Hogma-Nay.

When I still lived in the UK, New Year’s Eve was always a really big deal for my friends and me. We usually went up to Edinburgh for the huge Hogmanay street party, which involved being out on Princes Street from about 10pm until 4am, pushing our way through massive crowds, drinking cheap wine from plastic pop bottles, kissing random men in kilts, walking the several miles back to our friend’s Dad’s flat, then sleeping like sardines on the floor. We spent the 1999-2000 celebration in similar style on Newcastle’s Quayside, and also spent a very cold and snowy night at Glasgow’s street party one year. It was always loud, rowdy, and tons of fun.

I went back to the UK for Christmas and New Year the year that I moved to Canada, but stayed on this side of the pond the following year. My Dutch friend and I, plus our Canadian then-boyfriends-now-husbands, had the genius idea of trying to recreate the European street party experience by heading to Whistler, which we’d heard was the place to be for New Year’s Eve. Sadly, however, we were misinformed.

The actual street party element of the Whistler Hogmanay experience lasts for approximately 20 minutes either side of midnight. Before and after the big countdown, everyone’s inside at various bar parties and the snowy streets are almost deserted. This was particularly disappointing for us because the party we’d chosen was the saddest New Year’s Eve party of all time.

We should have known something was up when we could actually get tickets that didn’t cost $200 each; I think ours were more like $30. It looked OK though – cozy, intimate – when we first arrived and grabbed a table right by the as-yet empty stage. They were playing decent music, and serving decent beer – but then the couple on one side of us started to have a massive argument. Even the arrival of the singer didn’t stop them, and their relationship continued to unravel as the singer settled in with her acoustic guitar and started to sing country-pop ballads about her own breakups and other relationship disasters. She was actually pretty good, but her songs were kinda depressing – and apparently the couple on the other side of us agreed, as they commenced a very serious conversation about the state of their relationship that didn’t seem to be heading anywhere cheery.

The sad songs continued. The woman from the first couple left the room in floods of tears, and did not come back. Her apparently now ex-boyfriend looked like he was going to cry into his beer. Another sad song. The second couple had decided that their futures did not include each other, and were sitting pointedly not looking at each other, in silence. And then the singer announced, “oh, hey, someone just pointed out that it’s 12:04! Sorry, I missed the countdown. Oh well, happy New Year!”, before launching into the saddest song yet. We all burst out laughing, downed our complimentary glasses of sickly sweet cheap champagne, hugged and/or kissed each other, and headed out into the Village Square to witness the last few minutes of the street “party”. Back at our table a few moments later, we agreed that it was one to remember.

My subsequent Canadian Hogmanays have been much less depressing: a mix of bar parties and house parties with friends, happy music, and no more breakups. Lately, though, the downsides of the evening – the feeling of pressure to do something “cool”, the crowds, the ridiculous prices, the loooooooong wait in the cold for a taxi – have felt more pronounced. Last year we decided to do something different, and just invited a few friends over for dinner and board games, and you know what? It was really, really nice. I guess we’re getting old.

We were planning to do the same thing this year, but then we both came down with colds over Christmas. I’m starting to feel better but I’m still coughing and hacking, and Mr E Man is a couple of days behind me, so we ended up cancelling. The friends we’d invited have all had some health problems this year and we don’t want to get them sick, plus we’re just not really feeling up for a big night. We’ve stocked up on delicious food to cook, we have some good beer and a mini bottle of fizz that my boss gave me when I passed my PMP exam, and so we’ll be home tonight watching movies and playing cribbage and backgammon, like the old folks we apparently are. No sad songs, no drama, no crowds, no taxi queues, no hassle. I wouldn’t want to do that every year, but this year, it’s just perfect!

A very happy New Year to all of you, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing! I hope 2015 is good to you!

Posted in drunkenness, getting old, personal | 3 Comments

How to pass your PMP exam

It’s been a while, eh?

Today’s the first day since early September that I’ve woken up without a long list of specific things to accomplish, and it is blissful! I’m on my sister-in-law’s sofa with a big cup of tea, and I don’t have to do anything but this or be anywhere but here ALL DAY. Heaven!

Yup, it’s been my busiest few months since I was in the final year of my PhD, and I’m glad I can breathe again before going back to two imminent grant deadlines in January. The two main reasons for all the running around (other than the usual grants and progress reports) are that I helped organize and run the joint International Human Epigenome Consortium / Canadian Epigenetics, Environment and Health Research Consortium 2014 Annual Meeting, then took a week-long course and studied for weeks for my Project Management Professional exam.

The former was tons of work, but really fun! I made new friends, geeked out extensively, and even got to meet Richard Wintle at long last!

The latter was tons of work, but no fun at all. But at least I can get a blog post out of it! Here’s how I managed to pass Thursday’s exam with the top mark1 in each of the five domains:

1) Take a good course

You have to have 35 hours of project management education to take the exam. I followed my department’s tradition by taking the PMP Certification Exam Preparation course2 at the local community college, and it made all the difference. It was a painful week though, with 8 hour days of intensive instruction and in-class exams plus hours more spent on homework each night, and we were all exhausted by the end of the week.  Our instructor did a fantastic job: she started us off on the Monday morning by proclaiming that the subject matter is extremely dry, the textbook is terribly written, the exam is full of trick questions, but “I’ll get you through it”. Correct on all counts!

2) Take a friend

It’s pretty much expected that everyone in my team will take the PMP exam eventually. Most people who’ve been there longer than me had already done it, but there were a few of us who were eligible who hadn’t taken the plunge yet (you have to have a certain number of months of experience – the total amount varies depending on which degrees you have). Three of us made a pact that when we did it, we’d do it together, so we all signed up for the same course. It really helped to have some familiar faces there with me, although by the end of the course all twenty or so of us were bonding through the time-tested methods of bitching and venting (my little group also took the initiative of writing the name of a pub on the board on the last day, and lots of us found our way there for beer and more bitching after finishing the final exam). The whole group shared study tips, useful links, and stories of success via email, and the three of us from the same team did a lot more in person too. Aside from the tangibly useful advice, the feeling of solidarity through all those weeks of intensive studying before and after work really helped too.

3) Remember that this is not like any of the other exams you’ve ever taken

Friend, colleague, and regular reader Mermaid reminded me a few days before my exam, “remember, you don’t have to get an A on this one; a C is plenty good enough”. It was a hard lesson to learn for a lifelong academic overachiever like me, and one of the two colleagues who took the course with me said the same. We’d never in our whole lives done as poorly in an exam as we did in the in-class exams, and the concept of “here are four correct statements; please pick the one that is the MOST correct” continues to warp our poor little scientist brains3. With practice you do start to learn what the tricks and patterns are – but there were still a couple of questions on the final exam that I didn’t understand at all, several where two answers looked equally correct, and even one where all four options looked equally correct.

4) Study actively

I’ve never had a problem motivating myself to study for an exam before, but then I’ve always been lucky enough to study things that I find interesting. The Project Management Body of Knowledge textbook does not fall into this category. While trying to read it I would often find my eyes sliding off the page and onto the table next to the book, because the table was more interesting. I found that studying by just reading was going to be impossible this time, despite my not-quite-eidetic-but-really-very-good-visual-memory; I had to combine reading with more active study techniques.

What worked for me was that while I was reading each chapter I would make a list of all the parts of the text I thought I would need to memorize, complete with the number of components for each item, and a textbook page reference. I could then look at my list, try to recall all the components of each item, then open the book at that specific page to see if I was right. For example I would list “sequence of activities for scope management (6), page X”, or “inputs to control quality (5), page Y”. This was much easier than trying to read through pages and pages of the damn book again!

With each pass through the list I would cross off the things I was confident I’d memorized correctly, so each subsequent pass was faster and more focused. Conversely, I’d highlight the items I knew I was struggling with (see point 6, below) for extra attention.

5) Practice, practice, practice

Doing practice test after practice test helped more than everything else put together.

During my most intensive three weeks of study I re-took all the chapter-specific exams we’d taken in class, the day after studying that chapter. When I’d been through my memorization list a few more times, I started taking a series of online exams – as many full-length (200 questions) versions as I could find, but also some shorter ones. Someone who’d taken the course at the same time as me emailed everyone this great link that compiles all the best online resources in one place, and I used this list (plus a 200 question exam the course instructor sent us by email) exclusively. I found #1 and #3 on the list to be the best options.

I did also try downloading some iPhone apps so I could do practice questions on the bus, but I couldn’t find one that I really liked – the four I tried had either very easy, very repetitive, or demonstrably incorrect tests. If you’ve found one that you actually like, please post a link in the comments!

6) Identify your weaknesses

As soon as I started taking practice tests, I created an Excel spreadsheet to track which questions I was consistently getting wrong. I defined the area of weakness fairly broadly, e.g. topic: quality management, subtopic: control quality. I just kept a simple tally next to each subtopic, with conditional formatting set to red data bars so I could easily see where the peaks and troughs were. I also had a summary pivot table with incorrect answers per chapter of the textbook.

It would have been best if I’d calculated the % incorrect, as some chapters are featured more heavily in the final exam than others, but that was too much of a hassle – and the numbers themselves were really useful in helping me to focus my studies during the last couple of days. For example, I knew I was having a hard time with risk management and quality management, but it was a surprise to see procurement management near the top of my error list; it just didn’t feel like I was having too hard a time with those questions. However, I followed my check sheet / Pareto diagram approach4 anyway and studied procurement management on the penultimate day – and then I got six or seven questions about contract types, so it really paid off!5

7) Repeat point 5 until you pass

Good luck!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I’m exceedingly relieved to have put this hazing ritual behind me and rejoin the real world! Well, I will after Christmas, anyway.

Other news

  • My cats have become extremely famous since my last blog post! During a rare slow moment in November I tweeted the same Schrodinger’s cat joke I made on here a few years ago, and it attracted tens of thousands of retweets, likes, and mentions – including by the official Nobel Prize feed! How bizarre! The photo’s also shown up on Reddit and in various other places on the internet. Uncredited, but I’d rather have the cats than the credit, because they are the most awesome cats of all time, especially Saba, but don’t tell Google I said so.
  • I had tons of fun thinking about, talking about, and writing a very silly post about the epigenetics of the X-Files at the Guardian.
  • I’ve been invited to participate in two career development events at UBC – one for biochem undergrads, and the other for postdocs – focusing on non-traditional career options for scientists. I will report back!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1) The top mark is “Proficient“. Yay.
2) The course has the very appropriate code “BSAD”.
3) It doesn’t help that the textbook and the exam questions are full of grammatical errors, and that the definitions they use for such terms as “order of magnitude”, “bar chart”, and – most egregiously – “standard deviation” are different from the definitions used in, y’know, science, and the rest of the real world.
4) Why yes, I did project manage my project management studies!
5) When you sit down to take the computerized final exam at a third party testing office, the software pulls 200 questions from a bank of around 3,000 possible options. This means that everyone’s exam is unique; my friend had multiple questions about three-point estimating, whereas I only got one, and she didn’t get any questions about contracts. It also seemed that around 15% each of the answers I selected were either “update risk register” or “develop project charter”, but hey, I passed, so clearly most of those were correct! The pattern started to feel really pronounced and uncomfortable, but I just reminded myself that true randomness includes long runs of the same result and kept treating each new question independently from all its predecessors.

Posted in blog buddies, career, conferences, furry friends, personal, science, why I love the internet | 8 Comments

Street signs

My sister and I had very active imaginations when we were kids. We acted out plays with our stuffed animals, pretended we were time travellers, and frequently visited Narnia – but what we really loved was solving mysteries. Fuelled by a diet of books such as Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Adventure series1, we’d pedal around our neighbourhood in the summer, looking for clues to the epic acts of iniquity and skullduggery that were surely lurking around every corner.

The trouble was, our neighbourhood was the kind that is distinctly devoid of iniquity and skullduggery2 – all near-identical three- and four-bedroom homes with carefully maintained lawns and rose bushes. Beyond some distinctly non-mysterious teenaged loitering outside the off-license, the biggest crime in town was probably the vandalization of the swings at the local playground.

We were not discouraged by this less than promising environment, though. In fact, the facade of peace and good order that the local crime syndicates had obviously thrown up to thwart us just made us even more determined to find the clues that would lead to their downfall. So, when we found some mysterious pieces of yellow plastic on three different streets near our house, we just knew we were onto something. As we found more and more pieces, we started to put together all kinds of theories and plots about international smugglers, kidnap victims trying to lay a breadcrumb trail for us to follow, and other schemes I can’t remember. Those few little pieces of yellow plastic kept us happily occupied for literally days.

We never did solve our mystery, but I was recently reminded of how much fun we had trying. You see, the streets of East Vancouver are suddenly full of some really meaty, juicy clues:

photo-2

photo 1

and, most excitingly:

photo 3

Clearly, something big is afoot. And even while the boring, adult part of my brain ponders the mystery of when the construction’s going to start and exactly how much of a hassle it’s going to be, the part of me that speculated for days over a few pieces of yellow plastic is running scenarios and trying to crack this mysterious code.

I hope the local kids know just how lucky they are… and I really, really hope that the ones who saw me taking these photos have incorporated the mysterious stranger on a bike into their skullduggery scenarios. That would make me, and no doubt Enid Blyton, very happy indeed.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

1) I recently re-read another favourite Blyton series: the Malory Towers boarding school story series, all midnight feasts and pranks played on teachers. My sister had told me how much she’d enjoyed re-reading the books, but I was somewhat dubious, thinking that I’d find the outdated gender and class role aspects too grating. However, the stories were just so spiffingly good that I was drawn in all over again and read through the whole series in no time at all. Jolly good fun, and I was surprised at how much I remembered!

2) Although, staggeringly, the village is home to what I think is still North Yorkshire’s only unsolved murder! It happened a couple of years after I left to go to university, and the rumour is that the wife hired a hitman to kill the husband. No idea if that’s true or not, but you can imagine the scandal it caused – people are still speculating about it now.

Posted in book review, family, photos, silliness, Vancouver | 3 Comments

Accelerate the progress of your research by using this one weird old tip!

(Photo and title by Sonja Babovic; used with her permission)

Other geeky things that made me laugh recently:

 

Posted in grant wrangling, photos, science, silliness | 2 Comments

Things I learned at a funding agency’s “community engagement” session this week

  • “Your stupid new metrics are irrelevant to my field of research”
  • “It’s not fair that chemists get bigger awards, even though I acknowledge that their research is much more expensive than that of the other fields that fall under your agency’s mandate”
  • “You can’t make me change the way I format my CV! I’ve done it this way for years!”
  • “It’s not fair that you’re no longer asking people to attach their CV as an .xml file generated by the Common CV system. I spent days figuring out how to hack that code to include more publications than the format allows!”
  • “Postdocs waiting to submit fellowship applications until the final year they’re eligible, rather than diving in at the first opportunity when they have fewer publications, is ‘gaming the system'”

(all quotes paraphrased, but only a little bit. I don’t know any of the PIs involved – this was an event held at the campus of one of the universities with which my institution is affiliated. I went as my institution’s representative, and didn’t recognize anyone else there. The funding agency rep handled everything way better than I would have in her position. From my position in the audience, it was a very entertaining afternoon).

 

 

Posted in career, grant wrangling, science | 8 Comments

Ectopic scribblings

It occurred to me this week that I’ve written various things in other venues that I’ve never linked to from this blog, and that it might be a good idea to compile some sort of list to try and mitigate the increasing entropy of my online presence, such as it is.

I wrote a book!

It’s on Amazon and everything!

Well, I co-wrote a book, way back in 2007-2008. Some people who’d recently left the biotech company where I was employed at the time to start their own company were approached by a publisher to write a textbook about stem cells for the US home-school market, and asked me to help them. I’d just got married and was already interviewing for the job I ended up doing from 2007-2012 (I actually signed the book writing contract on the same day I resigned from the biotech company), so it was a bit of a crazy year…

I ended up writing about 30% of the content of the first version, and also edited the other three authors’ chapters for grammar and consistent language. The entire process took about three months, and I was basically a total hermit for the entire time; I wrote all weekend every weekend, and edited every weekday morning before work and most evenings. All this while learning the ropes at a new job! I even wrote all day on Boxing Day 2007, even though we had a house full of in-laws who’d unexpectedly stayed overnight after it snowed during the Christmas dinner we were hosting, and who seemed strangely reluctant to go home. My then-teenage niece berated me with the words “you’re supposed to be Auntie Cath, not anti-social!”, which was highly amusing but not persuasive enough to make me leave my lonely desk in the spare room and come out to play Trivial Pursuit.

Once we’d finished the text we handed it off to the publisher, who edited and compiled everything into their usual format. We updated the text in 2010, at which time it was also converted into a non-textbook version by the Genetics Policy Institute, whose website seems to have closed down (but the book was always hidden behind a log-in system for some reason anyway). We found out earlier this year that yet another version had been released and was available on Amazon; this is the version I linked to above.

Overall, the experience was great, and I learned a lot. The financial gains have been much more modest (as in, my share is just barely into four figures – I wasn’t expecting a lot, but was nevertheless disappointed!) We’ve also all found the lack of communication with the publishing companies involved to be a bit of a problem – for instance, we’ve asked many times to be sent a few free copies of various versions, but in the end I had to buy my own from Amazon. It’s all been a little bit unsatisfying to be honest, but as I said I gained a lot of valuable experience and, most importantly, I can say “I wrote a book!”

I wrote a short story!

I know, I’m as surprised as you are!

I hadn’t written a single word of fiction since high school English homework, and never for fun, but then the idea for “Crisis Management” got into my head and, like Boxing Day in-laws, just wouldn’t leave*. (The idea was born, as so many great ideas are, during an after-work pub session; specifically, a conversation with a colleague who is the real life “Dr. Hutch” from the story. I would like to point out that the real Dr. Hutch’s research methods are 100% traditional and ethical). I was trying to write a serious science piece for the Guardian, but would find myself thinking about my story idea instead, and eventually I realized I was just going to have to write it so I could concentrate on other things. It turned out to be tons of fun, and I’m really glad I finished it!

I’d like to once again thank official fiction writing consultant Vanessa and official subject-matter expert Beth for their comments on an earlier version, which helped to improve the story immensely, and of course Jenny for publishing the story on the LabLit site. You rock, ladies!

I wrote two more pieces for Occam’s Corner!

Unbreakable: do superheroes, impervious to cancer, walk among us? explores genetic resistance to cancer, and made it (briefly) onto the front page of Digg;

Epigenetics 101: a beginner’s guide to explaining everything does what it says on the tin, and features what I think is my best analogy to date.

Many thanks to my new writing group – Jane, Catherine, and Anne – for their suggestions on improving both pieces, and to Jenny (again) and Richard for further suggestions and Grauniad-wrangling, respectively.

OK, I’m done! For now, anyway.

~~~~~~~~~~~~

*I love my in-laws! I always say I have the second-best in-laws in the world (Mr E Man has the best). I was just grumpy that Boxing Day 😀

Posted in blog buddies, career, communication, personal, publishing, writing | 13 Comments

Questions?

A group of geeky colleagues assembled in the lobby after work last night and headed down to Vancouver’s Railway Club for Café Scientifique. This monthly science outreach event encompasses talks about everything from biodiversity to genomics to chemistry to particle physics; the speaker this time was Dr. Elizabeth Simpson, talking about her work on the basic genetics of and gene therapy approaches to mental health disorders.

The talk was very interesting, but what really stood out was Dr. Simpson’s approach to questions from the audience. She said at the beginning of the talk that she’d like to take questions after each slide, rather than all at the end – and then actively solicited questions about literally every slide, from her academic background to funding acknowledgements and everything in between.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure about this approach at first – it seemed a little forced and awkward, and I was grateful that one of the other regulars asked the first question so I didn’t have to. But three or four slides in, as we got more into the meat of the talk and I started to think of questions of my own, I decided that it actually worked really well.

I chatted to the event’s organizer, Susan Vickers, after the talk, and she said that Dr. Simpson had told her that this approach sometimes works really well, and sometimes completely bombs. The informal setting of last night’s talk (in the back room of the bar, with a pint of beer in almost every hand) probably helped to ensure that people got into the idea and were happy to speak up, but I can see a bigger or younger crowd being too shy to participate. I don’t think I’d ever have the intestinal fortitude to try this myself, though, even with beer in the mix!

I do have one unanswered question of my own: what on earth is an old pub sign from my home town doing in a bar in Vancouver?!

photo

The Hole in the Wall is a pub that I’ve visited many times, just inside the city walls and within sight of York Minster, which graces its sign. I’ve asked a couple of different Railway Club bartenders if they know anything about it, but no luck so far.

I guess some questions must remain unanswered…

Posted in communication, drunkenness, photos, science, Vancouver | 6 Comments

MOOCs: my other online compulsion

I’ve heard a lot about massive open online courses (MOOCs) over the last couple of years, but hadn’t quite got around to trying one until Eva mentioned on Facebook recently that she’d signed up for a communication science course, and would anyone else like to play? Having joined both my department’s new communications team and the communications working group of the International Human Epigenomics Consortium (IHEC) during the last year, Eva’s invitation seemed like the perfect opportunity to find out whether my love of learning new things translates to this new online medium.

The Introduction to Communication Science course is offered by the University of Amsterdam, on the Coursera site. After I signed up I sent the link to the other members of my department’s communications team; my boss and one other member promptly joined, and my boss also found a course called Content Strategy for Professionals: Engaging Audiences for Your Organization from Northwestern University that looked relevant to our work revamping our rather outdated website. I therefore found myself signed up for two courses at once, which turned out to be quite a lot of work (my boss dropped Communication Science after a couple of weeks – he has three young kids at home and found it was just too much).

The two courses turned out to be very different, but complemented each other well.

The lectures for Content Strategy were all videos of one, two, or occasionally three professors sitting in an office talking to the camera; some of them seemed a little stilted and awkward, but the content was interesting and, of the two courses, the more relevant to my professional interests. I thought the best part was the IBM case study at the end, which included interviews about what Watson is up to these days (some of which is related to one of the projects I manage). The videos were all posted at the very beginning of the course, which I really liked because it allowed me to push ahead in weeks when I had more time (Mr E Man was working weekends for the first couple of weeks of the two courses, and I pretty much finished all the Content Strategy videos on those days).

I wasn’t very enthusiastic about the class assignment, though. Ironically enough, I read the description immediately after watching the lecture that stressed how important it is that your content is something the audience truly cares abut, only to find that the assignment was to create a piece of content and an overall strategy for an entity in which I had little to no interest – a men’s clothing company. It would have been better, I think, to have a choice of assignments – maybe one company for students from the private sector, and one non-profit for the rest of us. But, as promised in the assignment description, I was able to pull some more general lessons from the exercise. The course was peer-reviewed, so after posting my own assignment I was given access to other students’ pieces to assess. The course was pass/fail, so I didn’t give a grade other than “yes, they submitted something that matched the requirements”, but I gave some detailed feedback as well. It was interesting seeing what other fellow students around the world (USA, India x 2, Zimbabwe) came up with!

Communication Science turned out to be the more academic, less applied of the two courses – but I found the content more interesting (although less relevant to work). The format was a mix of the professor talking to the camera and some rather charming animations describing the main points, which I found more interesting and engaging than the Content Strategy format. The pace was very fast – being an old-school person who likes to take notes on paper, even when there’s a transcript available, I had to pause the video a few times so I could get everything down – but I feel like I learned a lot, especially about the history of the waxing and waning influences of different media throughout history. There were 16-question multiple choice homework questions at the end of each week’s videos, and a 100-question multiple choice exam at the end. I found the exam quite easy, no doubt because of all that diligent note taking (and I thought I was just finally finding a way to justify some of the lovely fancy notebooks that I buy compulsively but rarely actually write in!). The one thing I didn’t like about this course was that the videos were released each week, rather than all at the beginning, making it a little harder to fit in around other commitments – for example, I got behind due to a weekend away in February, and had a hard time catching up.

I really liked having people to talk to about both courses, both at work and on Twitter with Eva and Lou Woodley. There were also Coursera forums and LinkedIn / Facebook groups to join, but I quickly unsubscribed from the latter due to an overwhelming amount of email from them, and didn’t spend much time on the former. I’ve signed up for a couple more courses, just for fun – Maps and the Geospatial Revolution in April, and Introduction to Logic in September – so it’ll be interesting to see how the experience differs when I’m doing the course solo and without any potential professional benefits. Overall, though, I have confirmed that my love of learning does translate to the world of MOOCs, and I think I’ve found a new favourite hobby for those cold, dark, damp BC winters!

Posted in blog buddies, career, communication, education, personal, technology, why I love the internet | 7 Comments

Hating Skyler White: reflection on gender roles in pop culture (guest post by Jane O’Hara)

There are some TV characters that people love to hate. What’s the harm, you might say, when you know that they aren’t real people? But can these attitudes provide us with a mirror for some of the ugly ideas still pervasive in society about how women should act?

 

Anna Gunn as Skyler and Bryan Cranston as Walter White, season five. Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC

Being a bit behind the times, I have finally got around to watching the very last episode of the extremely popular series Breaking Bad! (**Spoiler alert, maybe don’t read unless you have at least reached Season 5 – though I don’t give away too many major plotlines).

Not being a huge TV fan, I almost never get sucked into watching these multi-season epic shows (24 was an exception, back when I was studying for my Masters. Jack Bauer rocks). Consequently, I often find myself out of the loop when conversations turn to the latest “in” show, whether it’s Game of Thrones or Mad Men. But, armed with the wondrous invention of TV streaming, when sick at home for a few days recently I had the ideal time and means to dip into popular culture, and chose Breaking Bad for my ‘fix’. I quickly got stuck into the compelling storylines and characters.

I didn’t have a strong opinion on Walter White’s wife, Skyler, in the beginning, as she was sort of a background character; Walt was at the centre of the action. Although Skyler’s innocent ignorance of the situation made me feel sorry for her, it was enjoyable to watch the building of suspense toward that moment when she would eventually find out what her husband was mixed up in, and how he had changed from the person she thought she knew. It made for excellent drama!

There were times when I cringed, or shook my metaphorical fist at the screen when she was being manipulated by Walt – which was often. But, as soon as even a fraction of what Walt was doing clicked into place for her, from the point when he let it slip that he had a second cellphone as he was drifting off under anaesthesia, we really got to see what Skyler was made of – and she was not going to be a submissive doormat. I found her to be a strong, believable character, so I delved into some commentary online, to get a sense of other takes on the dynamic between Skyler and Walt. In my searching I came across this recent (2013) editorial piece in NYT, written by the actress who portrayed Skyler, Anna Gunn, describing her utter bewilderment at the amount of hatred directed toward her character. I was shocked to learn that Skyler was on the receiving end of such dedicated vitriol and poison-spitting, notably on two Facebook pages entitled “I Hate Skyler White” and the other, less gentle “F*** Skyler White”. The type of posts on these pages were in line with plenty of other spew that you’d encounter on online forums, where people seem to forget (or don’t care) that what they write can be publicly viewed. Most of the posts and comments are really not worth reprinting, but typically called Skyler a bitch, on the basis that she had an extra-marital affair, and for being opposed to Walt’s new criminal career choices. (Even more ridiculously, some comments indicated blurred lines between Skyler the character, and Anna Gunn herself, at least one even threatening to kill the actress – which understandably caused Gunn to fear for her safety.)

Side note: I tweeted Anna Gunn’s editorial, along with the question, “Why do #strongwomen characters receive so much hatred?”, and a random person replied “She’s not a strong woman. She’s a bitch”. Ohhh, a bitch, I see. Why didn’t I think of that?

Typical “meme” posted on such Facebook pages as mentioned above.

So my question, then, is this: was there a reason behind all this Skyler-hating? The negative comments and judgement of Skyler intensified after airing of the episodes where she found out that Walt was a meth cook and dealer, and were focused on her reaction to this knowledge and the way she subsequently related to him.

Was it simply that she was not fulfilling her traditional role as a wife and mother – should she have just shut up and supported Walt no matter what? I find this position hard to understand, as it seemed that Skyler’s first priority was to protect herself and her children, instincts that I feel are more fundamentally human than abiding by your marriage vows despite facing a threatening situation. She didn’t sign up to be the wife of a drug peddler, with all the accompanying risks! She also received criticism for later adjusting her antagonistic position and accepting Walt’s behaviour by agreeing to launder the money and hide the truth from her sister. But, come on – this also seemed like something a real live person might do. Maybe she was burying her head in the sand, but it never looked to me like greed, rather reluctant complicity in the absence of a better situation.

It also made me wonder if it was just too easy, too obvious, to hate Walt, and therefore this feeling was transferred to his wife. Conversely, did viewers feel that Walt deserved our loyalty from day one, as the protagonist? Walt started as a man who did bad things with honourable intentions, but ended up as a psychopath who did horrendous things for his own selfish gain. The genius of the writing was that because this progression was so gradual, it was easy to forget. As Anna Gunn alluded in her editorial, we were primed to empathise with Walt’s original predicament, and Skyler was set up as his opposing foil all the way through. For me though, Walt’s actions provoked my increasing fear and disgust. I then found myself empathising with Skyler and even cheering her on when she uttered zinger lines like “I f***ed Ted” in Season 3, or in Season 5 where she tells Walt she’s biding her time, waiting. Walt: “What are you waiting for?” Skyler: “For the cancer to come back.” Attacking her (as some online commenters did, quite savagely) because of these behaviours toward her husband doesn’t make sense, when you take into account all the pressure she was under and how her situation had become a nightmare. Cheating on Walt seemed to be the only way she could take back some power. Waiting for him to die from his illness was the only way out that she could foresee, for herself and the kids; it would also allow her to keep the truth from Walt Junior (aka Flynn), and let him continue believing that his father was a good man.

Despite what I see as this misplaced hatred, I appreciate that this character and the way she has been perceived has prompted a discussion about how society expects women to behave. We need to remain aware that as long there are double standards of judgement for men and women, we won’t reach equality among the sexes. Skyler was a strong, compelling character with many facets to her personality. This is contrary to the one-dimensional female characters we’re regularly exposed to on TV and in movies, who typically play one of the following roles: the Femme Fatale who relies on her looks and sex appeal to get through life, the ball-breaking career woman, or the nagging wife/mother. Some of these elements can also be seen in Skyler, but her character is more complex than any one stereotype. She evolved from ordinary, slightly bored housewife, to being frantically worried about her dying husband, to a woman who is angry about being betrayed and deceived, to a sharp-minded co-conspirator in survival mode. Most importantly, she became a nuanced character in her own right, and more than just an accessory to Walt’s plotlines. In my opinion we need to see more such multi-layered female characters appearing on screen from now on, to go beyond the stereotypes of women we’ve been stuck with in the past. This responsibility largely rests with the writers and producers of TV shows and movies – who are predominantly male. Let’s hope they will listen to our pleas and create more active, autonomous roles for women.

What do you think – did you love Skyler or hate her – or have mixed feelings? Does this type of reaction toward a female character betray a misogynistic undercurrent in our society? I’d love to hear any comments.

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Jane O’Hara has a PhD in Molecular Biology, and works as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia. She occasionally writes as a guest blogger about scientific topics, and has recently added themes of feminism and pop culture into the mix. Follow her on Twitter @Curious_JaneO

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Excellent juxtapositions make me feel good

placebo

The placebo effect is truly fascinating – the top article of this pair describes how it can trigger the release of dopamine in people with Parkinson’s, or opioids in people expecting a painkiller. I hope we can find a way to exploit it that doesn’t involve ripping people off…

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