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Scientific Status Quo July 12, 2015

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, family, feminism, research, societal commentary, work.
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A couple days ago, @katiesci posted this opinion piece from Science by Eleftherios Diamandis on getting noticed.  I was rather frustrated with the article because the way to get noticed was apparently to put in a lot of face time (which is probably decent advice) and to publish like crazy (also not bad advice), even if it means you have to work unrealistic schedules and foist all of your childcare duties onto your spouse.

It was this last part that got under my skin because it’s so much a recapitulation of the status quo: you can’t do anything else and be a scientist, forget balance if you want an academic career.

I have to admit I jumped to a pretty lousy conclusion when I read the following:

I worked 16 to 17 hours a day, not just to make progress on the technology but also to publish our results in high-impact journals. How did I manage it? My wife—also a Ph.D. scientist—worked far less than I did; she took on the bulk of the domestic responsibilities. Our children spent many Saturdays and some Sundays playing in the company lobby. We made lunch in the break room microwave.

I can’t presume to know the dynamic between the author and his wife, and it may be that she was perfectly happy with this arrangement.  Academic couples tend to understand better than others how frustrating this career path can be, and I know there were several occasions where either my husband or myself was bringing the other dinner/microwaving in the lobby or lunch room to help ease the stress of deadlines along with an empty stomach.

But what about the people for whom this is not an option?  Most of the people I know get very upset if their spouse is putting in more than 60 hours per week.  Are they just supposed to give up?  What about people who are physically unable to work those types of hours?  Even if you are physically capable, it’s bad for you in the long run and turns out to be rather useless.

If anything, this just reinforced that to make it in science, you don’t have to do good science, you just have to be willing to give up any semblance of a family life and turn into a squeaky wheel.  I’m not sure what the author intended to convey, but reading this piece was rather disheartening.

Instead, I’d rather have heard about how the author’s wife did it: how is it she was able to work less hours than him, raise their kids, and still manage to have an apparently successful career?  At least, that’s the implication at the end of the piece.  To me, it sounds like she was able to handle a very unbalanced load successfully, and unless it’s, “don’t sleep,” I would think she may have some advice worth sharing with the rest of us mere mortals.  If you happen to be from Science magazine, could you please let her know?

 

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.

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.

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.

The internet makes me impatient November 17, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, research.
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I really, really needed to get ahold of a book.  I looked at all three libraries I have access to.  One has a hard copy, but it’s a couple hours away so getting it would be tough (to say the least).  The second library said it was available online, but apparently the institutional subscription doesn’t cover that book.  The price of buying it is $15/chapter.  The other library had no idea what I was talking about.

I went onto Amazon to check if a digital copy was there.  It’s not.  It’s an older book and so there isn’t a kindle version.

I finally gave up and bought a copy of the book, but it won’t be here until Wednesday.

Part of me is very annoyed I have to wait that long for a book.  Another part of me remembers only 10 or 15 years ago when I would have to order journal articles through interlibrary loan and they sometimes took a couple weeks to show up.  I would be waiting for a day or two, but then I’d end up working on something else that I found distracting.  It kept me going for a while, but then I would realize I was stuck without the paper, at which point I’d start getting irritated again.

I think I’m getting more impatient as I get older, though.  As you can see from the graph below, it’s a straight shot upward.

waiting_for_publications

 

This scares me because my kids are already used to the situation where books are instantly available or they only have two wait a day or two to receive something.  What are they going to be like as adults?!

Or worse yet…what will I be like in another 15 years?

Science makes you a slob October 8, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school, research.
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I’ve been trying to work through a problem, and it’s one of those things that’s taking up all my brain power.  Unfortunately, it’s turned me into a slob.

I woke up this morning and made myself breakfast and tea.  I went and got dressed.  Then I sat down and forgot pretty much everything.  (I remembered to eat, so there’s that.)  When my reminder went off that I needed to pick the younger son up from school, I realized that the table was full of mail and dishes, I was still wearing the sweatpants I’d thrown on in a hurry, I still was wearing my glasses, and my hair hadn’t been brushed.

Unfortunately, I also still hadn’t solved my problem.  That bothered me far more than the other stuff, but not by much.

Indices of usefulness May 28, 2014

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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While tootling around on IEEE Explore, I noticed the metrics tab on many of the articles.  I’d never really looked at it before.  (I’d seen it was there, but never paid much heed.)  I clicked on it and thought,

OMG!  Someone looked at my paper!

That was kind of cool.  I wasn’t sure if that meant that someone just looked at the online page that includes the abstract or read the actual paper.  According to IEEE, “Usage includes PDF downloads and HTML Views.”  Awesome.

Except I noticed something rather disturbing.  I have one paper that has been looked at over 200 times, but hasn’t been cited once.  On the other hand, I have another paper that has a fraction of the views but has been cited several times.  To be perfectly honest, I consider the first paper to be far better than the second one.  Then there’s a third one with several more citations than any of my other papers but barely has been looked at.  And I consider this paper rather…Ugh.

This left me pondering: why do some papers get cited while others don’t.  I don’t think quality is the issue because, as I mentioned, the papers that are cited more are ones that I consider to be some of my less favorite papers.  I don’t think innovation is an issue, either (although for some people it is).

I have noticed that papers with co-authors who travel a lot to conferences get more citations than other, better papers (although these papers are usually cited as examples of particular applications and not so much for foundational material).  And conference papers seem to be cited more than journal papers.  Going on that, I’m starting to wonder how much of citation (at least in my field) tends to be more of an issue of looking for certain authors (particularly ones they’ve seen at conferences) versus doing an in-depth lit review.

Given how I don’t like to travel a whole lot, this does not bode well.  It’s also a bit disconcerting to think that the only thing that matters is actual citations when an uncited work could actually be having a bigger impact and wider readership than a cited work.

Rejecta engineerica December 18, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in engineering, papers, research.
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Obviously my Latin is rusty.  Probably because I never had Latin, except for a few dinosaur names I learned way back when.

As I was cruising the internets today, I came across a journal titled Rejecta Mathematica…which I can’t seem to access, even though it’s supposed to be open access.  It prints only papers rejected by other mathematics journals.

I wondered what such a journal in engineering would be called as I can’t find the Latin word for engineering anywhere.  However, there are a couple of journals I suspect have already taken on the premise.

It made me realize, as I was contemplating this, that I have never had the occasion to publish in one of those journals, and I hope I never have to.  Not that I have a prolific publishing history, but I haven’t been rejected for a publication yet.

Except I’m worried about that happening for the first time.  I’m currently working on a paper that I think has a realistic possibility of being rejected.  It’s not that it’s not a solid paper, but that the venue is rather selective.

I guess I’ll keep my fingers crossed that it doesn’t happen.  I really don’t want to have to put this particular paper into the Rejecta Engineerica, even if that’s not its official title.

 

I hate computers December 9, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in computers, grad school.
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pulling-hair-out

I hate it when things don’t work the way they should….like when your software license that’s supposed to last for one year suddenly stops working after 8 months.

Sadly, that was pretty much the highlight of the day.

The Dynamic Duo December 6, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in career, engineering, family, papers, research.
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When I was doing my MS, I ended up getting a research assistantship working in the same place as Mike (which is, of course, where I now am working).  There was one person higher up in the ranks who would occasionally see us having lunch together and would exclaim, “There’s the Dynamic Duo!”  This person was rather tickled that Mike and were interested in the same field of engineering.

At the time, it kind of peeved me.  I was already getting a bit of a feeling that people viewed me as his shadow, and this comment didn’t help to alleviate that concern.  Now I think about it, however, and it actually was much better than I thought because there was no implication that either one of us was better than the other: we were peers.

We both take this view when we’re doing research, and we really enjoy collaborating on things.  We’ve found that our strengths are complimentary, so it’s very easy to talk to each other about a topic and get good feedback.  We also have several projects that we’re doing separately, but we almost always (especially on our drives home) talk about what we’re doing and asking for feedback.  (Well, admittedly, it’s volunteered whether we want it or not.)

Those conversations have, more often than not, been incredibly helpful in moving projects forward.  However, this leaves us in a bit of a bind because, as I said, some of these projects really aren’t involving the other person.  When this happens, especially if the project results in publication, we always have to make a decision: do we add the other person as co-author or mention them in the acknowledgements.  When it’s been nothing more than conversational input, particularly when we proofread each other’s papers, we choose the latter.  This does lead to some interesting possibilities for entertaining acknowledgements.

I would like to thank my spouse for suggesting such a nifty title.

or

I would like to thank my spouse for catching that diagram that was completely bass ackwards when proofreading the paper for me.

and maybe even

I would like to thank my spouse for the helpful input in developing the concept of this project, despite the fact that they laughed at my hokey acronym.

I know.  It’s totally unprofessional.  But it’s a lot of fun to imagine doing such a thing.

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