Take a Knee on Tuesday #ScientistsTakeAKnee

O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

I love this country with every bit of my being. I don’t overlook its complicated and painful past, but I believe so strongly in the ideals that our founding fathers chose to immortalize in writing…

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.

My patriotism runs from a place that believes that we can be better. That we must challenge ourselves to be better.. That we must not accept a society that isn’t moving toward those truths that are self-evident. All men are created equal with the unalienable rights of  life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.


Source here.

The reality is that groups of people in our society are being deprived of their rights. Our current administration cautions against violence toward white supremacists, Nazis and Klan members, noting that there are some “very fine people” at their rallies. Meanwhile, police killed at least 104 unarmed black people in 2015. Unarmed black Americans are five times more likely to be killed by the police. In St. Louis, the rate at which the police kill black men is higher than the U.S. murder rate.  We have to recognize that this is a problem and be better as a nation. The systematic killing of black Americans has to stop.

Athletes have been exercising their First Amendment right to protest this and, in contrast to the “very fine people” that attend white supremacist rallies, our president called these athletes “sons of bitches.” He later tweeted…

More so than with most of his toxic commentary, all of this struck me. It struck me with its profound wrongness. The patriots that died for this country didn’t die for a flag. They died for independence from tyranny and to preserve freedom and liberty. They died because there is nothing more important than to protect others from oppression. And, our founding fathers knew that these ideals were so important that they protected our right to tell our government when it’s fucking up squarely in the very first amendment to the constitution. The right to protest mistreatment by our government is woven in to the fabric of our values. These athletes aren’t protesting the flag, or disrespecting the military or our country. They’re protesting the violation of our social contract and addressing their grievances in the manner our founding fathers outlined for them. It is unconstitutional for our president to abridge their freedom of speech.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

I love this country and, despite the events of the last year, I still believe it is one of the only countries on Earth with the potential for people to live up to their potential and achieve their dreams, but only if we insist that this country keep its promise.  I feel called as a citizen to live honorably and a duty to serve my neighbor. I support these athletes’ (and others’)  right to protest and I stand with these Americans. I stand against institutionalized discrimination and racism.

Finally, as a scientist, I also value my right to speak the truth freely and to protest things that I know to be contrary to fact and truth. Any attempt to stop peaceful statements of the truth is a challenge to values that are so very dear to me (and hopefully to you too).

So, on Tuesday I invite you to stand, or take a knee, with me in solidarity with the citizens of our country that are bravely exercising their right to challenge their government. I’ve been using the hashtag #ScientistsTakeAKnee on Twitter (h/t @sciencing_bi) to organize the conversation. Whether you’re alone, or with a group, I encourage you to stop for a while on Tuesday and to take a knee. You can take a picture and post it to Twitter or other social media.

Let’s show the world that scientists stand in solidarity with our fellow citizens against discrimination and in support of our right to protest mistreatment of American citizens by our government.


What is the Place of the Professor?

Over the weekend, the following tweet circulated around the science twitter-web:

I think that some of us can empathize with the tweet, having been on the receiving end of emails that start with “HeY! Whats up dude?!?!?!” or having tried to deal with the academic fallout from a wild weekend that led to missing an important midterm. As a professor, I love the topic I teach. I think it’s important and applicable to my students’ future careers and I want to see students develop a passion for it too. I want to see them impress me with how much they’re learning. But, most of the objection to the tweet seemed to come not from the notion that students should try to impress faculty, but from the analogy that a professor is a boss.  Folks seemed to object to the business-i-fication of academia…

There’s no doubt in my mind that the shift toward modeling academia after industry is hurting it. There was an article in Slate over the weekend about how changes in contracts and collective bargaining at the University of Wisconsin (an institution nearGif or Jig.gif and dear to my heart) have hurt the faculty and cost the university millions.  Higher learning has to be financially sustainable, but shifting universities to a for-profit model is not necessarily in the best interest of the public they serve.

Several folks responded to the tweet by saying that we’re not business people, we’re teachers. That’s true, and yet it doesn’t seem like enough. I’ve struggled over the last few years with how to own this, but to describe professors as simply teachers doesn’t seem to encompass all that we do. We’re also caretakers of people on the cusp of a critical transition point.  As a mother, I think a lot about this.

This is the first time most of our students have lived away from home. They not only come to our universities for course work, but most of these students are also learning to deal with life for the first time.  They’re away from their parents and support systems. Many are having to work to support themselves for the first time. I hear my colleagues sometimes remark at the inability of students to thrive in these environments, but I can’t seem to forget that we’re asking two very difficult things of them – we’re asking them to learn in a more rigorous environment and to do it while also truly learning to “adult.”

My office is in a hallway and the university has recently put rows of benches along the walls. There is one right outside my office door. Students come and sit. Sometimes they talk on their phones to their parents. Sometimes they cry. Sometimes they don’t feel well. Sometimes they need a tissue or a Band-Aid and the things that you can do for them are more than giving them some bit of knowledge. Of course they’re adults, but they’re also people’s children that are away from home for the first time.

I’ve been thinking about these issues lately because it seems as though my university has a lot of resources for students who are dealing with emotional, psychological, physical, and other issues/crises. That said, I’m not sure that students always know that these resources are available to them and I often find myself trying to counsel students toward them and also wishing they had come to me sooner. I think in many cases, students see faculty as simply teachers, or even sometimes as “bosses” and that really hinders our ability to help them when they get into trouble.

halloween costumeSome folks commented that they didn’t care if students came to class in onesies or Halloween costumes, as long as they were learning the material. I appreciate the sentiment, but I don’t know that this is fair to them either. I like to see myself as a mentor of facilitator that prepares them for their next step. We can teach them the academic knowledge they need, while also teaching them the professional norms and expectations that others will have for them when they leave the university to engage with the world. we can also help them navigate a complicated university system to get help when they need it.  This makes us more than simply teachers of information and more like guides.

And definitely not bosses.

Disclaimer: I want to be very clear that any details provided in this post and any others are not meant to describe my experiences with or identify any particular student. There are thousands of them here and my intent is only to broadly describe my own experiences. 

A Thursday Afternoon Palate Cleanser


World events of the past couple of weeks demand a little frivolity, but it’s hard to justify turning off the world when it’s not quite Shabbat. So, here’s some of the stuff I’m amusing myself with when the going gets tough…

The Hydraulic Press Channel
This guy gives me all of my life. He just crushes things and, sometimes they explode. And, he gets so damned excited when things explode. This explosion, in particular, is a peach.

Good Mythical Morning
Last night we watched their video “Will It Chair?” Turns out, some things make better chairs than you might think. I would like a marshmallow chair for my office.

We’re going to start making reaction videos of the reaction videos.


And, of course, shoes….
How happy am I that block heels are coming back? And how hilarious do I think it is that Sarah Jessica Parker is selling $400 shoes? Not that I don’t think they’re cute, but probably not “rob the college fund” cute.



And an Update from Nature…

Not an hour after I posted my thoughts on Nature’s editorial, they changed the title and added this disclaimer:

The original version of this article was offensive and poorly worded. It did not accurately convey our intended message and it suggested that Nature is defending statues of scientists who have done grave injustice to minorities and other people. We have corrected the headline, standfirst and a line in the text to make clear we do not support keeping those memorials; our position is that any such memorials that are allowed to stand should be accompanied by context that makes the injustice clear and acknowledges the victims.


Just sit down, Nature. Just sit down.

Dont exist.gif

Nature Asks Charlottesville to Hold Its Beer and Other Reasons Why You’re Afraid of the Mirror

jeff sessions

Subtext from this photo of just a poorly timed snap? (Slate)

These past 30 days have been a real trial of American patriotism and a real litmus test for doing what’s right. Yesterday’s DACA announcement by Jeff Sessions caused my university and our local school system to make statements that they value students, and that they will not penalize their students for their immigration status. I could see that some of these entities were clearly making some moves today to figure out how to deal with the possible end of DACA. Protecting children shouldn’t be a debate. It should be the core value of a society. Children don’t have the capacity to dictate their own futures and we shouldn’t punish them for the actions of their parents.


All of this on the heels of the violence in Charlottesville where white supremacists protested the removal of confederate statues. Advocates for the preservation of history ignore the fraught history of these monuments. The majority were erected as intimidation tactics around the Jim Crow and school integration eras. They’re not monuments to history. They are a sign to brown people, placed in front of courthouses and education buildings (which are sources of power to members of a society),  to remember their place in society. It’s not history. It’s terrorism.

So many of us looked to our president to clearly and loudly denounce the white supremacists, Nazis, and Klan members who stood in defense of these symbols and, when he didn’t, it wounded our country.  It reinforced the divides that keep underrepresented citizens at a disadvantage. Denouncing Nazis doesn’t seem like it should be hard, but our president said there were some “good people” among the crowd. Good people among a crowd of white supremacists! If there’s anyone you should be able to unequivocally call evil, it’s the Nazis. That should be easy.

Just when I thought we were at our peek ridiculousness with what should be a simple rejection of hate politics, the science publication Nature said, “Hey Trump

hold my beer

In their September editorial “Removing statues of historical figures risks whitewashing history”, the editorial staff writes in defense of the statue of J. Marion Sims:

The word ‘racist’ was spray-painted alongside his list of achievements, which include life-saving techniques he developed to help women recover from traumatic births. Yet many protest about the lionization of this ‘father of modern gynaecology’ because he performed his experiments on female slaves.

And as to how to deal with these problematic statues…

Instead of removing painful reminders, perhaps these should be supplemented. Such notes are also standard in biomedical literature. The American Medical Association recommends that if unethically acquired data are essential to science, any use or citation of these data should describe the unethical behaviour and pay respect to the victims of the experimentation.

Institutions and cities could do something similar by installing a plaque noting the controversy, or an equally sized monument commemorating the victims. Such a historical marker stands for Carrie Buck, a young woman who was the first person to be sterilized under a 1924 eugenics programme in the United States, which was designed to eliminate ‘genetically inferior’ people with mental and physical disabilities. It stands in Charlottesville just a few blocks — but a million miles away — from the disputed statue of General Lee.

For the record, I had to engage in some serious Google-Fu to find the memorial to Carrie Buck. It’s not a statue. It’s a roadside marker that you could drive by and never notice. This is what they equivocate to the grandiose statues of Robert Lee:

Carrie Buck

Problem is, like DACA and Nazis, this shouldn’t be hard. The two scientists the Nature editors hold as their examples of the possible whitewashing of history are J. Marion Sims and Thomas Parran, the Unites States surgeon general who oversaw the Tuskegee Experiment and the infection of Guatemalans with syphilis without their consent. These men advanced science by treating others as non-human. We don’t celebrate Josef Mengele for finding out how long it took people to freeze or describing the physiological effects of hypoxia. That would be absurd! So, why are we concerned with condemning the actions of scientists who experimented on other peoples considered non-human?

Statues and namings are not ways to remember our history. They are ways to remember our heroes, and people who hurt other groups of people are not heroes. We can remember their contributions in museums and history books. Refusing to commemorate their hurt in stone does not erase history.  It communicates that we understand the pain they inflicted.

So, why are people so concerned with the whitewashing of history? Because at their cores, many of us are afraid of falling on the wrong side of history. We worry that, like Parron and Sims, our ambition will drive us to make discoveries at the expense of robbing others of their humanity. We’re worried that in a hundred years, our statue will be the one with “racist” scrawled across it.

Maybe the greatest protection of that is a willingness to listen to why others were hurt by a historical figure. A commitment to not force others to accept the celebration of a problematic figure for his “scientific genius”. How many of us were given pause when we learned the origin of the HeLa cell? Data lives independently from its generator.

I’m not worried about my legacy because, before my own career and my own accomplishments, I am most driven by the belief that every person has an inherent human dignity, making us each deserving of respect and honor. I’m not worried about my statue. I’m worried about getting to that place.





But, I Miss You Isis!

I was so touched to see my post on my paper writing process receive such a warm reception. It has really benefited me to write in this way and I am so glad when I see others benefit from it. As I mentioned in the post, it was a re-post from my old blog. On Twitter, someone dug up the original post from a web archive. Had I kept the old blog? Nope. They remarked that they had found it funny and missed me. I said I wasn’t dead yet, and they said that I had taught them to be a bad ass woman in science. I really was touched.

Tonight I tweeted that I was glad that people had benefited from the post and a dear friend of the blog said that they had missed my writing.

I’m not dead!!!

Wonder woman walls.gifWhen I wrote as the pseudonymous Isis, I was unstoppable. I put on my costume, wiggled a little, and defeated my enemies. My shoes were cool and I had cardigans. My keyboard was my sword and, in so many ways, I felt invincible.  I started my blog ten years ago as a new, sassy postdoc who was ready to take over the world. I had everything figured out and I was going to take no grief from nobody.

None of that prepared me to get divorced, though. None of that prepared me to have to face how lonely I was and none of that prepared me to have my heart completely broken. I wasn’t ready to have to deal with the reality of a single income and being a single mom, all while building a new lab.  I felt like such a sham. Like I had fooled you all. Like I had shown you something that wasn’t real and, at the first sign of a real challenge, had gone completely fetal. I ate a lot of cereal, got chubby, and just tried to survive and love my children.  I wasn’t perfect and fearless. I was so, so afraid.

But, I did survive. I look back at the last couple of years and my kids are beautiful, funny little people. Little I and TD are really amazing. Science is exciting, and I’m not so chubby any more. I rode my bike more than 400 miles. I went through a spell where I felt beaten down, but I’m still here. Maybe I am invincible, after all. It has taken a while to realize that, but stop mourning me. Isis is more real than she ever was.

So, here are some shoes.

Katy Perry

Katy Perry’s The Bonnie. $179 at Zappos. I’m not buying these shoes, but I might glue some random buttons on an existing pair. Where’s Hathor when you need her?


How to Write a Scientific Paper – A Revisit of a Classic

Rd0EgO2As a mentor, the one thing I struggle the most with is communicating a good method for writing a scientific paper. It’s not that I don’t have one. It’s just that it’s completely contrary to the way we teach high school and college students to write. Many students write linearly – beginning at the beginning and ending at the end. Problem is, if you write a scientific paper that way, by the time you get to the end your story may have changed along the way. That’s very hard for a reader to follow.

So, a couple of years ago a senior colleague taught me how they story board their papers. They start in the middle of the papers at the results and write from the middle out. I’m working on a paper today and it made me a little wistful for my interactions with him. A loyal reader of the old blog was kind enough to send the post I wrote about his writing methods for re-posting here.

I still use the exactly same method, although I find that many people are reluctant to post their figures to the wall or a board and stare at them. Last night, Strange I stood in my office staring at a figure for about an hour. It made me realize that if someone needs an hour to understand what I’m getting at, it’s not a good figure. It doesn’t matter if I think it’s clear. It’s not if it takes someone that long to figure it out. Back to the drawing board.

So, without further adieu, here is a slightly edited version of the original post on the I-method of scientific paper writing…


  1. I try to remember the original question(s) (ie, hypotheses) that I started with and write them on my board.
  2. I make the figures or tables with the data that answer those questions. I take the figures and tables to the board under the question/hypothesis.
  3. I ask myself what follow-up questions I had, write those on the board, make the appropriate figures and tape them to the board.
  4. I tape the outcomes of my statistical analyses to the figures.
  5. I make people come and look at my board. When I get them there, I let them look at my figures a while and then I try to tell them the story of what I’ve done, using my figures and tables. I reorder the figures and tables based on their feedback and how I find myself telling the story. I write the questions they as on the figures and revise. I make people keep coming back to my board [now it’s a wall in my office] until they say, “Huh. That’s a pretty good story.” That’s the most crucial step of the process – getting your story in the right order so that it makes sense when you tell it.
  6. I write the results.
  7. I write the methods so that it parallels the order of the results.
  8. I ask myself if we have anything unexpected, how we’ve changed what we know, or what limitations we have. I write those on the figures and use that the write the discussion.
  9. I go back and write the introduction based on the story that came out of the results. I am a big believer in using the phrase “We hypothesized that..” so that there is no question about what we were trying to address or whether the experiments were appropriate. This hypothesis might be different than the one that drove the initial experiments because science is not always a linear process. Don’t be a slave to the original hypothesis if you learned things after the fact that made you change gears. That creates a tortuous paper that no one should subject a reviewer to. Also, include a general statement about the approach and if its more than 1.5 pages long, it’s too damned long.
  10. Add all the other stuff
  11. This is the second most critical step. I give that paper to anyone that will read it and provide feedback. I will give it to my neighbor’s dog to see if he craps on it. It is better to get criticism from the people you know than the people you don’t. Anyone who can be convinced to read it gets a copy. I also pay it forward. I will read anything anyone gives me.
  12. I submit it.


After reading this wisdom for the ages you might be thinking to yourself, “How is this any different than what we do at lab meeting? We show figures there all the time. Trust me, it is. At lab meeting you flip through figures that everyone squints at. You’re trying to listen and interpret the figure at the same time and you have someone’s voice to guide you.  There is something different about looking at a figure on paper, with time to look at it and meditate over it, without someone gabbing at you about what it is supposed to mean. You see things about formatting and presentation that you don’t see on a slide.