Perspectives of the Modern Scientist Interviews

 

My passionate feelings towards the subject of gender bias and sexual harassment in academia have lead to intense conversations with colleagues and superiors, and I found myself becoming extremely self conscious as I realized how difficult it was to articulate my curiosities and intentions. In the real world, gender bias can often be suspected… but difficult to quantify. Discrimination can feel confusing or subjective. It can lead to self-doubt and skepticism. It’s hard to know when you are being harassed or marginalized, and what to do if you suspect you were.

I was recently invited to speak at a symposium entitled “Women in Forest Entomology” at our annual Forest Entomology conference this summer. I was both thrilled and terrified at this invitation. I would be discussing an already polarizing topic, and my audience would predominantly be the very men who inspired me to undertake this independent research study in the first place.  My nerves turned out to be unfounded. My presentation was met with an overall positive response, and many personal accounts validating my frustrations. Best of all, I soon formed a professional bond with symposium organizer, Jessica Hartshorn (University of Arkansas). We both felt it was important to discuss gender issues openly, so we can work together to address common concerns through a unified strategy. We agreed to work together on a collaborative study, with the objective of conducting a series of interviews with a diverse collection of scientists.

Jessica and I designed the study to represent the perspective of the modern scientist, and approached individuals from all backgrounds to talk about the adversity they, or someone they know, have faced in their scientific careers, and discuss how they handled such obstacles. We aim aim to address the lack of diversity in today’s scientific careers with hard data, and use the power of storytelling to inspire others who may be struggling with similar issues. We hope to consolidate these interviews into reports on the current status of diversity in the sciences, and into a collection of anonymous personal stories from the perspective of today’s modern scientist. In this study, we asked individuals to complete a short interview with either Jessica or myself. It was important to us that our volunteers represented a variety of professional and academic backgrounds, ethnicities, and personal histories.

News of our collaboration spread quickly in our tight-niched professional sphere, and Jessica was soon contacted by Debi Sutton, director of the Entomology Society of America’s new diversity initiative committee.  Debi graciously invited us to collaborate with ESA’s Diversity Initiative, and conduct interviews at their central location at the ESA national conference in November. We published an article advertising our interview-based research project was published on the Entomological Society of America website, and distributed to all national members via list serve. We received dozens of responses from a variety of professional scientists, and successfully conducted interviews with individuals with backgrounds as diverse as graduate students, tenured professors and industry professionals.

All of this happened very quickly, and was overall a successful endeavor that I’m excited to continue pursuing. Experimental design did not come without its doubts, however, and I have grown to appreciate the full complexity of responsibly collecting data on such sensitive subject matter.  It was especially important to be mindful of our process because we were collecting data in an interview-based setting. We wanted to ask open-ended questions, and were careful not to use any leading dialogue.  Early on, Dr. Sutton contacted us with criticism she had indirectly received, addressing our experimental conduct with recorded interviews.  The public was wary of our subject matter, and understandably cautious of discussing such sensitive topics. Jessica and I took great care to design an ethically responsible experimental process, if you are interested in our project or receiving a list of the interview questions, click here.

Future of the University (Required Blog Post #5)

Title IX is a landmark federal civil right in the United States that prohibits sex discrimination in education. In light of the recent Title IX university investigations, we must evaluate the culture and values pervading our professional and academic institutions. While we are aware of sporadic Title IX-related university investigations, more information is needed to document the individual’s experiences regarding gender and sexual identity in the university setting.

Studies involving gender-bias in the US are often conducted in congruence with analyses of socioeconomic and/or racial discrimination. While it is important to understand how economic, social, cultural, and political trends can be expected to affect the role of gender in academia, more research is needed to understand the specific role of gender based discrimination in academia. The prevalence and full consequences of sexual harassment, and gender bias in academia remain unknown. There are no records of how often such discrimination occurs, or how gender-bias is commonly manifested in academia.

Despite there being ample historical evidence of gender inequality in the United States, discussion of gender bias in present-day academia is often met with skepticism. I believe this is partially due to the inherent complexity of aspects intrinsic in achieving educational equality. When assessing the presence of gender bias in academia, we must consider not only access to higher education, but also how the college experience and post collegiate opportunities differ between men and women. More data must be collected to 1.) Raise awareness that gender-based discrimination persists in present day academic institutions and 2.) Determine the areas where gender parity has been reached, and where women are still marginalized in the university setting.  These data would support the need for a nationally institutionalized “safe space” in universities, where students experiencing sexual or gender-related discrimination can confidentially receive counseling and advice.  Information on the topics listed above can easily be collected by promoting dialogue of individual’s experiences involving gender or racial discrimination. The difficult part is changing the perception of the university setting, an creating an environment that promotes open communication of these sensitive subjects.

Professional Code of Ethics (Required Post # 4)

I chose to research the Entomological Society of America’s Code of Conduct for the national meeting held in Minneapolis that I recently attended in November, 2015.  These meetings have historically been a hotbed for a to a long list of sexual harassment complaints, many of which I or witnessed or experienced myself. Understandably, I am curious to see in writing exactly where these discrepancies occurred and what officially qualifies as sexual discrimination and harassment. It is important for individuals to know exactly what they can do if they think they have been wronged in one of these ways, and to understand they have power as a victim in these situations.

The Code of Conduct states “by attending ENTOMOLOGY 2015, you agree voluntarily to abide by our ethics policy.”  The policy starts by describing the parameters of authorship, and states that “all authors connected to a presentation and/or abstract must agree on all information contained in the presentation. Failure of an author to agree to the presentation format will lead to the presentation being withdrawn from the conference.”

Next, the policy provides a “Harassment and Safety” section, which is written as follows: “ESA is dedicated to providing a safe, hospitable, and productive environment for everyone attending our events, regardless of ethnicity, religion, disability, physical appearance, gender, or sexual orientation. It is important to remember that a community where people feel uncomfortable or threatened is neither healthy nor productive. Accordingly, ESA prohibits intimidating, threatening, or harassing conduct during our conferences. This policy applies to speakers, staff, volunteers, and attendees. Conference participants violating these rules may be sanctioned or expelled from the conference, at the discretion of ESA leadership.  The policy continues by describing what qualifies as harassment, including “offensive gestures or verbal comments related to ethnicity, religion, disability, physical appearance, gender, or sexual orientation in public spaces, deliberate intimidation, stalking, following, harassing photography or recording, sustained disruption of talks or other events, inappropriate physical contact, and unwelcome attention.”

The content of this policy is surprisingly thorough, and written in a professional tone that communicates a no-tolerance policy.  My only complaint is that there is no mention of repercussions for harassment outside the conference setting (ie: bars, city streets, hotels, etc.). Most of the personal accounts I have heard either occurred in darkened bar corners, or on the walk back to their hotel rooms.  ESA members (faculty and students alike) were the offenders in these situations, and the victims were left scared, confused and feeling utterly powerless.

Noteably, the policy stresses to the reader that ” If you are being harassed, notice that someone else is being harassed, or have any other concerns, please do not hesitate to contact ESA staff who can work with appropriate ESA leadership to resolve the situation… ESA staff will be happy to help participants contact convention center/hotel/venue security or local law enforcement, and otherwise assist those experiencing harassment, to enable them to feel safe for the duration of the conference. We value your attendance, and want to make your experience as productive and professionally stimulating as possible.”  This quote was followed by the contact information for ESA’s complaints department. In my opinion, this is written in a supportive and stern tone, with the hope that the victim feels they can contact help without repercussions.

This policy was far more thorough then I was expecting, but I still believe measures like this are just the beginning of a long road to gender equality.  Fortunately, I was asked to collaborate with ESA’s Diversity Committee , for a series of interviews I am conducting with a colleague in a side-project called Perspectives of the Modern Scientist. I feel that progress towards diversity and gender equality will be made at a rapid pace in the coming years.  We are in an era of heightened social-consciousness, and I am encouraged by the lightning-fast progress of the Gay Movement over the past five years.

 

Open Access Journal (Required Post #2)

Journal of Insect Science:

Find the journal here: http://jinsectscience.oxfordjournals.org/

The Journal of Insect Science is an “international, open-access, peer-reviewed journal” that publishes papers on the biology and cultural impacts of insects and other arthropods.The Journal of Insect Science was founded with support from the University of Arizona library in 2001 by Dr. Henry Hagedorn, who served as editor-in-chief until his death in January, 2014. The Entomological Society of America then added the Journal of Insect Science to its publishing portfolio in 2014. This journal is currently published by the Entomological Society of America, one of the primary authorities of entomological research, both domestically and internationally.

I found this open access journal through the Entomological Society of America website, one of the most popular news sites in our discipline. The Journal of Insect Science is an international, open-access, peer-reviewed journal that publishes papers on all aspects of insects and arthropods. Specifically, this journal features entomological research relating to conservation biology, agriculture and medical practices.

This journal aims to disseminate their publications as widely as possible.  The scope as advertised is wide; and covers subjects related to biology (molecular-ecological), as well as insect-related agricultural and medical research.

The Journal of Insect Science does not elaborate on open access on its website, but the publication company, Oxford University Press claims support “sustainable open access business models and regularly report on our findings, both to our partners and the wider academic community.” The Oxford University Press website also claims that they were the first publisher to transition a mature journal to the open access format. Today, they publish nine fully open access journals.

I often refer to this source to stay up to date with the latest insect-related news.  It’s a credible source with a wide reach, a sure sign of the numerous benefits of the open-access model.

Engaging the Imaginations of Digital Learners: “Setting Student’s Minds on Fire”, Mark C. Carnes

Mark C. Carne, author of “Setting Student’s Minds on Fire” opens by addressing the national deficiency in higher education access.  Why are enrollment numbers so low in the United States? Carne claims that the reason isn’t insufficient funding alone. He goes on to emphasize that the true reason that more people don’t have degrees is lack of interest and motivation.

Right away, I have to take issue with these assertions.  In my social circles, everyone seems to understand that you eventually need to acquire a degree to access to the security of high-paying jobs. In truth, the most common obstacle I hear referenced by friends applying to grad school is finding adequate funding because they are already crippled with a mountain of student debt.  It seems to me throwing money at the issue, as President Obama suggests, would actually be a tremendous help in widening access to higher ed.

Carne states that today’s classroom environment is too boring, and face-to-face education may no longer be the most effective form of teaching. Are online courses actually the future of higher education? From my limited experience of learning calculus in the Math Emporium as a freshman at VT, I know that this mode of education does not work for everyone. The author suggests stepping away from lecturing to a passive audience, and focus more on delivering and active, learner-centered process. I’ve heard this argument a lot in this class, as well as in Dean Depauw’s Future Professoriate course I’m taking this semester. I have always been dubious of this perspective, since I prefer the traditional lecture structure and learn best by taking and reviewing notes. This article inspired me to ask a bunch of fellow grad students in my department their opinion on the lecturing structure we most commonly see at VT.  Surprisingly, the response was evenly split. Many students said that lecture halls promoted disinterest and a lack of motivation.  These same students said their learning styles didn’t compliment this teaching style, and they would benefit from a more active classroom environment.  However, just as many students said they prefer lecture environment we currently have and listed the same reasons I did. In fact, many of these same students said they disliked being forced to interact in group activities and preferred a more individual experience.

Discovering your authentic self: “Finding My Teaching Voice”, Sarah E. Deel

My first experience in a formal teaching environment was as a substitute teach for Loudoun County Public Schools.  I was a freshman at the time, and my teaching experience was limited to swimming lessons and babysitting. I had to eat lunch in the teacher’s lounge with the AP History teacher I had the year before. I had failed his class. It was awkward.  I struggled with maintaining authority in a classroom of students that were a year younger than me, students who were friends with my brother and were often at my parent’s house on weekends. I was nervous, soft spoken, generally a stumbling mess. Memories of these growing pains are visceral and embarrassing.  The sort of things you think about when you’re trying to fall asleep at night.  In the end though I wouldn’t change a thing.  In fact, I would not be the teacher I am today without them.  Learning from these obstacles shaped my teaching voice, and most importantly gave me confidence as an authority figure.

These experiences prepared me extremely well when it came time for me to teach my first college-level course Forest Entomology & Pest Management this semester. I had already experienced the struggles and doubts the author Sarah E. Deel described in her essay Finding My Teaching Voice. I was confident in presenting my true self in front of the class, and could relate to the students while still maintaining my power as an authority figure. This confidence allowed me to spend more time learning the material and planning how to effectively communicate the key concepts, instead of wasting brain power worrying about whether I have the capacity to  be an effective teacher.  I am extremely grateful for starting my career as an educator early in my life, even though I complained endlessly about the early morning commutes.

Deel provided a vivid description of her struggles as an inexperienced educator.  I appreciated the depth and honesty she applied to each account, and identified with many of the same insecurities. I found that many of the take-away lessons from her early teaching days were the same as my own. Needless to say this was an enjoyable read. Some of the obstacles I thoughts were especially important to note are listed below:

1.) How do you maintain a professional relationship with your students?

2.) What is the appropriate tone to use as an authority figure? How do I keep my tone in check in tough situations?

3.) How do I keep the students engaged and interested? How do I encourage them to think creatively?

4.) How do I preserve my authority as a female educator?

When learning how to be an effective teacher, Deel stated that the most important education she received came from the act of teaching. No one told what to do, or how to manage a large number of students in a fair and respectful manner. She too, did not find her teaching voice until she had experienced the difficulties that inevitably surface during those first years of teaching.   Some of the take away lessons that resonated with me are listed below:

1.)  It is important to maintain a mutual respect in your teacher/student relationship. Be mindful of your tone, take time to explain your evaluation methods and Teaching Philosophy.

2.) There is no one true teaching method.  Staying true to your unique style is most effective.  Be intentional about developing a toolbox of techniques and strategies.

3.) Acknowledge your student’s individuality. Students respond to different learning styles and have unique needs.

4.) Teaching is flexible, not static.

While I didn’t learn anything new in this article, Deel’s writing helped me organize my own techniques and strategies in the classroom.  This thought process helped me develop my Teaching Philosophy, which will be beneficial in my upcoming job search.

Scholarly Integrity (Required Post #3)

Case: Hao Wang

This case describes the ORI’s action against a Hao Wang, the former Associate Professor of Surgery and Pathology, Schulich School of Medicine and Dentistry, Western University, Canada.  Dr. Wang has engaged in research misconduct by falsifying data in an abstract and poster presentation for the “2011 American Transplant Congress”.

The ORI found that Dr. Wang falsely claimed that two monkeys successfully received kidney transplants.  He went on say that they animals went on to live long lives and experienced no adverse effects from the transplants.  In actuality, the transplant was a total failure and each monkey survived only because their kidney’s were left intact. These falsifications went so far as to be included in Dr. Wang’s lab notes, progress reports and data analyses.  He lied to his principle investigators, as well as his colleagues before presenting this false data publicly. To me, this proves further offense, since he compromised the names of his co-authors as well.

Dr. Wang’s punishment involved a Voluntary Settlement Agreement for a three year probation period.  The stipulations of the agreement include the supervision of all Dr. Wang’s research, removing himself from any advisory position and submitting documentation for ORI certification through any work related publications.

Honestly, I’m surprised at the degree of leniency the ORI shows in this case. Three years seems negligible, and hardly enough time to make a lasting impression on the questionable character of the offender.  To me, permitting an individual to publish without some sort of mark on their reputation or record is a dangerous allowance. Dr. Wang’s falsifications occurred on a large scale, across many platforms, and demonstrates his unwavering commitment to his lies. Is this someone we should trust to conduct sound, potentially medical-related research in the near future?

Cultivating Curiosity

The author W. Gardner Campbell seems to be critiquing the arcane strategies our education uses to “cut costs and increase access”.  He disparages “click-counts” and login tracking for being impersonal means for measuring student involvement and comprehension.  In a larger classroom environment, these can be efficient tools for preventing students from slipping under the radar.  In a 400 person class, sites like Scholar can be a great way to require interaction from students when it is impossible for teacher and student to meet individually on a routine basis.

This author seems to ironically take a close-minded approach when unpacking the traditional assessment of learning outcomes. It is easy to say that standardized testing leads to uncreative, robotic students. However, I would argue that the ‘depth and vision’ a particular student develops during their education largely depends on the character of the individual. It seems to me that education (especially higher education) should still be viewed as a privilege. It is therefor the student’s responsibility to provide quality input for a satisfactory educational outcome. Of course, we all have different learning styles. Of course, some students excel in humanities while others are better at math and science. We should acknowledge the agency of students who have made it to higher education, and understand that an engaged student has learned strategies to manage his/her academic shortcomings.

Furthermore, shouldn’t we be concerned with increasing access as educators? The socio-economic rift that is propagated by that cost of higher education is already criminal, and an issue many developed countries have long addressed. Too much of the population hasn’t had adequate preliminary education, or are too poor to even consider applying to college. Higher enrollment numbers should be celebrated, we should be focusing on how to best teach large classrooms of students for the intelligent, invested individuals as they are.  W. Gardner Campbell’s attitude seems too coddling, and doesn’t recognize today’s students as already curious and capable adults.

The trouble with autopilot: The separation between conscious and subconscious

In this segment, Shankar Vendantam, author of “The Hidden Brain” discusses the role the human subconscious plays in cultural stereotypes. Vendantam suggests that negative associations with certain races, genders and sexual preferences begin when we are very young.  Not surprisingly, this is thought to be a result of parenting or upbringing, not genetic predisposition.

Our subconscious makes snap judgements about our surroundings constantly. These decisions are based upon repetition, at our most basal learning level.  Because the subconscious is our “dumb” brain, repetition is associated with normativity, without the use of logic, empathy or reason. These instincts or reflexes are what keep us alive, but are also the root of cultural categorization.

The author acknowledges that it is human nature to make judgements about other people with different backgrounds, especially under high pressure. Because these judgements are often made subconsciously, people form unfair or uninformed biases without even knowing they’re doing so.

So how can we correct a behavior we aren’t even aware of?  Shankar Vendantam suggests speaking to children directly, while they are still early in their development. If we unpack common associations children have in relation to race, gender and sexual preference, we can understand why stereotypical categorizations are formed. If we better understand the associations of children’s learning, we can better shape these unconscious associations to mitigate prejudice in their lives.

We rely on our subconscious, we need it to stay alive.  We must still be mindful of giving it too much power. The author states the propagation of prejudice is like the autopilot function flying the plane without the pilot being aware of it.  I have great hope for this and future generations. In a decade, we have made greater strides towards universal equality than our predecessors made in the last century.  Therefor, it is our responsibility as conscious, deliberate, logical creatures to “take back the controls” from our hidden brain, and tackle damaging prejudices through direct conversation.

PUZZLING EVIDENCE

In Riley’s article “What’s wrong with evidence?”, she unpacks the origin and long-term effects of “evidence-based practice” in STEM education. The author begins by describing how the idea of “evidence” is problematic, specifically in engineering education. Riley first presents the semantic difficulty of separating evidence from opinions or beliefs, and questions the qualifications of those making these distinctions.

Riley argues the practicality of standardized education, and questions whether evidence-based education is truly learner-centered. Perhaps too often the curricula are designed around the desired outcomes in the classroom, and lose focus of useful and necessary skills. The author warns that such programs as “No Child Left Behind” are dangerous, and limit knowledge collaboration and production overall.  I also believe she wrote this with a thesaurus in her lap; her vocabulary is absurd.

Our friendly neighborhood TA, Homero, encouraged me to share my experiences with this topic. I cannot speak for engineering-related disciplines, as my focus is in Entomology.  However, for the duration of my collegiate career, it felt as though achieving the perfect “bell curve” was a much higher priority then our learning process. For example, I can’t remember a single compound structure from organic chemistry, and routinely received 70’s on my exams, but still left the class with an “A”. The professor would graph out the test average on the blackboard after each exam, and show us how he manipulated the grades to achieve the bell shape. In the end, he received good ratings for having a tidy class average, and I received the grade I desired, but did either of us truly benefit from the experience? I would argue the whole ordeal was a waste of time and money.

I feel that focusing strictly on the outcomes of the educational experience undercuts the importance of the student’s journey.  Discussion, communication and creative thinking aren’t encouraged… tenants that are the very backbone of scientific advancement. Like many, I don’t have any easy solutions to this issue. Facilitating such an environment is particularly hard in a larger classroom setting.  However, I feel present day higher education can’t see the forest for the trees.  Results and statistics are too highly valued, and the student’s experience as a whole is easily overlooked.