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

In defence of taxon-specific conferences


I have been going to entomology meetings (including those of the Entomological Societies of Canada (ESC), British Columbia (ESBC), and Ontario (ESO)) yearly since I started studying spiders in 2010 (we don’t have an arachnological society in Canada, so for these societies spiders are welcomed as honorary insects) and I went to my first International Society of Arachnology (ISA) meeting in Colorado this past summer. Continue reading

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

Costs and benefits of attending conferences as a student


Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, which this year was held jointly with the Société d’entomologie du Québec, in Montréal. While chatting with a (professor) friend at the conference it came up that we both don’t really like attending conferences for a lot of reasons, but attend anyway because we think it is important to do so. At the time I remarked that I thought there were few tangible benefits of attending conferences as a student. Since then I’ve been thinking a bit about the costs and benefits of attending academic conferences as a student, and here I will summarize my thoughts.

The obvious costs of attending conferences are time, money, and energy. Continue reading

There are lots of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach


In my last post I complained that grad students don’t generally get taught how to teach in grad school, despite the fact that they are (arguably) there to be trained for a career that requires them to teach. Thanks very much to everyone who commented! As a result of both the comments and getting more information about TA training at my current university, I’ll now write about how there are in fact a lot of opportunities for grad students to learn how to teach. You just have to put a bit of effort into going out and finding them. Continue reading

Why aren’t grad students taught how to teach?


The biology departments at the university I attended for my MSc and the one I just started at for my PhD both have courses for new grad students that are meant to be an introduction to the skills they will need to be successful in grad school and beyond. One is called “Basic skills for a career in science,” which is pretty self-explanatory. The other is called Professional Skills Development “Philosophy and methods” and is “intended to be a forum for students to enhance their current skills and understanding of how to do ‘good’ science and to discuss some issues that they will encounter as scientists.” One used to be optional and is now mandatory; the other used to be mandatory but is now optional. (updated)

The course I took included writing grants and abstracts, making scientific posters and presentations, effective data presentation, time management and advisor-advisee relations, the publication process, and ethics. The one I haven’t taken appears to cover somewhat similar topics. Neither mentions teaching, which I’m pretty sure is an essential skill for a career in science. Continue reading

This one simple trick to help fight the male scientist stereotype


This week, I did my one of my first ever phone-interviews with a reporter for a story about black widows in grapes. I was really nervous about being quoted (what if I say something that sounds stupid, or worse, is wrong?) but I agreed to do the interview anyway. Despite my fears, I made this decision for a couple of reasons. I am passionate about spiders and science communication and I think it’s really important to do what I can to correct misconceptions that are often presented in the media. I absolutely want to take every opportunity to provide accurate information about spiders (especially the ones I study) to the public. Furthermore, I think that I have an obligation to do this because taxpayers pay for my research and training, at least in part.

It wasn’t until I thought a bit about it after I gave the interview that I realized there is another really good reason for me to say yes to interview requests from the media. News stories about spiders come up pretty frequently. If a spider expert is quoted in these stories, I often see familiar names: Rick Vetter, Chris Buddle, Robb Bennett (arachnologists who are all doing a fantastic job educating people about spiders). I just did a quick google search for the word arachnologist under “News” and found several more names on the first page or so of hits. With two exceptions (both of which were stories about recent spider research with quotes from study authors) all of the spider experts quoted have one thing in common: they are white men.

Is it possible that this is simply a representative sample of available experts? Maybe… but let’s check. If you google “list of arachnologists” the first hit is a wiki page with a list of arachnologists who are original describers of spider species… not super useful for finding a living expert. The second relevant hit brings you to a page on Arachnological Society of America’s website, listing arachnologists willing to train graduate students. That seems like a more reasonable sample. There are 11 women and 37 men on the list. So assuming this is a representative sample of the population of senior arachnologists, about 23% of available experts are women. I’d be willing to bet that among more junior scientists who study spiders (like me), there are even more women – probably much closer to 50%. Take for example the members of the lab I’ll be joining this fall: 8 of 10 are women.

I’m personally interested in these numbers because I’ve had variations of the following conversation several times, and it’s getting pretty old. It goes something like this:

Man: “So what do you do?”

Me: “I’m a scientist! I study sexual communication in spiders.”

Man: “That’s an unusual career choice for a woman.”

In the past, I haven’t known how to respond to this because I didn’t have actual data on which to base a statement like “actually, XX% of arachnologists are women”. The data (at least for professors) turn out not to look that great, but I think it’s fair to say that female arachnologists are not particularly unusual. Anyway, the men in these conversations often go on to talk about how women in general or some women they know are afraid of spiders. I get that one of the reasons they think it’s strange for me to be a scientist who studies spiders is that women are more likely to be arachnophobic than men (it’s still an untrue stereotype that most or all women are afraid of spiders, but whatever). But it’s a fact that most people think of scientists in general as men. I recently read a piece about the male scientist stereotype and some thoughts on how to kill it on The Conversation. You should read it.

Women are just not seen as often as men talking about science in the media. Think about science TV shows – how many can you name that are hosted by women? A while back I attended a great talk by Dr. Jennifer Gardy for Ada Lovelace Day, and this was one of the things she talked about. Her main message was that things are (very slowly) getting better for women in science, but she made a bunch of suggestions about how to help continue to improve. One was related to increasing the diversity of scientists represented in popular media. Dr. Gardy regularly agrees to do media interviews, and she also occasionally hosts the CBC TV show The Nature of Things. Her advice to the women in the audience was to always say yes (when possible) to interviews. It’s a small thing, but I think it’s one important way to work toward improving diversity in science. If, for example, a girl sees a scientist who looks like her on TV, that could be the first time she realizes that becoming a scientist is something she could do. It just might help encourage her to aspire to become a scientist one day, and that would be awesome.

So great, if you’re a woman and/or a person of colour, saying yes to interviews is a good thing to do. What if you’re not? No problem! I’m definitely not saying that white dudes should avoid giving interviews. But what if you get asked to give an interview and you can’t? Do you suggest a colleague or student the journalist could ask? You almost certainly know some women who would be great choices. Suggest one of them! Even if you can do the interview but you know the journalist will probably be interviewing other experts too, why not suggest a woman they could talk to as well? Simple!

So that interview I gave about spiders this week? It was one of two that I gave, for different stories. Originally, Professor Chris Buddle was asked to give interviews by two journalists (he’s their go-to arachnologist, because he’s done interviews with them before and is always happy to talk about spiders), and he had to turn them down. He gave them both my name, and they contacted me. That easy! It’s not the first time he’s given my name to a reporter, but it’s the first time I said yes. I was busy visiting family last time, but I probably could have made it work – mostly I was afraid, but now I know it’s not so scary! I will be saying yes to interview requests whenever I can in the future. It’s a simple thing to do, and it’s important.

Words can be powerful: encouraging young women in science.


I’m writing this post because I have been thinking about my career goals and how they have changed since my days as an undergraduate. It is only recently that I have seriously thought that becoming a professor is something I want to do and that it might actually be possible for me to do. One really simple thing helped me to come to this realization. It’s not the only thing, but it was a really important thing for me, so I want to share the story here.

I’ve read a lot of things about why there are fewer women than men in academic science, and one idea seems to be that women just aren’t as motivated as men to become professors. Maybe that’s true – but why?

Maybe girls grow up watching TV shows featuring scientist characters that are mostly male, nature documentaries mainly hosted by men, and news stories or interviews with scientists who are usually men. Maybe most of the science books and toys are marketed towards boys. Maybe girls aren’t encouraged to join the math club or Odyssey of the Mind. Maybe most of their science teachers and the scientists in their textbooks are male.

But putting all that aside for a moment, let’s assume a young woman can enter University with an open mind, believing that any career path is potentially open to her. I was such a young woman.

I didn’t really know what I wanted to do at first, but realized during my first year that I loved math, and entered a mathematics degree program. Over the course of this program, male professors taught all but one of my math courses. A female postdoc taught the exceptional course. Many students complained about the quality of the course and her teaching, and at least one wondered aloud about her qualifications. (She was actually an excellent teacher, but she had a quiet voice and a thick accent so her lectures were hard to follow with so many students talking over her. There was a male professor in the department who was also very soft-spoken and had an accent. When he was lecturing, the room was always silent.)

I never seriously considered a career in mathematics despite doing very well in my program. I did think that maybe teaching high school math was something I could end up doing – I learned that I loved teaching as an undergraduate TA for a first year calculus course in my 3rd and 4th year.

Later I went back to school while working part-time, taking some undergraduate courses in biology. Of the 13 biology courses I took, male professors taught 8. Of my 5 female teachers, four were full-time lecturers; only one was a professor. All of these women were amazing and inspiring teachers. My impression was that my one female professor must have been really exceptional to make it the way she has.

It turned out that I loved biology even more than I loved math. When I considered potential careers, I thought that maybe I could become a lecturer in biology – I still loved teaching. It never crossed my mind that becoming a professor was something I could do, until during my work as a summer research assistant, my PhD-student-mentor’s supervisor stopped me to chat in the hall one day. He told me that he hoped I would pursue a graduate degree in his lab, and that he saw me becoming a professor one day.

I was frankly shocked by that conversation, but also really excited. I still have some trouble imagining myself becoming a professor, but not quite so much as I did then. Since my recent MSc defense, when my supervisor* again told me that he believes I can and will become a professor, it’s something I’ve actually started thinking is within the realm of possibility.

My parents always told me I could do anything I set my mind to, and encouraged my interest in science. Maybe I’m just not that ambitious, and that’s why I didn’t aspire to become a professor during my undergraduate work, despite the fact that I knew I wanted to continue in science and enjoyed both research and teaching. I never consciously thought to myself, hmm, looks like professing is for men (and maybe the occasional extraordinary woman) so that’s obviously not open to me. But it’s pretty clear to me that when I was considering potential careers in science, I looked at the people around me (and noticed people’s attitudes towards them) and that influenced my thinking about what I might be able to do.

The number of women in academic science is increasing, and I think things are slowly improving in a lot of ways. Having good role models and mentors (both male and female), and being a role model and mentor, is really important for female students and academics. And whether you’re male or female, you can help by encouraging girls and young women to do science. Just telling them out loud that they can be scientists and professors if they want to might make a difference.


*My inspirational MSc supervisor was Gerhard Gries, who has been fiercely supportive ever since we first met. I am extremely grateful to him for his continued mentorship, and for always believing in me.

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