Paying for equal opportunity

I came across this open letter to the CEO of Yelp from an employee, asking for better wages – and the response: immediately firing her. It reminded me of a post that’s been lingering in my drafts folder for a while about investments in academia. Obviously Yelp has very little resemblance with academia, but in both worlds, believe it or not – money talks! It especially says a lot about how institutions value their more junior/more lowly ranked employees.

More specifically, one of the things that’s been bugging me for a while is the dichotomy between what academic institutions say (nominally supporting diversity and equal opportunity) and what they do. Because, more often than not, it’s just lip service, and they don’t really give a dime. Literally. Obviously, there are also a lot of mindset problems between the here and now and generating true equal opportunity workplaces (think no further than the recent sexual harassment cases in science or or the complex issues LGBT academics face), but sometimes, sometimes a little financial investment could be enough and go a looong way.

Two issues that seem particularly unfair – and easy to fix – are the absence of affordable daycare for young professionals and that most internships in academia are unpaid*. Continue reading


Nerdy, happy things: names in science

A friend once described the TV show The Big Bang Theory as “it’s so nerdy you feel kind of dirty for understanding the jokes”. I know where he’s coming from, but sometimes it’s these little nerdy things and insider jokes that show the real soul of scientist (sometimes weird and twisted, sometimes funny, sometimes touching and sentimental…). Particularly good examples are scientific names of substances, methods or species. And so, just to start my 2016 blogging year on a happy note, I’d like to showcase some of my favourites  🙂 Continue reading

Scientists abroad: citizens of the world or second-class citizens?

In Notes from a Small Island the American author Bill Bryson describes his first ever visit to England. Eager to discover the country, but thoroughly unaware of local habits, he ends up spending the night on a bench in cold, foggy Dover, with a pair of underpants on his head as an improvised headwarmer. Despite this bumpy start, this night was the first spark of a love affair with the country and Bryson has since spent the majority of his adult life living in Britain.

I often think of this story, when I think about scientists on the move, starting a new position in a new country.


Moving country is a frequent feature of scientific life. This infographic from a 2012 Nature News Feature (Richard van Noorden: Global mobility: Science on the move) shows the most prominent trends in migration.

In many ways, these scientists resemble Bryson: they move, eager to discover not only exciting new science, but also a new place, it’s traditions and people. Also, even for seasoned “movers” there are always local procedures and issues that catch them unaware and unprepared. Unfortunately, unlike for Bryson, this time abroad often does not turn into a love affair with the new place – instead it remains a constant uphill struggle, battling with administration and customs that put scientists from abroad at a financial disadvantage or cause emotional stress. Even more annoyingly, often these problems could be resolved with minimal effort on behalf of the academic host institutions, making it all the more frustrating to be stuck in a one-(wo)man war against the system. To give an simple example: When I moved to France a few years ago, my university required a mandatory X-ray of the lungs within the first month, which could only be obtained from a short list of select doctors. I –like many other foreign postdocs – arrived with only rudimentary knowledge of French, only to discover that none of the shortlisted doctors spoke English! It was extremely discomforting having to strip to the waist in front of a rather severe nurse who treated me like an idiot, handled me less than gently and didn’t speak a word of English. Surely, it must have been possible to put at least one doctor on the list, who spoke English?!?

Intriguingly, having spoken to scientists elsewhere, I have found that many of us struggle with the same problems when we move abroad. So I have collected some of these below, together with some suggestions on how to fix them. Continue reading

The Future of Online Content in Science?

Last month I attended my first ever unconference about the Future of Content. It was a great meeting about various forms of online media, from blogging to podcasting to infographics. The meeting wasn’t aimed at researchers and/or science communicators at all, but there seemed to be a lot of parallels between issues in the media world and issues in the science world. Intriguingly, the media world seems to have come up with a lot of cool ideas to tackle some of these issues, so thought I’d share a couple of these* here. Continue reading

What’s in a word?

I’ve just walked out of a wonderful meeting that has kind of left me on a “science high”. The Raj Lab (my new scientific home in Philadelphia), Thomas Gregor’s lab from Princeton and Dan Larson’s lab from the NIH had a get-together, talking science, methods, data. It was really great, with loads of lively discussion. But I don’t want to discuss any of the actual science here. Instead, I’d like to share some ideas about scientific terminology, how a given word might have different “baggage” attached to it depending on your background/training, and whether fuzzy definitions may actually be useful in biology.

RNA molecules (white spots) in a cell. The nucleus (the blue blob) is stained with DAPI and the white dots in the nucleus are transcription sites.

RNA molecules (white spots) in a cell. The nucleus (the blue blob) is stained with DAPI and the white dots in the nucleus are transcription sites. Picture from Raj Lab website.

Continue reading

Some thoughts about measuring the goodness of peer review…

A few weeks ago I attended a postdoc training about responsible conduct in research. A major focus of the event was an emphasis on being unbiased and avoiding any conflict of interest when reviewing a manuscript or a grant. Naturally, that state seems very much desirable. However, some of the case studies we discussed left me with a bad aftertaste: it seemed as if the concern about conflict or bias was massively outweighing the fact that peer review can also provide added value to science. In my – limited – personal experience with peer review, I have found reviews that were comprehensive and thoughtful (even if they were negative) much more valuable and constructive for my research, than any of the 3-liners declaring my paper to be excellent. This dichotomy got me thinking about the purpose of peer review and it’s relationship to science and the publishing process. Here a couple of points I’ve come up with: Continue reading

Fostering impostor syndrome? Thoughts about female role models

I’ve been home for the last month or so, waiting for my visa to the US to be processed, writing papers and catching up with science in general. I might have too much time and energy on my hands, but this week I came across two news items, which really drove me mad. First, I saw a multi-page advert for AcademiaNet (“The Portal to Excellent Woman Academics”), highlighting all the amazing female scientists that are part of their network. Then I read these portraits of female scientists, who double as crime writers, singers, beauty queens… on Discov-her. I’m sure these ads were published with the best intentions: giving women in science role models to look up to. But here’s the thing: I’m a “woman in science” and I ab-so-lu-tely HATE such ads. Is it not enough for me to know how the odds for a career in science are apparently stacked against me from the get-go? Do I also need to be reminded that there are super-women out there who manage to juggle a successful scientific career, a family and maybe even a second alternative career? Being bombarded with such portraits is not encouraging – it’s intimidating.


When role models make me feel like a fake…

Don’t get me wrong: I have enormous respect for the women who were portrayed on these sites. I even find their their stories motivating – but only in low doses. If I come across stories of mega-succesful female scientists everywhere I look, then I all I get is a severe case of impostor syndrome. Continue reading

Polydactyly – it runs in the family?

In case you’ve visited this blog in the last week you might have noticed that I’ve been really engaged in a crowdfunding campaign to sequence Lil Bub*, a cat with very special features. Her features include polydcatyly, meaning that Lil Bub has more than the usual 5 fingers on her paws. During my PhD I studied polydactylous mice,and this connection was one of the things that drew me to this project. Interestingly, however, I found out that the interest for polydactyly seems to run in the family – kind of.

When I visited my uncle in New Zealand this Christmas, I stayed at his amazing little cottage and found, much to my amazement, that he keeps Silkie chicken.

SilkiesSilkie in my uncle’s garden. Silkie looking at you. Silkie showing off her (polydactyl) feet.

Continue reading

Towards new horizons: sequencing Lil Bub’s genome through crowdfunding

Update 15/04/2105: Crowdfunding just went live! If you’d like to donate, go to our site!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you might have noticed a lack of posts over the last couple of months. This was largely because I’ve been busy setting up a new project with two friends (and former collaborators) of mine: to sequence the genome of Lil Bub, an internet celebrity cat – with the help of crowdfunding. We’ve christened the project the LilBubome, and after many months of preparation we’ve finally launched our blog, our twitter and our facebook page. The crowdfunding will start in 4 days.

blog_logov2 Continue reading