Thoughts on Letters of Support…

After some experiments this afternoon I came back to my office and saw this tweet…

I figured it was worth a quick post to note my thoughts. Humility is a hell of a thing, especially if you’re a woman. We are often taught to be humble and not publicize how highly we think of ourselves. That’s the real kiss of death in science.

99.9% of the time I ask for a letter from someone, whether it’s a recommendation or letter of collaboration or whatever, I always provide a draft. I tell the person, “I would appreciate a letter of support for Project/Award X. Because I realize how busy you are, I took the opportunity of writing a draft.”

This makes sure that the person says all of the amazing things I want them to say and that they say everything I need them to say. How much effort are they devoting to the project, how will we interact, why am I their favorite red-headed scientist, etc. I have never had anyone be anything but grateful and I have never gotten a letter back that wasn’t as nice or nicer than what I originally sent. The thing about getting senior is that the more famous you are, the more letters you are asked to write. Busy people appreciate when you do some of their leg work for them. It also makes it less likely someone is going to forget to write or send your letter.

When people ask me to write a letter, especially letters of recommendation for students, I always ask them to provide at least an outline of what they want included in their letter. You just can’t expect people to remember every accomplishment of every person and leaving you letter in someone else’s hands puts you at risk of having the one important thing that makes you an outstanding candidate left out of your letter.


Make yourself relevant.

Heal the NIH, But Not By Chopping Off Its Arm

I don’t often opine about NIH funding because I am usually humbled by how much more thoughtful folks like Datahound and Drugmonkey are when they speak to these issues. But, I’ve been mulling over a recent commentary in Cell from NIH scientist Ronald Germain and I think I have managed to solidify some thoughts worth blathering into the interspace..

Go read the article for yourself if you haven’t already. It’s lengthy, so I’ll wait…

I’ll tell you where the train went off the tracks for me. Dr. Germain, despite evoking his name several times and acknowledging his substantial contributions, did not make his son a coauthor on the article. Knowing Dr. Germain’s son from the interwebz, and his very low threshold for prolific engagement about NIH and academia, I suspect his contributions were underrepresented. It’s doubtful to me that he served merely as the muse for this article and that leads to it being read with two likely unintended airs about it – paternalism and nepotism.

Indeed, many of us like to see people receive credit and take responsibility for their work, even when they’re junior. To not see the younger Germain’s name in the author line makes one wonder, why weren’t his contributions worth authorship? Is it to protect him from having his opinions bite him later? Or, is it because it is the job of only the senior investigator to fix the system? Some might argue that it is the senior investigators that broke the system to begin with and that maybe we should let the younger among us speak their minds…

We also like to believe, even though so many of us know it to be factually untrue, that anyone can make a contribution to curing disease and that it is the idea that is paramount. By not crediting his son for his ideas, the reader leaves with the sense that he is trying to fix the system for his son. This is contrary to our community’s values and makes one skeptical of the proposal, especially given its handling of smaller institutions vs state schools vs private universities.

PS: Even a state school can house a Nobel Laureate.

It’s a shame that authorship didn’t work out differently, but there is also a fundamental flaw in the proposal itself. We continue to try to slice the same sized pie among the same number of people, but using a different knife every time (although some might argue that the number of slices must actually be smaller). It doesn’t acknowledge or address the fact that universities are actively breaking the system by propping up an enormous soft money PhD workforce on the back of government grant funding. Indeed ~50% of PhDs at academic medical centers are supported by grant funding. This has created an exceptionally unstable, but highly skilled workforce that is at the mercy of ebbs and valleys in government spending. It also means that an enormous portion of spending goes to supporting people and not project.

My proposal for reform is this – stop supporting PI and trainees salaries on R01 grants. Salaries have continued to grow, but the R01 budget remains unchanged. This isn’t sustainable.  The institution should support the PI. There are currently numerous mechanisms to support trainees including local TAships and personal and institutional training grants and eliminating their support of R01s will decrease the trainee glut. If the NIH wants to grow the workforce, it can put more money into training awards, but eliminate the support from the R01.

On Leaving Los Angeles…

My mind has turned frequently to the city of my upbringing this week…

Someone comes into my office and eyes the diplomas on my walls. They used to hang inside my house where my children could see them, but I moved them when I moved to the new town. There’s not a natural place to hang them in my new home. Now other peoples’ children see them.

“Where are you from?” they ask, observing the diverse geography reflected on my wall.

“Where are you from?” has always been an uncomfortable question for me.  When you reply that you grew up in Los Angeles, or the geographically adjacent because people have no sense of Orange County vs San Bernadino vs East LA vs  The Valley, peoples’ eye light up. I cast my eyes down. They imagine a land of palm trees, blonde ponytails, bottled water and high school students that get to leave class in the middle of the day to surf. Beautiful, tanned people, long legs, wheat grass smoothies and flashy cars.  A student tells me “I’ve always wanted to spend some time in Cali” and I imagine myself rolling my eyes. No one who is from there has ever called it “Cali.”

I imagine that Los Angeles exists for some people, but it was never mine. I grew up in a different Los Angeles.


It’s the part of the city that I know but that is largely forgotten and mostly inaccessible to strangers. It’s connected, before the inhabited part of the region stops, but it’s an outsider to the rest of the urban sprawl. My Los Angeles is lip liner, dollar meals at Bakers and flannel shirts. It almost always has its electricity turned off, especially in July, and it is suspicious of everyone. My Los Angeles peaks through the blinds whenever someone walks by, and it doesn’t drive a flashy car.  But, it does know how to hide its carcacha from the title loan people. It has mountains that you knew were there, but could never see through the thickness of the air. When it’s just a little chilly and the air is damp, it smells like Chino. Except when  it’s hot and the Santa Anas blow and people feel uneasy, twitchy and vengeful. We don’t drink the water because it smells like death.  My Los Angeles is so close to where most of America’s produce is grown, but you can’t get any of it at the market. It gets sent to the other Los Angeles. You could get a full-sized bag of Chachos for $1 from the man with the helado cart or at the market across from the high school, though. Most of the people I knew then are still within 10 miles of there. You don’t really escape from that Los Angeles. It may be an empire, but its royalty have no money.

The idea of  the sun-tanned and Volt-driving part of Los Angeles feels as foreign as another planet. It’s the same city, but it’s not my home. Those aren’t my people. That city was never available to me to explore.

A friend showed me pictures of a recent trip there and I smiled because I knew of the places in the pictures, but I had never visited them myself. There was no transportation that left my isolated area.  The only question more anxiety-inducing to me than “Where are you from?” is “What should I do when I’m visiting there?” I don’t know. Try not to get jumped while you’re walking home? Get some tacos de lengua? Kick it on the front steps with your friends and drink some Boones?

Go see the Hollywood sign and stop wasting my time, son. You don’t want to know my city.

And then there’s the question of whether I want to go back there. I don’t need to go back. I’m glad to be from there, but I don’t need to spend my time there and I don’t ever need to take my kids there. The other Los Angeles? You might as well ask me if I want to go to Vermont.

Neither was ever my home.

If Hunt’s Science is Reality, I Choose the Girls Only Lab..

We are just not going to catch a break this month, my darlings.  Speaking at the World Conference of Science Journalists, in a session honoring women in science, Nobel Laureate Tim Hunt gave a talk that was more than a tad controversial. From the Buzzfeed story

Tim Hunt, who won the 2001 Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on cell duplication, was speaking at an invitation-only lunch in honor of women in science. He reportedly opened his talk by saying: “Thanks to the women journalists for making lunch.”

The 72-year-old scientist went on to say that he has a reputation as a chauvinist, and that labs should be segregated by sex. The problem with female scientists? “You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them, they cry!”

Uncool in the worst possible way, but all of this has me thinking about two things…

1) The Royal Society, of which Hunt is a fellow, quickly released a statement “distancing themselves” from Hunt’s statements, saying

Too many talented individuals do not fulfil (sic) their scientific potential because of issues such as gender and the Society is committed to helping to put this right. Sir Tim Hunt was speaking as an individual and his reported comments in no way reflect the views of the Royal Society.

Thus, I say unto them, that statement, verily, is a heap of bullshit. This is a profession of values without commitment. I mean, I think about these sorts of non-pologies a lot. The Royal Society, like the National Academy, has a diversity problem. It’s composed of 6% women and 16% minorities and it’s made only the most minor strides in the last decade, although it celebrates the increase in the election of women to 10% on its webpage.

But, I think to myself, is this the kind of organization I would want to be affiliated with? Would I be proud to be elected as a member? Yes, it’s prestigious among all the pale and male, but would I be proud to be a member of a club that claims to value inclusion and diversity while also allowing people like Tim Hunt to hold the honor of membership? What does that mean for my membership if that’s the caliber of people in my club? It’s not enough for me anymore for an organization to say that it “values diversity” and that it “vows to increase the representation of underrepresented parties”. You’ve gotta both open the door and kick out the horrible people that make underrepresented people uncomfortable. *AND*, to put the task of increasing membership in the hands of people that have such disdain for underrepresented groups via the peer review system only proves how little commitment The Royal Society actually has to increasing diversity among its membership.  If the party is being held by people like Tim Hunt, I don’t think I want an invitation.  I’ll stay at the Girls Only party.

Let me be more blunt. The Royal Society cannot speak credibly about valuing diversity if it allows Tim Hunt to remain a fellow with the ability to vote on new members when he has spoken so clearly about his “reputation for being a chauvinist.”

2) I feel the ire of my colleagues at the suggestion that they be segregated from male scientists because they simply can’t help but fall in love and have their delicate hearts broken.  I support said ire. What I do not support is the implication that this is more offensive because Hunt is, to put it in Tiny Diva-speak, “ew-y”. True, Tim Hunt has flowing, glossy, Rapunzel-esque nose hair. Of course, we ladies wouldn’t really be interested in him! Still, one woman’s nasty sneezer whiskers, is another woman’s reigns with which to ride the stallion…as it were. Surely he’s making someone’s panties moist.

Addendum: Moist is a nasty word.

Pointing out someone’s appearance creates an unfortunate bit of logic. It’s obvious that we ladies don’t need to be segregated because he is gross and there’s no way we would fall head over heels for a hairy shnoz-ed hobbit.  By extension, if he were attractive, it might be a different story. Elect Idris Elba to The Royal Society and we lady scientists might need to be cloistered.  What he said is wrong, regardless of how he looks. Shaming him for his appearance, though, suggests the sort of fault-by-appearance and body shaming that women fight against so frequently when it comes to accusations that it’s “our fault” because of how we look or how we were dressed. Or conversely, we’re too fat, or two ugly, or…



Ask Isis – “Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt!”

I was not originally asked for my opinion in response to this question in Science Careers’ advice column, which is a shame because my advice would have made Alice’s look hella dumb (Archived here –Help! My adviser won’t stop looking down my shirt! _ Science Careers).  A postdoc writes to Alice with the following problem:

I’ve just joined a new lab for my second postdoc. It’s a good lab. I’m happy with my project. I think it could really lead to some good results. My adviser is a good scientist, and he seems like a nice guy. Here’s the problem: Whenever we meet in his office, I catch him trying to look down my shirt. Not that this matters, but he’s married.

What should I do?

If you missed the response…Lord, help us all. It was a gem. Although it has since been taken down and a brief mea culpa issued by Science. Here it is…

Imagine what life would be like if there were no individuals of the opposite—or preferred—sex. It would be pretty dull, eh? Well, like it or not, the workplace is a part of life.

It’s true that, in principle, we’re all supposed to be asexual while working. But the kind of behavior you mention is common in the workplace. Once, a friend told me that he was so distracted by an attractive visiting professor that he could not concentrate on a word of her seminar. Your adviser may not even be aware of what he is doing.

The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) defines unlawful sexual harassment as “unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature.” It goes on to say that “harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted).” I’m not an attorney, but to me the behavior you’re describing doesn’t seem unlawful by this standard.

Some definitions of sexual harassment do include inappropriate looking or staring, especially when it’s repeated to the point where the workplace becomes inhospitable. Has it reached that point? I don’t mean to suggest that leering is appropriate workplace behavior—it isn’t—but it is human and up to a point, I think, forgivable. Certainly there are worse things, including the unlawful behaviors described by the EEOC. No one should ever use a position of authority to take sexual advantage of another.

As long as your adviser does not move on to other advances, I suggest you put up with it, with good humor if you can. Just make sure that he is listening to you and your ideas, taking in the results you are presenting, and taking your science seriously. His attention on your chest may be unwelcome, but you need his attention on your science and his best advice.


I will begin by reiterating something that caused a bit of a cool drizzle on Twitter a little bit ago. I do not agree with Alice’s response, but I am not surprised by it coming from a woman at her stage in her career. Women working in faculty positions is a historically recent phenomenon and the boys in the club have not been known for their best behavior. These women entered their fields when things were even worse than they are now. I have commonly encountered a “keep your head down”  and “put up with it” attitude from women of this generation (Alice is 76) and it seems to be motivated by one of two attitudes…

1) This is how it is around here and this is the shit we have to deal with in order to succeed and be accepted by these dudes. I dealt with it and you will too. Get back to work.

2) There aren’t many of us around here. If you run your mouth, you’re going to lose your job. Be grateful you’re here and get back to work.

Either way, I have heard many women of this era advocate “putting up with it” because at least it isn’t worse…(until it is).

I reject Alice’s assertion that we’re all sexual beings and this is just how men are and the quoting of harassment law is pretty shitty and victim blaming.  This is not something that all men do to all women non-discriminately, at all stages of their careers. No one’s oogling my boobs any more, and it’s not simply because I’m starting to develop what Jen Kirkman refers to as “cougar boobs.” They’re a little saggier and a little sun spotted, but they are generally still good boobs worthy of oogling. Men don’t leer at my titties like they used to because the consequences to them for doing it are greater and the consequences to me for reporting it are lower. Older men with permanent jobs harass younger women in temporary training positions because the risk of serious consequences is low. It’s not nature, it’s sleezy. These men do not respect these women as their colleagues. It most certainly *is* harassment and it likely reflects a pattern of behavior. The victim blaming in Alice’s column is disgraceful, especially given that the letter writer is a trainee. The trainee pool should never be a fuck buffet, even if the occasional person finds love in the arms of their postdoc advisor..

It’s not crazy to ask coworkers to behave like this isn’t a larger version of The Match Game.

So what does the letter writer do about it? That’s the catch-22. The relative positions of power of those involved make this a difficult situation for the leer-ee relative to the leer-er.  Dealing with harassment in the workplace is always an exercise in cost reward and no one can weigh those except the person in the situation. I have certainly put up with more than I was proud of in the interest of feeding my family.

So, what are the options? The letter writer could take Alice’s advice and “deal with it because at least it’s not ‘real’ harassment.” The risk is that he continues to harass her, he escalates his harassment, or he harasses someone else.

In my university’s sexual harassment training, reporting a harasser was always the “right” answer and allegedly the university always works to protect the accuser. So, what are the risks of confronting or reporting? That these protections don’t come and the person loses her job or position.

What I don’t recommend is operating under the assumption that there is anything that a woman can do to “change” her harasser’s behavior. These behaviors come from a place of entitlement and privilege and I don’t believe that these are ever single occurrences. Alice suggests that this person focus on whether her advisor is helping her career, but these men never see their female trainees equal to their male trainees.

In the meantime, document everything that makes you uncomfortable. I send emails to myself noting key events in my professional life so that they are independently time stamped (UPDATE: from your work email to an external one that you control) and I send letters to myself to let the post office postmark things for me. This saved me during my recent human resources debacle.

The last part is most important. Alice’s advice is that she needs this person for his professional guidance and future recommendations. Start working to make that less true. Find other mentors at your university who you can establish a track record so that if one relationship goes to shit, you have a history with other people who might advocate for you. Your future should never be in one person’s hands.