A sign that we don’t care

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When I was in grad school, down the third floor hallway at the other end of Ramaley Hall, was the office of a professor who did a lot of undergraduate advising. He had a sign posted on his office door:

It's a sign outside an office in large Times New Roman font that says, "A lack of preparation on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part."

I hadn’t heard this particular phrase before.

Since I saw this sign in 1994, I’ve walked past a lot of offices, and I’ve seen this sign plenty of times. Maybe it’s on a door at your own institution. I also saw it last week in a posting on a higher education group in Facebook. I’ve worked in a place that embraces this kind of ethos. Earlier in my career, in a bout of Stockholm syndrome, I might even have said this myself.

Nowadays, when I see one of these signs, I identify it as a red flag, and mentally translate it as: “Inside this door resides a person who doesn’t care.”

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Recommended reads #183

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Has more than a month passed since I’ve done a rec reads post? My gosh. Which in 2020 time, is, like, 27 years? This is a relatively condensed list of things I’ve bookmarked since the last one. And there are no takes on the election. (Though if you do find a 10,000 word insider’s view of exactly how the Four Seasons Total Landscaping thing went down, because oh man, this will be such a hilarious and pathetic story, please let me know? Because I don’t want to miss that.)

From panic to pedagogy: Using online active learning to promote inclusive instruction in ecology and evolutionary biology courses and beyond

The science of learning vs. proctoring software

Our HyFlex Experiment: What’s Worked and What Hasn’t

The pedagogy of anxiety

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Science Has an Intellectual Elitism Problem

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This is a guest post by Joshua M.A. Stough.

Over the last few weeks, science twitter has been…let’s say “discussing”, the place of religious faith and spiritualism in the scientific community and society in general. The source of the argument is a simple, but often aggressive assertion that religion is antithetical to science, presented as a binary choice: either you are an intelligent, free-thinking individual who accepts only that which can be empirically tested and validated, or you are a superstitious moron who mindlessly believes the dusty words of ancient charlatans. For many this will sound all too familiar, as it is frequently trotted out by a specific brand of atheists on Twitter, Reddit, and some of the seedier corners of the web. 

Before I continue, I’d like to make it clear that this is a relatively small part of the atheist community, the majority of which is frustrated and tired of the arrogance on display. If it were limited to a small collection of jaded teenagers and sophomore philosophy students in the deep echo chambers of the internet, it probably wouldn’t warrant much attention, but we’ve seen the same argument repeated by several prominent and visible scientists, including Neil deGrasse Tyson, Richard Dawkins, as well as numerous scientists and academics on Twitter. This blog isn’t for them, it’s for the people who genuinely want to improve the education and understanding of those who reject scientific consensus for social, religious, and emotive reasons, but aren’t sure how. I’d like to share my own story as an example of how compassion, sensitivity, and the normalcy of the scientists I’ve met over the years did more to change my worldview than any amount of intellectual bullying, peer pressure, and exclusivity.

I was raised in a conservative Christian home, in the Evangelical tradition, and while my parents weren’t hardcore fundamentalists like the sort you see on the internet, my education growing up inevitably included the unerring truth of the Bible. I remember reading books with dinosaurs walking alongside Adam and Eve, archaeological evidence for Noah’s Ark and the global flood, and the age of the earth as determined by the genealogies listed in the book of Genesis. All of this seemed pretty innocuous at the time, but during my teenage years, things started to change.  Adolescence brought on a deep passion to protect the things I cared for, particularly family and religion. When I was in middle school, my dad shared his experiences with depression, and how our religion brought him back from the brink of suicide, which further solidified its importance in my life. By the time I was in high school, I was gobbling up books from Young Earth Creationists (YEC) explaining how the scientific community twisted evidence to support evolution.

This is one of the claims that seems to perplex scientists the most. Why would anyone do that? The books had an answer for that too. One of the key tenets of YEC, is that the scientific community is made up of militant atheists who have set out to destroy religion by using science to prove the Bible is unreliable. YEC authors sell themselves (and their books/products) as drawing a line at the book of Genesis, protecting the entirety of Christianity from those that would defile it. What is their proof? The intellectual elitism and aggressive anti-religious activity of prominent scientists described above.

I stopped believing in YEC around my Junior year of college, after about 4 years of being confronted by a reality that wholly contradicted their narrative. When I got to college, I found that scientists weren’t militant atheists at all, but just ordinary people doing a job they loved. They watched TV, they listened to music, they had families, and many practiced religion. During my career I’ve had the pleasure of working with Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Daoists, Atheists, and Agnostics. It wasn’t peer pressure or bullying that changed my mind, it was my AP Biology teacher Dorothy listening to my beliefs without judgment. It was my undergraduate research advisor Mark with his humble passion for science. It was the dozens of great scientists fostering a seed of understanding in me that they didn’t even know about, and at the end of all this I’m grateful for it.

Public distrust of science is at a high water mark. While significant portions of the populace deny the scientific consensus on the origins of life on Earth and climate change, others reject the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and still others even reject that the earth is round. Some in the scientific community have responded with mocking and open hostility, potentially closing the doors of science for people watching, be they students, parents, staff, social media users, or politicians. Make no mistake, this is a diversity issue every bit as much as a public approval issue. Science needs to be open to people from all walks of life for its own sake as well as that of others, and we all need to recognize that changing hearts and minds is a process that takes time, not a single event. Our words and actions either contribute to, or detract from that change. Act wisely.

Q & A about jobs in primarily undergraduate institutions

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This morning, in the midst of all this election fear, I got to liberate my brain for a bit by participating in a Q&A workshop run by the Genetics Society of America on PUI careers. There were a lot of folks there, and it was brimming with questions, it felt like we could have gone on for many hours more.

So, I thought, for all y’all, I could set up this post where you could ask Q&A in the comments, and I will answer them! And, of course, the diverse readership here could also answer as well! Because obviously multiple perspectives based on different experiences are important.

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A Practical Guide To College Science Teaching

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I’ve occasionally seen photos of new authors unboxing the shipment of their first book, and I thought, wow, that must be exciting.

And, hey, look!

It was kind of exciting. Also, it was very imposter syndrome-y.

Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.” I wrote the book that I wish I was handed when I started teaching in grad school, and that I could reference as I became an instructor of record.

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Using Religious Cultural Competence to Talk to Students and the Public about Evolution

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This is a guest post by Elizabeth Barnes.

Over thirty years of education research has revealed how to effectively communicate evolution to religious individuals. If I could boil down that research into one sentence it would be this: Highlighting potential compatibility between religion and evolution and de-emphasizing conflict is the best way to increase acceptance of evolution. Here are concrete steps, backed by research literature, for how to have productive discussions about religion and evolution both in the classroom and with the public.

1)    Don’t assume an individual’s religious beliefs are in conflict with evolution. Unless someone believes in the literal separate creation of species by a God/god(s), their religious beliefs do not have to be in conflict with evolution. Because science is bound to the natural world and cannot prove or disprove the existence of a God/god(s), there are plenty of ways individuals reconcile their religious beliefs with evolution. Further, when we insist that evolution and religion are fundamentally incompatible it only creates more rejection of evolution. In my most recent study, 35% of strongly religious individuals thought that in order to fully accept evolution, they would have to be an atheist. Unsurprisingly, these individuals were the ones that reported accepting evolution the least.

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A typical semester courseload is cognitive overload

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It feels weird to just write a blog post. I’d just like to say* that I realize things are entirely not normal, and what makes it even more abnormal is how so many of us are expected go about our business as if things were normal.


The last time I was a student taking a full set of classes on the semester system, I was a high school senior. Where I went to college, a full course load was only three classes at a time. Even though my job is to (sometimes) teach courses on the semester system, it’s nothing I’ve experienced as an undergraduate.

A full semester course load is considered to be 15 units. Without any labs involved, that’s five three-unit courses. Holy crap, that’s a lot. I don’t mean that it’s a lot of work, per se, but it’s a lot to think about at the same time. Imagine taking a class in cell biology, one in sculpture, another one in Latin American Literature, and another in physics. And having to wrap your head around all of these all in the span of a few days. That’s a lot of cognitive whiplash! (And that’s only four courses I listed!)

Is this really the way we should be doing things? Is college best designed so that students have their attention divided so much?

The semester system is an extreme of disarray.

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Science can lead us to better futures if we lead with hope

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This is a guest post by Edauri Navarro Pérez.


The struggle of hope

For a while, I have been struggling with the concept of hope. Our reality has been tackled so hard with tragic events (COVID-19, immigration irregularities and insecurity, climate change, discrimination, and more) that talking about hope felt ironic to me at some point. Moreover, I hardly find answers to the question “how to be hopeful without being naïve and misinformed?”. Although I comprehend that cynicism (1) could be a mechanism to defend ourselves from general misinformation and fears, I tend to criticize cynics most of the time because I do not feel that these postures help move us forward.  I also criticize naivety heavily and believing that things will work out just because, especially when it comes from people with easy access to information (2). Like Maria Popova said once: “…cynicism is both resignation’s symptom and a futile self-protection mechanism against it. Blindly believing that everything will work out just fine also produces resignation, for we have no motive to apply ourselves toward making things better.”

So…how can I be hopeful during one of the worst crises that we have faced as a world? How can we be hopeful if there is so much pain? How can we, with our science, provide more hope?

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Stepping up to do the work in an academic society

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Today, the Ecological Society of America is dropping its ballot for a new round of seats on the Governing Board. I’m hoping to serve the society as the VP for Education and Human Resources. If elected, I’ll begin a 3-year term in summer 2021.

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Recommended reads #181

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The author of the infamous Carreira letter just became the Editor-in-Chief of the flagship journal of the American Chemical Society. (This month, he issued another nonpology. He says he regrets writing it. I sure bet he does!)

An American teenager who doesn’t speak Scots wrote many of the Scots Wikipedia entries. Now Wikipedians are figuring out what to do.

It took divorce to make my marriage equal.

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Recommended reads #180

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A detailed account of how Eunice Foote conceived the role of atmospheric gases in climate warming in 1856, and how she designed and conducted her experiments. It’s pretty cool.

Is lecturing racist?

What is the effect of Article Processing Charges on the geographic diversity of authors? Are paywalled journals more accessible to publish in for people in the Global South? This preprint manuscript is about a study takes advantage of a “natural experiment” in publishing space, and if you have thoughts about equity and access in scientific publishing, I bet you’ll find this fascinating. Last author Emilio Bruna explains this paper in a concise twitter thread.

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Bringing new students into the lab during the pandemic

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As developed nations are on their way to returning to normal, we in the United States are in this pandemic for the long haul. January 2021 is the earliest that our government will even possibly start to do anything about the situation, and I’m not sanguine about the probability of a legitimate election outcome in what’s left of my country. That means it’s on us to figure out how to do science even under these conditions. Because as scientists, we need to keep doing science, now more than ever.

When I returned from sabbatical three years ago, I held off on bringing new students into my lab, other than doing some short group field projects. I had a bunch of reasons* to not take new students on.

My plan was to ramp back up this year. And I still I think it’s time to for me to get some students back into my lab. This sounds fun!

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Recommended reads #179

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Here’s a big list of ways to convert typical active learning approaches to a physically distanced classroom, asynchronously online, and synchronously online. It looks supremely helpful if you’re thinking, “I want to do more active learning while teaching in the pandemic, but how?”

Ten simple rules for successful remote postdoc

How the grad students at the UMass Amherst Geosciences department redesigned their seminar series to enhance DEI

It looks like immunity to COVID isn’t so ephemeral, which is good.

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How about alternating online and travel conferences?

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Now that many of us know what an online conference is like, it appears there’s increased demand for more of then. I would presume that, as societies get more experience running these conferences, they’ll become even more engaging and more accessible.

Here’s an idea for discussion: What do you think about alternating online and in-person conferences?

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Are recommendation letters a bad thing?

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In the past couple years, we have made progress in dropping the GRE, and now the pandemic has come through with a huge assist. Maybe that’s the final blow for the GRE, as programs are now dropping it permanently. Which means that people who cared about the GRE are now placing higher importance on other pieces of applications, including recommendation letters.

Which leads me to ask: Are recommendation letters a good thing or a bad thing? Of course, I don’t think this is a binary matter and there’s a lot of nuance involved here.

I have heard a variety of concerns about recommendation letters in the graduate admissions process, and I think it would be foolhardy for us to think that we’ve made a big amount of progress by getting rid of the GRE. The problem with the GRE is that it doesn’t reflect ability, research potential, or value to the academic community, as it’s more tied to wealth, access to resources, and the accumulation of cultural and social capital. You could say the same thing about recommendation letters, too.

Let me illustrate the problem with recommendation letters with a little, and wholly true, story.

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Recommended reads #178

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A landmark paper about gender inequities in academic advancement and funding by Rissler et al. just came out in Bioscience. I bet it’s going to become a classic. In this paper, the pool of potential applicants for NSF funding is estimated, and the rates of application and funding are evaluated. The tweet features Figure 1, showing the the frequency of (self-reported) men and women in tenure-track faculty positions by academic rank.

Just moments before Rissler et al. 2020 was published, Caroline Tucker published this blog post as an infuriating and heartbreaking illustration of the mechanisms at work. (You may recognize Dr. Tucker from her work blogging at EEB and Flow, as well as her research on biodiversity and trait-based ecology.) Just in case you wondered how bad the situation is and how much work is in front of us, please read the Bioscience paper and Dr. Tucker’s post.

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What’s up with the new NSF GRFP priority areas?

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The new solicitation for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program arrived last night with NSF’s daily digest bulletin. There were eight items they brought to our attention as changes from last year, but when I was going through it late this morning, the soundtrack screeched to a halt:

4. Although NSF will continue to fund outstanding Graduate Research Fellowships in all areas of science and engineering supported by NSF, in FY2021, GRFP will emphasize three high priority research areas in alignment with NSF goals. These areas are Artificial Intelligence, Quantum Information Science, and Computationally Intensive Research. Applications are encouraged in all disciplines supported by NSF that incorporate these high priority research areas.

https://www.nsf.gov/pubs/2020/nsf20587/nsf20587.htm

Ummm, what?

I am simply asking, what the heck is going on? I’ve got a lot of questions.

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Introducing Earth Science Mentor Match

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This is just a quick post to let you know that there is now an Earth Sciences Mentor Match program available!

If you’re an undergrad in Earth Sciences who would like a more experienced person to help advise you through applying to grad school, and/or help you write an application for a graduate fellowship such as the NSF GRFP, then you can ask for a mentor! The program targets students who are in groups underrepresented in the Earth Sciences, and is open to all. Likewise, if you’re in the Earth Sciences and would like to volunteer to mentor, please sign up!

This program is designed to increase access and help make the playing field less inequitable to the BIPOC students who have been minoritized in these disciplines.

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Making sure your online course has what it needs

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For a lot of us, this Fall will be our first experience teaching fully online. This shouldn’t be like emergency teaching in the Spring. We can be ready.

I think it’s unfair to students if, yet again, we bumble through online teaching. What can do we do to make sure that our courses are designed to engage students and support their learning?

What works in a classroom often doesn’t work online, and what works online often doesn’t work well in a classroom. A lot of us will be stretching our skill set as instructors. At the very least, we can learn what is supposed to work online as we design our classes.

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Recommended reads #177

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Rich Lenski’s excellent guide: “How to write a response to reviewers in ten easy steps.” (As an author this is what I do, too. As an editor, this is what I like to see because it minimizes my effort searching through manuscripts for information, and allows me to focus on the science.)

More results on how the pandemic is affecting scientists unequally, including a larger reduction in research time for women.

There’s a news report in Nature about the financial challenges that scientific societies are facing because of cancellations of in-person conferences.

The facade of fit in the faculty search process

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Sign up now for EEB Mentor Match 2020

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Not everything about 2020 is horrible: We’re running EEB Mentor Match again! More than ever this year, undergraduates from under-resourced institutions need guidance to help them into graduate school. Undergraduates in minoritized groups can use a boost from those of us who have cracked the code to get into grad school and get funded.

We are pairing up students seeking support for fellowship and grad school applications with more experienced scientists who have agreed to give support and advice throughout the process. If you’re looking for a mentor, or you’d like to volunteer to be a mentor, please sign up!

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The balancing act of risk management and protecting long-term welfare of the institution

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It must be so difficult to be in charge of a university right now. This is a critical moment for the future of every institution, and every college and university is facing their own unique uncertainties.

In the previous post, I was saying how it is known and obvious that in-person teaching in the Fall is a very bad idea. Considering how many people are actually planning to teach in the Fall, I imagine they perceive this assertion as myopic or simplistic. Because there’s more to be dealt with than the virus.

Taking steps to keep the campus community safe can be expensive. Some approaches are better and more feasible than others, though you can only really know in hindsight. Whenever we resolve this epidemic in the US, the surviving institutions will be in recovery mode, and everybody in charge all want to be positioned well. This kind of forward thinking is necessary for the folks in charge.

In my privilege as a tenured professor in a (California) state university backed by a strong union, I have the luxury of knowing that my own livelihood is relatively well protected. But this isn’t true for everybody I work with, and our students are at very high exposure and face extreme challenges because of this epidemic. Nonetheless, I have some level of dispassionate distance on this issue. Nobody is going to blame me personally if my university bungles the response to the pandemic in the Fall. (And, anyhow, it looks like they’re doing a great job, by the way.)

The people who are making the decisions have some major responsibilities, including:

  • education of the student body
  • fiscal health of the institution
  • institutional reputation and prestige
  • risk management (safety and health of the community)

In our particular moment, who the heck can attend to all of these responsibilities simultaneously and do a good job for all of them?

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Thoughts on the absurdity of teaching on campus in the Fall

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Over the past several months, higher education has been a theater of the pragmatic and the absurd. At this writing, most colleges and universities in the US are planning to return students to campus and hold classes in person, with some kind of fig leaf precautions. At least, that what they’re saying they’re going to do. Looking at the landscape of the COVID infection rate, this makes absolutely no sense.

In sizing up the pandemic plans of most universities, I have no idea how to identify the boundary between denial and deceit.

Bringing people together on campuses is a recipe for spreading the disease. It doesn’t have to do with the dorms, or frat parties, or any of that. It’s just that teaching in classrooms will circulate the virus. This is known.

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Recommended reads #176

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An extremely helpful guidebook to HyFlex teaching. (Which is when courses are delivered both in person and online at the same time by the same faculty member. And which is what some of us are being expected to do in the Fall!?). This Georgetown site also has other helpful guides to prepping for remote teaching in Fall 2020, too.

When professors hit on students, it harms their academic performance. We know this because a series of experiments have now been published. How can you ethically do an experiment on this? Looks like you gotta read the paper.

Some folks did an experiment with a randomized design to find out whether tweeting about scientific papers improved their citation rates.

A meeting report from the Gordon conference on undergraduate biology education research. A lot of great stuff in there.

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Anti-black racism in STEM is pervasive, and we must change this reality

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This is a guest post by Morgan Halane.

“As a minority student, the applicant might serve as a role model to other such students interested in STEM careers. He has participated actively in a wide variety of outreach activities (none specifically targeted at minority students). This application has merits but a number of weaknesses temper my enthusiasm.”

I received this review back in 2014 after applying to the NSF Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP), but its impact has stuck with me since. Growing up in Sedalia, Missouri, a town nearly 90% white and less than 5% black, I imagined academia would be something better, an environment where my color would never be used against me, where I did not have to ever again hear people driving by in their trucks yelling the N-word at me as I waited on the corner for the bus. How naïve. Yes, the visible racism was still there- cotton balls strewn across the lawn of the university’s Black Culture Center, swastikas etched into the library carrels. I was used to this visible racism. What really stunned me was the invisible racism- the sinister biases that were so commonplace, so traditional, that it was hard to believe that they even existed. I felt and lived through their negative impact but there was no calling card left behind- no swastika, no Confederate flag.

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Recommended reads #175

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‘Keep the volume low’: Being black on campus

“The world has never been fundamentally fair and decent for most people in most places, and yet they manage to build lives full of meaning and suffering and joy.”

I shared this not long ago, but it seems that not everybody is yet aware of or talking about this landmark paper in PNAS. The summary says: “By analyzing data from nearly all US PhD recipients and their dissertations across three decades, this paper finds demographically underrepresented students innovate at higher rates than majority students, but their novel contributions are discounted and less likely to earn them academic positions. The discounting of minorities’ innovations may partly explain their underrepresentation in influential positions of academia.”

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