Injured squid, rogue cancer cells, kids book review

It’s been a busy couple of months for me, and I’ve had the opportunity to write about some really neat topics:

I wrote about injured squid for the Pain Research Forum.

I wrote about new cancer research targeting the so-called tumor “microenvironment” for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology News.

I wrote a fun review of the children’s book “Enjoy Your Cells” for the Washington Post’s On Parenting blog. Thanks to my daughter Madeline for help with that one!

And I continue to write my weekly posts for AAAS Member Central, which you can view here. One of my recent favorites is “NIH holds contest for fixing bias in peer review (with cash prizes).”

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Recommended reads: breast cancer, false memories, extreme sleepiness, color perception and language, newborn parenting

Confocal image of an axonal rainbow of oculomotor nerve motor axons from a "Brainbow" mouse brain, with each neuron expressing a distinct color (Jean Livet, Jeff Lichtman Laboratory, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, USA)
Unrelated to recommended posts but too pretty not to share: Oculomotor nerve motor axons from a “Brainbow” mouse brain (Jean Livet, Jeff Lichtman Laboratory, Harvard University Cambridge, MA, USA)

Tracing breast cancer’s history by Carl Zimmer

In this fascinating post, Zimmer looks at the flip side of cancer-causing BRCA mutations (like the one that caused Angelina Jolie to opt for a double mastectomy).

Teaser:

Last year, a team of scientists at the University of Utah discovered an unexpected side effect of BRCA mutations. They looked at medical records of women who carried BRCA mutations and compared them to women with a normal version of the genes. The scientists found that women with the mutations weren’t just more likely to develop cancer. They also had more children. The effect was particularly strong among women born before 1930: they had, on average, two additional children (6.22 compared to 4.19). [read Zimmer’s post here]

Trust your memory? Maybe you shouldn’t by Jacque Wilson

This article delves into the sometimes controversial work of psychologist and memory expert Elizabeth Loftus. Her work has important implications for the law–especially in regards to eyewitness testimony and so-called repressed memories–as well as for how we view the ‘truthiness’ of our own everyday memories.

Teaser:

Using her finely tuned “recipe” for memory implantation, she guided study participants to believe they had gotten sick eating strawberry ice cream as children.

A week later, researchers asked about the ice cream incident. Many participants had developed a detailed memory — what Loftus calls a “rich false memory” — about when they had gotten sick. Subsequent studies showed this memory affected the participant’s actual eating behavior. [Read Wilson’s article here.]

*Re-awakenings by Virginia Hughes

This is a truly amazing personal and scientific story about a young lawyer who was literally sleeping her life away and the medical discoveries that helped her.

Teaser:

Sumner began having long sleeping spells like never before. She’d go to bed one night and wake up a full day later, or more—her longest stint was 53 hours. She’d open her eyes and feel completely disoriented, staring at her alarm clock with no idea whether the time was AM or PM. First it was once a month, then every two weeks, then every week. “I started approaching sleep with this trepidation,” she recalls. “Is tonight going to be the night?”  [Read Hughes’ piece here]

 *The crayola-fication of the world: How we gave colors names, and it messes with our brains by Aatish Bhatia

This post examines how language influences perception–particularly in the case of colors. I don’t want to give away the scientific twist at the end of the post, but the combination of anthropology, psychology, and linguistics makes this a must-read.

Teaser:

A study in 1984 by Paul Kay and colleagues compared English speakers to members of the Tarahumara tribe of Northwest Mexico. The Tarahumara language falls into the Uto-Aztecan language family, a Native American language family spoken near the mountains of North America. And like most world languages, the Tarahumara language doesn’t distinguish blue from green. [read Bhatia’s post here]

*I discovered these posts because they won Science Seeker awards. Check out other excellent award winners here

The carnival of evidence-based parenting: the new parenthood edition

This is a collection of posts that examine different topics related to the transition to new parenthood (sleep, bonding, swaddling, breastfeeding, happiness, etc). This carnival is a wonderful resource for new parents because all the posts are written from an evidence-based perspective but also include many relatable personal anecdotes. [see a list of all the posts here]

PhD parents: first to leave the pipeline?

A New York Times article posted yesterday presents a pretty convincing case for the financial reasons (and some other weighty reasons) not to have children. I learned about this article from the reaction posts by  and rxnm, which are also worth checking out. I had a pretty strong visceral reaction to these posts–probably because I’ve already been thinking about these issues a lot lately, especially about how parenting and biomedical academic science seem to mix like oil and water.

Few of my friends from high school, college, and graduate school have children, and few have described a desire to have them. Most of these people have advanced degrees (I really, really live in a bubble). When my husband and I decided to have a child, I began to feel like a teenage mother in my cohort. Even though we had many rational reasons for this decision, I still think it may be the craziest thing we’ve ever done. So I completely understand why many of my friends are forgoing the parenting adventure for other adventures (filled with less spit up and fewer toddler tantrums).

But what makes me sad is the feeling that I get that academic science is becoming less and less friendly to those of us who decide to become parents (especially without a stay-at-home parent in the mix). The group of biomedical PhDs that I know who have decided early on that a research career isn’t for them is largely made up of parents or people planning to become parents soon. And my anecdotal observations are supported by statistics–at least for women. According to the National Postdoctoral Association:

“Postdoc women who have had children since becoming postdocs are twice as likely as men who also have had children to change their career goal away from professor with a research emphasis. These women are also twice as likely to change their career goal from the professoriate as women who have not had children and have no future plans to have children (Goulden et al. 2009)”

I think this is because these mothers feel like they cannot compete. Dads with working spouses also feel the pressure. And realistically, when there is a glut of PhDs, the ones who can spend more time in lab are probably going to get more publications and have a higher chance of making it to the tenure track (TT) stage.  “Work harder, not smarter” can only take you so far.

This is not to say that children and academic science are incompatible. Many of the faculty in my department have kids and seem to balance things pretty well. But I think timing is important. My guess is that scientists who have their first child in graduate school or early in the postdoc stage are most at risk of leaking out of the pipeline early on. Here are some reasons why:

1) Academic nomads are often separated from extended families who could make childrearing less difficult and time consuming by helping with childcare.

2) Postdoctoral salaries often aren’t adjusted for cost of living. I know a postdoc in the Boston area who paid $1500/a month for three days of childcare a week. A divorced PhD dad with two kids told me he really wanted to do a postdoc after defending his PhD but just didn’t think he could support his kids on that pay. Perhaps this is one reason why many scientists want more children than they have.

3) PhD parents don’t think they have a shot at the golden (tenure track job) ticket. It’s publish or perish, baby. When you have 600 neuroscience PhDs competing for one TT spot, the odds are against those who can’t (or won’t) spend weekends in lab. As Eve Marder describes in this article, with longer and longer training periods looming ahead of them, many PhDs choose other paths. 

No one is forcing these people to have kids, and the choice to become a parent, like any choice, comes with consequences (consequences the New York Times article I mentioned at the beginning clearly point out). But I think it is sad that there are so many PhD parents who would be excellent professors and scientists who are leaving the pipeline early because they just don’t think they can cut it.

And simply due to the very biology that we all so love, women are more likely than men to be affected by this as they have a more limited fertility window. Indeed, the recent article “Top Recommendations from Top Women in Science” about policy changes to keep women in the pipeline does include many parent-friendly policies (although we now know we need to add addressing gender bias to that list). But I think the real answer comes in dealing with the jobs issue.

Perhaps it’s time to tighten the pipeline to begin with. Part-time postdoc positions won’t help women if these positions make them even less competitive for the few jobs that are out there. This is something no one (the NIH, graduate programs, PhD advisors, even students) seems to want to address. The other option is to create more staff scientist positions or to make more concrete training programs for hybrid or non-academic careers. If we want a happy, sustainable, gender-balanced workforce in the biomedical sciences there simply have to be jobs at the end for trainees (parents or not). So, in my mind, the answer is either fewer people in or more jobs out.