Identity change

When I got married, I changed my last name. I was very attached to my maiden name, and couldn’t bear to let go of it completely, so I dropped what had been my middle name, took my maiden name for my new middle name, and finished off my new signature with my husband’s last name. 

I’ve been Mrs. (and now, Dr.) Haas for about seven years. I’m content with my name change choice. I’m content with the way my identity has changed.

Now it’s changing again.

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Where does it end?

I listened to some of the inaugural episode of "Late Night with Chemjobber" last night. As a whole, I think it was a decent start. There were some technical issues (the audio cut out several times), some glitches (at one point Chemjobber accidentally hung up on the callers), and I get the feeling that nobody involved was practiced at radio or podcasting. All of that was understandable. For the most part, the topics were interesting or amusing, and (after a little dancing about deciding who should respond first) generated good discussions. I have one bone to pick with the show, though, and it's a big one: significant air time was given to a troll. 

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Geoff Marcy recently resigned from Berkeley after word got out that he’d been a serial sexual harasser of women in astronomy, that a Berkeley investigation concluded he had violated campus conduct policies, that the university had barely even slapped his wrist for it, and that the women in astrophysics (and the rest of the sciences) were sick of this same old crap.

Okay then. One down, more to go.

Marcy is not the last harasser. His resignation does not mark the eradication of this disease. There are more creeps out there. There are more people making science and unwelcome place. We’re not done.

Hearing about Marcy, his misdeeds, and his shield of privileges and achievements, I was reminded of another creep, one I could have called out, but didn’t. I feel guilty hearing about these cases. I know of sexual harassment in science that has gone unreported. Am I, by staying silent, complicit?

I will tell you the story, but I am not prepared to name names. I am not the victim, and I have no wish to bring her unwanted attention. I wasn’t even present when it happened, but when a person tells you of her harassment, you’d better believe her. It’s been over a year, but that doesn’t make his actions any less wrong.

Last year at a conference I attended, a graduate student, who I’ll call Annie, was groped by a senior professor, who I’ll call Jack. It was the last night of a week-long conference. There was a party, with dancing and booze. Jack was on the dance floor. Annie walked by him, and he grabbed her butt. As Annie’s companions emphasized, this was not a case of “accidentally” bumping into or brushing up against someone. This was a middle-aged man grabbing a young woman in a clearly sexual way. Annie and her companions left the party immediately, unwilling to risk more time in an unwelcome space.

I heard about the incident moments later from Annie and the other junior scientists (grad students & post-docs) who had seen it happen. My initial response was shock: He did what?! My next thought was discouragement and disappointment. It had been a pretty great week: I’d learned about exciting science, had some great conversations, and met some delightful people. But Jack’s inability to keep his hands to himself tarnished my impression of the conference. And – even though it didn’t happen to me, and I hadn’t been in the room – it made me feel unwelcome.

We didn’t report Jack. We talked about it, the group of us. Who would we tell? Jack wasn’t just an attendee; he chaired the conference. The best we could foresee was one of our advisors just saying ‘steer clear.’ So we said nothing. The conference was over, anyway. What was the harm?

The harm is that Annie is almost certainly not the first woman Jack has grabbed. She probably won’t be the last. Annie and Jack are at different institutions in different cities, but we’re all in the same field. We’re likely to cross paths again. Even if those of us who know about his harassment of Annie warn others away, Jack just becomes another open secret.

Jack made our group feel unwelcome at the conference party. Who else is he pushing out? What if Jack is harassing women in his own department? Who is listening to them?

You might say “It’s not so bad. He just grabbed her butt, it’s not like he really did any damage.” Except it is that bad. Someone is getting pushed out every time. And it’s damaging for every single woman. It shouldn’t have to take four women multiple years to get a man to keep his hands to himself.

Jack has a name, and a home department, and a publication list as long as my arm. Jack has a reputation and a position of privilege that far outweighs mine, or Annie’s. I can’t fight that battle right now, even though I feel guilty for letting another creep skate by. So the guilt buzzes in my ear when I hear these stories, and it reminds me that I need to do better next time – and that, sadly, there is likely to be a next time.

Excited state

My job has overwhelmed me more times than I can count. I have found it very hard. But I love it. So much. I must be nuts to love this much hard.

So far I’ve had students crying at me in the hallway and at office hours,1 one call to the paramedics, one student at office hours who proceeded to break one of my pens despite several requests to leave it alone, some angry demands for exam points back, some shy requests for office hour help, and many very funny emails.2 I’ve been called Professor a lot, Dr. Haas most of the time, and occasionally mistaken for a student. I’ve been consulted on a medical issue3 and I’ve been thanked for the tiniest things as if I’d bestowed some royal favor.

I’m primarily responsible for a lecture section, but I have to admit that my favorite time is spent in office hours and lab. I love lab. I get to wander through the room, nudging students into understanding. Why did that happen? Did you expect that? What does that mean? Last week’s lab was on light absorption and emission. I stationed myself at the absorption experiment (look at salt solutions with a spectroscope) and peppered the students with questions. Is this absorption, emission, or something else? How do you know?

Last Wednesday, I was going through this with one group, and a young woman got just to the edge of an epiphany—and she started to move. She was practically dancing, moving in place and gesturing as she talked. I could see her eyes light up, and her voice rose as she worked through the questions I hoped would lead to her understanding.

In emission, the electrons are in an excited state and fall to a lower energy state, releasing a photon.

This young woman, shaking with energy, was a student in the excited state. On the verge of enlightenment. It was beautiful.

My Wednesdays are long days. I left home that day around 7 am and got home after 9 pm. And I was finishing an exam, and planning out the next week, and calming test anxieties. Long, long days. It’s hard.

But that dancing student, eyes alight, she made the day sparkle. This is why I love this job.

1: I swear they weren’t crying because of me! I don’t want to be the scary professor.

2: Sorry students, but you guys totally crack me up when you’re so very serious.

3: “What should I do about this weird growth?” “Um, take it to a medical doctor? I’m a chemist.”

What's next

I defended my thesis in April, and turned in my dissertation at the end of May, but I haven't left my grad lab yet. Here's what I've been up to, and what's coming up next.

Wrapping up

First I'm wrapping up some things. I've been revising and polishing two papers (one is done and submitted, the other will follow shortly), doing a few experiments for my last project, and getting things ready to hand off to the next person.

Most of my dissertation work was about watching the motions of one protein, TcpP, that is involved in the pathway for producing cholera toxin in Vibrio cholerae. Cholera toxin is the compound (a protein complex) that makes you so very sick if you contract cholera. TcpP (along with another protein, ToxR) activates the transcription1 of the toxT gene. The ToxT protein activates transcription of the cholera toxin genes.

Aside from its role in cholera toxin production, TcpP is interesting because it (and ToxR, too) is bound to the inner membrane of the bacterium. In order to activate transcription, TcpP and ToxR must bind to the DNA, but somehow they manage to do this without leaving the membrane. Since DNA tends to be compacted into the center of the cell2, it's pretty remarkable that two proteins on the membrane can find a specific region of DNA and bind to it. There aren't many proteins that bind DNA while bound to a cellular membrane, but there are a few besides these two.

To learn more about TcpP and how it pulls off this trick, we labeled it with a fluorescent protein and watched it move around the cell. My part of this project is done. Another grad student will watch ToxR move around to learn more about how these two proteins interact. So I'm updating my index of data files, checking that any protocols I've revised are up to date, and commenting the Matlab code I've written that he might use for analysis.

My other dissertation project was a collaboration with my labmate Jess, who has been studying fluorescence enhancement by plasmonic surfaces. I've been learning about plasmon-enhanced fluorescence for years, and it still seems a little bit sci-fi to me: by shining light on metal nanoparticles, you can create an enhanced electric field that makes fluorescent molecules shine brighter and longer.3 Jess has been enhancing fluorescent proteins using nano-structured gold surfaces. A while back we began pairing my fluorescently labeled bacteria with her plasmonic surfaces, to see if we can get enhancement inside live cells. We had some success [$] with our initial experiments, and the project has grown from there. Just because my dissertation is done doesn't mean this project is, though. I've been busy with experiments and trouble-shooting throughout June, and Jess will carry it on after I leave.

Shipping out

My last week as a Biteen lab member will not be spent in lab, but at the Single-Molecule Approaches to Biology Gordon Research Conference in Italy. I like the GRC conference style, and I can't wait to hear all the latest and greatest research in the field. It doesn't hurt that the conference is at a resort in Tuscany, either.

After the conference, it's time for vacation. My husband will meet me in Italy, and we'll tour parts of Italy and Germany and visit some friends of mine from my time as an exchange student. Then it's back to the States so my husband can get back to work and I can enjoy a couple of weeks of unemployment (and prepare for the next job).

Moving on

Mid-August I start my new job. For the next year, I will be a visiting instructor at Lyman Briggs College at Michigan State. (Yes, I'm going to be an adjunct.) I'm excited to move to Briggs: the program is interesting, the faculty I've met have all been delightful people, and this job feels like the right thing for me right now.4 Briggs students take science classes that emphasize active learning, and "HPS" courses (history, philosophy and sociology of science) that give them context for science in their lives. As I said to several people while interviewing, Briggs is the kind of place I'd have loved to attend as an undergrad. I'm delighted to teach there. It's gonna be great.

1: transcription: just like you can talk about transcribing text, i.e. copying words from one place to another, we talk about transcribing genes: copying nucleic acid "words." The nucleic acids are slightly different—DNA is copied into RNA—but both kinds of nucleic acid "words" are the instructions for building proteins.

The process of decoding RNA to protein parts is called "translation." Again, it's just like text, translating from one language (e.g. French, or, in the case of genes, nucleic acids) to another (e.g. English or, for proteins, amino acids). Stitch those translated words together, and you get functional sentences (or proteins!).

2: In eukaryotic cells, such as your own human cells, DNA is stored in the cell nucleus. Bacteria don't have nuclei, but they still keep their DNA kind of bundled up in the middle.

3: It's more complicated than that, but that's the general idea.

4: It's a one-year position, and that suits me fine. My long-term goal is still to get a tenure-track position or a permanent position off the tenure path—I want more certainty in my employment than adjuncting is likely to supply. For the next year, though, I'm very happy to teach at Briggs.

A one-year appointment also means I will go through the whole job application process again this fall. Yay

Many kinds of good scientist

I saw this article by Adam Ruben make the rounds on Twitter a few days ago. Then I saw the article spreading on Facebook, with friends from grad school saying things like "So true!" and "That's totally me!" so I took a look.

He had me until the grants ("I dread writing grants…") but then I realized I wasn't even a third of the way through his list. It just went on and on, with an increasing tone of whininess. The post spirals out into a humble brag. By the time I got to the mice he's killed, I just grumbled, "Okay, dude, we get it. Poor you."

If you can sift through it, though, he makes some points about the culture of academic science that are worth expanding on.

I am not a priestess of Science

  • I don’t sit at home reading journals on the weekend.
  • I have skipped talks at scientific conferences for social purposes.
  • Sometimes I see sunshine on the lawn outside the lab window and realize that I’d rather be outside in the sun.
  • I have gone home at 5 p.m.

I love being a scientist, but I have a mighty big problem with the idea that as a scientist (or more broadly, as an academic) I'm supposed to "devote my life" to my work. That's not called Science, that's called Workaholism. If that’s what you enjoy, then by all means do it, but don’t expect me to have the same desires.

Here's my own confession: I worked roughly 8:30-5:30 five days a week through grad school. Sometimes I would keep working when I got home, but that didn't happen every week, much less every day. I came in to work or worked at home a few weekends, but I never made it a routine thing.

It's not that I wasn't dedicated to science or my research project. It's not that I didn't care, or that I was lazy. It's that I needed balance. For the most part, I leave work at work, and I am home at home. Balance for me means lunchtime chatter with friends, Friday date nights with my husband, and brunch with the in-laws. It means taking holidays and coming to work focused. We talk and talk about "work–life balance," but the cultural incentives are heavily on the side of more work and not at all balanced.

The summer after my freshman year, I spent about three months as an REU-type student at Duquesne University. It was awesome, and I learned so very much. An important part of what I learned, though, was that I needed to Stop. I lived in a dorm, worked in the lab, and knew almost no one besides the people I worked with. I ate breakfast in the dorm room, lunch in the lab break room, and dinner back in the dorm room. I had a crappy-to-okay Internet connection, I didn't know my way around Pittsburgh (and was honestly a little frightened of wandering the city alone), and I was too shy to get to know the other girls on my floor, so I stayed in and read research papers. I read a lot of articles that summer. I still have them all, in a cardboard box tucked at the back of a closet. I didn't understand half of what they said on the first read-through, so I read them over and over, looked up terms online, asked questions in the lab, and just tried to work it all out through context. At the end of the summer, I was praised for my efforts, but I was also teetering towards burn-out. I hadn’t spent enough time away from science.

I have been very careful since then to take breaks and disconnect from work. I have sought balance. And I have advised newer students to be mindful of their own balance. I love my science very much, but I refuse to pass on the idea that the only way to succeed in science is as part of a monastic order.

I am not a priestess of Science. I got a PhD all the same.

A PhD is not proof of knowing everything

  • I remember about 1% of the organic chemistry I learned in college. Multivariable calculus? Even less.
  • I have felt certain that the 22-year-old intern knows more about certain subjects than I do.
  • I have pretended to know what I’m talking about.
  • I find science difficult.
  • I have worked as a teaching assistant for classes in which I did not understand the material.
  • I have taught facts and techniques to students that I only myself learned the day before.
  • I have feigned familiarity with scientific publications I haven’t read. 1

A PhD is not proof of knowing anything. It's rewarded for "Persistence to a high Degree" as much as anything. It's not about facts you've memorized, or stuff you can recall on demand–no matter what certain committee members may say. It's about learning something new. And that new stuff wasn't in the classes you took. (As I've discussed with some friends and labmates before: course material covers stuff someone already knows; research is stuff we don't know yet.)

The work you do in a PhD is, as a rule, highly specialized and focused. I spent most of 5 years watching one protein in one pathway in one kind of bacteria. I am the world's expert on the motion of that protein. Yippee. I don't have equal expertise for other bacteria, or even other proteins in the same bacteria, much less other aspects of microbiology, microscopy and the rest. But I do have some expertise, and I have much more in these particular fields than a friend who has studied the thermodynamics of two dimensional structures, or another friend who has studied the surface chemistry of semiconductors. The three of us have each spent 5 years studying chemistry, and we have each earned a PhD for doing so, but we would not be able to pick up each other's projects on a whim. It would take more time and more learning. The need to learn something new doesn't make us bad scientists.

We have got to get over the idea that we must know everything, that everyone around us knows everything and expects the same of us. It's just not true, and it sets unrealistic expectations.

Academics posture too much

  • I have asked questions at seminars not because I wanted to know the answers but because I wanted to demonstrate that I was paying attention.
  • I have worried more about accolades than about content.

I don't understand why seminars start with the speaker's professional biography. It's not like it'll convince me to come see the talk: I'm already there, sitting in a seat. And if you were to tell me the speaker is from Nowhere State and has done absolutely nothing of note, I'm still not about to get up and leave. Will the talk be better because I now know that Dr. I-Never-Heard-Of worked with Dr. Famous? Fame, publication record and grant money are no guarantees for talk quality, yet those are the things chosen for introductions.2

With fame so highly valued, I suppose it's no surprise that people (in my experience, mostly men) feel the need to show off. Asking a question brings you to the attention of the seminar speaker and the audience. If you don't care about the answer, please don't ask the question; you're just wasting everyone else's time with your ego-stroking. Let someone else ask the question they care about. This counts double for "questions" that don't ask anything. Those are called statements. Keep them to yourself during the open Q&A.

Most scientists don't communicate well

  • I can’t read most scientific papers unless I devote my full attention, usually with a browser window open to look up terms on Wikipedia.
  • When a visiting scientist gives a colloquium, more often than not I don’t understand what he or she is saying. This even happens sometimes with research I really should be familiar with.
  • When I ask scientists to tell me about their research, I nod and tell them it’s interesting even if I don’t understand it at all.
  • I have used big science words to sound important to colleagues.

I like words. I like big, fancy words and unusual words and old words hardly anyone uses, but if you study too long for words of four syllables,3 I lose patience. Tell me how you rowed the boat gently down the stream, but not how you 'propelled the craft placidly through the liquid solution.’4 I'll know you're smart by the clarity of your point, not the frills in your sentences or the jargon you use. You don't have to emulate Newton and hide your knowledge in nonsense sentences.

Scientists are people

  • Sometimes science feels like it’s made of the same politics, pettiness, and ridiculousness that underlie any other job.

Sorry to break it to you, fella, but science is like any other job. There are politics and pettiness, rudeness and ridiculousness. There are easily bruised egos. There are liars and cheats. There are people doing this job, flaws, fears and all. We scientists aren't a special case.

This is what a scientist looks like

As a counter to Ruben's concept of a scientist, here is my own list:

  • Science is my job, not my life.
  • I do not know everything.
  • I do not need to know everything.
  • I do not learn by pretending to know.
  • My knowledge is not spoiled by sharing it with others.
  • I am not perfect.
  • I am a scientist anyway.

1: Another article I read this week was on feigning cultural literacy. It's worth a read. There's a lot of overlap here.

2: Possibly the worst scientific talk I have ever sat through was given by a Nobel laureate; it was absolutely dreadful.

3: “…he does not write with ease. He studies too much for words of four syllables. Do not you, Darcy?” – Mr. Bingley, Pride & Prejudice

4: In case you're not familiar with the “sophisticated version" of "Row Your Boat"

Propel, propel, propel your craft
Placidly down the liquid solution.
Ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically, ecstatically,
Existence is but an illusion.

The importance of Sunday brunch

My in-laws came for a visit last weekend. We usually see them every 4-6 weeks, but thanks to various winter storms, it had been more than two months since our last visit together. When they come out to see us, we often spend Saturday at our house and Sunday morning we go to a diner for brunch before they make the long drive back to Pennsylvania.

Last weekend I was acting as a host for a prospective grad student. I spent Saturday running around the chemistry building, answering questions about the department and the city, and trying to be helpful and informative. I took my recruit from one faculty appointment to the next, manned the group poster alongside my labmates, and went to dinner with the recruits. I also tried very hard not to be The Jaded Grad Student, which I have been falling into a lot lately.

It was a full day, from breakfast in the morning to drinks and mingling in the evening, with a bunch of running up and down stairs in between. While my recruit was meeting with faculty, I tried to make bite-sized progress on my thesis, though it’s hard to get very far in 10- or 15-minute increments.

I arrived home after my in-laws had left, but the usual plans for brunch had been made. Sunday morning we met at the usual diner and had our usual catching-up chitchat. We exchanged hugs and good wishes and then headed back to our respective homes.

Recently, while talking to someone about my progress on my thesis, I mentioned going to Sunday brunch with my in-laws, and that we hadn’t visited in months. They said “But you’re so busy! You can have brunch with them twelve times after your thesis is done.”

Well, no. I totally disagree.

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More thoughts from my trip to San Francisco. This really happened, and though you may think it's "not so bad," it still shook me.

We waited for the light to change. A fire truck rolled past, and one of the firefighters caught my eye and waved to me. I smiled. It seemed friendly. Yes, potentially flirtatious, but certainly benign.

I left the group as they entered the dance club. Tired feet took me downhill to the hotel. Four men hiked the hill in the other direction. As they approached, one called "Hey." It wasn't a greeting; it was an invitation to a conversation. I pretended not to hear and kept walking.

Another intersection. Another crosswalk. Another light slow to change. A man carrying a shopping bag neared the same stop. He skipped right to "What are you doing out tonight? You're a sweet little thing. You want to get something to eat?"

My training in politeness kicked in, even though he stepped closer, approaching my shoulder, step by step. "No thank you. Have a good night," I said, glad the light had finally turned.

I realized then that those four men walking uphill had triggered something in me. I had weighed them as a possible threat and found them unlikely to be trouble. It was unconsciously done. But the lone man on the corner tripped my alarms and reminded me that those alarms even exist, that out on the street I am always judging men–and occasionally women– for their potential to cause me harm. And that fact scared me.

Someone looking at me would see I was wearing a black pea coat, jeans, and sneakers. Not exactly dressed for attention. It was 1 am. But it doesn't matter what I was wearing, and it doesn't matter what time of day it was. I shouldn't have to spend my energy shielding myself from unwanted attention.

Who gets to talk?

I recently returned from the Biophysical Society Meeting in San Francisco. For my overview, see here. This post is about some things that troubled me, and that I've been thinking about a lot since.


Very early on at BPS, I noticed a pattern. A speaker would finish their talk, the session chair would open the floor to questions, and a line of men would form at the mic.

I started counting. And then I started tallying up the speakers and chairs, too, while I was at it. My results are below.

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GoldiBlox and the Trouble with Pink

GoldiBlox are filling up my Facebook feed and my Twitter stream this week, despite the fact that I don't know any girls (or parents of girls) in the right age range for the toy. My thoughts on GoldiBlox haven't changed much since the Kickstarter campaign. The short version is this: an engineering toy marketed to girls is a great idea, but why must it be pink? 

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On Identity

Every now and again on the Internet (or at least the slice of the Internet I keep up with), the identity question comes up: What name do you use online? Just a few days ago, I saw it pop up again. In my experience, the person bringing up the topic usually falls on the side of "I use my real name, and so should you." Also, for what it's worth, that person tends to be male.

I think blanket anonymity is problematic.…

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Doctor? When?

Reading Paul Bracher's recent post on titles, I was a bit bothered that all of his examples were of men. Admittedly, he is male, and so, if he's speaking about his own perspective, male pronouns make sense, but this didn't have to be male only:

You'll find that I'm pretty liberal in using "Dr." when addressing letters and e-mails, because you never known when someone is going to get upset at being called "Mister."

When are you nearly guaranteed to upset someone by calling them "Mister"? When that someone is female.

One of my college professors–let's call her Dr. Smith–kept her maiden name after marriage, like plenty of other academic women do. She and her husband –let's call him Dr. Jones–were introduced at an event as "Dr. and Mrs. Jones." In that moment, she lost her name and her title to the old-fashioned assumptions that Dr. = Mr. + PhD, and that a married woman always takes her husband's name.

Another commenter at ChemBark described one of my own fears along these lines:

…sometimes those students would call a male professor "Dr." but then use the title "Ms" or "Mrs" with me (While we were in the same room! And with a male professor who was my age!)"

So Paul Bracher can go by Paul if he wants, but when I am an instructor, can I go by Beth? This time next year, I will be Dr. Haas. If I don't insist on the title, will I forfeit the respect that comes with it?