Tag: science

Looking to the future: talk 11/8/16

What follows is the slightly edited text from a talk I gave on Thursday the 11th of August, as part of an event between WISE and ExxonMobil.

“It’s such an incredible pleasure to see our members here with brilliant women from ExxonMobil. My talk will be slightly aimed more towards the students, but it will hopefully include ideas everyone can get behind.

For the students among us, we haven’t really entered the real world yet. We’ve completed high school and suffered all the injustices that your teenage years and early 20s provide and certainly we can enter bars (mostly) and gamble and get our democracy sausage  but universities are often a small-l liberal bubble – the large-l liberal youth branch notwithstanding.

What kind of issues exist within this small l liberal bubble? Well it’s things like the informal mentoring and sponsorship that men often benefit from. It’s how men assume they’re smarter than their female classmates. It’s the social pressures that mean the involvement of women in undergraduate computer science degrees peaked in the eighties and has since declined. Women made up 37% of comp sci undergrads in 1985. In 2012, that was 18%. It’s the social pressures that means I first got the Grandchildren Talk at 20. As a queer woman, I’ve had precisely zero role models for the bulk of my scientific journey but if you’re a white man you’ve got a glut of them.

Having said all that, this is a bubble – we are safer and more respected within this space and it’s associated with our ability to choose the spaces and people we interact with. You’ve chosen WISE, which was a great start. That isn’t a luxury that’s necessarily available or encouraged when you get straight out of university. We all know how bad the job market is – who here is confident of getting a job when we graduate?

There’s a feeling that you have to take what you can get and keep your head down. It’s a big jump into the workforce from university and nobody wants to make a splash. Because after all, it’s one thing to be a woman in a STEM degree. It’s another thing to be a young woman in STEM career.

There are ways to bridge that gap. Workplaces will have an HR induction that should clearly detail things like complaints policy – and you’re never so far down the pecking order to invalidate your complaints. It often feels like there’s a pressure to call out sexism or feel like we’ve betrayed the sisterhood. This pressure can fall on young women, with ideas like the “generational shift in thinking” which is meant to incrementally close the pay gap at some point around 2075. Or, if you’re staying in Australia, the gender pay gap increased from 15 to 17.5% between 2005 and 2013, and this year according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency, it’s 19.1%. That’s ridiculous.

Young people need to be more politically engaged, young women need to be more outspoken, we need to ask for more, actively seek out mentors, surely we can just lean in – I’m sure so much of this room has heard a variety of one or all of these. But sometimes calling out sexism, or working yourself to the bone, or being an activist is honestly not worth it. The entirety of women’s rights doesn’t rest on our shoulders and sometimes we’re not safe or able to call something out without risk. Never compromise your safety for ideals.

Having said that, I do enjoy calling out sexism. Some of my favourite ways involve being a bit sarcastic, maybe leaning back and going “is that… is that right?”, “huh”, or “That sure is an opinion, and you definitely have it.”

But in all honesty, transitioning to the workforce isn’t just being punched in the face with sexism, homophobia, and racism – things which during my brief foray into the working world I have watched or experienced, and that’s in New ZealandNew Zealand is like a less terrible Australia. But it isn’t just that – it’s things like finally having money, not having homework (unless you do law which, why did you do law), it’s cool older friends, working out what you want from life, and maybe starting to take a multivitamin like a real adult. It’s fun!

It’s just scary, and that applies to an extent to all changes you make from safety to newness. It is confusing the first time a colleague queries borderline aggressively into your personal life, and colleagues of mine now get subtly asked if they’re planning a family soon. I get the added difficulty that it’s likely my partners will be female so talking about personal life is this balancing act of trying to work out if you’re homophobic before letting anything slip.

But what are we likely to face in our future?

  • We’re likely to face jobs that aren’t necessarily in STEM. There was a recent news article about how science degrees were not great degrees, which realistically read like someone bitter that their law degree didn’t handhold them right into a partnership. STEM degrees qualify us to research effectively, to problem solve, and to think critically – and that’s applicable far beyond strict STEM careers.
  • Unless something dramatically changes, we’re not likely to see equity in parliament.
  • We’re probably going to continue to be higher-qualified and get better marks than men.
  • Amazing trailblazing women are going to continue to push for pay transparency, because that will be the easiest way to get paid the same as men very quickly.
  • The discussion about feminism will becoming increasingly mainstream. The difference even since 2009 in how easily feminism, the wage gap, gender-based issues will be discussed as a real issue rather than relegated to extremist, bra-burning lesbians.
  • Beyoncé will continue to be a beautiful feminist icon.
  • We’re going to have way more female astronauts – the groundwork is already there to fill space with women.
  • The rates of reporting of sexual violence will likely continue to increase. That means we won’t really know if the actual rates are going up or down – which is beside the point because they’re disgustingly high – but reporting might mean that things change.
  • We aren’t likely to have long-term jobs. The average job length for a millennial is 3-5 years. This means if you have a bad work environment, or boss that’s not good, you can shift jobs and that’s becoming normalised.  We’re also likely to change careers a lot, so you can chill on that immediate post-university choice.
  • We’ll have more control of our fertility and bodies than ever before (unless you go to the USA).
  • Thanks to the connectivity of the world and the democratisation of storytelling (thanks, twitter), we’re going to have more access to inspirations, mentors, and women who accurately reflect us. We’re not going to have to fight the way people even 30 years older than us did.

The women who went before us changed a lot of the world which meant we aren’t going to have to fight for the right to work while married, for the ability to do what we want. The future can seem stressful and bad but the world is changing – for the better. And that’s great.”

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The panelists at the event where this talk was given. Names above refer to panelists, right to left. Photo thanks to Jess Vovers.

Gender Equality: The Final Frontier

Last Friday, I gave a talk at the Final Frontier festival on gender equality in space. This talk focussed on two things: the unsung stories of women involved in space travel (from Margaret Hamilton to the scientists and engineers behind the Mangalyaan mission to Sally Ride, Mae Jemison and Valentina Tereshkova), and secondly, space menstruation and how we’re gonna deal with that when we go to Mars.

You can have a listen and watch below – unfortunately the only closed captions currently available are youtube’s automated captions, but I’ve asked if this will change soon (hopefully it will!). A link to this, any other media I’ve been in or created, can also be found on my “Other Media” page.


The tampon giveaway at the end has been described as “Oprah-esque” which may make it one of my proudest moments.

The power of storytelling to inspire and engage us is incredible – Mae Jemison is the fantastic example I flag in my talk, as she was inspired by Lt. Uhura in Star Trek – but it’s so important to have a range of role models and inspirations available so people can gravitate towards ones that most represent them rather than choosing the best of a bad bunch.

Recently I got the wonderful opportunity to speak to young women at the Spark Engineering camp (as part of a group from WISE) about amazing women who have changed the world, and a number of them said how nice it was to hear about the women doing this work. Telling stories only about men alienates women from areas where they could excel – and this holds true for when we only talk about white people, or straight people, or able-bodied people.

Not being part of a majority group isn’t a disqualification for being a good scientist, and we need to start reflecting that in the stories we tell.

 

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.

 

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This is why I have trust issues.

 

Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

The Research Bazaar

From February 1st to 3rd, I had the wonderful opportunity to attend the Research Bazaar, a free three-day intensive set of workshops in digital tools for researchers. I attended the one in Melbourne, but Bazaars were also held in Dunedin, Vancouver, Perth, and many more sites worldwide. (If your city missed out, and you want to host your own, check out the cookbook for making your very own ResBaz)

The origins and development of the Research Bazaar is covered here, but the short form is: there are a lot of digital tools that researchers need. It’s hard to find out about them, and once you do, there’s not a lot of support. Teaching yourself takes valuable time out of saving lives/increasing food security/understanding the world, and honestly, it’s hard.

The Research Bazaar (“ResBaz” to those in the know) comes to the rescue by running two days of intensive workshops for particular tools – this year, Melbourne included R (the statistics package), Python, MATLAB, D3 and many more – and short sessions for introductions to tools on the third day. They bring experts and researchers together, but it’s not the opportunity to upskill (for free) that makes this special. It’s the focus on community, networking, and helping each other.

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There was a session on Twitter, and I’m not saying I won the session on Twitter, but I definitely won Twitter (with this tweet).

It’s been a long time since I sat down in a class for more than an hour, so two days of Python workshops was always going to be a struggle. Arriving on Monday morning (late, without coffee) to have my boots sink into damp grass while I tried to hear the “key story” didn’t set me up particularly well but, like the weather, my mood improved.

ResBaz worked us school hours (9:30-3:30-ish) and the afternoons were left for more social events. The lack of structure gave this time an unconference vibe. On the Tuesday afternoon there were professional masseuses, a personal trainer, and yoga sessions available. The one possible problem was there was very little to force people to mingle – you could go through the entire event without meeting anyone. However, leaving all social events opt-in contributed to the relaxed feeling of the Bazaar.

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Top left: the ResPlat(y) branded chocolates they plied us with. Bottom left: my (in theme) reading material while at the Bazaar. Right: Jess Vovers and Rosie the ResPlat(y), ready to change the world.

ResBaz in Melbourne this year had a focus on diversity, reflected both in the attendees and in the three key stories across the conference. It was therefore slightly disappointing that the final panel appeared entirely Caucasian and was four men and one woman. While they were clearly all heavyweights in their respective fields, it was more than a little jarring after the rest of the Bazaar had been such a celebration of diversity.

The Research Bazaar 2016 was a very fulfilling experience – I learned some things, I met some people, and I maintained my flexibility with the yoga session. The catering was A++ and the relaxed feel meant I didn’t get overloaded. I intend to return next year, possibly as a helper for one of the sessions, and would thoroughly recommended keeping Research Platforms and ResBaz on your radar – and trying to attend ResBaz 2017.

 

Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.

My genes made me do it: the problem of genetic evidence and diminished culpability

Sophia-Louise Frentz, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute; Colin Gavaghan, University of Otago, and Katarina Schwarz, Queen’s University Belfast

There have been recent high-profile claims suggesting genetics and neuroscience are set to radically change the way we think about crime and punishment. Author Sam Harris, for example, argues that recent discoveries in neuroscience undermine our notion of free will, while Adrian Raine states there is a “biological basis also to recidivistic violent offending”.

But are our notions of blame and responsibility really heading for a revolution?

To answer that, it’s necessary to understand a bit about how the law works today. Legal guilt typically requires more than just a physical act. It usually also relies on the concept of mens rea or “guilty mind”. You may have struck someone, for example, but if you did so because of a muscle spasm, seizure or reflex, then you won’t be held legally responsible.

The law also makes allowance for those who act while insane. “Cognitive insanity” is when someone cannot know the nature and consequences of their actions. This may also be a temporary state, such as sleepwalking and hyperglycemia.

The second form of insanity is more controversial. This exists if you were aware of your action, but couldn’t control the urge to do it. This “volitional” form of insanity is not recognised everywhere, though it is in many Australian states.

The insanity defence usually removes all culpability. Diminished capacity, on the other hand, suggests a decreased ability to understand actions and thus decreased responsibility. Punishment will often be scaled back to the extent that responsibility was impaired.

If someone has a condition that makes it very hard for them to resist urges – say, a pathological drive to steal – then we may feel more forgiving than towards someone whose theft was the result of a cool and calculated decision.

Sentencing has two main justifications: it seeks to punish people to the extent they deserve, and also to deter or contain criminals thought likely to re-offend.

A defence lawyer would have to think hard about introducing evidence that their client is unable to control criminal urges. The judge may agree that this renders a person less blameworthy while deciding it makes them more dangerous.

Genetic evidence

What impact is genetic evidence likely to have on all of this? Evidence most likely to be used will involve genes for neurotransmitters, such as the monoamine oxidase receptor gene (MAOA). Low levels of expression of the MAOA gene can, when combined with childhood trauma, contribute to violent outbursts and antisocial behaviour.

The appeal of genetic evidence is easy to understand. It is seen as “hard” evidence that is objectively verifiable, unlike psychiatric evidence, which may rely on self-reporting. But applying this “hard” evidence will not be straightforward.

Genes are often perceived as the underlying rules that make up who we are, but our genetic code is more like the first draft of a book and we are the movie adaptation: some chapters are lost, some characters altered, and these changes arise from genetic and environmental interactions.

While the generalisation that “the MAOA gene predisposes to violent outbursts” is true for a population, it is much harder to prove that one person was affected in this way.

There’s also a major difference between the claim “people with this gene are more likely to commit crime”, and “people with this gene have no choice but to commit crime”. A defence lawyer will need to show not only that her client had the gene alteration in question, but that it decreased the control of their actions.

None of which is to say that genetic evidence might not have a role to play.

Judges are increasingly asked to factor in genetic evidence in sentencing.
Flickr/Joe Gratz

Diminished culpability?

In practise, diminished culpability suggests less severe sentences. Sentencing procedures are designed to account for the specific circumstances of a defendant, and evidence can be used flexibly. Many genetic arguments have used family history rather than genetic data.

In 2009, the defence in a US murder trial presented genetic evidence of low MAOA expression. The defendant was convicted of manslaughter rather than first degree murder to reflect his mental state and capacity. Two courts in Italy also altered sentencing in response to genetic data in 2009 and 2011. Here, sentences were significantly reduced in response to neurological and genetic evidence suggesting diminished capacity.

Despite the general approach to diminished culpability by judges, the public has a greater fear of defendants with genetic evidence supporting diminished capacity. This highlights the tension between the need to punish and the justification for containment in sentencing.

A focus on rehabilitation will help soothe this tension. Diagnosis of the defendant’s issues provides a stronger motivation to provide counselling and anger management services. These can allow for safety concerns while recognising guilt.

We are all products of our genes and environment. Defendants do not choose, and cannot change, their upbringing any more than they can their genes. Yet bad childhood environments are rarely treated as complete excuses. Genetic evidence might inform answers to questions judges already ask, but it’s unlikely to pose a radical challenge to the way we think about crime and punishment.

The Conversation

Sophia-Louise Frentz, PhD student in Genetics, Murdoch Childrens Research Institute; Colin Gavaghan, Associate Professor in law and ethics, University of Otago, and Katarina Schwarz, PhD Researcher at QUB Faculty of Law, Queen’s University Belfast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Robogalsa!

Last Friday the 27th of November a group of us from WISE headed along to the end of year event for Robogals, the Robogals Industry Gala (RIG).

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From left: Wakiuru Wohoro (WISE Vice President 2015), Jess Vovers (WISE President 2015), Sophia Frentz (WISE Secretary 2015)

Robogals was founded in Melbourne 2008 by Marita Cheng, the 2012 Young Australian of the Year. It has subsequently spread to 32 chapters worldwide. The Melbourne chapter is the oldest and is sponsored by Caterpillar, NAB, and Training Systems Australia. All the members buzz with enthusiasm for the Robogals mission – to help young girls explore engineering, build robots, and become confident in their passions and skills.

Robogals is only getting more popular. In 2015 they trained 76 new volunteers for schools outreach and taught over 1500 students, and haven’t even finished! 2016 looks even bigger, and gender equity in STEM is a hot button topic for everyone. The incumbent president, Qalissa Othman, is capable, passionate, and brilliant. She is certain to rise to any and all opportunities the new year will bring her and her team.

The gala was hosted in the NAB village. NAB support services technology general manager Dayle Stevens spoke about her involvement with both Robogals and the NAB program for Women in Technology. NAB aims to be an employer of choice for Women in Technology, and is making great strides in that field external to their support of Robogals.

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Dayle Stevens talks about her interactions with Robogals and the NAB Women in Technology Program

The evening was fantastic – a great mix of people, from Robogals, WISE, Research Bazaar, NAB, Silicon Beach, and many more. The event married promotion of women in STEM, education, networking, and playing with robots incredibly effectively. Personally, it’s always been a life goal to wear a pretty dress and play with robots at the same time.

If you’re interested in being involved with Robogals or want to keep up with what they’re up to, like their facebook page and get in touch to find your local chapter.