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Wilted STEM June 10, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, science, societal commentary.
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Earlier this year, I was accepted as a NASA Solar System Ambassador.  In this capacity, I help to promote NASA and the space exploration activities conducted by the agency.

As part of the program, people can contact you and ask you to present on a space-related topic.  I was asked earlier this spring to be a guest speaker at a STEM program for 4th-7th grade girls talking about space exploration.  The activities ranged from engineering to xenobiology, and it’s exactly the kind of thing that I would’ve loved to have gone to as a kid.  Also, it’s exactly the kind of thing I was hoping to do as an SSA.

Unfortunately, it was cancelled.  I’m not sure what the required enrollment was, but there were not enough girls enrolled.  I find it very disappointing that there aren’t enough girls interested in space in a metropolitan area of over 200,000 to fill a program like that.  Obviously, I have my work cut out for me.

(Disclaimer: Opinions stated here are my own and not those of NASA or the SSA program.  Though I hope they are.)

You might be an engineer if… April 30, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, engineering, research, science.
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I know engineers have quirky personalities.  There are these things that most people take for granted that drives other people nuts…and vice versa.  The engineer will spend hours fixing something so it works just perfectly while others don’t care as long as it’s functional.

I realized lately that one of my big pet peeves has been programming languages.  Okay…that’s not just lately.  But still.  It really amazes me how you can do something so simply in one language but it’ll take you days to figure it out in another language.  I’ve been beating my head against this a lot lately.  While I learned programming a long time ago, as I went through my education, I learned other languages that had been optimized for working with certain types of problems.

So what am I dealing with now?  Languages that were among some of the first that I learned, and their offspring.

I have decided that I will be switching to do some of my work in another language, maybe even learning a new one that supposedly has a low learning curve.  On the other hand, I have to admit that my frustration certainly helps me to recognize the brilliance of the people who did all of their work in these languages.  The engineer in me can’t help but think the languages are clunky and inefficient.  I can’t be completely wrong, though: if they weren’t no one would’ve bothered to come up with new ones.

My Mom, the research advisor March 8, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in science, science fiction, younger son.
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Do you ever have conversations with your kids where you think, afterwards, something along the lines of, “I can’t believe we had this conversation?”

The younger son wants to breed dinosaurs…or at least generate dinosaurs from recovered dinosaur DNA.  He asked me if it was possible to do that, and I told him that I think, at this point, they can only generate an organism if they have a living cell.  Since he had recently made a plant cell out of perler beads for a class project, I figured he’d be able to understand a little bit about it.

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I explained how they cloned Dolly the Sheep by putting a nucleus from an adult cell into a fertilized egg which became a sheep that was genetically identical to the adult sheep.  Younger son asked if there was any way to insert dinosaur DNA into the nucleus of another cell, and I told him that while it sounds like a cool idea, I didn’t think it would work unless the DNA came from a living cell.

He seemed genuinely disappointed at that point, so I mentioned that maybe there were people doing research into that sort of thing and that he could maybe do it himself someday.

That apparently was the right thing to say because he started planning out what things he would need for a lab full of full-grown dinosaurs (including wide-open spaces with lots of trees for the brachiosaurs).  He mentioned that he’d start with plant-eaters, but maybe after a couple decades, move into meat eaters like t-rex.  I suggested he may want to read the book “Jurassic Park.”

After a bit, he said he seemed awfully young to be planning this stuff out, but that’s okay because he has time to work on it.  Then he gave me a hug and told me that he’d let me know if he managed to clone some dinosaurs.  I’m pretty sure that if he pulls that off, I would be hearing about it, one way or another.  Still, I’m glad he thinks it’s important to let his mom know…

Cale Anger, 1985-2015 February 8, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in geology, grad school, research, science.
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A good friend passed away a week and a half ago, and while it seemed somewhat personal to blog about it, I want to tell a bit of his story and acknowledge the loss.

I met Cale during departmental orientation at University of Minnesota, where I’m working on my PhD and he got his first master’s degree.  Within fifteen minutes of our first one-on-one conversation, we were pretty much telling each other our life stories as we discovered very quickly we had a lot in common.  One thing we had in common is we both loved food and coffee, so we loved to go places together that involved eating. In fact, almost every memory I have of him involves food as we made virtually daily trips to Starbucks.  The rest of the memories involve walking someplace (sometimes to and from food), but often we walked other places as we both enjoyed hiking.  My first hiking trip to the north shore of Lake Superior was with him and another friend.  The picture above is from a trip I took with him and his wife.  He was just like family, and it helped having him there when my family was back in Fargo.

Cale was a very smart and driven person.  After he finished his MS in geology (his research earned him a Best Student Presentation Award at GSA), he went on to get another MS in civil engineering.  His work focused on finding dioxins derived from triclosan (the antibacterial component of many hand soaps) in lakes around Minnesota.  His thesis won the University of Minnesota Distinguished Master’s Thesis Award and the research resulted Minnesota banning the chemical beginning in 2017.

Cale was an amazing person as well as a bright and hard-working researcher.  It’s rare to find someone who has that combination of brilliance, empathy, humor, and humility…and he somehow managed it all.  He was a very good friend to me personally over the past few years, and he seemed to have this ability to become friends with everyone he met.  He genuinely was one of the nicest people I’ve ever met.  Beyond that, he managed to make a positive impact on the world through his work.  The world seems a bit emptier without him, but letting others know about him and his contributions helps to fill that space.

Update: The Department of Civil Engineering and Geo-Engineering at the University of Minnesota has renamed their departmental thesis award after Cale.  They are attempting to create an endowment to fund a cash prize for the winners.  If you would care to donate, please go to http://give.umn.edu/giveto/caleanger .

Wheel of (PI) Fortune January 13, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, feminism, science.
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I came across an article in Science from last summer discussing chances of being a PI.  It included a calculator so that you could look at your various inputs (number of publications, first-author publications, etc.) and see what probability you have of becoming a PI.  (I’m going to state the caveat that this probably is most accurate for biological sciences given that’s where the algorithm is presented, but I didn’t see that stated specifically.)  Apparently, the dependency is most heavily weighted on two factors: number of first-author publications you have as well as highest number of citations on a first-author paper.

One interesting thing to note is that the chances of becoming a PI are better for men than women.  When I was going through the various examples, it seemed like men generally had about a 12% better chance than women but it seemed to range from about 12% at the greatest and decreased with additional qualifications.  The lowest difference I saw for people with the same qualifications was about 8%, but that was with the very highest qualifications.

Being of a somewhat practical bent, I decided to take this for a test run using both myself and my husband’s publication records.  The thing that was a bit shocking for both of us is that the heavy weighting on first authors and citations on first author papers meant that, despite the fact that he has more publications than I do, my publication record actually is better in terms of chances at a PI than his.  I have more first-author publications, and I also have more citations on one of my first-author papers.  For most people who know us both professionally, I’m pretty sure that’s not what they would expect.

Despite my ‘better’ publication record, his chances at being a PI were still better than mine…by 8%.  Given that delta seems to be close to the delta in general between men and women, it indicates to me that bias could be pretty significant factor in getting funding, especially early on in someone’s career when they’re low on some of those first-author publications.

Fortunately, I can happily write this off as a thought exercise given both of us have been PIs on our own projects.  I’m glad I didn’t know the odds going in, however.

Stop telling boys to go into STEM December 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, feminism, science, teaching.
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Stereotyping is always a bad thing, and most people don’t realize that men suffer just as badly from stereotypes as women.

Let’s look at science: there has been a ton of work going into how to attract girls and women into scientific endeavors, particularly those that are very math-intensive.  Much of the discussion centers on countering two issues: the first is the societal expectations that women go into ‘caring’ professions like teaching and nursing and the second is the stereotype that men are better at math.  There is nothing wrong with these efforts, but there’s a flip side to this stereotype that has a negative impact on men: there are a lot of men who go into STEM fields (probably engineering moreso than science) that probably don’t belong there.

Lest you think I’m just being negative toward men, this is actually something a man told me.  I had an English professor who was one of the best college teachers I’d had, I think in part because he was very knowledgeable in science.  In fact, he’d received a degree in engineering from Stanford but then shuffled around for several years before finally getting a master’s degree in English.  During one conversation, I asked him why he got a degree in engineering when he really loved literature.

There’s a strong expectation that if you’re a smart boy who’s good at math, you’re going to go into engineering.  That’s what everyone expected, so that’s what I did.

During the course of my teaching career, I’ve seen a lot of this.  I like to have students write me an introductory essay so that I can learn more about them and what they were hoping to learn from the class.  Many of them reiterated almost exactly what my professor said: “I went into engineering because I was told it was a good career for someone with good math skills.”

I’m not saying it’s not a good career for someone with math skills of either gender.  However, making a career choice should not be an either/or proposition based on problem-solving ability (lots of careers use that), and people are multi-faceted.  People can be good at math as well as art, literature, music, biology, communication, caring for others, etc.  Just because you’re good at something doesn’t mean that’s what your calling is nor necessarily where you should focus your energy.

While the majority of my best students were men, strictly as a result of the skewed sex ratio in my classes, the women were almost always in the top 20% of the class.  None of them were there simply because they were good at math: they almost always really wanted to be an engineer.  However, the least engaged students were always men: a lot of them were there because they hadn’t found their passion and felt they had to do something.  Engineering was it.

The flip side of the ‘men are good at math’ stereotype is that many of them go into it even when they would be much better off doing something else.  They’re discouraged from pursuing more ‘feminine’ careers and made to feel like failures if they don’t enjoy it.

So do the boys a favor: if they’re not sure where they want to go, don’t make engineering the default answer even if they are good at math.

 

How to fail as a skeptic December 16, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in religion, science, societal commentary.
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A few months ago, I wrote about my experience attending an atheist meeting.  If you don’t want to read it, I basically spent most of the time dealing with an argumentative jerk.  On the other hand, I expected that going in.

Part of the reason I expected that is because there is a large amount of cross-over between the atheist and skeptic community, and I’m slightly more familiar with the skeptic community.  My husband has been a member of CSI before it was called that, and we regularly get into conversations about articles we read in Skeptical Inquirer.  I also used to follow a lot of skeptical bloggers.  Frankly, the more I read and interact with skeptics, the less impressed I am.

My latest interaction with a skeptic just reinforced much of what I already felt (and commented on at the atheist meeting).  There is a sense among most skeptics that they are well-educated and rational and therefore whatever they happen to believe MUST hold up under scientific scrutiny, whether or not those facts have actually been researched.  If you come across one who has done the research, it’s likely they’ve done it in a way that has fallen victim to massive amounts of confirmation bias: choose the studies you like and discredit the ones you don’t.  Many atheists and skeptics don’t realize that confirmation bias occurs regardless of IQ and therefore they are just as prone to it as the folks they like to condemn as stupid.

If you try to argue the actual studies and data, you get responses like this:

Sounds like you only want to make certain subjects taboo–perhaps for personal reasons. That’s not a scientific attitude. So please take your ideological attitude elsewhere. And your bald opinions carry no credibility.

I am particularly amused when such comments come from non-scientists.

The quote above comes from someone who writes for Skeptical Inquirer, and while it wasn’t aimed at me, it was directed at someone who has better scientific credentials than the person who wrote that comment.  In another conversation with this person, similar comments were directed at me.

The crux of the matter is that this person simply would not hear any interpretations of data other than the one they wanted to.  I’m sorry, but that’s not skepticism.  Questioning data (on both sides) is a useful exercise to help you understand the limitations of such data, and it’s good to understand where data is useful and not.  However, being a skeptic does not mean you can throw it out if you don’t like it.  That means you’re a denier, even if you do have some scientific evidence for your viewpoint.

It’s interesting that CSI recently posted an article complaining about how the media misuses the term skeptic when it really means denier.  (Deniers are not Skeptics)  I agree with the sentiment, it also is a bit ironic because so many of the people I’ve interacted with really are better described as deniers.

One of the hallmarks of scientific thinking is supposed to be comfort with ambiguity.  It’s learning to say that one cannot extrapolate beyond the data one has, and drawing large-scale conclusions based on a handful of studies is really not scientific.  I’m not talking about things like climate science which has been extensively studied for decades and has a wealth of data (and believe me, I get frustrated enough myself dealing with deniers on that topic): I’m talking about a lot of other topics which have not been as extensively studied and suffer from shifting understanding.  Taking studies from even 20 years ago can be problematic in some areas because the basic assumptions and approaches may have shifted as new data comes out.  And in a lot of areas, particularly with those dealing with people, studies may not always have data giving a clear and decisive answer to one view or another.  (Confirmation bias can also mean that people will take ambiguous data as backing their own viewpoint.)

This lack of comfort with ambiguity and the notion that one’s reasoning trumps the data means that having a conversation with these folks is more like a wrestling match: it’s not really a discussion or exchange of ideas but an argument where there is a winner or a loser.  Any one who tries to recognize nuance in the data or discrepancies is said to have lost the argument or not understand science and how it works.  Frankly, I’ve had more fruitful conversations with fundamentalists.

If you want to call yourself a skeptic, that’s fine.  But if you use it as a bludgeon to convince yourself and everyone around you that your view is always right…well, don’t be surprised if I’m a little skeptical.

Biased for science December 10, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, geophysics, math, physics, science, societal commentary.
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I’ve taken a couple tests at Project Implicit.  The premise is that we have unconscious biases that may unknowingly affect decisions we make about other people.  I remembered this after coming across an article on race from the Washington Post.  I’d taken a test before that said I had a bias against blacks.  I’m owning up to it, but now that I’m aware of it, I try to recognize it’s there when making decisions.

I revisited the site to see if I could retake the test and if my results had changed, but I was distracted by the shiny things.  In particular, I saw there was a test on the subconscious preference to associate science with male and liberal arts with female.  Given the studies about how labs hire women less often and there is a subtle bias in salary, as well, I thought, “this could be interesting.”

And it was.  I was expecting to show a rather strong relationship between men and science.  Not only is that the most common association, but it seems like working in a male-dominated field would make that a no-brainer.

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Your data suggest a moderate association of Female with Science and Male with Liberal Arts…

I’m one of the 3% who took the test who has that association.  If what I read in the Washington Post article applies to this study, most of the people taking this test are younger, more liberal, and more female than the average population, so the test may actually mean that the 10% who associate females with science is actually an overestimate.

Why do I have that association, particularly working in the field I do?  (I feel a bullet list coming on.)

Some potential ideas:

  • Being a female scientist is a very strong part of my identity, so I would naturally equate the two.  While at first guess, I would think this would be a no-brainer, the studies I cited above seem to indicate that’s not the case for most women scientists.
  • I have a lot of female friends that are also scientists.  As an undergrad, I was the only female physics major, but I made friends with a lot of female math, engineering, and physics and math education majors.  In my MS program, I spent a lot of time with other women engineering students, the handful I could find.  Going to a grad program (in earth sciences) means I was in a program with near gender-parity among the students.  Through the beauty of the internet, I’ve also made friends with other women scientists.  I think I’m likely to “see” more women in science than the average person…or even the average scientist.  “Women in science” isn’t a token female here or there but an actual sizable demographic in my world.  I think that this sort of exposure has probably had the most profound effect on my biases.
  • I know a lot of men who are interested in liberal arts.  Probably the most strongly influential one is older son, who is very much into drawing and writing.  I spend a lot of time with him, so that also probably affects my perceptions.

I’m curious how others fare on this test as well as their analysis of their own results.

Yo mama is SO stupid she can’t explain plate tectonics! December 4, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, feminism, science, societal commentary, teaching.
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When selling something or conveying information, particularly when it is technical, one wants to make it easy and understandable.  Unfortunately, one of the most common approaches I’ve seen is to say one needs to make it easy enough for an older woman to understand, particularly a mother or grandmother.  One example of this issue was the IEEE article posted about the making of the Arduino that was erroneously titled, “With the Arduino, Now Even Your Mom Can Program.”  They corrected it and apologized.

Last week, I came across another one about having a “grandmother talk.”  Once people got upset about the sexist trope, the author changed it.  However, it was more out of frustration because people weren’t paying attention to his main point about communication.  (Note: if you piss off half of your audience with your title, chances are your communication may weak in certain areas.)

I don’t understand why they don’t just come out and title these things as such:

Yo mama is so stupid she can’t program an Arduino

Yo nana is so stupid she can’t science

I don’t think anyone would intentionally pick on grandma, but they apparently do so without realizing it.

The problem with using this terminology is that it assumes older women have no interest or ability when it comes to technical or complex information.  Frankly, I’m pretty sure that, with the right instructions, both my mother and grandmother could handle a lot of technical topics.  Being older females, however, people often assume that they are too ignorant to really learn things in depth.  But despite myriad counter examples, the stereotype still exists.  Some women really have little interest and ability in science, but there are also many, many women who are exceptionally talented scientists and engineers.

I have not yet seen, however, what seems to me a much better analogy: the kid talk.  What if your kids ask you questions and you have to simplify it to be developmentally appropriate or to meet the constraints of a limited attention span?

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When I try to make things understandable to kids, I take the approach that there may be developmental challenges that they’re not ready to meet, such as a particular level of abstract reasoning.  Perhaps they don’t yet have enough math to follow the technical details of a topic.  There is also the reality that even the most mature five-year-old is not going to listen to me go on and on for hours about a particular topic, except perhaps Legos.  The point of meeting them where they’re at is not because they are ignorant but because they’re inexperienced and uninformed.  While I suppose a few would get offended at such a characterization, it also acknowledges that they’re capable of learning more once they’re a bit more mature or if they have a particular interest.  It gives you some wiggle room, and you don’t have to stereotype anyone or be condescending.

I decided to put this into practice and once asked my older son to sit in on my classes.  He would’ve been a year or two younger than most of the kids in the class, but being tall, he blended in very well.  (It also helped that we don’t have the same last name.)  I felt the information would be useful for him, but I also wanted to get his take on what parts were confusing or needed work.  Beyond actually having a kid give you live feedback (because, let’s face it, they aren’t always available), it’s useful to even contemplate explaining concepts to kids.

There are a lot of marketing slogans to the effect of “so easy, a kid could do it,” but science and engineering communicators don’t generally seem to think this way.  Part of the problem is that they don’t view children as a potential audience, even though I think they’re a rather important subset of most groups.  I’m not saying you have to communicate on the level of a four-year-old, but an educated and curious 14-year-old will get you a long way.  I wonder if science would be more interesting if we saw these kids as our intended audience in most communication ventures.  At the very least, I’m sure there’d be more jokes.

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The #ShirtStorm and Its Double Standard November 18, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in feminism, research, science.
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I was a bit distracted and didn’t notice Matt Taylor’s shirt until today.  Now that I have seen it and thought about it, I’d like to say that I think the people who are upset are wrong.  Here’s why:

  • How many women get picked on because of the clothes they wear or how they do their hair?  If you missed it, this happens all the time while men get a free pass.  We usually say that making commentary on women’s attire is a crappy thing to do…so how come we’re doing it to a guy?  Treating a guy the way a woman normally is treated doesn’t make it okay…it means we shouldn’t be doing it to anyone!  I seriously would love to wear a similarly styled shirt with Wonder Woman on it…but I know I shouldn’t because I would be judged very harshly.  Why can’t we make it okay for everyone?
  • Most people I know believe that women should be allowed to wear whatever they want without being sexualized.  How many of those same people don’t like the shirt because the drawings are revealing?  Is a woman’s body supposed to be sexualized or not?  (That being said, anyone who thinks it was okay for him to wear that shirt, particularly if they’re defending it as “nerd culture” but expect women to dress or not dress certain ways is just as bad as the other side.)
  • If a woman should be allowed to wear what she wants without having conclusions drawn about her, why is it okay to draw conclusions that the guy wearing that shirt is inherently misogynist?
  • Why should scientists be held to a different standard of dress?  I keep seeing this business about how scientists ought to dress more professionally.  Says who?  Scientists don’t need dress codes any more than high school students do.  Scientists already have an image problem: people think of us as stuffy people who always wear lab coats.  I’m glad someone was excited and NOT being boring.  Science is cool stuff!

I do realize that much of the upset may be the power dynamic in STEM fields: there are far more men than women, and women are so very often not taken seriously.  There is also the potential that something like this could be used to make women feel uncomfortable.  (I don’t get the sense that this was the case, however, but I see the potential for it going wrong.)  Ideally, one of his colleagues might have been kind enough to point out that some people may take the shirt the wrong way.  As that didn’t happen, however, I don’t think the answer is to apply a set of standards to men when we are already complaining that they are unfair to women.  Likewise, I hope that all the folks defending him aren’t ever going to turn around and accuse a woman of dressing inappropriately.

Personally Matt, I wasn’t crazy about the shirt.  Like I said, I prefer Wonder Woman.

 

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