I have my first scientific publication!

My first scientific paper has been published! “Allelic recharge in populations recovering from bottleneck events” by Joseph D Busch, Jennifer McCreight, and Peter M Waser. It’s included in the new book developed by the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, Molecular Approaches in Natural Resource Conservation and Management:The book was actually released in June, but somehow I missed it. Just found out today because my professor gave me a copy as a going away present.

I guess I’m officially a scientist now. Woohoo!

Thoughts on grad school

“What are you most looking forward to about grad school? What are you hoping to achieve? And, what will you actually be studying? I mean, is there really more to know about copulatory plugs?”

I’m most looking forward to finally be studying what I’ve always wanted to research: human genetics and evolution. I don’t know the exact topic yet since UW has you do a year of lab rotations, but there are a lot of exciting projects going on there. I haven’t been able to investigate that area yet since no one at Purdue really researches human genetics or evolution too much – I think mainly because we don’t have a medical school.

So no, I’m not going to be researching copulatory plugs anymore. Even that wasn’t my main project at Purdue. My bigger project was looking at population genetics and historical demography in kangaroo rats. I’ll be able to talk more about them here once they’re officially published, but until then, I have to keep quiet.

And looking at the bigger picture, I’m excited to be furthering my education and becoming an “expert” in my field. I really enjoy research and teaching, so I think academia is the right place for me. And I just love to learn – I’m geeking out about all the advanced classes that I’ll be taking, which I think is a good sign.

…Okay, and it’s nice knowing I have an assured paycheck for five years in this crappy economy and that I’ll be Dr. McCreight at the end. But really, those are just perks! Really nice perks, hehe.

Your personal opinion does not trump scientific studies

As a scientist, one of my big pet peeves is when someone tries to use a personal anecdote to disprove a scientific study. “Cigarette are bad for you?! But my grandpa chain smoked until he was 96, and he was healthy as an ox!”

Great for your grandpa! …But that’s irrelevant.

The whole purpose of science is to reduce our biases. Looking at your sample size of one (Grandpa) is going to lead you to the wrong conclusion about what’s going on with smoking. Your grandpa was an outlier – and while that is interesting, the vast majority of people suffer harmful effects from smoking.

But my bigger pet peeve is when someone’s culture, personal opinion, or political belief stands in the way of them accepting science.

For example, during our unit on aggression in my Social Psychology class, we talked about cultural causes for aggression. One example was the Southern Culture of Honor. People who grow up in this culture see a perceived insult as a threat to their ego, which increases testosterone levels* and violent cognitions, and can lead to acts of violence. Southern cities and states have much higher White homicide rates than those populated by northerners**, and in Southern states homicides exceed suicides.

Effects of Insults on Testosterone levels in Southerner and Northerner Participants
When I mentioned this in a tweet, some of my Southern followers got angry and said it wasn’t true, and tried to provide anecdotal evidence about how kind and helpful Southerners are. Your neighbors may be sweet, but that doesn’t negate an overall trend. Scientific studies aren’t saying that all southerners are homicidal maniacs. Though you know, getting angry at a perceived insult doesn’t exactly help your cause…

Another topic within aggression that really riles people up is spanking. Numerous studies have been done showing that spanking children increases antisocial*** and aggressive**** behavior. But when people who have been spanked or spank their children hear about this, they get very defensive. I can’t recall the number of times I’ve heard “Well I was spanked, and I turned out fine!” or “I spanked my kids and now they’re little angels!”

I’m sorry, but 1) Your specific experience does not negate the average response seen in hundreds of families, and 2) Your evaluation isn’t necessarily correct. You could very well have had an increase in antisocial or aggressive behavior, but you didn’t have a psychologist assessing your behavior, did you? I’d really like to see a psychological study on why people like to defend spanking. Do they hate thinking that their parents did something wrong? Do they hate having to come up with a better (and possibly less easy) disciplinary action?

And last, but not least: political beliefs that get in the way of accepting science. The one that bugs me the most are feminists who are such huge supporters of female equality that they simply cannot accept that males and females do differ in certain ways. For one, you kind of can’t ignore that (biologically typical) males and females differ physically – we kind of have different reproductive organs and chromosomes. We also have different secondary sex characteristics – males are going to be slightly stronger and larger on average.

And because our biology differs, it’s not insane to suggest our psychology differs. Saying men are better in some areas and women are better in others does not mean one is superior to another. Saying men may have certain mating strategies and females may have different ones does not mean one is morally superior, or that either are things we should actually do – humans are not simply slaves to their biology, after all. There are differences between the sexes in almost every species where there are two different sexes – humans aren’t exempt. To deny these differences because they don’t jibe with your political beliefs is simply unscientific.

Now, I know I’m not perfect. There have definitely been times where I’ve been skeptical of a study when I personally didn’t like the results – it’s human nature (especially when the study is saying something delicious is bad for your health). But the thing about being a scientist is reducing our biases as much as possible. So next time you find yourself giving anecdotal evidence, remember: Your personal opinion may be an interesting new hypothesis, but until you do a study of your own, it does not trump previous scientific research.

* Cohen et al (1996) Culture of Honor: The Psychology of Violence in the South
**Myers (2008) Social Psychology
*** Strauss et al (1997)
**** Taylor (2010) in Pediatrics

And the Boobquake results are in!

Boobquake is finally over across the world. It’s time to crunch some numbers – did women dressing immodestly really increase earthquakes? Can we find any data that supports Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi’s hypothesis?

(click here for larger image)
Photo by David Collins. Yes, that’s the biological hazard symbol. Yes, I found that funny. In case you didn’t notice, I’m a geek.

Many people seemed to misinterpret the planned analysis of this event. We’re not just trying to see if any earthquakes occurred, since dozens happen every day. What we want to see if we actually increased earthquakes in either number or severity. Let’s first look at the number of earthquakes that occurred on Monday, the 26th, and compare it to earthquakes in the past couple months. All data was taken from the USGS Earthquake website.

(click here for larger image)
Each data point represents the total number of earthquakes per day going back to February 5th (the extent of the online database). Days are measured in Coordinated Universal Time. That red square is boobquake. As you can see qualitatively, our provocative dress didn’t really seem to affect the frequency of earthquakes. There were 47 earthquakes on the 26th, which falls well within the 95% confidence interval for number of earthquakes (about 0 to 148).

So did our cleavage/thighs/ankles/hair increase the number of earthquakes? No.

“But Jen!” the internet cried, “what about the 6.5 magnitude earthquake in Taiwan? Surely that shows our bosoms have supernatural powers!”

Sorry to be a buzzkill – hey, I’d like magical control over plate tectonics too – but that single earthquake wasn’t significant. Earthquakes between 6.0 and 6.9 magnitude happen, on average, 134 times a year. That means we had about a 37% probability of an earthquake of that magnitude happening on boobquake just due to chance alone – hardly an improbable event that needs to be attributed to an angry deity.

But just to be safe, let’s look at the overall distribution of the magnitudes of earthquakes on boobquake. Did they differ from the types of earthquakes we’ve seen since February? These samples span from the entirety of the event – midnight at the earliest time zone to midnight at the last time zone – so the data encompasses more than 24 hours.

(click here for larger image)
The box indicates the first and third quartiles (within which 50% of the data points fall). Not only did all of the earthquakes on boobquake fall within the normal range of magnitudes, but the mean magnitude actually decreased slightly!

Now, this change isn’t statistically significant, but it certainly doesn’t support the cleric’s claim. In fact, I think it develops an even more interesting alternative hypothesis: Maybe immodest women actually decrease the amount of earthquakes! Man, that would certainly be a fun way to provide disaster relief. Of course, before we can make any claims about that, we’d have to greatly increase our sample size. You know, I have this gut feeling that a lot of people would like to do our boobquake experiment again…

Obviously this study had its flaws. We didn’t have a large sample size, and we didn’t have a control planet where women were only wearing burkas. We didn’t have a good way to quantify how much we increased immodesty (what’s the unit of immodesty anyway? Intensity of red on blushing nuns?). Maybe women did dress immodestly, but we didn’t lead men astray enough. Maybe God really was pissed, but he couldn’t increase earthquakes for us because that would provide proof for his existence (or maybe it’s his existence that’s the problem).

Or of course, maybe God is just biding his time. If you hear a news report in the next couple weeks saying a bizarre Indiana earthquake killed a science blogger, well, then maybe we’ll have to rethink our conclusions a bit.

But you know what? Boobquake was originally intended to be a humorous exercise in scientific and skeptical thinking – that we should test claims people make, especially when they’re ridiculous. And what could be a better way to do that than to question the methods of boobquake itself? That’s why science is such a wonderful tool for investigation – research must not only go through rigorous peer review, but it also must be able to be overturned in light of new data. I think it’s awesome reading all the scientific flaws people keep noticing – feel free to keep pointing them out!

I’m pretty sure our results aren’t going to change Sedighi’s mind. People tend to find any way possible to justify their superstitious beliefs, no matter how illogical. I’m sure the next time a big quake hits we’ll get a “See? Told you so!” even if the event wasn’t statistically significant – he didn’t care about science before, and he probably won’t now. Even if he says that, I think boobquake succeeded. We exposed these beliefs for their ridiculous nature, encouraged people to think skeptically, and of course, had some fun. What else could someone ask for? (Less creepy misogynistic guys who miss the point? Yeeeaah, agreed.)

So, sorry Sedighi. To quote something that was floating around twitter – women can move mountains, but they don’t cause earthquakes.

Don’t forget that boobquake shirts are on sale here. All profits will be donated to the Red Cross and James Randi Educational Foundation.

EDIT: If you want a more scientific explanation of earthquakes and boobquake, there’s an excellent article here by Dr. Lawrence Braile, professor and earthquake expert at my own Purdue University.

Why people won’t watch CSI with me

From here:
Because finding a contaminated sample of cells, extracting the DNA, successfully amplifying a clean PCR, genotyping or sequencing it, and editing your perfectly clear and uncontaminated results always takes about ten minutes. And nothing ever fails. Ever. They must pray to the PCR Gods more than I do. Oh, and not to mention they have a genetic database of every human on earth to compare their DNA to. Even if BLAST ever did grow that large, it would take hours, if not days of computational time to find the correct match.

Yeah, now whenever I watch CSI with my dad, he’ll just turn to me and ask, “That’s nothing like how it actually works, is it?” Nope.

And as a side note, you know you’ve been working on your honors thesis too long when a graph jam graph annoys you. The Y axis is horrible, and there are no error bars! I can definitely go from tissue sample to sequence data in 3 days if everything works perfectly, and I’ve also had it take up to two months (stupid low sodium clean up procedure!). …I’m a nerd.

Why people won't watch CSI with me

From here:
Because finding a contaminated sample of cells, extracting the DNA, successfully amplifying a clean PCR, genotyping or sequencing it, and editing your perfectly clear and uncontaminated results always takes about ten minutes. And nothing ever fails. Ever. They must pray to the PCR Gods more than I do. Oh, and not to mention they have a genetic database of every human on earth to compare their DNA to. Even if BLAST ever did grow that large, it would take hours, if not days of computational time to find the correct match.

Yeah, now whenever I watch CSI with my dad, he’ll just turn to me and ask, “That’s nothing like how it actually works, is it?” Nope.

And as a side note, you know you’ve been working on your honors thesis too long when a graph jam graph annoys you. The Y axis is horrible, and there are no error bars! I can definitely go from tissue sample to sequence data in 3 days if everything works perfectly, and I’ve also had it take up to two months (stupid low sodium clean up procedure!). …I’m a nerd.

Seattle, here I come!

While I alluded to it in a previous post, I still wasn’t 100% sure. But now it’s official – I’ll be going to the University of Washington to get my PhD in the Department of Genome Sciences in the fall!

That still sounds crazy when I say it. I’m going to go get a freaking PhD. Who knew that would happen ten years ago, when I was still amazed by the simple puzzle of a Punnett square, or when I still didn’t quite grasp the whole evolution thing. I’ve come a long way.

So come September, I will have officially escaped the Midwest. Wooooo! Though I admit, I’m nervous. I’ve lived in Indiana for the past 21 years (lived 5 minutes across the border in Illinois when I was an infant), and I’ve never lived in a big city. Purdue is only an hour and a half from my home town, so I was still close to family and retained some of my old high school friends. It’s kind of terrifying knowing I’ll finally be completely on my own. It’s like I’m an adult or something!

If you have any tips about grad school in general, the University of Washington, or Seattle, now’s a good time to let me in on all of the secrets. Or you can just use this post to celebrate along with me. Hurray!