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Not just superMAN, but superMEN and superWOMEN


A good education is luck?

I am slightly behind the times in that I finally had the chance to watch Waiting for Superman. But seeing that our education system has not drastically improved in the last year since this movie came out, I believe that I have seen it well within what would be considered “in time” to take action. If you have not seen this movie, you need to put this in your Netflix queue; but as a warning: it is an incredibly difficult movie to sit through. It is perhaps one of the most depressing documentaries I have seen. I do not recall what type of reviews this movie got when it came out, and if or if not what I have just mentioned was the consensus about the movie.  But the movie does dramatically illustrates the fact that the American school system is not adequately preparing a majority of the children that go through it for sustained employment in their future.

Specifically what I wanted to investigate more was the brief introduction of Michelle Rhee’s summer 2008 radical proposal of offering a choice to teachers to be able to earn up to twice as much if he/she gave up tenure. It was just a brief feature of the proposal, showcasing the potential for reform if it worked, and in the director’s opinion, the devastating event that the proposal was deemed so threaten that it was not even put to a vote.  This proposal was incredibly intriguing for me because earlier in the movie it mentioned some interesting statistics on the number of teachers who have lost their teaching credentials to doctors and lawyers who lose their licenses. The numbers were 1 in 57 doctors, 1 in 97 lawyers and 1 in 2500 teachers who have lost their credentials for malpractice. So with these numbers, why not have a proposal to take another look at teacher contracts?  But let me poke some holes in the proposal.

1. I do not know how the worst teachers (who probably know that they are the “lemons”, and probably would choose tenure) get eliminated by this system/proposal?

2. The extra funding is provided by private sources which is not sustainable.

3. There does not seem to be a solid assessment process for those who choose to give up tenure for their “merit-based” raises.

Perhaps a better proposal is to change how K-12 teachers get tenure. What if K-12 teachers went through the rigorous process of academics for tenure? Should K-12 work like the ivory tower? hm, imagine for a moment what that would look like. just briefly: pros – incredible innovation not just out of universities but also high schools? cons – Only a small percentage are deemed “qualified”. In 2006, only 15% of PhDs hold tenure track positions. But like Rhee’s proposal, it does not eliminate current poorly performing teachers. It is quite interesting and fascinating that even the potential to earn six figures as a teacher was no where close to being competitive to having tenure.  Ms. Slyvia, “Don’t as me to give up tenure, not even for a moment.”

* I do have to note that I believe that every single one of the kids that are featured in the movie have the chance to be successful. **spoiler: just because a few of them do not get into their charter school of choice, it is not the end for them as the movie might imply. But it is a movie and directors do have cinematic freedom to captivate an audience. But I also do not think that the drama dilutes the take home message: there needs to be a be a better way of educating children in the US so that we can be as competitive and innovative as we can be as a nation.

Josh Eidelson’s blog post (from back in Feb 2011) that also asks a lot of very good questions about the movie.

Academic Chemical Safety: a discussion with Chemjobber

Hi Chemjobber,Thanks for the opportunity to do this little exchange about academic lab safety and to see if we can develop feasible policies to improve upon academic chemical safety. I completely understand your response to the CSB video. I found myself cringing and gnawing at my nails when the animated Brown returned to the lab bench without his safety goggles just before the graphic explosion.

One of the many posters that decorates our lab.

My thoughts on the incidents at UCLA and TTU are very similar to what you and much of the chemical community discussed at the time, to sum up:

  • where lies the responsibility of the PI in all of this?
  • we all have been naive* at one point or another (*perhaps even reckless to gain “productivity”)

but more importantly, what can be done so that we can continue to learn and carry out meaningful research that is not at the expense of our safety?

In both cases at UCLA and TTU, I strongly agree that there seems to be lack of responsibility placed on the PI to carefully train their students to be able to “accurately identify and address hazards in the laboratory…a skill that [does not] come naturally…and must be taught and encouraged through training and ongoing organizational support” (NRC, 2011, p.7). The CSB’s Investigation of the TTU incident does not mention any repercussions for the PIs having not properly mentored the students.  I believe that what is clearly missing from the CSB’s recommendations is for universities to establish consequences for a PI that does not enforce safety protocols, endangering students’ lives.

Why is that? Why is there no pointing of fingers at the PIs? You mentioned that you thought Professor Harran (UCLA incident) should also share responsibility, but why do you think it seems as though he has been “protected”? The CSB Investigation of TTU is riddled with examples (although they do not say this, I do) where the PIs would be the individuals most aware of the risks and yet they are not reprimanded. Examples such as: instructing and ensuring that students read and understand in the protocols on handling explosives, such as policies outlined in the DOE Explosive Safety Manual. (*yes, yes, students don’t listen too. But as you know, Chembark and Everyday Scientist already did a great post here and here on that side of things.)

This paragraph in the case study outlines exactly why more responsibility should be placed on the PI:

At academic institutions, the research of individual PIs can differ significantly; consequently, the hazards of research can vary widely among different laboratories. Even within the same laboratory under a single PI, students commonly work on different projects that can pose diverse safety hazards. This indicates a need for guidance on various hazard evaluation methodologies and instruction on how and when each should be used within an academic laboratory  research work environment. Detailed examples for multiple methodologies would help researchers determine the most effective way to evaluate the hazards of their work, whether they are due to routine procedures, modifications to current research, or entirely new endeavors.

How can anyone else other than the PI know about all the hazards of so many projects?

The indented quote also illustrates the variety of research that funding agencies have to deal with and why I believe that it would be difficult for a funding agency to be able to outline safety provisions to their grantees. Even though this is a recommendation of the CSB.

However, after muling over the surprisingly immediate action of the Office of University Programs in DHS after the TTU incident and the specific changes they have made to their Requests (RFP), I see these actions as attempts to have PIs be more responsible. Is this what you glean from section 8.2 of the case study? From the bulleted points in the CSB report, it seems as though RFPs (Request for Proposals) may require the grant requester to assess and be aware of the safety risks and physical hazards of a project along with the anticipated science. Yet, knowledge of these dangers during grant writing does not ensure the appropriate amount of mentoring and relaying of this information to the students.

Am I too harsh on PIs?!  Idk, would grad school be a better world if PIs trained their students to be safe rather than just gather results? “Prior to the incident, weekly group meetings between students and PIs were held, but the focus was primarily on experimental results, not actually research activities and the safety implications of the work.” – CSB TTU Case Study


Hi readers! Chemjobber has given me a chance to do a bit of back-and-forth this week on academic chemical safety. See his first response here and he will respond to my post on his blog on Thursday.  Chemjobber has been one of my favorite blogs for quite some time, and I am very honored for the conversation on this topic of lab safety.

Why is it so hard to have a work/life balance in the sciences?!

or so it seems.

I was really excited earlier this week when the White House and NSF announced a Foundation-wide initiative termed the “NSF Career-Life Balance Initiative”. Some parts of this initiatives include postponing grants for child birth/adoption or suspending grants to cover parental leave.  It is refreshing to finally see some action from the highest levels addressing the mountains of research that has indicated a gap in the pipeline (that although women are receiving almost 50% of the PhDs only about 30% are tenure-track faculty).

But an interesting question is: will this work? A recent study by the National Academies might shed light on what women who have reached those critical career transitions have done. One of the conclusions they drew in conducting two national surveys in 2004 and 2005, was that:

“both male and female faculty utilized stopping-the-tenure-clock policies – spending a longer time in the uncertainty of securing tenure – but women used these policies more”. But, most importantly: “…stopping the tenure clock did not affect the probability of promotion and tenure; it just delayed it about 1.5 years.”

This result was surprising to me. Women (and men) are already beginning to take advantage of opportunities to delay tenure. Therefore these new NSF policies may in fact continue to make it more acceptable for faculty to consider these opportunities. The National Academies also make an note that in their study women are just as successful if not more than their male counterparts in obtaining tenure. So the question becomes, how to increase the number of women faculty who get to that point?

There is a gap in the study if the key transition for women turns out to be between receiving her PhD and applying for that tenure-track position, and these new NSF policies perhaps do not address the considerations that happen at that point in a researcher’s career. Although an interesting observation noted in the NAS study is that although institution and departmental strategies for increasing the percentage of women in the applicant pool were not accurate at predicting the number of women applying,

“The percentage of women on the search committee and whether a woman chaired the search committee, however, did have a significant effect on recruiting women”

This finding somewhat supports a recent discussion in Nature Chemistry about the culture of science and not that the field of science is unwelcoming to female scientists but that it is rather inadvertently being hostile.  I highly recommend this article as it has an excellent comparison/illustration of gender biasing to chromatography. But it might just be because I’m an organic chemist. Basically the article presents the viewpoint that perhaps there might not be a key transition point (undergrad to grad, PhD to post-doc, postdoc to applying for tenue-track position) when women decide or not decide that academia is not for them but that it might be the small things that make her think that she does not fit. *Sidenote and speaking of inconvenient bathrooms for women (read the Nature article): a reminder that just this year the House put a female bathroom that was adjacent to the House floor. (men had one but women had use the one through Statuary Hall put built for them in 1962.)

Science Careers in Search of Women 2009

Great program at Argonne National Lab: Science Careers in Search of Women. Strong mentorship has also been attributed to having a significant positive influence on female faculty.

There is a lot of really excellent data on the existence of the gender gap in the science pipeline and it is exciting to see some policy action addressing the gap. However, as the end of the NAS report indicates there still needs to be significant research into what are the barriers at key transitions and what types of policies will be effective? I would also look to fields that have a more even distribution of men and women. What is different about the culture/policies in those fields that attracts both men and women equally?

More reading:

The Conversation: so seriously, why aren’t there more women in science?

The numbers at Wired – Convergence: number of women among National Academy members.