Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Dear lab...

Dear Lab,

Ok Drs and Drs. to be, you are bright people or so I am told.

Why, oh why, can't you place empty bottles, boxes, etc. out in the hallway like you have been told? Why do you return them to where you found them making your lab-mates think we have more of reagent X than we actually have? Is it really that much harder to place them outside the lab? Even more perplexing though, why when said bottles, boxes, etc. are still full do you not put them back? It makes no sense if you are going to place the empty stuff back, you obviously can walk and return the containers when they are not empty.

Why are those of you who complain the loudest about supply X being low the same people who never place orders for anything?

Why do you not log off the lab computers? Do you know anyone can access your personal files? Do you realize when you are over your quota and someone else needs the computer they are going to dump your files to log you off so they can log on?

And why do you think your experiment is more important than any others in the lab? Do you realize many of us talk to one another and let each other know if we are using reagent Y, equipment Z, etc. and you know plan our experiments out beforehand and not just do things on the fly?

Please if you do not understand this, you are part of the problem. Please talk with a lab-mate and listen to what they have to say.

With much disgust,

Pondering Fool

Friday, March 23, 2007


The Hoofnagles (Mark and Chris) have started a denialism blog Their take on the common denialists found online:
"HIV/AIDS Denialism - seems to feed into some egomania of this particular type of denialist. They frequently make statements about how one day they'll be vindicated, and seen as heroes because they saw the truth first. They also seem to really like inversions, and to feel superior because they believe in something that no one else does. Other conspiracy theorists, such as 9/11 conspiracy theorists, I think are similar. There is an egotistical appeal to possessing "secret" knowledge or holding controversial opinions. Basically, I'm calling them assholes.

Global Warming denialism - motivations seem to range from financial (industry, their lobbyists and think tanks), to individual cognitive dissonance. Many global warming denialists that argue from a non-financial standpoint seem to fear the changes that reducing a carbon footprint entails, and are concerned about losing quality of life. Others, I think, suffer from the same egomania as the HIV/AIDS denialists like Monckton. Still others, most recently Falwell, seem upset from a religious perspective as it suggests humans could somehow harm God's creation or worse, that global warming might be a positive sign of Armageddon.

Creationism/Intelligent Design Denialism - Almost exclusively religious objections, stemming from cognitive dissonance from fear of non-literal interpretation of the bible. The insistence on believing the truthfulness of some of the more absurd stories of the Bible such as Noah's Ark seems indicative of a certain stubbornness and fear of upsetting the fragile balance of the literalist's world view. The idea that the Bible might contain metaphor, rather than absolutes, is therefore terrifying and ideas such as evolution, that appear to negate the creation myth must be opposed at all costs.

Holocaust Denial - Hopefully we won't have to cover this disgusting kind of denialism as much. Its motivations are perhaps the clearest of them all. It's just plain Antisemitism.

Anti-Vaccination denialists - I have less experience with these but it seems mostly to be fearfulness of science, and a propensity towards believing in what Orac would call "woo". A small amount also seems to be paranoia or paranoid personality disorder. Finally, I think many of the parents of autistic children seem fearful of genetic or environmental causes of autism that might implicate their culpability in their child's illness. Sadly, throughout the history of autism parents have often been blamed, specifically absent fathers and cold or "Frigidaire" mothers were implicated. So it's understandable if people still feel some stigma or guilt from such a diagnosis given such a cruddy history from the psychologists on that one. Many parents would like to believe in something, anything that explains why their child has been singled out by nature to have autism. Having something to blame, like a vaccination, therefore becomes emotionally very appealing and alleviates some of the helplessness or misplaced guilt they may feel.

Animal testing denialists - I am somewhat uncertain about inclusion of some animal rights activists (ARAs) into the denialism camp. My reasons for doing so include the general dismissiveness I've seen of science by ARAs. For instance, saying things like science can be done without animals (or worse on a computer), claims from PETA that chickens are as smart as dogs or babies, that dogs are actually vegetarians (oy), and any number of discussions in which they imply that animals or animal models say nothing helpful about biology. Their motivations, for the most part, are more noble, they're interested in alleviating suffering, all suffering. That this is impossible, misguided or unwise is not important, and if they have to lie about science then so be it."

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Choosing a lab...

Since starting my post-doc, the lab I am in has had a couple of other post-doc candidates come visit. Soon it will be time for the 1st year grad students in the department to pick which lab they will work away in for the next four to six years. Whenever either happens inevitably the discussion of how to choose a lab comes up. It is not a choice to be made lightly. I have seen friends in grad school who choose the wrong lab and were tormented for years. Their PIs being masters at undermining confidence leading to the students feeling trapped. At the same time, I have seen people who realize the lab is not the right fit (usually the PI is a perfectly fine person, just not the best mentor for said student) and switch to another lab without a problem. Ideally you want to avoid the latter and most definitely the former is to be avoided if you can.

I know people who say you should join the most prestigious lab you can. The idea being you will have great connections and a good shot at papers in high impact journals. I personally think this is a bad way to choose a lab. To me the most important criteria is whether this is a lab you can see yourself working in for the next 4-6 years. Does it fit your learning style? Personality? If a PI is a micro-manager and you prefer some space, it probably is not going to be a good fit. If you need someone pushing you then a PI who is more hands-off is not the mentor for you. If you are open to possibilities outside of becoming a faculty member at a research university in the future, would the PI be supportive? If the answer is no, you should look for another lab. Does the PI care if you work 50 hours/week instead of 80 hours?

I am a big fan of talking with people who are in the lab, who have been in the lab, and those who choose not to join the lab. Find out why the made that choice and whether they would do it again. A warning sign if you are visiting as a post-doc is if the PI only lets you talk with certain people in the lab and not others. Typically this indicates they are hiding the malcontents. Ask yourself if the people in the lab are people who you wouldn't mind being around for the next few years. First years have a slight leg up on post-docs since grad students typically rotate in labs before picking one, giving them time to truly get a sense of the lab & the personalities in it. Lab feel is subjective. You have to know yourself which takes a certain level of maturity and confidence. You have to remind yourself it is your education, your training, your future especially when others are doubting your choice. Other factors should come in mind but they should be used to decide which of the good labs for you that you should join.

Factors in choosing a lab (in order of importance in my mind):
1) Fit - A) Will the PI be a good mentor for you? B) Is the lab environment conducive to you learning, working and keeping your sanity?

2) Science- does the work interest you? excite you? You are going to be working on these projects. If it doesn't excite you then you probably won't want to be there for long.

3) Funding- What is the grant situation looking like? A great lab fit-wise that is hoping to tackle exciting topics but without money it isn't going to happen. Not to mention it can be demoralizing.

4) Prestige- Connections do not hurt and high impact articles do help down the line but they are not everything.

Any I am missing? Let me know.

I typically (not all) find the PIs who sell prestige as being the most important are usually the one's to be watchful of before joining. They try to sucker students/post-docs in with talk of Science & Nature papers. Be skeptical if that is their biggest selling point. Remember if they want you to join their lab it means they think you could do high quality work, that they see your talent and that you are valuable. Guess what? If you join a different lab that is a better fit personality-wise, most likely you will do high quality work there as well but will be a happier person. Life is too short to waste it on taskmasters who want to use your abilities to keep their own prestige high.

Now picking a lab is not perfect. Remember plenty of successful scientists have changed labs and done well. If a lab is not working for you, you can switch. It will work. It won't set you back.

Programs need to remind Post-docs and grad students of this fact. Obviously the poor mentors are not going to.

Updated as per the suggestions of Katie at Minor Revisions:

There are a couple other things to keep in mind when joining a lab.
A) Lab space- Does the lab have physical space for you? Will you have your own desk? Bench space? What are the common areas like in the lab? Now part of this falls under funding but there are times when labs expand quicker than lab space is given. When I first joined my grad school lab, I had to share a desk and lab bench space. It sucked but I knew it was a two month situation until a visiting scientist and a couple post-docs moved on. For other labs this can be a common problem and people are placed in random spaces in the building, sometimes isolated from the rest of the lab. Some like this, other sdo not. Once again it is subjective based on what you can tolerate and what works best for you.

B) Politics- This ties into the lab environment and the science. Your work is not done in isolation. Your lab will be in a building with others and be part of a department/program/etc. You may collaborate with others. There are other people in the field. It can be tricky. Is there support for you beyond your lab? Support to teach you how to navigate turf wars? In a collaboration is everything clear on who is working on what? How authorship will be taken care of? Are there common resources you can utilize to make your life easier in the department (or will they make your life harder)?

C) Is the lab organized? Are there lab responsibilities that are evenly assigned? Do they have regularly scheduled research meetings/journal clubs? Are they productive meetings?

The key is asking lots of questions before joining a lab. Find out as much as you can to make an informed decision. Find out what is beneath the glitter to see if it would be actually gold for you.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On papers...

It comes across listening to fellow grad students/post-docs at conferences, at graduate school, SnobU, etc. that different labs take very different approaches to getting work published. Some labs think in terms of the minimal publishable unit (MPU) and set up their experiments accordingly when starting a project. This can lead to rapid publications though at the expense of well supported conclusions but if you can spin it well you can get away with it. The main competitor of my current PI is like that. Very well written work comes out of his/her lab with an exciting spin that the data doesn't quite support. The other extreme is doing experiments and letting the data take you where it leads. This is the ideal of the scientific method that is taught from primary school onwards. You have a hypothesis, you design experiments to test it and based on your results you refine/alter your hypothesis and design more experiments. Once you have enough support you write up and publish. The conclusions are usually very well supported. The danger is getting scooped by the MPUers in the meantime on certain parts of your project, lessening the impact of your work. In addition you may have to go back and redo certain things to generate figures/tables that would fit the journal you are going to submit to though not adding any new results, just showing the ones you already have in a different way.

Most labs are not either but on spectrum between the two extremes. My lab is such a lab. We ask questions do initial experiments, generate results, ask more questions, etc. but at each point we sit down and talk with our PI about what will be publishable, thinking about where we would publish our work. As we generate more and more data we sit down and critically think about our projects, trying to think what a reviewer might say. Not just thinking of the experiments to be done but also how to present them and what journal we should submit to. Usually this speeds up our ability to publish while still having well supported conclusions. When the PI was having health problems & before I joined, the lab did publish a few MPU type papers. The conclusions of one were completely wrong. To my PI's credit, he/she went through the task of showing where we went wrong and doing the necessary work to reach a well supported conclusion.

Approaching writing a manuscript is also crucial. I know many labs try to shoot for the highest impact journal they can. The mindset being "it doesn't hurt to try". Actually, it does! Writing papers takes time. A Science paper is written and presented differently than a Biochemistry paper for example (not to mention the type of data tends to be different). If the paper is rejected, it means you have to rewrite the paper for a new journal. This resets the clock on the review process, further delaying your work being published. The rewriting also tends to take away time from designing/doing new experiments and/or having a life outside of lab. Not to mention, rejections can be demoralizing. On top of that, there is a good chance the reviewers will be the same. A couple rounds of submissions and these reviewers can tire of work, making it even harder to publish in the lower impact journals.

If you are in a competitive field, shooting too high can cost you. In the time that you are trying out journals, your competitors could publish similar work, scooping you while also having the time to start on the next round of experiments, setting you further back.

It is worth it therefore to sit down and really think about your work before writing. What are your main points you are making? What type of data do you have to support those points? What sort of impact does it make? What general scientific interest would it generate? Solicit the opinion of others. The work you are doing should be exciting and wonderful to you. That passion helps to motivate you to put the effort that is necessary but it does tend to make us less than objective about our own work. Listen to those you respect so you have a proper perspective. This is also very useful for those that tend to beat themselves up; don't undersell/shortchange your results and ideas either. Once you have a good idea what journal would accept your work, write a your manuscript accordingly. Have it read and edited by multiple people, multiple times. Make sure they are more critical than a reviewer (in a constructive way). Typically this approach leads to papers that are accepted with minimal revisions, saving you time to do more experiments and to have a life. The most successful PIs I have seen are the ones who learn this lesson early in their careers saving them time, money and maybe a little of their sanity.

Dr. Mom discusses impact scores further and where to submit your work in her wonderful Writing Your First Paper series.

Sunday, March 18, 2007

A positive...

A lot of what I write and link to is the negative in the world, thought I would point out a positive. Though the Christian Seniors organization might have a problem with Rep. Pete Stark being an atheist, they do not speak for everyone. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that most of the responses Rep. Stark has received have been positive and the few negative haven't been hate-filled rants but reasoned responses. In his own words, "In this instance, the people who have disagreed with me have been polite and reasonable. All in all, this has been a pleasurable experience.''

Rep. Stark being from the SF Bay Area probably is a major reason why he can state his non-beliefs without jeopardizing his career but good to know he isn't be sent hate messages from the rest of the world. A positive sign in this polarized religious world we live in.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Bigotry against non-believers...

You can read on Pharyngula the reaction of some Christians to Rep. Pete Stark stating he did not believe in a deity. Got to love the bigotry.

This is why us atheists would like "under God" removed from the Pledge. Such phrases codify atheists and non-Judeo-Christians as unAmerican creating a breading ground for such bigotry. We are not asking for the line to be changed to "without God" but leaving the question to the individual. Of course when a leading candidate for the opposition party makes comments like this,"it is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase "under God"" it is hard to overturn such a hateful tide.

Evidentily I made a carnival & request...

I guess I made the Second Carnival of Scientiae. To the submitter of my post, thank you who ever you are. My blog tends to be my rants of the world around me and the elegance is not there yet, maybe someday. If you haven't checked out the links from Scientiae please do so, lots of great reads and things to ponder, not to mention to do something about.

The request-
Since I have a spike in traffic, I have a question of those who visit. How do you find new scientific papers to read? I have been using pubcrawler which searches pubmed (being a biochemist this does find most of the articles I am interested in) and sends the info of the latest papers from certain labs, on certain subjects, etc. everyday in the form of an e-mail. Does anyone know of a better service? Better method? Love to hear.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


Been busy writing a review and a couple of papers so here is a round-up of the brilliance of others.

P. Myers hosted an internet chat with Dr. Lynn Margulis. She raises important points as to our cultural biases potentially having an impact on how we view science (a very important reason why diversity is needed in the sciences, to get various viewpoints to help all of us overcome our individual biases). I do disagree with how far she takes it but it is something to keep in mind, especially those of us practicing science. On other things, it becomes clear just because you are brilliant doesn't mean you can't entertain wacky ideas (such as denying that there is strong evidence pointing to HIV causing AIDS). transcript and message from Dr. Marguilis.

Tara at Aetiology talks about Dr. Marguilis's comments. HIV denialists come right out of the woodwork, falling into the same mental traps as evolution-deniers.

Chad at Uncertain Principles is having way too much fun with brackets. one two three four five six seven eight March Madness anyone!?!? Reminds me I still need to do my bracket!

Female Science Professor discusses whether being honest about science discourages students from pursing graduate school/academic careers. IMHO, honesty is good but if you think someone can do it, also let them know that. All negative without positive reinforcement probably does discourage more than it should. Sugar-coating just sets people up for disappointment and bitterness which can be corrosive and depressing. The comments as always are great to read as the discussion moves into how poorly organized so many professors are, which does help to explain the long hours on the job by scientists.

The Science Professor brings up that there are different reasons why some labs become all male (demographic driven chance vs. negative environment for women) and the importance to deep digger into why that is before joining a lab.

Dr. Mom talks about who you teach to in a class and how. Issues like this are usually not discussed enough by science professors. Us scientists have much to learn about educating.

Science Woman is naming names and taking a stand against not giving pregnant women a fair chance to get a job. Unbelievable this person at the university did not accomadate. Wouldn't he want to cover his rear legally speaking at the very least?

Friday, March 9, 2007


PZ Myers has a fun little item. Can you count the ways they mess the science up in order to make a quick buck?

On tenure...

Tenure recently it seems has caught fire on the the scienceblogs sparked in large part by Steve Levitt of Freakonomics fame blog on getting rid of it. I can't really speak to his arguments based on his experience as an Econ professor at University of Chicago, what I can speak to is tenure in the biological sciences. Jake Young at Pure Pedantry makes a case (in my opinion a poor and misinformed one) to junk it there as well.

Jake's first main point: "Tenure supports bad teachers as much as it supports unproductive researchers."

As others have noted, tenure does not correlate with the quality of teaching at an institution. Small liberal arts colleges which focus on undergraduate education have tenure but still maintain a high level of teaching quality even amongst those with tenure. Why? Because that is what is valued and selected for. Most research universities the focus is not undergraduate education it is research especially in the biomedical sciences. These institutions draw in significant amounts of money off of grants. At SnobU more revenue is made off of grants than each tuition/room & board combined, investment income and contributions. That is how a junior faculty member gets tenure by how much they bring in. Grants are not easy to get. The selection is therefore for faculty members who focus primarily on research, churning out high impact papers which in turn allows them to draw in grants. Faculty who are poor teachers get tenure. Sometimes it seems they are even more likely to get tenure because they are not "wasting their time" preparing great lectures and instead devoting the time to research. Even faculty who like to teach catch on pretty quick and perception becomes reality, they spend less time teaching and more time focussed on research. The selection at these research universities is therefore for faculty members who focus on research and view teaching as a "burden", an obligation to fulfill.

Tenure has nothing to do with it. Without tenure these institutions would still be selecting for professors that are successful at getting grants. There just wouldn't be any protection for faculty members to speak their minds, to challenge the administration when the administration is acting in its selfish short-term interests. Where I attended graduate school, the administration tried to cut the stockroom because it "cost" the university money (nevermind the overhead from the grants was paying for it). The stockroom because all items go to one location and buys in bulk is able to extract from companies great deals that can not be matched, saving labs significant amounts of money. The university only sees dollar signs though and doesn't care. They are getting their cut of the grants no matter what in their view so to them the stockroom is an expense they can cut. This would hurt the university, common items could not be picked up easily and prices would rise which would reduce the productivity of the labs. Down the road this would hurt chances the chances of faculty members to get grants and make the departments less attractive to grad students/post-docs/potential new faculty members. What saved the stockroom was senior faculty members rallying and making this exact point showing the administration that the bean-counters they were listening to don't know the whole story. The added twist is that the bean-counters are the same people who negotiate at a university wide level and they were not able to get the same deals as the stock-room, so the bean-counters had extra incentive to try and get rid of the stockroom which was making them look bad.

The junior faculty could not do this because they did not have tenure. Those that did were able to speak their minds thus preventing the university from being too corporate and shooting itself in the foot. Which brings up one of the other reasons Jake thinks tenure can & should go: "I don't buy the argument about academic freedom at all. "

Academic freedom is not just about being able to put forth controversial ideas without fear of being fired (which is an important part of the deal) but it is also about faculty members having a say in how the university runs; challenging the administration, allowing for a true free market of ideas when it comes to the direction of the institution. Many times it isn't the big fight but the little things that add up over time.

The last thing Jake brings up is the unproductive tenured researcher taking a slot away from a deserving junior faculty member ("Tenure -- like Social Security -- is something I never expect"). In the biological sciences, which Jake is in, this is an absurd argument. Faculty members have to stay productive in order to get grants which helps pay their salaries. Faculty members without grants do not get as much money and usually are pushed out by the university. I have watched it happen. They are pushed into worse & worse lab spaces that get smaller and smaller sometimes having to share space with multiple other professors in the same boat. This is done to make room for the new blood. It motivates the other senior faculty who fear that happening to them, encouraging them to work even harder out of fears of agism. Most universities do not have a slot system (I think Yale still does but is talking of getting rid of it). Your "slot" is not being taken up by some tenured unproductive faculty member. The lack of positions is based on the economics of it all. More labs means more costs without an offsetting increase in grant money as the labs are smaller which is not good for the bottom line of these research universities. Don't blame tenure for this. It is an easy target and diverts from the real problems in academia- universities run like corporations instead of places of higher learning.

In science you move around a lot between grad school, post-doc and starting a junior faculty position. Most people at a certain point want to settle down. Tenure offers that reward for working hard. It is the carrot. Salary alone for many would not make up for that. Get rid of tenure and you probably would decrease the pool of people who would be interested in the sciences. It would become a greater mountain to climb. Who would this affect the most? My bet, those that already have a higher mountain to climb to begin with (see below) de facto making science even more white and male. I don't think putting a greater selective pressure for white males is a way to improve science. Want to improve science? Level the playing field and let women & minorities equally compete with white males. That is not happening now and therein lies a major problem that goes with the corporatization of academia that is affecting the sciences in the US that Jake does raise. Tenure though is not the problem.

Thursday, March 8, 2007

Political compass...

Where I fall on the politcal compass:
Your political compass

Economic Left/Right: -9.00
Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -8.41

I am more of a leftie than Mandela, Ghandi and the Dalai Lama and more libertarian then them as well. I basically have no one to vote for in the US.

Lab rants...

Why in the world can't people put broken glass in the broken glass container and pippette tips in their proper waste container? Why must they insist on mixing the two? Not to mention regular trash? Are they trying to see how durable my hands are? Do they want me to bleed? At least they are not treating the chemical spill kit as a waste basket anymore. It is the little things...

A related rant, why in the world is the trash taken out only twice a week at SnobU? How much money goes from our grant to cover overheard? How much money does SnobU have in its endowment? Labs generate waste, we try not to. We try and recycle what we can but we still generate loads of trash. We can not have our trash bins overflowing in lab especially when a state inspector is coming. When I started at SnobU, the waste was taken during the week everyday. Usually done at hours when no one was in lab. Now, it is Tuesdays and Thursdays mid-morning while people are working. Our floors used to be cleaned at night/early in the morning. The last stop was our lab so when I got in really early I could see the facilities worker at work trying his best to get our floors nice and shiny. I watched him work very hard with a poor piece of equipment SnobU provided. He was always trying to come up with better ways to get the floors clean with the out-of-date equipment, it was impressive especially considering how little SnobU was paying him. Since his shift ended after his kids were already off to school, he would call them every morning and talk to them. Now SnobU has hired out. They have nicer equipment but they insist on cleaning floors around 5pm to 6pm. There are a number of people still working in lab at that time, it can be a hassle. If you do leave, you have to be very careful otherwise you might slip on the still very wet hallways as they start for some reason in the hallways and in front of the doors out. Got to love a university run like a corporation-less service at the same/higher price. Got to pay the execs what they are "worth" after all.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Some interesting reads (Catch-Up Edition)...

Joolya has a Gender Studies Crash Course that all of us, in particular us men, need to read & reread on a constant basis. Patriarchy while giving men an advantage in society & oppressing women, limits all and leaves power in the hands of just a few. That society paradigm reiterates itself at all levels, preventing a true dialog between people so necessary for a truly democratic society. To make that a reality occur quicker, us men have to learn at most times when we normally speak, to shut-up and think before we say anything and at times we are normally quiet to actually say something (after thinking of course).

Larry Moran over at Sandwalk brought up the difference between the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology and the Sequence Hypothesis (what usually in textbooks passes as the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology). For those who teach from a textbook please read and go back to the source material & update your lectures. The Central Dogma is basically a negative statement that once sequence information flows from nucleic acid to protein it can not flow back nor from protein to protein. As for the Sequence Hypothesis- "In its simplest form it assumes that the specificity of a piece of nucleic acid is expressed solely by the sequence of its bases, and that this sequence is a (simple) code for the amino acid sequence of a particular protein." (Crick, F.H.C. (1958) On protein synthesis. Symp. Soc. Exp. Biol. XII:138-163).

Crick did update his version of The Central Dogma in a 1970 Nature article where he also reiterated the difference between the Central Dogma and the Sequence Hypothesis, an article to check out.

Moran also challenges the Three Domain Hypothesis though I think there is a bias there as even Doolittle as of 2006 that Eubacteria and Archaea were distinct, separate domains. Gene transfers does make it difficult to really get at the root of the tree of life to the last universal common ancestor or common ancestral state (LUCA/LUCAS). The main difficulty is where you place eukaryotes relative to archaea and bacteria & that is where most of the fuss really is. I will post about this latter.

Biocurious and The Daily Transcript point out the absurdity of how an academic publisher fighting open access journals like those from PLoS.

Dr. Mom has a great series on Writing Your First Paper as well as a nice piece on getting a faculty package together.

Tara at Aetiology writes on a nice smack-down of Jon Wells lack of understanding biology while trying to critique it. Tara also gives a wonderful Introduction to Microbiology and Infectious Diseases.

Over on Pharyngula, Dr. Myers has a piece on a medical doctor who refuses service to those in need because of his Christian faith (though the MD might want to brush up on his Bible, as Dr. Myers notes). And some people wonder why some atheists are so angry.

Saturday, March 3, 2007

Why a leftie does not vote Democratic (Repost)...

Thoughts from Kansas had a good point awhile ago regarding the benefits of having a push from the left in American politics. In the late 19th and the first half of the 20th century, there was a serious progressive voting presence in the United States which acted to pressure the two major parties leading them (the Democrats and Republicans) to soften their stand on unions, labor laws, voting rights and other progressive issues.

From 1904 through the 1924 presidential election, Socialist candidates were able to get at least 2.78% of the vote. The high was in 1912 with 6% of the vote going to Eugene Debs. The election was unique in that Teddy Roosevelt ran under the Progressive banner splitting the Republican vote allowing Woodrow Wilson to win. Many concessions were made to the progressives/socialists as the two major parties were trying to woe these progressive voters. The 16th Amendment established the right for Congress to enact income taxes, the 17th established the direct election of Senators and with the 19th women across the country gained the right to vote.

In 1924, the Progressive/Socialist coalition candidate, Robert LaFollette from WI, drew almost 17% of the vote and even got 13 electoral college votes. Many of their proposals in some form or another got folded into the New Deal. As FDR's New Deal expanded, the vote of the socialist candidates went down. In 1932 the Socialist candidate drew 2.2% of the vote by 1944 they were getting only 0.16% of the vote (WWII also playing a role).

In 1948 concerns about a Post-War economic slowdown and the Cold War gave rise to many 3rd parties. The Socialists drew only 0.28% of the vote. The Progressives drew about 2.38% of the vote though. This was countered though by the rise of the States' Rights (pro-segeragation) candidacy of Strom Thurmond who drew about 2.41% of the vote. In 1968, Wallace under the American Independent banner (once again pro-segeragation) received about 13.6% of the vote. The "States' Rights" movement drew from the Southern Democrats and was a reactionary response to the Civil Rights movement playing on the fears many white Protestants in the South had regarding Blacks and the left.

The Republicans, under Nixon, undertook the Southern Strategy to get those "Dixiecrats" to vote Republican, a tradition that stands to this day (hence the continued visits of Republicans to Bob Jones' University).

Until Nader (and that is debatable), there haven't been any strong 3rd party progressive candidates for president. A note, Nader in 2000 got 2.7% of the vote. Anderson and Perot were right of center candidates which encouraged the two parties to become even more similar to one another. Many liberals derided Nader and blamed him for Gore loosing to Bush in Florida. Never mind the reality that significant numbers of registered Democrats did not vote in the 2000 election in Florida and the logic makes a big assumption that all the Nader votes would have gone to Gore. Kerry in 2004 ran as a "centrist" and lost not just the electoral count but also the popular vote. Bush (as previous Republicans had been trying to do) expanded the Southern Strategy to Middle America, playing once again on the fears of white suburban/rural Christians.

Progressives in this country can not just go along with the Democratic Party (especially when they put a pro-war candidate up for president against the Republican pro-war president, when a good chunk of the nation was against the war). They must push for a strong third party candidate of their own. Force both parties to take notice. Change the nature of the debate. The politics of Bush is a direct result of the rightward push from the States' Rights movement of Thurmond's and Wallace's runs for the White House. Fears were played to and not confronted. What have many progressives done? Cower around the Democrats and agree to compromise. The problem is that is not something you compromise on, it is something you fight.

Has voting for Democrats in Congress stopped the War in Iraq? Has it ended the assults upon our civil liberties? Nope. Way to go.

What is fun is pointing this out to the fine folks over at the DailyKos.Tends to get the inmates a little rilied up.

(Presidential Election Info)

Women in science or Hey Larry don't you have a degree in Economics? (Repost)...

Awhile ago, Dr. Myers over on Phayrngula has an interesting & disturbing piece on The cost of being a woman in science sparked by a correspondence to Nature entitled Mysterious disappearance of female investigators. It is about the worrying results of the first European Young Investigator awards. Women were severely underrepresented. The authors of the correspondence would like to study why this is the cause and replicate the work of C. Wennerås & A. Wold (Nepotism and sexism in peer review, view for free). The European Science Foundation (ESF) has refused to release any data to help the researches study the cause of the under representation of women in winning EYIAs.

Wold and Wennerås looked at peer-review evaluations to the Swedish Medical Research Council, including scores reviewers gave applicants for scientific competence, and compared those scores to more objective real world evaluations such as impact scores. What did they find? Something very disturbing:

"Did men and women with equal scientific productivity receive the same competence rating by the MRC reviewers? No! As shown in Fig. 1 for the productivity variable ‘total impact’, the peer reviewers gave female applicants lower scores than male applicants who displayed the same level of scientific productivity. In fact, the most productive group of female applicants, containing those with 100 total impact points or more, was the only group of women judged to be as competent as the least productive group of male applicants (the one whose members had fewer than 20 total impact points)."

They were also able to look at the impact of being a woman had on their competency evaluation for the grants:
"a female applicant had to be 2.5 times more productive than the average male applicant to receive the same competence score as he ((40+64)/40=2.6)."

In other words to get the same level of respect, women had to do basically 2.5 times more work to get this grant. Extrapolate out (which does appear to be the case I am afraid to say) to other grants/publications, etc. and you have a pretty good reason why so many women leave science. You have to get grants to stay in science. If the bar is raised higher for women then men, then men will get more grants and be more "successful". Not to mention who wants to put in 2.5 times more work to get the same reward? One has to be pretty passionate about science to do that. It is economics 101. We need to understand & appreciate the full extent of this problem, let the studies happen. It is the answer to the Larry Summers (an economist mind you) of the world.

Science and society as a whole is limited when we opress and exclude people for no reason other than they are not the dominate group. The enrichment for white guys means we are not getting the best and the brightest in the sciences not to mention lacking the full range of perspectives necessary for productive science.

Teaching Rant Part II (Repost)...

So I am looking towards the future after graduate school. I would eventually like to get to get a faculty position at a small liberal arts college (SLAC). There are post-docs at such places where you get the chance to gain teaching experience & learn how undergrad directed research is done. What is the advice I am getting for doing a post-doc from those at SLACs? Do a traditional one and find teaching opportunities where I can in that framework (i.e. work tons of hours and throw teaching on top of that, I mean really who needs a life?). The research position will get me in the door more than teaching even though such a faculty position requires significantly more teaching than what is required of a faculty member at a research university. Doesn't seem to be the best system where no matter what career path you go with, doing a traditional post-doc is the door we all must go through. I like doing research but haven't really been given the chance to develop my teaching skills. Begs the questions, is grad school really teaching us what we need to know if everyone has to do more training afterwards? And is the training aspect of post-docs more BS than anything else? I am afraid to say yes. It is a system feeding off cheap labor who are passionate about science.

Teaching Rant Part I (Repost)...

Awhile ago on Pharyngula it was brought up scientists do a poor job of outreaching to the public in general and in the course of discussing this that professors are not trained educators. Teaching is an art that requires a certain set of skills to go with a passion to teach and tremendous amounts of effort.

To become a life science professor, first you go to graduate school (well after years of schooling leading to an undergraduate degree). Your first year you take classes and rotate in various labs. After that you join a lab, pass qualifying exams, start your research and usually serve as a teaching assistant for a semester. Usually, you then TA one more semester and then do research until your research/thesis committee decides you have done enough to merit receiving a PhD. TAing is a requirement that is checked off. At SnobU, I took a "class" workshops to help me TA and become a better teacher. Who taught it? Other grad students who were teaching fellows for Grad Student center at SnobU. In other words, their training was not much beyond mine. They tried their best but in many respects it is the blind leading the blind. When TAing, based on my experience, professors do not provide much guidance. I gave a lecture, what advice did I get afterwards? Basically none.

After grad school, people post-doc where they do more research and try to make a name for themselves. Usually no teaching. One might supervise grad students/undergraduates but this typically ends up with the Post-Doc using them as an extra pair of hands because the pressure is to churn out data to in turn, turn out papers. Based on your research and potential to do research (i.e. get grants that bring dollars to the school), you get a position as a junior faculty member. Then you apply for grants, get a lab up and running, serve on committees, do research, write papers and as throw-in teach classes. Teaching is to be done but not at the expense of getting papers out and obtaining grants. Over time, you do less research and teaching and more of the administrative work. Tenure is primarily based on research not teaching. Throughout the process, people are selected mostly for their potential/ability to do research whereas teaching is viewed as a distraction from that goal.

Now some professors are able to do it all. Usually because they love teaching and value it. Those that really love teaching become professors at small liberal arts colleges where they can practice their art in an environment in which they are rewarded for teaching.

The upshot is though that most life science professors can not teach. They were never taught and have a hard time explaining their research to a larger audience. With the current attacks upon science, this is a major problem because scientists can not defend themselves because they lack the tools necessary. The poor teaching also means groups of students leave college without understanding what science is and basic scientific knowledge. Not to mention the numbers of students who run away from the sciences while in college.

On the other extreme, a significant percentage of middle and high school teachers are not properly trained in the sciences that they are teaching and/or are not given the resources they need to teach science and keep themselves current. (Another rant, why is it usually in high school, 2 years of science is required whereas 4 years of each English & Social Studies are required).

In the end how can we expect students to value learning from teachers when those at the highest levels of our education system do not value teaching?

Liberal Arts Colleges (Repost II)...

Some links to various sites talking about how to become a faculty member in the sciences at a small liberal arts college.
Hunting for jobs in liberal arts colleges (Specifics for physics, but generally apply to all)
Uncertain Principles (A blog of a physics professor, Chad Orzel, at a LAC)
Pharyngula chimes in as well.

About the Annapolis Group, private LACS
Listing of the Annapolis Group
Public LACs

Pensions (Repost I)...

The Wall Street Journal has a piece on liabilities associated with pensions which is usually used to explain why benefits for workers need to be reduced. The quick take home is that for many large corporations the liability comes not from the pensions for rank-n-file workers but rather from executive pensions. Many companies though report the two as one, making it seem has if the pension for the former is dragging down the company.

Some highlights (really lowlights):
"To help explain its deep slump, General Motors Corp. often cites "legacy costs," including pensions for its giant U.S. work force. In its latest annual report, GM wrote: "Our extensive pension and [post-employment] obligations to retirees are a competitive disadvantage for us." Early this year, GM announced it was ending pensions for 42,000 workers.

But there's a twist to the auto maker's pension situation: The pension plans for its rank-and-file U.S. workers are overstuffed with cash, containing about $9 billion more than is needed to meet their obligations for years to come.

Another of GM's pension programs, however, saddles the company with a liability of $1.4 billion. These pensions are for its executives."

In other words, GM is ending the pension for most of its workers, which it could afford while keeping the pension for its executives that is a liability on the company.

"• Boosted by surging pay and rich formulas, executive pension obligations exceed $1 billion at some companies. Besides GM, they include General Electric Co. (a $3.5 billion liability); AT&T Inc. ($1.8 billion); Exxon Mobil Corp. and International Business Machines Corp. (about $1.3 billion each); and Bank of America Corp. and Pfizer Inc. (about $1.1 billion apiece).

• Benefits for executives now account for a significant share of pension obligations in the U.S., an average of 8% at the companies above. Sometimes a company's obligation for a single executive's pension approaches $100 million.

• These liabilities are largely hidden, because corporations don't distinguish them from overall pension obligations in their federal financial filings.

• As a result, the savings that companies make by curtailing pensions for regular retirees -- which have totaled billions of dollars in recent years -- can mask a rising cost of benefits for executives.

• Executive pensions, even when they won't be paid till years from now, drag down earnings today. And they do so in a way that's disproportionate to their size, because they aren't funded with dedicated assets."

"One reason executive pensions have grown so large is that they are linked to ballooning overall executive compensation. Companies often design retirement payouts to replace a percentage of what a person earns while active.

But for executives, the percentage of pay replaced is itself higher. Compensation committees often aim for a pension that replaces 60% to 100% of a top executive's compensation. It's 20% to 35% for lower-level employees."

And this:
"Pension plans, whether for executives or for others, are obligations to pay. In other words, they're debts. And like any debt, they have what amounts to a carrying cost. That carrying cost is part of a company's pension expense.

In the case of pensions for regular employees, the expense is partly or wholly offset by investment returns on money the company set aside in the pension plan when it "funded" it.

Executive pension plans are different. They're normally left unfunded. They have no assets set aside in them. That means there is no investment income to blunt the expense. The result is that obligations for executive pensions create far more expense for an employer, dollar-for-dollar, than pensions for regular workers.

A company's pension expense is something it has to subtract from its earnings each quarter. The cost of executive pensions, having no investment income to cushion it, hits the bottom line with full force."

Basically- executives per dollar of pension benefits costs the company more than a regular worker yet it is the pension of the latter group that is getting cut. Those that are the richest and who least need a pension get to keep their expensive pensions while workers are loosing their less expensive pension. Talk about living in loony world. Of course the reason this goes on, the executive pensions are for those who run the company. They are the ones deciding who gets what pay. Why would they cut back the money they make? In theory Board of Directors are supposed to keep this in check, though most of them are executives for their own companies. In other words they have incentive not to rock the boat. They are benefiting the same way.

"Companies generally are also free to alter, freeze or end regular employees' pension plans, unless a union contract is involved. But executive pensions often are protected from management interference by employment or other contracts."

In other words, workers to protect themselves need to unionize. It is the best protection your pension will have because the executives would love to raid it and give it to themselves.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Starting anew...

I begin yet again. This is my second blog. The first has gone by the wayside. Some of the old posts will reappear shortly. Ranting is a tendency of mine and will probably occupy many of my posts. My grad schools days are now behind me and now I am a Post-Doc. Politically, I am a leftie, usually voting for candidates that most have never heard of. Some say I waste my votes but given the U.S. Constitution and gerrymandering, the way I view it, I would be anyway. I figure under such a scenario far better to stick to my principles and hopefully encourage 3rd party candidates to enter politics, changing the dynamics of the debate between Republicans and Democrats. It is a more long term view to politics than what is shown by the news networks.

I love science. Thinking and questioning the world around me was nurtered from a very early age by my parents. Research is fun but teaching science is my true joy. Nowhere as skilled as I would like as a teacher but always looking to improve which at my research university is far more challenging than it should.