What is press-worthy scholarship?


As I was avoiding real work and morning traffic, there were a bunch of interesting things on twitter, as usual. Two things stood out.

First was a conversation among science writers, about how to find good science stories among press releases. I was wondering about all of the fascinating papers that never get press releases, but I didn’t want to butt into that conversation. Continue reading

Education research denialism in university STEM faculty


Scientists regularly contend with irrational denialism of simple facts. In our classrooms, communities and the media, we hear patently absurd things like:

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

This is the logo of the Flat Earth Society.

  • The world isn’t getting hotter, or even if it is, it’s not from carbon emissions.
  • Humans didn’t evolve from nonhuman ancestors.
  • Transgenic foods are unsafe.
  • Vaccines cause autism.

Any scientist who operates on the basis of evidence will regard those ideas as total bunk*.

But, as I’ve mentioned before, people aren’t rational beings. Especially when their emotions are involved (and they usually are), they’re not prone to think an expert is correct if their intuition tells them otherwise.

And scientists are people.

So I am not entirely surprised, but I am disheartened, when scientists are guilty of their own flavor of denialism: Education Research Denialism. Continue reading

“Open Science” is not one thing


“Open Science” is an aggregation of many things. As a concept, it’s a single movement. The policy changes necessary for more Open Science, however, are a conglomerate of unrelated parts.

I appreciate, and support, the prevailing philosophy of Open Science: “the movement to make scientific research, data and dissemination accessible to all levels of an inquiring society.” Transparency is often, though not always, good. Continue reading

The case for open book exams


In the sciences, most exams are a closed-book affair. Is this a good thing?

Open_book_nae_02On some tests, I’ve allowed students a 3×5 card, or a one page “cheat sheet.” This is usually met with relief, or joy, or gratitude. When I tell students that they can bring in their textbook for the exam, they get even more relieved.

I might say, “Don’t be so happy, because this just raises the bar for what I’m asking on the exam.” But then, my students say that they feel like it’s not useful for them to have to memorize stuff. And they would prefer solving problems and applying information in novel ways. Even if memorizing stuff is important, it causes a lot of anxiety. Continue reading

I think I might be a successful nag


Has Small Pond Science helped increase broader awareness and respect for university scientists and students working outside the R1 environment?

I think, well, maybe, a little bit. Enough to keep me from closing shop. There are a lot of known unknowns, but I’ll focus on some known knowns. Continue reading

Do you write your recommendation letters?


This is a question for both the people requesting letters of recommendation, and those who are signing the letters of recommendation.

About a month ago, a blog post-ish thing was published in Science, that was griping about a not-rare phenomenon. Sometimes when junior scientists ask for letters of recommendation, they’re asked to write a first draft of the letter. This is, allegedly, “minor fraud.” Continue reading

Can on-line networking replace the traditional kind?


A few weeks ago Terry wrote about going to conferences, networking and social capital. The post struck home for me for a couple of reasons. First, I agree wholeheartedly with the diffuse benefits that come from interacting with people at conferences. I’ve made friends, started collaborations, been invited to give departmental seminars and gotten paper invitations, all of which I am sure wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t given a talk and talked to people at conferences. Of course, there are challenges to these intense social and scientific interactions too (e.g. the conference hangover) but conferences are a really important part of developing your scientific career. Continue reading

Who you know really matters


People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again. Continue reading

Undergraduate research is many things


Conversations about “undergraduate research” often involve dispelling misconceptions.

Undergraduate research is not one thing.

What is undergraduate research? It is research that involves undergraduates. That’s all, nothing else. If you want it to mean something else, you might have to spell it out.

Continue reading

Respecting the time and needs of adjuncts


Almost every university in the US has succumbed to financial pressures and employs a relatively high proportion of adjunct instructors. Typically, adjuncts are highly trained professionals with a graduate degree, but don’t get the compensation or professional courtesy that they deserve.

Universities have given up on the notion that all faculty should have job security. Instead, now institutions are measuring “tenure density” as a measure of how many faculty are fully paid and fully respected. Continue reading

The dangers of twitter


When I first joined twitter, I was nervous I might mess up somehow. I wanted to use my professional identity but because no one around me* was using twitter, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. Also, we’ve all heard about disastrous mistakes on social media that have lead to personal and professional fallout. Although I didn’t think I would do anything that extreme I was worried about job applications and such. So in short, I was cautious and worried about the dangers of putting myself out there on twitter. Now over two years and some 6000+ tweets later, I am less so**. Continue reading

Why I avoid the p-word


I write because I want to change minds. I don’t need everybody to agree with me, but I write because I want people to be aware of the stuff that I’m writing about.

People are often irrational, often to the extent that important advice is ignored. Using facts and ideas to open people up to different ideas is an uphill task. But I’ve heard on occasion that this site has sometimes changed minds — or at least exposed people to new ideas. Stories like that are encouraging, and prevent me from stopping.

If you’re trying to reach people who disagree with you, then minds need to stay open. Bombast, indignation and overgeneralization generate readership but they also tend to close minds.

When dealing ideas that are weighed with cultural baggage, then it’s really easy to do or say something that makes people stop listening.

Which is why I avoid using the p-word. Continue reading

Useful science communication resources


Inspired by my own endeavours in science communication and an informal talk I gave to my department, I started to think about offering a course. There isn’t anything like that for PhD students so I went through a few easy hoops and got approval to give a short course on science communication. We finished up the meetings last week and I thought it might be useful to collect and share all the information in one place. Keep on reading if you’re interested in running your own version of such a course or if you are looking for information on topics in science communication. Continue reading

Practicing what you preach (or rather teach)


I have been fairly absent from here over the last many months. I’ve wanted to write and even started a few posts but they never got completed. The clashing of personal (husband’s surgery) and work stresses (major grant applications that will allow me to continue my position in Sweden) this spring made for a hectic time. I never really regained my balance before summer started. And well, I’m a field ecologist at heart, so between fieldwork and vacation the weeks have flown by. The end result is that I’m out of the habit of writing regularly and I miss it.

As the fall approaches and regular schedules settle in, my plan is to practice what I’m about to teach. Continue reading

I’m going to stop ignoring ResearchGate


LinkedIn, Facebook, ORCID, Twitter, Instagram, Klout, Mendeley, ResearchGate.

I’m signed up for all of these things. Some are useful, some can be annoying, some I just ignore.

Some vague time ago, a friend in my department mentioned that I should sign up for ResearchGate. I said something like, “It’s just another one of those social networks, yadda yadda so what.” But I signed up anyway*.

At the time I signed up, I halfheartedly connected some of my papers, and since then I’ve ignored it. Jump to last week, when one of their emails was creative enough to find its way through my spam filter:

rgateclipI was like, huh? I chose to click over to my profile on ResearchGate.

Continue reading

A departmental retreat from another dimension


I once participated in a departmental retreat from the Twilight Zone. Or it might have taken place in an alternate-universe wormhole.

Details are fuzzy, but when I searched my google calendar, I found it still sitting there, way back from Spring 2006. There I remember a few things with uncommon clarity, on account of the weirdness. Continue reading

Ants With Superhero Powers and Real Ant-People


As an ant man, I’m psyched for the release of Ant-Man.

There are so many ants with real superpowers, that we know about because of amazing Real Ant People, genuine ant savants. Let me tell you about some ants with amazing superpowers.

Two classic superhero powers of ants are flight and invisibility. Continue reading

Public scientists, the twitterverse, thought police, feminism, and the fanatical mob


I’m on vacation. But while I was posting a few photos on social media (amazing National Parks and a wooden carving of bigfoot drinking a beer) I stumbled on some extended silliness among fellow scientists that I want to discuss. Luckily, I woke up early, my family is sleeping in, so here goes.

A very-routine event has somehow caused some a great worry: A famous person said something rather hideous. This hideous opinion was put in quotes and got circulated on twitter. A storm-of-righteous-indignation built on twitter, and spilled over onto facebook and other media outlets. Within a few days, this famous person got “in trouble,” insofar as a famous and powerful person can genuinely get in trouble for voicing a contemptuous opinion.

This is a very common story. It’s a little different because of the specifics: Continue reading

Universities that work hard to subvert student rights with FERPA waivers


Imagine this scene: A professor at work gets a phone call.

Phone Voice: Hi, I’m the parent of Bill Smith, a student in your intro class.

Professor: Um, hi..?

Phone Voice: Bill was upset about the score he got on a quiz last week, and he thought some of the questions were unfair.

Professor: I’m sorry but I’m prevented from discussing a student’s academic records under the protection of FERPA [the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act].

Phone Voice: But I am his parent and Bill told me it was okay to speak with you about it.

Professor: That might be true, but without evidence of a FERPA waiver signed by the student, I can’t have this conversation.

Phone Voice: Oh, we had that waiver form signed at orientation.

Professor: Whuaaa?

Phone Voice: During an orientation session together with our son, the university presented to him a waiver form to sign to waive access to FERPA. It’s on record. I can email a copy if you want.

Professor: I prefer the student talk to me about his own grades.

Phone Voice: I realize that, but I have the right to discuss his grades with you and I’d like to talk about question three on the quiz. Continue reading

The acceptances that weren’t acceptances


Chatting with people at La Selva Biological Station in Costa Rica, the topic from a recent post came up: that journals have cut back on “accept with revisions” decisions.

There was a little disagreement in the comments. Now, on the basis of some conversations, I have to disagree with myself. Talking with three different grad students, this is what I learned:

Some journals are, apparently, still regularly doing “accept-with-revisions.” And they also then are in the habit of rejecting those papers after the revisions come in. 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.

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

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