Tuesday, September 8, 2015

The Pipeline Problem (II): Let's NOT make this about luck.

Luck. I doubt anyone would argue with the observation that luck isn't good business. And whether the currency is scientific knowledge or money, universities are business.

In her book Why So Slow? Virginia Valian presents evidence that women have a tendency to attribute success or failure to luck. She suggests that the tendency is due to the perceptual distortion women experience as they navigate the triple standard of productivity, femininity and nurturing mentioned in my last post.

About luck Virginia Valian writes:

"success demands competence, strategic analysis, and effort...Luck, in the guise of an uncontrollable set of external circumstances, plays an unwarranted role in women's professional lives. Women do not reliably profit from their competence, strategic analysis, and effort to the same extent men do...because women's objective circumstances are more difficult than men's."

So let's NOT make this about luck!

Productivity, Not Luck

I know I deserve to have been tenured. When I left my postdoctoral fellowship at Yale I had already reached critical escape velocity and would have been easily tenured. In that sense I know the University of Michigan failed to provide the support I needed to demonstrate the productivity we all would have preferred. I assume that wasn't their initial intention even though that was the effect.

There's an old adage "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure," not to mention a lot of wasted dollars, time, and effort. The adage is true whether talking about war, natural disasters, the financial excesses of Wall Street, the increasing capitalistic structuring of health care, pharmaceutical industries, or education from charter schools to universities.

If the University of Michigan really wanted the success they were after when I was hired -- and as a University trying to be competitive with Ivy Leagues that seems like logical reasoning -- then I should never have found myself in a situation so sensitive to the effects of the hostile takeover of Research Genetics.

When the Department failed to consider it essential to recruit one or more graduate students with a sincere desire to learn electrophysiology, I was placed under a tremendous handicap in terms of productivity. In fact, the first graduate student that got sent my way (without information concerning their condition) was an extremely intelligent and kind manic-depressive interested in biochemistry.

Electrophysiology is my primary area of expertise. With an initial set of electrophysiological publications I would have been able to recreate the rich context of the project on ion channel regulation and plasticity I had worked on at Yale, this time in a biological system that was more genetically and behaviorally tractable with strong correlation to the processes of synaptic plasticity that underlie learning and memory. In contrast to that ideal, as it was, I performed the electrophysiological experiments to supplement the work of my students. As it was, my research program was outside my primary area of expertise. Most scientists only risk that after promotion.

I did eventually manage to recruit a postdoctoral fellow with electrophysiological training. Because I couldn't afford to gamble after the hostile takeover, I tasked him with a project that other investigators' work suggested would have a high likelihood of publishable data regardless of what the results were. Namely, modulation of the channel by calmodulin. Although his work was delayed by writing up his thesis results and then an NIH fellowship (to gain familiarity with the project regardless of the chance of funding), in the second year he presented his findings at the Annual Biophysics meeting and his project attracted the interest of David Yue whose work on calcium-calmodulin signaling mechanisms I had long admired. I envisioned a collaboration in which we could explore the physical interaction between the channel and calmodulin using FRET. I was thrilled because I hadn't had the opportunity to pursue the more structural and biophysical approaches to channel modulation in the earlier years of my own training.

Most likely due to gossip and politics in the Department, as well as the discouragement of not getting his fellowship award, my postdoc decided to begin applying and interviewing for a second appointment in a larger lab instead of focusing on the project. I understood. Once he found another position, we agreed on an exit date that would allow him to bring the project to a close and write the paper. On the day he entered my office to mention that he was taking an extra month to vacation with his wife before leaving, I resorted to tonglen and then tried, unsuccessfully, to convey that his choice was likely to negatively affect both of us since my lab would shut down if I didn't get tenure.

That gossip and politics were in the air was clear in variety of ways. For example, after the hostile takeover there was an obvious change in the tone of my annual meetings with the promotions committee. In another example, my faculty advisor caused one of my students to fail his preliminary exams by using an overly confrontational tone of voice when asking a basic question. My student went blank and gave the wrong answer even though I knew he knew the right one. It was a silly waste of our time and energy to make my student prepare and retake the exams at a later date, especially since my students were already having to work as teaching assistants to support themselves.


The University of Michigan's failure to recruit a graduate student wanting to learn electrophysiology in the initial years of my appointment provided them with sufficient evidence to validate a negative judgement concerning my abilities, not to mention the judgements of any outside evaluators they selected to write letters for my case.

The promotions committee can bias their selection of letter writers in any way they like, although at least some of the writers are derived from a list provided by the candidate. The writers had considerably less information concerning my case than the promotions committee. Without sounding whiny or overly defensive, there was no way to include details concerning graduate student recruitment, the combined effect of the hostile takeover and funding, and the overload of teaching that resulted for myself and my students as a result of the lack of funding in later years. That was also the case for numerous grant proposals I submitted to NIH, NSF and the American Cancer Society.


Teaching requirements for faculty in Letters and Sciences are much more extensive than for Medical School faculty. Although it varies for different universities and departments, some Medical School research faculty are required to teach only 3-5 lectures in a major Medical School class per year. Or, alternatively, share responsibility for a graduate level class or journal club with ~ 20 students one semester every one or two years. In contrast, in the Letters and Sciences, faculty in my field are required to co-teach an undergraduate and a graduate level class every year. I was assigned to teach Animal Physiology for undergraduates and Neuroscience for new graduate students.

For a starting Assistant Professor, Animal Physiology, with greater than 300 students each semester was a big ask. It's not that some of the other large lecture courses weren't also taught by research faculty. However, the other large lecture courses were taken by freshman and sophomores and were supported by study sections. In contrast, Animal Physiology was typically taken by competitive juniors and seniors needing to ace the class for a good chance at medical school. And for some strange reason Animal Physiology lacked study sections and teaching assistants.

My first two years teaching the class were hell. Not only was I inexperienced instructing classes of that size, the students also seemed to respect teachers less and to feel overly entitled compared to when I was a student. In addition, my authority was overshadowed and undermined by the other more experienced lecturers. I was in a unfair situation in that I was judged relative to (a) tenured male research professors with considerable teaching experience or (b) women lecturers with considerable experience and teaching as their only responsibility. Those of you in academia know that student evaluation comments can be as virulent as sometimes observed in the online environment. (Perhaps I've gained some immunity from those days.) I witnessed one of my male teaching colleagues slam his office door in a student's face in response to being interrupted outside of office hours. I received the same negative evaluation simply as a result of politely asking students to return at another time if they visited while I was in the middle of an electrophysiological recording experiment.

I learned to change my projection to be more authoritative while still being encouraging. I learned to present lecture material as a story with a narrative. Pausing to take and ask questions to allow students to process the material. I prepared extensive online lecture notes, including practice problems and past exams, in addition to providing online access to my PowerPoints for the lectures. I doubled office hours. I moved my electrophysiology rig to the other corner of the building so that I wouldn't be interrupted. Exams were half multiple choice and half short answer. I took a class to learn how to design less ambiguous multiple choice questions. During the last two years I finally had Animal Physiology down to a point that I was enjoying teaching.

Other teaching included weekly lab meetings, weekly meetings with each student in my lab to review their data and plan subsequent experiments (I devised a form for this purpose and wrote down the major points of each meeting), and I ran a journal club with other scientists in my area of research, the majority of them from the Medical School.

While I did learn to appreciate the Animal Physiology class, there were other courses I could have taught that would have been more appropriate: the Department's upper level class in neuroscience with 40-50 students or the Department's upper level electrophysiology lab for undergraduates and new neuroscience graduate students, or the interdisciplinary Learning and Memory laboratory course. The laboratory courses would not have been much more time consuming than Animal Physiology in the end and I might have been able to recruit an electrophysiology student to my lab from that student pool.

Spousal Hiring

Judging by the numbers of women who have reached the higher ranks of academia whose spouses are also in academia, the benefits of spousal hiring are clear. First, married women have support at the personal level that can provide an independent source of self-esteem and comradery to counteract some of the implicit biases of sexism Virginia Valian has researched and described. Second, when women scientists are part of an academic couple they typically don't have to be as assertive as single women to be heard at faculty and adminstrative meetings and even at social events. In this way the magnitude, as well as impact, of sexist biases are reduced. Married women scientists are protected by the fact that loss of one would mean loss of the couple. Not only do married women have to be less assertive, by virtue of being married they have an easier time at being judged as competent while still preserving the characteristics of femininity and nurturing. Virginia Valian presents considerable evidence for the inverse interactions of these variables in how women are judged.

Because my husband was employed by a university already (essentially in his dream job) it would have been extremely helpful to bring him in under the umbrella of a spousal hire. This possibility wasn't considered because my husband was a graphic artist and not a professor. (Similarly, the difference in standing also resulted in my being ineligible for spousal hiring at his university.)

The lack of flexibility on the part of either university left me without personal support during difficult times, stressed the relationship, and spelled doom for my chances of having children. In addition, my husband's absence likely created additional bias due to lingering questions in people minds concerning why he wasn't there.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, having to put effort into maintaining a long distance relationship, especially when combined with my teaching and service load, obstructed my opportunities to network with the international scientific community to gain stature and recognition, as well as establish productive collaborations. Both would have provided a better chance at grant funding. Less than 10 percent of submitted grant proposals are funded in my area of research. Proposals compete with those submitted by huge well-established labs in medical schools whose principal investigators have considerable reputation and numerous collaborations.

It would have been helpful if the university and department had been more welcoming and made a stronger effort to find my husband a position similar to the one he would have had to leave. I had already done what I could to select a location with family and friends in the area.

...As deftly as a camel handler in Egypt, society had sold me on the idea that having both a career and marriage was within reach. And academia had led me into the desert demanding ever-increasing payments until, finally, I was left stranded with neither.

My experience at the University of Michigan was only the tip of the iceberg (buried in the desert no less) in terms of the implicit biases and systemic inefficiencies I've encountered in life. Please continue to follow along during the next few posts while I draw on my own experience to contribute to the cause of equality for women and minorities.

*Typical requirements for tenure at a major university in the United States are:

1. (60-75%) A strong record of productivity which is judged on the basis of:
a. Number of research publications
b. Ranking of the journals in which those publications occur
c. Funding record
d. International reputation and scientific impact of the research findings.
e. Letters of recommendation judging the entire tenure package, i.e., research, teaching and service

2. (25-40%) Teaching and Service Record
a. Undergraduate and Graduate Level Courses taught
b. Student End-of-Semester Evaluation Scores
c. Innovation in Teaching
d. Undergraduate and Graduate Student Recommendation Letters

It is important to observe that there is a significant amount of subjectivity incorporated into each of the variables and that many of the productivity variables covary. There is also substantial opportunity for members of the promotions committee to influence the outcome of the tenure decision based on their own views and biases.

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