There are many ways to be a science communicator

Science magazine published a peculiar opinion piece titled Why I don’t use Instagram for science outreach. It’s peculiar because it starts off well, and then reaches an ugly conclusion, and because it’s coming from a graduate student who is going to be looking for a job, and there’s no effort to give her anonymity while promoting a controversial opinion and, frankly, bad reasoning. Here’s that promising beginning that could have gone off in a far more productive direction.

Science Sam is a big name on campus. She’s a Ph.D. candidate in the sciences who wants to pursue a career outside of academia, like me. But unlike me, she is our school’s science communication, or #scicomm, superstar. Her Instagram page, which aims to show the “fun and trendy” side of science, was recently celebrated in the school’s newsletter for increasing the public’s trust in scientists. At a career workshop, graduate students were urged to follow Science Sam’s example and use #scicomm to build our personal brands as we enter the job market. I already have an Instagram account, but it reflects my interests in photography and baking more than my love of science. The workshop got me thinking: Should my posts focus less on pastries and more on pipettes?

OK, so I took a look at Science Sam’s Instagram account. I’ll be honest, it personally left me cold. I’m not into Instagram, the format lends itself to superficialities, it’s focused a great deal on selfies of a photogenic young woman, and I won’t be subscribing or following it in the future. But that’s just me. There exists a large instagram-centered subculture, Science Sam is good at fitting into it, and I am glad there is someone doing science outreach there, and doing it well.

I think the @scicomm community would also agree that the point isn’t to conform, but to express yourself freely and share your appreciation of science in ways that fit your personality and interests. There should be no message that says you must be a slender woman with a large fashionable wardrobe and artful skill in applying makeup in order to be a good science communicator — I’m kind of the opposite of all that, so I (and many of the science communicators I know) would be right out of the business from the get go. David Attenborough would also be out of work.

At this point, my advice to this grad student would be yes, focus on the pastries and the photography as a hobby. You be you. There is another huge subculture that is interested in the visual arts and food, and you can be science’s ambassador to those people. If the message you got from your university’s career workshop is that you have to imitate Science Sam, they fucked up. The career workshops I’ve participated in emphasize the breadth of possibilities, and should definitely not be telling new scientists that they have to follow the path of performative traditional femininity. That is one path out of many.

But this grad student confesses to “increasing bitterness” over the example of Science Sam. She has somehow come to the conclusion that another person’s approach is directly harming her.

When I next interview for a job, I won’t have an Instagram page to show that my love of science doesn’t make me boring and unfriendly. Publicly documenting the cute outfit I wear and the sweet smile I brandish in the lab isn’t going to help me build a fulfilling career in a field where women hold less senior positions, are paid less, and are continuously underrated. Time spent on Instagram is time away from research, and this affects women in science more than men. That’s unfair. Let’s not celebrate that.

Jeez, someone needs to talk to whoever put together that career workshop, because at least one student has come out of it with a seriously warped perspective. You shouldn’t have to flash a sweet smile and a cute outfit to get a job (I know, often women are expected to, which not right and grossly unfair), but you do have to have an enthusiasm for the work, which even homely grizzled old geezers like me can achieve. If you’re trying to do science outreach, bitterly policing other people’s approach is a negative — find your own strengths and explore and expand them. You’ll be happier doing that than feeling like you have to conform to a role you detest. There also has to be work/life balance — if Science Sam enjoys spending time on Instagram as her avocation, she should! If there’s something outside of work that makes you happy, you should do it without guilt!

Seriously, too, while there’s absolutely nothing wrong with Science Sam’s angle, and she’s going to be effective at reaching some people, I’d find an instagram account about photography much more interesting. So would other people. Let a thousand flowers bloom.

I really hope whoever was in charge of that career workshop is feeling rebuked by the fact that the bitterness it invoked was highlighted in Science.

Petty and vindictive

That’s the message Donald Trump is sending about himself with the firing of Andrew McCabe, 26 hours before he would have earned his full pension for 21 years of service in the FBI. What amazes me is that he thinks he’s sending a positive message.

“a great day for the hard working men and women of the FBI”…I think what those hard-working men and women ought to see is that their retirement is now subject to the whims of a tyrant — that what they earn can be whisked away at the last moment by a president who is going to gloat over his ability to punish them. Every federal employee has got to be questioning how reliable their employer actually is.

Get ready. Trump is surrounding himself with sycophants and is probably thinking of firing Mueller next. Do you think Republican-controlled congress will react responsibly to that?

The kids have the right idea

An asshole pulled a knife at a school meeting to demonstrate that gun control was pointless, because he’d be able to murder the 17 year old girl in front of him.

“I’m considerably larger than you, OK?” the man tells the student in cell phone video recorded during the incident. “If something happened, if I decided to attack you, it would take the cops three to five minutes to come here — probably 10 if the traffic’s bad.”

The man, whose name was not released, apparently disagreed with 17-year-old senior Jade Pinkenberg, who spoke up during the school board meeting to argue against arming teachers.

“What are you going to do now?” the man says, as the teen backs away.

Jesus. You could also pick up a rock outside and kill someone with it. That’s not the point. These weapons enable a violent attitude, and give individuals to commit mass murder in minutes. That’s why we want these weapons removed from society.

Fortunately, the kids in the audience are smarter than Ol’ Knifey.

“I protested peacefully this morning and got suspended,” student Jo Herman tweeted. “A man threatened a kid with a knife at a PTA meeting and got gently escorted from the school. Show me the logic.”

Words to chill one’s bones

I’m just sitting here, behaving myself, writing some stuff this morning, when my wife gets up and says those words:

“Happy Anniversary!”

What? No! I forgot! Aaieee, I’m a bad, bad husband. I’m a trite cliche from a misogynistic cartoon. I hadn’t even thought…

It completely reset my brain. I had to think for a few minutes. What day is it? What year is it? When did I get married? It was so long ago! Deep breath. Deep breath. It’s no fair slapping me with arithmetic when I haven’t even finished my cup of coffee!

OK, let’s think. It is…16 March, 2018. We got married on…16 March (Damn! She’s right!) in 1980. That makes it 38 years…whew. At least it’s not one of the big round numbers. Think, think, think.

“Yes, happy anniversary! Shall we go out for dinner tonight? There’s that Thai place in Benson we’ve never been to before.”

She accepts! Score! Brain saves the day! This is clearly why humans evolved these large cerebral cortices, precisely for the purpose of thinking flexibly on the fly and coming up with solutions in moments of dire distress.

Republicans really do want to destroy higher ed

Just look at what’s being done to the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point.

Many professors in Wisconsin saw their fears of a 2015 change to state tenure law realized last week. That’s when the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point announced its plan to cut 13 majors — including those in anchor humanities departments such as English and history and all three of the foreign languages offered — and, with them, faculty jobs. Tenured professors may well lose their positions.

Here’s what’s being cut:

The shock was part size, part substance. Cutting 13 majors — in any disciplinary area — is significant. But the cuts are concentrated in the humanities and social sciences, raising serious doubts about the institution’s ability to deliver on its liberal arts mission. Here is the full list of nixed majors: American studies, art (excluding graphic design), English (excluding English for teacher certification), French, geography, geoscience, German, history (excluding social science for teacher certification), music literature, philosophy, political science, sociology and Spanish.

Note that what’s being demolished isn’t the whole program in those fields — just the possibility of majoring in those disciplines, which means that these fields of study are being reduced to support programs for more valued programs, which happen to be the sexy and more readily vocational STEM side of campus. So students won’t be able to drink deep from the well of English literature, but they’ll just get little bit of exposure they need for their computer science degree, which ain’t much. They’ll still keep a few English professors around, but they aren’t going to be happy with a job that is reduced to teaching a few low-level service courses to biology and physics majors who resent being there. As for the other disciplines…chemists and auto mechanics don’t need no music literature or philosophy or art. They’ll wither and die.

UWSP is going to be reduced to a vocational college.

The plan is part of the campus’s Point Forward initiative to stabilize enrollment by investing scarce resources into programs Stevens Point sees as distinctive and in demand. Those include business, chemical engineering, computer information systems, conservation law enforcement, fire science and graphic design.

Business schools don’t even belong in a university. Those other majors certainly are legitimate and useful, but they are all specifically applied skills, which is fine, but they aren’t going to have the depth that I expect out of a university’s curriculum.

The key phrase there is “scarce resources”. They aren’t that scarce, they’re just not given to universities by the state as part of an ongoing strategy of gradually starving education out of existence. Wisconsin has just lurched farther ahead in this destructive program than other states, but Republican legislatures everywhere would love to cut the education budget and use it to pay off lobbyists and their own election campaigns.

It’s not just UWSP. You know they’re also gunning for the jewel in the crown of Wisconsin’s educational system, UW Madison. UWSP is just a harbinger for every other college in Wisconsin and the country.

By the end of the story, I was ready to chop him up myself

You’d think this would be a straightforward crime to interpret. A woman, Emily Javier, is fed up with her boyfriend, Alex Lovell, who spends all of his time playing video games, and further, she suspects he’s been cheating on her. So she buys a samurai sword, tapes it to the side of their bed, and in the middle of the night, while he’s sleeping, starts hacking him up.

At this point, I’m thinking she’s a terrible violent person, she deserves to have the book thrown at her, what a ghastly crime. But then the boyfriend, who did survive with some serious injuries, opened his mouth.

When police did arrive at the scene on March 3, they found Lovell curled up in the blood-spattered bedroom, according to the probable cause affidavit filed by police in Camas, a Washington state town northeast of Portland, Ore. Remarkably, he survived the attack despite serious injuries. Lovell almost lost the index, middle and ring fingers on his hand. But in interviews this week, the competitive gamer sounded happy to be alive.

“I was just so proud for beating this samurai wannabe crazy lady with hate in her heart,” the 29-year-old told the Oregonian/OregonLive. “I’ve been preparing my whole life for something like this.”

Javier — who pleaded not guilty this week to first-degree attempted murder, according to the Columbian — had also allegedly been preparing.

Alex Lovell — known as “Biggie” in his local gamer scene — is an avid player of “PlayerUnknown’s Battleground,” a multiplayer online fighting game. As he told the Oregonian/OregonLive, Lovell has been recently logging 12 to 13 hours a day playing the game. The regimen also required “exercises for his hands, wrists and shoulders and also practicing mouse moves and techniques to maximize performance,” the paper reported.

“I wasn’t a sweaty nerd, more of an Ethlete,” Lovell told the Oregonian/OregonLive.

And with that, I changed my verdict and started thinking it was more of a justifiable attempted homicide. They better keep me off the jury.

Yes, you’re all right. That last line was making light of what was done to Lovell, which he did not deserve at all, no matter how smug he seems. I apologize for a bad joke.