Thursday, January 31, 2013

Adventurous Woman Wanted

Last week the Vengeance Team discussed how difficult it is for science-lovin' ladies to get jobs in universities. Fortunately, right after posting that article, Amy discovered a gem in the trash heap that is her Facebook newsfeed, an article that restored her dreams of employment. Science be praised, professors of genetic research at Harvard University are seeking an adventurous woman for a job! YES! SCORE! WOMAN WANTED!!!

...To give birth to a neanderthal clone


The Vengeance Team had slightly different reactions to the news.

For Amy, this moment was like destiny knocking. And like a good girl, she opened that door (she thought it was a set of Mormon Missionaries, a topic we will save for a later post). It's as if the stars aligned for Amy to be young and fertile at THIS EXACT POINT in geologic time, right when the wonders of science can bone her (and by this we of course mean impregnate her with DNA cultivated from remaining genetic material in, of course, a bone). Luckily a job at the student athlete center and a strong love of costume parties has prepared Amy well for dealing with cavemen.

This moment in time also aligns well with job and grant application season, so Meaghan and Amy figured they could use this opportunity to give readers some pointers for job applications. Harvard, prepare yourself. Click to read our cover letter in all its glory!

Job Application Tip # 1 - Basically everything we just did there... don't do that.

Sidenote: while Meaghan fully supports Amy in all her breeding adventures, Meaghan's own womb is being saved in reserve for alien babies only, because she's worried about the hygiene requirements of all that excess body hair. 

Another Sidenote: in lieu of NSF funding, Meaghan is currently in the market to sell really unflattering cartoon sketches of people to pay for her research expenses. So if you really want a sketch of a stick figure with a witch nose or gigantic cankles, drop her a line!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Famous Amos and Marvelous Melvin

Currently the Geology department at our school is hiring for a new full time faculty position. This is an exciting opportunity for the department to expand the university's breadth of research. It is also an important chance to discuss the presence of women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields. Currently, the department has 24 faculty listed, not all of whom are full-time or tenure-track, and 5 of them are female. The graduate student proportions are much different, about 50:50.

An article published in 2007 noted that while about half of PhD earners in STEM fields were women, they only held up to (aka, many schools had less than) 30% of faculty positions. This percentage dropped even further in universities with increased prestige, higher student entrance criteria, larger student body, absence of a women's studies programs, increased research productivity and increased federal funding. Essentially, the more prestigious the school, the fewer lady faculty members they'll have.

The problem is no longer an absence of well-qualified women from accredited universities - 45.9% of STEM PhD holders in ages 25-39 are women, though that percentage does vary by field. However, women are less likely to advance than men and also more likely to leave a position than their male cohorts. At current rates of hiring and exiting, the faculty diversity caps out at about 40%, even as the PhD rates continue to equalize. This is called demographic inertia: though the amount of qualified women is increasing, the amount of women actually hired and retained isn't.

There are countless explanations for this phenomenon, some of them asinine, some of them bitter, and some of them unexpectedly and really disturbingly true. Recently our adviser showed us a paper on how selection bias affects hiring practices. A nationwide sample of biology, chemistry, and physics professors evaluated the application materials of an undergraduate science student who had applied for a science laboratory manager position. All participants received the same materials. The only thing that changed was the gender, with some applications displaying traditionally female names and others male. Participants rated the student’s competence and hireability, as well as the salary and amount of mentoring they would offer the student.

Ladies: too great for mentoring.
 When faced with a female student, faculty rated the application as less competent, less hireable, and less desirable than the same application with a male name. This preference was independent of the faculty member's own sex, too - female professors gave the male students just as much increased preference as the male professors did. The mean starting salary offered to the female student was 26,507.94$. The mean starting salary offered to a male applicant with the exact same qualifications was 30,238.10$. That's a difference of 3730.16$ for being named Bob instead of Betty, because somehow possessing a penis makes you more equipped to clean beakers.

So what does this mean?  If the only difference on the resumes were female vs. male names, can this whole dilemma be solved with androgynous name choices for future generations? Sorry future little Scarlett Rebecca Atwater, looks like it's gonna be Casey, Pat, Jordan, or  Morgan for you! But before we all go changing our names to J.K., there are other choices - and a good thing too, because being named Melvin would cause Meaghan to projectile vomit, and Amy is actually having a near meltdown at the thought of having to respond to her childhood nightmare nickname Amos. For one, shouting this bias from the rooftops might help: there is evidence that diversity education can reduce both explicit and implicit or subconscious bias.

There are a few ways of altering hiring practices that will help skew the ratio, but even then this is a process that takes time. For most schools, if they begin specifically hiring equal numbers of women it will still take almost 60 years for their faculty to reach equalized levels. Women leave faculty positions more readily and for a wide variety of reasons including unequal burdens of family responsibilities and discrimination in promotion considerations. Stop this hemorrhage, and faculty positions should reach equal levels in about 40 years. Combine both of those tactics, and it only takes 30 years!

That's still a long time, and unless you're a faculty member you might not hold any sway over the processes that will result in change. There are other things you can do. If you're a woman in science, consider mentoring. If you're a man in science, you should consider being more like this guy, and participate in groups like The Good Men Project. If you've got a daughter, send them to women-friendly science camps. Giving women extra support can go a long way to making them more resilient to the factors that bar success.
Science! Ladies can do it too. And definitely better than Barbie who thinks carrying plastic dinos around is science.
And remember that talking about it is one of the ways to fix it. Many of our readers are fellow science students that Meaghan and Amy have hassled into reading their blog. Bring this up in lab meetings, bring it up when you're discussing summer jobs. And if you ever get a chance to participate in a hiring process (geology graduate students, we're looking at you!), keep in mind the subconscious bias that might prevent you from suggesting a woman candidate that's equally as qualified as her male counterparts.

Cameron, E. , Gray, M. , & White, A. (2013). Is publication rate an equal opportunity metric?. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 28(1), 7-8.

Marschke, R. , Laursen, S. , Nielsen, J. , & Rankin, P. (2007). Demographic inertia revisited: An immodest proposal to achieve equitable gender representation among faculty in higher education. Journal of Higher Education, 78(1), 1-26.

Moss-Racusin, C. , Dovidio, J. , Brescoll, V. , Graham, M. , & Handelsman, J. (2012). Science faculty's subtle gender biases favor male students. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(41), 16474-16479.

Rudman, L.A., Ashmore, R., Gary, M. (2001). "Unlearning" automatic biases: The malleability of implicit prejudice and stereotypes. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Vol 81(5).

Thanks to Dr. Hopkins and Dr. Davis for suggesting some of these articles, and for bringing up the topic in our lab meetings and making us think about it as well.


Thursday, January 10, 2013

PaleoArt: Multituberculate Jokes


This is a multituberculate. They were a big branch early on the mammalian tree, they had some really wonky teeth, and now they're all dead - which is a sob story shared by most of life on earth. They were named after the many bumps (tubercules) on their teeth, and there is (currently!) no evidence that multituberculates were obsessed with rutabagas, parsnips, carrots, yams, or potatoes.

The following are not real animals. They are good* puns.




*actually, let's be real - they're pretty great puns.

All drawings made with mechanical pencils and outlined uni super ink pens. First drawing colored in with Artist Loft's watercolor pencils.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

The Atheist's Nightmare is Banana Hands

"Protective buttressing of the human fist and the evolution of hominin hands"

 There is nothing as great as a hand
It can high-five, punch, and demand
When a jaw needs to be kissed
You just make a fist!
Just as evolution has planned.

In apes, a tiny thumb lingers
Which makes them more slappers than ringers
But we're grasping at straws
To say fist-fighting caused
A shortening in our other fingers.

This is a classic example of disappointing sparkle-hand science - something which occurs a lot when a scientist gets into the rut of trying to prove the reasoning behind an evolutionary direction. The actual methodology behind the article doesn't come across too poorly, and had some interesting conclusions: they had people punch bags with their fists, then with open palms, then with fists using the thumbs as a support structure, and found no difference in strike force only in the levels of flexation. The actual science concludes that performing the five point palm exploding heart technique is more likely to break your fingers, but you can put just as much force behind it, which is a pretty valuable piece of information that kung fu movies should take note of.

Unfortunately when dealing with our own evolution human beings become overly-involved in their theories, particularly ones that aren't testable (which this one isn't - it's very much testable, at least to a certain degree, which is the WORST BIT). The real struggle of this article is when it starts traipsing blithely down the path of Denying the Antecedent, with an extended sideways jaunt into Unrelated, Dear God What a Stretch road.

Meaghan has a huge, throbbing science boner for one of Dr. Carrier's earlier theories, so she really, really wanted to like this article. Instead, she let a little bit of her soul die while reading through the series of unproven, untestable, and frankly unrelated hypotheses that made fists still mightier than the bitch-slap that her idol then didn't bother to test. If you want us to believe that the sexual dimorphism of arm length in men versus women has anything, goddamn it anything to do with the evolution of hands, you need to test that, not vomit pseudoscientific glitter on a discussion section and hope that your wool-gathering is impressively deluded enough to slip past further scrutiny. Instead the authors blithely and prolifically cite things as support that actually have very little to do with the topic, like a paper that says that men and women differ in the lengths of their middle and pinky fingers when their whole article is about thumbs versus other fingers.

Listen, guys, if your introduction has the defense that babies make fists and therefore it's the natural posture of anger, you might want to check yourself cuz it's likely you're about to head down the path of soft science into the realm of Nuh-Uh land. After all, babies also suck on their thumbs, but that doesn't mean that human thumbs are their natural food group. Plus, they poop their pants on a very regular basis, and taking candy from them is ridiculously easy - using them as an expert in any situation is probably a bad idea, unless you're discussing the validity of the aftermath of a baby food hurricane as an art form.

The whole thing reads like a drunken Thanksgiving argument: it's mostly that one uncle preaching dramatically after consuming too many hot-toddies, tossing out a few tidbits you think are probably true and may have to google later, and wrapping them all up in a big blanket of bullshit suppositions. However, even this hot mess of a scientific article is better than Self-Proclaimed Hand-and-Banana Morphology Expert, Ray Comfort.

There once was an evolving plant
who accomplished what others can't
It fits my hand!
Isn't that grand!
Bananas are Darwin's Rembrandt

Of course there's another conclusion:
That this is the banana's choosin'
The tastier they grow
The more seeds we'll sow
Cuz being better leads to greater profusion!

Ahh, bananas. Nature's perfectly packaged, delicious, seedless - OMG WHAT IS THAT NIGHTMARE FRUIT? Oh, that's a wild banana? And the glorious yellow laxative we pick up for cheapsies in the grocery store is actually a highly refined, genetically modified monster? Interesting - and probably great for the banana. While we like to put a lot of emphasis on the difference between artificial and natural selection, the truth is that the delineation between the two is rooted in anthropocentric thinking. Today, the domesticated banana grows in over a hundred countries, on six continents. Yes, that success is due to humans cultivation and spread - which we never would have done if the banana hadn't been so delicious, especially the new hybridized species that was selected for by human consumption. If that's not the definition of success by the banana's standard, what is? The banana isn't the Atheist's nightmare, it's a botanical evolutionary powerhouse - it's a model of what selection can achieve.

Now, if the above "science" hasn't yet turned you off the topic yet and you're looking for a mental palate cleanser for all the stupidity we made you endure, we recommend checking out "the spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian paradigm: a critique of the adaptationist programme," by Gould & Lewontin. It discusses the pervasive scientific problem of focusing on the why, rather than the how of evolution... but instead of making you want to tear your own eyeballs out and stomp them into oblivion, it'll probably make you point emphatically at the screen and shout "yes, yes, that's exactly what I thought!" And what could make a weekend better than having the same thought process as Stephen Jay Gould?