The science gender gap gets personal with #MyGenderGap

2010.04.08 - The team Part of the 2010 Joshua tree field crew. Photo by jby.

Thanks to Anne Jefferson on Twitter, I see that Alex Bond has called our collective attention to Nature‘s great feature on gender equity in the sciences by making the whole thing as personal as possible: asking people to total up their collaborators and see what female-to-male ratio they find:

There’s lots out there on women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), the challenges they face, and the degree to which they are under-appreciated (including historical figures).

So what can I, a white man, do?

Well, the data in the Nature article had to come from somewhere. So as an actively publishing scientist, I contribute to this phenomenon (regardless of whether my data were included in Nature).

It so happens that I just put together a comprehensive list of everyone with whom I’ve ever co-authored for a grant proposal, so this took exactly as long as I needed to go down the list and recall everyone’s gender identity. As of right now, I have 42 (!) co-authors; with the addition of three undergrad research assistants who didn’t rate (or haven’t yet rated) co-authorships, I’ve directly collaborated with 29 men and 16 women, which gives a gender-gap ratio of 0.55. That’s better than the US-wide average of 0.43 given in the Nature piece, but still not nearly what I’d call parity.

Folks are tweeting their ratios with the #MyGenderGap hashtag, so it’ll be interesting to see what emerges.◼

Science online, shutdown edition

Aedes aegypti mosquito A safer DEET successor can’t arrive soon enough. Photo by Sanofi Pasteur.


IMG_6311 The dome of the Minnesota State Capitol. Photo by ckschleg.

Almost exactly six months after the election in which Minnesotans decided they didn’t want their state constitution to ban the legal recognition of same-sex relationships, their elected representatives provided that very recognition.

Last Thursday the state House passed a bill allowing the state to recognize same-sex couples in all the same ways it recognizes straight couples; today the Senate passed it, too; and tomorrow Governor Dayton will sign it into law. It’s almost exactly two years since another bunch of state legislators passed bills to amend the state constitution with a ban on same-sex marriage—which makes this some kind of record turn-around.

Of course, that turnaround happened because those two years contained an uprecedented campaign against the amendment by Minnesotans United for All Families leading up to a huge get-out-the-vote effort on election day that, incidentally, also saw the Democratic Farm Labor party take control of both houses of the state legislature. Almost immediately after the election, MNUnited moved to take advantage of the new, friendlier state government, re-tooling into a lobbying effort for the legislative measures that just passed.

I wasn’t anywhere near as closely involved in that new effort as I was in the campaign against the amendment—I made a couple donations, but otherwise stayed home and kept an eye on the news. This time round the action was in lobbying legislators, and I’d already helped get the out the votes to win DFL control of the legislature, and both my state rep and my state senator were co-sponsors on the House and Senate versions of the bill. Once again, a bunch of distant strangers were voting on the fullness of my citizenship—only this time the group of strangers was smaller, we already knew how most of them would vote, and there didn’t seem to be a lot of use calling up representatives and senators on whom I had no electoral claim. But the folks who did the work behind the scenes—and the folks who did call legislators and show up to rallies at the state capitol and generally keep up the pressure once the bills had been introduced into committee—made it happen.

This is far from the end of the struggle to achieve full equality before the law for all queer Americans—notably, there are 38 other states and at least one big Supreme Court decision to go, just on the single issue of civil marriage.

But it’s a mighty big step for the state of Minnesota—and it feels like we might just be riding the historical moment of inflection for the rest of the nation.

Edited to add: here, via the Minnesota Public Radio YouTube channel (with hat-tip to Joe My God), is what things looked like in the Capitol rotunda after the Senate’s vote today:

Because, duh.

Felony experimentation

This story is, rightly, blowing up the science-y internet:

Kiera Wilmot got good grades and had a perfect behavior record. She wasn’t the kind of kid you’d expect to find hauled away in handcuffs and expelled from school, but that’s exactly what happened after an attempt at a science project went horribly wrong.

Wilmot apparently mixed some “household chemicals” together inside a small plastic bottle, producing a reaction that caused the bottle to explode. She told police that she meant it as a scientific experiment—clearly she was curious to see what would happen, which makes it an experiment in spirit, even if it didn’t take place in a lab. The chemicals involved aren’t specified, but anyone who grew up among nerdy teenagers probably remembers doing exactly this, and probably can recall the recipe. Trouble is, Wilmot did it on school grounds, outside of a supervised science class. And the response of the folks who run her school was totally fucking disproportionate:

After the explosion Wilmot was taken into custody by a school resources officer and charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school grounds and discharging a destructive device. She will be tried as an adult.

One of the people who might have something to say about this said this:

“She made a bad choice. Honestly, I don’t think she meant to ever hurt anyone,” principal Ron Pritchard told the station. “She wanted to see what would happen [when the chemicals mixed] and was shocked by what it did. Her mother is shocked, too.”

And now a sixteen-year-old girl with no prior behavioral problems and good grades is at risk of acquiring the kind of criminal record that screws up job interviews, credit checks, and applications to college. All for setting up an experiment you can see performed in any number of YouTube videos.

And, oh yeah, Kiera Wilmot is African American. DNLee digs into the sad, infuriating racial component of this whole sad, infuriating mess over at Scientific American, and this is really her wheelhouse. My only contribution to that part of the conversation is: I grew up in a rural, predominantly white, predominantly middle-class school district. Among my friends, when I was sixteen, were any number of white, male, middle-class kids who set up “experiments” far more dangerous than what we’re told Kiera Wilmot did. They set off explosions with household chemicals, firecrackers, model rocket engines—and none of them were charged with felonies.

I’m pretty sure none of them would’ve been charged with felonies even if they’d set off one of these experiments on or near school grounds. Yes, they might’ve been suspended a day or two, or made to attend a safety lecture, but no one dismissed the destruction of their future with the blandly hateful accusation that they “made a bad choice.”

Because they were white, teenaged, middle-class boys in a rural school district, and blowing things up was just what white, teenaged, middle-class boys did. Everyone knew that.

There is, at least, a petition. I’d suggest that you sign it.◼

A Thing I Can Do

2009.10.11 - Portland marathon, mile 17 About mile 17 of the 2009 Portland Marathon. After five marathons, this is still the best “running” shot I have. Photo via jby.

I first heard that something was up in Boston yesterday when I got off the treadmill at the campus gym and logged onto the exercise-tracking app Fitocracy to record the workout. Like any self-respecting tech startup in 2013, Fitocracy has a “social” component, and people were using its message board to ask each other what had happened.

When I got back to the office, I found out pretty quickly. Someone planted bombs at the finish line to the premier marathon in North America. As of right now, three people have died of injuries sustained in the blasts; more than 170 are injured. Many people have lost limbs—legs—to shrapnel. I’ve run five marathons myself, and pushed myself pretty damn hard to do it, and I can only dream of someday qualifying to run the 26.2-mile course that ends at that finish line.

And that’s really all I can say about it. Other people were actually there. I’m just another guy who runs, listening to special reports on the radio.

I’ve spent the time since I saw those first social network posts helping a friend celebrate the completion of her doctorate (with cake!), hacking away at two or three different projects I’m currently juggling, listening to the news without saying much, planning for a scientific conference, speculating angrily about the kind of person who’d bomb a marathon, receiving some good (but not yet blog-able) news, and trying to decide whether to write about any of this in a public way at all.

And I found out—via Twitter, of course—that runners all over the place are logging their runs, and dedicating them to Boston. There’s a hashtag: #RunForBoston. So I did that for my nine-mile Tuesday run, down one bank of the Mississippi River and back up the other in the still-too-rare sunlight of an April evening in Minnesota. Because it’s A Thing I Can Do.◼


Big Gay Race-DSC_6042- 9.29.12 The crowd at the Big Gay Race, in support of Minnesotans United for All Families. Photo by Joe Bielawa.

Last night’s election was a nationwide blowout for gay rights. Maine and Maryland passed ballot initiatives legalizing same-sex marriage, and although Washington’s mail-in balloting slows down the vote-counting, it looks like that state passed marriage equality, too. And here in Minnesota, we soundly rejected the proposal to put a ban on same-sex marriage in the state constitution — the final vote looks to be about 51% against the amendment.

Edited to add: Here’s video of Minnesotans United Campaign Manager Richard Carlbom learning the resut at almost the last minute before the campaign’s election night party had to call it a night — 1:45 a.m.

I didn’t find out about the Minnesota result until I woke up this morning — it was close, and the friends who came by to watch returns had already headed home before President Obama finally gave his acceptance speech, and I’d spent most of Election Day helping Minnesotans United get out the vote in the student-heavy neighborhoods around the University of Minnesota’s Minneapolis campus. Canvassing proved to be way better than spending the day refreshing political blogs and not getting anything else done. Walking around campus towards the end of the workday, I saw MNU’s bright orange “I voted NO” stickers everywhere.

From the very beginning, I’ve been impressed about how truly broad the opposition to the amendment was, and how many straight people were willing to put in time and money to secure (or, at least, work towards securing) basic rights for their GLBT friends, neighbors, and family members. In the early days of phone-banking, the straights outnumbered the gays on the phones by a pretty wide margin, and straight supporters flooded the streets for the Big Gay Race and pitched in to raise millions of dollars for the campaign. I’ll second Dan Savage and say, we couldn’t have done it without them.

And let’s not forget the support of the excellent and generous readers of this very site — thanks, yet again, for helping defeat the amendment.

This is really only a first step for Minnesota — even without a consitutional amendment, there’s still a law on the books banning same-sex couples from marriage. But it’s hard to deny that change is in the air, and there’s a huge base of supporters already organized and excited about taking the next step. We’re fired up. It feels pretty great.◼

Evolve the vote?

Barack Obama in Lima - November 2nd President Obama at a rally in Lima, Ohio, on Friday. Photo via Barack Obama.

You may have heard that there’s an election happening in the United States today. It’s been ten months of “campaign season” since the early Republican party primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the two presidential campaigns and their various allies have raised and spent going on two billion (billion!) dollars on advertising and campaigning and probably also consultants’ fees.

This seems like an awfully expensive and inefficient way to choose someone to run a government, which is to say an awfully expensive and inefficient way to work together to decide upon and achieve common goals. Winston Churchill famously noted that democracy is the worst form of government “except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” But Churchill was really only talking about democracy in comparsion to other human forms of government. The living world contains all sorts of examples of individuals coordinating their actions for mutual benefit, and none of them need political action committees to do it.

Is there a better approach to group organization somewhere else on the tree of life? Let’s consider a few options:

Flock of starlings Starlings flocking together don’t communicate via attack ads. Photo by t.klick.

Flocking: Many animals forage and travel in groups that coordinate their movements. This may be best studied in birds: individuals within the flock watch and react to other nearby individuals, which lets them spend less effort watching for predators [$a] or finding food [$a].

This seems like it might have an obvious application to human government — we’ll just all agree to take our cues from the people nearest us to decide whether we need to subsidize agriculture or preemptively invade an oil-producing nation. Actually, now that I think about it, this sounds pretty much like what we’re doing already.

Dominance hierarchy: Many animals establish some sort of hierarchy within social groups, which decides who gets precedence in conflicts over food, or preference for mates. In wolf packs, for instance, social rank seems to be strongly related to age and reproductive status [$a], with relative ranking mediating food sharing or division of labor within the pack.

Wolf Noble-looking, sure, but no basis for a system of goverment. Photo by Tancread.

Unfortunately for human governance, dominance within wolf packs is structured by familial relationships — so it’s not going to translate very well for decision making at any level greater than individual precincts, or maybe individual school districts in some of the more rural parts of the country. Which is just as well, because I don’t particularly want to share this elk I’ve just caught. Mmm, elk.

Quorum sensing: Many species of bacteria change their behavior and activity when they’re in big groups [PDF]. To achieve this, individual cells produce signalling molecules at a predictable rate. As they detect more signalling compound, they can “know” that there are more cells of their species nearby, and can begin to do things that only make sense when there are lots of cells in one place. Different bacterial species use this approach to “decide” whether to begin a growth phase that harms an infected human, to start making chemicals that kill off competitors, or to generate bioluminescence for squid.

So, what would government by quorum sensing look like? Well, clearly we’d just all gather at some location, and, when there were enough of us present, we’d build a bridge or start a school or whatever it is that needs doing. I foresee no complications whatsoever with this approach.◼

Seriously, though, people. If you’re a U.S. citizen, you should go find your fucking polling place, and please vote Sensible.


Clark, C. and M. Mangel. 1984. Foraging and flocking strategies: Information in an uncertain environment. American Naturalist 123:626–641. DOI: 10.1086/284228.

Krebs, J., M. MacRoberts and J. Cullen. 1972. Flocking and feeding in the great tit Parus major-an experimental study. Ibis 114:507–530. 10.1111/j.1474-919X.1972.tb00852.x.

Mech, L. D. 1999. Alpha status, dominance, and division of labor in wolf packs. Canadian Journal of Zoology 77:1196–1203. DOI: 10.1139/z99-099.

Miller, M. and B. Bassler. 2001. Quorum sensing in bacteria. Annual Reviews in Microbiology 55:165–199. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.micro.55.1.165.

Powell, G. V. N. 1974. Experimental analysis of the social value of flocking by starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) in relation to predation and foraging. Animal Behaviour 22:501–505. DOI: 0.1016/S0003-3472(74)80049-7.

Waters, C. M. and B. L. Bassler. 2005. Quorum sensing: Cell-to-cell communication in bacteria. Annual Review of Cell and Developmental Biology 21:319–46. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.cellbio.21.012704.131001.