Total loss department – Incident management solutions (Or: The “Isis-Gee Incident”)

Yesterday, I posted a letter for my husband containing paperwork for the insurance claim connected to someone rear-ending his new (used) car, totally destroying it and leaving it a write-off. The address above struck me as funny: “total loss” and “incident management solutions” seem to be at two opposite ends of a spectrum: one very negative with no hope of recovery, the other rather optimistic (euphemistic?) and forward-looking.

Writing and communicating under a pseudonym conveys power. This should be obvious: after all, the reason for using a pseudonym is usually to empower those who previously were/felt powerless to have their voice heard without repercussions and/or prejudice. It is important and necessary for this to be possible. Henry should not have outed a pseudonymous blogger, because those who need a pseudonym to freely communicate must have the reassurance that they will be able to do so.

What seems to be less obvious to many is that with that power comes responsibility.

In many ways, someone blogging under their real name (or even openly with their professional affiliation) may be more vulnerable than someone blogging/tweeting under a pseudonym. (Just search for the number of people who have called for Henry to resign from nature/be fired.) In the past I have myself consciously decided to blog under my real name about some things that have affected me in my professional life because I felt that I could make a bigger difference that way. This may or may not have hurt me; I think the jury is still out. Doing this was not an easy decision as I was scared of repercussions.

In the current discussion, people are persistently confounding “Henry as a person” with Nature Publishing Group, extrapolating from what Henry did to the organisation as a whole and vice versa. Of course, Henry has not helped this by referring to his employer in his recent altercation with Isis – but the fact remains that he tweeted in a private capacity and not as “Henry Gee, Senior Editor at Nature”.

While it is very important that the real-life name of a pseudonymous blogger/tweeter is not revealed, it is also important for those of us interacting online under our real names that our own opinions and actions and those of our employers, and even our actions online in a personal capacity and those in our professional life, are not confounded. (I say this as someone who for some years got her paycheck from a company that also makes long-range missiles and other things that kill people rather too effectively. I had absolutely nothing to do with those activities.).

Of course, for many reasons (ethics, our own mental health, among others), what we do in a professional capacity should not contradict what we say online as ordinary people, and vice versa. In some jobs this is even more important than in others – the more high-profile the job, the more online interactions are watched as well. There have been several examples of this in the last few weeks even.

To get back to the current situation: as high-profile of a position Henry holds at Nature in the eyes of many of you whose careers depend at least to some degree on publishing there, Henry IS not Nature Publishing Group. And when he says that he would never compromise the anonymity of a reviewer in his professional capacity, I believe him without reservations. Henry the Editor does not equal Henry the non-fiction book author does not equal Henry the guy from down the street in Cromer.

To me, the saddest thing about the “Isis/Gee story” (how ironic is it that their names will be forever linked online?) is that there is (was?) potential for a real discussion that may have to be had concerning power dynamics and how we treat each other online. As it is, there may be more potential for the current flame war to discredit the online science/science communication community, such as it is, even further following last year’s events. I worry that the situation is almost a Total Loss. Maybe we can still make sure that the paperwork at least goes to Incident Management Solutions so we can be more productive next time?

Finally, to get back to that power thing. Those of you who use pseudonyms: please think about the power you hold and wield it carefully.

Thank you.

(I apologise in advance for not linking to relevant blog posts/tweets here – my eight-month old is sitting next to me, demanding attention. If you are up for it, help me out in the comments. I also apologise should I be slow in responding to any comments, we have guests this afternoon who will arrive shortly and I may have to sneak to the bathroom to get a moment to do it.)

(Re-reading this post I wonder whether it sounds like a “NPG is great” statement, which it is not. But I’ve run out of time and think I’ve kind of managed to make my points…?)

Posted in on a personal note | Tagged , , , , | 4 Comments

For all brave and tired parents out there

The reactions on Twitter to my post here from yesterday were unexpected, funny and heartwarming. (Also: scary.) I put some of them together on Storify to share.

(If anyone can tell me how to embed this better/prettier, please do!)

Making it look possible – working through small baby sleep deprivation

  1. Working full time with a small baby? The challenges. @stuffysour is told You make it look possible  – but at a cost
  2. @profserious @AtheneDonald thx! Sounds like @stuffysour has a harder time than I – couldn’t do it without @expertsleepers being around!
  3. @DrAnnaLCox @AtheneDonald @profserious @stuffysour #ucl gives 3 months teaching sabbatical when u return after mat leave. Essential!
  4. @DrAnnaLCox @AtheneDonald @profserious @stuffysour tho when twins were 5 mo I went into liver failure. Docs wouldn’t believe I hadn’t +
  5. @DrAnnaLCox @AtheneDonald @profserious @stuffysour slept more than an hour at a time for 5mo, & didn’t think sleep depr was cause of illness
  6. @DrAnnaLCox @stuffysour @AtheneDonald @profserious yeah. Tbh, 1st six months with twins was a nitemare, so it’s just part of that!
  7. @stuffysour @AtheneDonald Agreed! The sleep deprivation made maintaining concentration and memory a huge challenge.
  8. @melissaterras @profserious @stuffysour @expertsleepers When no2 was ~8 mths my legs so feeble when lecturing thought I was developing MS
  9. @AtheneDonald @stuffysour Motherhood has had big impact on my career. My kid is 3 and has slept through only 5 times since birth. Knackered.
  10. @AtheneDonald @melissaterras @profserious @stuffysour when no2 was 12mths I told GP “feeling this tired all the time just isn’t normal”
  11. @AtheneDonald @melissaterras @profserious @stuffysour honestly thought I must have a serious illness. GP told me to move to the countryside!
  12. @AtheneDonald @stuffysour Even part-time the sleep deprivation with no. 2 was almost unendurable. How to think with cotton wool for brains?
  13. .@drkatedevlin @stuffysour @AtheneDonald Mrs A said recently she couldn’t recall an undisturbed night’s sleep in 10 yrs. Jr 1 9.5, No.2 5.5.

Posted in on a personal note, Women in science | Comments Off on For all brave and tired parents out there

You make it look possible

After my younger son was born earlier this year, I was at home for 11 weeks before I went back to work. He stayed with my mother for a bit before he could start nursery at three months.

Two weeks after the birth, my husband had to start traveling back to the US again for his job. He would be gone for about two weeks roughly every other month, leaving me with both children. When I was back at work, this made things that much more hectic.

Once at the nursery, my baby caught just about every possible bug, including a bout of norovirus (when I was alone with the children; we all caught it – what fun) and a bronchiolitis bad enough to make the GP prescribe two different inhalants for a week. He was sick almost nonstop for months. Any parent of a sick infant knows what this means. Now he has started teething.

I am not writing this to bore you with details. I am writing this to describe my specific situation. Because this is the thing: for parents of infants and young children, the specific situation matters. A lot.

I have found (am finding) working full time with a young infant harder than the first time, with my older son. Maybe my second is actually sleeping worse, or maybe I’m just that much older (there’s a very big gap between the two) and cope less well with the sleep deprivation. What I know for sure is that he’s been waking up at least three to four times every night since I went back to work. And that I had only two hours uninterrupted sleep last night, between 11 pm and 1 am. And that such a night is not a big exception, but has also happened regularly in the last four months.

It is bloody hard to work a full-time job when you have an infant at home. This is generally accepted wisdom, even for people who don’t have children themselves. So when I started to work again, I knew this might happen, and I was determined to work as hard as I could and get through this, because I know it is temporary. I also knew that I would not be able to work quite at my usual speed, and that, sometimes, getting something done at all would have to be good enough.

Last year, Yahoo’s Marissa Meyer started her job pregnant and carried on pretty much right after birth. Fantastic, people said all over the media at the time, someone is finally demonstrating how women can really do it all. I found this difficult to swallow then and I am finding it even more difficult in my current situation. Whether someone can or can’t “do it all” depends on their specific situation, and that doesn’t just mean whether you have a nanny or not.

The reality is that, whether you are told or not that everyone understands your situation: your performance will be judged at just the same level as always. No, you don’t get extra bonus points for giving your best under the circumstances. In fact, if you are sleep deprived and work less fast, this will count against you. If you can’t do quite as much as normally, this will count against you. If you overlook something because your brain is addled after a night like the one I described above, this will count against you. These are risks you need to be aware of when going back to work full time so soon after having a baby.

A friend told me today that I “make it all look possible”.

It is possible, but don’t be fooled: it comes at a cost.

Posted in career, on a personal note, Women in science | 5 Comments

Pregnancy? If you ask me, we’re doing it wrong

Pregnancy is beautiful – or so they say.

Well, I beg to differ. Interesting or even fascinating? Yes, definitely. But also inconvenient, weird and just plain impractical.

I have to disclose that, even as a young girl, I’ve always found that pregnant women look very strange, and often rather uncomfortable (I even felt a bit sorry for them). This hasn’t changed over the years, and neither did my feelings about pregnancy in general – not when I was pregnant with my first child almost ten years ago, or now with my current pregnancy…

Think about it: there is a small human being inside another human being!!! Moving around, kicking from the inside, squeezing their feet under your ribcage (causing that weird tingly sensation, which was new for me), pushing on the same spot over and over until you feel bruised inside and all the midwife can do is tell you it’s normal and to put a cold pack on it (also new for me), hiccupping, growing bigger and bigger… in fact, so big that at the end it’s quite a struggle to push him/her out through a passage that is barely adequate for this! In fact it’s such a tight fit that all kinds of additional adaptations had to happen, such as the skull bones of the baby not being fused until after the birth – to make the head more squishable – and the joints of the mother loosening up so the pelvis can open wider.

Speaking of which: the entire female body undergoes such profound changes that medical doctors treated (and often still treat) pregnancy as a medical condition, rather than a natural process. Which is of course silly, because – as strange as it is – it’s not a disease. (By the way, this is a comparatively recent phenomenon, see e.g. this brief overview).

But let’s just list a few of these changes here for fun – physiological:

  • blood plasma volume increases by 50% while the number of red blood cells only increases by 20-30%, completely changing the haematology
  • heart rate and cardiac output increase
  • the blood sugar level increases
  • breathing increases
  • the immune system is slightly suppressed
  • …and don’t even mention the hormones..

..and anatomical changes (besides the joints mentioned above):

  • the uterus increases its weight about 20 and its initial capacity about 1,000 times (not to mention all that muscle it packs on and starts exercising not too far into the pregnancy, getting ready for that olympic-class event of giving birth)
  • the placenta and umbilical cord grow
  • the breasts significantly increase in size (…and then even more, after the baby is born, for nursing)
  • and that absolutely massive belly people insist on affectionately calling “the bump” in a ridiculous understatement, which is due to the uterus growing into the abdomen, causing the abdominal wall to expand to accommodate it.

Anyway. The reason I am writing this post? I have a proposal to make.

Can we please lay eggs instead?

An egg, yesterday. (Isn’t it cute?)

Think about it. First of all, such an egg is smooth and round and would – frankly – come out a bit easier, with far less potential for drama including breech birth and other complications. But, more importantly: once the egg is out, it doesn’t have to be just the mother who looks after it. Look at Emperor penguins, for example! The fathers sit patiently on the eggs, keeping them warm, while the ladies take off to the seashore to replenish their used-up energy stores after producing that egg. Then they come back and take over again so the lads can have a break. How beautiful would that be? Truly equal sharing of responsibilities, right from the start!

And of course, humans being the ingenious species we are, looking after the egg doesn’t have to mean staying at home/stationary and sitting on it. I can imagine entire ranges of padded designer egg-carrier bags that can be set at just the right temperature and that even the most fashion conscious mum or dad wouldn’t be embarrassed to take to work with them, or any social event for that matter. It might even be admired and be quite the conversation starter. And it doesn’t have to stop there! With eggs in a carrier bag the entire family can share in the experience: grandmother and grandfather, older siblings… even friends could have a go!

P.S. Where did this post come from? Due to my employer’s special status, although based in the UK, my maternity leave had to start this week, four weeks before the due date, with no choice involved. Oh, the time to overthink this…… I guess I really should do some more relaxing now…

Posted in Silliness, society | Tagged , , | 30 Comments

Maxine Clarke

I learned only now, via Twitter, that Maxine Clarke has died.

Maxine was kind of the reason I started blogging.

Back in 2008 I rather suddenly – and unexpectedly – found myself having been made the editor-in-chief of a small journal that was not doing well at all. In my naiveté, to try and kick things up a bit, I decided to put together a special issue on science communication. As you might when finding yourself in such a situation, I googled around for possible contributors and found a piece by Maxine on Nature Network (ironically, I cannot find it now – I will add the link later when I do). I liked what she said and was bold enough to ask whether she would contribute to the special issue. She accepted, which I have to say I was as pleased as pleasantly surprised about.

So I ended up editing her article – and afterwards she complimented me on a great job. As absolutely nice as that was I only later realised the scale of that compliment, considering Maxine’s role at Nature! Once I did, I was almost mortified (and had I known before I would probably not have dared to touch the text at all..!). But I have to admit that I later extremely proudly used the argument “I’ve been commented on my editing by a Nature editor” once or twice.

After this I started reading the blogs on Nature Network more regularly, and I liked much of what I saw, most of all the community spirit that clearly came across. After some soul-searching, I decided to start blogging myself. (After NN was discontinued, the posts – with comments – were moved here, but I also copied them to Occam’s, if you’re interested. I have not fixed the formatting on most of them yet, apologies.)

There’s something else – big – that Maxine helped me with: because of a coincidence, I learned that one of the editors of that same journal I was put in charge of was a very prominent figure in the HIV-AIDS denialism world. Which I had never come across before. So while I was “familiarising myself” with that parallel universe and as my belief in the general sanity of humankind started wavering, I asked her – as a senior, very experienced editor – for advice on how to deal with this situation. I learned that Maxine had a lot of experience with that particular kind of madness, and she was an absolutely tremendous help for me. She even put me in touch with a prominent HIV researcher who spent time on a long phone conversation with me, basically educating me on the issue. I would like to stress that she never even remotely told me what to do – she just gave me the information to make up my own mind.

The first time I met Maxine in person was at the first Science Online London event in 2008. The day before, there was a guided tour of London’s sciency-sites (led by Matt Brown, now from The Londonist). Throughout the tour and afterwards I was very impressed by her friendliness towards and interest in seemingly absolutely everyone! She made a real effort to talk to lots of people, and it was not just small talk. This is a skill I wished then (and still wish) I had.

It was the same on Nature Network: Maxine constantly seemed to be everywhere, and I remember wondering regularly how she found the time to follow all these blogs and make comments that were far more than “this is a great post” cheers.

Towards the end of the time of the now “Occam’s crew” at Nature Network, my contact with Maxine broke off. But I kept thinking about her, what she had done for me and what I learned from her, at very regular intervals.

I guess several of “me and my blogging buddies” may have similar stories. Eva wrote a wonderful post about Maxine already on 18 December.

Maxine was an absolutely beautiful person, and my thoughts are with her family and the friends and colleagues she leaves behind.

(Maxine’s obituary by Nature is here.)

Posted in on a personal note, Women in science | 11 Comments

Last night at the gingerbread house..

My brother and his family visited us over Christmas. As we did the presents-bit in the evening on Christmas Eve we had some time to kill earlier in the day.. which we did effectively with a massive gingerbreadhousesweetdecorationorama.

The thing is that we have to eat it now.

One night, at the gingerbread house..

Caption contest, anyone?

Posted in Silliness | 5 Comments

Career impediments

A bit over a year ago now, sitting at Berlin central station after a three-day training seminar, sipping a latte while waiting for the train, I was chatting with a medical doctor/researcher at a big cancer research institute in Germany about “career impediments”.

Me: “My problem is that I say what I think. I mean, when something isn’t working, and it’s in the way of making progress with the project or whatever I’m involved in, I point this out, and I make suggestions for how I think this could be fixed. I just can’t help myself. It’s a bit of a problem because so many people tend to take it personally while I’m really just talking about the issues. But I don’t seem to be able to learn any lessons from that, either”.

Him: “My problem is that I believe what people tell me. Even when they’re joking.”

He wasn’t joking, I checked. I told him he’d won.

Which is the bigger impediment?



Posted in science management, Silliness | 2 Comments

Inside my genome

Or: Craig Venter and I1

I spat into a tube this morning:

This is to participate in a study called “Inside your genome” that is run by the good folks at the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute. The study offers 1000 people working here on the Genome Campus to be voluntarily genotyped at a set of ~100-150 known variants, showing results for around 30 traits. Among some other things, this study is set up to explore people’s attitudes, views, opinions and awareness of personal genomics (using genetic technology) to learn about how their own genome sequence relates to their traits.

I like this simple description of what’s going on:

Every cell in your body has a complete set of instructions, known as the genetic code, that tell the body how to make your cells and their components, and to direct how these interact. This set of instructions is encoded in your genome. You could think of the genome as a recipe book that carries all of the instructions necessary to make a human being. Sometimes, variation in the genome between individuals can result in the presence of certain traits, some of which may be related to your health.

The traits included in this study – as voted for by study participants – are entirely “benign”:

  • Ancestry (Worldwide, Neanderthal and population markers)
  • Cholesterol
  • Eye colour
  • Smell perception
  • Taste perception
  • Blood glucose
  • Muscle performance
  • Blood pressure
  • Body mass index (BMI)
  • Blood type
  • Nicotine addiction susceptibility
  • Caffeine consumption
  • Fat distribution
  • Lactose intolerance
  • Norovirus resistance
  • Male pattern baldness

Most of this doesn’t sound very exciting. After all, I already know the colour of my eyes (green), my hair colour (dark blonde… well, increasingly grey), I know (from experience!) in which areas my body fat is most likely to be stored, and I am pretty sure I am not at risk of developing male-pattern baldness. I am, however, a tiny bit excited about the prospect of finding out exactly how “Neanderthal” I am – I do have all four of my wisdom teeth and they are fully functional… I’ve always wondered whether that may be any indication?

Even judging only by the number of times this was mentioned in the information paperwork, among the biggest concerns of the researchers seems to be:

  • Study participants asking researchers about specifics concerning their genome/results (which will NOT be possible)
  • Feedback of any “incidental” findings (i.e. things not included on the list above) to study participants (which will NOT take place)

The reasons for this (I am guessing) might be:

  • Practical issues involved in storing and (re-)analysing the data
  • Keeping data identifiable (i.e. possible to link with the individual study participant, which in this study is explicitly NOT the case)
  • and, probably the reason for the previous point, ethics involved in feeding back findings to the participants (probably along the lines of the issues described recently in an article in Nature).

But to be honest, and as much as I understand that this is not feasible, I was/am almost a bit disappointed that the study will not look at factors that may indicate detrimental health effects. For example, I would have liked to know exactly how likely I will be to get arthritis, as one of my close family members has it. Then again: arthritis is not life-threatening, and it’s probably sufficient if I just mentally prepare myself for the eventuality (plus try and keep my joints healthy by eating the “right” foods and exercising). It might be quite different if I was confronted with a finding that indicates I might die rather a bit sooner than I had hoped.

One of the aims of the study is to “give [participants] the opportunity to personally think through the technical and ethical considerations that surround personal genomics”. But I wonder whether looking at “harmless” traits contributes in any way towards finding out the real attitudes, since the big issues seem to me to only arise once the findings are not “harmless”. One colleague joked, predictably, that if traits relating to a detrimental effect on health had been included in the study, “the next thing would be that you’d find yourself being struck off the health insurance” – and I bet this or a similar thought is the first that pops into the head of anyone who thinks about genotyping, especially in the context of personalised medicine.. and despite its huge potential to help patients by targeting treatments. If not, let me know in the comments.

Just this morning it seemed like the participation in the study would be modest, judging by the number of sampling kits that were left over. However, with just 1.5 hours to spare before the deadline, there was an update that the kits have all gone now. A mad, last-minute rush – have people just made up their minds (or were they just too lazy to do it earlier, like me)?

How do you feel about genotyping – if you really think about it?

1. The study is completely voluntary, confidential, etc., and only looks at a veryvery limited set of traits, so it really is not quite like having your entire genome sequenced and published openly like Craig Venter’s… but since the consistency of his earwax was mentioned in the introduction to the keynote talk I heard him give a bit over a week ago at ESOF 2012 in Dublin, the subtitle seemed somehow appropriate.

Posted in personalised medicine, science and society | Tagged , , | 25 Comments

Something more glamorous

I just had a bit of an experience while uploading an old photo to Facebook – this one:

Some serious science, ca. 1998
A dirty girl, ca. August 1998

Ok, maybe it was the caption I put with the photo – but still!

Anyway, if you’re interested in the story behind that photo, we have to go back to sometime in 1998 – I believe it was August. A lovely summer. I was at the Southampton Oceanography Centre (as it was called then). I had just finished my biology degree in Germany. Those were the days before bachelor’s and master’s degrees were introduced there, so it took about 5 years (or 10 semesters) on average to get a biology degree, and the last year consisted of a project and thesis in the area one had decided to specialize in towards the end. I had decided to do my project in Southampton for various reasons.. and then, for other reasons, I got stuck there. Not a bad place at all to be stuck at the time! The summer of 1998, I was working as a research assistant/technician in the resident deep sea research group. To my immense joy, I was given the opportunity to lead a small team of volunteers on a cruise to the Porcupine Abyssal Plain to take samples from a unique, deep sea long-term study site, the PAP site.

So off I went with my little team, all efficient. Taking sediment samples for macrofauna, diligently slicing up box core samples. Doing science. I didn’t even let the person who snuck up to me to leave those paw prints distract me – I was on a mission.

The sediment samples had to be rinsed through fine mesh sieves – these types of sieves were originally meant for geologists to analyse the grain size of sediments, but benthic biologists have been using them for a long time to wash the critters out of the sediment and pre-sort them by size (or rather, aptitude to pass through certain mesh size sieves – but let’s not get into that). Now, deep sea mud can be quite sticky – finely sorted, very small grained sediment. It takes a long time to wash any reasonably-sized sample through even a very big sieve.

One day (or was it night? I don’t remember – it started to all blend together), after standing on deck for endless hours with a big sieve, lots of mud, and a hose with running seawater, gently going back and forth with the sway of the ship and washing and bottling sample after sample, one of the engineers walked up to me. He was really trying the small talk, but I was really very tired. One thing he said has stuck with me until this day, however:

“I would have thought that someone like you would have chosen to do something more…. glamorous.”

Well. I ended up in science management, didn’t I?

Posted in Silliness | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Somewhere in Essex

Or: Leaving Germany – again? For good? Whatever

Yes, I’ve gone and done it again – moved my family to a different country. Or should I say back to an old country? I’ve moved from Germany to the UK again, a country which I left in 2002, almost exactly ten years ago, to move to the US. I arrived as an undergraduate student then and ended up doing my PhD here. In some ways, during this period before I have my family here (we are still in the process of moving), I’ve almost been feeling thrown back to those days: shared accommodation, a desk in an office that was built as a lab, the new-ness and uncertainty and excitement that comes with such a big move and a new job.. and I feel that I am back in a more academic environment again, here at the European Bioinformatics Institute in Hinxton (near Cambridge).

Plus I have only public transportation and my feet to get me around. Take that, my determination to explore my new surroundings, and consider how much I miss my family, and it might explain (somewhat) why I went on a twenty mile hike through the Essex countryside last weekend. It was excellent, and I’m glad I did, because this was just one of the things I saw:


So it’s England – again for me, the first time for my family. We’ll have it good here. And no, I’m not planning on repeating the sequence again.. (Germany -> UK -> US -> Germany -> UK…).

However… even though I should be used to it, this still somehow makes me nervous:

Kein Wohnsitz in Deutschland

Posted in career, Keep on fighting | 19 Comments