Thursday, June 28, 2012

Where Is The Science In This Science-Recruiting Video?

I was hoping that the Gods of Vacuity would hold out for at least a few months before forcing me to address issues surrounding women and girls in the sciences, but gosh darn you, European Commission! You had to go and create this recruitment video that you claim is designed to encourage young women to pursue careers in science. It has been circulating on the Web for some time now, but it is so annoying that I just have to comment. Note: they have since removed the official link after the barrage of negative comments, but thanks to the internet the video survives! Go on, watch it. I'll be waiting right here.

Done? How are you feeling? Do you feel irate, frustrated, and sadly amused? Did you respond, as my husband did, with "How inappropriate"? Do you need a cup of tea to soothe your nerves? I most certainly did. One pot of Earl Grey later, I feel a little more composed and ready to compose.

When I first saw this video, I had vain (no pun intended) hopes that EU was a new cosmetic-fashion company that wanted to encourage people to do cosmetic-related research. My mind could not conceive that this bit of runway fluff was an official government-sanctioned production. Yes, their reasoning is sound, and their intentions are admirable, but the resulting product reeks of damaging stereotypes and tiresome cliches.

First, there is very little reference to science, let alone women in science, in the video. Oh sure, we are shown dry ice smoking in tastefully arranged beakers, and we do see one young woman writing out an equation in shiny silver white-board marker (Look! Math!). There is one shot of iron filings (Look! Physics!) and an electronic circuit (Look! Engineering!). We see Dr. Accomplished-And-Dreamy looking through his microscope at the opening of the clip, but he is most definitely not female (Look! Biology?), and he makes a longer appearance than the symbol for hydrogen (Look! Chemistry!). The rest of the production is spent on strutting, fashionably-coiffed young women, posing for what is more likely a magazine spread than photos for a faculty website. These images are interspersed with several shots of makeup. There is not one image in this video of a woman doing real (or even "real-for-TV") science, and not one image that would inspire an intelligent girl to think "I want to do that!" There is no shortage of women out there who do exciting research. In paleontology I can think of several without needing to reach for a second pot of tea. Here's a tip, EU: if you want to inspire a young person to try a challenging career path, show them a real person to act as a role-model. I would bet that filming real women doing real science would be a lot less expensive than the released Vogue-esque "Girl Thing" video.

Second, it was very obvious that the consultants for this video did not think to appeal to young women's sense of ambition, drive, motivation, or sense of adventure. Nope, young women were shown pretty makeup and clothes. Even the official website for the "Science, It's a Girl Thing" website features makeup in the title. Head's up for all you women scientists out there: lipstick is now the official symbol of women in science. The marketing consultants are sending a damaging message to young women. Message #1: Don't bother with all that thinking and hard work, just strut your finely-dressed self into that lab and everything will fall into place. Message #2: Outward appearances are extremely important in science. Heck, Dr. Accomplished-and-Dreamy seemed very impressed with the young women in the video, but I'll bet it was not because he was intrigued by their latest hypotheses.

There are mixed opinions on women's physical appearance and femininity in academia. Is it damaging to play up one's femininity in the professional academic realm? Should we just say to heck with it and just grab whatever happens to be on top of the clean clothes pile that remotely matches? I'd love to hear some of your opinions on this topic in the comments section.

My take on the issue is quite simple. For better or worse, appearances do matter to a certain degree. We are primates with complex visual processors, and the first aspect we notice about someone is the physical aspect (hopefully it is not the olfactory aspect). How a person presents themselves to the professional world says a great deal about how comfortable and confident they themselves feel in that world. How this is expressed is a matter of personal style and preference: there is no official uniform for scientists. Lab coats are common, but that is an issue of safety, comfort, and random squirts of shark-flavored preservative fluid rather than style. How "feminine" I look depends on what I happen to be doing that day. There is no way I'm going to wear my pinstripe skirt and jacket while I reorganize fossil cabinets or pour a silicone mould, just as I would not wear my preparation clothes to introduce a guest speaker. Barring a few fashion faux pas, my wardrobe choices reflect my level of self respect. I don't need to toss around my secondary sexual characteristics to get attention, and that's not the attention I want in the first place. No matter how mini my skirt is or how high my heels are, my papers will not get published if they are crap.  So yes, for me clothing and appearance are important to a point, but as long as it is clean, comfortable, matching, occasion appropriate, and fits without substituting for a full-body scan, that's as far as I consider the issue of my appearance as a woman scientist. The "Girl Thing" video only serves to strengthen the misconception of women scientists are not feminine by trying too hard to prove that science-minded women can be feminine.

Sadly I recently encountered the issue of girls, appearance, and science while judging at a public school science fair. The judges were divided into the elementary school and the secondary school judges. I chose secondary school because I had done a few elementary judgings prior and wanted a different experience. I have never been more disappointed in a gender as I was that day. The boys' experiments were actual science or statistical experiments with hypotheses, tests, and conclusions. Out of the seven experiments done by girls, four of them focused on fashion. The questions they asked for their "experiments" were "Do boys prefer looking at girls wearing makeup or not wearing makeup?" and "Do boys like girls that dress preppy, goth, or skater?" and "What kinds of makeup attract the most attention?" Interestingly, these are questions that have much deeper implications within the social, behavioral, and evolutionary sciences, and had these girls explored any of the deeper implications, I would have strongly recommended their fashion projects for the win. However, their conclusions followed the theme of "Based on our results, girls should wear this to get boys to notice them." This is likely a continuation of the problem Lisa Bloom addressed in her Huffingtong Post article "How to talk to little girls", where girls hear more appearance-related than accomplishment- related comments early in their development. Are the EU "Girl Thing" consultants right? Are girls conditioned to value looking good over actually doing something?

I would argue that, no, many girls who are already driven to pursue the sciences are not, or are striving to overcome that issue. Whether they take the time to present themselves nicely is a different matter, but I guarantee that these young women do not worry that their scientific accomplishments will damage their femininity. They already know what it takes to be a scientist. I would be interested in seeing their reaction to the "Girl Thing" video.

What about those girls who are driven by external opinions? It could be argued that the "Girl Thing" video is targeting girls that have never considered their future beyond whether mid-thigh is the new knee-length, and that it pushes them to consider doing something while looking good. I would argue that the "Girl Thing" video portrays science as a hobby that you fit into your schedule between trips to the boutique and facials.

Lastly, what I found most disappointing about the video was that it gave absolutely no sense of what I find appealing about science - the excitement of discovery, the thrill of exploration, and the triumph of solving a previously insurmountable problem. There is no dress or lipstick color in the world that can substitute that feeling. The potential impact and contribution that just one person can make in science, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what you look like, is the message that needs to be used for recruitment. Looks fade, clothing rots, and physical attention wanes. Achievement and advancement outlast all material things, including our physical selves.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Tarbosaurus Musings - Thoughts on purchasing fossils

I remember many of the daydreams I had about becoming a paleontologist when I was a child. Their general theme was of me wandering across barren landscapes for days on end, sometimes with a trusty packhorse - depending on how young I was, it may have been a magical talking horse, but let's not dwell on that part - and finally stumbling across that complete skeleton of Tyrannosaurus rex at the last possible moment. Not once in my imaginings did lawyers, restraining orders, and the illegal fossil trade cross my mind.

Legal battles involving fossil custodianship are part of the harsh, time-consuming reality for paleontologists. The most recent incident to highlight this issue is that of the auction of a skeleton of Tarbosaurus bataar (lot 49315) in New York City a month ago by Heritage Auctions. For a summary of the situation, check out Dinosaur Tracking on the page. Also, check out the blog Pseudoplocephalus for a breakdown of why Tarbosaurus bataar is not Tyrannosaurus rex.

For my summary, here it is. Heritage Auctions and the seller originally claimed the fossil was both legally collected and legally imported into the United States. Mongolia's President Elbegdori Tsakhia and the Mongolian government hired a US legal team and claimed that, if the specimen was one of Tarbosaurus, they are known only from Mongolia. Therefore, it was illegally removed from Mongolia, and should be removed from the auction process and returned to its rightful country. Finalizing the sale of the specimen was halted through restraining order. The specimen was examined to determine its origin, and it was indeed a specimen of Tarbosaurus and had originated from Mongolia. This means the specimen was collected without the legal permission or knowledge of the Mongolian government. To date, the Manhattan US Attorney has filed papers requesting forfeiture and the seizure of the Mongolian Tarbosaurus specimen, and the specimen is now in custody

Sadly, the theft, looting, and illegal sale of Mongolia’s natural heritage occurs on a regular basis, according to Dr. Philip Currie in his recent article in New Scientist. The commercial dealing of fossils, especially vertebrate fossils, is a contentious subject among some paleontologists. The Code of Ethics for the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology is very clear on the subject of how professional paleontologists (who are members) should treat the commercial trade of vertebrate fossils: the only sale of a fossil that should be supported is that which brings a vertebrate fossil within the public trust (to a museum, university, or research center). This is very different than someone purchasing a dinosaur skull so they can have an interesting (and expensive) conversation piece in their private residence.

The Shaman's view? I am not going to discuss here the pros and cons of commercial fossil operations (perhaps that will be a subject for a later post), but I personally find the sale of vertebrate fossil specimens by individuals/companies to other individuals repellent and unethical. Unless fossil specimens for sale are directly destined for museums, universities, or any other institution that holds in trust the history of the planet, no one individual has the moral or ethical grounds to either sell or buy a fossil.

As aesthetically beautiful as fossils are, fossils are not art. Fossils were not created by any one person's hand. Fossils are not the intellectual property of any one person or group of people. The rules that apply to the art or antique world do not apply to fossils any more than they apply to a migratory bird. The care of that bird, and fossils, is the responsibility of everyone. Both the bird and fossils are the property of no one. They are citizens of the world.

Sociopolitical boundaries were not laid out with fossils in mind, and it is just chance that fossils lay within the sociopolitical boundaries that they do. Where they do occur, it is up the municipality, region, province, country, and international laws to protect the right of these fossils to remain citizens of the world, and every nation has their own success and failures in terms of fossil stewardship. Laws and public education are the only tools available with which to protect fossils from selfish acts of profiteering. I believe that one of our duties as paleontologists is to give voice to the voiceless fossils, like the Lorax speaking for the defenseless trees. Like the Lorax, it sometimes feels as though we are losing the battle for right against the might of greed and ego. I applaud the efforts of the Mongolian government in not only taking their responsibility as fossil stewards seriously, but also for bringing this issue to light in the most public way possible: using the US legal system to interfere with large amounts of money changing hands for goods and services obtained through less than honest means.

I cannot see how personally owning a fossil is about anything more than a matter of ego. As Gatekeeper of a collections facility, I take a pride in the stewardship of the collection that I manage. The responsibility of its current and future care falls on my shoulders. However, I cannot state this next point strongly enough: I, and no one who works, manages, or funds the facility, owns the fossils within its walls. We are merely caretakers, caring for the shrine to our history and keeping scientific vigil until passing the responsibility to the next caretaker.

I admit that I purchased a theropod tooth from a rock shop. I was in elementary school and on a road trip to Drumheller, Alberta with my parents.  

A photo of my shame, now donated to our institution's Educational Program.

My thought processes regarding the purchase were simple. I saw it, I liked what I saw, I could afford it, so I wanted it for my own. I was quite Gollum-esque about my purchase: I'm sure I held it and stroked it as though it were the One Ring for the rest of the trip. Hindsight has offered me this other deeper observation on my ego: was I subconsciously thinking that this was as close as I was going to get to my dreams of being an actual paleontologist for decades? Perhaps I wanted a tangible link to the future I hoped to have.

I cannot speak for the motives behind the Fabulously Rich who are willing to pay six or seven figures for rare fossils. Perhaps their thought processes are no different than those of the six-year old Shaman: it's cool and they want it. Perhaps they do it simply because they can. There are a myriad of ways to fan the flames of ego, and having fossils available as high-priced goods attracts the attention of large wallets.  It could also be that they too want a tangible link to a childhood dream of roaming the desert in search for historical treasure. Are they unaware of the rampant looting and theft that it takes to get fossils, such as those of Tarbosaurus, to auction? Is this a way they feel they can contribute to paleontology and their love of history? And, if they do know about the damage done by the illegal fossil trade, do they care?

If their motives are altruistic, there are many ways in which the wealthy can make a positive, legal, and ethically sound impact in paleontology that will outlast that of purchasing a single fossil. For example, billionare David Koch donated a large sum to the Smithsonian Museum because is a longtime fan of their dinosaur hall. Other avenues open to philanthropy include establishing research chairs and operational endowments, funding legal excavations of a dinosaur skeletons through the museum of choice, and providing capital funds to modernize fossil preparation and collections facilities. 

These are the contributions that not only go down in history, but are above reproach legally and morally. Sometimes these are the contributions that save small research programs (or large programs that have recently faced cutbacks) from going extinct. I hope the Tarbosaurus incident will encourage those that would privately purchase fossils to reconsider how they want to contribute to paleontology. I hope that one day all the time, energy, and funds used to counteract the negative impact of the illegal fossil trade will be used to further the care and discovery of our planet's natural heritage.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

I finally did it!

Greetings! Welcome to the introductory post of my very first blog. Chances are you are here because you either know me or know of me. If you know me, I salute your morbid curiosity! If you've stumbled onto this blog, I hope you find some of my posts and experiences entertaining and interesting.

1.                  My involvement in and opinions on vertebrate palaeontology. I work full time at a small, NGO research facility as a collections manager and a field researcher, which means that on most of my work days I wear the administrative supervisor hat and work on everything but research and collections work.

2.                  Life as a grad student. I am a doctoral candidate studying evolutionary biology in Canada There is no way I can top any of the experiences featured in Ph.D. Comics (, but late night data collecting sessions might inspire a post or two. My specific experiences and views as an XX scientist are likely to be the topic of a few (but hopefully not too many) posts, especially if issues surrounding gender in sciences appear in the news that excite me.

My focus is primarily on anatomy and vertebrate ichnology, with a focus on avian anatomy. This leads to topic #3, which is:

3.                  Birds. I’m a little cuckoo (oh yes, the pun is intended) for birds. Anyone I have ever gone on hiking with has faced my frustrating obsession. I’m that annoying twitchy person you saw about 100m behind the rest of the hiking group, with binoculars glued to my face and muttering curses to the ball of feathers and spite that refuses to stay still long enough for identification. Chances are we were mid-conversation when I disappeared into the bush, arms flailing and uttering scolding calls. I am fascinated with the evolutionary history of birds, bird ecology and social behavior, nest parasitism, anatomy, conservation, etc…

4.                  Some aspects of my personal life. There will never be gory details about my married life (although my husband and professional colleague will appear from time to time), familial disputes, or anything that will cause the reader to collapse on the molecular level into a shuddering sobbing mass, crying “TMI! TMI!” What you may hear about on very slow (or busy) weeks are musings on wine, gardening, cooking, cats, running, karate, interesting social interactions, and whatever else may fall under the category of “Miscellaneous”.