Thursday, 18 August 2016

Climate change is depressing. Is there any point?

Yesterday, I got the email below somewhat out of the blue, in response to my writing about how I feel about climate change. I was actually really glad to receive the note, and that I had a chance to respond. In the off-chance that these words might help others feeling the same way out there, I'm posting them here with personal information removed.


Dear Professor Carilli,

So, this is rather weird. I am really sorry about sending you this random email, considering you don't know me, and I am sure have more important things to do [note from Jessica: this is, to me, the definition of really important!]. I just need a little help, and I saw something you wrote on, and I thought...I have no idea. So, I suffer from severe anxiety and depression, and my mind has seriously focused in on climate change. It scares the absolute hell out of me, and it has basically led me to think that there is no point in my being alive anymore. The world is so screwed, there is no point in me sticking around anymore, or possibly having a child who would have to live in such a terrible world. I know this is partially my sickness, but I also feel like there is legit idea. I don't want to die, but the last few days have hurt so terribly, and I am so afraid all the time, I just have trouble finding other options. This morning, I started googling about finding hope in climate change, and I found what you said online, and I guess I just wanted someone to tell me that there is some hope for the future. Because right now, I do not want to see such a miserable future. God, I really did used to be such a happy positive person, but these last few years...they just been really hard.

Thank you for reading my email and listening to my depressing rambling. I hope that you have a wonderful day


Dear [redacted],

Thanks for your email. I’m glad you found what I wrote, and I’m not sure if it was helpful or made you feel worse, but in any case I’m glad that you reached out. While I can’t pretend to know how you feel, I can assure you that you aren’t alone in this sometimes hopeless feeling.

When I was 18, I got a tattoo that says “Never Give Up.” This is a reminder to myself that I often think about in this struggle with “what’s the point, when everything is going to shit?” It helps me remember that although humans can be really destructive and thoughtless, we are also astoundingly clever, and have come up with some really amazing technological solutions for environmental problems. I sometimes flip-flop between thinking that yes, the earth would probably be better off if humans all just kicked the bucket – and then thinking, no: humans are animals, and we have just as much right to live on this earth as other creatures – we just need to use our intellect to live on this planet WITH the other creatures more fairly. I love when I hear about some incredible technological solution that has the potential to improve the lives of humans (particularly the disadvantaged) as well as the environment. Killing ourselves, not having children, or living in caves is just not a good solution for anyone…so if there are ways that we can invent ourselves out of catastrophic climate change, I’m all for it!
I also like to focus on personal choices that make a difference for climate change - like hanging my laundry.
I firmly believe that many small efforts do add up to matter.
There are so many cool examples of major scientific progress and optimism, and this gives me a lot of hope.
Here are a few examples that I like to think about:

Sometimes it seems like it would be good to just abandon ship and give up, but the flip side is that this world needs people like me and you to work hard to make a difference, and to keep shouting about the importance of science and the environment. So I hope you don’t abandon ship, or give up on having kids. I think the world needs more people like us, who care deeply and want to make a difference, and will raise kids who care deeply and will continue making a difference into the future. It’s definitely scary to think that in a few decades, things could be much different from how they are today – and it could be bad. But it could also be better – maybe soon we will make drastic changes to the status quo, and instead of spiraling into disaster, we will rise to the challenge, turn things around, and rise like the Phoenix! What do you think?

Thanks again for reaching out. I hope this helps a little bit.
Also, VOTE!

Wednesday, 13 January 2016

How to effortlessly get your 4-year old to accept vaccination shots

Maternity leave has gone by in a blur, seemingly punctuated with continual routine Doctor’s appointments for various family members. We had an awesome time getting the 4-year old’s flu shot, so I wanted to share my amazing story to inspire other parents who may be hesitant about this experience.

First – be sure you talk a lot about the importance of vaccinations with your kid ahead of time. Small children are extremely logical and will totally follow your train of thought and get on board with the plan.

Next – if the flu vaccination is the one that you are aiming to get (perhaps to protect your tiny newborn baby from familial exposure), be assured that kids over 2 years old can get a burst of mist up the nose instead of a shot! Discuss at length with your child how much better this option will be, and how it won’t hurt at all.

At the doctor’s office – be sure to do all the other scheduled doctor-stuff for your visit before the vaccination. This will give ample time for your kid to get worked up into a frenzy of apprehension about being sprayed up the nose with something that is supposed to protect his little sister from invisible bugs.
The 4 year old in his natural habitat. Do not be fooled by their diminutive stature; 4 year olds are very strong and crafty.

Once your kid has gotten all frantic about being sprayed in the nose, ask the doctor to break it to him that you were wrong, and his little sister is actually too young to be exposed to any live (though weakened) virus he might shed after receiving the Flu mist, and therefore he must instead get the (dead) vaccine via shot.

Be sure there is lots of extra time between breaking this news to him and the nurse coming in with the needle. This will provide your kid an opportunity to dispel some of his pent-up fear via screaming at high volume, and/or throwing objects around the room. You will then get the chance to practice your hostage-negotiation skills to try to calm the situation down. This is a good time for lots of lies (delivered loudly over his yelling), for instance: the nurse is a magic fairy and she knows how to give shots with no pain at all. Or: the shot is guaranteed not to hurt because it has magic ingredients and will actually tickle if he is quiet and calm. This may also be a good time to try some bribery (cookies, ice cream, lots of extra TV), and/or threats if you start to get desperate (no TV, immediate nap, etc.). But none of these will work anyway.

Perhaps try interpretive drawing as an explanatory technique when you are appealing to the 4 year olds highly developed logical side before you head to the doctor.

By this point, the baby will almost certainly also be crying hysterically, so you can also practice your remaining-calm-amongst chaos skills, which may come in handy in a future natural disaster scenario.

Once the nurse finally comes in with the shot, don’t bother requesting backup. You are totally strong enough to hold down a writhing, kicking, biting 4-year old while the nurse stabs around with the shot, trying to get it into his arm.

Actually, you are not strong enough. Send the nurse for backup, while you keep cycling between the above lies, bribery, and threats in a vain attempt to get your kid to calm down and accept that he needs to be poked briefly for health’s sake. Also be sure to dodge his flailing arms so he doesn’t punch you in the nose.

Once the cavalry arrives, they will help hold your kid still enough to receive his tiny, 5-second prick in the arm. A short moment of (loud) calm.

Then they will all flee, throwing a few pamphlets and post-visit summaries at you, and you will once again use your chaos-triage skills (let’s be honest, ninja skills) to give the baby her pacifier (again), intercept shoes that are being thrown at your head in mid-air, stuff all the papers and strewn around articles of clothing/toys/etc into your diaper bag, dodge punches your incensed kid is exhaustedly attempting to lay on you, then pick up the angry 4 year old in one arm and use the other to awkwardly push the stroller while opening the door with your foot and get the hell out of there as fast as possible before your kid sets off all the other kids in the office.

You will be operating on 99% adrenaline and 1% leftover morning coffee at this point, but you will soon collapse. Hopefully your kid wears out first, or realizes that you have left the doctor and he didn’t even feel any actual pain anyway, so he will let up on the yelling and kicking. In a few minutes, he will just act like his normal self, while your body goes into recovery mode from that trauma. The baby will hopefully have fallen asleep by this time as well. Perhaps by now you are all sitting quietly in the car, or on a bench waiting for the bus or looking at the calming fountain outside the doctor’s office. Wherever it is, just try to be sitting before you go into collapsing-mode.

Now suggest and then head directly towards whatever food/beverage item you feel will revive you – coffee (well, perhaps suggest a hot chocolate to the kid), milkshake, ice cream, etc. Chat normally with your kid, as if nothing just happened. Perhaps ask him if he arm hurts, just for kicks (because he will say “no” as if you just asked some obvious question like what his name was). Sigh and pat yourself on the back. Perhaps think of a different strategy for next time, like surprise shots when they least expect it (while eating ice cream!? Is this why Rite Aid offers shots?!!). Or just push it to the back of your mind until next year.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

How to make important conferences suck for young families

Next summer, the big once-every-four-years coral reef conference, ICRS, will take place in Honolulu, Hawaii. With poor timing on my part, I suppose, I’ll have a breastfeeding infant along with me – just like last time. And again, like the 2012 ICRS, the 2016 ICRS intends to provide no help organizing childcare.

This is, in my opinion, ridiculous.

The 2012 ICRS conference was full of babies. They were crawling around the presentation rooms, bouncing on hips during the poster sessions, and squawking during the lunches. There were babies everywhere distracting their parents from fully participating in the conference because there were no offered childcare arrangements.

I complained then, I complained after the conference, and I am almost certain other parents complained, yet the upcoming 2016 ICRS provides only the following:

They will get you in touch with other parents who would like childcare.

Oh, WOW! That is SO AWESOME. Now we can all commiserate on how freaking difficult it is to organize short-term childcare in a city you know nothing about.

You know what would be more awesome? If the conference organizers recognized that on-site childcare is SUPER HELPFUL (always, but especially) during conferences. And then provided it.
Mommy, this presentation is horrible! They have no error bars! Waaaaaaaah!!!

Here are the main reasons on-site childcare is helpful (to me – there may be others):

1.     Reduces the stress level of the parents if they can
a.     Check on their kids easily and often. Particularly helpful when they have had 0 time to vet the childcare providers ahead of time.
b.     Be fetched easily if there is a problem with their child.
c.     Not have to arrange their own independent childcare, which always requires significant time and worry.
d.     Not be forced to just bring their kids along to sessions, which is not really very fun for anyone.
2.     Allows mothers to breastfeed more easily
3.     Is likely more affordable than hiring a nanny or babysitter for the week
4.     Is likely more affordable than flying a relative over to the conference to help babysit
5.     Affordability is particularly important to support early career scientists, single parents, and attendees from the developing world

So, conferences should provide childcare. This would significantly improve the ability of parents (of young kids especially) to participate. Look, Forbes agrees with me! And Science Mag pointed out that no conference childcare is a barrier to entry back in 2003.

There are even companies that specialize in conference childcare!

Other conferences provide childcare, like Fall AGU, Ocean Sciences, Society for Marine Mammalogy, Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, etc. So, ICRS needs to get with the program.
Babies may not be helpful at the ICRS conference itself, but they are good at testing fossil corals for chewability post-conference

Ok, let's say there is some really good reason they can't provide on-site childcare. What are some other things they could do? 

1.     In the very, very least, they could do some of the legwork and call around to some local childcare places to find out if they take kids short-term. When I visited University of Queensland for a week, I was able to find a week-long slot for my kid at a nearby center*. Even if they don't want to do the calling around, they could compile a list of contact phone numbers.
2.     They could find some contacts for local childcare agencies and publish these on the website. 
3.     They could offer a room at the conference for families to use as a temporary daycare facility on site. This way we could either work out ways to trade off watching kids, or hire a nanny to watch the kids on site. This would be more expensive and more work for us than on-site childcare, of course, but would provide some of the on-site benefits I mentioned above.

Can you think of other ways that conference organizers could make things better for people who must bring their kids along?

*The center turned out to be terrible, unfortunately, so I pulled my kid out after 2 days and he came with me to the lab. Sigh.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

Humans are pretty cool: 2015 Science Hack Day San Francisco

I was recently lucky enough to be invited to attend the 2015 Science Hack Day in San Francisco. At first I honestly thought that the invitation had been sent to me accidentally (because I have imposter syndrome like everyone else), but once the organizer Ariel Waldman followed up, I happily accepted. A big reason I decided to go was the location: I grew up in the Bay Area, and the bulk of my family and my in-laws are scattered around the region. This meant that I could bring the little ones along (R, 4 years old and A, 3 months), and the grandparents could help take care of them while I was busy science-ing.

As the date approached, I became a bit more nervous than anticipated. My role, as I understood, was: (1) to give a quick talk about coral reefs and in doing so help spark ideas for people to work on during the weekend, and (2) to bring a particular perspective and expertise to the arena that might be useful and (3) to observe and report on the event. The concept of Science Hack Day was still a little muddy to me, though I watched the explanatory video and read some blog posts previous Science Ambassadors had written. In these, it was explained that teams of people would form organically to chose and work on a topic for 24 hours, and then present the results of this “hack” to the entire Hack Day crowd when the time was up.

My lingering worries fell into two camps: (1) sciency-types, myself included, are not legendary for smooth social skills; how will we form groups spontaneously if we are too shy to interact? and (2) how will people decide what to work on, and how will they physically do so? I had also invited my dad to join me at the event as a participant. He designs new and refurbished labs for researchers at Stanford, has patented several inventions, designed and built multiple houses, and is to me the epitome of someone who can come up with clever solutions to problems. He also articulated another worry as we read through rough ideas that participants entered into a shared Google doc ahead of the event: (3) what if all of this potentially amazing collective energy and expertise is wasted on trivial projects?

The Friday before the event, the other ambassadors, the event organizers, and I met for lunch at the waterfront in San Francisco. My mom entertained my littles nearby while I enjoyed interesting and uninterrupted discussions about science with other grownups, and got to eat with both hands. Thrilling! 

Giving my talk in the Oval Office. I love to gesticulate.
On Saturday morning, I left my 4 year old again with my mom, and headed back to The City (as Bay Area folk call San Francisco). Science Hack Day was hosted at the headquarters of GitHub. The space was, to put it mildly, amazing. If you could take all of the coolest things you could think of – a DJ booth, full bar, catering kitchen, pool and foosball tables, a replica of the Oval Office, etc. – and put them all into one architecturally beautiful building, this would be it. Oh, also throw in an on-site daycare to be even more awesome. I don’t even fully understand what GitHub is, but the building made me want to work there.

The first hour of the morning consisted of enjoying breakfast at large wooden tables reminiscent of movie versions of Oktoberfest. Participants donned decorated name-tags and began meeting one another during this time, exploring the work area and gadgets that were on hand. A small CNC milling machine and two 3D printers were staged on one table, along with a collection of powertools and electronics equipment for making circuits and the like. A lot of people were already typing away on computers at the tables, or scattered around on beanbags and swiveling captain’s chairs.

Next, the organizers kicked things off with some opening remarks. Some of this spoke directly to my fears: we shouldn’t worry if it takes us a while to find a team, and the lab-coated organizers could help if we were feeling like a fish out of water and didn’t know how or where to join in. They also explained that nine upcoming lightning talks – in three concurrent sessions around the space – would be followed by time devoted to anyone who wanted to do so making a 42-second pitch for their Hack Day project. Both of these points calmed my fears a bit, but I still wondered how things would actually fall into place.

My lightning talk followed an audio-visually stunning and content-rich talk by a planetary astronomer, Alex Parker, who had a knack for explaining his science in a straightforward and digestible manner (and who was also super nice). I was both totally impressed and happy to learn from his talk, while also terrified about having to go up next. My talk was decidedly less visually arresting and, I worried, perhaps both too simple and too overwhelming. I explained what corals are, the main things that make them unhappy (hot water due to climate change that causes coral bleaching, overfishing, and polluted runoff), and ended with some quick ideas for “hacks” that I thought might be possible and rewarding to work on during the weekend*. Originally, I had planned to just put baby A in a carrier and give the talk with her, but my dad offered to hold her instead – helpful as she decided to throw a fit a few minutes into the presentation.

I didn’t feel confident enough to try to lead a group towards a particular hack, so didn’t pitch a specific idea. Instead, I listened and then cruised around for the first part of the day to see what kinds of projects got started. Indeed, though my initial worries were centered on how people would find groups and decide on projects, it did seem to work out. I should have probably realized that if groups of organisms like ants can end up with coordinated behaviors, then surely humans can, even if only due to emergence.

After a while, I found and joined a group that aimed to make a game to teach kids about human threats to coral reefs; perfect! But, we took quite some time to actually decide on how the game should work and to then make it – in fact, by the time I left that night to get A and myself off to bed at a hotel nearby, we had very few solid ideas of how the game would work.
Our game prototype.
Our group didn’t work through the night like some others did; we had good sleeps and a relatively leisurely breakfast back at GitHub, then realized we really needed to step it up as we only had a few hours left to complete our hack, and had nothing yet to show. We quickly started brainstorming and making decisions on what direction to follow, and who should work on what tasks. We managed to complete the game and even had time to do a run-through, and it seemed to work. Our game, which we called iSea Life, was a cooperative, timed game with the goal to build a coral reef that had more colorful (healthy) pieces than white (bleached or dead) pieces. Some of my teammates are continuing to revise the game, and the final version will eventually be up here, so check it out!

At 1 pm on Sunday, everyone finished hacking and gathered to see presentations of everyone’s projects. First, Heather from GitHub gave a nice speech where she showed that although some of the projects that people have worked on during previous Science Hack Days may have at the time seemed trivial, some of them led to real and useful solutions to problems. Indeed, jiving off of other people and applying their thoughts to another problem is a great way to come up with new ideas. Case in point: I came up with my PhD research project by chance during coffee with a friend. Although Science Hack Day could be perhaps used to bring folks together to solve pre-determined “real” problems facing the world, in many ways the design seems perfect for stimulating creativity in a sort of random-walk approach. Even if the presented projects don’t immediately seem useful, maybe they can be further refined in the future or applied to known problems.

Since I’m an environmentalist, the projects I liked the best were those that had some obvious application towards environmental problems. These included “smogify,” a filter to make photos visually reflect the air quality at the time and place they were taken; an extension to Google maps to quantify the carbon footprint of various transit modes on calculated routes; and an application that would redirect someone from a dubious website to a trusted source after they searched for something “sciency” like “climate change.”

In the end, I really enjoyed my time at Science Hack Day and found it to be a highly rewarding experience that I will think back on often.
Another cool hack: a bias-meter for news articles.


*Here is a brief rundown of my ideas for coral-reef hacks, most of which were not exactly feasible to work on in such a limited time and space (GitHub being rather dry, after all):

Three biggest problems for corals:
1.     Climate Change à causes coral bleaching and increases disease susceptibility
a.     Suck greenhouse gases out of atmosphere (this was not actually a suggested hack, but something that needs to be figured out)
b.     Improved suctioning device to combat black band disease (one of a large number of coral diseases, this would perhaps not have a large impact but is somewhat manageable)
c.     Shading devices
d.     How to mix up deep, cool water
e.     More zooplankton?
f.      Genetic engineering?
g.     Map potential poleward expansion?
2.     Overfishing à one consequence is algal overgrowth
a.     Underwater chicken tractor, to enclose herbivorous fish and get them to clean off macroalgae on a particular part of the reef?
3.     Polluted runoff à many causes and consequences
a.     Minimalist sewage treatment
b.     Runoff reduction ideas
c.     Water cleanup?

Friday, 18 September 2015

Unintentional crossfit for parents

Well, I am exhausted. And my muscles are already sore, an hour after my unplanned extreme workout. So, tomorrow is going to suck. But hey, maybe this will catapult me towards getting back into shape post-new-baby!

I haven’t written any posts for a while, mostly because I haven’t had any unstructured freetime, and partly because a month of prodromal labor, having a baby girl, and then learning to take care of two kids plus my dilapidated body sucked up all of my remaining energy for those pockets of time that I may have had.

Anyway, enough complaining. Let me tell you about our awesome morning, so you can wallow in jealousy!

I woke up to the sound of light rain, which is odd because it’s September and I’m in San Diego. As I told my mom 10 years ago when planning my wedding with no back-up plan for rain, it would be a miracle for it to rain here this time of year. The next day after saying that, of course, there was a crazy tropical thunderstorm. It doesn’t often rain here this time of year, but it obviously can.

The next thing I did was take a mental inventory of all of the inconvenient things I had left outside: approximately 6 rugs, a baby bouncy-chair, an old couch, a pile of random clothes I had accumulated in the car and thrown onto the deck to be dealt with at some unforeseeable time in the future when I had nothing better to do, and 2 loads of laundry no longer drying on the line.

We all got up, the husband went to work and I did the breakfast routine. These days it mostly consists of letting Ryder eat Lucky Charms and then watch cartoons (educational ones!) while I nurse the baby, put in my contacts and try to find some clothes that will allow me to nurse easily while being a color/fabric that hides absorbed spit-up, and attempt to drink some coffee before it gets cold.

I suggested some cozy indoor activities for the morning, but Ryder pointed out that we could also go splash in puddles. Of course! We got out his rainboots and rainjacket, I put Adelaide into the Moby wrap, and found our gigantic golf umbrella. We headed off towards the canyon at the end of the street, splashing along the way. I mentally whined to myself about the weight of the umbrella.

Totally ready for absolutely nothing

I was quite pleased at the science-observation opportunities on our walk: we were discussing wind-blown currents while floating an abandoned flip-flop across a particularly large puddle, and gravity and erosion while exploring the miniature waterfalls running down the side of the sandstone canyon. We followed the main flow of water down to the bottom of the canyon, where it infiltrated and disappeared, then back up the other side. I had never been that far along the trail and was enjoying the exploration as much as Ryder.

The trail lead into a big empty lot that we traversed, only to find ourselves trapped by large fences. We backtracked and found another exit through a neighborhood. By now Ryder was totally soaked, as his rainjacket turns out to be totally non-waterproof (how useful!) and of course all the puddle-splashing had filled his boots to the brim. He also mentioned that he was hungry, which for some annoying reason sent my insulin production into overdrive and I started getting minor low-blood-sugar shakes. I had not anticipated such an expedition so had no supplies of any sort. We were about ½ a mile from the house now, and our lovely and fun walk was threatening to disintegrate into unhappiness. So, I encouraged quick walking towards home by splashing through the mini rivers in the street gutters to keep up morale.

About ¼ mile from the house, we had The Incident. Ryder tripped and went down face-first into pavement. There was blood and loud crying originating from his mouth and nose, and I feared displaced teeth or a broken nose. The teeth appeared intact on first examination, so I decided we needed to get home out of the rain to actually do anything useful towards soothing him. Of course, it’s hard to walk while crying uncontrollably when you are 3 years old, so this meant I had to carry him.

I was already carrying Adelaide and the large and heavy golf umbrella, so I had to get Ryder onto my back and hold him with one hand while trying to keep the baby somewhat dry with the other hand, and then run home. Halfway there, the holding arm gave out and I had to drop him and try to get him back on with the other arm. Let me tell you, it is hard to get up from a squat carrying 45 pounds of children with no hands to help steady yourself. Also it is hard to run with said burden, particularly when you are trying not to let the infant’s head bounce too much on her weak little neck and everyone is now wet and slippery and the heavier child is doing almost nothing to help hang on except scream loudly into your ear. Luckily, I had randomly decided to wear shoes instead of flip-flops this morning. Also luckily, adrenaline counteracted my low blood-sugar so I did not end up a crying mess myself.
The start of the canyon, when the walk seemed like a great idea

I have never been to crossfit, but my understanding is that it goes something like this: 
-Instructor tells you to do some unreasonable physical activity
-You try and stop when you are tired and can do no more
-Instructor forces you to do more
-You do, and destroy your body
-Repeat and get fit eventually
I could be wrong, but if that's the way it goes, parents should be quite to used to the concept: Don't think you can go one more night without unbroken sleep? Too bad! Endure 2 more years without it!

On the way to the house, I mentally prioritized the order to address all of our issues. First, I didn’t want to destroy our newly-laid wood floors, so I planned to run us all into the bathroom to drip. Then, since the teeth were intact and I didn’t think there was much to do even if the nose was broken, getting Ryder dry and warm seemed most important (after the floors, of course…). The baby was sleeping still, despite the ruckus, so I planned to put her on the guest bed and hope she would just stay asleep while I got Ryder sorted out.

First, the useless raincoat came off and into the shower. Ryder kept wailing about his face until I explained the dryness plan, and then he helped by taking off his boots and pouring the water all over the floor – at which time I remembered I had not resealed the tile grout since ripping out and replacing the tile after the toilet leaked underneath them. So I mopped that up and then got the rest of the soaked clothes off and a dry towel around the now-whimpering instead of screaming child.

Then of course it was time to clean up the blood and assess the damage. Ryder let me gently clean his nose, and poke around without much fuss, so I figured it wasn’t broken. The lip was gigantic, and upsetting him, so we agreed that he would try an ice pack while towel-enrobed on the couch, as long as I also brought Lucky Charms to him with no milk and 2 bowls, then separated out the charms for him. Of course the baby had woken and started to fuss for milk, so I had to settle Ryder as quickly as possible while she worked up to full-volume shrieking and he continued to request additional items that I could not hear over the baby-distress-call.

But soon we were all on the couch, and I was using one arm to hold and nurse the baby while feeding cereal to the 3-yr-old with the other, as he could apparently not use his own. As I realized I had successfully not allowed either child to be seriously damaged, the adrenaline wore off and I started to seriously shake from my need for food. At this point I also wondered how much more broken I had just become: the doctors had explicitly told me not to lift Ryder or other heavy things for several more weeks. Oops! Our western nuclear families are so annoying; there is no help for the parent, so one must learn to just suffer quietly. As long as the kids are alright, we are supposed to just smile like benign martyrs.

So, I gazed lovingly at my little darlings. At least I won’t have to go to the gym ever again.

Monday, 15 June 2015

The Dr. Tim Hunt Guide to Gender Parity

Ok, Tim Hunt, you want to separate the sexes? Then you need to prioritize funding to female PIs.

If you missed it, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt recently put forth in public his opinion that science labs should be gender segregated, apparently because he thinks men and women can’t handle working together professionally.

Here is what he said according to journalists in the audience: Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

He was subsequently encouraged to apologize and explain himself, but really just dug in deeper, saying he stood by his views on sex-segregated labs.

So, let’s pretend that we think this is a good idea – after all, there are sex-segregated schools (Tim Hunt’s long-winded Nobel Prize bio suggests he may not have attended strictly sex-segregated schools but perhaps didn’t exactly engage much with females during his schooling). So, let’s say we think that both men and women do better when supervised and taught by men and women, respectively (for the record, I think this is a horrible idea, and was very happy with my male PhD and Postdoc supervisors, who were totally non-sexist and non-terrible to me). Let's say we also want to go farther than Tim Hunt suggests (he “doesn’t want to stand in the way of women”), and reach gender parity at all levels in the sciences (not a bad goal, I think). How can that be done?

Men and women working together - yikes!

A number of surveys have been done on faculty gender balance in STEM fields. In general, women at this point make up about 20-35% of the faculty in the US. Of course, the mean does not represent reality completely – some departments are much more heavily skewed towards male representation (the Physics department at Caltech has 4 female professors of 41 total), and perhaps other departments are skewed towards women (maybe?).

A 2014 study found that Biology labs led by elite male scientists have disproportionately fewer female than male trainees (the numbers vary of course by trainee and elite-ness level, but let’s just go with approximately 30% women for now). Theoretically, these elite labs are procuring a majority of funding, while training fewer women and therefore exacerbating the gender imbalance at higher levels. Elite female-run labs had close to gender parity in female to male trainee ratios, but were not female-dominated; therefore they could not counteract the trainee output from male-dominated labs.

So, let’s say we want to shuffle all the male grad student and postdoc trainees from female-run labs into male-run labs and vice versa. What can we do to result in gender parity at the end of the trainee pipeline (those completing postdocs)? Let’s pretend at the moment that all PIs are receiving the same amount of funding per lab and are training the same number of students and postdocs with that funding, proportionally:

Current Status
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

The above scenario naturally results in a larger proportion of men completing the trainee program and applying for jobs as PIs.

If genders are segregated but funding proportions remain the same, the output of male and female trainees remains unchanged:

Gender-Segregated Labs at Current Funding Rate
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

Therefore, in order to achieve gender parity in trainee output with segregated labs, female PIs need to be granted 70% of the available grant funds so they can train a larger number of female trainees per PI, while male PIs need to be granted just 30% of the funds. This means that for every dollar an individual female PI is granted, male PIs should receive only receive $0.18.

Gender-Segregated Labs at Adjusted Funding Rate
Male PI (~70% of labs)
Female PI (~30% of labs)
Funding Proportion Needed
Male Trainees
Female Trainees
Female Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Male Trainees Produced per Hundred Trainees Total
Total Trainees

So, Tim Hunt, do you still believe in gender-segregated labs, yet also ostensibly supporting women in science?