What I’m Reading

Yeah, this didn’t happen on Sunday. Oops. I will try to stick to my self-imposed schedule better in future!

eLife is one! eLife is one of my favourite journals: they’re open access, they publish reviews along with the paper, they have a system for associating supplementary figures with the main ones, and I recently discovered they like to look out for early career researchers. Plus, eLife Lens seems to be a nice way to read papers online.

PLoS Biology is ten! They have selected ten articles from the past decade to feature in this celebratory collection – worth reading.

What to wear to do science: it shouldn’t matter, but people will judge you no matter what you wear. It seems from the comments that what is the norm varies a lot between disciplines. Where I am, my (male) boss regularly wears cargo shorts and t-shirts with holes in; one clinician in the department can usually be found in a shirt, tie, and suit trousers, except for the days he wears a tracksuit!

Do you know what sexual harrassment looks like?

PubMed is trialling allowing authors to comment on papers – currently it’s in a closed pilot phase, but I’m looking forward to seeing how this turns out. I suspect that the majority of papers will receive no comments, while some will really spark debate – same as happens already, really… More here.

MozFest, a festival / conference / gathering dedicated to using the internet to do interesting, important, open things, was this weekend, and the new Mozilla Science website was released. These are the guys exploring the idea of peer code review for scientific software, and I can’t wait to see what else they come up with.


A year of attempts to exercise

I was not a sporty child. I have terrible hand-eye coordination – at primary school I was still learning to bounce a ball off a wall and back to myself while the other kids got to throw balls at each other 😦

But, I realise the importance of exercise. Not only does it keep you physically healthy, it can benefit your mental health, too. Since starting my PhD I’ve been trying to incorporate exercise into my routine, because there was no way doing a PhD wasn’t going to increase my stress level

Here are some of my attempts so far:

  1. Running! I started the Couch To 5K programme, which takes you from jogging in short intervals to running 5km non-stop, theoretically in as little as 8 weeks. I got to week 6, last autumn, but while I enjoyed running in intervals, once I had to run for 20+ minutes at a time… I got bored. I am slightly ashamed to admit that my willpower is not sufficient to get me through even half an hour of exercise against my body’s complaints. I tried audiobooks, music, podcasts… and then it got to be dark and cold and wet in the evenings and I stopped trying 😦
  2. Bouldering – my partner is a rock climbing fan, and he persuaded me to give it a try. I do really enjoy bouldering, but I don’t find it relaxing! There’s a big problem-solving aspect to it, and while I know that it works for some people, I can’t focus on bouldering problems when I’m stressed out by something else.
  3. Jujitsu – well, okay, I thought about trying this but the classes aren’t at a convenient time. I knew that if it was a choice between finishing an experiment and getting some exercise in, I’d probably choose the experiment. Yep, I’m that obsessed. Plus, see previously mentioned lack of coordination.
  4. Running –  again! Recently I started going running with a few of my labmates. Amazingly, even the first time I went with them, I ran for 20 minutes without stopping and without getting bored. It seems that for me, company is a much better motivator / distractor than anything else. Unfortunately, the evenings are too dark now for the running time that works best for us all (~6pm), given that we work in a slightly-dodgy, not well lit area. Which brings me to…
  5. The gym! Tonight I went to the gym with some of the people from running. We did a mix of things – a bit of treadmill, a bit of bike, a bit of rowing, a bit of weights. I enjoyed it a lot, and I’m not sure why I’d been putting off checking out the gym. I used to go during my last couple of years of undergrad, and I did enjoy it. Our gym is free for students (yay!) so I really have no excuse now. As long as I can persuade my workout buddies to come with me 🙂

So, the moral of my attempts and partial successes at becoming someone who exercises regularly? What works for others may not work for you. Some people are into yoga, some #bikedouchery cycling, but whatever they do, no matter how much they love it, if you don’t, you aren’t going to stick with it. If you are not naturally inclined to exercise (like me) then finding something that you enjoy, and that you can fit into an existing schedule rather than carving out time to fit in something new, will be key.

So, what’s your sport / activity of choice? How do you fit it into your schedule? Teach me your wise ways in the comments!

Sunday Morning Science: What I’m Reading

A note on Sunday mornings: during my undergrad, briefly, someone ran a Sunday morning science discussion group. My friend S. and I would turn up, gigantic mugs of tea in hand, to talk about designer babies, or genetically modified food, for an hour or so, then we’d all go and have a full English brunch. S. and I were the only ones who ever brought our own caffeine… I wonder what the others thought about that. Anyway, I like the idea of Sunday mornings as a time to reflect on scientific happenings, so here’s my round-up of things I’ve found interesting and worth a read this week.

The anatomy of successful computational biology software – interviews with authors of widely-used tools.

How to make scientific software sustainable. With a The Princess Bride reference!

For cat people, see through your pet’s eyes. I wonder if the differences in colour vision help cats to see their prey?

Gross but cool: think you have a nematode infection in your mouth, but your doctor doesn’t believe you? Why not pull it out yourself and do a genetic analysis? Not to mention take pictures and show all your colleagues.

It’s impossible to ignore the sexual harrassment revelations that have occurred this week, and I like  this post by Jason Thibault as an overview and timeline, with links to many of the original posts. It’s also interesting to compare the reaction of the atheism/secularism community. I had no idea it was possible to have a “pro-harrassment” faction! :/ One post that isn’t linked there, that I think is important, is this post by Janet Stemwedel. Read this if you’re wondering why the women involved didn’t report events immediately. (I also like her blog in general)

I’d also like to add a link to DNLee’s original post on The Urban Scientist, as with everything that’s happened since I think it’s important to remember the events that spurred Monica Byrne to come forward. Seeing one person be brave can help others find their courage.

And finally, to make the wet lab biologist in you smile: That’s not how you pipette!

— Bob

(yesss, I got this posted while it’s still morning here!)

Not-quite-harrassment and (lack of) professional conduct

I’ve been lucky enough in my career so far to not have experienced any much overt sexism, or had harrassment or assault directed at me, unlike these ladies (and many more). What I have experienced in the last year, though, is the ignorance of young, mostly white, heterosexual men about how people who aren’t them experience the world. My PhD lab is pretty international – I doubled the numbers of British students – and pretty gender balanced. Somehow, even this diverse group of highly educated people manages to contain some complete bigots – racist, sexist, classist. The thing that most affected me (read: pissed me off) was the way some of my fellow students would talk about the women in our department.

For the sake of anonymity, I won’t describe in detail – suffice to say they had a codeword, for whether a girl was “hot enough” or not. New starter? Is she, isn’t she? What’s she wearing today? She looks goood. Don’t you think she’s attractive? Does she have a boyfriend?

It took me a year to get the words together. First, I didn’t know the guys well; then, I knew they didn’t mean any harm; then I realised that it didn’t matter what they meant, the comments could still cause harm – but I couldn’t vocalise my thoughts coherently. Then I still couldn’t vocalise my thoughts as coherently as I’d have liked, but I got fed up and told them off anyway. I’m not sure how effective it was. I’m not sure I convinced them that it’s degrading to judge female colleagues – women who are there to work, to do awesome science! – on their appearance, that even if they are joking, such comments can cause harm to those around them. I’m afraid they agreed not to make such comments at work just to avoid upsetting me. I’m afraid they’ll treat me differently – that we won’t be friends – from now on. (Then again, I don’t want my friends to talk like that either, not just my colleagues). But, there have been no incidents of this behaviour since, at least not within my hearing.

The thing that the recent science-writing-harrassment-deluge has brought home to me is how hard it is to speak up against these sorts of behaviour. Posts like this:

You wonder if, objectively, what happened to you can really be as big a deal as it feels like it is to you — if the fact that it feels like a big deal to you, one that you can’t just shake off, means that something is wrong with you.

And this:

It was all reading between the lines, which made it easy for me to discount my own experience. Instead, I did my best to ignore my discomfort to avoid conflict, or otherwise convinced myself that I was reading too far into it.

… I really recognise those feelings. And the thing is, I’m… well… kinda a belligerent person. I always used to get in trouble at school for being stubborn. I do try to consider my opinions before I form them or if new evidence appears, but I generally have no problems stating them, and backing them up, and arguing about them. I’m not usually worried about not being liked. I’d rather be a good person than a good scientist – maybe that’s something I shouldn’t admit. And if it took me a year to tell these guys they were out of line? These being fellow students, not people in a position of power? What about less short-tempered strong-minded women? What would I do if it was my boss saying this?

I have another data point: another female student in my lab tried, somewhat, to tell them off when she first started. But, she said to me (paraphrased), she realised they were just young guys joking around, and she’d rather be liked than make a fuss. And this woman is the other most outspoken person in the lab, the only other person to call out the blatant classism we overheard one day. It makes me sad that we feel this way.

My opinion is that this kind of inappropriate, disrespectful behaviour can come from a blurring of the lines between professional and personal life. In academia, work takes up so much of your time and has so few rules, so few expectations – e.g. no dress codes! – that it doesn’t always feel like a job. Often, you socialise with the same people you work with. And it becomes really easy to act the same way in the lab as you on a boys’ night, or down the pub with your close friends. Note, I’m not condoning objectifying women or being racist in those situations – but there’s no denying that it happens. I don’t have the energy and I don’t think it’s my business to tell people what they should or shouldn’t say in the pub – but at work, it’s different. None of these racist, sexual, derogatory comments would be acceptable in a normal workplace. As much as it may not always feel like it, as PhD students / postdocs / academic staff, we are in a professional environment and we should act like it.
The question is, how to get this message across? Professional conduct codes for students? (Do some institutions already have this?) Mandatory diversity / privilege awareness training? Suggestions welcomed, as well as anything you know of that is already in place.
Edit: to add a link to this post, How Not to Be That Dude – perhaps this should be required reading for first year PhDs!
 — Bob