Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Since I contributed this Op-Ed to an issue of last month’s New York Times, I have received a massive amount of reaction to it. For the most part, I have been listening but not talking. Now after thinking carefully, I find that I have a few more things to say.

Follow-up To My Op-Ed in the New York Times

Commenters have raised several issues: foremost among them is that my story, as well as my very self, are not representative of all women. This is a valid criticism. I have told my story with accuracy and honesty after long contemplation, but it is my story only. I will not presume to tell another woman’s story.

The study by Kathryn Clancy, Robin Nelson, Julienne Rutherford and Katie Hinde reports data gained from hundreds of women. My experience differed from the majority of respondents in Clancy et al. 2014 in some critical ways. Most importantly, my assault involved a stranger who was not a fellow scientist. In contrast, women respondents within Clancy et al. 2014 reported that “their perpetrators were predominantly senior to them professionally within the research team.”  This makes the following a crucial piece of information: The threat of assault is most likely to arise from within the cohort of travelling scientists.

Commenters have noted that my piece does not treat the multiple issues of race and class that intersect with violence against women. This valid criticism is a part of a much larger ongoing discussion examining the exclusionary history of mainstream feminism. I recommend this post by Ambika Kamath as particularly insightful about my piece; her follow up is also important.

Many commenters also noted that violence against women is hardly a problem unique to Science. As I wrote, I believe violence against women arises from the “fundamental and culturally-learned power imbalance between men and women” (my words), a pre-existing condition within virtually every sphere of our lives. It is equally valid to specifically question whether women are safe while practicing Science as it is to question whether they are safe anywhere while doing anything.

Commenters have critiqued the Colonizer mentality that drove the reconnaissance that I attempted. This is absolutely valid. The idea that an establishing scientist must go into an unstudied locality and claim it as one’s own was a model in common use twenty years ago. Since then things have changed for the better, and my grantsmanship demonstrates how my own approach has evolved. The best international field programs are now shared ventures with extensive local participation. Scientific funding agencies actively promote and often require the prior establishment of international collaboration to support foreign fieldwork. The rise of the internet after Y2K made the process of opening correspondence with international colleagues immeasurably easier, and smartphones have made travel easier, and safer, as well.

I would like to address the emails that I have received, because I will not be able to answer them individually.

To the college students who have written to ask me if they should pursue Science given the realities that I have named: I have experienced great joy while working as a Scientist, and I cannot imagine my life any other way. I have also experienced great fear and I have tried to describe its effect on me to the best of my ability. In the end, I would not trade my career for any other calling. I have given all my efforts to Science and it has rewarded my imagination with riches beyond description. Observations that I have made will live on in libraries long after I am dead. I will always believe that being a Scientist is the best job in the world.

To the administrators who have sent me drafts of new policy guidelines for fieldwork: I regret to tell you that I will not be able to evaluate them or give you input. There are women and men at your institution who have valuable insight into what is needed. But before you ask them to pour effort into creating new policy, you must find a way to free them from some of their other duties.

To the people who have written to ask me how to prepare their daughters for a career in Science: Prepare her the same way you prepare her for Life. Tell your daughter that she is more than her body. Tell her that she has a precious heart and mind and soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. My parents and I have not always seen eye to eye, but I have never doubted that they believe this about me. This is what got me through. You must tell this to your daughter often, so that it builds with interest like savings that she can count upon if she is ever in need of a very large withdrawal.

To the people who have written to tell me their own stories of pain and anguish: What happened to us was wrong and evil and not our fault. Hear me: you are more than a body. You have a precious heart and a mind and a soul that cannot be degraded by the events of this world. I believe that about me, and I believe that about you.

To my colleagues near and far: Everything I learned during my scientific training tells me that Clancy et al. 2014 represents quality research that should be used to change the world. When I read it, I encountered the data of hundreds of broken hearts and it broke mine open also. Please do not harden yours against its findings, even if they make you uncomfortable. We can still make Science into the noble institution that we hoped it would be. Print it out, take it to your Chair or Dean, and start the conversation.

Scientists all over the United States are already planning for their next field season. I cannot see a way to make these endeavors safer that does not involve all of us starting to talk openly about these issues. This year, as during every other, our universities, colleges and research institutes will send thousands of women into the field in order to study our natural world. I spoke out because I know that their safety is more important than my discomfort, and yours.

 

Here’s one more link to Clancy et al., 2014.  Please read it and distribute (it’s Open Access).

 

 
 

My 1-page Comic Book on “Having The Talk With Your Student”

It’s Back-To-School Time! Have you had The Talk with your student yet?

Not sure how? Here’s a handy guide you can Download at the low, low cost of absolutely nothing! It comes to you in the form of a 1-page comic book that I made without any help from grownups (it’s a 1.3 Mb pdf file).

Hey, go read my post from the other side of the fence to further enrich your perspective. Then go read all my other comic books as long as you’re here. I guarantee satisfaction or your money back. Then go stare out the window for a while, forever changed.

About copyright: Yes, you can print this!  It’s all super-duper-legal because I bought the images from Dreamstime for a shockingly measly sum. Golly, how do they do it!?!
 

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.

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.

I Love Science Because

Ever wonder why I love Science?  Probably not!  But I do, and here’s why.
 

I Love Science Because 

I love Science because I love plants.  I love that they are so different than we are, and so fundamentally unknowable because of it.  I love how they flaunt their success and tower over us, living longer, growing bigger and never coming inside out of the rain.  I love to pull their leaves off and the end of an experiment, telling them, “Ok you little f*ckers, you controlled my life for three months and now I control yours”.  I love that IRB doesn’t give a shit if I do this.

I love Science because I love the look I get when I explain something complicated and it really gets through.  I love Science because I love the look I get when I set someone’s Crackpot Radar off.

I love Science because it is so frivolous and lets me study things that went extinct long ago and are never coming back.  My research is like my earrings that don’t keep me warm or dry, and they only glitter if you stand very close and like that sort of thing.  I love Science because it is so necessary and every screw in every doorknob was first a calculation of rotational force, was first an experiment testing the tensile strength of a metal alloy.

I love Science because we make it up as we go along.  Each season we create a new terminology from scraps of last year’s jargon like hipsters putting together an outfit at the Goodwill.  I love to talk oh-so-seriously about Biomineralization, Geobiology and Paleoanthroposols at a conference that is actually an expensive Gen-X coffee house poetry slam.  I love Science because when I talk off-the-cuff about my research I find useful only simple words like work, try, want, care and love love love.

I love Science because it lets me be a child, to play in the dirt and laugh.  I love Science because it lets me be a teenager, to rebel and defy the university and demand to borrow its car keys on the same day.  I love Science because it lets me be an adult, responsible for machines that cost more than my house.  I love Science because it will never make me retire, and so someday I will be a wrinkled old lady in a dusty outmoded lab, providing a safe place for yet another nineteen year old who feels like they don’t belong anywhere else.  I love Science because it is my life.

I love Science because it lets me interact with young people who are trying to grow and change, and this has preserved me body and soul to the point that I may move undetected amongst them.  I love Science because it lets me ignore old people who are convinced that the world used to be so much better despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.  I love Science because my hopeless task is to transform myself into the impossible, to get a little less stupid each day until I finally know it all.  I love Science because I have co-workers closer than siblings, who wouldn’t throw themselves in front of a bus for me, but would certainly throw with me, which I much prefer.

I love Science because I am constantly mistaken for a student, a secretary, a waitress.  It makes me remember being with my father at the community college where he taught, and the many who mistook him for a janitor after hours.  I remember how he would get out his huge ring of keys and amicably open whatever door they needed.  And how he would look at me hard and tell me to remember this, because there is dignity in all work that needs doing.

I love Science because it is the only friend I have that will stay up punishingly late with me and still get up early with me in the morning.

I love Science because if you look at my cv between the lines you can see three solid years of December 24 and 25 alone in my office, far away from my family, comforting myself with a ragged putrid manuscript that eventually staggered to publication in a weary but greatly improved form.  I love Science because in a different section you can see ten years of blissful hiking in southwestern Ireland, the most beautiful place in the world.

I love Science because parts of it are so hard — because after you fail forty-three times in a row, only rarely do you succeed on the fourty-fourth, and only rarely do you get to do it right more than once before it’s time to start in on the next forty-three, which could very well turn out to be eighty-three.  I love Science because parts of it are so easy, as it values publication over all things and I can write three pages without even looking at the keyboard.

I love Science because when I discover something new it is somehow mine until I give it away, and I can point to it as my own personal piece of The Revelation.  You are welcome to laugh at it or ignore it, but its substance feels real to me when nothing else does.

At least I think that this is why I love Science.  But to be honest, I’m really not sure.

I suppose that the real truth is that I love Science because it is very like my artistic high-school boyfriend whom I loved for years with a debased and aching heart.  I love Science because once in a very great while, it almost – almost — seems as if it loves me back.

Why do you love Science?  Tweet me and tell me about it.

What I learned from #ManicureMonday

Here’s the autobiography of the #ManicureMonday #Science “take-over” thing.  It’s kind of a long story, and sometimes I think we should be talking about more important things.  For example, I once got upset about a poster and tweeted about it.  People took it down and I am grateful to them for their responsiveness.  I also think that women’s hands and what we choose to do with them is important too.
Also, here’s a Gallery displaying all of the images of my own hands that I have tweeted so far.
 

What I learned from #ManicureMonday

Sometimes I try to be funny on Twitter.  I succeed about one-percent of the time [Eqn. 1].  This confuses me because the people whose paychecks I sign consistently find me hilarious all of the time.  Thus my transition into the digital world has been tough, and my advanced age does not help with this.  Three years ago I took a Twitter class led by @LizNeeley right in the convenience of my own nursing home.  We didn’t get as far as “tag-hashes” on that day, but I used this “moose” thing to make the “coarser” go.  It was really cool and I’ve been trying to tweet ever since.  Well anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was in the lab and I nearly ripped off the one fingernail I have left.  Just as I’d been taught, I ran straight to my computer to tweet this important news.  Because I was feeling edgy, I included the hashtags #Lab #Manicure.  Imagine my surprise when Twitter autocompleted the second one to #ManicureMonday.  I jumped back.  It’s going by itself! I thought, all freaked out.  I quickly cancelled my tweet and searched on #ManicureMonday.  Here’s what I saw.  Well, well .. Seventeen Magazine, I thought to myself, chuckling as I remembered a story from a friend who used to be some kind of writer there.  She had described surreal meetings where people debated with straight-faces the pros and cons of placing a tampon ad opposite a photograph of Will Smith.  Screw you Seventeen, I thought to myself while scanning the smarmy insipid content of their website and thinking about 1932 when I was seventeen and they were printing the same damn tripe.

Now, I get a big kick out of pretending I’m a clueless moron because I’m actually a prodigious genius.  Or it might be the other way around, I forget.  Anyway, I decided I was going to tweet this picture to #ManicureMonday on November 11.  I thought this would be funny because the image feed for #ManicureMonday looked like this.  I fully confess that I was only going for a cheap LOL.  But there’s something that I think is interesting here.  You see, when I went to college, we didn’t have the Internet.  I know that’s hard to imagine now.  We spent a lot of time on landlines shouting to each other over the din of horse-drawn carriages.  All of the published images of women that we saw plastered on our papers, newsstands and computer screens were photographed, chosen, edited and presented by some kind of commercial or public authority.  Only very rarely was one of these images created and presented by the woman portrayed.  The Internet has changed all that, and hopefully forever.  Screw you Seventeen, I thought to myself as I cropped a photo of me, not unthrilled that my submission to #ManicureMonday would stand on equal footing with one of @seventeenmag’s professional submissions.  Our two photographs would wash down the Great Mississippi of information as two equivalently piddly pebbles before settling into the silt of its invisible delta.

And so on Monday, November 11, I took a deep breath and tweeted my tweet.  It sure cracked me up but nothing beyond that happened.  I shouldn’t have been surprised.  Nothing happens ninety-nine percent of the time when I tweet something that I think is life-disruptingly hysterical [see Eqn. 1] and I certainly don’t mean to sound ungrateful but @LizNeeley didn’t adequately prepare me for this recurring scenario.  Anyway, I scrolled down the #ManicureMonday images thinking what have they got that I haven’t got?  “Nail polish” is the actual answer to that question, but I was too far down my second-wave rabbit hole to figure it out.  As I scrolled past hundreds of painted disembodied hands I began to wonder who is attached to all those hands and what do those hands do when they aren’t posing for a camera?  With newfound determination to utterly waste the afternoon, I washed my hand, re-photographed it and tweeted this photoScrew you Seventeen, I thought to myself again as nothing whatsoever happened.  But then, something did happen.  A small number of what one refers to as one’s “Tweeps” and who also happened to be women scientists tweeted their hands back to me.  Damn their nails are pretty, I thought to myself and paved my own private road to Hell with the good intention of manicuring my own nails properly for the next Monday, November 18.

Screw you Seventeen, I thought again to myself Friday night, November 15 when it became abundantly clear that I was too lazy to paint my nails after all.  While sulking, I tweeted “Take pic of ur hand doing something #Science & post to #ManicureMonday POLISH OPTIONAL”.  Caught off guard when someone tweeted back the wildly non-sequitur, “Why should I do that?” I had to think for a while.  Eventually I got up on my hind legs and tweeted “Purpose of #ManicureMonday is to contrast real #Science hands against what @seventeenmag says our hands should look like. All nails welcome.”  People then started asking me to elaborate upon The Rules.  “Do my nails have to be long? Can a guy do it? Does it have to be in a lab?” people asked.  F*ck, I don’t know, I thought to myself.  As far as I can tell, there aren’t rules for the Internet and no one gets to completely control who posts what, which is both its glory and its curse.  Anyone can post anything to #ManicureMonday because the only requirement is a Twitter account and you barely need a spinal cord to make one of those.  So I dodged the questions by saying “ALL ARE WELCOME” again and again and figured I’d just wait and see what happens.

I got kind of excited as Monday drew near.  My senior colleagues were supportive as always.  “Why are you wasting your time on this?” they asked me.  “Because there is dignity and meaning in the details of our lives,” I answered with the kind of unnerving intensity that I know makes them run away.  As I went to bed on Sunday, I tweeted this.  By the time I woke up the next morning, the #ManicureMonday feed looked like this.  I sat in bed and scrolled and smiled and wept and my son brought me tea and hugged me.

The feed just grew and grew.  Everyone at @JahrenLab read every single tweet and looked at every image, even if we couldn’t keep up to Favorite or RT/MT all of them.  On balance, it was a really great day.  The whole thing was not without problems, however.  It had been easy for me to visualize everything associated with Seventeen Magazine as one big monolithic male gaze, but it turns out there’s a ton of teenagers who go to #ManicureMonday in order to tweet their homemade nail art.  Or to tweet other pictures of what they feel makes their hands look great.  In my mind, that’s what we were doing too, but not everyone saw it that way.  Some felt that we were killing the buzz of a fun teenage site in order to preach about careers.  My explanation that Science is just another way to have fun probably rang trite, coming as it did from their parents’ generation.  This has got me thinking about how when any image of a woman is presented, the woman viewing it feels compelled to catalog her differences from it, and ascribe a claim of superiority to the image itself.  I’m not done thinking about that.  I also said some dumb things, much like every other damned day of my life.  I implied that science hands are “real” hands.  I used the words “take-over” and “hi-jack” which implied a competition or at least a power differential, though I am not sure in which direction.  These were bad choices and I apologize for them; I won’t choose those particular words again.  Just between you and me, I caught my share of hate during the whole thing.  One tweet debated whether or not women scientists wear underwear while another speculated about our masturbation habits.  I’d be lying if I said that surprised me.  I’d be lying if I said it didn’t hurt.

I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish with #ManicureMonday.  Somewhere in my babyish heart, I wanted J.P. Moneypants, Chief Magnate of Seventeen Magazine to see the #ManicureMonday feed, stop in his tracks and take a new inventory.  My phone would ring.  “Gosh, Hope Jahren you were right all along!” he’d tell me on his private line.  “We’re so sorry that me and my ilk have objectified you all these years. No hard feelings, okay?”  “Screw you Seventeen! I would then scream triumphantly into the phone.  Well, it hasn’t happened.  I am working through my disappointment while keeping my phone charged just in case.   And there’s no plan, in case you’re wondering.  Heady with Twitter fame, I considered trying to organize a true hi-jack of @Playboy’s #WifebeaterWednesday or #RapeApril or whatever they’ve got over there, but a wise millennial advised me gently that it’s a bad idea to purposefully antagonize a bunch of misogynistic trolls with no professional credibility to lose.  I’m not sure what this “troll” thing is but the gravitas in his voice convinced me that he had only my best interests at heart.  I asked my mom for advice about the next step and she said, “Get back to work. When you get fired, you ain’t moving back here.”  I thought about staking out a new hashtag like #SciManis or some nonsense, but really, our hands aren’t different and separate from other women’s hands, and isn’t that the point?  No, I accept that Seventeen Magazine is not going away but then again, neither is Twitter, and so you’ll find me over at #ManicureMonday for the long haul.  Quietly tweeting one picture each week of what my hands look like when I think they are at their most beautiful.  For decades Seventeen Magazine has regularly presented me with their image of beautiful bodies, of beautiful hands.  The least that I can do is return their favor to the world at large.  And if you want to come too, you are very, very welcome.

Nope, I didn’t accomplish what I wanted to accomplish — but Science has taught me well that lack of success is not the same as failure.  Remember how most things are about me?  I sure do.  The biggest success of #ManicureMonday was that I learned something.  I learned that willemite dust glows under fluorescent light.  I learned that a rat liver is smaller than a fingernail.  I learned that MAVEN launched successfully.  I learned that snails are being “released”.  I saw a hyena pelvis and an elephant shin for the first time.  I learned that a colleague’s daughter was sick.  I learned that pigs are paying the ultimate price for Neuroscience.  I learned that I’m not the only PI who allows beef jerky in the lab.  I learned that studying fish involves heaving them about on land far more than one might expect.  I learned that code sure as hell doesn’t write itself.  I learned that there isn’t a single corner of science that women haven’t successfully infiltrated in the last one hundred years.  I learned about some men who sincerely cheer us on.  I learned how to take a day and wallow in my pride over the young women who are coming after me and who will inevitably change my world.  And I finally saw hands that looked like mine next to the Seventeen Magazine insignia.  But more importantly I saw plenty of hands that didn’t look like mine.  I saw lots and lots of hands.  And in those hands I saw the joy and frustration and late nights and failed attempts and glowing pride unspoken whenever we offer each other a view of something private and beautiful.

 
 
 
If you have time to kill, you might want to check out what I posted a couple weeks ago on the problematic nature of heedlessly pressuring women into #STEM careers.  Or feel free to roam around the rest of this blog.