Athene Donald's Blog

Reflections on working at the physics/biology interface, being a senior woman scientist, and anything else I feel strongly about

Archive for September, 2010

Biology versus Bigotry

Posted by Athene Donald on September 30, 2010

This week’s THE  features several articles associated with women in academia, including a further review of Delusions of Gender to add to those I mentioned earlier here .  This review, unlike some of the others I mentioned previously, seems well-argued and scholarly. However, this is not where the weight of the discussion of gender is to be found this week in the THE. The leader links in to an article about research into the productivity of women in academia (across all disciplines; this isn’t specifically about women in science) and leads into advice that might be given to young women setting out on their careers.

The first sentence of the leader reads

That women fail to reach the top in numbers is not a consequence of biology but of bigotry, which all in the academy must fight.

This is a call to arms for everyone if they are to heed it! Later on we see the following statement

The unpleasant truth is that higher education, and science in particular, remains too much of an old boys’ club.

I have no idea what influence the THE has on opinion within the HE sector, but it would be nice if a few more people (men?) would wake up to what is being thrown at them in this leader, and help to move their institutions forward. It will, no doubt, continue to be a slow process.

However, what particularly struck me in the main article was the wonderful experiment that inadvertently Ben Barres carried out personally.  Having undergone a sex change experiment (female-to-male) at the age of 40 he could give a first hand account of how differently people reacted to his male sense from his apparent sister:

Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say: ‘Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.’

This really is the ideal control experiment that we so sadly usually lack when trying to counter arguments about the existence of prejudice. Barres’ thoughts on gender discrimination in the sciences were written up in an excellent article in Nature .  Contained within this was a strong plea for institutions to act to remove discrimination, which I fear must frequently have fallen on deaf ears.

To return to this week’s THE article, there are many interesting insights into why women appear to be less productive – in terms of scholarly articles- than men.  Leaving aside the time that may be lost around child bearing, which has the potential to slow productivity at a crucial point on the promotion ladder, one view put forward is that women are more likely to pursue rather broad research topics, whereas men are more likely to specialize. The evidence for this is based in sociology and linguistics rather than science in an article by Leahy et al in Social Forces in 2008. Leahy is quoted as saying

While attempting to demonstrate expertise, men specialize because they think a diversified research program indicates a failure to excel in any one area, whereas women diversify because they think it indicates scholarly breadth.

In other words, women may think that diversification will broaden their professional identity, whereas men may fear it will sully theirs.

I don’t know if it is equally true in the sciences. I do know that personally I have always valued breadth in my own research, but I have never thought of that as anything to do with either my professional identity or the benefit it might give me for progression. It is simply that that is what I enjoy: I would much prefer to know something about a lot of topics rather than everything about something narrow.

Other issues are identified in the THE article, including women’s alleged reluctance to self-promote, and a correlation between the amount of money each country invests in its pre-primary childcare system and women’s scientific output. Apparently this shows that the higher the investment in childcare, the greater the number of women’s publications.  This article focuses simply on research productivity as an indicator of the gender gap. It is thought provoking even if it doesn’t even begin to produce answers. The advice that Leahy gives

So, for at least the initial stage of their career, women should focus on constructing a succinct intellectual identity through their publications.

may not always be attractive to an individual’s research style, but it is something to consider.  Nevertheless, our systems will need to change substantially to provide that proverbial level playing field.


Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Women in Science | Tagged: , , , , , | 2 Comments »

Physics of Living Matter – More Thoughts on Interdisciplinary Working

Posted by Athene Donald on September 28, 2010

Over the next couple of days I’ll be at the annual Physics of Living Matter conference.  This is the 5th annual conference in Cambridge, and they have become a very firm fixture in many of our calendars. They serve to bring the community of physical and biological scientists together to listen to a combination of international and local speakers, with plenty of time for mingling and networking. In a university the size of mine, finding people who share common interests can be a challenge, particularly when they may lie far from one’s home subject and department.  When Alfonso Martinez Arias spearheaded the first Physics of Living Matter meeting back in 2006 it immediately stimulated enormous enthusiasm. Registration for this meeting was oversubscribed and that has, I believe, been true ever since. It touched a timely chord within the Cambridge community. It is hard to measure the ‘success’ of this.  At the time we had, in the form of Duncan Simpson, a Research Council funded interdisciplinary facilitator (the exact name of this role escapes me at this distance in time), and Duncan has continued to play a vital co-ordinating role ever since.  The diversity of activities that working at this physical-biological science interface potentially touches upon, means that having a dedicated scientist (rather than an administrator) acting as a mediator or go-between, bringing the practicing scientists together is through small meetings or just by passing on names is, if not absolutely vital, a real advantage.

To my mind, finding the right collaborator(s) is key.  Following on from this I want  to develop the ideas sparked by the comments that were previously made here by Becky based on an earlier piece by Sean Eddy. We seem to be approaching the problem in different ways, probably trying to achieve rather different aims or flavours of interdisciplinary working.  Personally I don’t think it is common for a single person to be able to tackle many of these problems simply on their own and, as employees of the University with teaching responsibilities in a department, academics probably need to retain at least some connection with their department’s discipline.  (Research institutes need not have this same requirement.)

One extreme version of a collaboration is ‘physicist has technique’ meets ‘biologist has problem’, but I think most collaborations are now much more subtle than this rather old-fashioned vision, particularly if it is to be a satisfactory collaboration.  The physical scientist is not just going to bring a technique to the table and hawk it around looking for a problem. Nor will they be satisfied just to act as a service to some biologist who wants, as I mentioned previously , just to compare and contrast a large number of different biological samples i.e. simply ‘look’ at the biologist’s samples.

However I don’t think this necessarily equates to the statement Becky made in her earlier post that

in the best cases what comes out is a new way of looking at the problem.

In many cases in my own experience, what comes out is new insight, but not necessarily a new paradigm. Collaborations can come and go, as interests change and evolve, but – to speak personally – if I want to take what I have learnt about protein aggregation using a milk protein to help me see if it is relevant to clinical manifestations of Parkinson’s disease, I need to find an expert in Parkinson’s disease or I am in trouble. But if I want to see if my experience on the milk protein is relevant to understanding the role of metals in Alzheimer’s plaques, the expert I need is likely to be someone quite different. And I am most certainly not going to be able to get to grips with these very different situations to be able to do it all by myself.

I suspect this is a different way of working from the way Sean Eddy and the ittakes30 articles intended.  Rather than gain the all-encompassing knowledge their ideal interdisciplinary researcher seems to need to have, I fear I am the type of person they describe as

someone who works on modelling the yeast cell cycle who still calls himself a physicist ….[has] commitment problems.

(Regular readers of my blog will note that I probably have problems with that underlined pronoun, which comes from a quote in the Eddy article). I am trying to use my physicist’s tools to explore biological problems but not shift field permanently.  Nevertheless I do totally agree with Eddy’s statement that

if your grant proposal includes statistical analysis, your reviewers shouldn’t be acting as enforcers requiring you to have a card-carrying statistician as a collaborator.

The dangers of grant reviewers and grant-giving panels having a very narrow disciplinary focus, is manifest and damaging. But I suspect that the school of thought being advocated, namely that having interdisciplinary individuals is the answer, is falling into an ontological trap. If Crick and Watson transformed themselves from physicists into something new as molecular biologists – an example cited – by now molecular biologists are most certainly not interdisciplinary in the original sense. Molecular biology has become a perfectly respectable discipline of its own in the intervening 50 years, including formal undergraduate courses, and now needs to collaborate elsewhere to create novel ‘interdisciplinary’ science. So any time a ‘motley crew of misfits‘, to use another quote, come together to start a new field – computational biology and systems biology would be recent examples – the process of where the new discipline starts and stops, and therefore what is interdisciplinary, has to be re-evaluated; the boundaries will shift once again.

So I will stick to the personal model that works for me, that of finding a small number of congenial collaborators, possibly by hearing them speak at meetings such as Physics of Living Matter, and working together to share our different languages and frameworks to identify and progress a meaningful problem we can all contribute to.  I do not intend to convert myself into the person who can tackle the problem from all directions simultaneously as an individual, and I am happy to retain my identity as a physicist.  There are other ways of doing it, but I don’t believe that interdisciplinary work can only be done by ‘committing’ to leave one’s background behind, or by creating new ‘disciplines’ as a fusion of old ones.

Posted in Biological Physics, Interdisciplinary Science, Research | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Am I having an Impact?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 24, 2010

The scientific community is fairly sensitised to the word ‘impact’ by now, and many of us will have written Pathways to Impact Statements, and read some too. I sit on the REF Physics Pilot panel, so I have seen a broad range of submissions from universities seeking to demonstrate impact and yet, when it comes to my own research, it seems I don’t recognize impact closer to home. I have no intention of spilling the beans about what I have read elsewhere, or pass comment on how the REF Pilot has gone, but I would like to share some thoughts about just how hard it is to know, close to home, what is good/bad or indifferent.

Now there are some obvious examples of ‘impact’ that no one would dispute – unless purely for the sake of debate. From my own department, Richard Friend’s research on organic semiconductors has spawned an industry – which may or may not yet prove to be economically successful – and his third spin-out Eight19 has just received funding. Under any set of criteria I think one can conclude his research has had impact, although I would go so far as to say (based on some REF submissions I saw) it would be possible, even so, to write a case that completely obfuscated this incontrovertible fact if not careful.  But, for most of us, without a spin-out or even a patent to our name, we probably wonder if we have indeed delivered in a way the government would recognize, however certain that what we are doing is exciting, cutting edge and entirely  worth funding.  And I would posit that actually we may have no idea of how, where or indeed why others may see impact in the work that we did for our own motivations. I would like to illustrate this supposition based on my own experiences, brought sharply into focus by a recent blogpost by an ex-colleague and collaborator Ian Hopkinson, entitled Wallpaper paste and the giant death ray.

For many years I worked on starch granule structure; indeed it was my first foray into a real, messy biological system and I cut my teeth on it. I used primarily synchrotron radiation, with a few neutrons thrown in for good measure, to characterise the underlying structure, the hierarchical packing in the granule and to explore the differences between different species, cultivars and mutants. I worked with plant breeders and biochemists, and learnt a lot of my basic plant biology from Alison Smith at the JIC, during a wonderful few years of collaboration, and benefitted from a long and enjoyable relationship with Dr Peter Frazier at Dalgety-Spillers, now defunct and transformed into part of du Pont (shortly after which the interaction died a sudden and rather sad death).  The interest in starch, however, actually started from a very different starting place based on my background on mechanical properties of synthetic polymers: Dr Andrew Smith at the Institute of Food Research was pursuing a project on extruding starch and wanted to understand the mechanical properties of foamed foods, as exemplified by Cheesy Wotsits, and so I set out, through a collaboration with them, to study the deformation and failure of such products, and how processing affected these properties and consequently ‘mouthfeel’.

The more I learnt about this process, and the more (awkward) questions I asked, the more I realised that people didn’t have a very firm grip of starch granule structure, the raw product, or at least not in a way that satisfied the physicist in me. So, for nearly 20 years, I worked on ways of characterising the internal structure of the granule.  With some of my collaborators we ran a series of international conferences dedicated to bringing people from very different backgrounds together, from chemical engineering to plant breeders (see the 2nd volume we published as a conference proceeding for further information). Tom Waigh , working with me as a PhD student, made the connection between the packing of the amylopectin side chains into lamellae with side chain liquid crystalline polymers, another subject I have tangled with in the past, and that framework helped to explain many aspects of starch’s response – to heat, to cold, to processing etc. Above all we had fun. And when it ceased to be fun, I walked away (although, to my shame, I still have one outstanding paper on my desk a year after the departed student sent it to me). By that point I did not find it difficult to resist the offer of 100 different wheat varieties  to compare and contrast, and similar blandishments.

However, I may have walked away and stopped reading the literature, but what I did is still out there. Now to some extent it is coming back to haunt me or, to use more politically correct language, it is coming back to demonstrate that, without me knowing it, it has had ‘impact’. The first indication of this was from the BBSRC who decided to include me in their list of 50 scientists who had made a real impact on the UK’s society and economy. Their 2009 publication Bioscience:Biomillions was meant to exemplify this to Government, although I was fairly stumped when asked to estimate what the net value derived from my research had been. They continued to be interested in using this work as a significant example (or perhaps they were just making their life easy by using the same examples) and in their May 2010 Impact Feature chose to highlight this work in their section on ‘Food Fighters’.  OK, so this all ties in with the source of my funding and is perhaps just saying my work had gone well. But, and the prompting for this post, I did not expect to find my work being picked up much more broadly and reaching places where I would never have found it had it not been for Ian Hopkinson’s post. He pasted diagrams  from Braukaiser into his writing. For those of you, like me, who aren’t familiar with Braukaiser it is a site dedicated to German brewing and specifically how German beers are made. And there, on the site, are references to several of my starch papers and schematic diagrams derived from them such as the one Ian had used.

Now make the comparison: the particular paper Tom, Ian and I co-authored in Macromolecules (and the separate issue of how best to publish interdisciplinary science I’ll leave for another day) has 71 citations on the Web of Science, the Braukaiser site has had (according to its meter) more than 70,000 hits, although clearly not all would have gone so far as to look at the details of the starch granule hidden at its centre. I could never have written two pages describing the tortuous pathway from Cheesy Wotsits to German beer via a couple of synchrotrons to describe potential impact. But, perhaps more worryingly for the current agenda, even in hindsight I would find it hard to write a decent description of the impact of the fundamental science I did which just happens to percolate many different areas, let alone set a monetary worth on the knock-on consequences. I am perfectly willing to try to write such ‘Pathways to Impact’ statements, but this episode has just reminded me of the frequent impossibility of doing it fruitfully.

Posted in Biological Physics, Communicating Science, Research, Science Funding | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

‘Every Other Thursday’ – Do Support Groups Support?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 21, 2010

Every Other Thursday is a book about a woman’s self help group in California, which has attempted to address the problem of where academic women might find support. Founded on the precepts of radical psychiatry, the group gathers every other week with a structured format: time is set aside for each member to discuss issues in her life, and in a supportive environment she is encouraged to express her emotions.  I personally did not find the book, which I read a while back, described a solution to the issue of support that I thought would work for me; it was too structured and required a time commitment I could not imagine making.  Nevertheless I am reminded about this book, by two very different blogposts: one from Sylvia McLain which expresses some scepticism and ambivalence about women’s groups; and one from YoungFemaleScientist which expresses frustration at the general uselessness of any advice she got, from women or men, to specific problems she faced.  This post is, if you like, a downbeat counterpart to my upbeat assessment in the wake of the Athena Swan awards .

That particular post is about how institutions are changing their internal procedures and cultures, seeming to head in the right direction even if perhaps too slowly. Nevertheless there is a big gap between policies being decreed from on high, the sort of actions that underpin an Athena Swan award, and what it actually feels like for the individual scientist struggling with research not going to plan and being unsupported by those around – or worse, being actively denigrated in the subtle drip-drip way that such denigration usually manifests itself as.  I would not like it thought that I don’t recognize such problems exist. Far from it. Indeed, one of my motivations for starting this blog came from a younger (female) colleague in Cambridge saying to me in surprise at some point in our discussions  ‘You mean this happened to you too!’. No one should believe people who have made their way up through the hierarchy successfully have done so without hassle, misery and/or setbacks. That remark I suspect applies equally to men and women, although the form the knocks may have taken probably differ.   I would hazard a guess that relatively few men have been sexually propositioned at conferences.  I would also suspect that at least half,  and possibly nearer 100% of women have been. I should hasten to add this is an unscientific comment, as I have no statistics to back up either of those statements.  I merely know that leery drunken males can often be found at the conference bar.

YoungFemaleScientist clearly feels she rarely receives useful advice or even apparent empathy from those she turns to. She translates this as a lack of caring, and that probably isn’t true. As a professor I find it hard to strike the right balance between empathy and self-disclosure. With friends there is an ongoing bond of trust, between work colleagues – particularly of different seniority – this is unlikely to be the case. If a student comes along complaining of sexual harassment, would it be reasonable, helpful or even wise for a professor to say ‘this happened to me too’. It could come across as trivializing the incident (ie this happens to everyone so put up and shut up), or irrelevant (it happened 10 years ago and times change), or even find its way round the department at the speed of light. But if the professor stays detached then it may look like the uncaring response that is being complained about by YoungFemaleScientist. Of course, if there are simple solutions people probably will help: a word in the ear of the relevant offender might solve the problem without a formal complaint, but I fear rarely so. (Lest it be thought that I am trying to sweep things under the carpet, let me say that any clear case of harassment should always be reported.  The trouble is so many – the unwanted compliments on dress or appearance, the frequent touch on the arm, regular innuendo – are ambiguous enough not to be easily dealt with.)

And this is where I differ from Sylvia McLain.  Asking for help from senior colleagues is always likely to introduce discomfort of this sort. Practical tips of course should be sought: how do I write a grant? Should I submit a poster abstract to this conference? What funding is available in my field? How can I improve my CV? Would it be wise for me to take this position? Or accept this new responsibility? All these sorts of questions can and should be asked of anyone and everyone who might be able to help. But support groups of essentially one’s peers, formal or informal, or simply a supportive group of individual friends, are more likely to be a better resource for the vexed question of how to cope with everyday fraught situations: there will be no black and white answers and discussion should be the name of the game to tease out strategies that work for a given situation. In my experience these helpful friends and colleagues most certainly don’t need to be in my field (sadly lacking in women in any case, though these supporters don’t need to be female), since so often the problems are basically generic though nuanced by the local environment.

Let me describe a generic problem which bugs most women above a certain rank: how to make your voice ‘heard’ on committees for which the women are in a minority. The scenario runs like this. You rise through the system until you are asked to sit on some committee with teeth. First you have to gain enough confidence to open your mouth at all, and when you (finally) do offer some wise words, maybe after attending several meetings, no one appears to take your contribution on board. Shortly afterwards an (almost invariably) male colleague says very much the same thing and everyone gets very enthusiastic, indicates how insightful this is, what a splendid idea, just what’s needed etc. Nearly every woman I know has had this happen to them, and often not just at the start of their ‘committee career’ but time and time again. I would be interested to know if men feel this happens to them too; no male has ever mentioned it to me, but then why should they?

So what is the solution? I have to say I wish I knew. Someone once suggested I should have voice-coaching to train myself to lower my voice, because then I would sound more like the majority males. I did not follow up on this and, as I have argued before here, that implies that I, the woman, am the problem rather than those listening. Another possibility would be to join the school of thought that thinks they will be heard if they get red in the face and thump the table; also not an attractive proposition to many. Saying ‘excuse me, I just said that’ may be justified but I doubt if it would be productive and on the contrary would tend to make one look merely petty.  I suspect, as with the narrative about pulling a committee chair up when behaving inappropriately described here, having allies (probably male) on the committee who can say ‘but Athene just said that’ might be helpful, but is certainly not always viable or indeed probable.  It is a frustrating problem but, as I say, may not be the sole province of women.

At the end of the day problems ranging from coping with sexual harassment to managing to get listened to at committees are all about us as individuals. What works for me may not work for you. Likewise, what support works for me may also be very different from what others need. We each come to any situation with our own previous baggage, coloured by our upbringing, education and whatever good or bad experiences we have encountered en route. But support groups and individual friends are a vital resource to help one survive, progress and (one hopes) ultimately thrive.

Posted in Equality, Science Culture, Uncategorized, Women in Science, Women's Issues | Tagged: , , , | 4 Comments »

Obnoxious Physicists?

Posted by Athene Donald on September 18, 2010

xkcd takes a sardonic view of interdisciplinary science

I am sure readers of this blog do not tackle their science in this way, or think about their pet biological system as a ‘spherical cow’!  Thanks to Matthew and Owen for forwarding me the link to xkcd so I could decorate my blog, and in the process learn how to insert an image without a ‘glitch’.

Posted in Biological Physics | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »