Academia should be more Skyrim and less Mario Kart to address lack of long-term diversity

Many friendships in the 90s were built or lost over who got to select their Mario Kart character first because character selection largely determined whether or not you would win.  SNES Mario Kart designers tried to correct this by crafting tracks that favored one character over others, guaranteeing a win on at least one race. Bowser’s fast top speed and drifting skills made them the best suited character for Bowser Castle’s sharp turns and straightaways.  The icy pools of Vanilla Lake smiled upon Koopa Troopa and Toad’s tight handling and minimal drift, but that was arguably the only track they could dominate.  

Now imagine another version of Mario Kart, but instead of a variety of different tracks that celebrate different strengths, every track was built by Mario.  With Mario as an architect, it’s highly likely that every track would favor his particular set of (minimal) strengths.  This would give the non-Mario players an unintended disadvantage since they would never get a chance to excel with their diverse skills, and the majority of races would consequently be won by Marios.  In many places, this is the current state of academia.  

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Egosystem management. Or how tantrums and unprofessional behavior are hindering conservation

In helping to organize several meetings and events for conservation groups, I’ve frequently encountered conservation professionals loudly declaiming “Don’t you know who I am!” and expecting special treatment. Recently I got an email from someone whose abstract was rejected by a conference committee I was assisting, in which they had quite a tantrum. There were lots of exclamation marks and capital letters saying that it was unfair they were rejected and they will never ever go again to any meetings by this professional society and will resign their membership. I was asked by someone outside the conservation field whether it was usual that we get such childish and temperamental responses to rejections. Sadly we often do – whether it be rejections for journals, jobs or conference presentations.

However, I also told that person that anyone who’s been an academic for a while gets used to being rejected. Few papers get accepted at first submission, for example. So most conservation professionals take it in their stride. Moreover, anyone who is in the conservation field should really get used to difficulties and failures, as these are all too frequently components of the job. A conservation biologist is not going to last long if they go berserk at the least slight or hard knock or have a fragile ego. Conservation is often about conflict, and trying to resolve this conflict through reasoned argument, understanding and diplomacy. You often get knocked down, but to quote Chumbawumba, you just have to “get up again”.

As a result, one could reach the conclusion that someone who is really childish, temperamental, rude etc. should not last long in real-world conservation. Sadly, such tantrum-throwing individuals may last longer, or even thrive, in academia, but that’s another story. However, that person will be a horror for colleagues in the field. So for the case above, resigning from a society or refusing to go to conservation meetings is like natural selection, weeding the weak and unfit from the gene pool. If they are going to ditch going to premiere meetings to learn the latest cutting-edge conservation and science over a run-of-the-mill abstract rejection, then it’s their loss and frankly our gain…

However, despite the potential forces of natural selection, inflated – yet fragile – egomaniacal bloviates are still all too common in the conservation world. There are several major marine conservation initiatives that foundered because, for example, coalitions would not let certain organizations have top billing in materials, and the thwarted organizations walked away, taking their essential funding with them. Others would not cooperate with conservation academics from a competing institution, and held back essential information and resources, causing the project to collapse. Frequently managing a conservation project is more about managing the egos of collaborators, or the egos of their organisations, rather than managing the actual project itself. This type of “human resources” management is, unfortunately, a skill in which few conservation professionals receive any training. Too frequently these days, in order to achieve conservation success, you have to first manage the ego-system, before finally getting down to efforts to restore the eco-system.

I spent 50 days working out in Virtual Reality and everything went better than expected.

For the last several years, I’ve been working off the weight gained and fitness lost from a decade of grad school, post-doctoral research, job hunting, and, ultimately, launching my own company. The gym, to put it mildly, had not been a priority. Running and weight training went a long way towards getting me back to where I wanted to be, but I had hit a plateau. Every spring and summer I’d make incremental improvements, every winter, I’d fall back into old habits. It was a sustainable situation, but not fantastic.

Last summer, I set a goal for myself. While the weather was just on the wrong side of that threshold that makes running something I’m willing to do first thing in the morning, I would instead swap out my sneakers for an Oculus Rift, and spend an hour, four or five days a week, playing fitness-oriented virtual reality games, for fifty sessions. That schedule would get me through the winter and hopefully keep me more active than I otherwise would.

To better illustrate this plan, I made a GIF, just for you:

Yes, it’s me. Yes, we put googly eyes on the Oculus.

Unsurprisingly, the science behind Virtual Reality and exercise is still in its infancy.

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Gills Club Shark Tales: An online and in-person sharkstravaganza 19-20 September at NEAQ!

Note:  This post has been updated on 18 September 2017.  

Friends, Researchers, Countrywomen, lend me your ears!

The Atlantic White Shark Conservancy and New England Aquarium are hosting a completely free two-day event, 19-20 September, featuring an amazing line-up of shark scientists and enthusiasts, including:

Keynote Speakers:

Susan Goldberg – Editor in Chief of National Geographic Magazine

Wendy Benchley – Renowned global voice for shark protection and co-founder of the prestigious Peter Benchley Ocean Awards.

Gills Club Science Team Speakers:
Dr. Michelle Heupel – Australian Institute of Marine Science
Dr. Alison Kock – South African National Parks
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What makes high school girls love sharks but avoid science

A shortened – and less ribald – version of this post was published 24-07-2017 in the International Business Times.

Ah, the transition from middle school to high school… the one part of adolescence no one reminisces about fondly.  It’s the time in our lives where mental and physical changes happen at pace without any apparent continuity, and we feel compelled to blend in.  This is the same time when most young girls’ interest in STEM stops, and in my educator/zoologist opinion, these events are related.

What does our culture gear teenage girls to prioritize?  Making varsity teams, growing boobs to the correct size and at the correct time, and completing enough social jostling to earn the superhuman prom date.  Most of the STEM-geared young girls I have worked with couldn’t care less about the above – but the attitude of their peers changes by the end of 8th grade.

http://subtubitles.tumblr.com/post/30828711121

Students of both sexes in 6th grade will happily discuss how rainbows are made and share their mutual wonder if the natural world, but those conversations quickly become “immature” when the puberty plague takes hold.  It’s also in 8th grade when boys enter a race to the bottom of inappropriate jokes fueled by mutual insecurities.  Suddenly, STEM-interested pupils find that their friends are segregating, fashion forward girls to one side and crude boys to the other, leaving a handful who want to discuss the space/time continuum floundering somewhere in the middle.

Then, regardless of where you sit on the social divide, hormones kick in.  This critical time is when young people figure out how to create partnerships, what constitutes a good or bad relationship, and the physics of copulation.  In addition to this, obtaining a socially higher-ranking partner becomes an unconscious priority.  Guess what most young men think is unattractive in women?  Intelligence (unless you’re beautiful enough to compensate).  YOU READ THAT CORRECTLY.

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How to spot a scam shark documentary producer

Many aspects of science-ing are not explicitly taught, and scientists become accustomed to mastering the deep end.  While this tactic can make you stronger, there are situations where the deep end is a vulnerable place where nasty critters are very happy to take advantage.

One such area?  How to handle being contacted by “producers.”  In my experience, for every 1 exceptional producer you speak with, you will be contacted by at least 4 scammers.  Scam producers will particularly target naïve early-career scientists, just like white sharks and seal pups.  In light of this week, I’ve put together a guide to aid YOY scientists rising in the ranks of popularity and make the deep end a little safer.  Here are 13 ways to spot scam shark documentary producers, with a few 🚩🚩:

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Why do wizards go adventuring ? Or …. you thought that your tenure requirements were tough?!

Something that has been bothering me for a while, is why do wizards go adventuring?

Source: ClipArtLord.com

Now if you are a big geek like me, you’ll know that practically every adventuring party has a wizard. But these wizards are incredibly unprepared for exploring dungeons and have a shockingly high mortality rate. In the dungeons and dragons* of my youth, a starting wizard had a mere 1 to 4 hit points and was equipped with dagger (or is they were luck a staff). Did these budding Gandalfs get armor? Of course not, they faced ogres and basilisks in the fantasy equivalent of sweat pants.

The statistics of a starting wizard meant that they could easily be killed by a house cat. Also they had just one spell. Cast “light” so that your party could see in a cave, and you were done for the day. If you had the most destructive spell of the first level wizard, you would fire a “magic missile” that always hit, but did a miserable 2 to 5 (1d4+1)  points of damage. So if  jumped by  above mentioned angry house cat, you literally had a 50/50 chance of killing it before it killed you**.

So why do all these highly educated, highly intelligent wizards leave their ivory (or mithril) towers and trudge through cold, dank dungeons with groups of characters that generally make the knights in Monty Python and the Holy Grail look like Seal Team 6  in comparison?

Why does every early career academic pursue elusive gold and put their common sense and lives on the line? Why…? To get tenure of course…

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Everything you need to know about working in conservation you can learn from Game of Thrones

Learned scholars and respected leaders of society warn that a major environmental change is coming and everyone should prepare. However, heads of state, politicians and wealthy oligarchs argue and bicker, more interested in riches and power than the imminent threat. Some realize that the oncoming change will be accompanied by a host of problems, to which no one has given the necessary consideration. Those who understand the situation try to set up systems to protect against this threat but are constantly having to argue with, and even fight, their own allies. In the end, just as some progress is being made, one of the champions of these vital preparations is stabbed through the heart by his closest colleagues, who stage a coup instead of dealing with the oncoming threat.

Sound familiar? It is of course the plot of Game of Thrones, but could also be a history of most conservation issues, whether it be the threat of DDT, ozone depletion, biodiversity loss or climate change. Read More

Reflections on the Boundary of Science and Policy

People have dedicated their careers and spilled much ink on bettering relations across the science – policy divide. In recent years, whole institutions have sprung up in order to better communicate and work across this boundary, the kind of institution formally called a boundary organization. In short, the people who work at such places must know the language and culture of both sides, be able to navigate around the sensitivities of each, and serve as a trusted person in moving a conversation along. These people are often called “honest brokers” because of the importance of the trust they must gain and hold. As someone who’s now working on the boundary for a number of years in the marine conservation world, I have some reflections of how exactly that role is not so simple. Hopefully my top 10 reflections will be helpful in building the next generation of boundary spanners. Read More

Trading blue collars for scarlet robes, my working-class experience of academic life

More people are going to college, graduate school, and obtaining PhDs in STEM fields than ever before (Figure 1), and a growing minority of these PhD candidates are non-traditional or not white affluent males. While we celebrate this change, let us not forget that academia was built by – and for – the “traditional” student. My favourite analogy to explain this type of ingrown privilege is bicycles on USA streets. Bicycles are legally allowed to be on streets, some streets even have extra space just for bicycles, but streets were designed for automobiles. You may be allowed and, in some areas, encouraged to get on the street with your bicycle, but biking a street is going to be intrinsically more difficult than if you were driving a car.

fig1

Like Marconi and La Bamba in a city built on rock and roll, you will inevitably end up in situations that conflict with your way of life. You will not receive a warning before you stumble upon these bumps, and you will be judged by how quickly you accept traditional standards (if you can).  I remember a conversation with traditional tenured and tenure-track scientists discussing proposals for a large grant scheme. One tenure-track scientist was lamenting the process of shopping for editors for his proposal. He talked about it freely, how there were two companies that charged different rates and he was in talks with one but that company felt a conflict of interest that he had worked with another rival editing company. The rest of the traditional scientists nodded in mutual understanding. Finding good, cheap editors to improve your work is hard. My working-class ethos was busy screaming inside my head.  How can hiring someone to edit and improve written works that you will ultimately be rewarded for be so blithely acceptable? You’re not allowed to hire editors for any task throughout your training. You learn how to write from earning disappointing grades (or failing grant applications). You read more, you study written works, you develop a voice, and you try again. The results get better until you are at an appropriate level to move up another notch on the ladder, right? Not for traditionals.

Here are some more bizarre “traditional” customs you should expect if you are biking down the academic street:

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