Student wingmen


Once in a while, I interact with student wingmen. Or academic twinsies. At least, that’s those are the monikers I’ve had in mind when I work with such a pair of students.

Who are these dyads? Pairs of students like these are more inseparable than any romantic partnership. They enroll in many of the same classes, do their assignments together, visit office hours as a unit, and if you happen to come upon them somewhere around campus, you’ll inevitably see them together.

How tight is a wingman relationship?  When one half of the pair has an academic advising appointment with me, the other student accompanies the student, and just waits outside the office while I have the appointment with the wingman. Before I figure out the wingman situation, I ask, “Are you waiting to see me?” And they respond, “No, I’m just waiting for my friend.” For a half-hour meeting.

Since I started on the tenure-track in 1999, I have gotten to know about five such wingman pairs, including one pair that did research in my lab. From what I can tell, these are fast friendships that formed between two students who were both new to the university, and they found a security in one another while negotiating the challenges of being independent. I suspect that students with highly supportive families and perhaps limited interactions outside from home and school are more likely to end up in this kind of academic and social wingmanship.

I’ve heard some faculty refer to this kind of partnership as a bad thing, as a social crutch, and something that constrains personal development. But if you have a condition that requires a crutch, then shouldn’t you be using a crutch?

When I worked with my first pair of twinsies, I was a little concerned. But, over the years, I’ve seen these pairs evolve over time. In all cases, the students remained close friends, but throughout their undergraduate careers, they slowly grew to be more independent, and clearly this kind of partnership didn’t stick beyond graduation. And they had friends in a broader social group. I just spent about ten minutes searching up some of my former students who were academic wingmen with one another. They’ve turned out great, as far as I can tell.

So when a new pair shows up by my office, it doesn’t bother me in the least. I try to support my students as individuals, and it’s not my place to evaluate their friendships. If I need to manage the group dynamic of my research lab, I want to make sure that there is a healthy dynamic that ensures a safe and productive environment. Beyond that, my students’ business is their business. It takes a village, and every village is unique. If two students find a partnership that helps them negotiate the transition into an independent life, more power to them. It’s quite possible that students need their wingmen because they’re intimidated by the daily interactions with authority figures like myself. Whatever I can do to make reduce the stress of personal interactions can only help my students’ health and improve the learning environment.

Recommended Reads #51


Apparently, your paper will get more attention if it is published on hump day.

This story from last year explains how the Mathematics program at King Abdulaziz University shot from unranked to #7 in the US News global rankings. What they did is pay a full salary to some of the most heavily published professors in the world to get their permission to list them as adjunct faculty.

A detailed and cogent argument for the abandonment of bar graphs.

I find reddit is generally best avoided, but you might have trouble keeping away from this huge thread of lab safety horror stories. Don’t read right before bedtime, or right before leaving junior trainees unsupervised in the lab.

In a related theme, what do to When Trainees Go Bad.

How to make a killer map using Excel in under five minutes” Really? Okay, I’m not credulous but this looks credible.

Advice for students so that they don’t sound silly when emailing their professors. The preceding link is more respectful of students than this PhD comic on the same topic that came out the following week. The more we publicly vent about how our students are annoying, the less likely they will respect us and wish to learn from us.

Meg Duffy posted her “Important Lab Information for Duffy Lab Undergraduates,” which is very useful. Some of this is clearly targeted for undergrads inhabiting a lab at a research university, keep in mind. She’s totally cool with anybody taking this and using it.

If you find a mountain lion under your house, it’s probably a good idea to keep it a secret. No worries, P-22 got out okay. But I can see how he got lucky.

In case you missed this story, you should be aware that humankind is now using genetic engineering for eugenics. (And, no, I don’t mean ‘genetic engineering’ like the anti-anti-GMO strawman argument that traditional crop breeding is a form of genetic engineering.)

“So what, as a member of the academic alpha male club, can my fellow members and I do?

There was a disastrous mistake of a paper in PNAS that used a miserably designed experiment to claim that the gender problem in STEM hiring is fixed. The best detailed debunking of this story comes from sociologist Zuleyka Zevallos. A field guide to the other debunking responses is here.

Some members of the Iowa Legislature want to bring the Hunger Games to the state’s public universities. If not hunger games, then Survivor or American Idol or something. Seriously, they want to mandate that students must vote professors off the island. I wish this were a joke. The good news is that this didn’t get out of committee. But, crikey, man. Just speechless.

Are ecological conferences safe? Not as much as they should be.

Oh, this is cool: “Sporadic, opportunistic pollen consumption by ants is common, but not ubiquitous, in tropical forests.”

Which is a higher priority: Robotic Lawnmowers, or Astrophysics? The makers of the Roomba want to use a new portion of the radio spectrum to run robotic lawnmowers. The same part of the spectrum that is really important for astronomers to observe and measure methanol, critical to study the formation of celestial bodies. Something tells me the lawnmowing robots can find a new frequency. Yes, this article has the phrase, “Stay off our lawn.”

In higher-ed parlance the herculean act of teaching eight courses per year is what’s known as “a 4-4 load” or, alternatively, a “metric ass-ton” of classroom time. And yet a new bill currently under consideration in the North Carolina General Assembly would require every professor in the state’s public university system to do just that.

Water is wet, diamonds are hard, and universities respond to racist incidents as if the chief worry is bad PR, not the underlying racism.

How the funding of science suppresses diversity:

This isn’t a male / female issue. The funding climate is selecting for people who can work 24/7. The ones with a partner at home (usually female) or without a partner or family obligations. I am not a good choice for a postdoc, not because I am not capable, not intelligent but because I can not make your lab 110% my priority. When “the small grocers” can no longer survive because you’ve starved them out you get WALMART science.

Environmental charlatan Bjorn Lomborg just got appointed to a $4 million position with the University of Western Australia. Really?

Ecologist? Consider throwing your hat in the ring for the E4 award from Ecography. It takes just a 300 word proposal. And a letter of support, and of course I imagine if it comes from someone prestigious that will count for a lot. The award is 500 euros and a free review article in the journal. It’s for early career scientists, meaning that you are less than 13 years post-PhD. Wait, that’s early career nowadays??? Not too long ago, it’d take 12 years post-PhD to get in the neighborhood of full professor in the United States.

Keeping sane in the midst of writing proposals.

An oldie but goodie from Sean Carroll: The purpose of Harvard is not to educate people.

More adventures in obviousness: A college’s high ranking often means less time with professors.

On another related note, what is it like to be poor at any Ivy League school? Yeah, some of these places give full tuition to the small fraction of students whose parents are below upper-middle class. But it is an acceptable educational environment non-wealthy students?

On yet another related note, Bryan Alexander points to a plan: Let’s tax the wealthiest universities and use that money to fund support services at community colleges.

Does your department have a toxic culture of discrimination? Check out this post and the comments at Tenure, She Wrote.

Last year, a study came out to show that professors —  at a small number of prestigious universities, in certain fields — were less likely to respond to potential graduate students if the names of the students were associated with ethnic minorities. That study just got replicated very broadly, and the result stayed pretty much the same. If your name sounds like you’re not white, prospective PhD advisors are more likely to blow you off. That’s a fact.

Read about how Buzzfeed is the future of journalism.

The academic senate of the University of Maryland is toying with the idea of changing the employment classification of postdoc, which would cut back on basic employment benefits and retirement. Because, they, um, need to save money. On the backs of postdocs. I mean, “postdoctoral students” as they are called.

A Scientist’s Guide to Achieving Broader Impacts through K–12 STEM Collaboration

Have a nice weekend.



Will work for food: How volunteer “opportunities” exploit early-career scientists


This is a guest post by Susan Letcher, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Purchase College in New York.

A recent job posting at Cocha Cashu caught my eye:

What: Co-Instructor for the Third Annual Course in Field Techniques and Tropical Ecology

Where: Cocha Cashu Biological Station, Manu National Park, Peru

When: September 1 (arrive a few days earlier)- November 30, 2015

Oh cool, I thought. A field course based at a premier research station. Sounds great. But as I read further, a sinking horror took over: Continue reading

How to promote inclusivity in graduate fellowships?


Students who did their undergraduate work at elite universities are dominating access to federally funded graduate fellowships in the sciences. I pointed out this obvious fact at the beginning of this month, which to my surprise caught quite a bit of attention. I also got a lot of email (which I discuss here — it’s more interesting than you might expect).

A common response was: Okay, that’s the problem, what about solutions? Hence, this post. First, here are some facts that are are germane to the solutions. Continue reading

When K-12 teachers assign students to contact experts


I’m super-enthusiastic about K-12 science education, and working with K-12 teachers and students*. When a student wants to talk science with me, I’m over the moon. That doesn’t mean I’m as drunk as a cat on catnip whenever a K-12 student emails me a question. Continue reading

Recommended Reads #50


If the names Gould, Lewontin, EO Wilson, DS Wilson, Dobzhansky, or Tinbergen mean something to you, then oh my gosh you’ll find this interview very illuminating. It’s amazing, with a few decades of perspective, how frank people will be about their own experiences. Seriously, if you haven’t read this, I really really recommend you read it. Yeah, this whole list is recommended reads. So I guess this is a highly recommended one.

A nice blog post journal article with some thoughts on keeping field stations and marine labs afloat in turbulent times.

How one editor at PNAS makes the decision to do a desk reject.

Claire Potter contrasts “liberal arts colleges” and “sprawling, urban universities.” The number of overgeneralizations is a bit high, but nonetheless I find myself nodding at some things.

27 editors at Nature are planning to resign unless they stop the corrupt practice of payola reviews. Nice to see some ethical behavior over there.

The academic senate of the University of Maryland is toying with the idea of changing the employment classification of postdocs, which would cut back on basic employment benefits and retirement. Because, they, um, need to save money. On the backs of postdocs. I mean, “postdoctoral students” as they are called.

The conservation biology community, or at least some fraction of it, has gotten into an argument over this well-written and kinda persuasive piece by Jonathan Franzen about climate change and biodiversity protection. The last act of the piece, featuring the work of Janzen and Hallwachs in northwestern Costa Rica, is compelling. The Audubon society got really pissed and accused Franzen of intellectual dishonesty. Some other people said, “meh.” It didn’t take long for people to ask, are we still arguing about the competing priorities of climate change and species loss?

Let’s say you worked at a university with alumni that were Nobel Laureates, and also had Heisman Trophy Winners? (The latter is the an award that a private trust gives to an athlete who plays collegiate American Football). Would you be cheesed off if there were statues of the athletes and not of the laureates? Here’s a petition you can sign to request statues honoring the Nobel Laureates who graduated from the University of Florida. “It’s about getting the word to the UF community that we value our academic heroes as much as our sports heroes.”

On a related note: 10 simple rules [to maximize your chances] to win a Nobel Prize.

An informative episode in the attribution challenges within the internet of today: An apology.

Here is an effective rhetorical takedown of the fear mongering “Food Babe“:

Hari’s rule? “If a third grader can’t pronounce it, don’t eat it.”
My rule? Don’t base your diet on the pronunciation skills of an eight-year-old.

You can’t make this stuff up: Plagiarism guideline paper retracted for…plagiarism.

Ecologist Casey terHorst uses science to make the case for going veg. Or at least, less meaty.

The numbers in this report on non-tenure-track instructors are mouthdroppingIn 2014, out of MUN’s 2,139 faculty staff, 997 were contractual, according to the latest auditor general report. Meanwhile, full professors at MUN are only required to teach two courses per term, and earn an average of $135,141, according to a 2010 Statistics Canada report. Associate professors come in well over the $100,000 mark, with assistant professors averaging $86,654. They also receive health and dental benefits, paid vacation and sick leave, and a pension plan.

Here’s what you “should” read.

I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester.

“The scientific world is stunned by research which backs an Aboriginal legend about how palm trees got to Central Australia.” (I don’t know if “stunned” is the right word. But it’s interesting.)

The tiny island nation of Nauru, an eight-square-mile speck of land in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, was once one of the richest countries in the world, with a phosphate industry accounting for 80% of its economy. But around the year 2000, everything changed. The phosphate that had enabled many to live in affluence at home, buy houses abroad and send their children to expensive boarding schools was running out.

There is crying in science, and that is okay.

Just when you thought it was safe to run Generalized Linear Mixed Models. It is, but tune in for good caveats and approaches: For testing the significance of regression coefficients, go ahead and log-transform count data.

Small museums matter.

Only Ten Black Students Were Offered a Spot at Stuyvesant High School This Year, But Is This Really a Problem? Man, everybody wants to pass the buck to the people who generate the applicant base. Nobody wants to work to build their applicant base or reconsider their evaluation criteria or process in a way that promotes equity. Sigh.

Chris Buddle, entomologist and Deanlet at McGill, is doing it right. He’s shadowing students to learn about their experiences and learn more about how to do his job well. I’m so bored of hearing whines about administrators who aren’t student centered, when I’d bet on average they’re about as focused on students as faculty, if not more so. (And no, I’m not going into admin for this reason.)

Speaking of which, the real reason college costs so much.

“Why would anybody would tally impact factors in the first place? Who has what to gain?”

Feeling unappreciated? Give yourself a boost and read what the critics wrote about The Beatles when they first came to the US in 1964.

A very useful list: Resources and Strategies for Recruiting a Diverse Faculty. If you’re about to run a search, please read this before you start the search.

FAQ: So Your Company Has Been Found Using Alex [Wild]’s Photographs Without Permission. What Next?

One of those twitter hashtaggy things happened this week, in which a phrase was “trending” on twitter, when scientists shared “IAmAScientistBecause.” Some focused on the expressions of joy, but there were also some smug expressions of superiority.

When someone gets denied tenure for getting involved in political advocacy to protect the safety of women, they can wage a credible lawsuit against the university if someone in power actually suggests that pre-tenure advocacy is a bad idea. Like this situation at Harvard.

Our literature isn’t a big pile of facts. This is yet another really good thing from Scientist Sees Squirrel.

Have a nice weekend.


Dear students, a member of the class asked…


This is a post by Catherine Scott.

I am TAing a first year introductory Ecology/Evolution course this semester, and the laboratory exam is coming up on Tuesday. I’m spending a lot of time this weekend emailing the entire class list messages that start, “Dear students, a member of the class asked…” I go on to list the (anonymized) question, and my answer. I copied this technique from a great professor I had for an invertebrate zoology course. As an extremely shy undergraduate student who never once went to an office hour or emailed a professor or TA with a question, I really appreciated this approach. Continue reading

Elite vs. disadvantaged institutions, and NSF Graduate Fellowships: a peek inside the mailbag


I’ll be soon be sharing specific ideas about what can be done about the disadvantages experienced by talented students who attend non-prestigious undergraduate institutions. But first, I thought it would be useful for me to share how this topic has affected my inbox.

I barely get any email related to this site. Aside from the site stats, and some interactions on twitter, I wouldn’t have any other indicator about readership. So when I receive the occasional email related to this site, it stands out.

In relative terms, I got several metric tons of emails about last week’s post about NSF graduate fellowships. Continue reading