And May All Your Dreams Come True

For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be a writer.

As a child, I filled endless notebooks with my stories. They were mostly stories about animals, or thinly veiled replicas of Lord of the Rings. I may even have tried my hand at the odd love story. At school, I kept a private tally of how often my essays were read aloud, or made a teacher cry. I love the written word.

When I was 29 years old, an editor approached me and asked me to write a book. That book, Animal Personalities, is currently available for pre-order.

Of course, when you achieve your childhood dreams, a weight lifts from your heart, a divine confidence settles in your soul, and you never again doubt yourself or your abilities. You become as happy as you always believed you would be . . .

I recently wrote a short case study about being a postdoc for Edinburgh’s “Thriving in Your Research Position” document from the Institute of Academic Development. In the case study, I talk about a spectral figure who has haunted me throughout my whole career: the Perfect Postdoc. She is always better than me. When I wrote my book, she somehow wrote a better one. She’s like a funhouse mirror version of me, and when I change, so does she. I’ll never be able to outdo her.

If you’re a long-term reader of this blog, you’ll know I’ve been thinking about failure lately. I explored my failures as an animal trainer, and meditated on how academia breeds an anti-failure culture. I’m also critical of the idea that all scientists have to be specialists – I’m not a specialist. I’m interdisciplinary and I love it. This leads me to another area of my academic life where the Perfect Postdoc is always one step ahead of me.

The Perfect Postdoc understands R much better than I do. I’ve spoken before on this blog about my frustrations while trying to learn R. While I have taught research methods and statistics for several years now, I’ve always hesitated to teach R. I’ve hesitated because, well . . . because I’m not brilliant at it. My code is ugly and often cobbled together, and I often find the community around R, places like stack exchange and stack overflow, are hideously unfriendly.

I’ve been lucky enough enrol on the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education’s woman-only Aurora programme this year. The first session was called Identity, Impact and Voice, where we explored how we can make a difference in our workplaces and communities. There were two-hundred plus women at the Aurora event in Edinburgh this month, and so many of us spoke about being afraid of ‘not being the best’.

The curious thing is, when I was listing my strengths, I never said I was “the best at [thing]”. My strengths are my communication skills, the fact I’m approachable, and my willingness to try new things. I firmly believe that in five years time anyone who doesn’t have R skills is going to find it very difficult to get a job in academia. Hiding my bad code means I’m not contributing to the R conversation happening right now. I have a voice. And I can have an impact too.

Hadley Wickham, who wrote some fabulous R packages, says:

So with that in mind, I’m going to start sharing my own R teaching materials more widely.  You can find my resources on Github (scroll down to find direct links to the exercises). The worst that can happen is that someone tells me my code is ugly. The Perfect Postdoc’s code is of course much prettier, but do you know what? Just like writing my book, writing that exercise was pretty fun.

Glory in your bad code. Glory in saying “I don’t know how to do that” in your local programming club meetings. Glory in your voice. There is nothing else like it.

 

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Implicit Bias – Representation Matters

Our tea breaks (and a certain someone’s 30th birthday) last week was abuzz about a seminar we got from @fatwhitebloke who was talking about implicit bias.

STEM has a problem with women, and the UK in general has a problem with immigrants, so the talk was very relevant to us. Dr Jones was talking to us about implicit bias, and how our subconscious mind makes decisions that our conscious minds would not. Jones was very explicit about his own implicit biases, which I appreciated. Having a bias does not make you a bad person, but allowing that bias to control your decisions, and being unwilling to change that, does.

They have a little youtube vid about it here:

But one of the things Jones said really stuck out to me, because I spend a lot of time on places like Tumblr and seeing ‘representation matters‘. I ‘know’ this on an instinctive level, I know that Gadget and Captain Janeway are part of the reason I’m here today. When I was little, I identified with the women, and I know that I’m very happy with my life and where I’ve ended. Representation matters to me.

But I’d never thought of it as Dr Jones explained it – and he did this off the cuff, noting to us that this one audience where he didn’t need to explain ‘mylenation of the neurons’.

It certainly sparked some of mine.

You know that electricity is messy. You may have seen electricity jump before (though perhaps not so spectacularly), and you know that electrical wires must be insulated with plastic. Our brains are collections of neurons, a kind of cell that can transmit electrical energy – just like a wire. When babies are young, unable to walk, or to coordinate their movements, all these neurons are ‘firing’ and the electricity is going everywhere. The important neurons coordinating where hands go need to be insulated to keep that signal going along the right path, so with us, those neurons become insulated with a fatty sheath that does not conduct electricity. We call this myelination.

Important pathways in the brain (like the parts that help you to touch your finger to your nose) get well insulated.

Jones asked us to imagine we were walking into an office and we saw the receptionist – who is the receptionist? What are they wearing? How do they compose themselves? Don’t cheat – like most of us you probably saw an attractive (white?) woman, well (sexily?) dressed. It’s how we see secretaries in the media, it’s not necessarily what we know of secretaries from our own personal experience. And our conscious mind doesn’t believe it, but our conscious mind often passes off those decisions to the part of our mind that made all of those connections.

And when you reinforced those connections, what happened? The more we see that, the more those connections get insulated. They become easier to reach next time, and the time after that, and the time after that. And then as we get older, they become our go-to position.

Now there might be one more argument here – that  hey, perhaps a lot of secretaries ARE sexily dressed white women so what’s the problem?

Here we have two choices. This person is a secretary. This person is a secretary who is a sexy woman. Most people will choose the second option with more detail, because humans are terrible at probability. We see that extra information and say “yes, that fits with what I think about secretaries”, forgetting that the subpopulation of sexy female secretaries will ALWAYS be smaller than the larger population just described by ‘secretary’. (See the io9 post on the fallacy here).

Our implicit biases make assumptions and decisions for us. Representation matters because it can stop the insulation of the connections – it makes us less likely to jump to that conclusion. Which leads me to the amazing Guillermo del Toro quote:

I think that every choice is political. When you decide that a woman can be a character of her own and not have to fall in love with the f***ing guy, that’s a political choice. When you choose that they can speak in their own language and be subtitled, that’s a political choice. I think it’s very important for us to understand that we are all — the whole world — in the same robot. It’s this f***ing planet. No matter who you are, what you like to do, whatever your race or whatever your religion, we’re all human. And I think it’s really great to make a movie that celebrates that diversity.

So yes, representation matters. And science agrees.

The STEM Pipe

Our wonderful and talented communications officer, Sarah, has been working hard to promote the image of women in the STEM fields. We’ve been going round schools and encouraging people to ask us about our Women In Science posters at all of our events, and at our Barony College open day she really outdid herself with our ‘Women in STEM’ fields stall. We had a ‘dress the scientist’ event, which was a huge amount of fun, two jars of couscous (well, one jar, one bucket) representing the difference in the numbers of female and male professors in the UK, and a ‘vote’ on what words accurately described scientists.

What does a scientist wear anyway?
What does a scientist wear anyway?

 

The irony is, I’d recently applied for a communication job myself (working with the STEM fields but out of research), and I’d been tempted by another industry R & D job. While this economic climate makes applying for jobs an exercise in cover letter writing days, it’s not entirely outside the realms of possibility that I might leak from the STEM pipeline.

So while I had lots of little girls announcing they wanted to put a labcoat in the dressing up box alongside their princess outfits (I particularly loved the girls who picked up my high heels and paired that with the labcoat to be a ‘fashion scientist‘) I was also answering the questions from the mums and dads: why do women leave STEM?

I can’t speak for all women, but I can tell you what tempts me to apply for these other jobs:

  1. Money. I have a good wage right now, and postdocs are paid well in general, but industry pays us really well. Now I did apply for a communications job a few years ago where they said I was asking for too much money, but that was more of an indication to me about the way they treated their employees. STEM graduates are worth paying for, even in this economic climate, and what’s more, that money often comes with a permanent contract . . .
  2. Permanency. I’ve no real right to complain about this as I have been very lucky. My bosses have kept me around and that wasn’t easy. But I think this one is particularly hard for the women who have never left academia. We’ve thought our entire lives in 2, 3, 4 year blocks of time, and there’s no sign of that changing any time soon.
  3. Skills. I think I’m really good at science communication. I love doing it. A science communication job would be really enjoyable. I’ve developed a lot of skills in STEM, and some of them I want to make more use of.
  4. Opportunity. This might be more specific to the animal welfare field, but there is so little funding and so many research ideas that it feels like I’d have more luck trying to get funding from a raffle prize sometimes. It would be nice not to have to fight every single day.
  5. Values. In the last few years I have realised my core values can be satisfied without world domination – I mean I would still like to dominate the world, but in the every day, there are other things I enjoy doing. Perhaps, whisper it, my career isn’t the most important thing in my life any more.
  6. Satisfaction. What, recently, has given me the most satisfaction in my work? Is it the constant criticism and destruction of the scientific process?

Of course there is also a multitude of reasons for loving my work in the STEM fields, and I don’t expect I’ll be leaving any time soon, but it’s important to recognise that women don’t leave STEM to have babies. Academia is, in many ways, a friendly environment for that. We leave for a whole host of reasons.

What did the kids and parents think about scientists? Well, we were most often described with the words smart and silly, with interesting following along behind. Great news I think – science is fun, and I really hope girls and boys can recognise that.

Smart and silly? Better than boring!
Smart and silly? Better than boring!