13 November 2012

Impostors in synthetic science

An interesting article about "impostor syndrome" popped up in my twitter timeline this afternoon. It took a few moments to realize the article wasn't talking about some sort of animal mimicry. Rather, it refers to a prevalent phenomenon in the sociology of academic scientists, where we hesitate to offer information or opinions for topics outside our highly specialized area of expertise.

This topic is of particular relevance to me, as my brain has always functioned at the level of "big picture." I recall an assignment from high school English for which my classmates were selecting research topics related to a specific book, while my topic encompassed "feminist literature from the twentieth century." Yup...broad patterns.

In my current position, I think often about the push for specialization in methods, techniques, theory, and research programs. NESCent focuses on synthetic science, which involves fusing sometimes seemingly disparate research areas to achieve novel conclusions or tackle innovative questions. Synthetic science, therefore, is full of "imposters," since we constantly broach new theoretical areas and incorporate methods/results in non-traditional ways.

I'm totally okay with this label. It was nice to read this article and think about other types of scientists that regularly face this issue of being "PhD generalists," not just once during a career (i.e., changing from animal to plant research), but on a daily basis. The thoughts from other self-described impostors at the bottom are also enlightening, highlighting not only the characteristics of such researchers but their value as scientists as well.

12 November 2012

Learning about learning: Part 1

A friend talked me into taking an introductory philosophy class with her our second semester of college. I don't know why I thought this would be a good idea, as I was already taking 18 hours and it was a section which met at 8 am. I was a precocious little academic hellion, though, so I persevered despite my friend dropping the class a few weeks later.

I remember taking copious notes during class, studying diligently, and very much enjoying the subject matter. I was a little disappointed when my grade on the first exam was a B. Dissatisfied with my ability to improve my grade based on the comments written in the blue book I'd filled with essays, I met with the professor to chat.

As you might expect of an academic in his field, Prof Philosophy was ferocious in his arguments and maintained high standards of cerebral function. I began by asking him about the few comments he made on my exam, trying to sort out why those minor points warranted what I saw as a dissatisfying grade. He answered the first few questions but then became impatient.

"Look," he said. "There are some exams that are obviously A papers. Yours was not one of them."

I was a little surprised, and I'm sure I felt the sting of tears behind my eyelashes. I blinked them away, processed that thought for a moment, thanked him for his time and then left. I thought about his assertion frequently throughout the course of the semester, improved the depth of my thinking while listening to his lectures, and ended up with an A in the class. I thought about his comments even more often during graduate school.

A student from the lab section I'm instructing approached me awhile back to ask about a question from the exam. It was a multiple choice question that required inference of a phenomenon based on information provided. I explained to her the reasoning behind the correct answer, and she honed in on one minor bit of information that seemed ambiguously worded in the question. "You mean I would've gotten the question right if I had made that assumption?" she asked.

I explained to her that it was not that simple. If you are answering higher level questions and only have a cursory understanding of each concept included, you are compounding uncertainty by the time you reach an answer. Getting "close enough" to an answer doesn't mean much when you are trying to combine and synthesize information, because each little bit of inaccuracy takes you farther from the correct answer.

This is the challenge of learning and teaching in science, particularly biological systems. It is a balance of accuracy and precision of content recall bolstered by reasoning and critical thinking. Students' bean counting points to get a better grade in the class reinforces that parameterization of a problem down to individual units will yield better results. In fact, understanding how all parts-- of a semester, or of a biological process-- fit together leads to improved learning.

31 October 2012

Knitting for SCIENCE! Part 1.

I knit a giant squid.

It's wearing an eyepatch. Why, you ask? Because the mascot of Deep Sea News is a red giant squid wearing an eyepatch, silly! I bought the pattern here, and the Ravelry page for the project is here.

17 October 2012

How to make snapdragons talk.

While walking along the street in Seattle, I came across some snapdragons. Look how plump and lovely their petals appear! I love plants. I also love interactive plants, and anthropomorphizing floral features by turning them into puppets. Therefore, I present: making snapdragons talk. Snapdragons are members of the plant family Scrophulariaceae and genus Antirrhinum. Their petals are modified and fused into a bilaterally symmetric structures characterized as bilabiate corollas. What's nice about that, you ask? Well, "bilabiate" means "two-lipped," implying that these flowers are basically begging to talk! 
So here's how you do it: find a Goldilocks flower (one that isn't too young or too old). Grasp the sides between your thumb and forefinger, then squeeze so that the top and bottom "lips" pop open like a mouth. You might need to try a few flowers, since the structural integrity of the bloom changes as it ages (there's some cool science about senescence involved here). I like to also make sounds for them, in proper puppet-style. My snapdragons always say things like, "Muah muah muaaaaaah." Sometimes they even sound like robots!
An additional method for making snapdragons talk involves wrangling a fairy with magic. I haven't quite mastered the technique yet (in truth, I've never even tried), and there is also no sure way to tell what the flowers will say. Therefore, I'm only presenting my "manual method" here. 

Perhaps I should stop now while I'm still claiming this is a blog that talks about science.

13 October 2012

Monocots represent at Seattle Convention Center!

Hey, what's that over my shoulder? At least FIVE different orders of monocots represented in the Seattle Convention Center's plant displays! From the left: a bromeliad from Poales, snake plant (Sansevieria) from Asparagales, Calla lilies (Arales), some little decorative palm (Arecales) and wandering Jew (Commelinales)! As an added bonus, you get to see my "crazy from so much science after four days of conference" face. 

I had a great time representing NESCent here at SACNAS. The session on ecology, evolution, and human health in which I participated by presenting was well received, and there was a great discussion about public health policy and the biology of disease after the showing of Contagion at our movie night last night. Many thanks to Jory Weintraub for inviting me along and doing a splendid job organizing!

11 October 2012

Reporting in from SACNAS!

I'm in Seattle for a few days to attend the national SACNAS conference as a part of NESCent outreach. I'm presenting in a session on ecology, evolution, and the environment tomorrow, and am serving as a judge and mentor throughout the meeting. It's a nice change of pace from my usual work week...plus, my badge matches my shirt today!

27 September 2012

Bursting heart.

I spotted a lovely specimen of Euonymous americanus, or strawberry bush, alongside a path on Duke's campus earlier this week.

In proper botanical romanticism style, I tend to prefer the whimsical common name of bursting heart.

I'm primarily a monocot girl, but these are the prettiest plant displays right now (at least until the naked ladies get going soon...I've seen a few already!).

19 September 2012

I'd often rather stop and photograph a mushroom than stop to smell roses.

Granted, it's easier to find mushrooms than blooming roses during a rainy North Carolina September, but the colors of this particular specimen would give any flower a run for its money. I came across this lovely mushroom while walking across Duke's campus this morning and could resist taking a moment to marvel over its color and form. What use is being a biologist, after all, if I can't indulge in a bit of wonder and curiosity at the natural world?
I've talked with a couple of folks lately about how a mindset accustomed to biological research intersects with the rest of the world. I know quite a few biologists who are also artists, either through photography, painting, or music. My chosen medium is fiber (like wool yarn to felt or knit), and my research constantly catalyzes new projects and offshoots of creativity. 
While on retreat last week, I was also reminded of another common interest of biologists--history. I took the picture to the right in the main gathering hall at the biological station where we met. The botanical and owl wood carvings were fantastic, but the piano(-ish) instrument in the middle was just as interesting. More specifically, the 50 year old music books on the stand were quite compelling. I was not the only one to take note of these objects. Upon further contemplation, it comes as no surprise that evolutionary biologists would be interested in historical stories and artifacts...after all, both areas of study require an appreciation of time.

14 September 2012

How much can red stilettos actually hurt?

For better or worse, looks like this is the first in a series of posts relating to gender and sexuality issues here at Princess Tradescantia.

Today's thoughts were precipitated by a friend's post on Facebook regarding the picture to the left. This photograph is from a fundraising event at my alma mater, Western Kentucky University, which aimed to raise awareness about sexual abuse and violence about women (the full article from the event is here). My friend, who also attended WKU, asked for my thoughts on the event.

It's not shocking this event has garnered attention in subsequent months. Although events like this have taken place in other locations for years, Bowling Green, KY is a fairly conservative area. When combined with the participants representing a fraternity, that steadfast bastion of gender binary, opinions run very hot about the intentions, sincerity, and consequences of this event.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how I actually feel. I spent a lot of time reading others' viewpoints about this event. I've decided my conclusions are fairly simple. This was a fundraising event, and the goal was to spread awareness about domestic violence. Could they have accomplished their goals in another way? Sure. Could they have donated the money they spent on heels instead? Of course. Did some of the participants use it as an opportunity to mock the transgender and transsexual communities? Perhaps. Are there hypocrites in the group, who are themselves perpetrators of sexual violence? Possibly.

My opinion boils down to a very simple argument. Their goals could've been accomplished just as successfully in a different manner. All of the bones of contention voiced by opposers would've still occurred: there would still be homo- and trans-phobia, and there would still be less-than-sincere participants. There is an advantage to the red stiletto approach, though. There is now a group of men living in a conservative area who no longer find it quite so shocking that men might wear high heels. They've allowed themselves to be seen and photographed wearing stilettos, and maybe a few of them even kept those shoes. The event was planned with good intentions, and they met their goal of fundraising and attention. Additionally, I argue that simply by virtue of wearing heels for a mile walk, these men added to the normalization of acceptance of such behavior. That little bonus, to me, is well worth it.

Or maybe I just like the gender-bending aspect of watching men wear high heels.

11 September 2012

Greetings from the mountains!

NESCent post docs are retreating at Mountain Lake Biological Station this week, and I'm personally very appreciative of the sunshine, trees, and chipmunks. Despite our shared research focus of evolutionary biology, those of us gathered here have quite diverse educational backgrounds and correspondingly, very different views on teaching, communication, and other topics relevant to our professional development. I'm enjoying both the discourse during discussions and intervening breaks, during which we explore things like awesome caterpillars defoliating nearby plants.

Much to my chagrin, I'm skipping a hike with other folks right now so I can finish up a few things for teaching. I'll go sit on the porch of my cabin in awhile, though, and bask in the glow of no cell phone reception and quiet forest.

10 September 2012

Retreat! Retreat!

I leave in a few hours for University of Virginia's Mountain Lake Biological Station, where NESCent postdocs are aggregating for our annual retreat. I can't help but think of us a battalion of scientific soldiers, withdrawing from our offices to regroup and plan our next attack.

I'm reminded of many lovely field trips from my time as an undergraduate at Western Kentucky University. Our small class sizes meant that loading students into a few vans and galavanting off for the mountains or Gulf coast was par for the course (pun intended) in ecology and evolution labs.

Thus, I'm actually quite excited to head off to the mountains for a brief adventure. I'm taking some field guides so I can stalk wild plants and mushrooms. I'm also eager to talk about the professional development topics scheduled for the next few days, especially in light of upcoming deadlines for job applications (eep!).

08 September 2012

Data visualization

I've been thinking lots lately about how we visualize data in biological research. As a student of both communication and science, I find the interplay between the two fields to be especially compelling. This interest was reinvigorated last spring by some meetings with a visiting NESCent scholar, Tyler Curtain, who introduced me to some of the preeminent and current literature on the field. Since then, I've noticed the theme popping up repeatedly in my interactions with colleagues. Folks pop in to my office to ask for advice on figures, and some NESCent-associated projects like Open Tree of Life are particularly interested in advancing visualization abilities for evolutionary biology.

As a result of this convergence of events, I jumped at the chance to take a short workshop on data visualization offered by Duke Libraries Data and GIS Services. I was struck by the breadth of options available for representing data visually, and began thinking a bit about how different figures in evolutionary biology are from other fields. I talked a bit with Angela Zoss, the instructor of the course, who concurred that biological disciplines tend to lag behind other sciences in adopting more effective methods of visualizing data (I would extend that claim and imply that sciences in general lag behind other fields of study as well).

Let's face it, folks. Figures representing biological data are notoriously problematic to not only build, but interpret. Dendrograms (which in the data visualization world include many types of tree structures) are very complicated in evolutionary biology, and our tendency is to cram as much information as possible into each figure. A single diagram may include tree topology, branch lengths/divergence times, taxon names (tree tips AND higher taxonomic groupings), color coding for one or more traits, etc. Additionally, I've long thought that effective visualizations for genomics research, especially in the comparative realm, are notoriously convoluted and difficult to understand.

Why are our figures so complicated? I think it's because biology as a science inherently includes many different variables, each of which includes sometimes large margins for error. As scientists, we want to tell our research narrative in as non-biased a manner as possible, which means including (visually) as much data as possible. This impulse is compounded by a push to streamline figures for publications, which is further complicated by lack of availability of color, space, and resolution.

But let's face it. We're never telling an unbiased story with our figures. We make decisions about inclusion of data in a study and methods of analysis even before we get to the publication stage, and cramming as much summary information as possible into a figure doesn't represent those biases. What is the goal of a figure or representation of biological data? It should be interpretable by an audience, which in journals means scientific peers. When visualizations become so specialized that only a handful of people in a field can understand them, we're working counter to the purpose of the visualization. It's not doing its job.

I advocate striking a balance between the goals of the two paragraphs above. Tell a clear story with the data, but include enough information for the audience to understand associated variance and error. As a result, I'm planning a open discussion at NESCent with folks from our informatics and science groups, in addition to folks who work on data visualization, to see how we can improve our methods of building figures.

Possible topics for contemplation include (but aren't limited to) the following:

  • tree visualization
  • deep time
  • visualizing error
  • taxonomic levels
  • trait mapping

29 August 2012

And so it begins.

My silence here over the last few weeks is attributed to a common source of consternation among academics: the beginning of the semester. I've taken on a new role for work this academic year. For the first time, NESCent has teamed up with Duke Biology to sponsor a postdoctoral position. The responsibilities are half-time teaching and half-time research (regular postdocs at NESCent spend are full-time researchers on their independently directed projects). I was fortunate enough to apply for and obtain this position, and August 1 marked the transition to these new responsibilities. Thus, I've spent time over the last few weeks preparing for the start of classes this last Monday.

Several other postdocs in my cohort expressed disbelief that I would choose to sacrifice a portion of my research time over the next year. NESCent is an idyllic place for postdocs. We choose our own research activities and have a great deal of freedom in balancing projects. I also have quite a bit of teaching experience. What was my impetus for pursuing teaching, then?

Well, I really like teaching. I'm also assisting in teaching a class I find very compelling for both intellectual and research purposes. There are two introductory biology classes here at Duke: cell/molecular and ecology/genetics. The latter class, which is a spot-on match for my own research pursuits, is the class with which I am involved. I'm teaching a lab section and helping with curriculum development for the lab and lecture. There are several facets of this experience I'm hoping will give me some perspective as I start applying for faculty positions, including interacting with a different demographic of student than I am accustomed to teaching, observing a variety of lecturers, and integrating on-line class components. That's even before I start helping modify any course content! I expect to teach genetics and evolution courses in the future, so I'm totally jazzed about thinking about setting up such courses right now.

Part of my job this year is observing class lectures three times a week. I've both taken and taught classes that have covered similar material in the past. It would be easy to settle into a mindless stupor instead of remaining engaged. Instead, I'm taking the opportunity to think about broad concepts of evolution and teaching, and think about connections in my contextual framework of scientific knowledge. It amuses me that I keep getting mini-epiphanies throughout the course of these lectures, reinforcing my belief that thinking about education is well worth my time.

14 August 2012

Twilight Sparkle is my favorite My Little Pony

The following picture showed up in my Facebook feed this morning:

I joked that I would have to write a blog about why this pony, Twilight Sparkle, is my favorite. Turns out my friends actually want to read such a thing, so here we are.

As a highly educated, childless adult, you might wonder why I even care about children's cartoons currently in production. First, there's the whole "Princess" thing in my blog title. But there is also a precedent for My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (MLP:FIM) being popular with a non-target audience (look here for research or here for a fan supported wiki). Short story: I don't feel the need for any more validation, and I've got a few moments to spare while my data processes.

So here we are! The following is a list of reasons why Twilight Sparkle is my favorite.

  1. Um, read the picture up above. Yeah, that.
  2. She's a unicorn.
  3. She's pink and purple.
  4. She knows magic.
  5. She reads a lot.
  6. She solves problems by using her knowledge and skills.
  7. She is sometimes socially inept and a bit dense, but her ability to introspectively analyze her thoughts and behaviors allows her to continue growing as a pony.
Yeah, I kind of identify with her.

13 August 2012

My other keywords.

Scientists quickly grow accustomed to characterizing their research using a handful of words and/or phrases. My research can be pared down to a collection of terms comprising methods, study systems, and research approaches:

  • genomics
  • transposable elements
  • comparative phylogenetic methods
  • diversification
  • life history evolution
  • monocots
I've written a bit about my goals for this blog, mostly involving writing about the larger issues associating science with other research fields and major patterns in research. As a result, I find myself also describing my research interests in terms of broader, seemingly vague issues:
  • uncertainty/error
  • scale
  • scope
  • specificity
  • rules
  • definitions/semantics
These are topics that arise repeatedly in the course of my research, as well as at conferences, in meetings, and during conversations with my colleagues. I'm starting to realize how important it is for me to acknowledge how variations in viewpoints of these alternative keywords shape the scientific enterprise.

03 August 2012

Inexpert advice aiding expert research.

I had some sudden flashes of brilliant SCIENCE while driving to a friend's house for dinner last night. Upon arrival, I spent a few moments jotting these thoughts down while he finished cooking. I started grumbling about a few things not making sense. He told me to talk him through it.

My friend is not a biologist, but he is knowledgable and clever, and interrupted me frequently as I talked to ask questions or make comments. Is that assumption valid? That train of logic makes sense. I didn't have all the answers I needed at the end of the process, but I certainly understood the problem better.

A few moments of an inexpert but willing brain was productive and interesting time spent. I was reminded of the time I spent in graduate school with a group of students who, although not researching the same topics, still frequently conversed about out research and pitched ideas for experiments. As scientists, we settle into our intellectual niche and sometimes find it difficult to break out of this very specific area of expertise. We can help each other by offering a bit of insight from a different perspective, and we can help ourselves by asking for this assistance.

We can't possible know the small, minute details of all areas of science. We can, however, use our training in critical thinking and logical reasoning to process even very disparate research topics. The process of scientific research is nuanced in different fields, but even these small variations can inform our own research. There is no shame in talking about problems that don't quite make sense. There should be no pretentiousness in our responses as well.

31 July 2012


What a funny thing it is to be a scientist these days.

We spend much of our time drilling down deep into problems. Many days of research are committed to finding answers to very specific questions. These answers are nuanced with the caveats of our study systems and experiments as we attempt to control nearly insurmountable variables. We describe transcriptional regulation of certain genes under particular environmental conditions given a single genetic background. We explain the effects of rainfall on a single species of amphibian in a restricted environment. The rigors of the academia then press us to focus intensely during the workday in order to produce efficiently designed experiments, gracefully worded grant proposals, and convincing scientific publications. Specific focus to our research, accomplished while focusing intently on a task.

It's interesting to work in a synthesis center (NESCent), where the focus is inherently broadened to include new approaches, novel methods, and disparate data. Before drilling down into the same sort of problem, we're encouraged to think about different ways to approach that problem, and to change the focus of our research. It's also interesting to go back into a classroom, and explain to fledgling scientists how such focused research can contribute to broader knowledge about the world around us. Students' eyes glaze over upon hearing the minutia of an experiment, but they can get excited about the context for the experiment, implications for results,  and future work.

So much focus, in our research, daily lives, and brains. My brain is much happier thinking on a larger scale, and constantly attempts to unite concepts and ideas in unique ways. I love big ideas and broad focus. What is the cliche about our best work being done in the shower, or while driving to work? It's no wonder to me why my epiphanies occur while walking outside or vacuuming. At those times, I loosen up the reins on my thoughts and let my mind go back to those big thoughts. I blur the focus a bit, regroup, and then proceed to fulfill the needs of modern science.

27 July 2012

So you want to get into Twitter...

A few folks have asked me since my last post about time management and strategies for setting up twitter. I'm no expert, but I've been around twitter for awhile and have had a few accounts which I've found to be very fulfilling. Here's a quick to-do list, based on my own management strategies and conversations with other tweeters (also assuming you want to set it up for science networking).

  • Set up a profile to make it easy for folks to find you. Use tag words for your research (this is a good exercise to do anyway for other professional development reasons), and include a link to your blog or your lab's webpage.
  • How to find people to follow? Post on Facebook, Google+, etc to find friends who already tweet. Then look at the list of people they follow for suggestions. Do a quick search for things about which you'd like to read. Look at the lists people have linked to their profiles. They're usually arranged by categories, and you can see which people are important to others.
  • How do you get followers? Be nice, and don't be annoying (I personally dislike people who ask for follow backs, which doesn't seem to happen in the science world). Start tweeting! You might find it easier to also reply to other people. You'll be surprised at how your knowledge might help inform others' opinions or answer their questions. I like starring tweets (making the tweet a favorite) to find them later, or to acknowledge I've read it and appreciate it.
  • What to tweet? Get a paper published? Interesting research article about your field of study released? Going to a conference? Looking for quick opinions or advice? Tweet it! 
  • How much time is this going to take? However much time you'd like. It takes me only a few seconds to do anything on twitter (follow people, write a tweet, reply). I like to use it for breaks during the day to refresh my brain but not get too sidetracked from thinking about science. My graduate advisor, @JChrisPires, reads his timeline and tweets at night while watching TV. Don't feel like you need to read everything! Twitter is a party. Don't feel like you have to know everyone to follow, keep tabs on everyone, and constantly update. Make lists! I have mine arranged categorically, and one for people I want to read all the time.
Hope this helps. Tweet at me! I'll follow you!

"Non-tweeters have no idea what they are missing."

The title of this post is a reply I received on twitter from @JessTheChemist. We had been chatting about using the twitterverse to find articles for our research that were otherwise unattainable.

This sentiment is not new. If you don't tweet, it's really difficult to understand how a bunch of random sentences from mostly strangers can be useful. Lots of my colleagues at work (NESCent) tweet, and many others do not. A few NESCent folks from both camps were talking about this issue a few days ago. "I just don't see the use!" is a common argument.

My twitter philosophy is to cast a wide net. Follow folks if it seems like they might say something interesting. Grad students, post docs, professors, science writers, journals, bioinformaticists, and anyone else relevant to my professional interests. Knitters, friends, family, queers, advocates for sex positivity, and folks relevant to my personal interests. I then tweet what I'm thinking and what seems interesting to me. As a result, I describe reading my twitter timeline as walking into a huge party where everyone's talking about all sorts of things.

What do I get from spending time at a such a party? Up-to-date news from experts in their fields. A broadened perspective about many different issues from people I might otherwise not encounter. Learning where the fresh coffee and cookies can be found at a conference. Making new friends.

For me, that's more than worth the time and effort.

26 July 2012

Not science writing, but writing about science.

When I started blogging again a few weeks back, I mentioned my re-start to a friend from grad school. "What's your theme?" she asked. I had no idea. All the random stuff I think about at work? Bits of hilarity which are too geeky to post on Facebook, and which are too long for Twitter?

So I just started writing. After half a dozen posts, I started to realize what united all of my current and planned writing here. I changed the description up above to reflect that union. I don't really write about science and research in terms of scientific results and conclusions. I take advantage of my brain's natural proclivity to unite disparate ideas. In this case, that tendency manifests as relating the process of scientific research, publication, collaboration, etc. to the rest of the world.

Many scientists consider their work to be intensely personal, but investing too much in our research is contradictory to the objective goals of science. How do these personal issues end up connecting to our vocation? Here, I want to think about higher level issues. Meta-level. The relevance of semantics, the psychology of the scientific process, social issues related to science and academia.

I'm not an expert in any of these areas. I draw from a broad background of training in biology, communications, and history, as well as an intense interest in how things work and possible ways to make them better. I already blogged about being a young, queer, female scientist. I'm also the child of divorced parents, and am divorced myself. I'm a lifelong atheist. So many labels can be applied to me, and all of them impart a particular understanding of things relevant to both life and science: pattern recognition, connectedness, epistemology, and uncertainty. It seems other folks like to read about these viewpoints, and I'm not shy about sharing them.

24 July 2012

Good morning, sunshine.

I love mornings. Some of the happiest times I can remember are at dawn while camping by a lakeside or in the woods. A bit of fog in hanging on the ground, hints of sunlight trickling through the canopy. Calm, quiet, and everything around me just starting to wake up.

I love mornings so much I often keep them to myself. I sit at home, do chores around the house, pet my cat, do a little knitting. I'd rather enjoy the morning and work a little later that evening.

I'm starting to teach next month. I'll have to be at lectures at 8:30 am three days a week. I won't have the luxury of early mornings anymore. This morning I started to work my way back into getting to work early.

I kind of liked it.

23 July 2012

Sally Ride was gay. Does it matter?

I struggled with the title of this post.

Read the standard press release about Sally Ride's death. It remarks on her status as the first female U.S. astronaut in space, her scientific and educational accomplishments, and her legacy as a role model. The last paragraph of the article refers to a partner, Tam. A whole generation of female, queer, and allied scientists scratch their heads: "Sally Ride was GAY? I'm so ashamed for not knowing!"

A deeper look at news tributes reveals that she never publicly outed herself as a lesbian. In fact, she chose to keep her personal life private. Several news articles even include quotations from her former husband, another astronaut, while still relegating her partner of 27 years to the last paragraph.

Sally was renowned, as President Obama has noted, for "inspiring generations of young girls to reach for the stars." She didn't choose to be female, and she couldn't hide it. She accepted the label of female role model and continued her work of encouraging young women to pursue math, science, and technology. I imagine her position as a public figure felt precarious at times, and outing herself would've certainly politicized her career yet again.

After her passing, Sally's family has decided to reveal her sexuality. I'm sure there will eventually be controversy from many political camps. The temptation to dissect her life, decisions, and career will be irresistible, both for opponents of equal rights and those of us who can now relate even more to her viewpoint.

Does it really matter, though? Being gay doesn't affect one's ability to perform scientific experiments, or to educate about science. On the other hand, she purposely chose not to become a spokesperson for gay rights, so should she become one now that her voice cannot be heard? I'd rather not politicize her life any further.

The most poignant writing about Sally's death I've read so far points out two relevant issues. First, Sally was a federal employee as an astronaut, which again highlights the lack of benefits for same-sex couples given our government's failure to acknowledge such relationships. Second, and more importantly, Tam is the survivor and will bear the brunt of any fallout from such an announcement. She has still lost her partner, though, and my heart hurts widespread knowledge about her relationship only after it has ended.

I only offer opinions, and a bit of empathy, from the perspective of a young, queer, female scientist. Sally fought many battles to help pave the road of my career, and regardless of who she loved and when, I am very grateful.

20 July 2012

Old books and plant porn.

I spent a lot of time in graduate school digging through the depths of the internet and library archives for species descriptions of members of the monocotolydenous plant family Commelinaceae. I focused on several genera in this family as a part of my dissertation work, so I aimed to become an expert in taxonomy. I stumbled across a few articles of note in Curtis' Botanical Magazine, so I ordered the relevant issues from the library's book depository.

The day I went to the library to look at said books, I was surprised with a different protocol than with previous books I'd studied. My normal procedure was to look through the books for my articles, decide whether it was useful, and head to the print center to make copies. This time, though, I had to be escorted to the print center and supervised while I made copies. I understood the level of protection afforded this journal once I opened the books--each volume included descriptions of plant species along with beautiful, full color drawings. Quite amusing to me were the drawings which appeared on glossy, fold-out pages like pin-up models. Veritable plant porn!

I recently learned several volumes of Curtis' Botanical Magazine are now available on Project Gutenberg. I'm pleased to see these works being electronically archived and easy to access. I've included here the illustration for one of my study organisms, Tradescantia virginiana, from Volume 3.

19 July 2012

Dark office.

I share an office with two other postdocs, and visitors to our workspace often remark on the level of darkness in the room. We rarely flip the light switch on. We have two large western-facing windows, each equipped with two types of blinds, and these can often be found blocking outside light.

Why so dark, especially when a postdoc in the room next door has no fewer than three extra lamps for his desk? As someone inclined to migraines, I'd just as soon spend my time in the dark, especially if I have a headache creeping. Also, the afternoon sun heats up this renovated textile warehouse something awful in the summer, and blocking out the light keeps me from sweating on my manuscripts (too much). Finally, we're all focused on our computers--at least a laptop, and sometimes also an extra monitor. Who needs light when you're staring at large lightbulbs (I think some of you call them "computer screens") all day? And why risk glare?

We've confirmed, in our own small way, the stereotype of computer geeks preferring dark, closeted places.

18 July 2012

This awesome moth has been hanging around outside the front door to my apartment lately. It's about two inches long, and perched at eye level, irresistible to photograph.

Choice in biological systems

While discussing my research with my committee as a graduate student, I made a reference to plants "seeking out more suitable habitat." A faculty member asked if said plants sprouted legs and walked to a different area before plunking down and setting roots. I was able to resolve this semantic issue because the plants in question are clonal, so they can literally send out a rhizome toward a new area. Her point was well taken, though, and issues related to verbiage in biology continue to intrigue me.

There are common issues in molecular biology wherein enzymes or other portions of biochemical pathways are anthropomorphized in language. These issues arise most often when interactions between molecules are communicated like we would talk about human behavior.

A related but slightly different issue arose in a NESCent seminar today. A discussion about sex allocation included some references to human sex ratios at birth. The ratio of males to females are thought to be altered by a variety of factors, including acute or chronic stress. Someone argued that in certain situations, females may "choose" to alter the sex of their offspring to better suit the demographics of the new environment (i.e., more males to replace those lost in battle).

We're all scientists here. We know that women don't consciously choose to have male or female babies, but someone took issue with the previously mentioned hypothesis because of the failure of that mechanism. In terms of evolutionary time, though, it makes sense. The tendency to produce male offspring when an overabundance of females comprise a population is potentially heritable, and would definitely be positively selected, especially if the male population is low.

I don't know how plausible the latter hypothesis is, or whether selection could mechanistically support it. The point is that "choice" in this instance refers to a trait over which selection occurs throughout evolutionary time. The woman's genetically encoded physiology as shaped by evolutionary time is actually doing the choosing. Such is the plight of evolution research, where misinterpretations of even seemingly innocuous words can yield misunderstandings...even among scientists.

12 July 2012

Science socializing

I was just hanging out with some other NESCent postdocs at a reception for a visiting working group. We were discussing job applications, grant proposals, and other topics relevant to early career scientists. I mentioned a tweet I saw from Evolution 2012 about how only 25% of NSF pre-proposals are invited to apply, and only 25% of full proposals are funded. That's a 5% funding rate for the first pool of applicants.

Silence amongst the group. I suddenly had the urge to go back to my office and work more.

In preparation

I finished a draft of my annual report for NESCent today. We're told to include all manuscripts, regardless of the stage in publication (in press, in review, submitted, in preparation). The first three are nice, easy, discrete categories, but I had trouble with the last. I understand my supervisors' need to comprehend my progress in research, but it seems a very vague term. I asked Twitter how people decided their paper was 'in preparation.' I received the variety of answers I had already considered, from barely a coherent thought to a complete paper that is not quite submitted.

I like the idea of coherence as a standard. For me, a manuscript 'in preparation' is a document that, at the very least, outlines the major themes of the paper. It should be coherent to someone familiar with the material (a labmate or similar peer in the field). I'm preparing to commit myself to my definition of 'in preparation.'

09 July 2012

I've been getting the urge...

...to bring Princess Tradescantia back from the dead (or at least from purgatory). In this incarnation, I'll explore topics at the intersection of science and real life, including open science, bioinformatics, and being a real person with a real life who also happens to also do research.