There is news going around that an ASU grad student shot himself in a professor’s office, and the campus was on lockdown in response. We don’t know any details of the story. It’s likely that there was something other than the standard stresses of grad school in play here. But I’m reminded of the studies from last spring that found that more than half of graduate students are clinically depressed, and I have to wonder what role that plays in extreme cases like this one.
Okay, you guys, who knows what is going to happen with this blog in the long run, but in the short run I have total internet burn-out. I’m barely even reading my feed, and never clicking through to read complete posts on even my favorite blogs. It’s been a solid month of this now with no end in sight.
Do the rest of you find that getting back into the fall term has this kind of effect on you? I mean, for one thing, I’m super busy with work, and usually feel like i’m barely staying afloat with my classes. My proposal certainly hasn’t gotten itself started, and my manuscripts haven’t been touched since the summer. I’m also struggling to feel out my place here, and I don’t mean at my job itself — I mean here, in this town and in my life. Being single and alone in your 30s is weirdly socially isolating, and I don’t usually talk about it around these parts, but trying to use the dating scene to meet new friends and possibly change that general social situation is challenging and exhausting. Which is why I only sometimes attempt it. But I have been exploring it on and off, and dealing with all of the emotional repercussions (positive and negative) of meeting new people and seeing how things work out in new potential romantic relationships and new friendships makes me even less interested in looking at the internet.
And yup, that’s about all of the internet I have energy for this morning. But I think you’ll see me back here in a more substantive fashion sooner or later. In the meantime I promise to keep at least skimming and half-reading your posts, and working on my life in academia and otherwise. Hang in there, kiddos.
I will be hosting the next Accretionary Wedge carnival right here at the Magmalicious Blog! I’m very excited.
I once had a conversation with our provost about how almost no one goes to college planning to study geology. (The exceptions always seem to be children or other close relations of geoscientists.) For the rest of us, a general lack of exposure before college seems to keep it off most of our radars as a career option, and then somehow, sooner or later, we fall into a great class or a fun research project or an exciting field trip, and we get sucked in. That means taking up geology is very often a switch from another planned career track. I think that’s a pretty interesting aspect of geoscience — the stories that got us here are so varied, and people come to it with such passion.
So July’s topic is about your inspiration to enter geoscience. Was it a fantastic mentor? Watching your geologist parents growing up? A great teacher, or an exciting intro field trip? How did it happen? Deadline of July 10, and leave your permalink in comments when your post is up!
Geoscience is a field that has implied fitness expectations. This is easy to handle if you are able-bodied and already love exercising. But it at times feels really pressuring if, like me, you like the outdoors and like moving your body but are not terribly fond of fitness routines and regimens. I don’t get much of a rush from exercising, though I gather for a lot of people that is a significant motivator. My motivations are basically to reduce my aches and pains, and to have an easy time doing things I like or need to do (like occasionally going into the field and carrying a backpack full of rocks and water, or spontaneous camping trips, or very difficult hikes on trips that I am leading). And I do usually feel good after working out, but not that good, and I don’t usually enjoy the exercise that much while it’s happening.*
The pressure to be able to jump out of your chair and go run up a mountain is pretty widespread in this field. Some of it is simple peer pressure – people who go into geoscience tend to love running up mountains, and they chose this field because it gives them lots of opportunities to do so. But if all your friends are filling their time with team mountain-running, and you would prefer to walk around the block for an hour on a sunny afternoon, pretty soon you don’t have many friends.
The required geology field trips for most geology classes are generally not accessible to students (or faculty) with physical limitations or disabilities. Usually some stops are accessible so they are still encouraged to attend, accomodations are made wherever possible, and in the case of a student and a trip where it isn’t possible, the faculty I know would waive a requirement like that for a disabled student. To some extent this is probably not a very fixable situation — scaling a hill and hunting for outcrops when there are no trails is sometimes a necessary part of field work. You have to get to areas that are difficult to access to study those difficult-to-find rocks. When a geoscientist becomes unable to do such field work later in their careers, as occasionally happens, they tend to turn their attentions to lab work from then on. It’s limiting for some people, though, and I wonder sometimes about how else we might be able to deal with that.
I also wonder about the self-selective bias. While subdisciplines with a significant lab component can be open to people with a range of physical abilities from the get-go, there are those geology fields that do not have much of a lab component. Mapping an outcrop in the field is something that can only be done in the field. So how much are those subfields self-selecting only able-bodied people? How much are those fields being necessarily limited by that bias, by missing out on input from brilliant minds that just can’t get their bodies to the sites in question?
Volcanology, IME, is a discipline that is particularly prone to macho displays of prowess. Field work is conducted in very high risk areas, which leads to, well, risk-taking behavior, and there is sometimes a great deal of physical competitiveness between scientists. (I’ve observed this to be slightly less true among female volcanologists, but until relatively recently there weren’t many of those — and I suspect this gender disparity was even more stark than that of many other science disciplines because of the particularly physically demanding field work and the especially macho culture. Women scientists just don’t tend to score as highly in pissing contests, after all.) I’ll be frank: between being very petite (meaning even a strong, fit me still can’t carry as much or move as fast as most), and not particularly loving exercise or buying too strongly into the competitive geology fitness culture, I don’t even attempt the pissing contests. And between not really finding that appealing or interesting AND not being able to carry as much as most people or hike as quickly, I don’t tend to be asked along in the field very much — even when I’m relatively fit.
And I hate that.
*I DO exercise. I’m relatively fit. But not as much as so many people I know, and it clearly feels like I am Not Fitting In by only exercising a few times a week. And by including things like long walks and dance classes as exercise, instead of limiting myself to running, competitive sports, and ass-kickingly-tough yoga.
This month’s Scientiae topic is “moving forward”: how our lives, work, and science are moving forward.
In my case, this topic is most easily addressed in list form:
- Designing some new classes and new lessons for old classes for next year
- Writing a grant proposal to fund a brand new project
- Working with a new student
- Trying out new activities to get out of the house in the evenings, be more active, and meet some new people, including dance classes and tennis lessons
Well, that’s a lot, right there. It’s been a huge year in terms of transitions — finishing school and starting up at my faculty job — so it’s hard to narrow down this topic. There’s really very little that I’m holding over from a year ago. Research topics, I suppose, are still related to my grad school specialty. …Yeah, that’s about it.
Beryl Lieff Benderly has an editorial in Slate today about problems in academic lab safety. I have mixed feelings, particularly about this:
If Sheri Sangji’s death is to mean anything, it must be that no lab chief—and certainly no federal agency—claiming to further human welfare ever again tolerates the risk of harm to lab workers. That means that university administrators from the provost on down must make safety a serious concern and a requirement for career advancement and hiring, and tenure and promotion committees must hold faculty members responsible for seeing that everyone in their labs has the training, skills, and equipment needed to work safely. Funding agencies must make a good safety record and evidence of safety awareness real conditions for getting and keeping grants. Never again should academic research needlessly claim the life of a researcher.
On the one hand, yes, safety is critically important. Scientists must be properly trained. But on the other, for one thing, Sheri Sangji isn’t a martyr. Death doesn’t mean anything and it doesn’t have to mean anything. Okay yes, that’s a pet peeve.
But Benderly’s words about how scientists in academia regard government trainings — as “bureaucratic Mickey Mouse beneath the dignity of free-spirited investigators” — are not accurate. Most scientists I’ve worked with do consider safety training very important, and simultaneously, most of them consider government training and methods to be not so much interfering as simply ineffectual. Some of those scientists are probably just being hard-headed assholes, sure. But I’ve worked in government labs and spoken with people who work in industry, and filling out an incident report if you spill water is over the top. It is bureaucratic red-tape, and it doesn’t accomplish anything. Should my job be threatened if a student that attended all of the required trainings still gets hurt in my lab because of inexperience, even though I am a conscientious supervisor and very careful about the safety of my lab?
And how many people hired to work with hazardous materials in industry or government labs lack undergraduate degrees? To put it another way, how many of them have never set foot in a lab before? There are probably some people for whom this is the case, but the majority of people hired to do, say, chemistry, have been in a chemistry lab before. They have experience. They already went through at least some of the part where you learn to remember the safety precautions every time, and where you train your hand to be steady. How many undergraduates can say the same? That’s when most people get that experience.
It’s not like horrible accidents haven’t happened in government and industry labs, either. Benderly is right to point out the statistics on that — they are much less frequent than in academic labs — but they happen. And are more likely to happen to people who are not properly trained, like, say, student interns at labs where waitlists for trainings can be longer than one summer.
I support having strict safety protocols and accountability. I don’t think going after people’s jobs is as much of a solution as Benderly does, though, and that’s not just because I’d rather never have my job in jeopardy. Some academic institutions I’ve been in have very active safety offices that routinely spot-check labs and are on top of waste disposal and trainings like nobody’s business. And in other places those offices are practically silent. The safety offices still can’t really prevent students who don’t have any experience from doing stupid things, even after having had safety training (what are those statistics on how little material is retained a few months after a lecture again? like 10%?). What I don’t support is disproportionately penalizing institutions that focus on undergraduate learning — and it would be disproportionate because that’s where the first exposure to any lab experience usually happens. And in answer to Benderly’s question, what makes academic laboratories such dangerous places to work is, in part, the lax enforcement of safety protocols the article discusses, but it is also the inexperience of new workers entering the lab.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about “experts,” i.e. who we consider credible and who we don’t on any given subject,* and on the roles and responsibilities of those who are widely considered to be experts. When we as scientists conduct studies and publish the results, in general those results and our interpretations of them are complex. Often the conclusions sound like, “We have shown that the one particular scenario we considered does not disprove the model in question, and we encourage further study.” And that one particular scenario is usually just a stone on the path to some bigger understanding of a subset of a subset of a field that studies part of how the universe works.
The problem starts when we have to boil it down. Fillyjonk at Shapely Prose once commented that if you ask an expert for their “elevator pitch” that distills their very complex research down to a sentence or two for non-experts, the answer is usually “… it’s complicated.” I want to amend that, because by the end of grad school we have all had to learn to do that distillation. It’s actually not because communication with the lay public is important (I mean, it is, but that’s rarely structured into a graduate program), or because your advisor wants you to be able to impress friends at parties, but because that’s [part of] how you get funding. Some proposal panels are composed of other experts, and those proposals can be very detailed and complex, but if you can’t describe your work to a general scientific or just a general academic audience, you’ll miss out on a lot of other funding opportunities. We have to be able to make that elevator pitch. That pitch is the “big picture” view of our research — that thing so many graduate students struggle with the most and never remember to include in their presentations and talks. But until you learn to say it, on the spot, you can’t write a good abstract, good conclusions for a manuscript, or good grant proposals. (Of course, if you ask too many questions beyond the elevator pitch, that’s when you’ll usually still come up against the “it’s complicated” answer.)
And then there are press releases. Some journals have staff that write those releases, but in a lot of cases the authors of articles are required to write their own releases. Those big-picture, general, oversimplifying sound bytes that get authors attention (= attract funding) by sometimes catching a science reporter’s eye — what so many people don’t realize is that many of those were written by the scientists themselves.
And when your press release catches a reporter’s eye, leading to further investigation into the study so they can write an article, the reporter usually doesn’t ask the questions that lead to “it’s complicated” answers, even though that’s actually the meat of the study. Who wants to write an article about something that’s complicated? That won’t sell! (i.e. “The public is too stupid and impatient to handle it!”) They want the pat answers and the sound bytes, and the press releases and abstracts hand it to them. Scientists simplify because they are required to do so to “communicate the public” (and “get money from non-specialists”), but then those sell-your-research pitches that boil essentially complex systems down to a couple oversimplified points (and if you’re lucky, advice or warnings about what people can or should do, because that will get you more attention) get turned into news stories promoting behaviors. And usually it isn’t actually based on much, in terms of statistically conclusive results.
The communication disconnect isn’t all on the end of the MSM, though they are to blame for trying to turn the simplified stories (meant, say, to convince a funding agency to fully fund what had been an incomplete pilot study) into stories that sell (meant to prey on the public’s need to stigmatize each other and learn new ways to be better than each other. Oh, and on their fear of death). It certainly isn’t the MSM’s fault that there is so much funding for “obesity research” (actually, on second thought… but that’s not the topic of this blog post, so let’s not go there today**), so scientists whose results are statistically mixed and mostly inconclusive will still try to spin them so they support socially appealing ideas about fatness and “health.” And those scientists might be bigots who want to smack down the fatties – but just as likely, they figure the public will never read their abstract (because most studies don’t get picked up), but that abstract or release will make it possible for their next study to get funded. Scientists are trying to use the media’s penchant for picking up sexy sound bytes to get attention, without always thinking about the impact of promoting iffy (but sexy) conclusions.
When you work in a field where the outcomes of your research (even very preliminary, inconclusive research) can be spun to further stigmatize a severely marginilized group of people, you have an extra responsibility to stop and think. The ethics of spinning everything to get more funding are questionable anyway, although we all do it (hell, money is tight, and attention is good); but it’s particularly problematic when it can actually negatively impact people’s lives — often unnecessarily. That money might be the only thing to keep your research afloat, so yeah, it’s important… but it’s not more important than keeping teen girls from starving themselves literally to death (or just jumping the gun by committing suicide because they’re so severely depressed over being a size 12).
*Related to that, and also rolling around in my head, is the question: when is it healthy to be skeptical, and when is it hypocritical because I’ve been convinced by persuasive arguments on other subjects that are considered just as controversial? For example, the idea of treating fat people like human beings deserving dignity and respect, instead of stigma and discrimination, is treated as a wildly controversial position to stand by by seemingly the majority of people in western society. On the other hand, I am skeptical of pretty much all suggestions that humans were visited by extraterrestrials in their past, despite what some consider to be very convincing arguments. Where do I draw the line? It’s clearly not only because of the academic credentials of the people involved, because some people in favor of the alien hypothesis have PhDs, and the most persuasive critical and statistical arguments I’ve heard in favor of fat acceptance have come from bloggers with at most a masters in english (which is not a science field, though I don’t underestimate the critical thinking required to receive a degree in english). Really what’s going on, for the most part, is that I find some critical arguments persuasive because they’re logical, and generally supported by statistical data when I actually look at the numbers, and I find others less persuasive because they are laden with logical fallacies and misrepresent the data (or those data that exist are inconclusive). In the case of the alien hypothesis, I find the suggestion so outlandish that in the absense of any academic credentials or respect from academic institutions, I take every argument I hear with a massive grain of salt. That skepticism is probably just as infuriating to people who believe in the hypothesis (particularly since I don’t really want to go out of my way to read those papers and books, so I even actively avoid becoming more well-read on the subject) as fatphobic bigots are to me when they refuse to consider actual statistics on the subject, because that would challenge their preconceptions. But I suppose there’s also the fact that I’m human.
** What I’m not getting into today: how this is a vicious cycle, because publicly popular topics, which are generally fueled by promotion in the media, catch on quickly in government, which runs the biggest funding agencies. Hot topics in the public quickly become the hottest research topics. So that’s where the money goes. It’s quite a spiral.
ETA: Man, Jorge Cham and I are on the same page lately.
I sure did push things to the deadline this month. It’s because I am overcoming challenges, every day! And that’s the topic of this month’s Scientiae: overcoming challenges, and the most firey fire of my academic career.
It’s a hard question to answer because there have been so MANY challenges. What about deciding halfway through my master’s that I did not want to stay on and do the planned PhD on the same topic, because I had suddenly realized I was doing the wrong thing? Or do I talk about the project from hell that wasn’t even a planned part of my thesis and almost took over, and that left me crying in the lab in the middle of the night by myself several nights a week for over two years? Or maybe the emotional fall-out that made the last year or two pure hell?
The last one is the freshest in my mind. Surviving the end of grad school. Unlike early grad school, with its relentlessly long nights and weekends of classwork and unrewarding research on a project I despised, the second half of the PhD was tough because I was running out of steam. I recovered from the exam burn-out only to have it come right back over the next three years, this time with that long-haul depression that apparently most grad students experience (this is repeating myself, but I note again: THIS IS BROKEN. SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THAT). Regular panic attacks, being unable to get to a doctor covered by my student health plan (NOTE: ALSO BROKEN) in order to get more than emergency help with the suddenly elevated panic disorder (instead I just ended up with some emergency meds prescribed over the phone. Once I stopped hyperventilating), and the massive stress of having to finish under a crazy, very early, and inflexible deadline while simultaneously trying to find gainful employment for the rapidly approaching day when I would get kicked out of school… That was nuts. I am only just starting to cook things that aren’t pasta again. I only just started exercising again. And doing crafts and playing in a music group and even occasionally going out for a drink with friends. I had almost forgotten that those things exist.
I know that’s a pretty standard fire – the fire of getting the goddamn PhD – but it was pretty damn firey. And it’s still very fresh – I’m not quite healed from it yet. But I suppose it made me stronger. Where “stronger” = “done.”