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Iron-deficiency is not something you get just for being a lady

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.orgWhen I was thirteen years old, I got my period. Soon after, I remember going with my mother to the nurse practitioner’s office — her name was Debbie. Debbie told me that once girls got their periods, they were more likely to be anemic, and I would have to watch out for it. She suggested I start to take an iron supplement.

Something about that conversation irked me, even when I discovered that I was slightly anemic a few years later. I disliked the implication that one could be pathological just by being female. And I didn’t understand how it was that menses, which is only about thirty milliliters of blood loss per menses, could have such a profound impact on women’s iron status.

When I was in college, I studied this in a bit more depth in my undergraduate thesis. I discovered two important studies:

First, most people assume that the sex difference in iron stores in males and females, which begins at puberty, is due to the onset of the period and looks like this:

Figure 1. Made-up data to demonstrate the assumed way the sex difference in hemoglobin is produced.

However, the sex difference in iron status in males and females derives from an increase in male iron stores at puberty, not a decrease in female iron stores. This has to do with oxygen transport and testosterone (Bergstrom et al 1995). This means that the difference that occurs at puberty actually looks like this:

Figure 2. Made-up data to demonstrate the actual way the sex difference in hemoglobin is produced.

Second, the main culprit for iron-deficiency anemia (IDA) in men is upper-gastrointestinal bleeding, so when men present with IDA the first thing they do is an endoscopy. When women present with IDA they give her iron supplements and tell her to go home because it’s just her ladybusiness. Kepczyk et al (1999) decided to actually do endoscopies on women for whom a gynecological source was diagnosed by a specialist for their IDA. They found a whopping eighty-six percent of these women had a gastrointestinal disease that was likely causing their IDA. Therefore, menses likely had nothing to do with their IDA, and the assumption that menses made them pathological actually obstructed a correct diagnosis.

The majority of the women in that study were bleeding internally, and no one had figured it out until then because they had periods.

When I went to graduate school, I wanted to study menstrual and endometrial functioning because the assumption that it inherently causes disease seems to lead to a life of frustration with the medical system for many women. I figured it would be good for us to better understand variation in this part of the body… so that’s what I did. I went to rural Poland, where my colleague Dr. Grazyna Jasienska has a lovely field site perfect for testing my questions about the endometrium: I wanted a non-industrial population, but couldn’t choose one so remote that I didn’t have access to a hospital, since the women would need to do ultrasounds for me to image their endometria. Then, I didn’t set out to test specific questions about IDA, but Dr. Jasienska wanted to do some blood tests on my subjects for a related study, and happened to do a full work-up on them.

Without meaning to, I ended up with two very useful pieces of evidence: measurements of their endometrial thickness, and their iron status. I also knew their dietary iron intake since I did 24-hour diet recalls. I realized that I had the evidence in front of me to test the relationship between menstruation and anemia directly, rather than indirectly like other studies I had read.

It was a matter of some simple correlations (Clancy et al 2006):

Figure 3. Red blood cells (RBC) and hemoglobin (Hg) are positively correlated with endometrial thickness (from Clancy et al 2006). Click to embiggen!

Take a look at the p-values for the relationship between endometrial thickness (ET) and red blood cells (RBC), and ET and hemoglobin (Hg): both are statistically significant. What’s more, the relationships are positive. That means that the thicker the endometria, the better the iron status. I’ll admit, when I ran these stats my hypothesis was simply that there would be no relationship, likely meaning that the effect of ET on iron status was at most neutral. But a positive effect? At least in this test, there is no support for the prevailing medical assumption that menses is correlated with IDA.

I was reminded of this study of mine recently, because it was cited by someone else studying something a bit different (vanity Google Scholaring will get you that). Elizabeth Miller, a graduate student (though she may have since defended) at the University of Michigan, wrote a very interesting paper on maternal hemoglobin depletion, which is the situation where pregnancy and lactation deplete iron stores. Miller (2010) studied this phenomenon in two populations in northern Kenya, a settled population and a more pastoral one, as a way to understand the differential impact of interbirth interval, energetic constraint, and dietary iron intake on maternal depletion. I’m going to focus just on the part of this study related to issues of menses and IDA.

Miller found that iron stores slowly increase in lactating mothers with months since birth, but also that the more children these women had, the lower their hemoglobin. This makes sense in terms of where iron needs to be allocated during pregnancy and lactation, and how women with many children might not have enough time or resource to replete their iron before having their next kid.

But the really cool finding, to me, was that resumption of menses after pregnancy was positively associated with hemoglobin. Resumption of periods after pregnancy is highly variable, and largely dependent on energy availability and lactation practices. These results, that iron stores increase once you start getting your period again, indicate again that menses is not having a negative effect on iron stores. So this is the second study I know of to show a positive relationship between menses and iron status.

Ladies, unless you are menorrhagic (bleeding more than 120 milliliters each cycle) your period is not doing you wrong. If you have iron-deficiency anemia and your doctor is insisting it’s because you slough off your endometrium from time to time without doing a single test to confirm it, you may want to insist on an endoscopy. It could save your life.

References

Bergström E, Hernell O, Persson LA, & Vessby B (1995). Serum lipid values in adolescents are related to family history, infant feeding, and physical growth. Atherosclerosis, 117 (1), 1-13 PMID: 8546746

Clancy, K., Nenko, I., & Jasienska, G. (2006). Menstruation does not cause anemia: Endometrial thickness correlates positively with erythrocyte count and hemoglobin concentration in premenopausal women American Journal of Human Biology, 18 (5), 710-713 DOI: 10.1002/ajhb.20538

Kepczyk, M. (1999). A prospective, multidisciplinary evaluation of premenopausal women with iron-deficiency anemia The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 94 (1), 109-115 DOI: 10.1016/S0002-9270(98)00661-3

Miller EM (2010). Maternal hemoglobin depletion in a settled northern Kenyan pastoral population. American journal of human biology : the official journal of the Human Biology Council, 22 (6), 768-74 PMID: 20721981

Science Online 2011: Underrepresentation hurts us all

In my second year of graduate school, I was in a study group with a few other grad students: in particular I remember a white female student and an Asian-American female student. Somehow we got on the topic of admissions, where we all admitted, jokingly, to feeling like impostors. Then the white female student stated that she didn’t believe in affirmative action, and expressed her view with quite a bit of anger. “Besides,” she finished, “I just don’t see race.”

I was completely paralyzed, and felt like I had no way to articulate what was wrong with what she just said. She happened to leave the room shortly after her statement. I turned to my Asian-American friend.

“Doesn’t see race?” She almost shouted. Tears sprang to her eyes. “When she says that, she doesn’t see ME.” I looked at her, mute, wanting to cry myself for the shame of not knowing how to be a better friend.

* * *

I haven’t always been the best ally. At times, I probably haven’t been an ally at all. The story I related above was the only one I dared share where I could sufficiently pseudonymize the characters. It was not the first, nor was it the last, time I was struck dumb by racism.

I did learn to speak up and interrupt racism, and slowly have figured out ways to make the elimination of racism and sexism priorities in my life. But I have a long way to go.

The MLK, Jr Memorial panel at Science Online 2011, like the women scienceblogging panel, was up against some stiff competition: Defending Science Online, Standing out: Marketing yourself in science, Blogging networks and the emerging science communications ecosystem and Not All Marketing is Evil: Getting Life Science Companies to Support Science Online. I’ll admit to sitting near the back with the thought I might divide my time between this session and one other. Yet within the first few minutes I sat there, I knew I was in the right place. David Kroll, who you know all over the internet because of his great blogs Terra Sigillata and Take as Directed, opened by playing the guitar and singing Bob Marley. Within a few bars, about a third of the audience was singing along with him. I was too busy trying not to cry to join in.

I was emotional for a number of reasons… because of the wonderful contradiction of David sitting up there and singing, because of the warmth of the room, where it felt like we had a shared mission. David contradicted the paralysis a lot of allies face, because we are so afraid of doing it wrong, of making the mistake that exposes the racism and privilege we are working so hard to cover up.

In addition to discussing Martin Luther King, Jr’s history in Durham and the surrounding area, David shared with us the following quote from Irving Epstein (which it turns out David wrote about a year ago here):

In 2005, more than two-thirds of the American scientific workforce was composed of white males. But by 2050, white males will make up less than one-fourth of the population. If the pipeline fails to produce qualified nonwhite scientists, we will, in effect, be competing against the rest of the world with one hand tied behind our backs.

Danielle Lee of Urban Science Adventures, and Alberto Roca of Minority Postdoc, were also panelists. Danielle was engaging and smart: she talked about issues of underrepresentation in science, as well as access and trust of science in minority communities. Alberto, who I had also heard speak as an audience member at a few other panels, also talked about underrepresentation issues in science, the invisibility and isolation of being a person of color in science, and how to operate against that isolation. Here are a few of their broader points (any butchered or incomplete thoughts are my fault only):

  • People of color and from underrepresented groups often have to pass in order to survive in science.
  • People have to be mentored all the way up the chain: several stories were mentioned where women and people of color were not adequately prepared or professionalized for their jobs and suffered for it.
  • Impostor syndrome is universal.
  • You act like a role model when you have a voice, so if you aren’t speaking up you aren’t a role model. Also, if you are invisible or are ignored/underappreciated, you will have a harder time being an effective role model. So the knife cuts both ways.
  • As Danielle says, science needs a new PR campaign. The African American community has serious trust issues with science and with good reason: this community has been exploited, undervalued, ignored.
  • Related to the above, there was some discussion of issues of religion and science; namely, that it is a mistake to completely discount or scoff at those with religion. Religion, faith, and religious practices have an important cultural component for many minority communities in the United States and beyond, and to write off their beliefs is to write them off as people. Even if that’s not what is intended, that is certainly what is heard.

The entire session was moving — all three panelists were so thoughtful and kind to one another, they answered audience questions so well, and the audience was committed to the issue of underrepresentation in science. I have a few last thoughts of my own that I’d like to share, as a way to extend the conversation about women scienceblogging to be more inclusive.

First, I don’t think white people or people with privilege should shy away from conversations about underrepresentation, race, or ethnicity. It is time to just be comfortable with the fact that we are going to make mistakes. If we are well-meaning and want to eliminate racism and other oppressions, then the mistakes we are going to make will not be as bad as the worst ones faced by those to whom we’re trying to be allies. Those of us in this community who are academics tend to encourage our students to make mistakes, because we know they will learn from them. But the stakes feel so high in this situation that we are paralyzed. Guess what? Being paralyzed is actually worse than making a mistake. You can apologize for a mistake. There isn’t much you can do to fix things if you stay out of an important fight.

Second, you know the isolation we talk about as women scientists and science writers? Multiply that times a million and you probably have the isolation of being a person of color in the sciences. There are some different ways in which sexism and racism play out in the public sphere, at least in the US: people might be a bit more willing to make sexist comments than racist ones. However, the impact of racism is at least as harmful, probably more harmful in most ways, because it leads to social disparities in education, health, salaries, living conditions.

There are people out there who study the effects of social disparities and internalized racism on health, and folks, it’s not good. For instance, the mortality rates of blacks are significantly higher than for whites in heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, flu and pneumonia, HIV, cirrhosis and homicide (Williams 1999). Measures of internalized racism are correlated with a higher waist circumference, abdominal obesity and insulin resistance (Tull et al 1999, Chambers et al 2004). Issues of acculturation plague immigrant women, especially second-generation women, who experience more explicit instances of racism in their lives through acculturation (Viruell-Fuentes 2007).

Finally, science will be a richer, more interesting topic when there is more diversity. And I don’t just mean it in the Small World sense: I mean that while I love the scientific method, I know the process of science to be strongly biased by who performs it, and so it is absolutely necessary that we have many different people doing and thinking about science in order to have the best possible perspective on it.

Back when I was a union organizer in grad school, my organizer and mentor told me that graduate school doesn’t weed out the weak, it weeds out the strong: it weeds out those with strong senses of self who don’t want to be exploited, who realize there are other things to do in the world and other ways to live a meaningful life. I think that is true for a lot of people who leave academia and science, and unfortunately most of the ones I know who left were women and people of color.

Here’s the problem. I want them back, I miss them: they were my dear friends. Those are the kinds of people we need to lead science, do science, communicate science, encourage and excite young people to be scientists.

Reach out for people. Be an ally. Interrupt racism and sexism. Implement changes where you work to better recruit and retain people of color. Put people of color in positions of power: they probably know how to fix this mess much better than you do. Risk making mistakes; say you’re sorry once you realize it.

But whatever you do, don’t just sit there.

References

Chambers EC, Tull ES, Fraser HS, Mutunhu NR, Sobers N, & Niles E (2004). The relationship of internalized racism to body fat distribution and insulin resistance among African adolescent youth Journal of the National Medical Association, 96 (12), 1594-8 PMID: 15622689

Tull SE, Wickramasuriya T, Taylor J, Smith-Burns V, Brown M, Champagnie G, Daye K, Donaldson K, Solomon N, Walker S, Fraser H, & Jordan OW (1999). Relationship of internalized racism to abdominal obesity and blood pressure in Afro-Caribbean women. Journal of the National Medical Association, 91 (8), 447-52 PMID: 12656433

Viruell-Fuentes EA (2007). Beyond acculturation: immigration, discrimination, and health research among Mexicans in the United States. Social science & medicine (1982), 65 (7), 1524-35 PMID: 17602812

Williams DR (1999). Race, socioeconomic status, and health. The added effects of racism and discrimination. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 896, 173-88 PMID: 10681897

The women scienceblogging revolution

At least, that’s what it feels like to me.

You’ve commented on my last post, you’ve written your own posts, you’ve tweeted and retweeted. You’ve been insightful, brilliant, and kind. You have been allies to each other. You haven’t fed the trolls.

The people of the science blogosphere are good, thoughtful people. If a real conversation about eliminating sexism was going to happen anywhere, in a way that emboldened women and made allies of men, it was going to be here. I think the combination of meeting in person, having those many women-only conversations, having such smart people in the women scienceblogging panel, and bringing the conversation back online, to where we all met in the first place, has been really good for us.

So I want to share two last things. First, I’d like to link to as many posts people have written on this topic as possible. If you don’t see your post here, link to it in the comments and I’ll put it up here. (I looked at hits in my statcounter to come up with the list, so I could have easily missed yours.)

Second, I am slowly (because it is the start of the semester and I have a million other writing projects far more important for tenure than this blog) writing a post reflecting on the MLK, Jr session I attended at Science Online 2011. I hope that as we continue talking and reflecting on issues of women in the science blogosphere, we broaden the conversation to talk about race, ethnicity, sexuality, and other related identities that are not represented or supported as strongly as they could be.

Posts related to #scio11 or the #scio11 conversation

The biology files: Women who write about science

Observations of a nerd: I’ve never been very good at hiding

The Intersection: Sex in the Blogosphere

This is Serious Monkey Business: Raison d’etre of the female undergraduate primatology blogger

Almost Diamonds: Hidden Women, Hidden Writers

The Happy Scientist: Just Ask

Fumbling Towards Tenure Track: Self-promotion tour 2011

Neuron Culture: Hey You Men Who Yell “Nice Tits”: STFU

Neuron Culture: Guest post (my original post, crossposted)

Blue Lab Coats: Linky linky… blogging and doing science while female

Neuroanthropology: Wednesday Round Up #139 (the post gets a mention here)

Science in the Triangle: Why scientists (should) blog

The Loom Room: Are men who do textiles superheroes or spoilt? (a post about a totally different field, but a commenter brings up our conversation)

Only the Educated are Free: How I cannot fight sexism because I am afraid of men

Neuroanthropology: Women and Science Blogging

Outdoor Science: Why are female science writers invisible?

Scicurious: Where are the female science bloggers?

Neurotypical? On self-promotion

One Small Step: Some thoughts, a poll, and an invitation

Denim and Tweet: We need to hear what we’d rather not

Almost Diamonds: Writers don’t spring from Zeus’s forehead either

Athene Donald: Unwritten Rules

The Intersection: Rising against the wind

Nature Network: Women in science – where are we now?

Alice Rose Bell: The politics of online science

Thus Spake Zuska: But I want to earn everything all on my own merits! #scio11

Broader posts about gender and scienceblogging: more must-reads

There and (hopefully) back again: Gender and blogging (and everything else)

Purely Anecdotal: The good

The Incubator: A pregnant postdoc in the 21st century

Child’s Play: On becoming Birkin and letting go of Gainsbourg

Scicurious: Let’s talk about sex in science

Young Female Scientist: Be the visible bitch

The Hermitage: How gaming makes me a better graduate student: gear

Science Online 2011: Even when we want something, we need to hide it.

A few years ago, I was standing outside the building where I taught, unlocking my bike. It was one of the first days of the semester, and I had just finished teaching. I was wearing one of my teaching uniforms: wideleg trouser jeans, a black boatneck sweater, and beautiful forest green heels. Except in really bad weather, I wear heels when I teach because it helps me feel older, like I have some authority. Being sometimes several decades younger than my colleagues, but usually less than a decade older than my students, meant my gender and age made me a sort of sexualized second class citizen.

An older faculty member approached me to unlock his own bike. He complained about where some students had locked their bikes because they obstructed the bike lane. He mentioned that he had told the police but that they never did anything about it. I nodded sympathetically.

“Of course,” he then said, “if I had been dressed like you, maybe they would have listened!”

And just like that, I was no longer a colleague. I was a woman.

* * *
The perils women sciencebloggers face are not that different than those we face in the real world… though the exposure of the internet can occasionally make it less safe. And the risks that women avoid out in the world, are not unlike those we avoid in the blogosphere. That was one of many important conclusions made in the panel Sheril Kirshenbaum, Anne Jefferson, Joanne Manaster and I ran for the Sunday midday panel entitled “Perils of blogging as a woman under a real name.” I believe Sheril was the one who first suggested the topic.

This panel ended up being a great experience, for several reasons. First, leading up to the session, I had the opportunity to meet with other women at the conference and discuss the topic. I found myself in large, women-only groups on a number of occasions (though I just realized, this happens to me a lot at academic conferences too: I think I avoid schmoozing with men more than I realize, a point I will return to later). Each time, I brought up the panel to hear what they had to say, and they made beautiful points, expressed legitimate frustrations, shared both good stories and horrible ones, and in general kicked ass. There were some seriously smart and savvy women at Science Online 2011.

“Even when we want something, we feel the need to hide it”

Because I’m not sure whether these women want to be identified by the points they made or stories they shared, I’m not naming names here. But after each impromptu mini-panel, I took copious notes. Here is what the women I spoke to had to say:

  • There is serious friend bias in who gets promoted in the science blogosphere, and it ends up that men promote other men quite a lot (in order to avoid potential defensiveness, I will say that we did also discuss several notable exceptions). We need to share the empirical evidence about the fact that people like to read people who are a lot like them, as a kind of sensitivity training for men, to help them train their brains to appreciate many different voices.
  • We are all very, very tired of making a point on a blog, on twitter, or in a meeting, being ignored, having a man make the same point, then having that man get all the credit. Very tired.
  • We still can’t be ambitious without being considered a bitch. People will always fall back on that term if they think you are too aggressive, but the same behavior is not criticized in men. One woman brought up an article she read by a journalist who said, of all the famous women she had ever interviewed (including leading political figures like Hillary Clinton), only Catherine Zeta Jones had ever admitted to being ambitious: the others had denied it. Even when we want something, we often feel we need to hide it.
  • Women already have to be two and a half times better than a man to get the same job in science (referring here to the Wenneras and Wold article), women who blog using their real names have to be even better than that if she doesn’t want her blog counted against her when going up for promotion.
  • Both the attacks and appreciations are different for women bloggers. We get unwanted attentions and compliments on our appearance, surprise that we are an authority on certain topics or have an interest in male-dominated topics, or are bullied in a way that feels gendered when a man decides we are wrong on the internet.
  • The risk-aversion women bloggers display only hurts us. If we continue to be risk-averse women will never occupy positions where they can influence the community of bloggers — we need to take on editorships, we need to manage networks, run carnivals, so that we can then involve and promote more women. The blogosphere, like academia, is not a pure meritocracy.
  • There are differences in the pros and cons of blogging depending on whether you are pseud or use your real name, and different ways you find support in the community.
  • If we think we have it bad, look at other underrepresented groups: the situation is in some ways even worse. We need to avoid the Oppression Olympics and think about how to pull everyone up the ladder with us.

And remember… this is what was covered before we even started the panel!

“I want to puke on their shoes”

The panel itself was great, because the four of us panelists had different backgrounds and stories to share. Anne and I are both academics who spent some time in the science blogosphere with pseudonyms before engaging with our real names. However Anne is in a more male-dominated discipline and co-blogs with a man; mine is a bit more equal, but also I study women’s reproductive physiology, which leads to more reflective, sometimes more personal writing. Joanne makes science videos for a broader audience and has a great mind for visuals, humor, and for a really engaging style. Sheril co-blogs with a man as well, in a high profile website, and has published two books (I must admit, I am frantically trying to finish two books right now so that I can finally start her book The Science of Kissing: What Our Lips Are Telling Us!). But again, while I think all my co-panelists had some very important things to say, and some great stories (and awful stalker stories), the audience is what made the panel. Here are a few things they had to say (I wasn’t able to take notes as readily during the panel, but I will link to the video of the panel when it’s up):

  • We need to be clear about how bad it really is to write under your own name — some women have had no problems at all where others have been driven out. Depending on the topic you write about and the kind of audience you write for, you will have different experiences, and many women will have only good experiences. We shouldn’t be too negative.
  • Some people think writing for a female audience is lame. Apparently there is a listserv of science writers, and about once a year a conversation starts up about whether science writers should write for women’s magazines — apparently many people come down on the side of not thinking science writers should write for them. (My take? Any time anyone says there is anything wrong with writing for women, it is sexist.)
  • One fantastic young woman talked about how she avoids discussing her blog with her peers for fear of becoming the “soft skills chick.” Doing anything other than the hottest science seems to delegitimize women very quickly; however in some cases men get rewarded for doing the same thing (examples that come to my mind are picking up extra teaching and service, or having offspring, the latter being empirically supported).
  • Robin Lloyd already mentioned this in her article, but Ed Yong attended our panel (one of, I think, only three men). He mentioned that he gets DMed on Twitter regularly by men who want him to Tweet or promote their posts. He said he had never been DMed for promotional reasons by a woman. I was completely flabbergasted by this comment (and I don’t think I was the only one), because it had never occurred to me that I could even do that sort of a thing.
  • The brilliant Zuska made several great comments (as Sheril pointed out, she really should have been on the panel!). One that really struck me is that we need to interrogate assumptions about women and provide empirical evidence against them. The reason this came up was that we were discussing where attacks can come from, and how sometimes the attacks come from women as well as men. I believe someone made the comment that women can be worse, and alluded to the idea that women make bad bosses for women. Zuska pointed out that when you look at the evidence male bosses are still worse to women than women are to women. And of course, towards the end of the panel Zuska also used what is likely her most famous and beloved line, “I want to puke on their shoes.”


Building an old girls’ club

At the end of the day, being female is a risk factor for unwanted attention if you choose to put yourself out there in any aspect of your life, from your job to your blog. But a risk factor is not the same thing as a foregone conclusion. We can choose not to engage and participate, not to take on positions of power (like, say researchblogging editorships) or attention (blogging on a network). But we’re holding ourselves, and women younger than us, back. We aren’t directing or shaping the debate. We aren’t holding people accountable when they ignore or forget issues relevant to women and other underrepresented groups.

Women need to connect with each other in private spaces, like email and private forums, and we need to continue to write “life of science” posts that mentor other women. Anne and I have been writing each other every week for a few years now, sharing the work we need to get done, the work we are going to let go and not feel guilty about, the happy and sad happening in our lives. Those emails help me structure my week and make action plans for my big academic projects. What’s more, Anne and I probably know more about each other than many people who see each other every day. And that relationship has given me the confidence to write this blog, to engage with sciencebloggers, to be a mommy and a scientist and a professor.

Be bold. Be ambitious. Be a little bit of a bitch. Plan your life in such a way that it gets bigger, not smaller. I plan my life so that my daughter, now almost three, will feel as though anything is possible; I want to be her example that a woman can occupy space and be pleased with herself.

I hope more of you blog, I hope more of you who already blog promote your blog and get your name out there, I hope you email me or someone you feel you could connect to when you need a reminder that you’re not alone. Because, why be small when you can be big?

Robin Lloyd’s great piece in Scientific American on our women bloggers panel

I was mentioned in a piece by Robin Lloyd in Scientific American today regarding the panel I co-chaired with Anne Jefferson, Sheril Kirschenbaum and Joanne Manaster at Science Online 2011 this past weekend on the Perils of Blogging as a Woman under her Real Name.

A quick highlight:

The entire concept of a woman science blogger overturns various long-held assumptions about science and gender. Kirshenbaum urged the session audience to bring important science and health information to women readers even at old guard, mass-media “women’s” magazines such as Redbook. “I am adamantly a believer that we have to reach beyond [conventional science news outlets],” she said. “Science is not addressed to women. It’s written for men and marketed to men even if men at the magazines don’t claim that it is.”
A face-palm reaction rippled among the 20 or so mostly female attendees of the session when “Not exactly rocket science” blogger Ed Yong (@edyong209) said, “I suspect there is a bias in terms of what is pushed to me through Twitter.” He explained that, although other male writers often ask him to retweet links to their latest blog posts, not a single such request has ever come from a woman writer. Women in the room immediately broke into laughter, and commented about the novelty and presumptuousness to them of such a practice. Said Yong, “The fact that people haven’t done this speaks volumes.”

Check it out!

Cross-posted at Laboratory for Evolutionary Endocrinology

Who are you and what are you doing here? A survey

Some practical advice that I gleaned from the Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries session at Science Online 2011 was to find out who my readers are, what they liked, what keeps them coming back, what they want more of. I needed to get a SurveyMonkey pro account anyway for a scholarly project I will be launching in a few months, so I tested it out by putting this together. Please answer honestly, and share any additional thoughts or comments below!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

Science Online 2011: The craft of blogging, and getting this durn blog to count for something

In my experience as an academic, the first time I attend a conference I am all about the panels and symposia. I run frantically from one room to the next, barely stopping for food or to use the restroom, and take notes at every speaker. Then, with every year I attend the conference, I attend fewer talks and spend more time catching up with friends and networking with a combination of collaborators and people I hope will write external letters for my tenure case. Both the early zest, and the later relaxation and connections with other people, are really enjoyable states. My first experience with Science Online has been sort of a combination of the two, because it was organized in a way to maximize our enjoyment of the speakers, while also very intentionally setting up opportunities for us to socialize in a way that helped awkward scientists get to know each other with minimal effort.

Friday, January 14th

I arrived on Friday just in time to see Bora, hug him, and run to my first afternoon workshop. I attended Joanne Manaster‘s and Carin Bondar‘s workshop on making your own short video, then Clifton Wiens‘s workshop entitled “Science Documentary – The Challenges and Possibilities.” Joanne and Carin were energetic and hopeful, and offered a lot of practical advice. They also had us break up into small groups twice to discuss first what kind of short videos we were interested in producing, and then to work together in that same group to talk through one of our ideas. Based on some interesting conversations in the first round on leeches, and an eye toward SEO search terms, we came up with a short video concept entitled “Lady Gaga’s Meat Dress or Justin Bieber: Who Would Leeches Prefer?” We had a lot of fun thinking through how that would look… and to be honest, I kinda want to see the thing made now. My small group had a number of wonderful people, and with apologies for who I am forgetting we had Ariel Neff, Holly Tucker, Randi Hutter Epstein, Bora Zivkovic, Jai Ranganathan, Megan Lowman, and several others.

Friday night we had a Books and Beer event, which I mostly spent ogling all the people I had been reading and admiring for years (I got to hug Ed Yong, and meet/hug a number of other truly wonderful people), and then we went out to group dinners that we had to sign up for ahead of time. I signed up for the group dinner that Anne Jefferson was in, because she and I have been friends for years, and had never met. It was so exciting to meet, and hug, and feel that instant connection of friendship in person that had developed online. Notice, that’s now three hugs I’ve received from people I’d never met in person before. This will be a recurring theme.

At the group dinner, a number of women ended up together, chatting about Anne’s and my upcoming panel on blogging as a woman. Holly, Christie Wilcox, Melissa, Kea, and others weighed in with insightful comments, observations, and frustrations. I am beginning to think we will never get to everything we want to get to in that panel in just an hour… but we’ll try (Sunday, 11:30am, Room B!).

Saturday, January 15th: morning

Saturday is the first full day of the conferences, with panels and speakers and demos. For my morning panels, I chose topics that would help me think about the crafts of blogging and communicating science: Making the History of Science Work for You, Experiments with the imagination: science and scientists through the medium of fiction with Jennifer Rohn and Blake Stacey, and The Entertainment Factor – Communicating Science with Humor with Brian Malow and Joanne Manaster.

All three panels were great, but I wanted to spend a little time unpacking some of my own thinking about the wonderful fiction panel.

Jenny and Blake are both published authors of fiction, and they organized their time in such a way as to really encourage the audience to participate. We discussed the pull to get the facts right, but also the pull to get the people (the scientists) right, when writing fiction that contains science. Jenny discussed fiction as “a stealth tactic to slip in science,” which I liked, and we talked about what it means to get more people excited about science, and the trade-offs of often having to trade some reality for drama. Blake made some nice points about how a reader can suspend disbelief if the science is off in something, but if they get the scientists wrong, it’s a horrible mistake. Showing scientists act in a way that they would never act is inauthentic, and dehumanizes them. If we want more people excited about science, and getting into science, scientists have to be portrayed realistically.

I was interested in what we could learn from fiction and storytelling to help us capture more readers in our science writing. Recently, I have had two experiences that have shown me that it’s important to take into account how literal-minded some layfolks can be when reading or learning about things, as opposed to the skepticism scientists often bring.

For the first experience, last month I wrote a guest post for Scientific American entitled “I don’t have a 28-day menstrual cycle, and neither should you.” It was pretty popular, was retweeted widely, and got a lot of comments (at least for me). I did some sleuthing to try and figure out who was reading it or talking about it, and found someone had cut and pasted my entire post into a forum at thenest.com. If you read the comments, you’ll see how outraged many of the women were at what I thought was a humorous, if provocative, title. They took the title literally.

The second experience is related to teaching. For the last several semesters in the courses I teach, I have discussed the economic situation of my university with my class on the first day, where the money goes, how their tuition is on the rise, and what my contract covers (in terms of research, teaching, and service, and the expectations of the time I’ll allocate to the three, which happens to be 55%, 35% and 10% respectively). In that same lecture, indeed only moments later, I explain my radical teaching philosophy and share with them my passion for teaching and connecting with them and sharing my excitement for the material. Every semester I have done this, I get at least a few student evaluations who say “From the first day Prof. Clancy showed she hated us and hated teaching, and said she was only here to do research and that’s what she’s paid to do. She hates students!!!1!11!!” Again, even though the “reveal” was seconds after the set-up, a number of students took me literally.

Now, it’s entirely possible that I lack much writing and speaking finesse, and this leads to these misunderstandings. But I suspect a certain literal-mindedness from lay readers and new learners of science, because of the way that they are taught that science is something you KNOW, something with irrefutable FACTS where you are right or wrong. They don’t learn the process of science, so they don’t know to suspend their disbelief, they don’t know to think about the whole picture, they don’t expect something with nuance. The question I have is, does that mean in order to communicate with a wider audience that we should lose the nuance, or do we just know that we are going to lose readers, or, is there some way to encourage the reader to rise up to the level of our writing? They’re smart enough, they just don’t have a scientist’s toolbox. Can we give them that toolbox as science bloggers and writers? How would we do that without being pedantic?

Saturday, January 15th: afternoon

I attended another two great panels: Blogs, Bloggers and Boundaries? with Marie-Claire Shanahan, Alice Bell, Ed Yong, Martin Robbins and Viv Raper, and How is the Web changing the way we identify scientific impact? with Jason Priem, Paul Groth, Martin Fenner, and Jason Hoyt (check out their Google Doc here). I want to touch on the second panel, because it feels particularly important to someone like me, a tenure-track professor foolish enough to blog under my real name.

I asked (and it was retweeted many times to apparent amusement!) whether the panelists could create alt-metrics that could look more official. What I meant, which I don’t think I conveyed that well, was that I know that blogging is important, I know its value, and so does everyone in the room. What those of us who are practicing scientists have trouble with are the majority of our other colleagues, because the rest of them don’t blog, and are not only skeptical, but occasionally openly mocking or hostile. Blogging is still seen as frivolous in slow-to-catch-on academia. In some disciplines or at some universities, it may very well be a black mark on one’s tenure papers. So how can we show the impact we are having on society in a quantitatively measurable way that doesn’t take significant effort on the part of the end-user/scientist? Or perhaps more selfishly, because this would certainly help with tenure: how can we demonstrate with alt-metrics that our online science work brings prestige to our institutions? Can we create a blog impact factor, or a personality/brand impact factor? I can tell you the number of twitter followers I have, the number of times particular posts have been read, and even the type of browsers my readers use. But I can’t always measure whether a post or tweet is having a positive effect on people unless they tell me.

After the panel, I ended up talking to Paul Groth and Jason Priem for a little while, and what I heard was encouraging. The social science research to link alt-metrics with impact is underway now, alongside the developers trying to build those new metrics. Perhaps in another year or two, we will have both empirical evidence of the importance and effect of social media, and the tools for scientists and science communicators to measure it for themselves. Then I can put a line in my CV that identifies my social media and web presence and its impact on fellow scientists and the public.

Tomorrow is the last day of the conference, which makes me both happy and sad: happy to be having my panel (did I mention that it is Sunday, 11:30am, room B?), happy to be heading home; but sad to already have to leave friends with whom I feel so close. I feel a different kind of camaraderie here compared to what I have at academic conferences: here, we have a shared mission to make the world a better place with science and to share our curiosity, delight and excitement with as many people as possible.

Of course, the good news is that I can take all these wonderful people home with me in my pocket — it’s called Tweetdeck for Android.

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