Friday, January 16, 2015

Looking for talented people prevents you from finding talented people?

An interesting paper about under-representation of women and racial minorities in science:

Here's a nice coverage in the Economist:

Essentially, they asked people from different fields whether it is important to have an "innate talent" to succeed in those fields. Then then correlated these answers to under-representation of women and racial minorities in these fields, and found some very strong correlations.

It suggests an extremely interesting thing. The more you believe in "innate talent", in this mysterious hidden property that surely exists, but cannot be measured directly, the more biased you become. Because you cannot measure talent, right? So you have to go by proxy. But if you believe in the importance of talent strongly, you got stuck with wrong proxies, such as gender, citizenship or ethnicity. You do it unconsciously, but you are trying to infer hidden properties from patterns, and got caught in a Bayesian trap (see the plots below).

The trick of finding true talent therefore is in downplaying the importance of talent! One should try to avoid all guesswork and trust the empirical evidence, the phenomenology. Judge on the deeds, on the results, not on motivation, interest, "fit", or whatever. Sounds obvious, but the data shows how non-obvious it actually is in real life, or rather how poorly people follow these truisms in practice.

I actually find it very relevant for my teaching. Every now and then I see a student who does not fit my subconscious image of a "good student". They are just interested in "wrong things", or spend time in a "wrong way", or maybe talk, write, code, or draw in a way that shows that they lack any talent for the trade! Or do they? It takes a very deliberate and conscious effort to stop this Bayesian profiling and give everybody a solid chance. And boy how happy am I when I turn to be wrong! When somebody whom I suspected of cheating turns out an honest student, just an unusual one. Unusual for me, mind it, with my limited life experience. For me it's never about gender or race, but the psychological dynamics is probably pretty similar. Profiling and shortcuts in judgment; wrong generalizations that have the potential to become self-fulfilling prophecies, and that creep into our practices unless we relentlessly weed them out, day after day, again and again.

To sum up, to find true talent, don't try to intuit it; give up on guesswork, and go for facts instead. Sounds simple, right?

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

End of semester

For last two weeks or so all senior faculty keep saying: "Almost over! Almost there! A few more days, and it will be all right! Yippee!"

But I cannot share this excitement; not at all. At least by now this whole teaching thing was working somehow; maybe not ideally, but it was functional; it worked! And now time is taking it away from me. Because the very day I grade my last exam this semester, I need to start developing two more courses for the spring, and writing protocols for about 25 new labs (I am not sure of the exact number, but it is something as ridiculous at that). Which obviously scares me enormously.

Mentally, I am aware of the fact that everything will be all right, because it always was in the past, and this challenge is no different. I will just approach it as any other project: break it into pieces, set the priorities, create a plan, and then implement it point by point. But emotionally the sheer amount of work to do, and stuff to learn, makes it rather unsettling.

It's like in mountain hiking: when you are some 1-2 miles from the mountain, it looks almost vertical, it looks like a wall. As you approach it, it "lays down", and becomes flatter, less imposing. That's because we are not that good in estimating 3D depth of objects when they are very large and very far away from us. But knowing that there is an optical illusion does not take the illusion away. Same with this whole teaching preparation thing. In exactly 2 months from now I need to give a lecture about the gut, and I know exactly nothing about the gut, except that it has villi, and can be, with some effort, reworked into traditional baroque lute strings. That's pretty much it.

But it will be fine of course. I've ordered two books about the gut, and they are thick and heavy enough to kill a bear, so it will be fine!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

War on Christmas

The "War on Christmas" is so nice as a brand that is should be totally reclaimed by the left.

You want a White Christmas? Wanna build a snowman? But it's raining instead, with mud and puddles everywhere? The lake you used to skate on as a kid now never freezes?

You know whom to blame.

It's the global warming denialist stealing your Christmas from you. It's the oil spender, steak eater, unnecessary-large-car-driver. They fight the war on Christmas, making sure that nobody can carol down the snowy streets anymore. It's all their work. It's their conspiracy.

Save the Christmas! Reduce CO2 emissions!

Monday, December 1, 2014

Before it's too late: my impressions from SfN

The first impression was very positive: wow, all these people are adults! So many adults in one room; people who know something, and can engage in meaningful informative discussions!

The second impression was more mixed: by forgotten gods, every time I say something stupid, they actually call me out on that! They don't just write it down, and they don't just dismiss it as something that could possibly be true, but is no really relevant for their (different) narrow field. No, they point out my mistakes!

That's why going to conferences is so important if you are in small college; if you are the only specialist in your field in the whole department. I'm only 4 months here, and it was already a bit of a cultural shock. You need to go to conferences for instant recalibration. Becoming a faculty is empowering: it's the first time in my entire life that I'm growing to realize that I actually know something, comparatively speaking (it's actually a pretty hard thing to believe in). But it can also make one a tiny bit delusional, every slightly, a little bit here and there. And that's when a cold-ish shower of a conference gets really helpful.

Yay conferences!

Sunday, November 30, 2014


Xykademiqz wrote another wonderful and provocative post about how she hates when people ask her about where she is from. She finds it annoying; she suspects that people are trying to categorize her, and also hint that she doesn't really belong. All I can do is disagree again. It is my personal disagreement; I don't even pretend that it can be generalized, but my story (or my perception of it) seems to be different.

I strongly dislike Vladimir Putin as a person and as a politician, but I can't deny that his reign had certain positive influence on my life. He gave me a universal topic for small talk. Or big talk, if you have time and nerves for it!

Unlike Xykademiqz I can't talk about sports. I just don't know how they work; I tried, sincerely tried to understand the rules of American Football, but they elude me. All I can see when I look at this game, or even as much as think about it, is one constant never-ending concussion, dying neural cells and microglia activation, sprinkled with beefy machismo and gender stereotyping. I just can't stand it. I wish I could, but it doesn't work. Baseball is better, but I still don't know the rules. At least baseball has something to do with the evolution of humans; this fact puts me somewhat at peace with the existence of this game; but still I can't reasonably talk about it.

What else can one talk about? Weather is boring. We don't have a TV at home, and we don't go to movies, except maybe kids movies. Politics is largely off limits as a conversation topic in the States, and so is religion, which is really a shame, as at least these topics are interesting. What is left?

Xykademiqz says that she'd rather talk about work. Well, I tried, and got some very mixed results. I am a neuroscientist, and neuroscience sounds like an interesting thing: everybody can relate to it. About half of my conversants would typically share a story of their beloved one having a stroke, and ask for my advice, because they mistake me for a doctor. Another half would ask me about meditation, as apparently neuroscience of meditation was featured in quite a few NYT articles in last year or two. Both topics predictably baffle me; I'd like to say something meaningful, but I can't, as I don't know anything about either stroke or meditation. Maybe I'm just really bad at small talk (which is, by the way, most likely true).

Compared to all these options, discussing where I am from is a golden mine! An open vein with nuggets of pure gold lying right on the surface. From Putin we can move to the definition of democracy, or to politics of homosexuality, or the perils of propaganda - all the time staying safely away from local US politics; all on virtual Russian soil! And if you prefer weather to politics, well, Russia is perceived as a cold country (even though Moscow is actually not colder than Minneapolis; zoom out to see the plots). Another great entry point for all kinds of entertaining conversations.

Maybe in a few years this won't work that well anymore. Maybe in 20 years it will become annoying. Yet for now, I almost love when people ask me where I am from. (To be honest, I usually inform them first, because I don't want them to suffer and ponder hesitantly whether they could possibly ask me or not). Yep, I'm from there. No, we lived in boring Moscow, nothing special - I appreciate that you know that Russia is big, but unfortunately I can't claim being from some exotic part of it. But you know what? I'd really like to know what you think about recent events in Russia, as the perception of my former country is genuinely interesting to me. And if you can tell me about your origins, be it a small town in the States, or a small country in Europe, - even better! That's one of the most fascinating topics for a small discussion!

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Gender bias at SfN poster presentations

On the last day of SfN, before leaving for a plane, I was so tired that I could no longer think about science. I just could not force myself look at the posters and make a mental effort of understanding what is shown on them.

So instead, on the back side of my printed itinerary, I started counting how many spectators were standing in front of every poster, and also recorded the gender of the presenter. It was an instantaneous snapshot of one SfN poster session, and while it is not necessarily representative, I thought it could be fun to analyze offline.

  • SfN 2014, morning poster session of Wednesday, Nov 19 2014
  • For those rows I visited, I recorded number of spectators at every poster that had a presenter at the moment of my snapshot. While I skipped several rows, I covered posters from all parts of the hangar, from one wall to the other, so whatever poster themes were presented that morning, they should have all left a trace in my data.
  • "Spectators" were defined as people either listening to the presenter, or interacting with them in some meaningful manner in front of the poster.
Results and discussion:
  • A total of 749 poster presentations were observed. 
  • There were slightly fewer female (46%) than male (54%) poster presenters (p=0.01, binomial test assuming 1/1 split).
  • Average number of spectators in front of female-presented posters (1.68±1.59, n = 344) was slightly smaller than that in front of male-presented posters (2.08±1.90, n = 405; p = 0.002, t-test).
  • The distribution curve (above) suggests that the average numbers may differ for two reasons. While walking in the hall, I had an impression that most "lonely presenters" (N spectators == 0) were female, but actually this difference is not significant (p = 0.09, exact Fisher test). The "crowded" posters however were predominantly presented by male scientists (p = 0.01, exact Fisher test for N spectators > 5).
  • My impression is that the major reason for this skew is that at some point of their careers males and females self-selected to different parts of neuroscience, as gender ratio in different "poster sessions" (rows of posters) varied a lot (lower quartile = 38% female presenters ; higher quartile = 63% ; anova p = 0.01). Further analysis showed that different rows had different average number of spectators even after adjusted for varying female-to-male ratio (mixed model ancova F93,654 = 1.8, p = 1e-5). In fact, this effect was much stronger than the female-male bias, which should not be too surprising for any SfN attendee: different fields of neuroscience get very different attention. My guess therefore is that the difference across disciplines is primary, and then it "bleeds" into gender bias through self-selection.
  • But of course there may be biases at other levels as well: who gets to better labs, who gets better projects within every lab, etc. And on top of that, there may be a bias at the level of poster presentation itself.
  • Also the data may be confounded by the fact that 2nd and 3d world countries, that on average present less exciting posters, can also have very different ratios of female and male scientists, but I cannot control for it at this point. Pity, that.
Now I'm wondering if I ran ancova correctly; never tried it before...

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

On work ethics in academia

A really nice (very long, but very thoughtful and useful) post about work ethics in academia:

The post has lots of interesting thoughts, and like two dozens of very vivid and spot-on real life observations, but in some ways it all boils down to this one phrase:

>  I think if the students actually tried to work, but really work, 40 hours per week, a lot of work would get done. A. LOT. The problem is that most students in graduate school do not actually work even close to those hours.

My reply:
(and I think I might have written it before, but I can't help but repeat myself again)

This is very true. I worked in business and in academia, and I can confirm that my productivity was much, much higher in business. The nature of academic work is pretty weird:

1) Our external reward comes some 2-5 years after the effort (not even when your paper is published, but when it gets cited!)
2) Our main activity (thinking) is very similar to daydreaming. It's just so hard sometimes to make sure which one is happening.
3) We are supposed to leave space for procrastination (as you mentioned in one of the comments: it's a creative activity, you have to get stuck every now and then).

So it's really, really hard to get yourself to work. Academic work just goes against the rules of our brain; against all intuitions. In my experience, forcing yourself to work is actually the only thing that matters in research. Or nearly the only one.

The sad part of this story though is that the majority of slackers make the minority of hard-workers suffer as well. Even if you work really well, the sheer amount of slackers doom upon you, press you with anxiety of never getting a job just because of bad luck, or family situation, or something like that. So even those people who have everything in them to enjoy grad school sometimes end up not enjoying it. That's the saddest part of this whole situation for me, and I am not quite sure what I would even recommend to do about it...

(Note: I don't consider myself a hard-worker, unfortunately. I'm fighting this battle daily, and I win only about one half of these skirmishes...)