Some thoughts on the HOPE Nobel Laureate Meeting

If you have been following my social medias, you’ll know I’m recently returned from a couple of weeks in Tokyo. I was there primarily to attend the 9th HOPE Meeting with Nobel Laureates, coordinated by the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science.

The conference program began with the 2017 Nobel Prize Dialogue, a free event open to the public, streamed live online, and featuring a lineup including 5 Nobel Laureates (4 real ones and 1 economist) and a quite impressive (although mostly male) bunch of researchers and business people. The theme of the event was “The Future of Intelligence”, a topic I’d hoped would prompt more discussion about education, inequity and ideally truly global issues. Turns out most people wanted to talk about self-driving cars.

Of the laureates in attendance at the Nobel Prize Dialogue, 2 remained in attendance at the HOPE Meeting  and an additional 4 laureates joined across the remaining 4 days of the conference. The 110 student and early-career researcher delegates from the Asia-Pacific and Africa enjoyed a program of lectures, discussion groups, cultural activities, and a visit to RIKEN – Japan’s largest research institute. Delegates also presented their own research in both a poster and a 1 minute (!!!) talk.

In no particular order, some thoughts I took away from the meeting

  • Nobel laureates are impressive people, but essentially just people. Some are gracious, some are weird, some are friendly, some are stand-offish, some are outgoing,  none of them follow me on twitter. Very few of them are even on twitter.
  • A one-on-one conversation or small group discussion is immeasurably more valuable and rewarding than a lecture delivered to >100 people.
  • The Japanese reputation for efficiency can not be underestimated. This was without a doubt the most well run and on time event I have ever attended. Corralling 110 delegates and a dozen or more special guests across a 5+ day program would not have been done anywhere near as well anywhere else in the world.
  • Nobel laureates are not experts in science communication theory or practice (although many of them are reasonably good at it).
  • A Nobel Prize medal is larger and heavier than I imagined. I enjoy holding a Nobel Prize medal.
  • One must be tolerant and accommodating of language and cultural differences at a conference where English is not the first language of most of the delegates. However, my tolerance does not extend to being told that my research is “not a job for a lady” and results in immediate termination of conversation.
  • Incidental, casual conversations with laureates over meals, in elevators, or in hotel foyers are fucking awesome.
  • Laureates that recognise the changes and challenges in the current research environment have the most to offer early-career researchers.  I don’t mind a “do as I say not as I did” approach when laureates are dispensing advice, providing they realise how different things are now compared to when they started their careers.
  • Conversely, while the career stories of all laureates are interesting, advice along the lines of “don’t worry about getting more than one publication per year” or “don’t let your PhD supervisor tell you what you can work on” or “just have passion and everything will work out” is not appropriate and maybe even damaging.
  • Even with the laureates who are more humble and that do grok how different things are now, I’m not sure any of them really truly grasp how much privilege has propelled their careers to the heights they have reached. The word “luck” is bandied about a lot. It might be more accurate to replace the word luck with the word privilege.
  • Not everyone can do “transformative” research and that is OK. But it can be hard to be a researcher in the applied sciences and not feel like a second class citizen in a scholarly environment.
  • Not everyone is able to do interdisciplinary research and that too is OK. Also, collaboration is good and all but not everyone can collaborate with a scientist from Egypt or Myanmar.
  • Down time, relaxation, and sufficient opportunity to be alone is essential even for those with extroverted personalities but especially for those with introverted personalities (not to mention health considerations). A full conference program running from 0800-2200 for 5 days is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting.
  • Nobel laureates are not afraid to say “I don’t know” or “this is outside my field of expertise”. How refreshing.
  • There is very much awesome science being done.
  • The song “pen, apple, pineapple, pen” is an intractable earworm and a menace to society and I wish I’d never heard it.

My thanks to JSPS, the Australian Academy of Science, and my nominating institution for support to attend this unforgettable meeting. JSPS also have loads of programs to attract early career researchers to Japan, more info here.

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A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part III

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the third in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

When I started my PhD almost 4 years ago (oh dear lord please let me finish soon please) I didn’t anticipate that one of the most satisfying aspects would be the sense of community that came along with it. I suddenly became part of not only a formal multi-institutional academic centre, but also the broader analytical chemistry community in Australia. Conferences, events and meetings felt welcoming, convivial, egalitarian and I began to understand why academics were so obsessed with their academic genealogy. In many ways, it is like being part of a family. Sometimes better than your real family because they share your excitement about low limits of detection and when correlation coefficients are greater than 0.999.

So when I saw that one of our upcoming conferences was advertising a lineup of nine male keynote speakers I was pretty upset. Even amongst the invited speakers only one of the ten is a woman. And although each speaker is an accomplished and eminent scientist, the invited speaker list is certain to not reflect the diversity of the conference attendees. I thought my people knew better than this. There are many outstanding women in my field, particularly early career researchers, and the absolute worst thing about an all-male line up is the message that it sends to the ECRs. When we know that “you can’t be what you can’t see”, conference lineups like this all but shut the door in the faces of the younger women trying to establish themselves as independent scientists.

It’s easy to criticise gender imbalanced conferences when they are removed from you and when the organisers are strangers. When you know them personally, the politics and relationships makes everything a little more tricky. I also don’t feel like boycotting the conference is a viable option. It’s virtually impossible for me to attend conferences overseas, and the options locally are very limited. If I don’t go, I miss out and nobody will care that I’m not there and why. There are still many months until the conference, and I know I’m not the only one who is disappointed with the lineup so there is still time for changes to happen. But for now it is quite sucky.

For more information on conference program diversity, Professor Jenny Martin has some excellent points to make in her posts and paper.

 


A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part II

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the second in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

My employer had a quasi-open day* thing, with senior staff delivering presentations and generally hanging about talking about science things and being quite visible. Turns out a lot (nearly all) of these senior staff are men. Something I obviously knew, but had slipped out of my consciousness somewhere along the way.

From the second I walked in the front gate, it was immediately obvious that it was more of a sausagefest than an Australian primary school on election day. And I’m no stranger to this type of workplace. I’m used to being in male-dominated environments. I’ve worked in 4 other science joints and 2 hardware shops for flips sake.

So anyway this place is next-level XY, but this post is not about that. This post is about how I was pretty dang surprised to feel so ashamed about the gender inequity situation and tell you what, that was a surprise and I did not expect that at all. I spoke with a lot of people and while I was proud to show them the cool stuff we’ve got and the interesting and useful science we do, I couldn’t escape the uneasiness I felt when we looked around and all we could see were Dudes in Suits.

I’m also used to people sometimes being critical of where I work for reasons other than diversity, and it can be hard to not be defensive about it. But when folks commented on the lack of diversity at the quasi-open day, I felt sad and helpless and embarrassed. Overwhelmingly I felt really embarrassed. 

So I wondered, why did I feel this way? The inequity is not my fault! I don’t hire people, I have no influence on policies. I think I am genuinely doing what I can – being in diversity groups and committees, talking to people from peers to management about gender issues, trying hard to be a kick-arse doer of science who kicks arse while also having ovaries. I can’t think of a good reason why I should feel ashamed or in any way responsible for the lack of women representation but despite that I still did.

The next step for us is applying to the SAGE program and I do hope we are accepted, and that it genuinely improves representation and career paths for my current and future women colleagues. Because I do not want things to be sucky.

*”quasi-open day” because it was invite only so not really open and went for four days so also not really a day. 

 


A sucky week to be a woman in science: Part I

Usually I don’t find it too sucky to be a Woman in Science™. This is the first in a series of 3 posts on why this week, it was a bit sucky.

The Royal Australian Chemical Institute published in the June edition of their monthly magazine, Chemistry in Australia, a very poor and unfunny joke.  As I am wont to do, I tweeted about it.

I was sufficiently peeved by this Grade A sexist bullshittery that I also wrote a letter to the editor. I received a prompt response and the online version of the article has had the offending sentence removed. I’m waiting with keen interest to receive a follow-up from the editor and to see what the official response from the RACI will be.

Since joining as an undergrad I’ve had a love/hate relationship with my professional society. At the grassroots level, I’ve found RACI run and sponsored events to be excellent learning and networking opportunities, and fulfilled many of my expectations of what being part of a learned society should be. I’ve made many connections and drunk many beers and had a generally grand time at most of them.

But after 12 years of membership, I’m seriously considering not renewing this year. This issue could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. While I’ve had many positive experiences with individual members, the organisation as a whole has never felt entirely welcoming to me. It’s always felt male and I’m a woman. It’s always felt old and I’m young(ish). It’s always felt ivory tower and I’m outside academia. And I no longer feel like I want to try be a part of it.

I’m struggling to think of any benefits in continuing to be a member of this organisation. The aspects of the RACI that I find valuable, the events and conferences, will continue to be accessible and affordable even if I cease my membership. But the aspects of the RACI that I find deplorable and disappointing show no signs of changing and I’m no longer convinced that I want to support it with my membership dollars.


Silly Science Songs 3rd Edition

One Angry Dwarf Prof and 200 Solemn Faces Students by Ben Folds Five – Aug 7

September ’75 my H-index was not that high
My dean said by Christmas I would have
A research group all of my own
All these little minds to blow
I still had to teach 1st year class
Now I’m big and important
One angry prof and 200 solemn students are you
If you realy want to see me
Check in Nature and Angewandte
Look who’s telling who what to do

 

 

Always by Bon Jovi – Aug 15

this compound’s not crystallising
it just looks like tar or mud
it’s nothing but some atoms
this imposter cooked up
it’s been refluxing for eternity
now I’m drowning in black gunk
you see I’ve always been analytical
but with synthesis, I give up
see I can’t make a molecule
like the way it’s meant to be
well I guess I’m not that good a chemist
but baby that’s just me

 

 

LDNAB by Lily Allen – Aug 25

sitting at my bench in the lab all day
my experiments are in crisis
it doesn’t get me down and I feel OK
cos the skills that I’m gaining are priceless
everything seems to look as it should
but I wonder what goes on out of doors
laughter and some chatter but it doesn’t really matter
I’ll be stuck here for several hours more
you might laugh, you might frown
walking around the lab town
sun is in the sky oh why oh why would I want to be anywhere else

 

Every Day Should be a Holiday Science Day by Dandy Warhols – Sep 16

Super cool, science rules OK
Got no dough cos no grants came my way
Anytime, call me up if you
Got a job, in a permanent way
Any time
Baby let’s go
Every day
Should be a science day

 

 

When You’re Gone by Bryan Adams and Mel C – Sep 28
(for @upulie and burger ring aromas)

I’ve been wandering around the lab all night
Got experiments to do
And I’m trying to concentrate but all I can think of is food
Yeah the phone don’t ring everyone’s gone home
I don’t mind being all alone
But I’m working with this DTT reagent that reminds me of food

 

 

U Can’t Touch This by MC Hammer – Sep 29

Stop. Retention time
Go with the flow in helium if you can’t separate this
Then you probably are dead
So inject sample be aware
Bust through the column, run your compounds through the air
This is it for a paper
Plot out this and you’re gonna see vapour
Move slide your rump
Just for a minute integrate the bumps
Bump bump bump yeah

 

 

Welcome to the (Jargon) Jungle by Guns N Roses – Oct 2

Welcome to the jargon jungle
We like to abbreviate
We’ve got everything you want
If you only knew the names
We are the people that can find
Whatever you may need
If you only knew the name for it
We call it something weird

 

 

Something About the Way You Look Tonight Crystallise by Elton John – Oct 7

There was a time
I tried everything and nothing would happen
For many weeks
I tried all of the solvents under the sun
I need to tell you
How I scratched and scraped the bottom of the flask
But in frustration
I just chucked you in a cupboard in the dark
And I can’t explain
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
It’s that feeling I get about acicular types
And I can’t describe
But it’s something about the way you crystallise
Takes my breath away
The way you crystallise

 

 

Don’t Ask Me Why by Billy Joel – Oct 20

All the electrons in your molecule
Leave their orbitals when you blink
Every reaction you do every day
Every product down the sink
Don’t wait for answers
Just take your chances
Don’t ask me why


A Tale of Vegemite (or Marmite) and Credit Where it’s Due

I had an interesting experience recently regarding some media coverage of my work. Readers of this blog will remember my Vegemite aroma analysis from June last year, which at the time got a nice amount of media attention, notably this Guardian article and this interview on ABC radio.

On October 6th (AEDST), I became aware through a Google Alert I have on my own name (narcissist, who me?), that the UK publication Chromatography Today had picked up on the Vegemite work and written an article in their ‘Breaking News’ section. 16 months old is quite a loose interpretation of breaking news in my opinion but hey whatever.

CT1

I thought it a little strange that they had gone ahead and written this article without even contacting me, but I’m a bit of a noob when it comes to media coverage and whatnot so I’m not really sure if this is normal or not. Once I read the article I could see that there were a few errors contained within, the major one being that they’d said I did the work on Marmite. Can you believe it, Marmite? That horrid stuff? As if!

Anyway, there was a link off to the right hand side of the article to “Request more information” so I submitted a little thingamajig there pointing out the mistakes and asking for them to be corrected, receiving only this automated reply.

CT3

I also contacted the @Chromtoday Twitter account, even though it had not tweeted for over 2 months.

CT7

Then I waited. After 5 days I still hadn’t received a reply through either of these channels to I sent the following email to the generic info email account of Chromatography Today. I recognised that my initial reactions were made in the heat of the moment, and maybe I had not been as courteous as I could have, so my aim was to be polite and civil in my email communication. In order of importance (to me) the changes I requested were:

  1. Correcting Marmite to Vegemite
  2. Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies
  3. A link back to the original work here on this blog
  4. Correction of typographical/methodological errors

CT2

Again I received no response, this time I waited 9 days before taking the next step. With a bit of Google-fu I was able to find the personal email addresses of several employees of the company that produces Chromatography Today. This information was publicly available by a Google search, I didn’t do anything special other than to select the right search terms. So I sent to all of these employees pretty much the same email I’d sent to the generic account earlier, slightly modified to explain that I hadn’t received any responses from my prior enquiries.

Hours after I sent THAT email, I get a response! Finally!

CT4

And then this the following day.

CT5

GREAT RIGHT? Well, let’s have a look at the changes they made using the compare feature in Word

CT6

  1. Correcting Marmite to Vegemite                   KINDA YEP (in the text only not the title)
  2. Removal of the false assertion that this work is part of my PhD studies YEP
  3. A link back to the original work here on this blog          NOPE NOPITY NOPE
  4. Correction of typographical/methodological errors        YEP 

Well, I’m not going to take this any further but I can’t say I’m fully satisfied with this outcome. I still feel like it is quite bad manners to not link back to the original source but this is over for me now, I’m not putting any more effort into pursuing this. As always, opinions and stuff welcome here and on the twoots.


My Three Minute Thesis Experience

I recently competed in two rounds of the Monash University 3 Minute Thesis competition, for more info on what 3MT is go here. I love the idea of 3MT and have been keen on participating for a couple of years now. Last year I didn’t feel quite ready, and wasn’t 100% happy with the idea I’d come up with so I didn’t end up entering. But this year – I had a great idea and I was ready man, so READY.

I’ve also been on a serious mission to improve my public speaking skills following an epically disastrous talk at ANU late last year. I’ve tried to take up all of the speaking opportunities that come up for me, and I joined the local branch of Toastmasters which has really helped as well. Simply practising public speaking in one form or another with a minimum frequency of once per fortnight has definitely accelerated my improvement.

 

The School of Chemistry Finals

When I showed up on the day, five contestants had become three and the order of presenters had been rearranged so that I was no longer first, but last. I’d had a dastardly cold/flu thing complete with fever and aches for about a week, so I was not in the best form of my life. Thankfully, the lecture theatre and lighting was set up such that I had to stand behind the lectern in order for the microphone to pick up my husky, disease-ridden voice. Under the circumstances, I was quite happy in the safe haven behind the lectern but still delivered my 3MT rather quickly, coming in ~25 seconds under time, including two bouts of coughing.

Despite the length and my rather deadpan delivery, I was still reasonably confident of getting through to the next round. Feedback from the judges suggested my presentation required more ‘scientific depth’ and although they did acknowledge my temporary otolaryngological disability, commented that my delivery could’ve been more authoritative and punchy. Fair enough.

To address the critiques from the school finals, I removed one kind of wishy-washy sentence from the script, replacing it with two longer sentences explaining the principles and advantages of gas chromatographic separations (ooh, so scientifically deep man). I also practised – A LOT. Punchy, authoritative delivery I am all over you.

 

The Faculty of Science Finals

Having mostly recovered from my sickness, on the day of the faculty finals I was about 50:50 nerves and confidence. Surprisingly, I was the only female contestant and also clearly the oldest (so damn old, these kids are like 22 years old how do they even scients). This time we were miked up so I didn’t have to worry about being trapped behind the lectern. There was however, a non-moving spotlight. Here is where I’ll let you watch the video and watch me twitch like a twitchy twitchface who wants to walk around, practised walking around, planned to walk around but is trapped in the spotlight to twitch away for three twitchtastic minutes.

I WANT TO BREAK FREE

The slide which is on the display behind me looked like this:
Webster_Renee_3MT

So yeah, clearly I had a problem. The feedback from the faculty judges was that they loved my story, but the delivery was distracting. DANG. So annoyed. I know I can do better than this. See you next year, 3MT.