Recommended reads #98


Five practical ways you can help a first generation student succeed. If you’ve ever thought positively about anything I’ve written or shared on this topic, I bet you’ll really appreciate this piece by Abigail Dan. I bow to its wisdom and excellence.

Obsessed with smartness, by James Lang. I love this almost as much as the preceding piece.

Advice for my conservative students

Why facts don’t change our minds, by the inestimable Elizabeth Kolbert.

About keeping a course fresh, semester after semester.

Teen empowerment through citizen science. Check out this uplifting story about some of the great of my spectacular colleagues at the Natural History Museum of LA County, where I am spending my sabbatical.

A recent paper came out explaining how conservatives are more likely to give a damn about global warming if you focus on how the world used to be, rather than how it can be in the future. So, in this sense, conservatives are literally backwards.

A great op-ed about the EPA and climate change

The folks running the big International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) lost their marquee sponsor, Intel.

Here’s a story about scientific efforts to cool down the urban heat island of Los Angeles.

You know that story about robo-pollinators? Artificial pollinators are not the solution.

A story in Science Magazine about how first-year grad students get co-authorship opportunities. If they’re men.

An Uber engineer discusses her “strange, fascinating, and slightly horrifying story.” Which, we should remind ourselves and others, is a story that so many women could tell about their own places of employment.

The next time someone tells you sexism is over, show them these statistics

A misogynist’s guide to supporting women in STEM.

What’s it like to be a woman at Baylor? Six women speak out on sexism, feminism and campus chivalry.

How some men fake an 80-hour workweek

I just learned how the AGU (American Geophysical Union)  got totally punk’d by ExxonMobil. For many years, AGU has been feeding off of the teat of big oil, accepting money to support their conference (but not enough to make a dent because it’s still a very expensive conference). Many concerned members agitated for AGU to stop accepting payments from ExxonMobil, because a scientific society that prioritizes climate action shouldn’t be partnered up with the world’s biggest carbon polluter. Anyway, after a big to-do, the AGU board took a vote and said, “You know what? We’re okay with it. Keep that big oil money coming our way.” People got mad, protested more, and then AGU, said, “Okay, fine, we’ll vote again about that sweet sweet money from ExxonMobil. And then they voted yes again, right before flipping off their membership. Then, after all of that ruckus, ExxonMobil decided, “Nah, we won’t bother with you, we weren’t really giving you that much money anyway, but watching you fight over it was so fun! Hey, now we’re going to go put some cucumbers next to this cat while he’s not watching.”

How does Facebook collect data, and what are they doing with it? This is rather detailed and specific, and perhaps surprising.

How big data harms poor communities

Calling in the army to remove unwanted immigrant plants. Which are a known menace.

The antidote to rising populism is being grown in labs

Jacquelyn Gill on marching for science

Did you know that California is due for a massive rainstorm that will turn the Central Valley into a lake, what USGS calls ARkStorm – here’s their 2010 report about it.

An interview with Patricia Matthew, whose new book is about the written and unwritten rules of getting tenure, and the disparities that screw over faculty in marginalized groups.

Most tenure denials don’t hit the news, but this one at Beloit College did.

An activity that promotes engagement with required readings, even in large classes.

On the etymology of shitgibbons, wankpuffins, crapweasels, and other noncharismatic megafauna.

George Saunders is interviewed by Zadie Smith. Could this be any less awesome? I don’t know, the baseline level of awesome involving Saunders and Smith is inherently sky high.

Here’s a story that was a total surprise to me, I had never heard anything about this history: In Los Angeles, Little Tokyo was cleared out in the early 1940s, as the result of an Executive Order that sent Americans of Japanese descent into concentration camps. During that time, while so many buildings were left unoccupied, the neighborhood was converted to Bronzeville, an African-American enclave developing out of the Great Migration. Then, when the original residents came back, it turned back into Little Tokyo again, as the residents of Bronzeville were essentially kicked out by the landowners who favored one ethnicity over another. I thought I knew a decent amount of LA history, but, apparently not that much.

A crazy Mission Impossiblesque caper resulted in the theft of two million pounds worth of rare books.

Oooh! Philip Pullman announced a three-book sequel to follow up on His Dark Materials. Okay, it’s not a “sequel,” and not a “prequel,” he says it’s an “equal.” (Two of them are earlier in the chronology, one afterwards.)

Several years ago, when I was reading the Little House series with my kid, I could help but notice that Pa had a thing for moving on. Once they got settled, they moved West. Again and again. Once, they had to be removed because he was illegally on Native American land! Smithsonian did a good story looking critically at this aspect of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work, on the 150th anniversary of her birth.

(Beware, there are some graphic descriptions of a most disturbing nature.) The ethics of using data from Nazi experiments. Some of the hideous experiments conducted by Nazi scientists generated data relevant to physiological and biomedical applications. What are the ethics of using this data, now that it exists?

Ordinary Americans carried out inhumane acts for Trump.

What Trump said when signing nomination papers for DeVos.

I hope you have a peaceful and enjoyable weekend, that includes some acts of resistance.


Recommended reads #97


Alan Townsend wrote an op-ed that I think you really need to read: Science might save my daughter. Don’t kill it. (And in his blog, which I absolutely love and have linked to on previous occasions, he explains why he wrote the piece.)

Science censorship is a global issue – a short letter to Nature written by three Aussie ecologists.

Unlearning descriptive statistics. I thought this was really interesting. Continue reading

Should scientists write Wikipedia pages for their study species?


I’ve been working on Penstemon digitalis for a long time now. I first met the plant as a starting PhD student looking for a new system to make my own. I wanted something local (to Ithaca, NY), a plant that was dependent on pollinators with pre-dispersal seed predators (those are insects that lay eggs in the fruit and the young larvae eat the seeds). I wanted to study conflicting selection on floral traits by mutualists and antagonists, not what my dissertation ended up being about but that is a story for another day. In my search for a species to work with, I also wanted something with larger seeds than Lobelia siphilitica that I had just spent my masters cursing over and to be taller than Collinsia parviflora that I broke my back over during my undergrad. Continue reading

Let’s talk about mental health in academia


A few days ago Canada was abuzz with messages about mental health for Bell Let’s Talk day. The social media campaign resulted in Bell donating 6.5 million dollars to mental health initiatives in Canada, which is great. But I’m not sure that one day a year when everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health publicly actually helps reduce the stigma around mental health, one of the stated goals of the Let’s Talk campaign. Any other day of the year, it’s still pretty difficult to bring up mental health issues, so this post is partly an effort to continue the conversation. Continue reading

Taking action at this critical moment


I’m going to have to suspend business-as-usual. Please stick with me, while I connect some dots to explain how critical this time is for the United States, and, as a corollary, for the world. If you’re reading the news, but not yet marching in the streets, I think this is for you.

Right now, everything counts on Americans who may choose to stand up for our democracy. We’ve been cramming for this exam for months. Now we’ve got our number 2 pencil out, and we’re heading into the exam room. Are we going to pass through this test?

There is a lot going on, but I’d like to point out the central issue at hand. Continue reading


Recommended reads #96


I feel a bit guilty that I came upon some cool reads, in the precise moment that my country stopped being a proper democracy. This list is more decline-of-democracy-related than usual. But still even if you’ve had enough of this, there’s enough in here about other things I hope it’s worth your time. In part, because there’s a link in here about how to keep on keepin’ on while still doing your best to resist the the new authoritarian government that has taken over the US.

But I do have things to share, some of which aren’t even about our brave new world.

Just in case you didn’t know, academia.edu is a for-profit venture that exists primarily to gather our information and sell it. Ungood. I’ve stayed away from it for this reason – this article explains how they ended up with a .edu even though they’re not a .edu.

America’s great working class colleges. This is such a great piece of journalism (admittedly  I think this in part because it says things I try to say here often and get it better than I could). Here’s the interactive feature that accompanies the article, which I really suggest you play around with – if anything to get an idea about how the institutions that you are personally familiar with compare to others in ways that you might not have seen visualized before. It was an education for me, surely.

This is a good visualization of gerrymandering. Which (I don’t argue here) is specifically how we got into this hideous mess. Continue reading

In teaching, less is more


Question: When you’re teaching, how much should you cover?

I propose a couple answers:

Answer A: You shouldn’t cover much, because the more you cover, the less they learn.

Answer B: Trick question! You’re not supposed to “cover” anything! If you teach a topic by just making sure it gets covered in a lecture, then you’re not really teaching it. Continue reading


Recommended reads #95


In the United States, a woman died a few months ago of a bacterial infection. This microbe was resistant to all antibiotics available in the US that we were capable of throwing at it.

A paper came out this week, looking at predictors of publication rates among 280 graduate students accepted and enrolled into a biomedical grad program. And — shocker, I know — grades and standardized test scores didn’t matter. The best predictor was the content of the letters of recommendation. You want to know which undergraduates have the greatest research potential? Listen to their undergraduate mentors. Here’s a drugmonkey post about this paper. Continue reading

Knowing something really well doesn’t mean you can teach it well


Over the holidays, I taught my niece how to throw a frisbee with a forehand. It took five minutes, and she totally picked it up. It was awesome. And then we just played catch for a good long while. There may not be a more pleasant thing than throwing a frisbee on warm afternoon in the park with good company*. Continue reading

There are many ways to be a publicly engaged scientist


I want to talk about the Who and the How of public engagement.

We should be bringing science to the table with people who aren’t in the market for science. A lot of outreach is preaching to the converted, and that is a valuable form of service. But we also have the ability — and perhaps an obligation — to make science a part of everyday life for a society that just doesn’t think about science on a regular basis. Continue reading


Recommended reads #93


An argument for the funding of basic research makes it into the Wall Street Journal.

One way to teach critical thinking is to take a historical issue (in history, science, whatever) and look at the debates surrounding the issue by the people of the time, and then asking, “Who was right?” (I found this via Tavish Bell’s twitter account, where I see consistently interesting stuff about higher ed.)

The abduction of tortoise #1721 Continue reading

How many rejections should scientists aim for?


Earlier this year an article on aiming for 100 rejections a year in literature was being passed around. The main idea is that by aiming for rejections, rather than accepted things we’re more likely to take risks and apply broadly.

Since reading that article, I’ve been pondering how many rejections I should aim for. What is a good number for a scientist? Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity


When I visited the SACNAS conference some weeks ago, I spent most of my time in the exhibit hall, chatting with students at their posters and scoping out the institutional recruitment tables. A few organizations had primo real estate, with a large amount of square footage right by the entrance. They had a small army of representatives, always busy with students. The ones that I recall include USC, Harvard, and NSF.

There’s no doubt that NSF is serious about its institutional mission to develop the most talented scientific workforce in this country, which means we need scientists from all backgrounds. If you think that NSF isn’t committed to the recruitment of underrepresented minorities (URMs), you probably don’t have a lot of experience with NSF. They not only care, but they also put a lot of thought into how to do it right. Continue reading