Want to learn more about the future of genomics?

My department is hosting a panel on “The Future of Genome Sciences” that is free and open to the public. Here are the details:

Panel Discussion: The Future of Genome Sciences
Monday, May 7th
7:00 pm, Kane Hall EDIT: 120
University of Washington
Seattle, WA
free, no registration required

The speakers will be:

Dr. Bruce Alberts who President Obama has appointed as one of his first Science Envoys.  Dr. Alberts is editor of Sciencemagazine, author of The Cell, and former President of the National Academy of Sciences.

Dr. Natalie Angier who is a science writer for The New York Times and the Andrew D. White Professor-at-Large at Cornell University.  In 1991 she received the Pulitzer Prize for Beat Reporting.

Dr. James Evans who is the Bryson Distinguished Professor of Genetics and Medicine at University of North Carolina and directs the Clinical Cancer Genetics Services at UNC.

Dr. Keith Yamamoto who is Vice Chancellor for Research, Executive Vice Dean of the School of Medicine, and Professor of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology at the University of California, San Francisco.

The moderator is Dr. Maynard Olson, who is a Professor in the Departments of Genome Sciences and Medicine at the University of Washington and is one of the founders of the Human Genome Project.

If you’re near Seattle, I hope I’ll see you there!

OMG ASTEROID MINING!

That noise you hear is millions of scifi nerds squeeing in unison. The startup Planetary Resources has announced its mission to investigate and mine resources from asteroids in space. While the fact that fricking asteroid mining is theoretically possible is awesome on its own, I really like their big picture view of the project:

“This is an attempt to make a permanent foothold in space,” he said. “We’re going to enable this piece of human exploration and the settlement of space, and develop the resources that are out there.”

…“The investors aren’t making decisions based on a business plan or a return on investment,” he told me. “They’re basing their decisions on our vision.”

I love it. Sure, some of the investors probably aren’t totally selfless. Just imagine if you went down in history books as being one of the first people made a new era of space exploration possible. But I love that some people aren’t just motivated by profit, and they see the inherent worth of settling space. I’m just jealous that I don’t get to live forever and see how this plays out.

I highly recommend you check out the rest of Phil Plait’s coverage. He breaks down the steps of their plan and explains the feasibility of the project. It’s really fascinating stuff.

Indiana Senate committee approves creationist legislation

My dad emailed me this news report with the quote “Another reason to be glad you’re not living in Indiana.” From NWI Times (our local newspaper!):

An Indiana Senate committee on Wednesday endorsed teaching creationism in public schools, despite pleas from scientists and religious leaders to keep religion out of science classrooms.

Senate Bill 89 allows school corporations to authorize “the teaching of various theories concerning the origin of life” and specifically mentions “creation science” as one such theory.

State Sen. Scott Schneider, R-Indianapolis, who voted for the measure, said if there are many theories about life’s origins, students should be taught all of them.

But John Staver, professor of chemistry and science education at Purdue University, said evolution is the only theory of life that relies on empirical evidence from scientific investigations.

“Creation science is not science,” Staver said. “It is unquestionably a statement of a specific religion.”

The Rev. Charles Allen, head of Grace Unlimited, an Indianapolis campus ministry, said students would be served better by teaching religion comparatively, rather than trying to “smuggle it in” to a science course.

The Republican-controlled Senate Education Committee nevertheless voted 8-2 to send the legislation to the full Senate.

What? Indiana is being backwards and ignorant? I am shocked – shocked, I say!

Dear Indiana legislators,

What you are doing is unconstitutional. That is not an opinion of mine – the Supreme court decided this in Edwards v. Aguillard (1987). Your attempt to weasel Christianity into public science classrooms is going to fail. You can either choose to vote it down now, or you can waste years of time and money in a pointless legal battle. Not to mention your continued efforts to destroy science make intelligent young people like me dying to evacuate the state and never come back. You wonder why you have a brain drain? This is it.

Indiana voters – figure out your Senate district here and send your state Senator a reminder about why creationism has no place in a science classroom.

Another brain exploding quote from a Republican candidate

This time from Mr. Frothy Mixture himself, Rick Santorum:

Discussing controversial classroom subjects such as evolution and global warming, Santorum said he has suggested that “science should get out of politics” and he is opposed to teaching that provides a “politically correct perspective.”

We don’t want facts and data informing our political decisions! Only baby Jesus.

What a fucking moron.

Jennifer Ouellette speaking in Seattle this Thursday

Women in Genome Sciences is hosting popular science writer and skeptic Jennifer Ouellette this Thursday. She’ll be giving a talk about popular science writing, blogging, and writing as an alternative career at 1:30pm in Foege Auditorium (room S060) at the University of Washington. Here’s a brief bio:

Jennifer Ouellete is the director of the Science & Entertainment Exchange of the National Academy of Sciences and the author of three popular science books, including The Calculus Diaries: How Math Can Help You Lose Weight, Win in Vegas, and Survive a Zombie Apocalypse. She blogs about physics and space science for Discovery News and maintains a science-and-culture blog at Scientific American called Cocktail Party Physics.”

I know the time is crappy for most people with 9 to 5 jobs, but it’s really meant for UW students and faculty. But it should be a good talk, so please spread the word!

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.

Support Freethought Blogs by helping teachers and their students

Donors Choose is an amazing charity that helps fund projects for public school classrooms across the US. The fact that we need such a charity to make sure our children receive a proper education is depressing. Some classrooms, especially in areas with high poverty, don’t have the money to provide supplies as basic as pencils for their students – students who are on state subsidized lunches which may be the only decent meal they get all day. Others want their students to experience the same inspiring projects – like dissections or growing your own garden – as affluent schools, but need extra help. Donor’s Choose vets the projects to make sure they’re not a scam, and you make a donation to improve the education of these young students.

This cause is especially important to me for two reasons. One, both of my parents were teachers (they’re now retired). My dad taught high school history and special ed in a Chicago public school for 38 years, and my mom taught middle school art for over 30 years. I know they always went above and beyond for their classroom, and I can only imagine how much they spent out-of-pocket for extra supplies to enrich their teaching experience. Two, I was lucky enough to attend a very affluent school system. I want all students to have the chance to have the same experiences I did, because I know those experiences shaped me into a freethinker, a scientist, and a thoughtful human being.

It’s also a bit of a competition. All of the science blogging networks are competing against each other. Let’s show places like Science Blogs and Scientopia that Freethought Blogs is the awesomest! Or show the other Freethought Bloggers that Blag Hag is the awesomest of the awesomest – you can donate using the widget over at the top of the right column.

I’ve hand-picked the projects because they have some sort of personal meaning to me. You can donate to whichever fits your fancy, but in case you’re motivated by my reasoning, read on:

  • Building a Community of Learners Through Mosiac - Like I mentioned, my mother was an art teacher. Art is a huge part of my life, and it truly enriched my learning experience. I found it helped me with science, too – it made me a creative thinker, helped me plan ahead (art projects aren’t always spontaneous!), and gave me graphical abilities that really helps when it comes to presenting your research. This project is also near my home town in Indiana.
  • Science Olympiad Rocks! - Science Olympiad is an academic competition that I competed in for 4 years, and later volunteered for when I was in college. Students participate in events ranging from tests on genetics, to building a bottle rocket, to forensic investigation. SO was some of the most fun I had in high school, and was one of the main things that motivated me to become a scientist.
  • Fetal Pig Dissection - I’m not going to lie. When I was in AP Biology, the Fetal Pig Dissection grossed me out. But looking back I recognize how valuable it is to have hands-on science experiences like this. Life isn’t something you can learn by just staring at a text book. Bonus: It’s a class of all girls, and we need more lady scientists!
  • Women and Hands-on Science - Speaking of lady scientists… Heck, do I even have to explain? More lady scientists. MORE!
  • Help Deserving Student Have a True Biology Experience - Time to dissect some frogs! I still remember mine – it was full of eggs.
  • The Magic of Math - Help another all-girls classroom fall in love with mathematics. I wish I would have had something like this when I was younger – I grew up hating math because I was so frustrated while learning it. Maybe if someone had taken a chance and tried a different teaching method like this teacher is doing…
  • Let’s See - This classroom goes on monthly nature walks – how awesome is that?! Help make their trips more awesome by providing them with magnifying glasses and microscopes, so they can get extra close in their explorations.
  • Encouraging Girls to Excel at Mathematics - You know the drill.
  • You Spin Me ‘Round - Dude, this classroom wants to perform its own polymerase chain reaction! I didn’t do PCR until after my freshman year of college. Having hands on experience with genetic fingerprinting will hopefully show these students how awesome genetics is. It’s not just about Punnett Squares!
  • Drosophila Genetics - More awesome genetics experiments! This time the kids get to breed their own fruit flies and look for mutants. MUTANTS! What high schooler doesn’t want to do that?
  • Grow With Science - Okay. Sometimes I harp on how plants are boring. But this was the ONLY proposal on the whole site to mention “natural selection.” I feel like we should reward this teacher so they can have their garden for evolution experiments! Bonus – they’re in Seattle!
  • Those Genes Look Good! - Genetics is a hard concept to understand. You can’t exactly see genes with the naked eye. I know models helped me understand concepts, so help these kids understand too.
  • Evolution Literacy - A primary school teacher who understands the importance of evolution? FUND THIS CLASSROOM STAT!
  • Leaping Lizards! - This classroom in Indiana wants to raise anoles to help them learn about the scientific method. I wish I learned about the scientific method using a tank of cute lizards.
  • Manipulate This! - This classroom is from my home town in Indiana, and they want hands on tools to learn about math. Math didn’t start to click for me until my 5th grade teacher whipped out little cubes and pawns we could manipulate to balance equations. Some of us our visual learners!
  • Highlight Your Learning - Last but not least, this teacher has created a Writer’s Workshop to encourage a love in writing in their students. As a blogger, how could I not support this? It’s also one of the neighboring towns from where I grew up.
Again, you can use the widget to the right or go here to donate. Donations are open until October 22. Thanks so much for helping out!

Do this now, OkCupid

One of my favorite blogs is OkTrends (even if they haven’t updated since April, sadface). What’s better than combing dating site data for statistical trends an oddities? All of their articles are super interesting.

I was having lunch with some of my fellow graduate students, when the conversation turned geeky (as it tends to do). I mentioned how it would be great to have some sort of measure of sexual compatibility on OkCupid other than skimming through the various questions people have answered (which, don’t lie, is the first thing everyone does). Though the questions are very telling – just from reading other’s answers to the sex questions, I can tell if we’d be compatible or not. But there’s no good metric for it.

The solution to us was obvious to us: Principal Component Analysis.

“Principal component analysis (PCA) involves a mathematical procedure that transforms a number of (possibly) correlated variables into a (smaller) number of uncorrelated variables called principal components. The first principal component accounts for as much of the variability in the data as possible, and each succeeding component accounts for as much of the remaining variability as possible.”

You could do a PCA on people with all of their sex answers being their data. The magic of PCA (please don’t make me describe the math) would then decide what the proper variables are to measure. If I had to guess, kinkiness and experience would probably be the two main variables in someone’s sexual preferences. I would guess you’d get a chart looking something like this:

Chart of kinkiness vs. experience with clustered data points

With each dot representing a person, and people potentially forming clusters. You could look and see if you easily fall into the kinky cluster, or whatever. And PCA can have more than two variables, though that’s a little trickier to graph. I can imagine the 3rd being something like desire. Do you want lots of sex, or are you happy with not that much? That’s a major point of conflict in relationships, so it would be great to have that sorted out by the power of statistics.

Thinking this was pretty much the best idea ever, we emailed OkCupid, highlighting our accolades as computational geniuses and internet nerds. This was the response:

“Hi Jennifer – Thanks for writing.  We only share our data with third parties when they have a budget to license the data…

Thanks,
Sam”

I think that “…” implies “You don’t have the money to do it yourself.”

So, fine, fine. But in the name of science, I want to see it done. Come on, OkCupid. You know you want to reach a new level of geekery in your statistical analysis. Make it so.

The perception of female graduate students

Guy in bar: So, what brought you to Seattle?
Me: I just started grad school
Guy: What are you studying?
Me: Genetics
Guy: Oh, I would have thought it would be more shallow-like
Me: … *eyes bug out*

While I think the details are irrelevant, I feel compelled to add that I wasn’t wearing anything that could be even remotely perceived as “shallow-like.” Jeans and a t-shirt, no makeup. Nope, I just had boobs.

The science of calling out sexism?

A lot of people, male and female, are often afraid of calling out instances of sexism. They don’t want to be perceived as oversensitive or troublemakers, or they’re afraid of angry backlash.
I say “they,” because I obviously don’t have a problem with blowing up the whole internet in order to call out sexism.

But is this an accurate representation of how men respond to accusations of sexism? One study says otherwise:

In a recent study, conducted by Robyn Mallett and Dana Wagner at Loyola University Chicago, male participants were teamed with a female partner (who was actually a confederate in the experiment). Their assignment was to read a set of moral or ethical dilemmas and discuss together how to deal with each situation, including one in which a nurse discovers that a hospital patient has been given tainted blood.

During their discussion, the female confederate confronted her male partner either for sexism (i.e., having assumed the nurse in the story was female, which every male participant did) or in a gender-neutral way (i.e., disagreeing with the male’s suggested solution to the dilemma).

As expected, men had much stronger reactions to being told that their remark was sexist than they did to mere disagreement. But the reactions weren’t what you might expect. The men accused of sexism smiled and laughed more, appeared more surprised, gestured more often and with greater energy, and were more likely to try to justify or apologize for their remark. But they did not react with more hostility or anger – in fact, they reported liking the female partner in both conditions equally well, and were generally pleasant across the board.

At first, that sounds great. Yay, men who were called out for the sexism smiled more and didn’t respond with hostility! Time to go politely tell MRAs how they’re wrong!

But I have a couple of concerns about the study. For one, their sexist remark…isn’t that sexist. Assuming a nurse is female is based on pure probability rather than assumptions about gender roles. The vast, vast majority of nurses are female, therefore a nurse in a story is much more likely to be female. It’s not like 50% of nurses are actually male, but it’s still perceived as women’s work.

This may seem like nitpicking, but I have a feeling men would react differently depending on what type of sexism is being addressed. It’s easy for a man to go “Whoops, yes, I suppose some nurses are male.” But it’s hard for a man to go “Whoops, yes, I suppose I do have (insert any type of male privilege I’ve never thought about and vehemently disagree with here).”

I’d also like to see results from how the men felt long after the exercise concluded. Were they just acting nicer when they were in immediate social interaction with the woman? Was in genuine? Did they turn around and start telling their buddies about how she’s a stupid oversensitive bitch, or did they really change their minds about sexism?

And finally, I’d love to see this repeated in the setting of blog comments or a forum. What happens when you put the internet between two people, and you have the drug of anonymity in your system? I know it’s anecdotal evidence, but I don’t exactly see people skipping together through e-fields of daisies after an accusation of sexism.

More science! We need more science!