01 July 2014

The value of a few kind words in academia and science.

At the last Evolution poster session, I came across a first year graduate student whose short research grant I recalled reviewing last spring for a professional society. Like all students (dare I say all scientists?), her writing was a bit rough around the edges, but I could tell she was doing interesting, important research. I paused as she walked another conference attendee through the theory and figures on her poster. It was a delight to hear her explanation of the work she'd accomplished; she was animated, enthusiastic, and clearly invested in the science she was highlighting. Afterwards, I introduced myself and told her I'd enjoyed reading her proposal. Her face lit up and she told me a bit more about future research directions.

I often reflect on the tension in academia (especially science) between being objective researchers but also effective mentors and peers. Science demands we interpret evidence without bias, which requires a cold, detached mindset. However, science is also an intensely personal, and therefore subjective, enterprise (myself and other #ScienceFAIL storytellers highlighted some of these topics). I was lucky to have a graduate advisor who helped me stay optimistic about my research and career trajectory. After leaving his lab and communicating with other early-career scientists, however, I've started to realize how rare that type of support can be.

Let's be honest. The job market sucks. Funding is abysmally competitive. Student evaluations of our teaching can be brutal. There's the cliche about reviewer #3 being a total meanie. We're trained to be skeptical, and that sometimes translates into an unfortunate type of cynicism that permeates our work. The result? The suicide prevention hotline is listed as a "Useful link" on the notorious Ecology Jobs Wiki, and if the comments on the rant page are any indication, there are folks who actually need it.

Don't get me wrong--the evolutionary biology and bioinformatics folks with whom I work are fantastic, happy, awesome people. It just doesn't seem to occur to most of us to offer personal, meaningful words of support. I took the advice of another early-career scientist and started to compile bits of encouraging correspondence to bolster myself in times of self-doubt. I'm shocked at how discouraged some of my peers feel at times. Often, these are people I deeply respect and even view as quite successful. As I've started to transition to my next career stage, I find myself in the position of being able to offer small bits of encouragement to other scientists, too.

The upshot is that not everyone needs this type of encouragement. However, I suspect a few kind words can make a huge difference in improving diversity in science. Women and minorities of any sort (racial, ethnic, sexuality, etc) are already fighting an uphill battle against implicit (and even explicit) bias. It's worth a few moments of my time every once in awhile to help ameliorate those effects.

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