My review of Lab Girl for the LA Review of Books

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let's go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis (Flickr: jbyoder)

How should I illustrate a review of Lab Girl? Let’s go with a cool plant. This is bunchberry, Cornus canadensis. (Flickr: jbyoder)

You have surely, by now, heard all about Hope Jahren’s terrific scientific memoir Lab Girl, including as one of my “bookshelf” recommendations for Chronicle Vitae. My full-length review of Lab Girl is now online at the LA Review of Books, and it is, as you might expect, very positive — Jahren writes beautifully about the process of scientific discovery and the daily miracles of the natural world. As a postdoc still scrabbling for purchase on the lower rungs of the tenure track, though, Lab Girl managed to simultaneously tweak my anxieties and give me hope:

The world is heating up, and it often seems that the intellectual luxuries afforded to scientists of the past — Darwin’s leisurely publication schedule, Haldane’s dalliances with radical politics — are gone. Lab Girl’s rendition of the daily institutional frustrations of research marks it as a different kind of scientific memoir — but also as a product of twenty-first century science. If you navigate among scientists’ blogs or scroll through their Twitter feeds, you’ll quickly find the same fears and vexations and injustices Jahren describes, intertwined with accounts of the work that excites scientists’ passions. … Jahren does not makes science look like an easy career choice, but it isn’t her job to do so — and if Lab Girl chronicles the real and substantial barriers to becoming a successful scientist, it also makes that life compelling: she shows the fruit that can still grow from the rocky soil of a research career.

I do hope you’ll read the whole review, and pick up a copy of Lab Girl if you somehow haven’t already.

Share

In which I can kinda fake Sorkin dialogue?

images-2

(Previously, on Twitter)

OPEN ON Toby Ziegler and Josh Lyman, walking down a hallway in the West Wing.

Toby: Nominee’s out. Merrick—
Josh: Merrick?
Toby: Garland.
Josh: Merrick Garland?
Toby: Merrick Garland.
Josh: What, did Hermione Granger turn us down?
Toby: Is she on the D.C. Circuit, or the 5th?
Josh: Aw, you know what I mean. He just sounds really—
Toby: White?
Josh: I was going to say WASPy, but sure.
Toby: You work for a Josiah Bartlett.
Josh: …
Toby: Anyway, he’s a good judge. Great experience. Prosecuted Tim McVeigh.
Josh: I just thought we were going to be more, uh, creative.
Toby: It’s a bad time for creative.
Josh: Is it ever a good one?
Toby: The Judiciary Committee isn’t going to end the freezeout for creative
Josh: You think the Judiciary Committee is going to end the freezeout for Merrick Garland?
Toby: Well, they’ll look dumb if they don’t
Josh: They look dumb anyway!
Toby: Gotta heighten the contradictions. Freezing out a boring, obviously qualified nominee
Josh: You think they’ll crack?
Toby: If they do, we get Justice Merrick Garland. If they don’t, we try again after the election.
Josh: AFTER THE ELECTION?
Toby: It’s nuts, I agree.
Josh: It’s NUTS.
Toby: The Republicans are nuts.
Josh: You’d think people who talked so much about the Constitution would—
Toby: Follow it?
Josh: Yeah.
Toby: Are you new here?
Josh: So if they freeze out Merrick Garland, AND we win the election, we can get creative?
Toby: More creative, yeah. Not much, though — because we still might not get the Senate back.
Josh: Jeez. Maybe nominating Hermione Granger would be more realistic.
Toby: [shrugs]

FIN

Share

Chronicle Vitae: On advice

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

Truth in advertising. (Flickr: Alexander)

I’m back in Vitae this week, ruminating on the usefulness of personal advice — or rather, its frequent lack of usefulness.

The challenge with receiving and applying advice is to distinguish real, general principles from what may simply amount to another person’s recollection of a series of events that ended well. … Certainly in academia, as in any career, there are habits and choices that improve the odds of survival from graduate school to tenure. But simply making it to a particular stage doesn’t actually mean that you had all the right habits or made all the right choices — or even know which habits and choices will work for most other people.

In keeping with my established approach to these columns, I actually do circle back around to a way in which you can learn from other folks’ personal experiences, but you’ll need to read the whole thing to find out how.

Share

How to do chili

Not pretty, but it warms you right up. (jay)

Not pretty, but it’ll warm you right up. (jby)

We’re well into the time of year when, in Minneapolis, the air outdoors will freeze your nose hairs on the first breath, and snow has lost its charm. Here in Vancouver, the only substantial snow is on the mountains across the water, but there’s ice on the trails in Stanley Park, and the trees are lacy with frozen fog. In either city, it’s the time of year for soup: elaborately spiced pho, classic chicken-noodle, and chili.

I don’t so much have a recipe for chili as I have some rules of thumb. My preferred ratios of ingredients, and some of my spicing, are informed by the recipe in Mark Bittman’s magisterial How to Cook Everything, but really that one confirmed a lot of what I’d already arrived at through trial and error. This probably won’t win you a state-fair cook-off, but it’ll make a big pot of hot, hearty, fragrantly spiced chili of the sort that goes perfectly with some cornbread or over rice on a cold winter night.

Here’s what you do:

Continue reading

Share

Chronicle Vitae: Thanks to mentors

In the field with my dissertation advisor, Olle Pellmyr (centre) and collaborator Will Godsoe. (Flickr: jby)

In the field during the first year of my Ph.D. research with my dissertation advisor, Olle Pellmyr (centre) and collaborator Will Godsoe (left). (Flickr: jby)

Over at Vitae, I’m contemplating an appropriate topic for the week of U.S. Thanksgiving: how much I owe to the many senior colleagues who’ve mentored me over the course of my scientific career.

In graduate school and as a postdoc, I’ve been exceptionally fortunate in my formal and informal relationships with senior colleagues. As I’m nearing (I hope) the day when I will begin teaching, training graduate students, and supervising postdocs myself, I’ve tried to keep track of specific ways that my mentors have aided me. It’s helped me define what I want to do as a mentor myself, but it’s also good, I think, to remember how much my career has depended on others’ support.

No, I don’t know why the piece is illustrated by men carrying turkeys, apart from the seasonal connection. Maybe the men are mentors and the turkeys are mentees? Maybe just go read the whole column and don’t over-think it.

Share

Chronicle Vitae: Why the tenure track job hunt sucks — and why it maybe ought to?

(Flickr: Alison Curtis)

(Flickr: Alison Curtis)

In a new post for the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Vitae blog today, I let off a little of the steam accumulated over four years (and counting) of writing applications for tenure-track faculty jobs.

Do you really need to receive letters of reference with my application? Yes, of course, you want perspectives on candidates from people who have worked with us in the past. Will you use their letters in the very first round of sorting through dozens (or hundreds) of applicants? Probably not. I have met a few faculty members who tell me that they do read letters for that first-stage decision — but those professors are the rare, possibly superhuman, exceptions. For candidates, making sure letters get delivered means making sure that three-to-five usually very busy senior collaborators know the general description of the job opening in question, the idiosyncratic method by which letters should be submitted, and the deadline for submission — then following up to ensure they meet that deadline.

I’d like to think this column is both a (reasonable) extended complaint, and a #SlatePitch-y rebuttal to said complaint — because I kinda think, actually, that as maddening as tenure-track applications can be, they might be pretty good at identifying people who will do well as faculty. To find out why, go read the whole thing.

Share

Chronicle Vitae: What is a postdoc?

(Library of Congress: C.H. Kidurell)

Vitae totally found a picture of an old-time scientist with exactly my haircut. (Library of Congress: C.H. Kidurell)

Over at The Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Vitae site, I’m contemplating my own job description.

In the four years since I finished my doctorate, I’ve done at least another Ph.D.’s-worth of work on questions that, back in graduate school, I would never have thought I could tackle. I’ve been lucky — I landed a good postdoc on an interesting project with a mentor who gave me freedom to pursue just about anything I thought would be valuable. That is all exactly what I would want to do running my own lab as a principal investigator, with a faculty appointment. And isn’t that what I’m “training” to do, after all?

It ends up being, as you might expect, as much about the prospects for something to do after being a postdoc as the postdoc itself — but for that, you should go read the whole thing.

Share

Nothing in Biology Makes Sense: Nature’s Nether Regions, by Menno Schilthuizen, reviewed

Jewelwing Love

Jewelwing damselflies (Calopteryx maculata) mating. (Flickr: Lisa Brown)

Over at Nothing in Biology Makes Sense, I’ve posted a long-overdue review of a terrific little book about naughty parts. Genitals. Junk. It’s called Nature’s Nether Regions, by evolutionary biologist and entomologist Menno Schilthuizen, and it puts the weird world of (animal) reproductive anatomy on full display, while avoiding the cliches and pitfalls into which so many popular accounts of sex and evolution fall.

The book’s subtitle What the Sex Lives of Bugs, Birds, and Beasts Tell us About Evolution, Biodiversity, and Ourselves, might be a bit ominous to a reader familiar with the many hazards of evolutionary hypothesizing about human behavior, but Schlithuizen’s chatty tour of animals’ sexual anatomy dodges them all. He does this, in large part, by devoting far more time and attention to the “evolution” and “biodiversity” than to “ourselves,” putting the rather pedestrian reproductive arrangements of Homo sapiens in their place amidst the baroque diversity of appendages, receptacles, secretions, and behaviors other animals employ to multiply their kinds.

Go read the whole review, which includes some sampling of the natural history Schilthuizen covers, and then check out the book itself.

Share

Queer as Spock

(jby)

(jby)

It is an axiom of geek culture that Star Trek was a beacon of progressive thought on prime-time television, presenting an aggressively optimistic vision of the future in which humans of all races worked alongside even stranger beings to explore the universe and protect life in all its diversity, with phasers set to “stun” unless absolutely necessary. It is equally widely admitted that a glaring gap in the rainbow coalition aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise was human sexual diversity: in six television series and 12 feature films, the franchise has never identified an onscreen character as unambiguously gay, lesbian, or transgender.

Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was, apparently, farther behind the curve on gay rights than he was on racial equality, and never quite made queer inclusion a priority in his time guiding the franchise. Nevertheless Trek has tiptoed up to the line from a number of angles, presenting mind-swaps between bodies of different sexes going back to the “Original Series” of the late 1960s, alien species with sexual and gender roles that defy the male-female binary, sexually ambiguous alter-egos in parallel universes, and even gender reassignment surgery. Legend among fans also has it that an officer on the bridge in the movie Star Trek: First Contact, Lieutenant Hawke (Neal McDonough), was conceived with a gay backstory, but this personalizing detail was cut for time, and Hawke was assimilated by the Borg — maybe making things a little more fabulous in the depths of the Collective, if not the onscreen canon. Gay men also made central, if officially closeted, contributions to Trek: most notably George Takei, who played Lieutenant Sulu, and screenwriter David Gerrold, who wrote episodes including “The Trouble With Tribbles,” the one that buries William Shatner’s Captain Kirk in a pile of multicolored fur-balls. Gerrold wrote an episode for Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Blood and Fire,” which included a gay couple in pivotal roles, but the screenplay never got anywhere near production. (It has since been adapted in a fan-made continuation of the Original Series, with no small success.)

But while fans looking for overt queerness in Star Trek are forced to rummage through the lower decks of the franchise, there’s been a covert gay icon stationed up on the bridge since before the first episode was broadcast. That icon is none other than the First Officer of the Enterprise, Mr. Spock.

Continue reading

Share