Aesthetic appreciation

aesthetic appreciation

A story on how borderline sexual harassment in the form of “aesthetic appreciation” can drive young female researchers out of the lab –

Day 1: A new male grad student comments on a young female sophomore undergrad in the lab about the sweet smell of her perfume.

Undergrad feels awkward but ignores the comment at first. Of course, telling something that they smell good is not creepy. It is the connotations that changes everything. Especially if it is the older male grad student telling a young, naive female undergrad with no other lab members around. This is about the power dynamics that come into play and the context of the comment. A person’s smell has been associated with attraction and intimacy.

Several days later: Male grad student inquires why the undergrad isn’t wearing her typical sweet perfume that day.

Undergrad feels uncomfortable but lets go for the second time. She is shy and soft spoken. She is only a teenager in a lab full of older grad students and post docs. She is the only female working in a lab surrounded by male colleagues.

Days in the future: The male grad student starts commenting on the undergrad’s perfume, the way her hair was tied up the previous day but is left out today, her red top worn last week and other clothing choices.

Undergrad decides not to continue pursuing research in the lab due to her feeling constantly uncomfortable in the workplace. No one else in the lab has any idea about what transpired.

The act of “aesthetic appreciation” (from Cooper’s 6 Levels of Harassment) can be considered as borderline sexual harassment. Context is always important and so is the power dynamics in play. If the receiver of the compliment feels uncomfortable, then it is most certainly NOT OK! One may never know the true intentions of the male grad student but seems like he is quite ignorant of the general social cues that are acceptable and those that are not acceptable.

Young female undergrads need to realize and understand that situations like these are serious and can become more and more aggressive over time if the “complimenters” are not called out for their unwanted appreciation. Young female researchers need to seek out mentors in and outside the lab that they can trust and confide in. More importantly, if and when they feel like their personal space is being invaded, they need to call out other people’s bullshit when they encounter them. At the end of the day, a laboratory is a professional workplace and should follow the same rules and policies as enforced by many non-academic workplaces.

The role of the principle investigators (PIs) and advisors in such situations is complex but very important. PIs need to instill strict rules about sexual harassment and the dominant male patriarchal practices in the lab. Unfortunately, many PIs believe that science is greater than the scientist i.e., many sexual and racial microaggressions and other similar practices get pushed under the rug because “science is the universal truth and nothing else matters“. Unfortunately, science is done by humans and one shitty scientist can cause a ripple effect and eliminate many young, promising scientists – especially women from even entering the turf.

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Mental health awareness month

I opened my email this morning to see a message from my department with the subject line “mental health series”. May is the mental health awareness month and our department is organizing a series of events targeted towards mental health and the kickstart event is a “mental health break in the form of a Popsicle social” (other events being organized include beginner yoga sessions, etc). Reading this email made me think about the important roles that universities and graduate programs play in spreading awareness about mental health issues in academia and in weeding out the stigma surrounding this issue in a professional setting.

Mental health in academia is no joke. MANY studies have highlighted the stress and depression experienced by graduate students and researchers in academia. How big of a problem is this, you ask? From a Nature study of 2,279 students from 26 countries and 200+ institutions:

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Nature Biotechnology 36, 282–284(2018) doi:10.1038/nbt.4089

During the first week of graduate school, we are made to attend a series of safety, teaching, research, etc information sessions. Nothing is said about tackling mental health or dealing with depression during these orientation sessions. What are the resources available on campus (if there are any in the first place)? How does one deal with constant failure and disappointment in grad school? How does one deal with isolation and loneliness during one too many 16-hour days? How does one deal with work-life balance or should that be thrown out of the window? What are the realities of academia that are not openly talked about in the fancy brochures and newsletters? Perhaps the incoming first year students are too naive to realize what lies ahead of their graduate school careers. But what about the senior students? What is being done to address this issue amongst the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and the 5th year grad students?

Graduate students should not be ignored and definitely deserve some sort of a counseling or orientation on tackling mental health issues during our time here.  We need appropriate resources to be able to reach out in time of need. This is an ongoing conversation and should not be limited to one day or even one month. We need senior students as well as professors who are compassionate mentors, we need counseling resources specifically targeted towards academia, we need to educate our community about the stigma around depression, anxiety, etc along with the realities of mental health, and so much more.

More on the mental health crisis in academia –

  1. More academics and students have mental health problems than ever before
  2. Academics ‘face higher mental health risk’ than other professions
  3. I wish we could talk more openly about mental health in academia

The Purdue Lecture Hall Series

Earlier this semester, I was invited to speak about my research at The Purdue Lecture Hall Series (TPLHS). TPLHS is an evening seminar series for high school students, teachers, and parents from the Greater Lafayette community organized by the Purdue Institute of Inflammation, Immunology and Infectious Disease (PI4D) in partnership with Mr. Joseph (Joe) Ruhl from Lafayette Jefferson High School. The series celebrates the work of a wide variety of the life scientists that represent the different areas of research within PI4D and it is meant to inspire high school students to consider life sciences as a career choice.

I began my talk by delving into my background in STEM — from high school and undergraduation to my Master’s research experience and starting my doctoral research at Purdue. I spoke about the brain and drug discovery for neurological disorders. I introduced the students to brain immunity and the role of microglial cells in phagocytosis and inflammation during Alzheimer’s disease. During the course of the talk, I also introduced the two undergraduate students who work closely with me in the lab since I was informed that many high schoolers in the audience were interested in pursuing undergraduate research while in college. This was a great opportunity to talk about how different labs on campus function and how one should go about getting involved in research early on during their undergraduate studies. Overall, this was a great experience since it made me step out of my comfort zone (which involves very little interaction with the general public) and also hopefully inspired a few students to be curious about science and research!

 

The three tiers of science communication

Perhaps one of the most important yet widely ignored skills that us scientists need to cultivate is to communicate our science better. By “communicate science”, I am not simply referring to publishing research articles and reviews in journals and publications. This is about conveying ideas, research, theories, and facts to a wide audience. This is harder than it seems. On a day-to-day basis, we are so engrossed in our little scientific bubble that we hardly engage with people from outside our labs, departments, and universities. For example, I can prepare to present my work during our weekly group meetings with an accurate understanding of how to introduce my research project to my fellow lab members and what data to present during my talks. Most individuals in my program or department have an understanding of the common scientific language and the several jargons that are overused during the talks and seminars.

I would like to think that being in my research group has given me a better understanding of communicating my work to my fellow peers.  My lab is a “hybrid” wet and dry lab i.e., it is comprised of computer scientists, computational chemists, synthetic chemists, and biologists. Our group meetings are extremely interdisciplinary covering a multitude of topics ranging from machine learning and molecular dynamics to immunology and cancer biology. At this point in my career, I am certain and confident with my ability to convey the scope of my project and the several particular aspects of my current research.

The most challenging audience are individuals who are completely outside the realm of our scientific bubble. These individuals serve critical roles in our society but are overlooked by us all the time. I have interacted with my friends and family from different professions and they’re always intrigued by my work and more specifically about *what* we do in the lab and *how* we do science. These are important questions that not only establishes confidence in the scientific community but also bridges the gap between our worlds. Questions that may seem simple or even silly to us may be important in the large scheme of things. For example, the other day, my friend asked me “How do the lab mice get Alzheimer’s disease?” To answer this, I could have just said that there are several transgenic models of mice with genetic mutants that spontaneously develop Alzheimer’s over time. This is an answer that I would have had for someone in the scientific community. But for my friend who happens to be a business associate, I candidly described genetics of the disease, how mice are bred in laboratories, and how they develop plaques that can be viewed in their brain tissue sections. In order for the public to trust us, first and foremost, they need to be aware and educated on the basic scientific methods and principles. This includes communication about the bases of experimental design, process of gathering significant data, peer reviewing, reproducibility, etcetera.

This brings me to what I consider are “the three tiers of science communication” that scientists should cultivate. We need to learn how to communicate our science to:

  1. Our fellow peers in the field i.e., individuals from our specific area of research
  2. Our scientific colleagues from different areas of research
  3. The general public including individuals from other professions

Tier #1 is a no-brainer. Individuals from this tier read and review our work. They are critical of every aspect of our research and question the scientific methods used. They make signifiant contributions to our work and provide guidance for the growth of our research. Tier #2 is tricky. Why would I, a neurobiologist want to communicate my work to a computer scientist or a meteorologist even? A major aspect of creating new solutions to old problems is to collaborate with scientists from outside our specific focus areas. Drug discovery is not possible without computer scientists teaming up with chemists and biologists. Many of the problems in the areas of neuroscience such as understanding of neural circuits and systems, cognitive and behavioral neuroscience, etcetera would not be solvable without the help of electrical and mechanical engineers.

tier three
Source: SMBC-comics.com

Individuals from tier #3 are probably one of the most significant yet overlooked in this regard. Science communication to the general public does not happen until there is a problem affecting people from the both worlds. Involving this tier should not be limited to the difficult times but should be an ongoing process. It should be a part and parcel of our work. Much has already been said about this. How do we make science outreach a regular part of our work? Should the burden of outreach not be imposed on scientists at all? We need more science communicators breaking out of our bubble and out into the real world. Furthermore, many grad students and researchers make contributions in their own way. For example, using social media (#scicomm on twitter and instagram) for science outreach is a great way to reach thousands of individuals from your fingertips while working in your lab. No fancy equipment, no travel money, no event organization necessary! Well established senior scientists with the means and resources should strive to connect with and impact a larger audience.

Science vs. the scientist

A common thought in the entertainment industry is whether an artist and their art can be held in mutually exclusive standards. Do you like a song because you like the musician or do you like a musician because you like their song? Can the two be separated from one another? People boycott Woody Allen films because they do not want to support his career or his power in the entertainment industry. By watching his movies, do we validate his actions by contributing to his growth as an artist? Same goes with Harvey Weinstein and many others.

Similar parallels can be drawn with scientists and their science. For example, James Watson may have contributed to one of the most significant discoveries in science -the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA- or may have led a great scientific undertaking with the Human Genome Project, but relinquished his reputation when his racist and sexist remarks were made apparent. Lawrence Krauss (theoretical physicist, cosmologist, famous atheist, and a “liberal crusader“) was recently accused of sexual harassment which was followed by more allegations and expose by female academics on social media. I have thoroughly enjoyed Krauss’ popular science opinions as well as supported his science and public policy advocacy in the past. The recent allegations and accusations have left me transfixed about whether his work deserves my support at this point. Will I (indirectly) validate Krauss’ ghastly actions by supporting his scientific literacy and the skeptic movement? The deep dark spaces on the Internet harbors more stories about prominent scientists. Do scientific contributions become less significant due to the scientists’ reprehensible actions and behavior? One may argue that science is larger than one individual where do we draw the line?

The fact of the matter is that scientific principles, discoveries, and inventions do not stem from one individual. The credibility of scientist is validated by several other scientists in charge of legitimizing the science with a proof of approval. Does continuing to fund and support such researchers mean validation of bad behavior? The forthcoming ripple effect and propagation of a toxic environment will eventually affect others in the community. Science is scrutinized and validated by peer review over and over again. Is it time to scrutinize and peer review scientists as well?

More: Harassment case opens dialogue and When will science get its #metoo moment?

Officially a PhD Candidate!

On November 16th, I successfully defended my original proposal in front of my preliminary committee and officially became a PhD candidate! I was looking forward to this day all through the summer and fall. [I have written about the entire process of our preliminary examination in my previous blog post.] I submitted my written proposal a month before my oral defense date and received feedback from my committee about the experiments proposed and the validity of my hypothesis. I am extremely grateful for each and every one of my preliminary committee members for taking the time to review my proposal and for providing their valuable feedback and criticism. This entire process helped me grow as a scientist and helped me think and write critically. I am also grateful for my family and friends who took the time to review my proposal, attended my practice talks, and provided useful comments.

As mentioned in my previous post, our graduate program requires us to pick a topic outside our main research area and develop an NIH-style original proposal related to the chosen topic. I chose to study the role of Myeloid-Derived Suppressor Cells (MDSCs) in Type 1 Diabetes (T1D). MDSCs are a heterogeneous population of immune cells that suppress or down-regulate the effector T cell responses in various immune microenvironments. In tumor microenvironments, T cells help kill the tumor cells and prevent the tumor cells from growing. However, MDSCs suppress these T cells and prevent them from killing the tumor cells thereby causing the cancer cells to proliferate. An autoimmune microenvrionment is opposite to the tumor microenvironment. In T1D, the T cells become autoreactive i.e., the T cells start killing the innocent insulin-producing beta cells in the pancreas. This leads to reduced insulin production and increased glucose in the bloodstream in the body. Insulin is an important hormone that helps in the transfer of glucose molecules into the cells that can then serve as the energy source for the cells and tissues. The destruction of the pancreatic beta cells therefore leads to an imbalance in the glucose homeostasis in the body. In such a microenvironment, we require MDSCs to suppress the T cells and prevent them from destroying the beta cells in the pancreas. The first question to ask here is, are MDSCs induced during T1D? The answer is yes. It was shown in 2014 that T1D patients have an increased MDSC induction in their peripheral blood. As to the best of my knowledge, this is the ONLY study that focusses on the native (body’s own) MDSCs during T1D. However, not much is known about the MDSCs and the different subpopulations of these cells that exists that are responsible for interacting with T cells in the pancreas. MDSC subsets and their mechanism of action are dependent on the specific tissue or the site of inflammation. Understanding the role of MDSCs in T1D and the specific MDSC subsets involved in T1D lead to several questions. I chose to investigate a few in my proposal:

  1. If MDSCs are induced in T1D patients, why are they unable to suppress the T cell responses in the pancreas? i.e., Are MDSCs defective during T1D?
  2. What are the specific subsets of MDSCs induced during T1D that are specific to the pancreatic microenvironment? MDSCs are incredibly heterogeneous and can exhibit several phenotypic and molecular states. These subsets are unique to the local tissue microenvironment.
  3. What is an MDSC-specific immune regulatory molecule and its corresponding pathway implicated in T1D that may contribute to disease pathogenesis? 

Without going into the details of each question posed, I proposed several experiments and techniques ranging from single-cell RNA sequencing analysis of the MDSC populations in the pancreas to generating MDSC-specific conditional gene knockout experiments in mice to answer these key questions. There were a few flaws in my experiments that were brought up during the presentation and I tried to address them to the best of my ability by proposing alternative approaches. Overall, my committee members were impressed with the breadth of background knowledge and experiments presented. The most important factor was to develop a hypothesis-driven proposal with a solid premise to back my hypothesis. The presentation didn’t feel one-sided and eventually developed into a curiosity-driven discussion.

Transitioning from a PhD student to a PhD candidate is a backbreaking process. Perhaps it is meant to be this way. Even though I felt numb for a few hours after the conclusion of my presentation, I could feel the academic apocalypse building up in a cloud over my head already. Here’s hoping for more successes and vital experiences in the future!

Grad school diaries: The preliminary exam

The past few weeks months have been terrifying, nerve-wracking, depressing, and scary. My friends and family have also been subjected to my constant irritable and grouchy behavior. I have been preparing for my preliminary examination and everything seems to be coming together (very) slowly. I have woken up to sweaty nightmares about missing deadlines, submitting a complete crap proposal to my committee, and being told that my “scientific caliber” is not up to the mark to pursue an academic career (gulp!)

The first week of November is officially my “prelim week” and I will continue to go through series of mini heart-attacks and one too many mood swings until then. What exactly is a preliminary examination, you ask? Well, also called as the “candidacy exam”, or “the OP” (short for the original proposal – mostly followed in life sciences), it is an examination that PhD students take (and pass) in order to officially become PhD candidates. Many schools and department do this differently, and I can only tell you what is done in my program. Here is a short excerpt about the exam from our handbook –

The purpose of the Preliminary Examination is to stimulate you to develop original research ideas and to assess your academic knowledge, preparation and ability to analyze and synthesize the literature on and surrounding your topic. In the written proposal, you are expected to provide the examination committee with adequate background and details to understand the current state of the chosen field of research and to evaluate your proposed experiments. The oral examination allows the committee the opportunity to test your knowledge of the chosen research project, your ability to formulate and address a few research questions to anticipate the types of results to be obtained, and to evaluate your understanding of its scientific foundation. The examination will not only assess the science involved in the proposal but also will evaluate the quality of the presentation and the writing.

Basically, we are required to come up with an original idea – a topic that is not our main thesis research, write a hypothesis-driven research proposal in the NIH Exploratory/Developmental Research Grant (NIH R21)-type format, and defend it in front of our prelim committee (which is different from our thesis committee and consists of new members). The proposal must be original and designed to advance the current state of knowledge in the chosen field. It cannot be based on our own (current or previous) research projects. Also, our advisor cannot critique the research proposal prior to submission of the proposal to the prelim committee. The whole process takes almost 8-9 months and I have briefly summarized the timeline of the process below –

March-April 2017: Brainstorming ideas for the topic; Reading, reading, and more reading. (My topic is about the role of myeloid-derived suppressor cells or MDSCs in mediating pancreatic beta-cell death in Type 1 Diabetes, which is an autoimmune disorder.)

May 2017: Topic approval by the program office.

June-August 2017: Literature review; Brainstorming ideas and key questions for experiments, techniques, aims, etc; Beginning to write… maybe…

August 2017: Prelim committee assigned; Serious writing and reviewing (rinse, repeat); More reading.

September 2017: First draft completion; Review by peers, friends, and colleagues; Schedule date and time for the oral defense with committee; MORE READING.

October 2017: Submission of written proposal to the program office and prelim committee (4 weeks prior to oral defense); Approval of proposal for oral defense (or, revise and resubmission of proposal aka “your proposal is indefensible at this stage and requires more work”); Practicing oral talk (aka “pre-prelim talk”).

November 2017: Defense! Drinking and crying (if pass); Drinking and crying (if fail); New sense of purpose in life.

A few weeks into this process (around May), the horror stories start – stories about seniors failing their defense and “Mastering out” (which is seen in a really bad light), stories about committee member issues, stories about inadequate writing, etc. I have heard one too many stories about people dealing with depression and constant stress during the period of writing and oral defense. There are tons of useful advice about what to do and what not to do during the process. Of course, the experience is unique and different for every student but it would certainly be easy if I could get on with it without constantly being traumatized by every little detail (like feeling guilty every minute that I’m not thinking about my OP or working on it).

However, a few things have indeed helped me so far:

  • Finding a studying/writing spot outside of work and my apartment. I have been working at WALC until wee hours of night these days. (WALC is the active learning center on campus and is always hustling and bustling with students.) Just being among other students and the white noise in the background seems to be a great environment to focus and get stuff done.
  • Biking to and from work every day (around 6.5 miles). My friend recently convinced me to buy a bike and I must say that it has helped me get around the campus faster and save a ton of time. Not to forget the kick of endorphins in the morning that helps me focus on my experiments in the lab and plan things more effectively through the day. I spend most of the mornings doing cell culture work (I get done with this the first thing in the morning in order to make time for meetings and other experiments through the day) and afternoons on tissue processing and protein work. This gives me sufficient time from evening until late night to work on my OP.
  • Eating regularly, but not fussing over cooking. Most of the time spent on cooking and cleaning can be replaced by quickly grabbing something to eat on the go. (I can hear my sister squeaming at this already!)
  • Talking Ranting to friends, especially colleagues about the OP, work, life, and everything in general to relieve all the stress. I am fortunate to be on the same boat as many folks who can relate to my situation and listen to my rambling.
  • Reading something completely un-related to my research or the OP over the weekends. I have read three books in the past few months (check out my reading list!).

Alright, I should probably get back to work now (this was some major procrastination and I am feeling guilty already). Perhaps I should talk about my topic in detail on the next post. Until then, I will try to keep calm and carry on.