Friday, 28 February 2014

How to help me, as a woman [attempting to remain] in science

This week, there are two conferences going on that I wish I was attending: 2014 Ocean Sciences (#2014OSM on Twitter), and ScienceOnline (#scio14). I’m not there because I don’t have any funding to go there. I don’t have any funding go to there for a number of reasons, part of which are my own damn ignorant fault, but partly because of some funky stumbling blocks that have tripped me up (and, I dare say probably others in my situation), threatening to derail me from my intended path to be a scientist (and/or science communicator, maybe?—but that’s a topic for another day).

There is so much talk of the leaky pipeline, and discussion about how to plug up the hole to keep more women in science for longer. We drop like flies after the PhD.

There have been some excellent ideas for tackling this problem (see links above, for instance), but I have thoughts to add on things that would (maybe) help me avoid leaking out to work at Starbucks, or being a full-time mom until my kid goes to school and I’m too disconnected to re-enter the workforce. I hope this doesn’t come across as a whiny rant; my intention is really to detail the mechanistic problems that I am personally facing following my dream.

The common thread that ties all of these ideas together is that as an adult, particularly an adult with a kid (or more than one!), life requires money. This thoughtful blog post points out some major issues why (marine) science lacks diversity: life as a scientist apparently requires sacrifices of both money and time. When I was younger, it wasn’t as big of a deal for me to work for minimum wage, or even volunteer, to gain experience in science.
I have a lot of experience doing this, and I like it. I have less experience being a barista, or a parking lot attendant, but I'm still allowed to apply for those jobs, if I want to.
But now life is expensive. Housing, transportation, food, and – most painful of all – good childcare consumes all available funds we may have, leaving my ability to pay someone to care for my child while I work for free, much less my ability to pay out of pocket to attend conferences totally impossible. Yet if I want to remain in science, these are the things that (I believe, perhaps I’m incorrect?) are necessary – I have to keep publishing, and I would sure like to remain alive and kicking in the face-to-face conference-networking arena – but how can I possibly justify either of these things when I’m currently working part-time as an adjunct and part-time as a mom (and part-time as a renovations contractor on my house—but that’s a different story)?

So, what are my ideas to help combat this?

1. Don’t place limits on time-since PhD in job advertisements
Since graduating, I’ve taken 9 months “off” for family obligations. During these times, I was not being paid yet continued to work as much as I could on publications, data analysis, and writing a book, while taking care of my family. I’ve also had, up to now, about 9 months of partial employment during which I have continued to do research in my (not very abundant) free time because I care about it, and because I very much want to remain competitive for “real” science jobs. But, all up I’ve been a PhD-holder for about 4.5 years, and can no longer apply to a host a job opportunities I’ve seen because I’m too “advanced” in my career.

But why? If I really want to do another post-doc because it is housed in a lab that does work I love, and it would allow me to continue doing research during more than 1-2 hour nap-time blocks each day, and I’d be a good fit for the position, why does it really matter when I graduated?

2.  Let us apply for funds to attend conferences, and give us the student/high school teacher rates
Plenty of conferences set aside funds to bring students, high school science teachers or researchers from less-developed countries in who otherwise couldn’t afford it. This is wonderful. But I am currently much less able to pay to attend a conference than I was as a student, because:
(a) the registration fees are higher
(b) I have to do something with my kid – pay to bring him along, or pay for extra childcare the week I’m away, or pay to fly him to his grandparents’ for the week, etc. (The key word is pay)
(c) There is no graduate or development office from which to beg for money to fund my conference attendance

3. Offer good, afforable childcare at conferences
When I was breastfeeding, I attended two conferences with my son in tow. At that point it was cheaper (no cost on the domestic flights) and physically easier (no pumping and desperately missing him) to bring him along than to place him in full-time childcare at home. At the more-important (more relevant to my field) conference, there was no childcare at the convention center, and all childcare places in the town that I called were booked solid. So we paid out of pocket and my husband took days off work he could come with me to care for the babe for half the day and work remotely for half the day, and I took the kid with me to half the day’s sessions. Sucky.
Yes, that is 6-week-old Ryder in an ergo as I present two posters and answer emails during a week-long pause in my maternity leave to attend AGU. I look somewhat less approachable than the lady on the left (Photo by Rachel Borgatti)
4. Let us apply for money from special pots
I know, this makes it seem like I think I am special, and shouldn’t have to compete with everyone else for money. But really, do you think that my proposal—written exclusively during naps and at 10 pm when I am also sleep deprived and half my days are spent doing brain-cell-destroying activities like explaining why the kid can’t have chocolate for breakfast—going to be as competitive as someone who gets to sit in a quiet office and spend time actually reading journal articles (what’s that?) and thinking about science (what a concept!)? I’m doing this as well, but I’m not holding my breath.

Several countries have recognized that we might need a little help, and I applaud them and am very jealous:
Swiss Federal Institutes of Technology Domain:
The Wellcome Trust, career re-entry scheme, Europe:
Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship for flexible work, UK:

For a number of super obvious reasons (i.e. it’s really unhelpful to be evicted when you baby is 2 months old because you failed to pay the rent after taking your 6 weeks unpaid leave). Come on now.

Well, that’s all I have time for. What do you think of these ideas?

Monday, 24 February 2014

How to talk to journalists as a scientist, and not make them hate you

Before I left Australia, I got to participate in a day-long media training event with Science in Public. A group of post-docs were chosen to learn from journalists in radio, print, and television. I had previously been interviewed a few times for articles, and I mostly felt like an unprepared idiot. With a small amount of training, I feel a lot more comfortable about the idea of both speaking coherently with non-scientists, and not ending up giving an accidental foot-in-mouth quote that makes me cringe to read/hear later on.

Today, I’ve asked my friend and radio-journo Jennifer Macey to give us her thoughts on ways scientists can provide good interview material to journalists, for everyone's benefit. [I’ve added some bits in, too]

Jessica: Who is the professional Jennifer Macey?

Jennifer: I report for the ABC's news and current affairs programs, AM, The World Today and PM. These are broadcast around Australia on the public radio [Australia’s version of NPR]. I've been a journalist for almost 20 years (eek) and although I am a general reporter - reporting on everything, I have a particular interest in environment and science yarns.

Jessica: What’s a typical day at the office for you?

Jennifer: The morning shift starts at 5:30am and the editorial meeting is at 6:15am, where the reporters pitch/suggest story ideas to our producer, who then considers them and assigns us one. We then have an hour and a half* to read the scientific paper and ring our contacts or the number on the bottom of the university or institute's press release. We hope that they are still awake in the US or Europe, or wake them up if they're in Australia. We ring every mobile phone number in our contact list related to that subject matter to find another scientist who can add a second voice. We email them the paper so they can make a considered comment before they've even had breakfast. Do a short interview for 10-15 minutes. Pick the best quotes, cut them out. Write a script. Record script. Edit out the bloopers and cut and paste it all together, in time for the 8:00 am show. Phew!  

The midday show allows three hours to prepare a story and the afternoon show gives us a whopping four hours. A typical story can be anywhere from two and half minutes to four minutes long. That is not a lot of time to explain a complex scientific study and may explain why science stories can sound simplistic to an experienced ear.

*I cannot even fathom reading a paper in this amount of time to then explain to my cat, let alone the entire country; yet the journos do this, PLUS interviews and story-producing to boot. These people are amazing.

One of my first interviews was conducted over the phone while I breast-fed this little critter in the back of my car in the pouring rain. This was not an ideal way to focus and come up with thoughtful answers to the reporter's questions.

Jessica: Ok, so maybe we shouldn't blather on for 20 minutes about background leading up to the point out our work.

I’ve also learned that it’s Ok for scientists to contact journalists directly with story ideas. How do you typically get your ideas for new science stories?

Jennifer: I subscribe to a lot of science email notifications from Universities and via the Australian Science Media Centre (AUSSMC), which compiles science papers and gathers a bunch of responses from experts along with their contact details. The AUSSMC is a journalist’s best friend, and makes the frantic search for comments much easier**. But I also get updates on upcoming science articles from Eurekalert. These are usually strictly embargoed. We also subscribe to alerts from Nature etc.

Sometimes scientists will even contact me and say they're working on something and we can prepare something in advance to coincide with the embargoed release. Or our producer may see a science story on another news site and we'll do our own version of the story with new interviews. Generally, we come up with the idea and broadcast it on the same day. Occasionally we do stories in advance but that's pretty rare. The number of times a press officer at a university or a medical institute has said to me, "Oh no, Dr. so-and-so is not available, but she'll be back next week…" Sorry—next week it won't be news anymore. 

**If you would like to be interviewed as an expert regarding a scientific publication in your field, you can sign up to be on various expert databases—particularly if you are a woman or under-represented in your field, go sign up and get your perspective out into the media.
Some examples:
American Geophysical Union:
National Science & Technology News Service:
Minority Postdocs:
Australian Science Media Service
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada
Am I still considered an expert ocean scientist if I can get seasick underwater?

Jessica: Going into an interview, you generally already understand the story or scientific finding—something I didn't know until recently! When you put together the story, you also do most of the science-explaining for the audience. What are you hoping to get from the interviews you conduct?

Jennifer: Initially, I want the scientist to briefly describe the process of the study, and what significance or what impact this discovery will have. Even if I do have an understanding of the science, I still need the scientist to explain the study or the discovery in simple, layman’s terms. Sometimes I need an explanation from the beginning so I can be sure I understand it myself and can then interpret it for our listeners (sometimes we're translators!).

I also always love interesting details, for instance that the scientist was looking for a certain gene and accidentally stumbled on some new bacteria. I also like to see the big picture—who cares? Or even something very basic, like for a coral scientist to simply describe the beauty and expanse of the Great Barrier Reef.

Words that paint pictures in the listener’s head are the best way of conveying science stories. Here's an example from a story that I did about the Brood II periodical cicadas that emerged last year. The imagery is so great - comparing cicadas to a boy band that will be as loud as an aircraft - loud and slightly annoying!  

JENNIFER MACEY: And will they be noisy?

MICHAEL RAUPP: Oh they're going to be extremely noisy. This is a big boy band. It's only the male cicadas that sing, and their sound levels will approach about 90 decibels. This is the sound of a jet aircraft, a very loud lawnmower, or in this case, because these are just teenagers, they're 17 years old, it's about as loud as a rock concert. 

We were really excited to learn that the munitions littering our study location--where we were manually pounding metal pipes into the seafloor--were no longer live. We also learned some cool science stuff.

Jessica: What are some other ways scientists can be more helpful to journalists during interviews?

Jennifer: Think about your audience. I've described what a radio current affairs journalist is looking for. Radio news journos who have 45 second stories with a 15 second quote have different needs. Newspaper or magazine journalists also have different requirements. We have a pretty smart audience, but a science journal or a magazine that focuses on one subject will have more discerning, informed readers that may need less simplified explanations. 

Also, the phone lines in America are rubbish, it's like ringing a developing country. You need to get them upgraded.

Jessica: Thanks, Jennifer! For other ideas to make your time talking with journalists more effective and efficient, check out training events and blog posts by organizations like COMPASS (in the US) or Science in Public (in Australia). For instance, the COMPASS “Message Box” is a great way to organize your thoughts so you don’t trip yourself up during an interview by getting lost in your own brain and forgetting your point.