Debate, academia and privilege

So, over the weekend, I was involved in a  debate surrounding open access publishing, about which people can feel very stongly. I won’t be talking much about the arguments of this debate, but about privilege, and silencing of younger, less privileged scientists and people. Now, one thing I will say, no matter who you are, or which side of any debate you are on, there are things that are unacceptable. Namely, ad hominen attacks, including telling someone the world would be better off without them. But what is also not ok is telling people (especially those who are junior to you) to shut up and fuck off cause they don’t agree with you. And that is what I feel happened to me.

This is, of course, all from my point of view, and feel free to call me out on any of my perceptions.

I came accross a tweet from someone (lets call him Bob) who claims they are not anti-open access, but who has reservations about the system. This is completely fair. However, I did not agree with the example in the tweet, so I quoted the tweet explaining why I thought it was an incorrect example. Later, I replied to another tweet, with Bob’s handle at the end. Both of these actions allowed the tweets, and my response to be visible to my followers. My reasoning behind this is that I think this is a good, and worthy debate to be having and thought that the points represented were at least worth thinking about for me, my followers, and Bob. Now, as I understand it, someone else (lets call him Sam) (who has thousands of followers, compared to my hundreds, and who is a huge advocate of the open access movement) had also quoted a tweet from Bob. What followed was pretty unacceptable, but it was likely what Sam intended. Bob was attacked by Sam’s followers, including being told the world would be better off without him. THIS IS NOT OK. I had not seen this until later when Bob pointed out that nobody had spoken against that. I think here, the responsibility lay with Sam to tell his followers to respond reasonably and not viscously, and anyone else who came accross that tweet should have spoken up, but did not.

So, based on his experiences with Sam, Bob was rather angry with me for broadcasting his tweets to my followers and refused to engage in debate with me. Keep in mind I was unaware of the previous attacks on Bob, and also completely uninvolved. Some may argue that quoting Bob’s tweets and making them visible to my followers is for the sole intent of my followers attacking Bob. This is untrue, and indeed is not what happened. I am a graduate student, an ‘underling’ if you will, and my honest intent was to spark conversation and debate. Bob told me to stop broadcasting his tweets to my followers and when I asked why he refused to engage with me any further. As a result, I felt silenced by this person. Is he threatened by opinions contrary to his, even from a mere grad student?

I looked further at Bob’s timeline, and he engages in this sort of behaviour with anyone who disagrees with him, even if the tweets are more ‘private’ conversations. Why tweet controversial opinions if you don’t intend to actually debate the issue? Why this constant defensiveness? I can’t even point out the privilege in many of Bob’s tweets for fear of further silencing by him. How do you have a conversation with someone so unwilling to listen? This sort of behaviour makes many feel unwelcome in academia, because what is academia and science without debate and solidly supported arguments?


New Beginings!

It’s been a while since I wrote a post, but everything suddenly got very busy after I (finally) accepted a PhD position!

I officially started my new project two weeks ago, but I did some reading in advance. I’m now based at the Limnology department of one of Austria’s universities which is actually in a small town a fair distance away from the actual uni. The department is right by a beautiful lake and I can get out in the outdoors very easily, hiking and swimming and summer, and hopefully I can go snowboarding in winter! My new lab is rather small, but really wonderful. We all work on different parts of the same project, which is sort of new for me, but so far it’s great.

The view from work.

My PhD plan is yet to be outline in detail, but I know what I need to do in the next few months. There is a conference at the end of August that I will be attending (so soon!), and my supervisor even encouraged me to submit an abstract for a poster, so I have been, and will continue to work pretty hard in the lab until the conference, and even afterwards in the hope of submitting a small paper to the conference proceedings. All very ambitious plans, but the lab work is fairly straight-forward, I am currently optimising a karyotyping protocol, and hopefull that gets ironed out soon. I have some nice stainings so far, but it’s still proving difficult to actually count the chromosmes.

Taken with my phone down the microscope, this is the nicest DAPI staining I’ve had.

I do apologise for the unorganised post, but I just thought I’d get back into writing again!

Let me know if you have any suggestions for how to improve my karyotyping protocol!

Valuing people

For the past 6 months or so, I’ve been searching for PhD opportunities and funding. This search can be disheartening and frustrating at the best of times, but sometimes, you read or experience things that make you really angry or frustrated. The worst of these infuriating occurances make me reconsider even sticking around long enough in academia for a PhD, let alone any further plans. Most of these events make me question my worth and how much others value me and my time; they range from neglecting to send out any notification of the application or interview outcome, to the most recent PhD advert I read (which has ultimately lead to this ranting blog post).

The basics of the advert were this: Cool, interesting PhD topic with the chance to develop my own project along the direction of the lab; competitive scholarship to cover full fees of any student of any nationality. But, that’s just it, the ad explicitly stated that the student must fund their living costs separately. There is no mention of other scholarships that may help, and an explicit statement that even part-time employment is not advised during a PhD. What I take from this, is that candidates are expected to be able to find 3+ years of living costs to support themselves without any assistance or indication where they may find help to find these funds from the PI/head of the lab.

To me, this advert sends two signals:

1) To get into science (remember, a PhD is just the start of a scientific career) one must have an incredible amount of money so that you can spend three unemployable years not earning anything but still somehow put food on the table and a roof over your (and maybe even your family’s) head.


2) PhD students are not valuable. They are not seen or treated as any other person is. Even without a university degree and really great grades, you can get a paying job, that (in most Western countries) will easily cover food, housing, medical expenses, and probably even a leasure activity or two. The fact that you are refusing this to a PhD student is essentially slavery.

I will not sugar-coat this: I AM a valuable person, I DO deserve a livable wage. No, I do not neccisarily expect this wage to come from the same funds as those that cover my fees, but at least take an interest in presenting me with some options. Had this advert had suggestions for where I might find a separate living-fees scholarship, I would have understood that you do value me and my time, but clearly, in this case, I am either expected to be rich or to starve.

I hope this does not come accross as entitled or concieted, but it is really frustrating and infuriating to constantly come up against a system that does not seem to value people. Without people, there is no science, and we need to start treating scientists better if we expect more enthusiastic minds to keep wanting to come through the ranks.

Note: I have not, and will not post any part of the advert that I saw. I am not interested in targetting anyone in particular. I just wish to bring to light an attitude that I keep coming up against in academia that I feel needs to be changed.

Writing and doubt

So, I haven’t posted in two weeks. Partly because I’ve been busy with work and with the Great PhD Search, but also because I’m not sure what to write about.

The point of this blog is for me to practise my writing and hopefully contribute to some science communication, but sometimes I wonder if I really am adding anything useful or original to the discussions. It could just be that I’ve been struggling a bit with the PhD search (I’ve been very actively searching since July) and that is getting me down, but starting a blog has also been a challenge for me.

If anyone has any tips for regular blogging and keeping the ideas running, feel free to send them my way!

Backyard Science

This week’s post is about the ubiquity of science, it really is all around us! You don’t need to be in a lab to be investigating how the world/universe works. Even your back yard can be a great place to introduce people to scientific enthusiasm!

Inspiration for this post cam last week when I was wandering round outside at home and happened to look in a water-filled barrel. The water was full of little invertebrate larvae, which I assumed were sandflies. A quick google search revealed that I was indeed correct and I even took some inside so I could see if they would metamorphose. Unfortunately, I think I had too many in a small container and they didn’t look too happy by morning. But the great thing is that it prompted me to look into the development and life history of these annoying little beasts. I learned a few interesting facts about the creatures I hate so much (just thinking about them makes me itch) from Te Ara – The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand.

Here are some photos I took of the larvae I found.



And another showing the very classic allergic reaction I get when bitten. Maybe I should do a post about allergic reactions soon?


I hope this post has inspired you to hunt out some science in your back yard to involve your family and friends! Feel free to add your every-day science ideas in the comments 🙂


This week, I saw someone reach out on twitter in regards to a school aged girl who wanted some advice as to how to be a marine biologist when she grew up. I got a copy of her letter and wrote a response. I thought I’d use this as a first, optimistic post for my new blog. I’ve not included more details on how I heard of her, or her name just for safety’s sake. If you know any young people interested in a career in science, I hope you can pass on a similar message 🙂

Dear [Young Science Enthusiast],

It’s great to hear that you’d like to be a marine biologist, the world needs more enthusiastic scientists like you!

I’ll tell you a bit about me, you could say I’m a bit of a marine biologist, but my degree was in genetics. Most of my scientific work has been with marine animals, so it just shows you that the path to marine biology might not always be as direct as you think it is. A lot of my work has been in developmental genetics and evolution, so I basically just find out really cool things about the biology of a few marine animals from when they are a fertilised egg till adulthood, which if you ask me, is pretty awesome! But, if genetics or developmental biology aren’t your thing, there are so many other ways to be a marine biologist!

In answer to your question though, a degree in biology or a similar field (ecology, zoology, or botany, to name a few) would really help. After this, you could work in an aquarium, a zoo, or continue with scientific research. Not all of these mean that you have to work away from home, but you probably will travel for work at some point in your career, whether that’s to a conference to share ideas with other scientists, or field work to get more information about the animals you study. But, I don’t think you need to be scared of doing some work away from home, its usually great fun and you get to experience so many different things and meet some very cool people that share the same interests as you!

Really, there are sooooooooooo many options if you want to be a marine biologist (even underwater photography or filming to show others how cool marine biology is), and I don’t know if I’ve helped you choose, but my main advice is to follow what you are passionate about, and you will find something that you enjoy. I really hope you stay curious about marine biology, and don’t let anyone discourage you from following your dreams!

I hope I helped,

Yours sincerely,

Julie Blommaert

I hope more of you are inspired by a young girls’ interest in science and I encourage all of you reading this to encourage as many young, enthusiastic minds to pursue their interests no matter what!