This is Gonna Cost More than Tuppence a Bag..

Several years ago I wrote a review for Neena Schwartz’s A Lab of My Own in which I praised her book as a valuable read for any budding scientist and an important chronicling of the advancement of women in science. At least, that’s the gist of my public review. Privately to my friends and colleagues, I lamented that it is one of the greatest books I’ve ever read that I almost didn’t finish because I was so bored by the first chapter’s detailed accounts of her love of bird watching.  How could someone possibly be so obsessed with birdwatching?  As it turns out, I owe Dr. Schwartz a profound apology.

I recently have become a crazy bird lady.

When I first looked at my new place in new MRU town I noticed that the woman who was living here had several bird feeders on the outside deck. When I went outside, a flock of birds fled from the deck en masse. I thought it might be cool to get a bird feeder or bird nest or some other such bird bullshittery for the kids to look at. I mentioned this to a friend who later brought me a single bag of bird seed as a housewarming gift. This friend has doomed me to my current fate, which I cannot easily forgive him for.

Given that at my core I am a bitch on a budget, it pained me to see the bag of bird seed sitting idle on my kitchen counter. Also, the day after I received the seed a bird starting banging into the window every day and I was convinced he was organizing an assault to try to capture the bag of seed.  I took Tiny Diva to a local establishment and we purchased a bird feeder. We filled the little feeder with what I have now discovered is basically ditch seed to those in the birding community. On the first day two birds came. On the second day, five or six birds came. On the third day, I saw 10 throughout the day. On the fourth day, the feeder was empty.

My children were interested in the bird feeder for about three days. I, however, have developed an obsession.

Tiny Diva and I went back to the market and bought a bag of slightly higher end bird seed. The next day, the feeder was covered in birds all day long. They emptied the feeder in about 36 hours.  I’ve kept the feeder filled since the arrival of my original bird seed gift about a month ago and the birds keep emptying it. I have become increasingly obsessed with watching them eat and fight each other for prime feeding position. Some of these birds are hilariously rude.

The birds! The birds!

A photo posted by @isisthescientist on

I’ve also found myself researching bird feeding in the middle of the night and trying different things in the feeder – sunflower seed blends, peanuts, and fruit based feeds. Organic, gluten free, and songbird feeds.  I’ve read the online debates on shelled versus no-mess blends.  I have yet to come down on a side, but I now know the importance of added grit and calcium in your feeder. I am considering adding a suet feeder in order to attract more woodpeckers, jays and cardinals on the deck. I’ve considered starting to raise meal worms and on Sunday when a friend told me that her sister-in-law had a heated bird bath, I damned near lost my shit.

However, my new bird obsession has also left me frequently fraught with anxiety. Initially, I was concerned that my more expensive bird seed purchases were going to cut into the family budget for staples like electricity. I thought about cutting back on the frequency with which I fill the feeder, but it has started to get cold here. Late one night, past a polite hour of the evening, I found myself calling on the original feed gifter  in a panic. I had committed to feeding these little bastards. What if they failed to migrate because I give good seed and then I stop feeding them and they starve and died? I could be responsible for an ecological disaster in my neighborhood. I’m a physiologist. Not a bird-knower-abouter. What had I done? He suggested that I switch to half ditch seed/half high end feed in order to keep my costs reasonable, but I felt guilty. I realized that sacrifices may have to be made.  We have a gas fireplace to cook over and stay warm by. Electricity is a luxury item when the birds gotta eat.

Then this weekend I noticed a new disturbing trend. The adorable little titmice that visit my feeder had gone from being delightful little titnuggets to big, bloated bird balls. I again called my friend, with more than a smidge of anxiety, and wondered aloud if I had doomed the titmice to extinction. It seems like they are having a little more trouble getting off the deck railing in their currently obese state and I was worried that they would be more easier for predators to snatch.  He suggested that I get a fucking grip. Also…

That basically tells me that I am going to need another feeder.

Sometimes a Shirt is More Than Just a Shirt..

I’m still watching with interest (and a little bit of indignation) the reactions to the shirt that an ESA mission scientist chose to wear to a live streamed press conference of their probe’s comet landing. There has been a swarm of response to the claim that the shirt was inappropriate, much of it hostile and some of it violent. There’s one particular response that has stuck in my lady scientist craw though – the idea that if a shirt with half-naked ladies is enough to keep women out of science, then maybe these delicate flowers should look for other careers.


If it were truly one shirt – one isolated incident in women’s decades long careers – I could see their point. A woman leaving science over one shirt might earn her the fragile flower label. But, it’s never just one shirt. I was reminded of this during my travels last weekend to the American Heart Association conference, where scientists and clinicians present their data related to the treatment of heart disease and stroke.

I went to hear talks about heart failure and pulmonary hypertension. Not to come as any shock, only 20% of the day’s speakers were women. One of the most common drugs used to treat pulmonary hypertension is the vasodilator sildenafil, which is marketed as Viagra for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. It is also marketed as Revatio for the treatment of pulmonary hypertension. Even though the dose to treat lung disease is much lower (5 mg) than to treat erectile dysfunction (50-100 mg) and not high enough to impact erectile function, we were still reminded during the talks that this is the drug that is used to give men boners. One speaker included a slide with a picture of a statue with an enormous, life-like erection and gave no explanation for his decision to show it. Just data, data, huge bronzed penis, data. The day’s final speaker ended his talk with the following cartoon about being neutered, again with no context and seemingly unrelated to his talk about congenital heart disease in children.

neutered dog

So, the issue isn’t that it’s one shirt. It’s that as a woman scientist, I see the equivalent of that shirt numerous times a day.  I would like to go even a single day without having to hear about some guy’s cock or balls or how frequently he thinks about fucking or who he wants to fuck or anything related to reproduction. And, Lord, if it were only one guy, but it’s not…

When I was a graduate student, one of my colleagues had pictures of mostly nude pinup girls over his desk. When I was a postdoc, I had to convince a group of scientists I was traveling with that having our social dinner at a restaurant with strippers might not be appropriate.

I may have stuck it out, but I don’t blame women who feel that all of the sex references make them feel too uncomfortable to interact with these men. The problem then rears its ugly head when, because you’ve avoided these men for all of their talk about their johnsons and where they’d like to stick them, that you start missing opportunities.

The worst part about this behavior is that it’s so easily forgiven as an inherent character trait. Scientists are quirky and lack social skills and common sense. Still, I’ve never seen a woman make a lewd reference while giving a professional talk.

No, it’s not that men scientists are inherently idiosyncratic and can’t be expected to act professionally for eight hours of their day, it’s that science operates with a power structure in which men are rarely taken to task for their tasteless behavior.


Thursday Hilariousness…

I got an email (several emails) recently from our provost’s office asking me to fill out the NSF’s Early Career Doctorates Survey. After enough harassment careful reminding, I am finally sitting down to do it. There are a lot of questions about my current position but one pair in particular made me giggle in a hilarious/not-so-hilarious sort of way..

Question A: Would you consider this position a postdoctoral appointment? (No.)
Question B: Would your organization consider this a postdoctoral appointment (No?)

Makes me curious about the intent of these questions. Is the NSF thinking there might be some disconnect between the individual and the institution about the expectations of permanency ?

data slap

Dads Get a Nap, Mom Keeps Working

I was watching YouTube this morning and saw a commercial that seriously chapped my ass. I’ll let you figure out why…

Dad gets to go to bed. Mom better power through her day…

Tapatio is the Best Hot Sauce. Also, ASBMB Needs to Checkity Check Itself…

I have so many things to tell you, fair readers. So many things. Let’s begin with the most pressing…

Several months ago I wrote a blog post about the morality of asking young, under-represented scientists to forgo glamour publications for open access publications and how it may not be ethical to ask the people who already struggle for a place in science to further disadvantage themselves in the current job market. I was contacted after by the editor of the newsletter of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB Today) to write a broader piece on the topic, I agreed but I was then offered my new job and it got lost in the scuffle.

Today I am thankful that serendipity prevented me from publishing there.  Writing something about diversity for them would have been akin to trying to hide the elephant in the room. The elephant is that the leadership has a serious, serious problem when it comes to taking diversity seriously.

In September, the president of ASBMB, Steven McKnight, wrote an article for ASBMB today lamenting the riff-rffication of academic science. Apparently the caliber of scientist, especially on study section,  just isn’t what it used to be. Many young scientists, especially those currently struggling to keep the lab lights on in the face of a dismal funding climate, took offense.

In this month’s edition, McKnight doubled down on his comments (h/t to Drugmonkey who has a great, but slightly different post about the topic). Drawing a parallel between academic science and professional sports, McKnight writes (emphasis mine)..

No politics dictate which football player makes it to the NFL. It is the best of the best who make the cut for one simple reason. If an organization does not know how to choose and develop the very best football players, the team will lose most of their games, the fans will not fill their stadium, television will not care to broadcast their games and the organization will fail. Historically, the same could be said for professional science. Universities, medical centers and top-flight biotechnology companies do their utmost to recruit and mentor the cream of the crop of our scientific workforce.

Honestly, I’d like to be indignant for you all, but this mostly just breaks my heart. Allow me to explain by recounting an experience I had recently that I think will provide the appropriate context for my sadness..

I recently had the profound pleasure of attending a dinner given in honor of a senior male scientist I greatly admire. I ended up seated next to another senior male scientist I greatly admire and we had a terrific conversation. Still, one thing struck me about this and every other one of these types of dinners. Aside from a woman who joined me from my department, I met no other female faculty at this dinner. Not one.  Plenty of wives. No faculty. Earlier in the day, we had commented in the symposium associated with the dinner that we were the only non-administrator women in the room. There were two scientists of color.

Then last week I had a meeting with the king of our faculty to discuss my research program and noticed that I had to end our meeting. He asked where I was headed and I said that I had had dinner with my senior male colleague, but that I had also befriended his wife and we had a lunch date. In perhaps a moment of too-much-honesty I lamented to him that I find these sorts of dinners very difficult. Socially, men and women still tend to dissociate into distinct groups and I always seem to find myself talking to people’s wives. I meet amazing women that way, but I also need to be more aware of how often this happens to me because I don’t want to miss opportunities to connect to my colleagues.  I then commented, “There really aren’t very many people like me in science.” He replied, “I know, Isis. That’s why I hired you.”

So, as I look around these types of events, feeling like the magical rainbow unicorn in the room and realizing I see no faculty women or people of color, I wonder how Dr. McKnight can double down on his comments that historically science has been a meritocracy.  If this is indeed the case, then the following postulate seems undeniably  intuitive..

1) Historically, universities have recruited the cream of the crop
2) Historically, minorities and women have been dramatically underrepresented in faculty positions


3) Minorities and women are not the cream of the crop.

It’s hurtful to hear the president of a major academic society tell you that you don’t belong in science. I know for certain that I definitely don’t belong in his society.

Also, Tapatio is a superior hot sauce to Sriracha. Discuss.