Science bootcamp

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Several weeks ago, I participated in the New England Science Bootcamp for Librarians.

The New England Science Boot Camp for Librarians is an annual two-and-a-half-day educational event offering librarians an opportunity to learn about science. Three science topics are featured at each Science Boot Camp. Each of these topics is presented at a half-day session by New England scientists: one scientist presents an overview of a science and another presents current research work within the field. During the final half hour of each of the science sessions a librarian-facilitated discussion will be held with the scientist presenters. Topics for these discussions include their use of library resources, research information needs, data management practices, and suggestions of new ways that librarians can support their research communities. These science sessions help to provide librarians with context and terminologies of science disciplines that will enable them to better engage with their faculty to provide research services. Boot Camp Capstone sessions feature issues related to science librarianship, including e-Science, current projects, and emerging roles for science librarians. Hosted each summer on a different New England campus, the casual ambience of Science Boot Camp promotes learning and camaraderie among librarians from New England and beyond. (source)

You can read more about the 2014 edition at UConn on the University Libaries news site. The YouTube video above includes my entire presentation, 1 hour, 10 minutes, and 17 seconds.1 You can see the entire list of presentations at

Anthocyanin polymorphism in Protea

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ajb-2010-cover.pngJane Carlson and I have been exploring color polymorphisms in Protea for some time.1 That's a cover photo from American Journal of Botany from four years ago that includes our paper, "Natural selection on inflorescence color polymorphisms in wild Protea populations: The role of pollinators, seed predators, and intertrait correlations" (full-text online at

I mention this because we are in the process of revising another paper for Evolution that extends our previous work by asking whether or not we can use what we understand about factors associated with polymorphism and/or the frequency of pink morphs within populations and within species to predict which species are polymorphic across the entire clade.2 We expect to submit a revised version of the paper by the end of next week. We are also interested in providing access to our data and to the code we used for analysis. If you follow the DOI link below (provided through Zenodo), you'll find a public repository on Github with the data and scripts for R and JAGS.

To say that the documentation is minimal would be generous, but if you're familiar with R and JAGS it shouldn't be too hard to figure out what's going on. Enjoy!

Gender disparities in the life sciences

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Explicit bias against women is, thankfully, mostly a thing of the past, but there are still disparities in the representation of women in many professional fields, including the life sciences. Only 35% of assistant professors and only 17% of full professors in biology are women.1 That's a bit surprising, because in the 40 years from 1966 to 2006 the fraction of doctorates awarded to women increased from 12% to 52%.2 I've written before about the challenge of unconscious bias, and now we may have a new example.

In a paper that just appeared in the Early Edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences Jason Sheltzer and Joan Smith present evidence that male biology3 faculty at elite institutions mentor a disproportionately large number of men in the laboratories, both graduate students and postdocs. Female biology faculty at the same institutions don't show the same disparity. The figure at the left shows that there's another disparity lurking within the data. Men who are Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigators, members of the National Academy of Sciences, or other winners of other major awards in biomedical sciences (e.g., the Lasker Prize) have a significantly smaller number of women in their laboratories than those who haven't won these awards.

There are at least two possible explanations for this disparity:

  1. Men who win significant awards preferentially choose to mentor men rather than women, consciously or unconsciously.
  2. Women choose to apply to work in the labs of men who win significant awards less frequently than expected.

The data available in this study don't allow the two explanations to be distinguished. The results, however, do indicate that men at elite institutions and especially elite men at elite need to do what they can to guard against any unconscious biases they may have and to make their laboratories an environment in which everyone is welcome.

belief-in-evolution-fitted_values.pngAll of us are, or should be, aware that how questions are phrased on surveys has a large impact on the answers that are given. Take a look at the pair of graphs to the left for an example I find particularly striking. (Click on the graph to get a larger "popout" that will be easier to read.)

Notice that when the phrase "According to the theory of evolution" is added to "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and folks are asked to rate it as true or false, the difference in response between those who are above average in religiosity and those who are below average in religiosity virtually disappears. Dan Kahan has an excellent discussion of what all of this means, and you really owe it to yourself to read the whole thing. To whet your appetite, here are his key observations.

  • [T]here is zero correlation between saying one "believes" in evolution & understanding the rudiments of modern evolutionary science.
  • "[D]isbelief" in evolution poses absolutely no barrier to comprehension of basic evolutionary science.
  • [P]rofession of "belief" in evolution is simply not a valid measure of science comprehension.

His suggestion? If we're really interested in knowing how much folks understand about evolution,

[D]itch [the question on the right] & substitute for it one more probative of genuine science comprehension -- like whether the test taker actually gets natural selection, random mutation, and genetic variance, which are of course the fundamental mechanisms of evolution and which kids with a religious identity can be taught just as readily as anyone else.

Sounds reasonable to me.

Fighting back

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Last Friday I made the glaringly obvious point that although conscious gender bias seems largely to be a thing of the past in higher education,1 we still have a long way to ensure that women2 have equal opportunities to pursue their interests and their careers. Obviously, institutions need to change, but we've been saying that since Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique more than 50 years ago. We can't wait for institutions to change. Women3 also have to take the bull by the horns and take care of themselves. Joan Williams, a law professor at the University of California Hastings College of Law has identified four repeated patterns of bias and offers advice on how to deal with each pattern.
The patterns are:

  1. Prove it again: Women have to work harder than men to demonstrate their skills. One way to keep from burning out is to keep careful records that document accomplishments and remind people about them. Reminding them bumps up against the second bias.

  2. The tightrope: Women have to be assertive and direct like a man,4 but they can't be assertive or they'll be feared or respected rather than liked. One way around this is to form a posse, a group of women and men who will praise and promote the accomplishments others have made. That helps everyone involved to walk the tightrope a little more easily.5

  3. The maternal wall: If a woman decides to have children, the Prove it again bias comes back even more strongly, and the tightrope becomes even more difficult to walk.

  4. The tug of war: Because women are traditionally disadvantaged and often greatly outnumbered, they are expected to support rather than compete with one another.

I'm no expert, but it seems to me that these same biases are likely to be felt by individuals from any group that doesn't match the majority composition of the organization s/he is joining. And the strategies for meeting those biases are likely to be the same.
Obviously, institutions have to change, but in the meantime, it's up to all of us to take care of ourselves and of our colleagues who might be disadvantaged until the institutions change.

1Or at least the sort of thing that everyone seems to agree should be a thing of the past so that when it comes into the open the guilty party typically tries to explain why it was an aberration, doesn't reflect his character, or was misinterpreted.
2And people of all types, regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, gender, gender identity, or sexual preference.
3And the men who are their allies.
4I should, of course, say most men. Not all men are assertive. I'm one of those who isn't, and it's probably been to my detriment.
5And may build some friendships to boot.

World Fish Migration Day

Screen Shot 2014-05-25 at 7.41.38 AM.pngToday is World Fish Migration Day. The image at the left is a screenshot from the interactive map showing places around the world where events are being held.

Why have a World Fish Migration Day? Here's how the WFMD website explains it:

Free migration for fish is crucial to achieve healthy fish stocks. While most fish are migratory to some degree, some species like salmon, sturgeon, trout, dourada, shad, lamprey, giant catfish and eel migrate thousands of kilometers to complete their life cycles. If they can't migrate, the population will die out. This has happened with many species in different places around the world already.
Secondly, in many regions of the world, like in the Mekong river basin, millions of people rely on migratory fish as a food source. A collapsing fish stock has a devastating effect on the life of local people. We have built so many barriers in the rivers and on the coast that it is very hard for migratory fish to reproduce. In the current situation, migratory fish are threatened and fish stocks are declining rapidly around the world. They are particularly threatened by barriers such as weirs, dams and sluices, built for water management, hydropower and land drainage.

Even if you don't have time to find an event near you, please take the time to read John Waldman's short reflection on restoring migratory fish runs in the northeastern US at DotEarth.

Top 10 new species for 2014

dracena.jpgEvery year the International Institute for Species Exploration (now at SUNY-ESF) convenes an international committee of taxonomists and picks the top 10 new species described in the previous year. They released their 2014 Top 10 list on Thursday. The image to the right is of Kaweesak's Dragon Tree (Dracaena kaweesakii; image from the Top 10 list website), a tree that grows to 12 meters in the limestone mountains of the Loei and Lop Buri Provinces of Thailand (link). The other top 10 species include a new mammal from Colombia and Ecuador, an anemone from under the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica, a shrimp from the waters off Santa Catalina Island in California, a mold, a gecko, a protist, a microbe, a fairyfly, and a land snail.

An international committee of taxonomists and related experts selected the top 10 from among the approximately 18,000 new species named during the previous year and released the list May 22 to coincide with the birthday, May 23, of Carolus Linnaeus, an 18th century Swedish botanist who is considered the father of modern taxonomy.

Gender disparities in higher education

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In 1994, Nancy Hopkins got out a tape measure and measured the labs of faculty at MIT. She discovered that women had less lab space then men. After asking some of her colleagues, she found that 14 of her 15 tenured women colleagues had noticed the same bias.1 They asked MIT to study the problem, and in 1999 MIT released A study on the status of women faculty in science at MIT. The good news is that MIT responded vigorously. Plans for a new computer science building were redrawn to include a daycare center. They wrote new family leave policies “and made them routine so today, the stigma of women taking family leave to have a baby while also being a top-notch scientist has largely been eliminated” (Nancy Hopkins' baccalaureate speech at BU).

But our work isn't over.

Two years ago Corinne Moss-Racusin and colleagues at Yale showed that men and women scientists rated the identical resumes differently when the name on the resume was “John” rather than “Jennifer” (link). On Wednesday, Harvard released results of a faculty satisfaction survey.2 Among the findings were these:

Women at the assistant and associate levels who either have a partner who works or are single spend an average of 40 hours a week on [household duties, child care and adult care]. That's twice the number of hours Harvard men in the same circumstances spend. Full professors (who would be likely to have older children) have the same proportional gap. Women who either have a partner who works or are single report spending 20 hours a week on the household, child care or adult care -- while men report spending 10 hours.

Conscious bias may be largely a thing of the past, but we still have a long way to go.