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...)

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Crowdsourcing science

When I first heard about this project, I thought it can't be real: it just sounded too good. But it seems to be happening in reality: people are crowd-funding small research projects for postdocs and graduate students:

I am not sure how scaleable this model is (it could benefit from some reddit-style crowd-filtering for example), but at least it looks nice, and seems to be working!

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

On doing science in small schools

I attended a whole bunch of workshops recently, all designed to orient new faculty in their new life in the college, and to explain the path to tenure. So because of that I was thinking about my scientific research a lot. And I guess by now I can come up with at least two maxims.

1. Ideal research projects to pursue would be those immediately below the perceived funding threshold.

Rationale: the more fundable the project is, the more interesting and publishable the data will be. Yet if I try to do something that people from major research universities can get money for, I'll be tramped down because my productivity is a tiny fraction of their productivity. Even if I fully and successfully integrate undergraduates in my research, my total productivity is expected to be at about 0.5-1 of a good postdoc in a good lab: between 1 and 0.5 papers a year. I can't afford to compete with universities. Yet to stay cool and publishable I shouldn't shortchange myself by doing something boring and irrelevant. The goal therefore is to stay just below the threshold for fundable projects.

2. In terms of grant applications, I should only consider grants that are either very large, or very small. 

Rationale: it is possible, at least in theory, to get several people in the department interested in pursuing some large grant (perhaps something that combines cool science with outreach and teaching methodology), and then to go for it together. This could work. Or, on the other hand, tiny grants that fund student research projects, or my summer research, would work as well. Anything in between though would require too much restructuring of my teaching load, of lab space, of job descriptions for people around me, and so on. Getting money for a postdoc for a year may sound like a nice thing, but it would necessitate enough additional workload to make the collateral damage not worth it. Maybe tenured people can afford it. But it looks like for an untenured faculty it should be either participation in really large strategic things, or getting really tiny bits and pieces, and probably nothing in between.

Or at least such is my impression so far =)

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Time to restart the blogging

There are several reasons to blog. One is that I have recently started a new job as a college professor (yay!!!), which supposedly should provide me with a never-ending stream of new exciting things to say to the world. I am still to figure out how to blog about them though. All I can think about these days is teaching: methodology, practice, syllabi, activities, homeworks, etc. etc. But in my head all these questions are very much linked to those 2 particular courses I'm teaching now, and I can't blog about courses themselves, you see, as it would not be professional. So I now need to develop some "translation mechanisms", to generalize and anonymize whatever thoughts I have, to make them suitable for broadcasting. It will take some time probably, but I'd better start now.

Another reason to blog is that students started googling me up, and so I need to keep my sites updated. That's a downside of blogging under a real name: in a situation like that you can't just stop blogging, as people will continue googling you anyway. And then they would read your opinions from some 3 or 5 years ago: opinions you don't necessarily endorse anymore. So the only way to ensure that your internet presence doesn't embarrass you too much is to update it regularly.

Finally, I start to feel somewhat scientifically-lonely. For the first time in years I have people around with whom I can discuss botany, ornithology and physics, but I now have almost nobody to discuss ion channels and neural networks with. It's not quite likely that blogging would necessarily help with this issue directly, yet it wold be nice to feel a part of some virtual academic community that extends beyond the limits of the campus.

We'll see how it goes!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mass shootings: try not to read about them

You know this interesting term that people use sometimes to describe legal persecution of cannabis: victimless crimes, they call it? From this point of view, mass murders lie on the exactly opposite end of the spectrum: they are, in most cases, criminalless. Because usually the perpetrator dies in the process, either because they are shot by police, or because they commit suicide. But in any case, they usually die by choice, as their own death is a part of the plan.

And my feeling is that this strange feature of mass murders and shooting sprees contributes to the discomfort, almost panic that the public feels about them. Because now a judicial system that is based on concepts of punishment and isolation suddenly finds itself totally helpless in the face of these crimes, as they kind of have an embedded "capital punishment" as their constituent part. When there's nobody to blame, nobody to pay retribution to; nobody to put on trial, nobody to put in prison, what do you even do?

Suddenly the only thing you can possibly do is to try to prevent new, similar tragedies from happening. But working on prevention is uncomfortable. It requires too much effort, and also this effort is totally counter-intuitive (more about it later). We want a quick solution, we want to blame somebody: the schools, the parents, the doctors. Or guns laws, maybe. But the trick is: none of this blame works. None of it.

Availability of mental health care is very important, but no mental health system, even the most involuntary draconian one, will ever be able to prevent mass shootings from happening. A good affordable psychiatric care will surely improve things to some extent, especially for those mass murderers who are not psychopaths (the guy who shot people in the University of Texas in 1966, for example, had a tumor in his brain, and has even sought medical help voluntarily at some point, but never got enough of it). Good mental care will help, but there is no test, either psychological or neurological, that would tell you if somebody is a future murderer, or whether they are just strange. This just doesn't work! And therefore, while psychiatric care is important, it can never guarantee that "future shooters" will be identified preemptively. Don't blame it on the medical system.

A side note here: not only psychiatrists will never be able to tell you if your neighbor will ever turn into a murderer or not, but it's probably not even a good idea to link mental health to mass murders for purely political reasons. I mean, shooting sprees may seem like a good opportunity to improve psychiatric medical system, but actually it's not, and for two different reasons. One: as discussed, on its own medical system can't prevent new shootings from happening, which means that sooner or later you would be asked to answer for your promises, and you won't be able to give a good answer. Another, more important, is that linking asocial behaviors to mental health issues stigmatizes mental disorders in a really weird and dangerous way. You may remember how after the Sandy Hook tragedy the rumor have spread that the criminal might have been autistic. The results of this rumor were that some people with autistic kids found themselves in all sort of subtle trouble, just because in the public subconsciousness autism was suddenly linked to violence (a notion that, of course, has no psychiatric basis whatsoever). You don't want kids with autism being abandoned or stigmatized by the society, and you definitely don't want people with schizophrenia to be harmed just because they have a diagnosis, so we'd better not perpetuate the myth that the problem of mass shootings is solely a mental health problem.

Similarly, it doesn't help if we blame it on parents, or on schools. All these zero tolerance policies, armed security officers, and prison-like bullet-proof doors just make school kids miserable. They won't be able to prevent anything, because there will always be a workaround for a truly dedicated psychopath. They only complicate things for the majority of population, creating a sense of fear, and making everybody's lives harder and sadder. Now not only several people have died, but also millions live in constant fear and distress. It doesn't help anything at all.

Same is actually true for gun laws: while reducing guns availability could help, the only truly effective way to do it would be to ban automatic firearms altogether, and this is not going to happen. All other measures are likely to be either futile (as there will be workarounds), or outright dangerous. For example, it totally would not help if you disqualify people with a history of mental illness from ever owning guns, because in a society where guns are valued it will only cause people with mental problems to hide these problems from doctors. And it is not a good outcome! As soon as having hallucinations would mean a ban on hunting and range shooting, people would stop reporting hallucinations to mental health professionals. Which is really not a situation you want to have on your hands.

What could help? Well, one obvious thing would help immensely, and that is: we should stop reporting details of mass shootings, and we should stop popular investigations of the "hidden motives" of those criminals that committed these crimes. For years by now it is known that public attention, even if posthumous, is exactly what these people seek. They want their blog posts to be read and cited, their youtube channels to be linked to, and their names to be immortalized on Wikipedia. That's their goal! They want their pathetic worthless "manifestos" to make you shiver, and they know that they will never achieve it without cheating, so they go and kill somebody. As, unfortunately, this works. That's the kind of sick social reinforcement they are looking for. And because of that, every news article that mentions a name of a shooter, and then goes deep into their troubled childhood; every news report that shows their face on the screen, all become a part of a "success story" for those violent sociopathic people. Every web link to the online diary of a shooter makes this world a worse place, as it makes it more probable that murders like that would be repeated. Covering this tragedies with attention on the murderer, reposting and linking these news stories, makes us share in the crime: not the one that was just committed, but the one that is now to come.

When you Google for "Sandy Hook", and the first thing you see is the face of the murderer, do you know how it is called? Freaking shame. Irresponsibility. Free advertisement.

Let us start from ourselves. Let's forget the names of those guys. Stop watching the news, don't google the stories. There are some psychiatrists, criminologists, and other professionals out there, who need to know the details, but you and me, we don't need to know them! It's not gonna help us, or anybody, in any conceivable way. People are weak and weird, and we feel somehow more alive when we read about a mother who killed her baby, or a boy who shoot his teacher. But it's a bad thing to do. By seeking these kind of news we are creating the market, and thus are encouraging news outlets to cover these stories in all the useless senseless detail they can manage. Which perpetuates the cycle.

That's about all that I have to say on this subject.

Monday, April 14, 2014

About STEM Crysis

One of the bests ways for me to get really angry is to read something about how STEM education is bad, and how "STEM crisis is a myth". Something like this thread on Reddit:

The STEM Crisis Is a Myth

People write long passionate posts there, and all of them seem to agree that "STEM is bad", "Liberal arts education is bad", and "There's no STEM crisis". A lot of this rhetoric also eventually boils down to the protectionist sentiment about "closing the borders", because, allegedly, the whole "STEM crisis" theme is just a lobbying plot to bring more skilled immigrants from China and India to the US. And to lower the wages for honest hard-working Americans. Right!

I guess it is so annoying precisely because it happens on Reddit, where traditionally people like to think of themselves as quite liberal and progressive. And yet suddenly once this topic is touched, they are not liberal anymore.

Anyway, I think there are several important points that are totally missing (or downvoted) from this discourse:

  1. When discussing the utility (or uselessness) of STEM education, don't think about your chances of getting a job in biology after getting a masters degree in biology. Think of your chances to get a good job (any kind of job you would consider "good" or "decent") after getting a degree in biology, compared to your chances of getting a similar job without college education, or after some alternative type of education. Don't think narrow. Think as broad as possible; think of your total chances: compare overall unemployment rates and average salaries for BS in math or physics, as compared to those who didn't get this degree.
  2. Don't even start about academia and "oversupply of PhDs" when the initial topic was STEM education. Academia is only a small subset of total job marker for PhDs. And getting a PhD is only a minor track among all those you can pursue after getting a bachelor degree in STEM. These two topics are tangentially related, but only very tangentially.
  3. These days, it is normal to change your occupation in your adult years. It's not the medieval world in which being born in a family of potters meant that you were bound to stay a potter for the rest of your life. It is in fact quite probable that you may decide to start something entirely new in your middle years, and you have no means of predicting today what will interest you later, in some 10-20 years from now. Flexibility is both a blessing and a curse, but I still think it is much more of a blessing. It means that you can change your life later on, even though it also means that getting college education doesn't "guarantee" employment in exactly same field that you happened to study.
  4. Complaining about immigration to the US is just... a bad tone? I don't even know how to put it properly, but it just doesn't sound American at all, does it?. The very glory of this nation always relied on the supply of newcomers, on mixing of different cultures, and on using other people's willingness to work, and their education (one they received abroad) for free. To talk about H visas in a negative context is just unpatriotic! Xenophobic sentiments like this one are OK, I guess, for some nations: there are protectionists and racist countries out there, but it sounds very odd, and very off in this context.
  5. Living in a global world works in both directions as well. If people from Germany can come to the U.S. to work here, it also means that you can go to Germany from the U.S. to work there. Or South Korea. Think of it, it may be an interesting opportunity.
  6. Finally, to get more STEM jobs one needs more entrepreneurs who are both interested, and well versed in STEM. The only way to get them, is to educate people in STEM; almost to push them into STEM. STEM jobs won't appear by magic just because you happened to get a STEM degree. Yet with a STEM degree you have a chance to create some new jobs. And in the broader perspective, it may be the most important point here.