Bring back the dead or save the living?

No, I’m not talking about zombies.

This post considers two stories in the news last week.  The first, is a new study in Science Advances by Ripple et al. finally spotlighting what we’ve known for a while: herbivores around the world are collapsing, particularly the large charismatic ones. This is bad news not just because they’re iconic species that people love to love, but because they are major components of ecosystems and their disappearance would have widespread cascading effects.

Columbian Mammoth in the George C. Page museum, Los Angeles

The second is an interview on NPR with Dr. Beth Shapiro at UC Santa Cruz on her new book How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.  It leads with the question “If science could clone a mammoth, could it save an elephant?” Continue reading

Are we evolving science?

As a follow up to Sergey’s insightful post about the bizarre logic which accompanies the job hunt, I’ve been mulling over what drives all these dynamics. It looks to us that whatever the situation may be, at the end of the day hiring committees really only care about papers – how many you’ve got, and where they were published. Individuals circumstances really don’t seem to matter when there’s a glut of PhDs to choose from.

OK. A biologist’s perspective (the kind interested in ecology and evolution): why not follow this logic through – what happens when you take a population of scientists (say, those studying living systems) and subject them to extreme selection, all of which feedback on each other, and let the thing run for a few years? Here are some of the main selection pressures – Continue reading

Supporting Other Women in Science

Tenure, She Wrote

One of my main motivations for writing here on Tenure She Wrote is to be an active part of the community of women in science, and because of that, I have been thinking a lot lately about how we can support other women in our scientific communities. There is a lot of discussion about that sort of vertical support, via mentoring, hiring, and outreach, but what about more lateral support for our colleagues in our department, our institution, and our broader fields?

There are, of course, the big things that we talk about including paying attention to the diversity of seminar and conference speaker lists; checking (and rechecking) for unconcsious bias in reviewing job candidates and in promotion decisions. But today I want to focus on those seemingly smaller things that can really make a difference to how connected and supported people feel.

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Sense of Place

Leopold near Chihuahua, Mexico, 1938
Photo: Starker Leopold

An era ago, a student of Nature named Aldo Leopold, after many years of living alongside the great American wilderness, wrote a classic book illustrating how a sense of place can become embedded in a person’s being. Some time later, an Austrian biologist stood on the banks of the Danube river and waxed poetic about his homeland. This man was Konrad Lorenz, and among his many discoveries as one of the founders of the field of animal behavior, or ethology, was that of imprinting. Imprinting is the process by which a young animal learns who its parents are. Gazing on this river, he mused that perhaps we imprint on the landscapes we belong to. Continue reading

In Pursuit of Life, Liberty and Education

I just watched a very inspiring Daily Show.

Now that’s not a sentence once expects to come across very often (no offense, Jon), but it was an interview with Malala Yousafzai.  Malala, now sixteen, is an outspoken Pakistani activist for education as the most important tool for solving the multitude of problems facing humanity. I’ve got to hand it to her father as well for clearly being the guiding role model in her life. She was shot in the head by the Taliban last year for her efforts, but fortunately for all of us, she made it.

Malala shares this view with me, my parents, and the innumerable other immigrants who came to the United States seeking a better life for themselves and their children thinking that education would enable greater opportunities in life.  This is why now, in the midst of our government’s ridiculous shutdown, I look around at the ailing public school system of this once-great country and feel very sad.

The other day I was astonished to learn that the high school that my friends and I spent four years of our lives, receiving the FREE education that sent us on to good universities and even medical school, had slid down a hole. It was now gang territory, with police cars frequently on patrol. Some families are being forced to make a ridiculous choice – give up their homes to  move to a better public school district, or fork out  the tuition for private school. How did this happen? Continue reading

Women lead nearly half of US households, yet still lag behind in science

The role of women in the workplace is a perennial topic of discussion as we collectively aspire to the ideal of gender equality. I’d like to juxtapose two interesting trends about women in the US that seem to be much-discussed this year.  The first is a study released this week by the Pew Research Center that has been grabbing headlines with the finding that 40% of households with children under the age of 18 have women as the top earner.  These so-called “breadwinner moms” break down into two distinct categories: those who out-earn their husbands, and those who are single parents. The former (37%) are affluent, well-educated and mostly white, while the latter (67%) tend to earn less, are less likely to be college educated, and mostly non-white.

Now let those numbers stew for a moment, while you consider another set of facts.

The US National Science Foundation finds that, while women earn around 50% of the doctorates in science and engineering, they comprise only 21% and 5% of full professors in science and engineering respectively, as reported in a special section of the journal Nature earlier this year.

Let’s combine these two pictures. Continue reading

On Science Serving Society, from a DC Insider

I recently attended a talk by Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a marine biologist who was basically in charge of running NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmostpheric Administration) from 2009-2013.  One of the most highly cited ecologists since, well ever, she was part of Obama’s ‘Dream Team’ of science advisors. During those four years, NOAA went from one turbulent challenge to another including the Gulf Oil spill and multiple extreme storm events like hurricane Irene.

Her talk, under the theme of “Science Serving Society” was fascinating in terms of both content and delivery.  There was not a powerpoint in sight, instead she took us to a “field trip” to that strange foreign country known as Washington DC via a series of twelve short stories that illustrated the culture and habits of yonder parts.  I thought I’d share some little nuggets of wisdom here by way of some quotes that stuck:

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”  – Referring to the situation of concerned fishermen anxious about their livelihoods following the disastrous Deep Water Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. Point: Researchers may harbor a wealth of detailed knowledge, but applying it takes more finesse and the ability to relate to people. Continue reading

What’s the use of science?

The so-called “High Quality Research Act” proposed by representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), wants research funded by the National Science Foundation to benefit the interests of the United States by advancing “national health, prosperity, or welfare” and securing “national defense by promoting the progress of science”. It also wants science to solve problems that are actually important to society while not duplicating research that has already been funded by NSF.   It may seem at first that this proposal by the Chair of the Science, Technology and Space Committee is a noble attempt to hold scientists to high standards and make sure that valuable taxpayer dollars are spent on useful research.  So what’s all this fuss about peer review? Continue reading