Benefits of virtual conferences for ecology and conservation research

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Note: This is a guest post by Lauren Kuehne and co-authors of Kuehne et al. 2022.

Hot on the heels of Catherine Scott’s excellent post in early February, where she summarized Skiles et al. 2021 on how virtual conferences shifted conference attendance, we want to share a brand new article in Conservation Biology related to the same topic. In it, myself and 13 colleagues in the aquatic sciences outline why we think scientists should critically consider virtual conferences not as a stopgap measure, but one that can transform research networks, accelerate knowledge sharing, confront sustainability challenges, and better reflect the global nature of environmental research. 

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On the legacies of Ed Wilson and EO Wilson

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After E.O. Wilson died in the final days of 2021, we have have been treated to detailed remembrances of his accomplishments, his kind and gentle nature, and his immeasurable impact on several fields of science. Among fellow myrmecologists, Wilson indubitably is one of the greats, and for many, he was the greatest. When I once had the fortune of presenting in a conference session that Wilson had attended, that was an honor. I didn’t know him personally, but I have many colleagues, and some friends, who were mentored by him, and benefited from his generosity and good will. Everybody I know who had interacted with him in any substantial way had wonderful things to say about him.

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If your society is serious about diversity, equity, and inclusion, you need to keep having online conferences

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(Also, obviously, online conferences have lower carbon footprints)

Many traditionally in-person scientific meetings have shifted to virtual formats during the COVID-19 pandemic. As an attendee (and organizer) at several virtual conferences over the last two years, I heard a lot of people talking about how they look forward to conferences being “back to normal” next year, or sometime in the future. I will state up front that while I find in-person conferences exhausting (I am an introvert and the non-stop social context is overwhelming), I generally find them both personally and professionally rewarding and can absolutely understand all the reasons other people enjoy them. I also get that a virtual conference is never going to be the same as an in-person meeting. Obviously they are different. But as much as I and others who have traditionally attended and benefitted from in-person conferences might enjoy them and the opportunities they provide, if we are serious about our stated commitments to DEI (and if you or your professional society haven’t at least made a statement to this effect, I’m not sure where you’ve been the last two years) we need to think critically about the “normal” conference model and who it excludes by its design. Now, I am not saying that we have consciously designed conferences to exclude people, but that the system in which they have evolved has resulted in a structure that actively excludes. The pandemic has given us the opportunity to collect data that makes this very clear.

A recent paper by Matthew Skiles and colleagues investigated the impact of the switch to online scientific meetings in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion. I encourage you to read the paper, but I will highlight some key results here:

Overall attendance was 40-120% higher at virtual meetings, and more international attendees were able to participate, presumably because of lower costs in terms of travel and registration.

Attendance by women increased by 60-260%, and attendance by LGBTQ+ scientists also increased substantially relative to in-person meetings.  

Extract from a figure in Skiles et al. 2022 showing some demographic differences in attendees at in-person conferences (IPCs) and virtual conferences (VCs).

More students and postdoctoral researchers were able to attend online meetings, with the proportion of students at virtual meetings more than double that of in-person meetings.

Attendance by researchers at PUIs increased by up to 157%, and attendance by researchers at R2s increased by up to 106%.

Also, the carbon footprint of a single attendee at an in-person meeting (the average of domestic and international attendees) was equivalent to that of >7000 attendees at an online meeting.  

Conference attendees that were surveyed about their experiences identified networking and social interactions as one of the greatest challenges of the virtual format. The paper and its supplemental material contain lots of suggestions for overcoming this challenge, including locally organized hubs for attendees. Please read them here. I am sure we can find creative solutions to make virtual networking successful, with the understanding that it is never going to be quite the same as the way we did things at traditional in-person meetings.

To me, these data make clear that online meetings are necessary to include all scientists. We already knew that there were barriers to attendance at in-person meetings, including but not limited to monetary costs, but now we have a solution to dismantling these barriers.

I have heard a lot of arguments for in-person meetings that suggest one of the main benefits are the chats over coffee between sessions or the informal or formal networking that happens over drinks, and that these cannot be replicated virtually. As much as I enjoy chatting science over a beer with my colleagues (and like many, I’ve had collaborations start this way), access to the physical spaces where these conversations occur is limited. It may exclude those who don’t drink (or who don’t want to be in spaces where people are drinking) or those who can’t afford to tag along to the pub for dinner with a group of people interested in a specific research area, and, obviously and importantly, those who can’t physically attend the conference, whether because of financial constraints, caring responsibilities, being immunocompromised during an ongoing pandemic, disabilities that aren’t accommodated by the meeting organizers, or any other reason. Meeting exclusively in person is actively excluding a large proportion of our scientific community. We can’t continue to make attendance at these in-person meetings the price of admission to a successful career in science, when it’s clear that the price is too high for so many.

UPDATE: here’s another great paper by Sally Lowell and colleagues called The Future of Conferences which highlights the need for creative solutions to making conferences sustainable and accessible. I’d also like to point to the Company of Biologists’ Sustainable Conferencing Grants which provide funds to support virtual meeting components.

UPDATE 2: Please read this excellent, much more comprehensive piece by Divya Persaud about conference equity issues: What is the future of conferences? And what should be? Importantly, it covers the issue that virtual meetings are not by default accessible to all, and includes great suggestions and further reading.

Can we talk about Field Camp?

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A few years ago, I was spending time with some geologists and they were telling me about Field Camp. That it’s a standard requirement of most Geoscience programs, but also that it’s highly problematic.

I just googled a bit, here’s what I learned. According to UW Milwaukee, “Field camp is a tradition in the education of a geologist. It is an intensive course that applies classroom and laboratory training to solving geological problems in the field.”

Gotcha. My colleagues are saying how problematic field camp is, but I don’t quite see it yet. Could you tell me more?

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Adjusting scholarship expectations after the pandemic ends

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For most of us, academic productivity has taken a huge hit over the past year. And that’s fine. If you’re working from home full time while raising young children doing remote schooling, I can’t imagine how you have done anything above the bare minimum. For the rest of us, it’s entirely reasonable to have not done that much either. I’m glad that many of our universities are scaling expectations based on the reality that academic productivity during a pandemic is difficult, at best.

But honestly, I’m much more worried about what will happen once the pandemic is over. The downstream effects of the pandemic on our academic productivity might be greatest a few years down the line. This varies among disciplines, but for most of us, I think most important publications originate in our research pipeline multiple years before they come to press.

For example, in the past year, my productivity doesn’t look hideous, on paper. I published a couple articles and an actual book. All of those things were deep in the works before the pandemic started. The real cost of the pandemic is going to be seen in the next few years. I’m thinking about all of the projects that we didn’t start during the pandemic, and the ones we had started before the pandemic that haven’t been advanced forward. And even worse, the ones that we started and then because they stalled, and will need even more effort just to ramp back up to where we were. Not to mention all of the grants that we didn’t submit.

Please know that the impact of this pandemic is highly gendered. The data clearly demonstrate that women are submitting fewer manuscripts than men, because of the pandemic. This will have lasting effects on our academic community, especially if our institutions don’t adapt expectations of scholarly productivity not just during the pandemic but for several years afterwards. (It sure would be a lot better if men did equal amount of domestic labor and institutional service work, but apparently that’s still not happening? This is presumably why providing parental leave actually increases the academic productivity of men, and results in higher tenure rates, even though parental leave for women results in causes lower tenure rates? What the hell??)

I can imagine that a lot of people running universities will underestimate how a 1-2 year interruption of academic research will result in a long-term disruption of productivity. Keep in mind that for many of us, our labs will have lost people with expertise, who haven’t had the opportunity to provide hands-on training to the next generation. A lot of labs operate on momentum, and when that momentum is lost, it can’t just be regenerated quickly, it will take a while to get up to speed. As currently funded projects are being slow in creating results, submitting for a new project is more difficult, too.

In our university system, an organization is providing extremely modest ‘restart’ funds to get our labs ramped back up after having to shut down. But the amount of this funding is very limited. I sincerely appreciate the intent and also the fact that funds are very limited. What we really need more is a recognition that it’s okay to experience disruption, and some understanding that it will take a while to get up to speed.

What we keep seeing — in all aspects of our society, including science — is how `the pandemic is amplifying existing inequities. Just as we mustn’t shortchange those of us who are harmed by the pandemic, we shouldn’t be showering rewards on those who have suffered the least negative effects of the pandemic. Operating with an equity lens in the aftermath of this pandemic will require us to become more informed about how the pandemic is affecting different members of our community. It’s not enough to be open to empathy, we’ve got to do the work to listen and understand, and then translate that into institutional policy.

Are you a chair, or a dean, or on a tenure committee, or on a decison-making body of some sort, or do you have an opportunity to set university policy? Then you’ve got to make sure that all of your prior diversity recruitment efforts are backed up by action and resources to retain and support the people in your community who are experiencing more stress and performing more labor because of the pandemic.

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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Help us to diversify and humanize biology courses!

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a guest post by Project Biodiversify (www.projectbiodiversify.org @biodiversifying)

We contain multitudes. Our courses should reflect this.

We contain multitudes. Like an ecological niche, a person’s identity is composed of infinite dimensions that make up a person or group’s collective identity space (Figure 1). However, in science – a discipline that has historically valued objective and unbiased contributors – students and researchers often find it difficult to freely express their identities. Being open and valued because of our identities enhances social justice, makes us more productive, and leads to innovation. Yet, because science is embedded in a biased society, our scientific community is often unwelcoming to people from many backgrounds. Women, people of color, the LGBTQIA+ community, and likely many other groups (that we lack data for) are marginalized or underrepresented relative to their global populations. 

Figure 1: A person’s identity, like an ecological niche, is comprised of infinite dimensions, some of which are included in this depiction of “identity space”

Who is doing science goes on to influence the research questions that are pursued and how results are framed. This affects whether marginalized and underrepresented students find science relevant to themselves, which also influences recruitment and retention. For example, biology has been weaponized against marginalized groups throughout history and, in many cases, still is today. Students that see these harmful biases may be alienated from pursuing a career in biology or doing research that is inclusive to their identity. This perpetuates the stereotype of who scientists are and what kind of work they can do, thus contributing to a cycle of exclusion (Figure 2). 

Figure 2: Explicit and implicit biases act as a selective force against students from underrepresented groups (akin to stabilizing selection). The low diversity of scientist role models has created the scientist stereotype which further fuels the selective force against students from underrepresented/marginalized backgrounds through mechanisms such as stereotype threat. Made with figures modified from Western Michigan University, Fermi Lab, and Your Article Library.

We need change. 

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Gender inequity at every step of publishing

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I sat down to my laptop this morning and was looking forward to getting to work. But then I looked at the news.

And I saw this:

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC) came out with a report last week about biases against women in the publication process. The highlights — or rather, the lowlights — are in the story in Nature about this report. It’s a one-minute read, please read it. Continue reading

Look in your own backyard

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Metaphorically, that is.

What can you do to increase the representation of minoritized people in your department and in your lab?

Well, the big answer to the question is that anything worthwhile takes work. This is not just worthwhile, it’s important. So, it will require effort on your part. And it means challenging yourself to learn new things, and instead of just adopting new practices, but are open to a new mindset, which means aligning your actions with your values. That’s hard work.

But do you want an easy win? Do you want a practical piece of advice, about something you can do that will work? Continue reading

Play The Game, or Change The Rules?

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I feel a dilemma — or rather, a tradeoff — when I think about investing time, money, and effort into supporting undergraduates to gain admission to graduate programs.

On one hand, we all know that the system is rigged, such that students who come from whiter and wealthier backgrounds have a huge leg up. Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the distant mirage of an equitable pipeline

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It’s that time of year again. Congrats to the 2000 students who are recipients of the GRFP! From talking to so many panelists about their experiences, it’s clear that they could fund so more people, and every single one of them would be quite worthy of the support.

If there was such a thing as a Blog Citation Classic™ list for this site, then discussions about equitable distributions of NSF graduate fellowships would definitely be on there.

I can concisely encapsulate these concerns: Your odds of personally knowing someone who got a GRFP from your undergrad years might be best predicted by the size of the endowment of that institution. NSF is working hard to be inclusive with respect to gender, ethnicity, and various axes of diversity, but the bottom line is that students attending wealthier and more prestigious undergraduate institutions are more likely to end up with fellowships. Continue reading

Dismantle the pipeline

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The pipeline metaphor has a lot of problems. In STEM careers, people come from a wide range of backgrounds, receive undergraduate and graduate degrees, and are bound for a wide variety of destinations. A path into a STEM career shouldn’t have to be linear, so a pipeline doesn’t make much sense.

However, I get why people like to use the pipeline metaphor. Continue reading

When you are asked to review a paper that you’ve already reviewed for another journal

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This situation can be a bit of a conundrum if you haven’t dealt with it.

Let’s say you review a manuscript for the Journal of Scientific Stuff. Ultimately, that paper ends up getting rejected by JSS. Some time goes past, and you are asked to review what appears to be the same manuscript, by the editor of Proceedings of Scientific Stuff.

What to do? Continue reading

Are REU programs as amazing as their reputations?

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I know a lot of scientists who got their start from an REU (Research Experiences for Undergraduates) program. One summer as an REU has the potential to be transformational.

Advancing science in the US (and elsewhere) requires us to fund undergraduate research, and ensure that undergraduate researchers have thoughtful and attentive mentorship. We already spend a lot of money on training students – and I’d like to make sure that these efforts have the biggest bang for the buck. We are focused on broadening representation, but we haven’t seen the changes we need. Can we make REU programs* more effective? Continue reading

Recommendations for making science inclusive, and how to talk about it with others

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You’re reading Small Pond Science right now — but a lot of our colleagues don’t read anything resembling a blog. So, for them, I’ve just published a short peer-reviewed paper about how this site addresses a common theme: how to promote equity and inclusion, especially for students in minority-serving institutions.

Think of it as a blog post, but with a lot of useful references in peer-reviewed journals and with the bright and shiny veneer of legitimacy from journal that’s been in print for more than a century. And hopefully fewer typos. Continue reading

Not waiting for the dinosaurs to retire

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I hear this a lot: “Bad behavior in academia comes from the guys who have been around for a long time. Times have changed, and they’re stuck in the old ways. We can’t change these guys, but they’re on their way out — and once they retire, things will get better.”

In some narrow cases — an isolated department here or there — this might be true. But as a general principle, I think it’s deeply mistaken.  Continue reading

The deficit model of STEM recruitment

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As we train the next generation of STEM professionals, we use a filter that selects against marginalized folks, on account of their ethnicity, income, gender, and other aspects of identity. This, I hope you realize, is an ethical and pragmatic problem, and constrains a national imperative to maintain competitiveness in STEM.

When we are working for equity, this usually involves working to remediate perceived deficiencies relative to the template of a well-prepared student — filling in gaps that naturally co-occur with the well-established inequalities that are not going away anytime soon. These efforts at mitigation are bound to come up short, as long as they’re based on our current Deficit Model of STEM Recruitment. Continue reading

I am complicit

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My academic societies support the March for Science. So do I.

I’m familiar with the arguments for and against the March, from major newspapers and social media. If you’re not familiar, don’t worry, I won’t rehash them for you.

I think it’s possible for some people to have an ethical position to oppose something, and for others to have an ethical position to support the same thing. Nobody’s got a monopoly on being right. Continue reading

NSF Graduate Fellowships and the path towards equity

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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

Bias in graduate admissions

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Yesterday, I received an epic comment on a recent post of mine about minority recruitment. I want to share it:

This fits my experience so so well. I am first gen American, started at community college, transferred to a good public university and struggled but ultimately graduated with a 3.2 GPA and did OK on GREs. Had zero “social capital” (and had no idea what that was). I was lucky to have a TA (PhD student) who took me under her wing and had me volunteer in her lab a few hours a week and an excellent professor in my last quarter who informed me about internships and helped me secure one specifically targeting minority students (and it was paid!). Anyhow, after gaining a lot of experience though field jobs , I applied and was rejected from many PhD programs and ended up going to a small CSU, racking up student loans and working full time while getting my Master’s. I then applied to one of the better ecology programs with excellent letters of reference and was flatly denied. Again, luckily I had a greater supervisor at a govt agency who was very supportive and together we published a couple of manuscripts. I re-applied to that same ecology programs and was offered a multi-year fellowship (no TAing, no RAing). The only difference in my application was the publications. Now that I am in the program, I look around at a sea of white faces and most of them I have come to find out are straight out of undergrad, no pubs, very little experience, just great grades and test scores and a lot of social capital and opportunity (paid internships, semester at a field station, paid field methods courses, etc) . What a load of crap.

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Recruiting underrepresented minority students

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The last couple weeks have posed a challenge, as several people have contacted me (mostly out of the blue), asking me for ideas about specific steps they can take to improve the recruitment of minority students. This isn’t my field, but, I realize I’ve put myself in this position, because it’s a critical issue and I discuss it frequently. I’m just one of many who work in minority-serving institutions.

I realize that most of the suggestions I’ve given to people (but not advice) are generalized. If several folks are writing to me, I imagine there are many more of y’all out there who might be thinking the same thing but not writing. Hence this post. Just with my suggestions. Continue reading