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?

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.

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

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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 🙂

Journal Club- Icy surfaces and large socks

This week, I am starting what I hope will remain a monthly journal club post on this blog. Since the aim of running this blog is to get some science communication experience, I think a journal club is a great way to get some feedback on my scientific writing for a broad audience. I’ll try and pick out a paper every month that I think is fun or exciting in one way or another. It’s very likely that this will result in a main focus on biology, but if there is a topic or a publication you’d like to see me cover, I am very open to suggestions!


For my first journal club, I am breaking out of the biology mould and going for a paper entitled “Preventing winter falls: a randomised control trial of a novel intervention” (found here on pages 31-38). I have picked this paper because it will be a fun start to my journal club, and also because it has come out of the lovely University of Otago, where I studied for four years. The authors were awarded an IgNobel prize in 2009 for their work, IgNobels are awarded yearly at a ceremony at Harvard University to “honor achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think.” I encourage you to look into previous winners and watch the ceremony on YouTube (unless you are lucky enough to score a ticket to the live event) come October. The results of this paper may also come in useful for those of my readers who reside in the colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere at the moment.

The authors of this study wanted to test the hypothesis (championed by many Dunedin residents) that wearing socks over the outside of your shoes could help you avoid becoming a victim of icy walking surfaces in winter time. The study was approached using epidemiological methods, in a similar manner to which you would approach a drug trial or other medical intervention. So, the authors randomly assigned participants to either a control (shoes) or intervention (socks over shoes) groups.

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.19.47 pmAn image from the study demonstrating correct use of socks over shoes on icy days.

Then, they assessed the outcome of the trial in various ways as the participant made their way down the icy slope of the study site. There were self-assessments of slipperiness by the participants, and also by the authors. The authors also assessed each participant for confidence of walking downhill and controlled for intervention-induced recklessness by timing each participant’s journey between predetermined landmarks. Selecting appropriate measurements and controlling for confounding factors is important in any study, and I think these authors designed their study fairly well. However, a sample size of only 30 (total) seems a bit lacking to me and could be addressed in future socks-over-shoes assessments.

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The final results (summarised in the above table) of the study indicate that wearing socks over one’s shoes does seem to reduce self-reported and independently observed slipperiness as well as reducing the time to get down the slope. However, a few participants expressed concerns over whether or not this intervention was conscious of fashion norms, this was mentioned by the authors, but no serious alternatives were suggested or considered (though I don’t have other, more fashionable suggestions either). Further research directions were suggested by the authors- ““Research questions for the future include “does wool perform better than synthetic?” and “which socks perform best in a cost-effectiveness analysis?””


I welcome any feedback on writing style and journal club topics, and I hope that these posts result in lively and/or amusing discussions on the research discussed!

On Failure

I realise I haven’t done an introduction blog post, but I’m planning on just introducing myself and my story as we go! But if you’d like an intro post to get to know me a bit better, just let me know J

This post will be about my perspective on the struggles of academia and accepting failure, which I hope this is helpful to anyone struggling with similar situations.

Last year, I was doing a PhD, but a few months ago various things lead to my decision to quit. This blog isn’t an appropriate medium for discussing the details of this part of the story, but it was a tough decision for me, and those few months were rather stressful. What follows is a retrospective look at how to deal with such problems

Throughout my whole PhD, I struggled to come to terms with Imposter Syndrome, which seems to badger so many in this line of work. I believe that this feeling of inadequacy and not being good enough or smart enough for what you are doing comes from the background of most PhD students and academics. Those of us that choose this intellectually challenging career path tend to come from a background where we have usually been top of the class, with many people complimenting us on being so “brainy”. Often this becomes our biggest point of pride and, for me, was a huge part of my identity. I loved (and still do) being smart and being able to figure out different challenges! Rather suddenly, you transition from being in the top portion of your academic peers, to being mostly surrounded by those on par, or even smarter than you (or just further along their career path). I think the best way to combat these feelings of inadequacy is to first realise the difference in your environment and who your peers are. Something else that helped me gain a better perspective was to find friends outside of academia, it makes you realise that other people struggle with similar feelings and that this is all just a normal part of finding your feet in the real world. I have some great friends that gave me great advice, and they had no experience with academic career paths and pressures. Overall, I’d say this variety in your circle of friends isn’t just important for your mental health, I think its just important to stretch your legs outside of the ‘Ivory Tower’ for a bit.

Leading on from this, quitting my PhD brought a lot of these feelings to the surface for a while and it was very difficult to not feel like a failure. It took a while, but I came to realise that my year was not a failure and not a waste of time. I realised that a PhD isn’t just an individual effort, and if anybody tries to lay the blame at one person’s feet, they don’t entirely understand how science is almost always a team effort. From my perspective, everyone in the scientific team (whether that be for a PhD or a collaboration on a paper) should know where they stand with the others and expectations should be clear. If someone is lacking in one area, give them a gentle heads up before things get drastically bad. Constructive feedback can be very difficult to give and receive, but it’s vital to any team being successful. If you feel like communication is lacking, don’t be afraid to speak up, it can be terrifying, but this goes back to the feedback and constructive criticism. Those overseeing your education and research may still be learning themselves, so it’s important to bear this in mind. But if it does come down to it that quitting is the best option, don’t you dare think you’ve failed! For me, I see it as a learning opportunity. I’ve learnt how to best tackle a PhD, and I’ve picked up so many great lab and research skills. Overall, I’m ready to tackle PhD attempt two, and I’m sure this one will end not with quitting, but with a new title before my name!

Lastly, if any of this has in any way brought forth thoughts that you would like to discuss, please reach out to your support network. Or if you’d like a different perspective, I will do my best to reply to any correspondence that comes my way.

Inspiration

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!