Recommended reads #85


In 10 years, Harvey Mudd (an exclusive STEM-focused college in the LA area, one of the Claremont Colleges) went from 15% women students to having a majority of women. Here’s how they did it.

What I learned as a hired consultant to autodidact physicists” Or, what happens when a trained physicist takes crackpots (and their money) seriously.

Some universities are using a program that tracks student keystrokes in an attempt to catch plagiarizing students.

DA Henderson, a hero of science, died this week. He is, arguably, the reason we don’t have smallpox anymore, and I wish I knew his story before he left us.

Statistical training in grad school doesn’t train ecologists for the work we need to do.

Now can buy your own replica (technically, a reproduction) of the Voynich Manuscript for $8000. Not familiar with the Voynich Manuscript? Then you’re in for a treat.

Catherine Hulshof has great reasons for eliminating the GRE requirement.

Listen to the sound of my voice.” Assuming you like this, you might want to find everything else from Kelly Baker.

I was unaware of this before now: children who experience abuse and trauma are far more likely to have significant health problems as adults. This is the first major study about this, I think, from almost 20 years ago, but others have follows in its wake. There was a TED talk about this a couple years ago, which I haven’t watched.

How to make a real commitment to diversity.

On safe spaces and segregation in universities. (I put a thing up on Facebook about the University of Chicago “safe space” thing, in which the Dean of Students said he wasn’t going to have any of that.)

The first intentional relocation of a vertebrate because of climate change.

NPR is getting rid of online comments on its site. Once you look at their explanation and the statistics, it’s hard to argue against this move. Only a teeny tiny fraction of their listenership is commenting, and it’s also a very nonrandom subset that is commenting a lot. Those guys should just get their own chat room or something instead of taking up real estate on every NPR story. (I am not planning to get rid of comments, but low fraction of commenters happens here too. I think the comments are of high value, but it’s a minuscule number of people relative to the entire readership, and if the comments are not reflective of the readership, then that might not be good. I don’t want to shut down discussion, but more interesting discussions about Small Pond posts happen on social media far more than in the comments themselves. Commenting on blogs has dropped across the board. The medium has evolved. So, I don’t know what to do with this. If you have thoughts on how to modify/remove, or not, the comments, feel free to, um, leave a comment.)

You know those baby simulators they give to high school students to dissuade them from making real babies? It turns out that they have the opposite effect. Teenagers are more likely to have real babies if they are required to take care of fake babies. I get it. After some quality baby time (and I guess maybe ever more so after fake baby time?) wouldn’t you want to have one? I mean, babies, man. Who doesn’t love babies? Okay, some people don’t. But clearly the people assigned the fake babies for school feel differently.

The National Labor Relations Board changed course and now says that grad students in private universities can unionize. Grad students in public universities have had this right for a while — the grad students in my university system unionized in 2006. This is another good reason to be a grad student in a more progressive part of the country, so that you won’t have to suffer under “right to work” laws as a grad student.

A recent post on Memoirs of a SLACer was about the genre of tenure denial stories. Notable is the extremely detailed narrative from Jennifer Diascro six years after the events in she describes. Diascro gave up a tenured position for a new one, only to not get tenure. It’s a lengthy story and I haven’t read it all, but it does look like compelling reading. Here it is on her site in reverse chronological order. I imagine you’d want to start with the post at the bottom and work your way up. She provided copies of the key documents that were involved in the process, too. Tenure denial is more common than most people think — perhaps one in twenty tenure-track faculty at non-prestigious universities are denied tenure, and assuredly more leave their position before getting denied. Talking about it is important, especially for those who find themselves in such a position.

How “voluntourism” helps rich high school students get into prestigious universities, while really doing nothing for the people they’re purporting to help. Meanwhile, I’m just learning about what JK Rowling’s Lumos Foundation does – work to help reunite families that have been broken apart by “orphanages” designed to benefit the voluntourism industry.

The University of Kentucky is suing is own student newspaper. Why? Because they did the job the University is supposed to be doing — protecting members of the community by releasing information about a sexually harassing professor while the university continues to try to bury the story. Meanwhile, entomologist James Harwood was allowed to quit his job in secrecy and seek a position elsewhere keeping the finding of his sexual misconduct under wraps.

I was fascinated to learn that international swimming competitions intentionally reduced the number of significant digits used for clocking races. Why? Because if they measured more accurately, it would be amplify the unfair edge that some swimmers might get, cause by variance in the length of the lanes in the pools, which can off by just a little bit, and vary with conditions. While we’re on the topic Olympic swimming, here’s some seriously interesting math showing how the pools in the Rio Olympics had some lanes that were faster than others, which is clearly anomalous from other international meets (aside from Barcelona 2013).

Here’s a fascinating — and gorgeous — visualization of the movement of vertebrates in North America in response to climate change.

Mother Jones funded a major investigation into the abuses that happen in the private prison industry, which resulted in a huge story that wielded a great deal of influence. Perhaps it was important in the Federal government’s decision to stop contracting with private prisons. Here is a piece by Mother Jones explaining the economics of this investigation, and how they spent a ton of money on it but aren’t getting nearly any revenue back from it. The future of journalism is weird.

How to avoid unconscious bias in your classroom.

Here’s a profile of Justin Schmidt in the New York Times. You might know of him from the Schmidt Pain Index.

I’m finishing up Chuck Klosterman’s But What if We’re Wrong? and I think it’s moderately fascinating. He tries to look at the present as if it was the past, to tackle a mostly untackleable question. You know how we look back on history — say, hundreds of years in the past — and we see how thinkers were just wrong about fundamental things, compared to what we know now. In which ways are we collectively deluding ourselves in the present just like our ancestors did back then? What things that are widely accepted now will seem silly or be forgotten in the future? He interviews a bunch of interesting people towards this end, including Richard Linklater, Brian Greene, Kathryn Schultz, and David Byrne. (In one chapter, he speculates which band will be the one that rock music is remembered by, 500 years from now. His most educated guess? Journey. It sounds crazy but his argument, which can’t be disproven for a few centuries of course, is a pretty good one.)

While on Klosterman, it’s been years, but I remember his short novel Downtown Owl as mighty good. One indicator of this, I think, is that I still think about it one in a while.

Doctors weren’t sure what kind of person I would be when I woke up. Even after I woke up, doctors and professionals have tried to keep my expectations low. I will never forget when one medical professional sat me down and said, ‘Sweetheart, you’ll never be as good as you were.’ I am proud to say that I am better than I ever I was.”

PhD students might benefit from having a science communication expert on their dissertation committee.

WikiLeaks sucks, and this is why.

I Went on a Weeklong Cruise For Conspiracy Theorists. It Ended Poorly.

Here’s a story about how The City University of Hong Kong switched to a “discovery-based” undergraduate curriculum which emphasized novel research.

The president of Marist College sounds rather silly in his rationalization for sending his basketball team to play in North Carolina, whereas so many other reasonable organizations have joined a boycott because of a transphobic state law.

guide to online resources for teaching and learning in higher education – this list is humanities-centric, but lots of it is relevant for everybody.

Do you know where Kiribati is? The nation soon may just no longer exist – just eliminated from the map. No lines will be redrawn, it’s just that the land will disappear. An Olympic wrestler has given us a chance to learn about the story and murky future of Kiribati.

Inside a 700 year old tattoo shop.

An important paper just came out that explains how researchers studying diversification in STEM need to up their game with more sophisticated approaches to analyzing their data if we are going to develop and validate approaches that actually work.

Colleges actually are hiring more women and minority faculty than they have been – as contingent instructorsThis is not how diversification works.

Sociologists are thinking long and carefully about how to include communication with the public as a component of academic job performance.

Malcolm Gladwell was in top pseudoscientific form when he took at shot at Bowdoin College as elitist and unconcerned about its (relatively small number of) low-income students. Which isn’t really borne out by the evidence, Bowdoin says. It’s cute how Bowdoin is so proud of it’s 15% first-generation college student population, like how USC is so proud of its 20% rate. Anyway, Gladwell is a hack, he knows he’s a hack, and his swipe at Bowdoin not only lacked substance, but also was misrepresentative.

On getting rid of deadlines for assignments:

I reworked my lateness policy. Now every student in my courses can elect to take a two-day grace period on any paper — no questions asked. If, at the end of that period, they are still having trouble completing the assignment, they must meet with me in person to go over an outline of their ideas and set a schedule for getting the paper done.

The results have been amazing. Since changing my policy, I’ve seen higher-quality work, less anxiety, and fewer cases of burnout. Most of my students do take the grace period occasionally throughout the semester, but the great majority complete their assignments by the end of the two days. And when students are having serious difficulties, there is a support system in place to integrate them back into the classroom.

Some really important senior scientists think we need to change how scientists receive credit and rewards for their work. Thanks for that. We never would have thought of this without you, guys.

I’m definitely heading to the cinema in January:

Have a great weekend.

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

On absurd tenure requirements at small institutions


As this site continues to grow, the more I hear about issues that people face in teaching-focused institutions. There is one issue that I consistently hear about, but I have yet to mention: nonsensical tenure requirements for scholarship, especially in small liberal arts colleges. The most common one is: When an entire college or university uses the same publication expectations for all faculty. In. Every. Field. Continue reading

Let’s nominate folks for NSF’s Waterman award, including women


Every year, the National Science Foundation gives an award to the most bestest early-career scientist in the US. It’s up to the scientific community — that’s me and you — to make sure the pool really has the best. Which means it has to have a lot of women in it.

Months ago, we had a small spike in traffic here at Small Pond because we joined the chorus wondering how NSF can manage to go thirteen years without giving the Waterman Award to a woman. Continue reading

Accessibility isn’t the key to mentorship


When I start a new batch of students in my lab, my spiel includes:

Two problems can prevent success. The first is poor communication, and the second is poor data management.

At the moment, I think this is true. As poor data management is a by-product of poor communication, it really just boils down to communication.

Earlier on in my career, I was too quick to attribute communication failures to my lack of approachability, or poor decision-making by my students. I don’t see it this way anymore. Continue reading

Recommended reads #84


Are you familiar with the work of the Holotypic Occlupanid Research Group? I applaud their dedication and excellence in chronicling the diversity and natural history of this unappreciated yet widespread taxon. This is where the line between science and art is invisible.

Women are woven deeply into the history of science, stretching back to ancient Egypt, over 4,000 years ago. But because their contributions often go unacknowledged, they fade into obscurity—and the threads of their influence today aren’t as apparent as they ought to be.” I’d like to call this one early: We’ll be looking back at Dr. Emily Temple-Wood as the person who rewrote the history of scientific discovery.

Racism in the research lab. This post, from two scientists from prestigious institutions, is important. Continue reading

We need to stop putting diversity in a box at conferences


At the moment, I’m having an absolutely great time at the Ecological Society of America meeting. I’m learning new science, meeting old friends and a variety of folks who read this site, and formulating plans for my sabbatical that recently started.

This wonderful time has been punctuated with moments of my own frustration and annoyance. Why? Because this is a typical academic conference. And the status quo is often maddening. Continue reading

Serious academics take the media seriously


The Guardian chose to publish a piece from a “serious academic” who made an argument that we shouldn’t share our work on social media.

So who is this “serious academic?” Well, we have no idea. They are an anonymous “young” PhD student. Does this mean they’re some kind of whistleblower, warning the world about the rampant public sharing of academic information?

Anyway, what does the phrase “I’m a serious academic” mean?

Here are some half-guesses:

  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because it is unimportant.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is just too important for laypeople to think about.”
  • “Sharing my work with the public is a waste of time because my work is too complex for the average person to comprehend.”
  • “I’m jealous of my colleagues because they have substantial things to say to the public, and I all that I’ve ever shared with the public is an anonymous spoilsport gripefest.”
  • “I think my colleagues are sharing insubstantial things to the public because they’re not as Important and Deep and Serious as I am, and I resent that their public engagement is positively affecting their career outlook.”
  • “I’m such a pedant that I feel the need to point out that ‘I am a serious academic’ is a clause, and not a phrase.”

Continue reading

Advice for department chairs


I recently finished up a three-year stint as chair of my department. (At my institution, the role of department chair rotates among the senior members of the department — basically, anyone with tenure — based on seniority. Three years ago, it was my turn to take the mantle, as the next most senior person in line.) It was an interesting experience and I certainly learned a TON from it, but I am also relieved that it’s now someone else’s turn.

Since relinquishing my post, I’ve been reflecting a lot on the experience of being chair. Continue reading


Recommended reads #83


New Zealand is developing detailed plans to eradicate every exotic predator, including feral cats, rats, and weasels.

How women are harassed out of science. Let’s be clear about this: It’s not just that scientific institutions and individual scientists are implicitly biased against women. That is true, but on top of all that, direct harassment itself drives women out of science. Not convinced this is true? Then please please please read this story. Continue reading

How can track record matter in double-blind grant reviews?


We should have double blind grant reviews. I made this argument a couple weeks ago, which was met with general agreement. Except for one thing, which I now address.

trouble coverSome readers said that double-blind reviews can’t work, or are inadvisable, because of the need to evaluate the PI’s track record. I disagree with my whole heart. I think we can make it work. If our community is going to make progress on diversity and equity like we keep trying to do, then we have to make it work.

We can’t just put up our hands and say, “We need to keep it the same because the alternative won’t work” because the status quo is clearly biased in a way that continues to damage our community. Continue reading


Saying “see you later, sometime” to the rainforest


I just got back home from a few weeks of fieldwork in the rainforest. Most of the science I’ve done over the years has been based out of a smallish patch of land in Costa Rica: La Selva Biological Station. It’s a special place.

There’s a lot to be said for becoming intimate with just one place, to develop ideas and make discoveries that wouldn’t be made by those just passing through. Continue reading