Category → The Working Scientist
For far too long, the presumption has been that if you’re a woman, a person of color, or from a lower socioeconomic status that folks think they can get you, your talent, your expertise, or your energy for free.
- Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., video commentary
Since Friday night, the science blogosphere and larger media enterprises (Buzzfeed, Business Insider) have been abuzz with discussion over the treatment of biologist and science writer Dr. Danielle Lee by the alleged editor of the Biology-Online blog network and, subsequently, censorship by the editor-in-chief of Scientific American.
A recap of the situation is as follows:
1. Danielle receives a query from a person identifying themselves as Ofek, blog editor of Biology-Online.org, which he/she described as “one of the world’s largest biology websites with over 1.6 million visitors per month.”
2. Within 12 hours, Danielle responded that it sounded like a good opportunity but she had questions about the frequency of blogging since it wasn’t exactly clear from Ofek’s original query and another about their payment rate for guest bloggers? (1 and 2 in this correspondence PDF).
3. Ofek responded 10 hours later that he was soliciting a monthly article which Danielle could then repost on her blog after two weeks but that, “Regarding payment, truthfully, we don’t pay guest bloggers.” He/she goes on to say that even Mayo Clinic physician Dr Michael Joyner didn’t receive payment for his one contribution but that one would gain indirect financial benefit from exposure to their 1.6 million monthly visitors.
4. Danielle responded 11 hours later to thank him for his reply, indicated that she would decline his offer, and wished him a good day. (3 and 4 in this correspondence PDF).
At this point, the discussion has been cordial with both parties promptly responding to each others’ queries. But then. . .
5. Ofek responded 11 hours later with a two-line email that read, “Because we don’t pay for blog entries? Are you an urban scientist [the name of her blog] or an urban whore?”
6. Danielle responds eight hours later (Fri 10th October, 8:41 am EDT) with a one-line question, “Did YOU JUST CALL ME A WHORE?” (5 and 6 in this correspondence PDF).
8. Sometime around 10:00 pm on Friday night, the blog post disappears intermittently from Danielle’s blog, and she tweets that she postulates there’s some sort of technical network issue, perhaps due to high traffic. Minutes later, it’s clear that no one can access the blog post.
9. At 10:14 am on Saturday morning, a tweet is posted by Editor in Chief and Senior VP of Scientific American, Mariette DiChristina, that read, “Re blog inquiry: @sciam is a publication for discovering science. The post was not appropriate for this area & was therefore removed.”
10. Much rancor and speculation ensues, in part because Scientific American appears to be selectively penalizing Danielle’s content relative to other bloggers there who post similar kinds of protests or appeals for equity in science and science writing. Biology-Online.org is also listed as a “partner” of Scientific American.
Why, exactly, was the post removed?
So what about Danielle’s post was worthy of censorship by Scientific American? Other women at SciAmBlogs have noted their writing on issues of equity and experiences in the professions. So it can’t be that.
Is it because, out of all her writing and video dialogue, she used one borderline vulgarity (“butt-hurt”)?
Well, then, let’s search SciAm for the f-word.
It’s found in various conjugations in other blogposts and even a Fast Company article that SciAm posted. And I’d have to say that its use serves the story and the reader in all the cases where I see it appear.
Now, C&EN prefers that I not use any of George Carlin’s seven words here. But they give me great latitude in writing about topics that affect almost any scientific or personal issue. In fact, I just checked my contract: I’m a non-staff freelancer who has been contracted, “to expand the breadth of coverage and diversity of voices at CENtral Science.”
As for content, the only stipulations are that my work must be my own (other than explicitly-credited guest posts) and that, “the materials produced hereunder do not infringe any copyright violate any property rights or contain any scandalous, libelous or unlawful matter.”
(I double-checked the dictionary to be sure that this post isn’t scandalous, or, “causing general public outrage by a perceived offense against morality or law.”)
CENtral Science blog network is not the 90-year-old magazine that C&EN is – the official organ of the American Chemical Society. CENtral Science is a modern genre extension of the magazine where bloggers who are mostly magazine staff writers can spread their wings and write in a style that doesn’t fit in the magazine yet still serves a subset of their readers.
Some of that content is cleverly fun. Former laser chemist Dr. Lauren Wolf pees in the ocean. She convinced her niece that it’s okay to pee in the ocean. They are now trying to convince her husband that it’s okay to pee in the ocean.
Her post on the concept was a blockbuster here, having some truly superb scientific content and getting picked up by larger and more broad online sites such as Gizmodo and Jezebel. So proud were we of Lauren’s levity that fellow chemist and C&EN reporter Dr. Carmen Drahl did a five-minute interview with Lauren that had a similar, tongue-in-cheek tone. (Postscript: I can personally vouch for the fact that Dr. Wolf doesn’t pee in the wide-open desert of northern New Mexico.)
Hence, I submit that the blog media is different from the more staid, older publications like C&EN, 90 years old this year, and Scientific American, now 168. But it’s the host’s prerogative to define what tone and voice is permitted on the blog network they host (yes, yes, I understand that it’s difficult to fully define contractually.). One would expect, however, that such editorial decisions are applied equally across the network
Where I write at Forbes.com, it’s made very clear that they want me to write on topics within my “swim lane” – pharmaceuticals and drug safety, education, and general science. The one time that I flailed four lanes over – on a weekend – I was politely but firmly told by an editor (within eight hours) that the post was inconsistent with our agreement and that it hadn’t been a problem in the past and they were sure it wouldn’t happen again.
But they did not remove the post.
Why professionals who are men and white still need to stand up for professionals who are women, from other underrepresented groups or, in general, not part of the dominant demographic
In the case of Danielle Lee, it appears that the editorial appropriateness of a post was defined for her differently than for other bloggers at the SciAmBlogs network. Our chemist colleague, Dr. Rubidium, raised the point last night at the irrepressible JAYFK that she feared rules were being inconsistently applied to Danielle because of her being a scientist of color. Dr. Rubidium speaks to this issue from the standpoint of being a chemist who is a woman and a person of color.
I tend to agree with Dr. Rubidium, but for somewhat different reasons. I fear that the selective application of censorship to Danielle’s SciAmBlogs piece was that she wrote in a tone of black, Southern vernacular, with or without an unconscious editorial view of her “blackness.” Danielle herself calls it, “inner city anthropology.” (We can speak elsewhere about acceptable modern terminology to describe people of color as black, Black, brown, or, still in some older parts of my community, yes, Negro.)
I am unapologetically black and urban and female. Why does this matter to science? Because access to science (information and career opportunities) has real life consequences for people. But if the academia doesn’t have representation or at least people who understand these students, then how do they gain access to higher education or STEM?. . .
. . .If I, as a PhD scientist with credentials, cannot call my fellow scientists to task on the role privilege and prejudices play in academia, then who can? Better yet, who else will?
– Danielle N. Lee, Ph.D., The Urban Scientist, 24 January 2013
I’m a middle-aged man of only moderate intelligence (1100 math and reading SAT score, 1120 GRE) from a northeastern US white, middle-class family who was fortunate to be given an opportunity for education that I might not have had without the support of a few crucial champions. Whatever that did to me, consciously and unconsciously, is that I’ve spent my independent professional career working on minority scholarships and career development in pharmacy, had a laboratory environment that disproportionately attracted trainees who were women, and spent four years as a pharmaceutical sciences professor at an HBCU in the American South, a region where I’ve now lived for one-third of my life.
So one wouldn’t be surprised to know that I’ve been working on ScienceOnline sessions diversity in the science blogosphere and scientific community for several years. I’ve worked specifically with Danielle Lee since ScienceOnline2011 when she, Alberto Roca (MinorityPostdoc.org) and I co-moderated a session on the underrepresentation of minorities in the STEM discplines and science communications community (in fact, my original proposal for a diversity session held in 2010 included Danielle and the now-silent blogger, AcmeGirl). We subsequently did a similar session in San Jose, California, at the 2011 annual meeting of SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).
And most recently, I worked with Danielle on a Science Journalism 101 panel for the 2013 annual meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) in Orlando, Florida. Together with SciAm editor Robin Lloyd, MedPage Today executive editor Ivan Oransky, and Washington, DC, radio host Jamila Bey, we discussed ways that black-specialty publications might improve their coverage of science and health while encouraging up-and-coming writers of color to pitch science stories.
I shall refer here to the JAYFK’s publication of Danielle’s original post as it appeared on Friday at her SciAm blog, The Urban Scientist.
1. Danielle launches the post about a wrap cloth called a khanga that she wore in Tanzania during her last three-month stint of research there. The English translation of the quote on the khanga is, “Give trouble to others, not me.” This was, in my view, a wonderful metaphor with which to lead the post.
2. She relates this African saying to a 21st century ghetto proverb she learned from growing up in inner South Memphis, “Don’t start none, won’t be none.”
3. She then wrote this paragraph after introducing that Ofek had called her a whore:
My initial reaction was not civil, I can assure you. I’m far from rah-rah, but the inner South Memphis in me was spoiling for a fight after this unprovoked insult. I felt like Hollywood Cole, pulling my A-line T-shirt off over my head, walking wide leg from corner to corner yelling, “Aww hell nawl!” In my gut I felt so passionately:”Ofek, don’t let me catch you on these streets, homie!”
4. After embedding her video response that lacked such vernacular and discussing why anyone would decide not to write compensation-free, she wrote:
But the fact is I told ol’ boy No; and he got all up in his feelings. So, go sit on a soft internet cushion, Ofek, ’cause you are obviously all butt-hurt over my rejection. And take heed of the advice on my khanga.
5. She closed with a beautifully classic photo of herself giving what I would call the ever-so-slight mal ojo, and this:
I’m concerned that the censorship of her post related to editorial discomfort over a woman of color using (mild) inner city language. If that’s one of the reasons, it reflects northern, white discomfort with the way non-northern, non-whites speak.
Two of the most-resonant things Danielle ever said were that when talking to young, black kids about her science, mostly when she was getting her Ph.D. in St. Louis, is that they said she “wasn’t black enough” to be authentic in her call for them to be interested in science – to which she then broke into some good ghetto language that she used to respond to the students.
Second was that she felt we in the sciences tend to underestimate or even disrespect the role that the church plays in the lives of African-Americans. Rather than demonizing religion, as some bloggers and academic do, she felt that reaching out to the religious community would be an effective strategy for scientists to cultivate minority students into our disciplines. Here at CENtral Science, I have to say that I’m proud of some ACS chapters that do just that – a Philadelphia ACS group ran a series of outreach activities at African-American churches to tell the story of the renowned black chemist, Percy Julian.
And while teaching at an HBCU, I fielded scholarship applications where students would unapologetically profess that their pursuit of a pharmaceutical sciences and biotechnology career was a call from God and a way for them to live their faith by doing good works to benefit others.
These kinds of experiences, so common to Danielle and those I have come to understand and appreciate over the last 20 years, lead to a writing style and cultural environment that often makes some white folks uncomfortable.
But for us to be truly inclusive in science – both with regard to recruiting and retaining minority scientists and effectively engaging with underrepresented public audiences – we need to be culturally-sensitive and respectful of the manner in which non-white, non-northern US communities communicate.
Yes, in academic contexts, we are all expected to speak and write in a relatively standardized manner regardless of our backgrounds. But as I mentioned earlier, the blog medium is generally much more informal and inclusive of the thoughts, views, and values that we bring to science communication. The decision to censor Dr. Danielle N. Lee’s blogpost was inconsistent with the medium and, more importantly, the manner in which the writings of other network bloggers are treated.
Note added: It’s been brought to my attention that Stephanie Zvan at Almost Diamonds wrote yesterday on this issue of code-switching and the perception of Danielle’s writing. My apologies for not noticing it until now.
Editorial response update
While I was writing this post, in fits and spurts since 6:15 am, a full explanation was offered by SciAm’s editor in chief, Mariette DiChristina, that Danielle’s post was perceived as a personal issue and, “unfortunately, we could not quickly verify the facts of the blog post and consequently for legal reasons we had to remove the post.” DiChristina then goes on to justify the lack of advance notification of Danielle about the post’s removal with the harried weekend activities. But if one had enough access to remove the post, one would also have the wherewithal to send a three line email to Danielle that they were taking the post down for the weekend, why, and that they would discuss the issue in further detail with her and SciAm bloggers on Monday.
While I read more about the discussion that ensued the rest of Sunday, let me say one thing about the founder and blog editor of SciAm blogs, Bora Zivkovic, in part because he is a local friend and usually a vociferous commentator on a great many issues. I have had no contact with Bora other than to drop him a Twitter DM saying that I would be posting a defense of Danielle and that I would be briefly defending him.
So I can only postulate that he has been working behind the scenes to keep the SciAm blog community informed, unified, and assured that he was working as much as he could on a decision that was probably made up the supervisory chain. Because Bora, like me, left ScienceBlogs.com during the ethical lapse known as Pepsigate, one would expect him to be outraged at the editorial treatment of Danielle’s post. If lawyers became involved, as DiChristina notes, I suspect that Bora had to work very hard to keep his opinions out of the public space.
Bora’s relative silence speaks volumes about how the censorship of Danielle’s post was out of his hands. In fact, I would offer that Scientific American should be very thankful that Bora is their blog network editor because most commentators have given the network the benefit of the doubt because of his integrity. While this episode has blown up, I believe it could be even worse for Scientific American if Bora had not been their blog editor.
Comments and alternative interpretations are always welcome below.
Update: 5:24 am, 14 October – Alan Weisleder of Keebali, the company that operates Biology-Online.org, sent an apology (JPEG screenshot) to Danielle Lee overnight. On their discussion board, a slightly extended apology is directed to the community. Weisleder notes that Ofek was a new employee and has since been terminated.
Yes, I know this was a long post. Follow me instead on Twitter @DavidKroll.
Staffan Normark, Permanent Secretary of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, has just announced Martin Karplus (Strasbourg/Harvard), Michael Levitt (Stanford), and Arieh Warshel (Univ. of Southern California) as this year’s recipients of the chemistry prize, “for the development of multiscale models for complex chemical systems.”
The collective work was described as, “allowing classical and quantum mechanics to shake hands.”
Most relevant to my pharmacology and drug development readers, the laureates developed the computing methods to predict the interaction of pharmaceuticals with their drug targets, allowing drug design in advance of empirical experimentation.
Seven Lidin, Chair of the Nobel Committee for Chemistry said, “There is not a pharmaceutical company that doesn’t have a theory division.”
In 1975 and 1976, Warshel and Levitt began studying how the enzyme lysozyme works. They took the approach of trying to simplify the molecule so as to minimize the amount of computing power required to approximate how the enzyme works.
Warshel was the first to be reached on the Nobel livecast despite being the furthest away (and earliest) at 3:02 a.m. in Los Angeles.
He describes the advance of his work from X-ray crystal structures, static pictures of where atoms sit in three-dimensions. Warshel used the metaphor for X-ray structures of “seeing a watch and wondering how it works.”
Their methodology was a “way which required computers to take a structure of a protein and then to eventually understand how it does what it does.”
A tweet from the ACS Pressroom noted that Warshel is a 20-year ACS member and all three have published in ACS journals.
Our beloved colleague, Professor Paul Bracher who writes the chemistry blog Chembark, has been liveblogging the proceedings. In a C&EN Nobel predictions roundtable Google Hangout last week, Bracher expressed the feeling that a prize for theoretical work was “a longshot.”
Swedish organic chemist Per-Ola Norrby came the closest out of all the sources I could find in predicting Warshel and Karplus with Norman “Lou” Allinger of the University of Georgia. He notes that Allinger’s work preceded that of all three of this year’s winners.
But to Bracher’s credit otherwise, his odds list did include Monday’s physiology or medicine prize winners – Rothman, Schekman, and Südhof – for a cell biology prize that could have also been awarded in chemistry.
My apologies to regular readers and my colleagues at C&EN for my month-long silence at the blog. I saw cobwebs on my laptop screen when I opened the back end this morning. Part of my hiatus came from complications of an infected molar extraction and my inability to concentrate. I’ve also been trying to take short Internet holidays over the last two months because all of the political nonsense in my state is negatively affecting my mental health.
But the tooth canyon is about 50% healed and our state legislature has finished, for now, shifting progressive North Carolina toward its pre-Research Triangle Park level of ignorance, racism, and poverty.
During this month, I came across an excellent post on the Scientific American Guest Blog by Atlanta-based science journalist, Kathleen Raven. In “Ada Yonath and the Female Question,” Raven discusses her experience at this year’s Lindau Nobel Laureate meeting — dedicated to chemistry — and her reflections on hearing and attempting to interview the 2009 Nobelist in chemistry, Dr. Ada Yonath.
Yonath, a structural chemist recognized for her extensive work in showing how the ribosome catalyzes protein synthesis, has generally not made much of the fact that she’s only the fourth woman to receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, and the first since Dorothy Hodgkin in 1964.
As I did back in 2009 when interviewing Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center, Raven debates whether focusing on Yonath as a female scientist is a good thing for the cause of women scientists. Should we focus only on the accomplishments? Or should we focus on her accomplishments in the context of the distinct barriers often facing women scientists?
I’m equally torn, particularly since my 20-year laboratory career was advanced by a group that consistently ranged from 75% to 100% women. I never specifically recruited women to my laboratory but it seems that they might have self-selected for reasons not known to me. My activism in diversity in science extends back to my pharmacy faculty days at the University of Colorado where I assisted in selecting minority scholarship recipients for a generous program we had from the Skaggs Family Foundation.
The goings-on in North Carolina politics is not germane to this scientific discussion. We can speak all we want about our modern society being post-racial and having more women leaders than ever. But voter laws that disproportionately disenfranchise African-Americans and legislation that severely compromises women’s reproductive health tells me that we still need to pay attention to the influence of racial and gender attitudes.
Heck, even our Governor Pat McCrory showed his true colors yesterday while protestors, primarily women, were holding a vigil marking his signature of restrictive abortion legislation: He stepped out of the governor’s mansion to give protestors a plate of cookies and quickly returned behind the iron gates without any substantive engagement.
I’d be interested to hear from CENtral Science and C&EN readers after reading my own interview with Ada Yonath. Should we still be making an issue of advances in race, gender, and sexual orientation in chemistry?
I think yes, and it’s never been more important.
This post appeared originally on 14 December 2009 at the ScienceBlogs.com home of Terra Sigillata.
Last week in Stockholm (and Oslo), the 2009 Nobel Prize winners were gloriously hosted while giving their lectures and receiving their medals and diplomas. In Chemistry this year, the Nobel was shared by Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas A Steitz, and Ada E Yonath for their studies on the structure and function of the ribosome, a remarkable nucleoprotein complex that catalyzes the rapid, coordinated formation of peptide bonds as instructed by messenger RNA. My post on the day of the announcement in October was designed to counter the inevitable (and now realized) criticisms that the prize was not for “real” chemistry.
Only ten days later, we in the NC Research Triangle area were very fortunate to host Dr Yonath at the North Carolina Biotechnology Center for the Symposium on RNA Biology VIII, sponsored by The RNA Society of North Carolina.
Among the many noteworthy speakers was Dr Greg Hannon from Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, a scientist who some feel was overlooked for the 2006 Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology, one where Andrew Fire and Craig Mello were recognized for RNA interference and gene silencing.
NC Biotech’s Senior Director of Corporate Communication, Robin Deacle, kindly invited me to an audience with Dr Yonath and two science reporters following Dr Yonath’s lecture. As you might suspect, I was quite honored to visit for awhile with the woman who defied the naysayers and successfully crystallized a bacterial ribosome, then used X-ray crystallography to determine its structure below three angstroms resolution. The fact that she also used natural product antibiotics to stabilize ribosomal structure added to my magnitude of admiration.
Continue reading →
As I alluded to earlier on this index page, I was fortunate to score the cover story the January 9th issue of the Research Triangle’s alternative weekly paper, INDY Week. Therein, I told the story of Robert J. Lefkowitz, MD, the biochemist and cardiologist who shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2012 with his former cardiology fellow, Brian K. Kobilka, MD, of Stanford University.
In this first edition of pixels that didn’t make it to the final article, I want to follow on the moments after I took this photo after interviewing Bob for the article. He was kind enough to bring in his original Nobel medal and diploma for me to see and photograph (he’s currently having a replica made of the medal so that he doesn’t have to carry around the real one.).
I was fortunate to be able to tell the story of Duke University biochemist and cardiologist Dr. Robert J. Lefkowitz in the 9 January 2013 issue of the Research Triangle’s award-winning alt-weekly, INDY Week.
Even with editor Lisa Sorg graciously offering 3,000+ words for the story on one of the 2012 Nobel laureates in chemistry, some terrific bits of my interviews with Bob and major players in his story didn’t make it into the final version.
Over the next few days, I’ll post some of these gems. This page will index the running list of those posts.
The Nobel’s Great, But Take a Look at This! – Lefkowitz reveals where Duke men’s basketball sits in his list of priorities
As I wrote last Thursday, ACS Webinars featured an hour-long discussion on the perceived overabundance of PhD-level chemists and potential solutions to employment challenges. The site should have the entire discussion archived within a week.
I participated in the session and ended up posting my thoughts at the new Forbes.com home of my other blog, Take As Directed. I’m hoping to get comments from a wider group of readers over there who might have impact on hiring of chemistry PhDs.
One of the major points that struck me was the view by Harvard economist, Dr. Richard Freeman, that the chemistry job market might bounce back more quickly than the biosciences. But he views this comeback to occur slowly over the next three to four years.
Freeman attributes chemistry’s upper hand to two factors. First, US doctoral chemistry programs have had a fairly constant PhD supply rate over the last 40 years of approximately 2,000/year. In contrast, the biosciences have exploded from about 3,000 PhDs/year in the 1970s to 15,000 during 2010.
Second, Freeman states that chemistry is far less dependent on federal research funding since 50% to 75% of chemistry PhDs ultimately go on to work in industry. As such, he expects the recovering economy to help chemists far more than those in the biological and biomedical sciences.
Addendum: I’ve since learned that chemistry bloggers Chemjobber and See Arr Oh have posted a podcast discussing this ACS webinar.
Don’t say ACS have their heads in the sand. A webinar this afternoon will face head-on the reality of training to be a doctoral-level chemist in today’s job market.
Is higher education producing more doctoral scientists than the market can absorb? With the attendance rates at graduate schools increasing, has the private sector’s growth been able to keep up and will there be enough options for tomorrow’s PhDs? Join our two experts Richard Freeman and Paula Stephan as they share their viewpoints on the state of higher education, the economy and how industry and academia can better prepare current and future graduates.
I’m not privy to any other advance information than what’s on the ACS Webinars™ website but others I’ve viewed have been top-quality.
I obviously encourage viewing by current doctoral trainees in chemistry and postdocs. Giving yourself a competitive edge in this market is information anyone can use.
But I particularly urge undergrads currently interviewing for chemistry doctoral programs to tune in. One of the four primary discussion topics will be assessing graduate programs for their ultimate employment record of their trainees.
Take advantage of what your professional society is offering.
Date: Thursday November 8, 2012 (TODAY!)
Time: 2:00-3:00 pm ET
To celebrate National Chemistry Week, the esteemed synthetic chemist blogger See Arr Oh put out a call for folks to describe to younger folks how they got where there are in the broad field of chemistry:
What do you do all day? What chemistry skills do you use in your line of work? How do you move up the ladder in chemistry? What do I need to do to be in your shoes?
The resulting answers from other bloggers — and any respondents, for that matter — will be compiled at his blog, Just Like Cooking, in what’s called a blog carnival. Specifically, contributors to blog carnivals are asked to respond to a theme or a series of questions. In this particular case, we are tagging our posts with the hashtag, #ChemCoach.
Here’s the list and below are my responses. You may find it helpful to play this Talking Heads video while reading my answers.
Your current job.
What you do in a standard “work day.”
What kind of schooling / training / experience helped you get there?
How does chemistry inform your work?
Finally, a unique, interesting, or funny anecdote about your career*
The most important question to ask yourself - If I were just coming into the field, would I learn something useful from your story?