elaborate electronic devices, for fun
… do their own car repair
… invent things
… have real jobs where they are paid to build things and keep them running
… are comfortable in suits
… drink a lot of beer

Yeah, so I’ve done pretty much none of that.  I was thinking about this today as I fixed a chipped windshield, which is the first car repair I have ever done, and I did a damn good job if I do say so myself.  Perhaps there is hope for me becoming a “real” engineer by the time I graduate.

Monday, October 12, 2009

You and Your Research

Every so often I run across Hamming's You and Your Research, and different things stick out at me every time I find it.  The big take home message of the speech is if you want to do important work, you have to work on important problems.  There are many other tidbits of advice and observations about doing scientific work, and the part that jumped out at me this time is:

    "On the other hand, we can't always give in. There are times when a certain amount of rebellion is sensible. I have observed almost all scientists enjoy a certain amount of twitting the system for the sheer love of it. What it comes down to basically is that you cannot be original in one area without having originality in others. Originality is being different. You can't be an original scientist without having some other original characteristics. But many a scientist has let his quirks in other places make him pay a far higher price than is necessary for the ego satisfaction he or she gets. I'm not against all ego assertion; I'm against some."

Here he is talking about whether or not it's worth it to get worked up about small injustices.  In his opinion, it is not possible to be both a first-rate scientist and a reformer of the system, as trying to do both at once takes too much energy for most people.  I don't know if that's true or not, though it does have striking implications for people who try to be reformers in engineering/science fields if it is true.

He got me thinking about originality: is it true that people who are original in one area are original in others as well?  From his definition originality is being different, or thinking for yourself instead of just taking the usual approach.  Perhaps what he is getting at is that people who question dogma tend to question it in all areas of their life.  But are all types of originality created equal?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

6 Steps to Completing Your Dissertation

Who knew that 6 easy steps were all that you needed to complete a dissertation?  This is from a recent AAAS promotion:

In case you can't read the steps, they are Drudgery, Procrastination, Panic, Despair, Drudgery, and Printing.  I'm not at the dissertation writing step yet, but this is how studying for quals is going for me.    Except the last step is hopefully "Passing" instead of "Printing."