Thursday Night Dear Colleague Letter

Here’s a blog about something that happened today that’s kind of about me but also kind of not about me.  It’s hard to tell sometimes. 

Dear Colleague,

Good evening! We’ve worked together for a few years now. Today you sent an email to the Chair that described my work as “pathetic” and asked, “Do she otherwise contribute to the Dept? [sic])” Only you didn’t send it to the Chair of our department. You sent it to me. Oops!

The truly unfortunate thing about your error is that it brings forward my worst behavior, my “bad side” if you will, and you’ll see this demonstrated in a moment. Your email made me feel almost all teh feels. It made me defensive. “She do contribute!” I wanted to remonstrate, “Oh how she do!” Then I realized that there is nothing I can show that will convince either of us that I’ve done enough work and accomplished something good. I wasn’t raised to believe that about myself, and my guess is that you weren’t raised to believe that about me either. What a pickle.

Your email made me rageful. However much disgust you feel towards me is now reciprocated in the disgust that I feel towards you. I will remember both you and your words, to the detriment of us both. Wow. It wasn’t very ladylike of me to admit that, now was it? See, now I’m failing to absorb your contempt gracefully. Sigh.

Things are further deteriorating, because your email also made me think, and thinking is one of my worst behaviors. I thought about all of the times that I’ve gotten the clear message that I don’t belong in Science. Gee, your email was a love-letter compared to some of the stuff I heard as a student. And because I know I’m not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who work in Science. And because I know we’re not special, I multiplied this by the number of women who have left Science because, unlike me, they had at least one other option that looked better.

It made me wonder. “Why the f*ck are there any women in Science at all?” I keep asking myself. Is the price that I paid and keep paying worth it? I am sure that you believe that you’ve struggled during your career. Did you ever skip a holiday in order to meet a deadline? Me too! Did you ever spend a night in a Turkish police station trying to explain the concept of rape? No? Well, I did. It can really disrupt your field season, Boy howdy. I really wish that I could say that I am special in this respect. I know that I am not.

Your words impressed me. When I read them, I felt a tingle down my legs as my endocrine glands pumped fight-or-flight hormones into my quadriceps. I became physiologically prepared to run away from the university. Do you ever feel that way at your desk? When you read a paper that contradicts your findings? When you get a proposal rejected? Do the small disappointments of our calling threaten you viscerally, like a hunted animal who has recognized the smell of her predator? Could your career come apart like a sweater unraveling, one that you have knitted all of your life? No. Supposedly mine can’t either. But I feel as if it could. Gosh, your words have power.

Guess what, I did you a favor. I forwarded your email without comment on to its intended recipient, and I put you in the cc: field. I can explain to you how that works if you ask me nicely. I’m sorry for the awkwardness, but trust me, it won’t last. We’re just the latest contestants on everybody’s favorite game-show Let’s Pretend Nothing Happened! I’ll take print-it-out-and-shove-it-in-a-file for $400.

You didn’t ask for my advice, but I am going to give you some anyway: Learn to use your email. That “to:” field is not there just for decoration and I seem to remember “reply-all:” tripping you up more than once during the last few years. But don’t be discouraged, you’re way ahead of me. You’ve already learned how to type out what you really think and send it out into the world. I am just now learning how to do the same.

Sincerely Yours,

Hope Jahren

Why am I writing all this stuff? Because I can’t help it. You can read more about that here.

43 Minutes of My Melodious Voice Expounding Deep Insights

Have you ever you ever wondered what I sound like? Lucky for you, the shrill voice behind these raucous edicts has been recorded for posterity. Why not pop some popcorn and have a listen?

The good folks at “People Behind The Science” (, specifically ) just published this interview of me.  It’s 42 solid minutes of me saying a lot of stuff that sort of sounds like this post that explains why I love science.  You can also download the interview for free on iTunes.  Also check out all their interviews, there’s some really interesting people on there.

Still need moar? Here’s 3 minutes of me on Hawaii Public Radio talking about some of our research in 2010. And here’s me writing about this one time when I turned down an interview because, you know, principles. 

Six Things you Can Do when People Say Stupid Sexist Shit To You

Part of being a woman in Science is having your male (and, more rarely, female) colleagues bolt off-leash and say crazy shit to you on a regular basis. When I was seventeen I told my Calculus professor that I wanted to major in Math and he asked, “Why? So you can solve integrals in your bikini for dirty old men?” During the years that followed I heard “Probably they just needed a woman on the interview list” and “Why aren’t you home with your baby?” I fully expect to hear “Why aren’t you and your shriveled old uterus dead yet?” before it’s all over. In my old age, I’ve realized that I can’t make the stupid comments stop. I would if I could. I would wave my Good Witch magic wand and about five percent of the guys in the world would shut the f*ck up about ten percent of the time. But I can’t. So what can I do? I can present to you an incomplete list of your options.

Six Things you Can Do when People Say Stupid Sexist Shit To You

1. You can detach. When my son started little league they had to explain to me which one was the bat and which one was the ball, but I’ve learned a lot since then. For example, my son plays third base and if he makes a crap throw the first baseman can’t be blamed for not catching it. I’ve decided that human communication is also like this. If some bozo wings a wild crap verbal throw toward me, I don’t expect myself to catch it. I generally watch it go by like “That was a wild crap verbal throw. Your error.” They can say it, but I don’t have to take it in.

2. You can react honestly. Some say that you should just blow this stuff off and not let it get to you. That’s not only bullshit, it’s also pretty much impossible. One of your options is to say whatever comes into your head. I’ve used “Do I get to tell you what I think of you now?” and “I think that about half of what comes out of your mouth is garbage.” I was at a meeting where a male colleague (actually, my supervisor) brought up my single solitary RateMyProfessor.com review. It says, “Class sux its way to hard But shes hawt so at least theres something to look at”. My colleague guessed that this had flattered me. I answered him, “No it doesn’t, it hurts. It hurts to be called a ‘thing’.” Everyone present got uncomfortable as hell, and possibly thought me weak and whiny, but I asserted my dignity by claiming that hurt. The internet said that I am a “thing”. I say that I am not a “thing”. I am right.

3. You can smile. I also like this one. I smile a Mona Lisa smile and say, “I’m going to remember that you said that.” Then I quietly and physically stand my ground. I maintain eye contact and continue to listen. This greatly unnerves the bozo because people don’t much listen to each other any more, and people may not generally listen to this guy in particular. I claim the few square feet that I am standing upon and I will not be moved. I let him run away from me.

4. You can lawyer up. This one is tricky because not every horrible stupid thing a bozo can say to you meets the criteria for Sexual Harassment according to the terms set forth by your institution. I recommend familiarizing yourself with the policies (both state and corporate) that apply to your workplace. If you suspect they’ve been violated, you can say, “You know what? I know the laws on Sexual Harassment and you’re dancing on the edge of some ugly shit.” Will Dr. Bozo treat you differently after this? Hell YES, but that’s kind of the point. It’s better for both of you if he knows where you stand, and let’s face it, you were never going to be BFFs anyway. But guess what? Sometimes after you charge the air, they change their tune. I know, I know — it seems impossible, but sometimes they actually do.

5. You can simply keep going. It’s not only your short-term response, but your long-term response that matters here. Whether they know it or not, they say this stuff because they want you to go away. One way to win the argument decisively is just not to go away. Every day that I don’t go away is my victory. Maybe I’ve done some bad science, done it poorly, f*cked up and slid back – but I never went away. Yes, there were men who told me that I couldn’t do Science, and here I am doing it. And that’s how I know that they were wrong. That’s how I know that they are wrong about you too.

6. You can find your own style. There’s no right or wrong way to survive a car crash. Give yourself permission to react in the moment the way that seems natural, authentic, strategic, safe, whatever. You and your self-worth are what’s important here, not them. For me, it’s simple. Almost as simple as they told me I was.

 

Are you a guy who doesn’t say stupid sexist shit to women? Good for you, here’s a cookie <<nom nom>>. Here’s also a bunch of bossy advice about how to be an ally.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

I’ve reviewed a lot of proposals lately and it has made me cranky, so here I am trying to teach the Hungry Man how to Fish and thus Eat for a Lifetime. I’ll be blunt: Have you been getting evaluations of “good” on your grant proposals? If yes, then you really need this information.

How to Turn A “Good” Proposal Into An “Excellent” Proposal in Eight Admittedly Arduous Steps

1. Do the Math.  You’ve already done the budget, right? Because budgeting work comes apart in your hands like dry f*cking cornbread, creating more and more crummy little tasks as you handle it until suddenly it’s done and you’re not totally sure what happened, but you do have an excel file with a grand total figure somewhere near the bottom. Write this big fat number on the back of your hand with a Sharpie and stare at it for a few days. You know what? That number represents a crapton of money by anyone’s standards. Divide that number by ten, or even a hundred. Now ask yourself, “What would it take to convince me to give someone that much of my money?” Uh-huh, I thought so. Listen: your proposal has to be well-nigh perfect to even have a chance of being discussed, let alone funded. Yes, proposal writing is the hardest part of the job, simply because there’s so much at stake for all parties concerned.  So get ready cause this is going to be slightly less fun than a goddam root canal.

2. Be Specific.  I don’t know about you, but before I give my money away, I want to be fully confident that the person I am giving it to has both a clue about what they’re doing and a plan for how to get there. Paragraphs explaining how Climate Change is Real or why Cancer is Bad are not helpful to me; if I am even considering giving you tens of thousands of dollars to study something then I probably believe it’s important even more than you do. What I want are the specifics of how you are going to get the question answered. I want to evaluate the details of your approach. You need to convince me that you’ve thought hard about it, considered your options, and visualized what success looks like from start to finish.

Let’s start with the Title. Here’s a sucky Title for a proposal:

“Characterization of Rat Vomit”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Okay how about ‘rat vomit is gross?’ There, I just characterized it. Whoop-de-doo.

Here’s a better Title:

“Identification of Rare Amino Acids within Rat Vomit using Barfatron Energy Spectra”

As a reviewer, I see this and think, Golly, I didn’t know the Barfatron could do amino acids. Let’s see what the kids are up to in this one.

Note that the better Title states not only what you want to figure out, but how you propose to do it. Now I’m going to read your proposal in order to find out how many rats, how much puke, which amino acids and why those, how you correct for bile and saliva contamination, etc., etc. Ironically, we both know damn well that you won’t end up following this exact course of action, best-laid-plans and all, but proving to me that you can form a realistic plan is absolutely key.

3. Be Quantitative.  After you write anything, go back and replace all qualitative statements with quantitative ones. General Rule for All Scientific Writing: If it is worth taking up the space to say it, then it is worth saying precisely. Knowing and showing the numbers is basically the only thing that separates a Scientist from a Guy Selling Vitamins At The Mall. Both callings have their place, I suppose, but government agencies are better oriented towards funding the former.

Example time! Here’s a sucky Methods sentence:

“We will collect vomit from each rat in sufficient volume for analysis.”

Here’s a better version:

“Once a week during Year 2, a cohort of one hundred post-menopausal female rats will be monitored for pallor changes upon the administration of 150 mL of Woolworth’s ipecac solution. All esophageal expulsions produced during the twenty-four hours following the initialization of regurgitation will be collected within sterile 1L Lufthansa sick bags fastened to subjects’ ears using STAPLES’ staplers and staples.”

4. Tell Me Why Oh Why.  While your proposal’s Introduction has to be mighty short, it must argue in stringent terms that academia as we know it will come to a grinding halt unless someone does the work you propose. Tell about how you examined the shit out of the literature only to become aware of a gaping hole in the current state of knowledge even as it dawned on you that you – and really only you — are perfectly set up to rectify this serious collective intellectual oversight.

Get it? Here’s a sucky Introduction sentence:

“Numerous studies have characterized the inorganic acids in rat vomit [refs. 1-8], but to our knowledge, no work has been performed to identify rare amino acids.”

Here’s a better version:

“The chemistry of rat vomit remains the gold standard for diagnosis of tummy health, a measure of wellness that can be usefully extrapolated to every organism that has ever lived [ref. 1]. My survey of the literature revealed that amino acid concentrations seldom exceeded 99.9 kg/ml in both pre- and post-menopausal rat vomit [refs. 2-9]. These studies, though current, did not incorporate the contribution of rare amino acids, as their detection has only been made possible by recent advances in Barfatron technology. My previous work has demonstrated exhaustively within other contexts how rare amino acids actually control the whole damn world [refs. 10-12]. Here I propose to definitively quantify the contribution of rare amino acids to rat vomit across menopausal status, thus making possible a new definition of rat nausea, integrated across an energy spectrum ranging from gamma to radio waves.”

5. Consider The Funder’s Objectives.  Newsflash: Funding agencies don’t give away money just to experience the Rockwellian charm of playing Santa Klaus. The agencies, as well as those in their service, are actually trying to accomplish something. To get funding, you not only have to convince reviewers that you’re competent, you must also convince the agencies that you represent the wisest possible investment towards meeting their objectives. The only way to get a clear idea of what the program’s objectives are is to call or visit the Program Manager and ask her (or him, I guess) directly. She’ll start out by saying, “It’s simple: We want to fund the best science,” but keep her talking and you’ll eventually hear things like, “Wow, I’ve heard a lot of buzz over rare amino acids, tell me more,” or perhaps, “Yeah, but so much of the Barfatron work that we funded in the 1990s proved to be a dead-end.” These conversations are invaluable when you are deciding which grants to apply for. Writing a fundable proposal is a huge task, you can’t just shot-gun towards every solicitation you see, it just ain’t gonna work. You need to get feedback about your idea’s fit before you start, and that’s where talking to the Program Manager comes in.

6. Write it Well.  Okay, now you have to make all that super specific arcane shit interesting to read. The better written it is, the more of the proposal the reviewer will actually read. More reading equals more chance at gaining an informed review and useful suggestions. Beware of joining multiple PI grants where each “writes her/his own section” and then someone stacks it into a 15-page science Jenga: such piles usually collapse into rejectionland before they even hit the panel. It’s simply inescapable that near to the deadline, one of the PIs has to take the reigns for at least three days and read the whole thing out loud a few times to make sure that it flows well and makes sense. And they must also format it beautifully, with at least one dazzling figure or colorful illustration per page – which looks a lot better than any whole page of monolithic black text. Sound like too much work? Then let’s do some more math! Take the grand total dollar figure and divide it by 15 pages, and guess what, that’s how much money each page of your writing thinks it deserves. Ask your journalist friends how much they get paid per page. Upshot: proposal writing has to be the best writing of your career.

7. Gird Your Loins.  Steel yourself for a long haul, because most grants will have to go around at least two times. It’s rather like the revision process with a manuscript in that it’s quite rare when something gets accepted without any revisions. Odds are that your reviewers are going to have expertise very close to your own and the funding agency is counting on them to help you tweak your proposal into a plan with the maximum likelihood to succeed. As with papers, the objective is not to get past the reviewers, it is to learn something from them. The best way to show that you’ve done this is to include an explicit boxed paragraph before the Introduction stating how any revised proposal has been changed due to input gained during the previous cycle. Mayhaps thusly:

“Within the previous version of this proposal, Panelist #1 objected strongly to our request for one large yacht within which to sail rats back and forth between Oxnard and Catalina Island as a method for triggering seasickness prior to actual vomit collection. In this version, we have reduced costs drastically by substituting four semesters of support for one RA who will spend 10 hrs/wk sharply kicking each rat in the solar plexus until a glassy-eyed retching posture is achieved, in keeping with the suggestion of Panelist #2 that we ‘hit the little f*ckers until they blow chunks’.”

8. Don’t Lose Hope.  Buck up because it’s probably going to be okay. If you can get just one decent-sized grant before you go up for tenure, that may be enough; it sure will be if I’m reviewing your file. If you can get into the habit of writing two good grant proposals each year, you’ll improve rapidly with each cycle and likely get there in time. I’ll say it again: always talk to the Program Manager before writing, tell her your idea and pour your heart out. And remember that even though you’re an expert, you still have an awful lot to learn.

Guess what I’m psychic! Lots of people are going to say that the above advice is sort of good but also sort of wrong and that I should have instead specified x, y and z. The people who say that should go write their own blog posts and specify x, y and z. Then they should tweet me so that I can read & RT them.

And just in case someone is still reading, I feel moved to gripe about how I really, really hate the words “Characterization” and “Implications” to the point that I wish that they had never been invented by the Greeks or Lats or whatever, both being so vague as to be utterly useless. I don’t care how you ‘characterize’ something, I want to know what you measured. I don’t care what you think the ‘implications’ are, I want to know what you claim this means. For cripes sake, quit dancing around and say something, so I can either agree or disagree with you and we can both move on with our lives.

Fortunately for the world at large, I have lots more unsolicited advice to give out, such as what you should do after you get tenure, what to say about climate change, whether or not to have a baby and how to make cheese.  You also can’t comment on this page and here’s why.

My 2-page Comic Book on “The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia”

Here’s some deep wisdom for ya!

My 2-page comic book on The Five Stages of Post-Graduate Academia (1.5 Mb)

Can you print it? Yes you can! I bought all the photos from Dreamstime with my own allowance money, fair and square.

And why the hell not read all my other comic books?

About the images: I usually feature waxy-looking photos of women in my comics, but this time I sprung the extra buck for men. Switchin’ it up! 

Wear-Your-Damn-Safety-Glasses Safety Poster

You may have seen this bloody safety glasses photo making the rounds on Twitter.  This photo was taken by the amazing chemist Ian Tonks (@ianatonks) after an unlucky incident involving glass and his face.  He first tweeted it at me, @TheCollapsedPsi and @Chemjobber during a conversation we were having about #labscars.

With Ian’s permission, I made his photo into this poster!  Why not print a million copies for the walls of your lab?  I did.

click on it for the big-ass hi-res version.jpg for download

SafetyGlasses Poster (click on "3456 × 2592" below for high-res .jpg version)

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Quite frequently nowadays, other professors ask me if they should be on Twitter.  “This is kind of sad,” I think to myself, “How did we get to the point where I’m giving computer advice?”  I’ve decided to generously make my opinions available.  Here they are right in front of your very eyeballs. 

What I Say When My Colleagues Ask Me If They Should Be On Twitter

Twitter is like a river.  It’s a river of information flowing by.  Some of the information is important.  Some of it isn’t.  Twitter can be a clear and pure mountain stream and it can also be a rank and fetid conduit of human sewage.  It can be all of these things at the same time.  Every day I go down to the river and toss a few rocks in.  They mostly disappear under the surface without ceremony.  Once in a great while I make a small splash.  Every day I get a little wet down at the river, which can be kind of refreshing.

“Join the Conversation!” commands Twitter, and we obligingly comply.  “Where does all this Conversation go?” you might ask me.  Well, it flows down the Mighty River of Sh*t into the Great Ocean of Oblivion.  The whole process takes about eight seconds (at most).  Supposedly you can go dredge the ocean years later and relocate any drop of water you care to, no matter how random it was.  This means that Victoria Beckham might one day contact me and ask to see my Baby Spice Dance, which I never had the chance to make public before I got on Twitter.  It also means that I may someday be taken to task for the disparaging generalizations I’ve made about #heterotrophs, who can be disappointingly sore losers in a metabolism-based #smackdown.  Like a lot of other things in life, Twitter can be as much or as little as you want it to be.  No, Twitter probably won’t help you organize your desk drawers or lower your cholesterol but it is particularly good for a few things.

Twitter is useful for five things:

1.  Meeting people.  You will inevitably meet people on Twitter because there’s always somebody down at the river — day or night, rain or snow, Christmas Eve or Thermonuclear Doomsday.  People meet their soulmates on Twitter.  They meet their deranged stalkers as well, and every imaginable scenario in between.  Twitter is great for combatting isolation.  Here in Hawaii we spend long hours in the lab while the mainland is sleeping or shoveling snow or being on CSPAN or whatever the hell it is you guys do over there.  Twitter allows us to share the small victories of lab-life with the handful of other people in the world who “get” what it’s like to piss yourself with delight over the growth of a new leaf.  This is invaluable to us and has improved our sorry lot immeasurably just within the last year.

2.  Saying something.  If Twitter is like a river, it’s also like graduate school in that you shouldn’t just get in and float around aimlessly for a few years.  What do you want to say?  What do you need to say?  Whatever it is, go say it, even if it is controversial.  Especially if it is controversial.  And you will inevitably step on someone’s toes, it’s unavoidable.  Credibility is an interesting thing both IRL and on Twitter.  A lot of Twitter-cred is simply a function of how much time you’re willing to spend on the riverbank.  You probably won’t have any luck arguing with someone who lives 24/7 at the river’s edge.  So set your own limits according to what else you’ve got going.  Remember that you can come and go from the river as you please, Good Glory it don’t need you to keep it flowing.  And do remember that tweeting about an issue is not the same as doing something about it.

3.  Expressing rage.  Some users really go in big for this option.  If you need evidence that Homo sapiens is a rageful species, Twitter is a convenient and supremely fecund source.  Some of the anger is straightforward to understand, since injustice inevitably inspires legitimate rage.  I suppose all rage is a legitimate response to something, just only rarely toward whomever it’s being tweeted.  Combine this with the fact that on Twitter one is not excessively accountable for one’s rage and you get The Perfect Interpersonal Storm.  Listen, you can scream insults in ALL CAPS for hours on Twitter, and you will not be held accountable in the same way that your neighbors will hold you accountable if you go out your front door and scream profanity at the top of your lungs all night long.  This has value because IRL accountability is often based on norms founded upon unjust power structures that are rendered deliciously ineffective by the internet.  Yes indeed, this has value, but it also carries a cost – and this cost is exacted not only from the person being screamed at, but also from the screamer’s overall effectiveness.  Incongruously enough, anger ultimately rings rather impotently through the halls of Twitter, while unexpected kindness can echo long.

4.  Setting an example.  One thing that makes Twitter so interesting is that there are almost no rules.  No one can control what hashtag you post to or what words you type, although I’ve seen people expend an impressive amount of energy trying to do just that.  I strongly recommend that you choose your own rules before setting sail down the River Twitter.  First take the time to explore your values.  What kind of person do you believe you are?  What kind of person do you want to be?  Decide the circumstances under which you would block a user who is attempting to communicate with you.  It may not seem likely at the start, but these will be criteria to which you’ll eventually appeal.  It’s constructive to consult the concept of reciprocity, and the long history of the internet can be useful here.  You can learn a lot about a user by examining a few days of recent feed.  Has the person demanding that you listen to them ever demonstrated a willingness to listen to anyone?  Has the person demanding that you change ever evidenced a change in themselves?  Deliniate your personal threshhold for reciprocity, set your limits, and then act accordingly.  Oh, and by the way, if you do this right then your students are watching you, as are a bunch of young people you don’t even know.  What example will you set for them in terms of how to handle internet conflict?  What will you teach them about how scientists should treat each other?

5.  Experimenting with your identity.  You can claim any identity you want on Twitter.  Start from the assumption, however, that most people want to know the real you.  Unless you make it relentlessly explicit that you are a parody account, people will assume that whatever you tweet is basically your real opinion.  What do you really think?  What do you really care about?  It is an interesting experience to tweet your opinions outloud.  You’ll also hear interesting opinions, sometimes held by unlikely identities.  There’s this rabbit that runs a lab and recently an urchin got on Twitter and by gosh I lay awake at night wondering what they’ll say next.  Many smart journalists have twitter feeds where they pull what is actually interesting out of the vast septic intertank as some kind of penance for something, I imagine.  Always remember that every tweet you read is out-of-context because there is no context that fits into 123.7 characters or whatever the hell the number is.  A healthy first reaction to every and any tweet is “Golly, I wonder what the hell the context for that could possibly be!”

So there’s five reasons for ya.  Since when have you had five good reasons to do anything?  Were there five good reasons to go to this week’s Faculty Meeting?  Exactly.  So go ahead and set up a Twitter account!  Hell, set up two or three or six.  Paint your nails and tweet a picture, you never know what might happen.  Come on down to the river and make your choice – because in the end, every time you tweet you are making a choice — whether you realize it or not.  Like every other arena of your life, you are choosing to what and whom you will give your time and emotional energy.   On Twitter, you will never be able to choose what people say to you.  But you are the one who chooses what you say back.

Do you like being told what to do by people who think they know everything?  If so you’re in the right place!  Here’s my advice on how to Get A Faculty Job, How to Save Time Your Faculty Job once you get it, and what to do After You Get Tenure.