I thought everyone could use a little good news for a change

My labwork is finally starting to work after months of troubleshooting and more months of planning! This is the first positive feedback I’ve had in grad school since I passed my general exam a year ago!

I’ve had my first straight week where I’ve felt “okay” instead of the crippling hopelessness, worthlessness, anhedonia and despair of severe depression!

I’m home with my family to celebrate my mom’s birthday and also get to hang out with my best friend that I’ve known since first grade!

But most of all…

My mom’s cancer marker levels are officially in the normal range and she only has three more chemotherapy sessions left!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!

Sometimes, life gets hard

First off – yes, I’m alive.

Even though my blogging frequency has been pretty pathetic recently, I still get a steady trickle of emails from concerned readers who miss me. It’s an odd feeling knowing total strangers want to make sure I’m okay and miss my writing, but I do sincerely appreciate it (even if I don’t reply, sorry). It also makes me realize that not everyone follows my twitter feed, so many of you have no idea what has been going on in my life.

No, it’s not just grad school that’s been keeping me busy. These have been the hardest months of my life.

On March 15th, my mom called me. My family knows I hate talking on the phone, so when my phone is ringing and it’s not a holiday, I assume something is wrong. Usually that’s just my irrational anxiety talking, but unfortunately this time it was right. It was news I never wanted to hear – my mom had cancer again.

She had been cancer free for 8 years, after winning her battle against breast cancer during my senior year of high school. I hate to say this, but I had never been truly worried during that time. Part of it was knowing they caught it soon and that she had wonderful doctors, but part of it was definitely being a naive 17 year old. At the time I didn’t realize it, but my parents had painted a rosy picture of the situation to keep me from worrying. What I remember is my mom scheduling her chemo appointments around my high school golf matches, because she didn’t want to miss them for the world. The worst of it was kept behind the scenes.

But now I was a little bit older and wiser. In this case, being a geneticist was not very comforting. I was more aware of the realities of a cancer diagnosis, especially when cancer had come back. But I tried to stay cautiously optimistic, since there was still no official diagnosis.

A week later one morning, I was laying awake in bed worrying about my mom. My phone rang, and this time it was my dad. Getting a phone call in the morning is even more terrifying, and I knew instantly from his voice that something was horribly wrong.

He told me my mom was going to die within hours.

Hearing that out of nowhere, while stuck thousands of miles away across the country, was… I don’t even have an adjective that can describe that. Horrifying? Devastating? I was literally in hysterics, sobbing and shaking for hours. It felt like a nightmare come true. I’m so glad my boyfriend had been there, because I don’t know what I would have done without his immediate support. In the span of a week my mom had gone from perfectly healthy, living the stereotypical retired life golfing in Florida, to “going to die.”

A couple of days earlier, my mom had fluid (caused by the cancer) removed from her abdomen, and that change in pressure had caused massive blood clots to move from her legs to her lungs. “Why didn’t the doctors check for that ahead of time?” I asked myself. She couldn’t breathe. She had a 10% chance of making it, but thankfully our hometown hospital is one of the top 50 in the nation and had a cardiologist present that specialized in dealing with this problem. Also thankfully this happened at 7am on a Sunday morning, so the emergency room was empty. Who knows what would have happened to her if she hadn’t been the only patient there.

She survived. I flew out the next day to be with her.

Even though the clots had been removed, there was little emotional relief. When I got there, we were bluntly told that she may never wake up from sedation at all, or if she did she could be a vegetable. The first thing I saw when I arrived was that her tongue had swollen to grotesque proportions, filling her whole mouth and spilling out. The doctors still have no idea what was going on there and originally blamed the tape holding her breathing tube in, though my dad and I suspect they accidentally gave her antibiotics that she’s allergic to and wouldn’t admit it. When I noticed her face was starting to swell as well, they ignored me…until we had come back from lunch and her whole head had swollen up. It was devastating seeing her like that – seeing someone you love and thinking “that can’t be my mother.” Once her whole head was ballooning up, they finally admitted I had been right, and maybe they should start trying to reduce the swelling. Yeah, you’d think.

(I wish the tongue thing was the only time we dealt with incompetence from doctors and nurses… They constantly ignored call buttons for 30 minutes to an hour and I had to go run and find nurses in emergencies, they tried to give her medicine for other patients which thankfully my dad caught, they tried to give medicine in her left arm despite signs everywhere saying not to do so, some wouldn’t use gloves and were obviously not using sterile technique, doctors fought in front of her which destroyed her confidence in them… Yes, they saved her life, but at the same time my faith in doctors has definitely been shaken.)

Thankfully again, my mom beat the odds. After a couple of days she woke up. We talked by her first pointing to letters on a sheet, then by her writing, and after weeks she was able to barely speak. I can now say that months later, she can talk fairly normally and has all of her mental faculties. I feel like I can’t even thank science or medicine here – she got lucky.

The problem was, you know, my mom still had cancer. And the equivalent of a massive heart attack followed by aggressive weekly chemotherapy is not exactly a good situation. She was getting chemo even when she was still bedridden and unable to walk. She was in the hospital for 90 days, but thankfully has been home for about a month now (and is still getting chemo). Just imagine not being able to leave a hospital room for three months – no sunshine, no idea if it’s day or night, no food (thanks to the swollen tongue)… You don’t even realize the little things you take for granted, like being able to cuddle with your pet or wear your own pajamas.

As for the cancer, the chemo does seem to be working very well, which makes me rejoice. We were glad to find out it wasn’t breast cancer again, because that would have been the worst prognosis. Unfortunately, it was ovarian cancer, which is scary in its own right. We have no family history of breast or ovarian cancer, but having both occur independently in the same individual is a huge red flag that the cancer may be heritable – that is, that her genome has some mutation that predisposes her to that type of cancer. If correct, that means I would have a 50% chance of having that same mutation.

My mom could honestly care less what her genome is, since it wouldn’t really change her treatment (“Yep, you still need chemo”). But she wanted to get genetic testing for my sake. Thankfully her results said she has normal copies of BRCA1 and BRCA2, the two main breast cancer genes. Having a mutant copy of one of those greatly increases your odds of getting cancer, so hearing that news was a relief. But to a geneticist, it was a minor relief. I knew there were dozens of genes that could contribute to cancer, and dozens more that we probably haven’t even figured out yet. This just ruled out the common problems.

After my parents told her genetic counselor that I was getting my PhD in genomics, the counselor decided she would just rather talk to me directly. We chatted on the phone and she discussed how she wanted to test a larger number of genes, especially since gastrointestinal cancer runs in my mom’s family and may be related to her case. She told me her current problem – getting my mom’s insurance company to okay the test. She explained how insurance companies don’t like tests that utilize modern technology like next generation sequencing, because they rather have you pay a deductible on each individual gene than have one test that covers the whole genome.

(Yeah, they rather squeeze more money out of their dying cancer patients than do an efficient test. I never had any faith in the insurance industry to be able to say I lost it, but let’s just say my rage against them has grown. At least my parents have insurance, because after a month of treatment alone the bill was at one MILLION dollars. It’s horrible enough worrying about my mom’s health; I’m glad I don’t have to worry about their sudden bankruptcy as well.)

But I knew something this genetic counselor did not. I told her that Mary-Claire King, the scientist who discovered BRCA1 & BRCA2, worked in my department and did a cancer gene panel that was twice as large as the one the counselor was considering. After the counselor got done fangirling and squeeing over Mary-Claire (no, really, nerd glee), she asked if I could try to get my mom enrolled in MCK’s study. All it took was one email, and minutes later MCK had said yes. My mom no longer had to worry about insurance, she would learn more about her genome than from some company’s test, and she’d contribute to a growing body of knowledge about cancer genetics.

While I’m relieved to know I’ll have this information, it has been an emotional process. Part of me is terrified for myself. I’ve seen how cancer has affected my mom. The physical weakness, the loss of hair (which can really hurt a woman’s self-esteem), the inability to eat (how I wish Indiana had medical marijuana, or that I could smuggle some from Seattle). Not to mention the giant cloud of doom reminding you that, yeah, you may die from this. It really scares me wondering if I’ll have to go through the same thing when I’m her age, or if I’ll get unlucky and it’ll strike me sooner.

And at the same time, I feel guilty for worrying about myself at all. I feel selfish worrying about what might happen to me in 30 years, compared to what’s happening to my mother right now. I feel guilty that I can only visit her a little bit before I have to come back to work, even though she’s told me that me finishing my PhD is the most important thing to her. I feel guilty that my dad has to be her full-time caretaker and home nurse now, while I get to go “back to normal.” I feel guilty every time I have a moment of happiness when I’m back in Seattle, because I feel like I should always be worrying about her.

I’ve never been good at prioritizing taking care of myself, but now it feels damn near impossible.

And that’s partly why I’ve been so depressed the last couple of months. Worrying about my mom, worrying about myself, feeling guilty about worrying about myself… I wish those were the only things stressing me out, because I could barely handle those. My boyfriend is graduating with his PhD this year (yay!) but that means we’re worried that he won’t be able to find a job in Seattle and will have to move far away (not yay). Grad school has been rough (which is a redundant statement, right?). I’ve been feeling very lost and without guidance for a while now, since my project is very unique and I’ve basically created it from the ground up (or as another grad student told me, I went straight from undergrad to a postdoc). My current experiments aren’t working, and even though troubleshooting lab work is totally normal, it can be crushing when you’re already down. It makes me feel like a failure and an imposter who shouldn’t even be in grad school. My lab is also having some funding woes, so I feel a lot of pressure not to screw anything up or waste supplies because we may not have the money for a round two. The cherry on top is that the two other grad students in my lab are graduating in the next month, so I will be the only graduate student left. I already felt lost and alone, but now it’s just going to be me, my adviser, and our research scientist.

The problem with depression is that even if you have understandable reasons to be depressed, it can make you unreasonable about everything else. I have particularly bad anhedonia – nothing really give me any pleasure. When asked to list my hobbies, I list things I used to enjoy. I have no motivation to do anything, even “fun” things.  Getting out of bed in the morning is a chore. I haven’t had an appetite in weeks, but I just keep feeding myself because I know I have to. I had convinced myself I had no friends who actually cared about me or wanted to hang out with me, which turned me into an even more lonely hermit. I’ve lost all of my goals and dreams, and when I think about the future I just despair. Every news article or opinion piece I read just makes me think how fucked and unfixable the world is, and I feel hopeless to do anything to make the world better.

And the fucked up thing about depression is that it convinces you that all of this is true, and you are the problem. Depression is like having sunglasses glued to your head and insisting the world is dark, even when you rationally know its bright. I was literally convinced for months that there was no hope in the future and that I would never feel happy again. Right now I can’t remember what it feels like to be happy. It wasn’t until yesterday that I had a small moment of clarity when I realized that my brain was lying to me. Not only that my brain was lying to me, but that I had gone through this exact thing before! There have been many times in my life where I’ve felt this way, but happiness and motivation and normalcy always came back eventually. I need to remind myself that this too shall pass.

I’m attempting therapy again (thank you, Secular Therapist Project). At least this time I’m pretty sure they won’t suggest Buddhism and spirituality as the solution (no thank you, University of Washington mental health services). Unfortunately the health insurance they give us grad students is kind of crap, so it looks like I’ll be paying mostly out of pocket for it. But thankfully I have a good amount of savings and just got a raise (thank you, National Science Foundation) so it won’t be a huge issue, and I’m trying to start viewing my mental health as something worth investing in. This isn’t a pity call for money – if you feel the urge to donate, pick your favorite cancer research charity and that will make me happy.

I don’t really have a take home message or wrap up for this post. I simply realized that writing has always been therapeutic for me, and when I quit blogging I threw away that therapy along with a social support network (you guys!). I’ve been meaning to get this off my chest, so here it is.

Dear life: Please stop sucking soon.

kthx,

Jen

Those boner-killing educated women

I’ve never been more glad that I’m getting my PhD. Apparently it’s a great way to keep away misogynistic idiots who think educated women decrease men’s happiness because they aren’t sexy. Because you know, fuck becoming educated and pursuing a career you’re passionate about – you should be acting sexy for some guy! Sorry lesbians and bisexuals, you don’t count. I know it sounds like nonsense, but he has a GRAPH!

Can’t argue with something made in Excel! How did he come up with this highly scientific, objective measurement of femininity and education?

A good test to see if a girl is over-educated is to add the word “sexy” before her job title. If the resulting phrase ignites arousing images in your head, then she’ll most likely have what it takes to satisfy you.

Sexy Waitress? Unf. Sexy Professor? Get the barf bag. I guess this explains why you never hear about Sexy Librarians or Sexy Nurses, and why nerdy girls universally repulse guys on the internet. …Wait.

Anything beyond a bachelors at a public university is a near guarantee she’ll possess a large basket of masculine traits that will prevent boners.

I’m getting nervous at this point. Why, I’m pursuing something beyond a bachelor’s! Though at least I’ve never attended a private, elitist, feminazi university. What terrible masculine traits have I been subjecting my boyfriend to?

1. They’re fat. (This guy probably thinks so)

2. They’re constantly glued to their phone. (Only men are allowed to do this)

5. They think being funny and witty is a quality that men love. (We all know women can’t be funny, right?!)

8. They wear flip-flops even when they’re not at the beach, pool, or in their house. (Comfort be damned, you should constantly be subjected to only the highest of heels!)

9. They have condoms in their drawers because they expect to have random sex with strange men. (I’m such a slut, using condoms)

10. They cannot dance. They also do not know how to sing or play basic musical instruments. (Doing the “shopping cart” counts as a dance move, right?)

12. They acquire pets instead of putting effort into landing a quality man. (I do have more photos of Pixel on my phone than my boyfriend…)

18. Their idea of travel is going to the beach or France. (Paris was awesome!)

24. They make lame excuses for not putting effort into their appearance. (Like “I look fine without makeup and don’t care enough to put forth the time or effort.” LAME!)

25. They obsess about the environment above what is reasonable, even though they pollute more than 90% of people in the world. (#1 pollutant is apparently the rays of masculinity I’m exuding)

33. They insist on eating pizza or otherwise fattening food after a night of binge drinking. (I guess only guys are allowed to fulfill their late night munchies with some nice biscuits and gravy or a Seattle Dog (hot dog with cream cheese and sautéed onions, mmmm))

35. They care more about maintaining their career than a good home. (Pay no attention to the mounds of dirty dishes and laundry)

36. They rarely wear high heels. (Because I don’t own any)

40. They like Ikea furniture. (But it’s like adult Legos! It’s a furniture amusement park! LINGONBERRY SAUCE!)

Pixel enjoying my Ikea furnishings

42. They go on and on about the stupidest shit. (Well, I am a blogger)

That’s only 15 out of 42, which is probably around the Average Masculinity Unit for 3rd year graduate students. By the time I’ve graduated, I’ll probably have picked up a few more terrible traits, like getting acne and watching too much tv.

But this is the money quote for me:

Unless you’re a latent homosexual, you won’t get many benefits from a relationship with a woman on the right side of the chart.

Wow, I never knew my current boyfriend and all of my exes were secretly latent homosexuals! Apparently it’s easy to confuse “latent homosexuality” with “not being an idiotic misogynistic jackass.”

(Via Man Boobz)

What should we call grad school?

I wanted to share one of my recent favorite things with you, especially since I know I have a surprising number of readers who are either in grad school or have been in it. I present to you the tumblr “What should we call grad school?” Here are some of my favorites:

“How I feel when I answer all the questions during my presentation”

“When I realize the talk is on computational biology”

“My audience when I tell them my data is trending on significance”

“When someone tells me they want to go into industry”

“Trying to pass my dead end project to someone else”

If you don’t get any of the jokes…well, then you’re probably not a grad student.

This is post 30 of 49 of Blogathon. Donate to the Secular Student Alliance here.

Another academic accomplishment!

A new paper that I’m an author on has just been published in DNA and Cell Biology!

It’s a slightly atypical paper, though. When I was a senior undergraduate at Purdue, the Department of Biology staff nominated me to help develop the curriculum of a new NSF-funded, research-based, freshman honors biology laboratory course called CASPiE (Center for Authentic Science Practice in Education). That description is a mouth-full, but it basically means these freshman Biology majors were doing real research for a semester, instead of your typical cookbook lab experiments where the outcome is already known. The class was taught by a professor, a graduate student, and me. I like to say that my main duty was making sure the students plated their bacteria on the correct media and didn’t set themselves on fire*, but I also got to give a lecture on evolution and help out with general concepts throughout the semester.

And now that research has been published in a special undergraduate research edition of the journal DNA and Cell Biology. And it’s atypical because the subject matter is vastly outside of my normal field and interests: Isolation and Preliminary Characterization of Amino Acid Substitution Mutations That Increase the Activity of the Osmoregulated ProP Protein of Salmonella Enterica Serovar Typhimurium. That is going to look bizarrely random on my CV.

But the main congratulations go to the undergrads. They’d be juniors now, and having a paper published by then in a major accomplishment. So kudos to them!

*Though one somehow managed to set the rubber tubing connecting to the gas source on fire. I had a moment of “WTF” and then calmly turned the gas off, and the fire went out. Yay lab classes!

*insert academic joy here* :D

This fell into my inbox this morning:

“Congratulations! I am pleased to inform you that you have been selected to receive a 2012 National Science Foundation (NSF) Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) Fellowship.”

:D :D :D :D

Can’t say anything else. Too busy dancing around the room.

A bully, plain and simple

Wow.

You know, I certainly understand the concept that not every stupid thing someone says is worth responding to. It’s the reason why I don’t devote a post to every time Ken Ham or Focus on the Family update their blogs. I also understand that sometimes people post terrible things with the sole intention of getting you riled up, and responding probably gives them some sort of smug satisfaction.

But sometimes, even the craziest of tirades deserved to be shared. Not because I think I’ll change the mind of the writer, but because people deserve to see what pure, unhinged, vitriol looks like.

This is a message to me from Abbie Smith of the blog ERV, with my response:

btw, my response to Jen:

Jen–
Rebecca Watson is a loser. She leeches off the skeptical movement to exist. Its disgusting.

You have (had?) potential to be more. And you are flushing it down the toilet.

You are in graduate school. That is your job. You spend way too much time going to these stupid conferences (hey, like Skepticon this weekend), that are not even tangentially related to your job (contrary to what you wrote in the small portion of your proposal I read).

Indeed, graduate school is my job. It is not, however, slavery. I thought you would understand that since you’re also a biology graduate student, but maybe they’re particularly rough over at the University of Oklahoma. You see, people – even graduate students – are allowed to have free time. Yes, we’re allowed to unshackle ourselves from the lab bench and head home for dinner. Some of us will read books or watch movies. Some will head out for beers with friends and coworkers. Some will even – gasp! – take vacations. We are allowed to have lives, and hobbies.

It’s intriguing that you claim I spend way too much time at these conferences, since you don’t know my schedule at all. Like how I purposefully did not schedule any speaking engagements for August, September, October, and early November because I knew I would have to spend extra time preparing for my Research Reports departmental presentation and the NSF fellowship proposal. Or how I’m not scheduling anything January through February because I’m preparing for my committee meeting and have to, as my 2nd year PhD student duties, run graduate student recruitment weekends. Or how I never schedule speaking events in back to back weeks, because I wouldn’t have the time. Or how if I have to miss a half day or day of work for travel, that I make up the time earlier that week or while traveling (which I can do since my project is currently completely computational).

But I’m sure all of the graduate students who decide to attend skeptical conferences will be glad to know that you have deemed them to be a waste of time.

And as for them not being “even tangentially related to my job”… Are you really saying that communicating science is not related to being a scientist? Would you say the same thing to students who spend their weekends helping with science fairs, or giving talks to classrooms or the community? I, like many scientists, want to be more than a pipetting machine.

These speaking engagements have given me much more practical experience in public speaking than most graduate students ever get, and it shows. I am consistently told by multiple professors in my department how excellent my speaking abilities are, and how clearly I can communicate my research.

You are behaving in an utterly unprofessional manner, posting pics of seminars you attend making fun of them, accusing your professors and classmates of being anti-science. The portion of your proposal I read was horrible, to the point of being shockingly horrible for someone of your education and writing experience. It bears absolutely no resemblance to my NIH proposal (which was funded).

This is a drastic distortion of what I’ve talked about here. Yes, I giggled at some particularly horrendous slides from a single seminar (not seminars) that the department as a whole was publicly cracking up about. And I have never accused my professors and classmates of being anti-science. I explained how because of the religious culture surrounding creationism, even some evolution-accepting scientists become uneasy about aggressively supporting evolution.

And while your comments about my proposal were probably meant to hurt my feelings and pad your ego (you got funding, good for you), it just makes me laugh. For one, the NIH fellowships don’t require a personal statement at all, unlike the NSF fellowships. And I explicitly stated my excerpt was from my personal statement, where you are required to talk about your motivation for becoming a scientist and doing outreach.

Second of all, it’s ludicrous that you think you can judge a 6 page application from two paragraphs of a personal statement. A draft personal statement that I openly admitted still needed revision, nonetheless. Unless you’ve been hacking into my computer and reading my finished application, I’ll just assume you’re bitterly taking pot shots. Especially since multiple professors and classmates have told me my application is excellent and very well written.

Which brings me to the worst part of your behavior, and why I know you are well on your way to becoming a professional loser– your proposal sucked, and you blamed your critique on your colleagues supposed anti-science. Youve already said your proposal isnt going to get funded ‘because youre an atheist’ or something stupid like that. And do I remember right, you didnt get into Harvard ‘because youre an atheist’ too, right? When you were properly chastised for behaving inappropriately and unprofessionally, you declared that it was because they couldnt handle you speaking out. Poor you for fighting the system! Career suicide! Bitch, please. I killed a Godfather of Retrovirology, and Ive still got a career (technically, it opened up locked doors for me). Heaven forbid your brain entertain the thought, for a moment, that you just fucked up. You are too stuck up your own ass to take responsibility for your own actions. Youre too old for this kind of immaturity.

My brain almost exploded from the irony that the same person who’s writing an unprovoked diatribe and coined the phrase “Rebecca Twatson” is the one calling me immature.

I’ve never said my proposal isn’t going to get funded because I’m an atheist, or that I didn’t get into Harvard because I’m an atheist. I don’t know why I ultimately didn’t get accepted to Harvard after my interview. And if I don’t get the NSF, it’s probably going to be because they don’t always like discovery based research without clear alternative hypotheses. My point in writing those posts is that I hate that I even have the inkling in the back of my brain that it may be because I’m an atheist. Because sadly, that shit happens. I know people who have lost their jobs because they were atheists, so I can’t help but worry and wonder. It’s one of the reasons I’m an activist – because I don’t think people should ever have to wonder that, even for a fleeting second.

But you can continue thinking I’m a sucky scientist with no social skills who can never admit she’s wrong. I don’t care, because I know it’s not true, and I know the people around me know it’s not true. I’ve demonstrated multiple times on my blog that I’ll edit, clarify, or even remove posts when I find conflicting evidence. I’ve greatly changed my talks because of feedback people have given me when they dispute certain points. And hell, in grad school I’m excited when I’m actually right. Classes challenge the way you think and what you think you know, and professors and classmates constantly challenge your data and interpretations. It’s how science works.

Oh, but right, I suck at that. Moving on.

If you went to my uni and you were in my department, you would be kicked out this coming Spring. And it would have had jack shit to do with your atheism.

But I am not your mother and you are not my problem. If you want to bitch on the internet for a living, more power to you. But you need to deal with the fact that people are going to call you a loser if that is what you choose to do with your life. Because you will be.

If you want to grow the fuck up and be a professional scientist, I would be happy to have you and happy for you.

But I just dont think its going to happen.

The irony of someone bitching on the internet about how I shouldn’t bitch on the internet.

It’s great to know that you would fire me just because you dislike a couple of things I’ve said about feminism (even though you apparently used to think I was awesome), and that you would make that decision knowing literally nothing about my academic achievements. How about the NIH training grant that I’m currently on? How about my two published papers? My grades? Work ethic? Scientific ability at all?

Nope, you know nothing, but you’d be childish enough to fire me.

You’re worried about my ability to become a professional scientist? I’m worried that you will become a professional scientist. We don’t need people who are so divorced from reality that they go on public, outrageous, denigrating rants. I’ll be the first to say that sometimes I can be a bit blunt, or rude, or abrasive. I don’t mince words when I have something to say. But what I’ve never been described as is pointlessly mean. Mean to the point where it’s frankly scary.

But really, it just makes me sad. I used to love your blog, but after “Elevator-gate” you did a Jekyll and Hyde. I can forgive people for occasionally saying something dumb or sexist or mean. But your cruelty isn’t occasional – it’s become an unhealthy obsession, with you lashing out like this at many different people. It’s not my place to psychoanalyze you on my blog, but I sincerely hope you find peace somehow. It’s one thing to strongly disagree with someone, it’s another to say stuff like this.

Accepting evidence is not dogmatic

Update: I have decided to restore this post with some minor edits. I will write more about my decision to do so in another post, since I think the topic of self censorship in terms of the social structure of academia is an interesting topic.

Hrmph.

I’m frustrated. As I talked about before, I’m working on my NSF Graduate Fellowship proposal. Part of this process is getting a ton of students and professors to critique your paper. I honestly shouldn’t be too annoyed, because overall the reviews of my proposal have been very good. But a critique that I got from many – but not the majority of – my reviewers happens to be a major pet peeve of mine.

I was too “dogmatic.”

The offending part was the opening paragraphs of my personal statement. I’ll post it here for full disclosure:

            “College was a bit of a culture shock for me. I grew up in a nurturing environment that embraced science – Bill Nye the Science Guy was the program of choice, and competing in Science Olympiad was cool. But when I moved a tad farther south into the heartland of Indiana for my undergraduate education at Purdue University, I quickly realized this was not a universal truth. The attitude toward evolution was terrible amongst non-scientists on campus. One of the local churches was a major donor to the infamous Creation Museum in Kentucky, activists handed out anti-evolution tracts on the main quad, and anti-evolution letters in the campus newspaper were commonplace. I was shocked to learn that even many of my fellow biology majors did not accept evolution.

The fact that so many people didn’t share my fascination with evolutionary theory troubled me on a personal level. This wasn’t simply someone disagreeing with how I earned a paycheck: Learning about evolution was the key event that led me to adopt a skeptical, naturalistic worldview. I felt like people were rejecting the ideals that shape my humanist ethics. I wanted others to understand my feelings of awe as I contemplate the universe, or how lucky I feel to have evolved the necessary traits to contemplate the universe in the first place. I quickly learned that many of these people still valued science, but never had the opportunity to become educated about evolution.

That realization motivated my passion for science communication and mentoring. [...]“

Now, I’m not claiming that’s perfect. It’s a draft that can obviously still do with some tweaking. And I realize I have to walk on egg shells and be politically correct if I actually want to get funded. It doesn’t matter if I’m being honest or if I’m technically right if I happen to get three Christian biologists who read this as a belligerent attack against their belief. Which is apparently how it came off to my reviewers.

Fine. Whatever. I don’t read it that way, but I guess I can see how you can read it to be negative. I thought I was being as diplomatic as I could possibly be, but apparently it’s still not diplomatic enough – I’ll have to change some of the wording.

If we would have stopped at “This could potentially be interpreted negatively,” I would not have been writing this post. But it didn’t. Some of my reviewers, including a professor, insisted that I was “dogmatic,” and “wanted people to believe in evolution just because that’s what you happen to believe in.” That rejecting evolution isn’t a “terrible” attitude. That I shouldn’t be “shocked” that some biology majors don’t believe in evolution, because not everyone has to be like me. That wanting to help people learn about evolution means I thought they were stupid.

That I came off as, I quote, “Dawkins-esque.”

I think that was supposed to be negative remark, but I took it as a compliment.

I fumed the whole bus ride home, wishing I could have responded then and there – but a meeting for a review of your work is not the place for a philosophical debate. But these are things I hear over and over – not just from professors and classmates I like and respect who accept evolution but think I’m too “dogmatic” about promoting it. Because they’re so common, I feel that it’s important that I address those types of ideas here.

1. Wanting people to adopt an evidence-based view of the universe is not dogmatic. In fact, it’s the very opposite of dogma. I want people to be able to change their minds when confronted with new evidence. Admitting you were wrong is one of the most intellectually honest things you can do. The only “dogmatic” thing about living in reality is that some things are true, and some things are not. You don’t get to flap your arms and start flying through the air just because you wish that was the way the universe works.

2. I don’t want people to “believe in evolution because that’s what I believe in.” I want people to accept evolution because there’s an insurmountable mountain of evidence supporting it. This isn’t a subjective opinion that’s up for debate. I’m not forcing people to think that chocolate ice cream with peanut butter swirls is the best flavor (though it totally is). To deny evolution is either based on ignorance or willful delusion. I know, what mean words. That doesn’t make them less true. People have either not learned about evolution or not had it explained to them well, or they’re people who go and build Creation Museums and think people walked with dinosaurs because of their religious convictions. There may be less hope at getting the latter to accept evolution, but being a science educator is important to me, and I want to tackle the “ignorance” side of that equation.

In my future draft, I plan to explicitly say that I accept evolution because of that mountain of evidence. I thought that would be self-evident to biologist NSF reviewers, but might as well be safe…

3. Rejecting evolution is certainly a “terrible” attitude. Again, why should we pat people on the back for ignoring scientific facts?

4. We don’t give chemistry degrees to people who believe in alchemy. We don’t give aerospace engineering degrees to people who think planes are held up by fairies. We don’t give geology degrees to people who think the Earth is made of chocolate pudding.  But we have no problem giving biology degrees to people who think an invisible supernatural being created life, despite it having as much evidence as Puddingology. I should feel shocked that people who reject the fundamental concepts of their field can still successfully earn a degree.

5. I don’t think that everyone who rejects evolution is stupid. I do, however, think they are wrong. Those things are not equivalent. And when ignorance – the lack of information – is the cause of their rejection, that can be fixed. And should be fixed – but apparently it’s dogmatic to think people should be educated.

Why do I even need to have this discussion? Why, if I had proposed educating people about gravity or plate tectonics, would there have been no debate? Why would any other drive to educate be seen as positive, rather than dogmatic? Why are we expected to roll over and simply accept that some people are going to ignore the fact of evolution?

Because religion is protected in our culture. Telling someone they’re wrong is “dogmatic” if it’s contradicting their religious beliefs even if, you know, they’re wrong. Mincing words and avoiding hurt feelings is more important than education and reality.

Religion does not deserve this special status. We don’t have to tiptoe around, pretending the universe bends to their wishes when all of the evidence says otherwise.

Of course, I have to wonder if this whole “dogmatic” thing came up because later in my personal statement I mention my involvement with some secular organizations. They were relevent – I talk about various pro-science events we’ve done, and the organizational and leadership skills I’ve gained from them. Or if it came up because these people aren’t reading my proposal in a vacuum – they all know I’m a strident, outspoken atheist in my free time. Even if I don’t say that in my proposal and I mince words as much as possible, that knowledge still colors their interpretation. Without the atheism side, would my drive to educate about evolution have been a problem? Did my classmates who mentioned teaching students about evolution in their applications get called dogmatic?

I hate that I even have to wonder about it.

What the hell did I just watch?

Every Wednesday my department has an hour long seminar with an invited speaker. I feel like I should preface this post with an explanation that our speakers are generally very good. Sometimes I’m personally bored out of my mind, but that’s because we’re a diverse department and occasionally things will be completely out of my field and realm of comprehension. But every once in a while we get someone particularly wacky or nonsensical that leaves the whole audience baffled.

Today was one of those days.

The only thing keeping me sane was livetweeting the madness and texting other students suffering with me, which I will reproduce here for your pleasure.

Jen: “I have no clue what is happening during this seminar”

Jen: “Speaker: “huh, you can’t see that for shit. Oh well.” I have no idea what is happening right now”

He then went on a three minute tangent about how one of his lab techs was a brilliant physicist who went into hedge funds instead because it paid ten times as much money as research.

Jen: “I’ve been in this seminar for 20 minutes and I still don’t know what it’s about”

At this point my friend pointed out that the speaker was holding about 20 feel of microphone wire bundled up in a mess, even though the mic was clipped to the collar of his shirt. And it got progressively disheveled as the talk went on. I could not look away.

Jen: “Started listening again when he said “straight as the pope.” I do not know context. I do not know if there was context”

The line on the graph was not very straight. The same friend texted me saying he heard me laugh at that from across the room.

Jen: “WTF is this? This slide is a crime against humanity”

Jen: “This diagram looks like it was sketched on a napkin and scanned ahahahhaha”


Jen: “Oh god, he’s going over the time and there hasn’t even been Q&A yet”

The fact that an established professor spoke for 75 minutes and none of us came out knowing the topic of his talk says a lot. I’m not sure what, though. That when you get established you stop giving a fuck? That eccentric scientists tend to be successful? That the fact that I just spend four pages of my NSF proposal saying how wonderful I am at communicating science to my peers and the general public was a complete waste of time? Or maybe that we now have to write four pages about our communication skills exactly because there are people like this that are eventually going to retire, and we want someone who can give a coherent talk to replace them?

My brain, it hurts.

The godless résumé gamble

If you’re a first or second year grad student, you’re probably working on your application for the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (…Or you should be, but instead you’re blogging about it). It’s a prestigious fellowship to acquire that comes with a number of perks, including access to special databases and networks – and a nice stipend increase, which makes us grad students drool.

The application consists of three two-page sections: your Research Proposal, your Past Research Experience, and your Personal Statement.” The Personal Statement generally causes the most headache and stress. It’s your main chance to set yourself apart from other students, since you can assume that most people who are in graduate school have the research part down, or at least have people in their lab who can help. But editors can’t magically send you back in time to teach classes, work with diversity programs, be an officer in clubs, volunteer in an elementary school science fair, or fly to Africa to help AIDs ridden children. That’s what the Personal Statement is about – showing your leadership, organizational skills, strength of character, and motivation for being a scientist.

As unfair as it is, if you just like sitting in a lab all day, you’re kind of screwed. You have to do it all.

But every time I have to write one of these things, I start getting worried. Many of my achievements are directly related to atheism. I founded and was president of an atheist student group. I’m on the board for a secular non-profit. I write a popular blog that, while talking about science, also often talks about atheism. When I go speaking across the country, I’m usually hosted by atheist groups. And hell, my very motivation for being a scientist is highly interrelated with my atheism. Learning about evolution led me to a naturalistic, godless worldview, and said worldview makes science and the search for truth even more important to me.

I still wonder if I was ultimately rejected from graduate schools – after very successful interviews – because someone in the chain of command was wary of my atheist activism. But I feel like to omit these things would mean not being true to myself. Not to mention, it hides the achievements that set me apart from other graduate students.

But mentioning godlessness is still a gamble. The NSF fellowship reviews are already a bit of a crapshoot – reviewers only have a couple of minutes to read your application and make a decision. You’re already hoping you’re lucky enough to get someone who had a good breakfast and isn’t in a cranky mood. But now you have to hope you don’t get the rare super devout biologist, or even a fellow atheist who doesn’t like her vocal sisters.

And the gamble is there no matter how diplomatically you put it. There’s always a chance someone will read what you wrote profoundly negatively. Four of my peers read my statement and had no problem with it – but another said I sounded like a “belligerent atheist” despite the fact that they personally agreed with me. And despite the fact that what I actually talk about was skepticism, naturalism, and scientific inquiry, with passing references to secularism and humanism when mentioning specifics. And despite the fact that the only time I actually say the word “atheist” is in the sentence:  “Also during my time at Purdue, I co-founded the Society of Non-Theists, a student organization that provided a safe place for atheists and agnostics, a minority on campus.”

Gasp! So belligerent!

This is a shining example of the privilege religion has in our country. I know for a fact that three other students in my department mention their involvement with religious organizations. But would anyone ever think of telling them to cut those examples of leadership out because they’re associated with religion? No, nor should they. So why is it okay to tell the atheist to tone down the atheism?

At least I have it easy, being in a field that’s already fairly godless. We had club officers who had to leave off their main leadership experience because they felt there was no way they’d get a teaching or financial job with “atheist” branded on their résumé. And that’s simply unfair.