Sweet Serendipitous Science

One of the best arguments for supporting basic science is that serendipitous discoveries — those not necessarily outlined in a grant proposal — have always been key to scientific progress. Many of us who lobby for basic science like to use the wonderful example of penicillin, whose discovery was attributed to Alexander Fleming, who noticed that a substance from the mold Penecillium rubens inhibited the growth of staphylococcus bacteria. The ‘serendipity’ derives from the fact that for Fleming the mold growth was an unintended contamination of his bacterial plates — but of course this turned out to be far more important than the original experimental goals –whatever they were.

However, the era of serendipitous scientific discovery has not disappeared — although the continued dismal state of funding for basic science may eventually cause this to occur. But rather than dwell on these stark thoughts, I’d rather celebrate another recent serenditious discovery with high potential that has come to my attention.

As I opened my copy of “Newsweek” this weekend, I found myself reading an interesting article by Andrew P. Han (@HanAndrewP). This article discusses the serendipitous discovery of a relatively rare sugar known as allulose or d-Psicose — or more accurately, the finding by Japanese researcher Ken Izumori of an enzyme that can rearrange atoms to convert fructose into allulose. Almost every organic molecule has a mirror image molecule (known as “handedness” or chirality), and while their chemical composition is identical, and they have similar levels of ‘sweetness,’ allulose has one tenth of the calories of fructose and is largely excreted in our urine. While rare in nature, it exists in at least one plant, and during baking of foods with fructose small amounts of allulose are made.

The bottom line is that allulose shows tremendous potential for being a “sugar substitute” (substitute for glucose and fructose), which could replace these common sugars and perhaps do a lot less damage to western populations that have rampant levels of obesity and diabetes.

This is great news. Wonderful, in fact. But it’s necessary to point out that Dr. Ken Izumori, who spent decades studying rare sugars, explicitly notes in the article that he did so out of pure interest and curiosity in understanding the basic science of sugars. His goal was not to revolutionize the sugar industry or cure obesity-related diseases and diabetes, but rather to better understand the world in which we live. So, for those who aren’t getting it, it’s time to take note. Again and again. Major advances are likely to come by serendipitous findings by clever researchers who are driven by curiosity and the achievement of first-rate basic science. These advances will continue to come, until the well dries up. Then we will be left with all the scientists who can ‘translate’ these advances, but without anything to translate, science will sour.

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Cheating in science — and life

Not too long ago, one of my teenagers brought up an age-old ethical issue that recurs and festers, and at least theoretically, provides an opportunity for open discussion on “what do we want out of life?”

The issue at stake, is of course, cheating at school, university and life. And how do honest kids and adults deal with it, knowing that cheaters so often seemingly benefit from their actions, and rarely get caught or punished.

The issue was brought up regarding math and formula memorization, and reminded me of a very similar situation in undergraduate physics. At the time, our professor insisted that the students should be responsible for memorizing an entire page-worth of formulae. As a professor now myself, I abhor this practice of forced memorization — yes there are always a select number of concepts and terms that must be understood — but memorization of formulae is, to my thinking, a complete waste of time. Time that could and should better be spent learning to solve problems.

Of the ~250 students in my undergraduate physics class, I know that many simply made formula lists — so did I, in order to waste my time memorizing them. But others put those lists in their pockets, and in the course of a 3 h exam, excused themselves to the restroom to peek at the formulae when the need came up. To the best of my knowledge, no one ever was caught. What would the university do, escort the students into the bathroom stalls? Strip the students down to their underclothing and beyond to ensure they don’t hide cheat notes on their bodies, like a prison search? Unthinkable.

Despite warnings about the dire consequences of being caught, it seems that cheating is rampant in high school and university. And I don’t mean just the run-of-the-mill type of “Dear Student: should your granny die before the midterm exam” cheating described by Stacey Patton in The Chronicle of Higher Education.” I mean real, bona fide cheating during an exam.

I witnessed this not just in undergraduate physics with the silly memorization of formulae; one time, in a chemistry exam, I sat next to the class brainiac. The student who always got the highest grade on every exam, in every course. I was in awe of this student who always ended up at the very top of ~250 students, and it didn’t matter what field: organic chemistry, calculus, physical chemistry, computer programming. It was a remarkable feat. And then one day, I sat near him during an exam. After the first 15-20 minutes, he turned to me and whispered “What did you get on numbers 6, 9 and 10?” I was in shock. Why was he asking me? I had always been a very good student, but this guy was #1! Why would he even trust my answers, even if it had been ethical to ask?

I realized that it wasn’t just me that he asked, but that he did a nice sampling of people around — most of whom were in his study group. So unlike what most people envision, the cheating that goes on does not make a poor student get an “A” on an exam; it makes an “A-” get an “A” or an “A” student get the highest “A” or “A+.” The rich get richer through cheating.

Such cheating is not limited to high school or undergraduate education. I’ve witnessed cases of students who have written a graduate exam in pencil, and later erased their wrong answers and filled in a correct answer, followed by an appeal. Years ago, there was a case where a student was caught doing this, because the original exam had been scanned on a copier machine, so there was proof of alteration. But such cases are admittedly rare.

I’ve heard that medical schools frequently break up their exams into ‘bite-size portions’ to prevent the restroom issues. In other words, a 3 h exam might be broken into four 45 min. segments, with a short bathroom break after each segment, but the students are not able to go back to previous segments (even if they finish another segment before their 45 min. is done). To me, this seems like a reasonable approach.

But none of these trips down memory lane help me to answer my child’s question and address how  a responsible adult responds to a youth who raises such an issue. What do I say?

Life, I say, isn’t fair. From where we are born, with what parents we are given, gene endowments, socio-economic situation, etc. And cheating is another aspect that isn’t fair, and we see it in day to day life, at all levels. There will always be the cheaters who will get ahead — perhaps even benefit from a scholarship and praise that they do not deserve — but you, as an honest person, will go farther in the long run. And most importantly, you will do so based on integrity and merit, and with a 100% clear conscience. But remember also, that if you choose to go into the sciences — and it seems that there is a good chance for that — once the academics and exams are done, your career will be based on integrity, and how rigorous and repeatable your work is. Your name will ultimately be made by doing honest science.

And that’s the best I could do — although I wish I could do more…

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Moved to poetry by….OMICS

Yes, the unfunny joke of a company called OMICS has moved me. Debating between tears and poetry, I opted for the latter, writing my “Epic Omics Limmerick,” provoked by the email pasted below.

Here is my verse:

There once was a dodgy company named Omics

Who pulled scientists names out of phone books

When they offered to Steve

To publish something no one would believe

He told them they were all a bunch o’ predatory crooks

And the email (and just to be clear, I have no connection to cardiovascular pharmacology research — if I wrote a treatise on Old Norse Mythology they would probably publish it as long as it was accompanied by a check or money order):

Dear Dr. Caplan,

Hope you are doing well

We wonder if you could write a Research, review, short review or a short commentary for the Cardiovascular Pharmacology: Open Access.

It would be great if you could submit by March 27th 2015 so that we could process it for the next Issue.

If it is not feasible for you, then please let us know your feasible time to contribute.

To submit the paper as an e-mail attachment to the Editorial Office at editor.cpo@omicsonline.org

Please provide me your acceptance for the same!

We will be waiting for your positive mail.

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Let’s just call it “ideology”

The recent murderous terror attacks in Paris at the weekly “Charlie Hebdo” magazine office and the Kosher supermarket — as well as the policewoman who was killed in the street — probably elicited the same emotions in me that they did for many people around the globe. Horror, sadness, and varying forms of anger. While the horror and sadness likely form a strong consensus for anyone who follows the news, the “anger” is a much more complex issue.

First, against whom is the anger to be directed? The terrorists and their collaborators and affiliates, certainly. From the masses of articles I have read, there is little sympathy in free countries for the murder of journalists, however provocative or offensive their publications may be to some.

Much more complex is the responsibility/role of religion in instigating terror–in this case, specifically the Islamic religion. Most people bearing a liberal world view (and I rank myself, generally, among them), come out vociferously opposed to blaming an entire religion, numbering greater than 1.5 billion people and close to one quarter of the population of the globe. And while I generally agree, I do so with certain reservations — I will return to them shortly.

Just for argument’s sake, I’ll note neither the enormous numbers of followers nor the fact that Islam is such a widespread religion present a meaningful or valid rationale for not blaming the religion. After all, 500 years ago the Catholic Church in Europe — the most organized religion of the time — ruthlessly tortured and murdered Jews who would not convert or leave the Iberian peninsula. During this time (and much later), all the “advanced countries” were involved in the African slave trade. And years later, Nazi Germany and the Third Reich that implemented the “Final Solution” for the Jews, was supported by staggering numbers of people. So there is no safety in numbers, at least from an ethical standpoint.

However, it is clear that the 1.57 billion people spread across the globe are not collectively responsible for these murderous attacks, and I have no doubt that the vast majority of this enormous number of people are sickened and outraged at what is being done in the name of their religion. At the same time, one cannot ignore the elephant in the room. The terrorists in France, the coffee-shop killer in Australia, the beheader in Britain, and the recent murders in Ottawa as well as the Boston Marathon killers last year in the US all claimed to have carried out their murderous agendas in the name of religion. Not politically correct to blame a religion? Ok, let’s call it an ideology — an ideology of murder in the name of religion.

There is, and should be responsibility taken for the tacit support of extremist and murderous ideology. As New York Times columnist Tom Friedman pointed out in his Jan. 13 Op-Ed entitled ‘We Need Another Giant Protest,’  there is ambivalence in Europe about the question of what host countries should demand from new Muslim immigrants with regard to adopting western values. He further notes that “Islam has no Vatican” so that there are no single sources of religious authority — leaving some extremist forms of Islam (such as the Wahhabi/Salafi/jihadist one) to argue their authenticity; these extremist forms of ideology, according to Friedman, have not an insignificant degree of support — both in numbers and from states such as Saudi Arabia and others. By Friedman’s account, oil-addicted countries including the US and European states, need to combat this ideology and not tacitly support it as a result of addiction to their oil.

But what can be done to fight this radical ideology creeping into the mosques of Paris, London and Detroit? On Jan. 15, US National Public Radio journalist Terry Gross interviewed Maajid Nawaz, a former extremist Muslim converter — who spent 4 years in a Cairo jail — and is now running for parliament in the UK as a liberal democrat. Nawaz, who wrote an autobiographical book entitled ‘Radical: my journey out of Islamist extremism,’ advocates that the way to counter the recruitment of disenfranchised youth into radical extremist ideology is to make it “uncool.” He makes the comparison to communism, noting how today’s youth are not drawn to communist ideology because it’s unattractive — and that the same thing has to be done for radical Islamist ideology — it needs to be made unattractive.

So while it certainly is unjust to generalize and blame all Muslims and Islamic religion for the waves or terror carried out by murderous sectarian ideologies (often in the name of that religion), it would also be wrong to ignore the elephant in the room. History has shown that almost all religions and empires have thrived on slavery, xenophobia and unethical conduct (to say the least). It is now time to put ‘political correctness’ aside and address the issue of radical Islam. It is a serious problem, and not insignificant. And as both Nawaz and Friedman have noted, much can be done to combat the ideology of death and murder.

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Going against the grain—or rather corn

For better or for worse, US College athletics are an integral part of US society. However, maintaining a spirit of good sportsmanship should be an essential part of any athletic program.

College sports have a huge impact on US universities; for example, the sports network ESPN published that in 2008, the #1 ranked US college football team, the Alabama Crimson Tide, brought in revenues of over $123,000,000, and for 2013, USA Today published that #1 Texas brought in over $165,000,000. That’s not small change, and it helps explain how at most universities, the top paid employee is usually not the university president, chancellor, deans or even medical school brain surgeons – no, it is frequently the football coach.

But the influence of college athletics is not a mere function of money. Coming from the outside, it might be hard for anyone to imagine how much impact college sports have on US society as a whole. When I arrived in the US, it was to the National Institutes of Health that I went for post-doctoral studies, and given that there are so many universities in the DC area, and a large population that supports a variety of professional sports teams, I was practically unexposed to America’s love of college sports. That came only when I moved to Nebraska.

Arriving in the American Midwest in 2003, I realized that not only was Omaha the geographic center of the US (north-south and east-west), but it is also rather isolated from other large population centers. And despite nearly a million people in the metro area, Omaha is not large enough to support professional sports teams – meaning that college sports fill an important void and take on a special emphasis here.

To illustrate how seriously Nebraskans regard college football, I will describe my first Saturday here in Omaha. I drove around the city, interested in learning more about the different areas, and what it has to offer. I couldn’t understand why there was no traffic, and the overall feel was that of a ghost-town. Of course I later learned that the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers college football team had a home game in Lincoln (where the major undergraduate campus is) about 50 miles away, and Omahans were either at the game or watching on television.

Admittedly, I am not a fan myself; I understand the desire to support local teams and take pride in their athletic accomplishments, but between my job running a research lab – and the ever-increasing package of obligations that goes with that – I simply do not have the time or interest to follow sports. But in Nebraska, to be unaware of the plight of the Cornhuskers would be like shunning society. It’s simply not done. So one should at least be aware of the team’s overall situation and prepared for pleasant discourse.

For this reason in recent years I have noted with concern some of the rather unfortunate behavior of Nebraska’s recently fired head football coach, Mr. Bo Pelini. Mr. Pelini has been taped a number of times lashing out at disappointed fans and sports writers, using expletives and profane language. It’s unclear to me the reason why the administration has been so tolerant about these very unsportsmanlike episodes – that certainly don’t reflect the intended integrity of the academic world, but I suspect that an overall winning record may have prevented the coach from being disciplined earlier.

In any case, Mr. Pelini was finally fired by the athletic director a few weeks ago, and despite earning a base salary of ~$3 million over the past 7-8 years and receiving a rather generous severance package which reportedly reaches $7.9 million (apparently dependent on whether he finds another high paying job over the next 51 months), he was shortly thereafter allegedly audiotaped cursing the Nebraska administration for his predicament.

A professional football player who played for Nebraska several years ago under Mr. Pelini noted recently:

On Bo Pelini’s impact on the program: “The focus of Nebraska football was no longer on the ‘N’ on the helmet or the kids but on the face of the coach spitting out f-bombs and swinging hats at referees like a toddler who left the store without a toy.”

He went on to say that:

I’m not sure what the win/loss ratio will be early on (with a new coach) but I can assure you I won’t feel like we are losing even when we are winning.”

And this sums up the essence of the problem; sports may be big business, and perhaps in the US, where one’s salary often denotes respect by the community at large, college sports will always rank higher than academics and science on the university scale. But I absolutely draw the line at having unsportsmanlike leaders of young college athletes – football coaches who curse fans and the administration. Regretfully, in the meantime I see that another college has already hired Mr. Pelini, in spite of his behavior. I would expect more of universities and academic institutions.


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Empathy, stereotypes and Merry Christmas

Around this time of year, I find myself in public places like grocery stores constantly be wished “Merry Christmas.” This, of course, does not at all bother me (although being Jewish I recognize the significance of the holiday, I do not celebrate Christmas), and my standard response is “Merry Christmas to you, too.” Emails in late December from colleagues who do not know that I am Jewish often express similar sentiments, although typically a more generic “Happy Holidays” sometimes replaces the more specific Christmas wishes.

My reason for not explaining that I am Jewish is unrelated to a fear of anti-Semitism but is purely pragmatic; I am often on my way out the door when the greeting is called out — and what does it matter, anyway? The whole intention was from a well-wisher, and does it matter how it was expressed?

All these thoughts brought me to a little experience that I had a few weeks ago, walking my dog Ginger through the neighborhood and down a little gully toward a hiker-biker path. On this Sunday morning, I passed a couple that I assumed were probably in their early 70s. The woman was wearing a traditional sari, and I assumed that the couple was likely from India. While Omaha is definitely becoming a much more cosmopolitan city, admittedly, my neighborhood out in the western suburbs is not especially diverse. I passed them, greeted them with a “good morning” and continued on my way.

As I walked on, it occurred to me that as I was thinking to myself that it’s great that the neighborhood is showing more diversity, with more African Americans and Indians, the couple I passed could be similarly stereotyping me. A large “white”/Caucasian male is par for the course in Nebraska. And while I am not large, perhaps in comparison with the Indian couple I appeared to be. Next, Nebraskan natives are definitely dog lovers, and a huge proportion of households have a dog (or more than one). Often the dogs are large ones, such as Labrador retrievers — and Ginger is a large dog.

So all in all, it wouldn’t be a stretch for the couple to look at old Steve (and if they knew my name, that might be another hint at a typical Nebraskan native) and figure that I was probably born, raised and lived all my life here. And wouldn’t that be a joke!

So next time someone wishes me a “Merry Christmas” perhaps I should wonder whether they necessarily celebrate Christmas themselves, or are merely saying it for my benefit…

In any case, to the best of my knowledge, Merry Christmas to all of YOU!

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On moving on from The Lancet’s egregious error

In the midst of the terrible summer war between the Hamas movement in Gaza and Israel, The Lancet published a rabidly anti-Israel letter entitled “An Open Letter for the People of Gaza” that accused Israel of intentional genocide and Israeli doctors of essentially being part of this genocidal activity — and of course squarely placed 100% of all the blame for the war on Israel’s shoulders, ignoring the rockets and terrorist activities of the Gazan side, and their refusal to respect cease-fire agreements. As I noted in a blog in this forum, and also on Occam’s Corner at The Guardian, several of the authors (Manduca and 24 signatories) failed to declare conflicts of interest, and professed clear anti-semitic views in addition to support for the 9-11 World Trade Center attack.

Despite the fact that I have grave concerns that: a) Israel’s failed government will likely be replaced with an even worse one in several months that will be just as unwilling to  move toward compromise and a fair two-state solution, b) Hamas will again indiscriminately fire rockets on Israeli towns and push for another round of war — I was buoyed ever-so-slightly by a recent commentary written by The Lancet editor, Dr. Richard Horton.

As it turns out, editor Horton agreed to an offer by the Israeli medical establishment to visit Israel. I read that Dr. Horton met with doctors in the north at Haifa’s Technion Univeristy Rambam hospital (including the Director-General of the Rambam Health Care Campus who interviewed me for a faculty position back in 2001) and physicians in the south at the Ben Gurion University medical school. My understanding is that he met with Jewish and Muslim Israeli doctors, rabbis and Imams, and that this visit allowed him to see first-hand how the Manduca letter failed to represent the reality in Israel. And although my preference would have been for the egregious Manduca letter to be retracted by The Lancet, I am cautiously optimistic that Dr. Horton’s commentary reflects a turning point in his understanding of the complexities of Israel and the middle-east. And I respect the courage he showed in admitting that:

I have seen for myself that what was written in the Manduca et al letter does not describe the full reality.

And that:

I was later horrified to discover that two co-authors of the letter had forwarded a vile and offensive video. The clearly anti-Semitic worldview expressed in that video is abhorrent and deserves universal condemnation.

Anti-semitism aside, I believe that there is an important lesson to be learned. The nature of medicine and science is to simplify systems. There is an understandable drive to reductionist philosophy — breaking things down to their simplest components, because the “whole,” the biological system at large — is often too complex to tackle. And while this may be a useful tool to slowly help build a more accurate picture in the scientific world, over-simplification of non-scientific systems — such as politics, good and evil, right and wrong — is frequently not helpful and even damaging. I am pleased that Dr. Horton had the opportunity to see that there are so many excellent people in Israel (Jews and Muslims and those of other religions), and that the country itself is very much split down the middle in its political views and desire for a two-state solution. I also hope very much that Dr. Horton’s letter marks a new understanding of these complexities that will be represented in any future publications regarding Israelis and Palestinians.

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Science in films: Decoding Annie Parker

It’s been a long time since I’ve actually seen a film in a theatre; the appeal of lying in bed in front of a high-resolution laptop screen when I’m too tired to think, write or even read is too great. Especially in the chill of Nebraska nights.

A few such nights ago I found a brief synopsis for a film entitled “Decoding Annie Parker (2012),” which smacked of potential for the description of real-life scientists at work, even if only peripherally to the main story. And yes, “real-life” is the key, as this film is based on a true story (as opposed to Lab Lit).

The story weaves back and forth from the 2000s to the late 60s and 70s in the Toronto of one Annie Parker. Annie loses her mother to breast cancer at an early age, and her beloved older sister dies of the same malady when the two of them are only in their 20s. Sadly, Annie herself is later diagnosed with breast cancer and much of the film depicts her courageous fight to survive — but also her valiant attempts to promote the notion that her illness has a strong genetic composition.

In the film, Annie’s insistence that her illness was in some way related to that of her mother and sister was consistently met with admonishment from the medical establishment. We witness doctors maintaining that epigenetic causes – the water, the environment, etc. are the primary factors for familial cancers rather than genetics.

In parallel with the personal story of Annie Parker, the film follows the years of hard work by geneticist Mary-Claire King, a professor at the University of Washington, who with her lab identifies the BRCA1 gene whose mutation leads to greatly increased susceptibility of breast (and ovarian) cancer.

As a scientist, I found the lab sections somewhat less than compelling, although Helen Hunt did a superb job in her role as Mary-Claire King (see a 2 minute trailer). The lab personnel (unclear whether they were students, post-docs or technicians) were less believable, and their acting was — well, let’s just say, overdone. Fortunately, they have very minor roles overall.

It’s a shame, however, that a prime educational opportunity was missed in the film — not due to poor acting, but rather the directing. There is a scene where Dr. King explains how genetic inheritance is in some ways similar to a deck of cards — an analogy with potential for a layman audience. But the speed at which the explanation takes place made it difficult even for a non-layman to follow.

There is no question that this is a very moving film. However, despite humorous interludes from time to time — and the courage and sheer willpower that propels Annie to survive to this day (!) — watching this kind of film ensures that I sleep poorly for nights to come after viewing it. And perhaps that’s the point.

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“The Whipping Man”–don’t miss it!

Over two years ago, I blogged in this space about “A Secular Passover” and discussed, among other issues, American Jews of the confederate south around the time of the civil war.
Caleb (Andy Prescott), John (Luther Simon) and Simon (Carl Brooks) in the Omaha Community Playhouse Production of “The Whipping Man”

I addressed the bitter irony of these Jews celebrating Passover–freedom from Egyptian slavery (as the tale is told)–while being served by African American slaves. Little did I realize that a remarkable play written by Matthew Lopez called “The Whipping Man” addresses the very same issue.

On Fri. eve, I had the opportunity to attend the Omaha Community Playhouse’s  rendition of “The Whipping Man,” starring three extremely talented local actors, Carl Brooks, Andy Prescott and Luther Simon, and directed by Stephen Nachamie. The Omaha Community Playhouse (OCP), which was the debut stage of Henry Fonda, Marlon Brando and a number of other famous actors, is a delightful place. With large and small theatres, the OCP has tremendous appeal. We sat in the front row of a small ~100 person theatre, essentially on stage with the actors. I was even concerned that I might trip one of them if I were to stretch my legs too far.

The OCP features “amateur” performers who are 100% professional except for the fact that they volunteer their time. Most carry full time jobs with rehearsals and performances in parallel, and their acting is truly first rate. Combined with professional directing and a wonderful atmosphere, the OCP is an Omaha treasure.

“The Whipping Man” is not an easy play to watch. Set in the immediate aftermath of the American Civil War, Jewish confederate Captain Caleb DeLeon returns to his ravaged childhood home in Richmond, Virginia severely wounded on Passover eve, just prior to Lincoln’s assassination. He finds Simon, the faithful and caring family slave left alone in the devastated house, and soon the two are joined by John, a younger family slave who grew up together with Caleb.

Simon, who throughout the play praises the Jewish family for its more humane treatment of slaves, is derided by John, who was sent numerous times to “The Whipping Man” to be beaten for his behavior. Caleb defends his family’s position, supporting Simon’s contention that John should consider himself ‘lucky’ to be a slave in a Jewish family rather than on a Christian plantation owner’s property. But as John notes, “That’s still not good enough.”

Despite the scarcity of food and the uncertainty of the situation, Simon decides that the three of them need to celebrate Passover–in part to celebrate the freedom of the African American slaves–with a traditional Passover ‘Seder’ and meal.

As the evening unfolds, secrets are revealed, and the true horror of slavery is revealed, by a shockingly clever plot and some brilliant acting. I will not be a spoiler, as I highly recommend seeing this play.

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Unconscious gender bias? What do I picture when I think of a scientist?

Recent years have seen a lot of discussion on the blogosphere on gender bias in science. There is no question that awareness is always the first step in heading for a solution.

photo 1-1

Do I have an unconscious bias against women in science?

From my personal perspective, I think I have been doing the right things. Two of my three official mentors (M.Sc., Ph.D.) were female. Two-thirds of the students I have mentored were/are female. My most talented and successful student to graduate thus far was female, and she moved very quickly through the ranks to obtain a faculty position and her own independent laboratory.

As I became more established in my own career, I have been doing my best to promote gender equality. One example is that while serving as chair of a study section for scientific funding agency, in a short time I was able to bring the number of male:female reviewers from 70:30 to 50:50.

For this reason, I stepped up with interest to the computer terminal at Omaha’s Durham Museum’s “Identity” exhibit to take a test and see whether I have “unconscious biases” regarding the relationship between men, women, sciences and arts.

The test was relatively simple: the computer placed the word “Science” on the left and “Arts” on the right, and then had me decide whether to group various words with “Science” or “Arts.” Examples were “History,” “Math,” “Sculpture,” “Physics,” “Astronomy,” “Literature,” etc. etc. The computer then placed “Male” together with “Science” and “Female” together with “Arts” and had me categorize words such as “Father,” “Sister,” “Grandmother,” “Uncle.” I would be timed for how long it would take me to properly categorize the words that cropped up to the left side of the screen (Male and Science) or the right side of the screen (Female and Arts). Then the whole process was reversed with “Male” and “Arts” grouped together on the left and “Female” + “Science” grouped together on the right, and I was again timed.

After going through this process in earnest, my results were finally calculated:
photo 2-1

According to this study, I am the non-proud owner of an unconscious bias in my perception of women (as being more fitting for liberal arts than science).

While this was supposed to be a fun exhibit (which dealt more with identity of individuals than issues of gender bias), I was somewhat distraught at my diagnosis of being gender biased. I pride myself on my lack of bias, at least conscious bias (what I can control). I even see myself as a male feminist, insofar as pushing for equality between the sexes. In fact, my last novel “A Degree of Betrayal” was described on Twitter by someone I don’t even know as “Possibly a book that every male PI should read.” Am I really that bad?

Let’s assume that this test is accurate in its assessment,  although I do have some concerns about whether the time for initial clicking and practicing was properly factored into the timed tallies. But for simplicity, I will accept that I do have an unconscious bias. What does this mean from a practical standpoint?

First, while unconscious biases can teach us about things we were/are unaware of, it’s the conscious biases that are obviously much more damaging. And since, as noted above, I make a conscious attempt to mitigate the situation, perhaps I’m not as bad as this test suggests. But what is the test actually showing?

In thinking about what this test is analyzing, one needs to be cautious in interpretations. It’s no secret that men of my age are much less likely to have a grandmother, mother or aunt who is/was a scientist than a grandfather, father or uncle. This may be a sad truth caused by society’s unfair treatment of women for generations (well, almost forever) – but nonetheless, statistically it is true. So if my responses in placing “Uncle,” “Grandfather,” or “Father” in the category of “Science” were faster than those placing “Aunt,” “Grandmother,” or “Mother” in the “Science” category, does that mean I perceive women as more fitting for the arts than sciences? Or does it merely reflect the overall demographic distribution of men vs. women in these fields, especially when going back a generation or two?

Simplifying things, my concern is whether this elegant computer program is really detecting an unconscious bias that I have toward women in science (or women as scientists), or whether it is merely demonstrating that I know that there are more male scientists than female scientists, especially as the age of the scientists increases.

I am certainly open to criticism and there is always room to improve one’s relationship to under-represented minorities in science (or any field); it’s always good to develop ways to assess conscious and unconscious bias. However, I humbly submit that as scientists, we must carefully interpret the data and ensure that our conclusions are really valid, and that whatever tests are designed to answer a specific question are designed to provide unambiguous conclusions. Unconscious bias against women in science may well be present, but I have serious doubts as to whether this program is capable of differentiating between bias and other factors.

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