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.


Experts vs. the media

This comic came out while I was writing this post, so clearly I'm not the only one thinking about it!

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.

Taking care of carnivals

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.”

Woman role models

I’m struggling with how to contribute to carnivals on the topic of role models or important individuals in our lives, while still maintaining my pseudonymity. I work in a pretty narrow and specialized field of science, and maintaining anonymity on the web is very much in my best interest as a young, non-tenured female scientist. But I want to give credit to role models who have been very important to me, and I also want to contribute to carnivals. I’m not sure how to walk this line.

I suppose that this month, I will have to be satisfied with an anonymous tribute. I wil say that I have had one (and only one) female mentor in my career, and I am grateful to this day that I had the opportunity to work with her. While I talked the talk about diversity and really believed in it, having never had a woman mentor, I didn’t actually know what a difference it would make. I didn’t really think closely about the fact that I had only ever worked directly with men, that my undergraduate classes with female faculty had been few and on topics that weren’t of direct interest to me, and that in grad school, I was always the only woman in my committee meetings and usually one of at MOST two women in department seminars. I noticed those things and felt it was unjust, but I didn’t think about the personal impact they might be having on ME.

Then I visited a woman scientist and worked in her lab. It was like a magical breath of fresh air to work with a supervisor who, well, kind of gets it innately. Who looked a little more like me and had had a few more similar experiences to share than the men ever did. It reinspired me not to quit grad school after all, it got me over my burn-out and renewed all of my vigor for my degree, and it just gave me hope again, so that I could return to my all-male home world for another 3 years.

It makes a difference. There aren’t even really words to describe how big of one. I’ll just leave it at that.

Diversity carnival!

I did not contribute to this month’s (first ever) Diversity in Science carnival myself*, but it’s a great read. I’m still working my way through the posts. I encourage you all to go read about these great role models!

*I really wanted to contribute, but sadly, I know or look up to almost no black scientists in my field. It made me sad to realize this. We seriously need to increase diversity in geoscience.

Grad school

Getting in my posts today! Zuska has a great post up today about recent studies on grad school and depression. I’ll admit that when I read the first few sentences in my feed, my reaction was, “I’ll click through and read this because I identify with that, but I mean, DUH, more funding wasted on studies about things we already know!”

But I have to say, having read the post, that those statistics are staggering, and worth having gathered. The researchers found that more than half of grad students feel so depressed they have a hard time functioning. More than half. That’s on the one hand not surprising, having survived grad school myself, but on the other hand it’s awful – and not acceptable. Zuska suggests some excellent options and resources that depressed students can consider to help with this process, but I am wondering if there is anything constructive we can do about this problem. As she points out, taking a leave of absence is usually not feasible in science fields, especially if you are working under the time-constraints of 3-year grants – you can’t just leave off where you are and pick it up later to finish. In some fields there is probably also the risk of scooping. Both of those things mean that if you take much time off, your advisor will probably have to finish and publish the study, and if you come back you have to start over with new research. Once you get to a certain point, starting over sounds even worse than sticking it out, so almost everyone seems to either stick with it through either occasional/mild or severe and debilitating depression, or quit and change career paths. Lots of people who do succeed and graduate are so turned off to the academic culture that they leave academia with their degree and never look back – and while for some, I think that’s a good choice because they might like another work environment better, I think there are plenty of others who would have liked academia just fine if grad school hadn’t shat all over their souls. Or something.

So, what IS it about grad school that does this? And is it something fixable? Is it the “academic culture” we are always talking about? I don’t think it’s just that, because most career academics seem relatively mentally healthy, at least compared to grad students (neglecting the year before the final tenure review). I do think it might be related to how that culture treats underlings.

Here I have made a list of the obvious differences between the graduate student and the faculty member experience in academia, to help solve this quandary:

  1. Pay. Most graduate students live hand-to-mouth at least much of the time, which is tenable at first but after a while, less so. People who don’t earn enough to have a little extra to save for emergencies, or to go out to dinner now and then, or to buy some video games, have a higher incidence of depression than the rest of the population. In general, people who earn enough to do those things without being fabulously wealthy are the happiest, if I remember that study correctly. Constantly worrying about money, or having to deal with episodic crises, are both really, really unhealthy and exhausting and depressing for many of us. Particularly since it usually prevents students from joining a gym, or eating food that makes them feel better, or all kinds of things that can tangentially help with depression before it gets to the point of needing outside help.
  2. Benefits. I almost put this in with pay, because it’s related, but it often ends up being a separate animal – particularly because we are talking about mental health here. Many graduate students now have basic health benefits, but not all, and often the situation is less than ideal (limited to one clinic, limited to a certain number of visits, high copays or deductibles). Most have no dental insurance, which can put a serious drain in point 1 if something happens like, oh, an emergency root canal in your 4th year (no, of course I don’t speak from experience, why do you ask?). If you have an illness, the time and money involved with getting proper care with inadequate coverage is an additional drain.
  3. I think both faculty and students work ridiculously long hours and are under a lot of pressure, especially near deadlines, but the pressure is… different. I don’t know very many faculty who pull all-nighters anymore, and maybe that’s age, but since most grad students are at least getting close to 30 by the time they graduate, it can’t only be age. Some of that is the advisor-student relationship (see below), and I think some of it is also the special status of a student and how they are treated by departments and institutions.
  4. That treatment, like some aspects of even the best advisor-student relationships, is essentially and at its root infantilizing. There’s no room for upward movement in an apprentice-mentor relationship, until you achieve the end goal and suddenly become an adult. I think being what amounts to an apprentice has its advantages, because of the intense one-on-one mentoring and guidance, but when it lasts 5-7 years or even longer it usually starts to feel like there is no end in sight. And keeps feeling that way for a long time. It feels like you will never come into your own, never have full autonomy about even basic life decisions, and, to make matters worse, never achieve a basic status that lets you go on and do other things. I think a big part of why grad school is depressing for the majority of people is that it lasts so long. And to be fair, this varies drastically depending on the student, the program, and the advisor. But there is still always some of this there.

Some of these things can’t really be remedied. I’m not in favor of a revolution to overthrow the whole academic system, and I think there are a lot of merits to it. I don’t think most grad schools can pay their students more, though the benefits desperately DO need to be improved. But the rest of those “culture” problems are probably innate to it being an apprenticeship system.

Maybe there need to be more “outs” – more checks to ensure that students have options and choices. Feeling like you have some autonomy, as an adult, is pretty critical. I think some of that depression might be related to this feeling of being trapped, with much less free will than you expected. You have to satisfy the expected course requirements; you have to meet the expectations of the idiosyncratic and specialized members of your committee to pass your exams; you have to jump through a series of hoops to prove you are capable and can think critically on your feet (and thus do well in the academic community, because that is how it works out there); and you have to have a successful* study that results in a glowing thesis of brilliance and beauty. Usually on a subject dictated to some varying degree by the grant(s) under which you are funded.

Students need choices and some room to move, while still being held accountable. They need to be able to graduate even if studies do not go perfectly, because that’s how science works and a degree should not be withheld for years until the results meet predictions. At the same time, very short time limits to funding can be equally damaging to theses. The system needs to both reign in that rogue, loud, convincing committee member who wants more more more before you can graduate, and allow for some flexibility.

So I guess my suggestions are vague today.

* This can be a problem when your study goes drastically wrong, experiments repeatedly fail, or the results are too shocking to be taken at face value without further study. I think advisors and committees forget that wrapping up a study is not equivalent to proving you are capable of being a good scientist – if nothing else, because nothing is ever wrapped-up.

Back to work!

Well, I had a very eventful holiday. I saw my family, I put the finishing touches on my dissertation and mailed off the final copies and paperwork, and I visited an old friend for a fun-filled week of real vacation. I worked on zero things for a whole week!! It was amazing. And now I have a lot of work to do before the semester starts!

As the January Scientiae post showed, I have had a year full of opening and closing doors. That it all wrapped up right around the holidays is giving 2009 an even exaggerated fresh-start feeling, which is exciting and kind of intimidating all at once!

The first things on my plate are to get ready to teach two classes in the spring (one new, one new for me), and to look into writing an internal research grant proposal for faculty. I’ve only ever worked on NSF proposals before, so that’s completely new to me. I’m a bit nervous about it. I also need to recover from rather severe holiday jetlag, which is barely related to the one-hour time difference of my travels and was really mostly caused by staying up late partying and sleeping in until mid-morning every day. It was a tough week!