Reason #140 Why Sexist Bullshit in Academia is Not Okay

A couple of days ago I got an email from a postdoc at another Major Research University lamenting the poor behavior of the faculty in her department and wondering how to “reform academia” and fix our broken system. I wanted to reassure her that the system isn’t broken everywhere and that some of us really are interested in mentoring students and creating positive but rigorous professional environments. I wanted to tell her that I didn’t think that academia was broken, per se. Like any industry or government organization, there are parts where politics and other fuckedupedness prevail, but I have experienced some very supportive environments in my training. Not that everything has been perfect, but they’ve been good and have allowed me to be reasonably successful.

I get myself feeling all warm and fuzzy and hopeful again…just in time to be reminded of how many dudes are taking regular dumps in the sandbox. Damn it.

cereal eatingPier Giorgio Righetti is Professor of Chemistry at Politecnico Di Milano. For the last several years he’s been publishing frivolous papers in the Journal of Proteomics examining the proteomes of assorted random fluids. I’ll admit I thought we moved on from fishing for proteomes in random stuff in 2008, but apparently this guy is still really into it. Each of his papers is accompanied by a graphical abstract. Some of them are pretty innocuous. Consider this one from a paper investigating the proteome of champagne:

Graphical Abstract 1I suspect they are an attempt by the authors at being cheeky. But, of course, there is a not-so-fine line between cheeky and innocuous and damned offensive and this dude hopscotches back and forth over it like whoa…

Graphical Abstract 2From here.

Graphical Abstract 3From here.

Graphical Abstract 4From here.

One of the tweeps called bullshit upon him and this was his response…

righetti response

…amounting essentially to “Why can’t you ladies take a joke?” Center square on the bingo card, my friends. Center square.

Why is this a problem? Because Professor Righetti is continuing to publish his hilarious graphical abstracts (see this month’s issue)  and I suspect it is but a matter of time before we get more titties. He is also on the editorial board of several journals (Electrophoresis, J. Chromatography, J. Capillary Electrophoresis, BioTechniques, Proteomics, Journal of Proteomics, and Proteomics Clinical Applications, according to his faculty page), including the journal with his hilarious graphical abstracts. He’s essentially using his leadership to be a huge creeper.  Worse, the leadership of the journal is letting it happen. It is impossible to consider submitting a paper to that journal without thinking that the associate editor (and perhaps his affiliates) see me as nothing more than a holder of coconuts. Nothing more than an object.

Once upon a time, when I was but a wee trainee scientist, a more senior man in my field called me “sexy” during a professional interaction. He told me how great it is that I am young and smart and beautiful. It shocked me. “Sexy” really is the equivalent of “I have considered putting my penis inside of you” and I have never, ever been able to shake the knowledge of that. Even though it’s been years, I think of it every time I am in a meeting with him. I’ve never sat at a table with him since and not thought “I wonder if he’s thinking about me.”  Am I going to be spank material after we part ways? It disgusts me, although I have at least been able to stifle the disgust enough to participate in these meetings. I won’t ever, ever forget it though.

The editors of this journal have essentially done the same thing, allowing Professor Righetti to remind us ladies that we are a place to rest his old man member. I hate that I have to council women trainees about the men at meetings that are known more for playing grab ass than doing good science. I hate that I now have to point to the list of journals that are not only biased toward women, but openly treat them like sexual objects.

I would sincerely hope that the journal’s editor Juan Calvete would consider the message that these articles are sending to his hermanas in ciencia (incuyendo la Dra Isis) and retract the images.  Leave the science if it, indeed, be good science. But, there is no need for the sexualized images in any publication.

It’s not cheeky or funny. It’s an offensive reminder of just how little women are valued by many of their male counterparts.

man-boobs(For my next paper submission, from here)

Dr. Isis Does A New MRU…

It’s been a busy couple of months, my darling muppets. I’ve been traveling hither and yonder (are those even real words?), trying to see if I could find myself a new job. The Isis children have also been away for the last week, having traveled to the Great American Southwest to visit their grandparents while Mr. Isis attends spring training and writes about baseball.

I think the Isis children are as ready to come home as I am ready to have them back here. Last night Tiny Diva sent me this picture. I suspect she is not amused at having been dressed like Jane Fonda.

Tina Diva Fonda

The other major event this week is that I accepted a faculty position at another Major Research University.  I’ve wanted to tell you all about the process as it was happening, but given the crepe paper-thinness of my pseud and the number of people in the physiology community that follow me, it seemed best to just keep my damned mouth shut.

mouth shut

Now that all is said and done, I can tell you some things about how it all went down.

I’ll admit that I was nervous to send my CV around. I have been pretty successful at my current MRU. I have a soft money faculty position in the medical school and I was promoted this year, but I was still worried that my application would end up in everyone’s trash can. If you follow the science blogosphere, hard money jobs seem few and far between and I had some real imposter-y feelings about how my application would be viewed.

As it turned out, I was asked to interview at all but one university. Interviewing was really, really fun, which I owe largely to the phenomenal advice I got going in. I was told to see the process as an opportunity to meet people and build my network of collaborators and peers. To learn about new techniques and ideas and to think about how I would develop in the context of the program.  I was also cautioned not to focus too heavily on what I had done, but on where I was going. Interviewing ended up being really hilarious. I learned quickly that the people I was meeting were much more focused on trying to get me there than trying to figure out if I was qualified.

I liked every person I met at every program I interacted with. Everyone was doing incredible work and meeting people was like being in a candy store.  I left the interview process with a notebook full of ideas and enough work to keep me busy for decades. That made the decision both easy and difficult. I wanted to go everywhere and probably would have done well at any of the places.  So, I thought about factors beyond the people. How much teaching would I have to do? How does the program interact with the medical school? What kind of lab could I have? Where would my family be happiest living? Could I still ride my bike to work? And then I chose the program that felt the best, negotiated a smidge, and boom went the dynamite.

Still, I didn’t think any of it was that stressful. That could be for one of two reasons – 1) It really isn’t that stressful or 2) I am an oblivious dumbass and in five years I am going to look back and think “What have I done??!?!”  I am hoping it’s the former.


Now I have to pack up my stuff and move. Fuck.


Helicopter Views From the Job Market…

I wrote a couple of months ago that I was going to send my CV around see if anyone was hiring. I’ve been riding the soft money train for a while and it’s not easy to ponder supporting 100% of your own salary while also being expected to contribute to teaching and training, etc. Where I am, PhDs are almost exclusively soft money. I have felt like my research and career are not on the path I’d hoped to see it on, but I am hopeful that I will have some good news to share very soon.

I was also motivated to do a search this year by some shenanigans that I have seen go on around me. A very dear friend of mine has been soft money faculty for decades. She has a full professor appointment at her institution and is very well-respected. But, she recently hit a rough patch for funding. She was given a smidge of bridge funding while she continued to submit grants. These grant submissions went in during the sequester when everything was, well, bananas. If she can’t find funding, she’ll be forced to close her lab next year and has lamented to me that she didn’t realize how important tenure was until she needed it and had relied too much on the feeling that people would take care of her.

The departments that I have sent my CV to have a relatively low number of tenure track women faculty, ranging from 5-17%. This is fairly common in my field. What has given me pause, however, is the disproportionately high number of women that are appointed as “research assistant professors”. This is code for “soft money” and these positions rarely come with an appointment to the graduate faculty or with the possibility for tenure review.  By disproportionally high, I mean that I have only seen women with these titles. I have not seen male research assistant professors and I have noticed a correlation between the low number of women tenure track faculty in a department and the high number of women research assistant professors.

While my observations certainly don’t amount to a scientific survey of physiology departments, it’s enough to raise my currently well-sculpted eyebrows. Are these internal women who are choosing to stay after they finish training because they have grant support and need PI status? Why can’t they move away? Are they in a dual career situation or have families that are not transportable?

More importantly, why does there seem to be an inverse relationship between tenure track and soft money women faculty? Is this a sign that a department may be unfriendly to women? Are they purposefully funneling women into soft money positions while simultaneously biasing job searches toward men?

And are these women more likely to leak out of the pipeline because they are in soft money positions? Are we doing to pipeline a huge disservice? I am suspicious of all of this..

skeptical hermoine


Changes in the Old Neighborhood

I try not to think a lot about the neighborhood I grew up in. Mostly, it just makes me feel sad. It makes me feel sadder now that my brother is living with me and I am reminded of the habits and colloquialisms that I have tried to shake.  I can remember being in high school and being told about the promise that all of us had. We’d be doctors and lawyers and entrepreneurs. Many of those people fell into the ways of the barrio. Started, but didn’t finish college. Had children right out of high school. I came very, very close and that may be part of what makes it hard to think about.

But, there was a boy a year ahead of me in high school that I absolutely idolized.  Where we were, the geeks, misfits, and jocks ran in the same circle. This boy and I were on the same sports team and speech and debate teams. He made everything he did look effortless and he succeeded at everything. I tried to emulate him in so many ways, but I could never make it look effortless. He was the type that made you want to be a better athlete and student and I always thought that he would run the world.  He was kind to everyone. I was never quite as fast or as witty or as smart, but he’d offer me little tidbits of advice. I relished every single one. I’d watch him compete in our shared sport and dream of being as fast as he was. I’d watch him speak in public and I would try so hard to copy his every gesture and incorporate his inflections into my own speech.  He went to the ivy-est of the Ivy League schools, finished professional school, and moved to a posher Los Angeles neighborhood. There was a sense among us all that he lived in a different plane that none of us mere mortals would ever reach. Unlike so many of us, he had achieved an escape velocity and there didn’t seem to be anything that would ever hold him.

This morning I learned that he died on Friday and, despite his best efforts and brilliance, he has been returned to the barrio. I am shocked that the boy who seemed unstoppable is gone. I don’t know what happened to him, but I don’t think that I want to know. There is nothing that can happen to someone at 35 years old to end their life that isn’t a damned tragedy.

I don’t understand how the person who was the most promising of us all is gone. I find myself shocked and speechless and feeling like fate is a twisted beast. I don’t understand any of it.


Things I Am Thinking About…

1) I think that peer review really sucks for people who are either not from the United States or who submit a paper with a preponderance of non-Anglo sounding names. Of course, I state this only with my own first hand correlations between the absolute shittiness of some peer-reviews I’ve seen and the fact that they have never been given to people with white sounding names.

2) I think that the multi-PI mechanism at the NIH may be a damned scam to convince junior people after 5 years of graduate school, 5 years of postdocing, and 2-3 years of riding the soft money train that they STILL aren’t ready for an R01 without the support of someone “more senior” to mentor them or be present on their grants.  I think that, in some cases, senior folks are fear mongering the junior folks to stake out the piece of the pie they think they lost to the “ESI advantage”, whatever that means.