Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Investing in Postdocs and Giving Thanks


I received an email yesterday from someone I had not spoken two in probably six months.

Back in April I gave a presentation to the postdocs at the University of Florida.  It was advice about communicating their science, sharing their science, and thoughts on job interviews.

Such things are sorely needed.  We produce way more Ph.D.s than the number of jobs to support them, so we end up with a large number of postdocs in circulation. These folks are professional scientists, as good as they get.

We just don't have enough jobs for all of them, so it is not unusual for a Ph.D. scientist to be making $35,000 a year, six years after the degree is over, with no hard promise of a job.  Interviews are ultra competitive and skilled scientists often fail at that last critical moment-- impress the committee on paper and get the interview, but fall short in person and don't land the job.

After the seminar I was approached by a 5th year postdoc.  We can call him Dr. S, since he has a very distinct name and I don't want to embarrass him.  He said that he has a great record on paper, that he gets interviewed for every job he applies to, but never gets selected for the position.

Clearly, Dr. S has some academic firepower but was lacking tools and coaching on how to communicate his science.

We spent three sessions going through his job talk.  The first one revealed why he was never chosen.  He talked over my head, lost me in the first slide, and his entire presentation was good, but didn't connect.  I didn't fall in love with his science and didn't imagine him as a good colleague.

Over two more sessions we adjusted the talk.  We changed his approach to the talk, developed a sense of audience, helped him connect as a person, built a new philosophy toward the interview, and talked about how to answer questions.

I received this yesterday:


One of the many days lately where I need a science kleenex.



This is just a reminder that science needs to flow in order to work.  How many talented scientists are trapped in jobs they don't want because they simply lack the courage and training to tell others about their passions and ideas in a human way?   How many could land the job if they realized that a job seminar is not about beating scientists to death with data-- they want a clever colleague, a friend, a solution maker, someone to complement their department's expertise. 

It is a classic case of forgetting why you are doing a job talk and who the audience is.  They want you to succeed, they want a new colleague, they asked you to try out for that part!  Rather than blinding them with brilliance and science-- simply share the work you care about.  

Don't be the unreachable scientist on a stage. Be the clever friend down the hall. 

It worked for Dr. S, and maybe it was just his time and had nothing to do with my help.  However, I was grateful for the letter.  It turns out to be probably the best three hours I invested in 2014. 




Friday, November 14, 2014

Science Center : Opinion and Activism are the New Science?

I am not happy. 

Opinion is the new science. 

Activism is the new science.

Undocumented claims are the new science.

Arguments from ignorance are the new science. 

That is, if you are a speaker at an event held by the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium.  You can watch the video here.  I'll wait. 

Or I can save you 1:21 of your life you'll never get back. 

First of all I can say that I totally predicted this.  I predicted exactly what this would be, that it would start out with some neutral and credible (well, undeniable) science and then degenerate into a scientific abortion ending in a rallying cry for food labeling and a "right to know". 

I'm like a damn psychic. It is pretty amazing.  Not really.  These things are incredibly predictable, and while I warned them, they suggested that 'teaching all sides' is a good move.  Ugh. 


Hey dude, science is whatever you think it is, your opinion is as good as evidence! 
After all, science is about hearing all viewpoints. 


The part that just makes me so mad is that a "Science Center" supported this.  It is an appeal to fear, ignorance and the typical trash.  Some of the quotes are priceless, and make me wonder what kind of half-cocked science you have to poop out on a test to be an RD in Florida.  

Really?  ""If some of the bigger chunks of protein are still left over chances are they could be an allergen."

Really?  

REEEEEALLY? 

Science Center, don't we turn off a microphone at this point?



Read Anna's comments... You guys are doing great work.  Keep fueling misinformation!



From 29 min to 39 min of her 25 min allotted time she goes off on labeling.  No evidence, no science, just her political, activist rant.  

When she finally provides references, not one is peer reviewed, and GMO Myths and Truths is her major source, and activist rag that has been completely discredited by mainstream science. 

Another major reference for evidence was, well, JURASSIC PARK!  The movie.  Yes, everything we know about science can be discounted by a campy horror flick. 

Then if you watch the question and answer section you'll see an activist grab the microphone and spew on without moderation about Monsanto, Monsanto, Monsanto.  Nobody stops her. She goes on about the well discounted claims about Indian suicides and other myths. 

I'm blown away.  Can we please remove "Science" from your name?  

There is a fine line between a Science Center and Junk Science Center.  You just crossed it.

If it seems like I'm being too harsh it is only because I see how these solutions have helped farmers and the environment, and see what we can do going forward.  When a Science Center promotes an event where a non-scientist is allowed to make false statements and force a political agenda (as predicted), it destroys their credibility.  We need Science Centers.  Unfortunately this one has a lax idea about what science actually is. 





Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Science Schmience. A Science Center Update

Today was interesting in that the angry emails and a few phone calls have come in to me and the hire-ups where I work.  Seems some folks are not happy that I've recommended, as a scientist, that a Science Center might best serve its reputation and credibility by endorsing events that have a basis in science-based evidence.

They still are moving forward with the Science on Tap event, where a local dietitian with apparent intentions will grace the audience with her interpretations of transgenic crop science.

To review, last week I was alerted by a South Florida farmer that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium  (SFSC) was hosting a “Science on Tap” talk, held at a local bar.  The topic was entitled, “GMO’s (sic) Exposed” and was to be delivered by Michelle Parenti Lewis, a local dietitian.  I wondered what she might be exposing.

The original story was posted on my blog, Illumination.  After I was notified of this event, a little google search revealed that the event was being billed to show  “potentially harmful effects”, and likely would be an anti-GMO fear fest.  Which is fine.  Anyone that wants to make crazy claims is welcome to do so, and do it with a bullhorn and on a high mountaintop. 

The problem here is that what appears to be a veiled political endorsement of food labeling is being billed as a scientific event.   Worse, it is being endorsed by SFSC.   Hitching their wagon to a presentation not backed by science is a dangerous place for a scientific venue to go.   My blog detailed the problem with a science center sponsoring a political event masquerading as a scientific talk.

Within hours social media carried the story and several folks from the SFSC reached out.  They noted how important it was to “hear all sides”, in essence, let someone provide a non-scientific viewpoint because it is important to the debate (that those of us in science know does not exist).   You know, “Teach the Controversy”. Creationists must be salivating.

I recommended it be cancelled until they were sure it was a scientific event.  After a few polite exchanges and some good dialog they did not cancel the event, but agreed to change the name.  Yes, the SFSC will still allow what likely will be a biased talk that uses fear and uncertainty to promote an agenda to label foods.  That’s just my guess from her previous talks and posts.

The science center did reach out and asked me to join, but I’m busy with a visiting speaker in Gainesville and “Science on Tap is four hours away.

Luckily others have been identified to step in.  Chris Miller, an outstanding extension agent from Palm Beach County will be in attendance.  Chris has seen my recent presentations and he knows farming.  While molecular biology and transgenic crops are not his specialty, he’ll keep it real.   A number of faculty from the Biotechnology Program at Palm Beach State University will be in attendance also, and they have been excellent communicators of the technology.

The presentation will be posted online, and I’m going to make a prediction here.  Her talk will mirror those from Michael Hanson of the Consumer’s Union.  She’ll talk about the technology with some accuracy and then key on the vague language that can be twisted to satisfy agenda. 
Watch for :

"Monsanto owns all the scientists and regulates all the research"-- which is complete garbage, but the refuge of those that like to make statements without seeking evidence. 

“voluntary consultation”  -  Opponents of biotech key off of this statement, suggesting that approval is a rubber stamp, not noting that this is a lengthy and expensive process.

Arguments from Ignorance, like “we just don’t know…” = We see these every time. Of course, they don’t acknowledge safe use for almost 20 years and no evidence of harm.

“There have been no long-term tests on humans.” – Not noting that we don’t do any tests on humans unless there is substantial reason suggesting potential for harm.

“Don’t you want to know what your children are eating?” – The appeal to the Middle Moms that are manipulated with fear and uncertainty. 

“These foods have not been proven safe”  -- Of course, nothing in the history of the world has been proven safe.  We can only demonstrate evidence of harm.

The whole thing will conclude with a call for labels and this will somehow be called science.

My interaction with SFSC has been pleasant and I’m grateful that they’ve attempted some corrective action.  Maybe Ms. Parenti-Lewis will nail the science and give an evidence-based presentation on transgenic plant technology, why farmers use it, and a complete coverage of benefits and limitations.   That would be great.

On the other hand, if she uses the credibility of SFSC to make sweeping generalizations to build fear of sound science, it will be a major fail for SFSC.  My prediction- they've been duped, and are now attached to an Earth and Water Watch surrogate using this opportunity to misrepresent agriculture, twist science, and trivialize a rigorous approval process.  She’ll promote a position of denigrating transgenic science and push for food labeling that is not supported by science and reason.

I would love to be proven wrong.


Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Protecting Bill Nye from De-nye-al

Yesterday's letter on Keith Kloor's Collide-a-Scape Blog was intended to illuminate inconsistency in Bill Nye's application of science.   While many critics hammered at his credentials and trashed him as a kid's entertainer, I defended him.  I respect Bill Nye and his ability to connect science to people.  It is something I wish I did better and something I am learning by watching experts like Nye.

This is why I challenged him.  I need him to survive.  I need the Bill Nye brand to be successful.  We need him to be the friendly and approachable stuff in the interface between the public and the science.


My letter to Nye was out of respect -- to help sharpen
his impacts and protect his brand. 

Right now there are many not happy with Nye, and they come from positions in climate denial and creationism.  They need Bill Nye to fail.  They seek to erode his credibility.

What better way to harm his reputation as an objective science steward than to show that he has taken a position that is not backed by data or the scientific consensus?  What better way to harm his brand than to show that it is not consistent with the world's leading scientific organizations?


Nye's Next Steps

In a perfect world Bill Nye might seek some experts out in LA to sit down and help him understand why his comments were incorrect, and maybe how they have damaging effects. Maybe he'll come out and clarify his remarks and change his position, or else succumb to exogenous semiotic entropy.

That would be the best move.  He could show the world that scientists are humans that make mistakes, stand up when challenged, and accept evidence to adjust their views.

Let's hope it goes that way.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Women in Science, Revisited

This post is here because earlier today someone asked me to think of a reason to build a scholarship. I thought of Jessie.

Jessica Justice was a dishwasher that became a scientist.  This is what I wrote about her, and it was published on April 7, 2010 on Skepchick.  Make sure you read the next post tomorrow.  If this moves you at all, tomorrow will bring tears.

The topic is important today as it was then, and your note is still priceless Jessie.


Science Needs Women
Kevin M. Folta
In three weeks I will put on the cap-and-gown professor outfit I bought on Ebay and witness something that probably never should have happened: the graduation of a self-described dumb blonde. Jessie came to my laboratory looking to make some extra cash as a dishwasher. Little did she know that she would be remolded, repackaged and refocused by a cadre of women that identified a change that needed to happen, then took the initiative to make it so.
In my laboratory the ratio of X to Y chromosomes is traditionally skewed to about twelve to one. The reason is not clear, but the majority of the technicians, postdocs, grad students and undergraduates in my program are female, and it has always been that way. One residue of the phenomenon has been that I get to observe the powerful influence that strong women have in shaping the career, and sometimes personal, choices of young women entering science.
It happens every semester, but Jessie was the most stunning example. She would take on simple tasks like dishwashing and lab maintenance with a certain care and precision not seen in most twenty year olds. But when I asked her if she’d like to take on a laboratory project all she would say is, “I probably can’t do it, I’m not smart enough.”
That sentiment was echoed every time she was assigned a task. She had self esteem that was so low it defied accurate analogy. Yet every time I would show her a technique, computer program or protocol she would execute it flawlessly after a flurry of “I probably can’t do it” and “I’m not smart enough.” I don’t know why she was so eternally self-deprecating, but it was sad to see her downplay, if not completely discount, her inherent talents and abilities.
The women in my lab took special notice of this situation. At the time there was a technician and three graduate students, all balanced, opinionated and strong. Most of all they were complete, with good relationships overlaid with conspicuous hint of glamour. They were maybe four years older than Jess, making their influence especially strong. They dug one layer deeper into Jessie than I would want to; discovering her dysfunctional relationships with males, her horrendous daily decisions and the penetrance of her miserable self perception that negatively impacted many facets of her life.
Leading by example, they showed her that women could drive science and lead a high-powered research team. They cultured her talents, supported her good decisions and taught her flawless execution of advanced scientific tests. Their influence would escape the walls of the lab, as they’d reprimand her when she’d talk about the dopes she’d date and the poor decisions she’d make at home. Soon, the growth was visible and rapid. The self-described ugly duckling was changing.
After a year in my lab with Dawn, Stef, Denise and Thelma, Jessie left to pursue advanced training within her major. She wrote up her work, turning in a graduate-level synopsis of the literature and her results. She had a visible sense of confidence, a new maturity and poise that contrasted so starkly against that of the “dumb blonde” that started in my lab only a year before.
Last week, years after she left my lab, I received a tiny card in my university mailbox buried amongst the junk mail. Inside was an invitation to a graduation. From Jessie. Adjacent to the time, date and event details was a handwritten note. “Thank you for teaching me how to think critically.”

One of the most important messages I ever received.

Sure, maybe I had a hand in it, but the best thing I did was mentor four stellar women scientists that took the initiative to guide her.
The rare success of a grant funded, a scholarly paper accepted, or putting the hood on a new Ph.D. are all wonderful, memorable moments in the life of an academic scientist. However, this victory was especially sweet. I folded that card inside-out, permanently wedged it into the frame of my office bulletin board, and then sent congratulatory emails to the four women that changed Jess’s thinking, influenced her decisions, and maybe even saved her life.
****  This post was first online in April of 2010.  In January 2012 we would suffer a tremendous loss. The next post details that tragedy ***

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Event Renamed, Maybe Postponed. Needs to be Cancelled.

I was blown away to see that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium was sponsoring "Science on Tap" an event at a local bar that featured a speaker on a scientific topic. However, the speaker for November 13th was a local dietitian with clear activist leanings, planning what appeared to be a baseless criticism of transgenic crop technology in her talk "GMO's (sic) Exposed". 

My analysis of the speaker and the situation here.

A few emails and notes on social media brought a first wave of responses that suggested bringing in "all views" was the job of science and that her talk was appropriate. 


My head almost exploded.  Since when is a "science center" promoting "teach the controversy"? 




Science Center endorses a local dietitian to speak on the dangers of GMO foods. 
Zero illnesses or deaths in 18 years.  88,000 deaths a year from alcohol.


Finally tonight I received word from their CEO that they'd be "pushing  back the start date of the event until we have secured an appropriate speaker who can represent the other side of the issue."

The other side (head hits desk).  They still don't get it, but we're moving in the right direction. Creationists everywhere got excited that the science center is now accepting talks for scientifically defunct ideas in an effort to hear all sides. 



From their website, a changed title, no notice that the event has been postponed. 


I advised to simply uncouple the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium from the event.  That's the best move.  They'd never bring in a psychic, a UFO expert, or a moon-landing hoaxer, or a Holocaust Denier, and then bring in a real  expert to show "both sides".  It falls directly into the creationist scheme of teach the controversy, when science clearly shows there's no controversy to teach.  

We'll see what happens next.  

It is hard to believe that a Science Center needs to be reminded about how science works.  It is not about presenting opinions of anyone that has one.  It is about hypothesis-driven data, good experiments, solid statistics and hard data.  It is not what a dietitian thinks and how she'll advance an activist agenda. 

That's the stuff for the Whole Foods Community Room. Go there and spew nonsense. However, the endorsement of a Science Center must only be used to endorse science backed by the scholarly literature and the scientific consensus. 

As it is said, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts.  Period. 



Friday, November 7, 2014

You've Been Fooled, Science Center!

If you are planning to visit the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, you might not see Jesus riding a T. rex,  or a model of the earth with expanding glaciers.  These are the things that crackpot pseudo-science museums might promote.  Nothing like that could happen here... or could it?

An event next week was brought to my attention.  The South Florida Science Center and Aquarium is sponsoring Science on Tap- GMOs Exposed!  

November 13th you can go hear about how GMOs are 'exposed', whatever that means... Maybe we should dig a little deeper...

The presenter is Michelle Parenti Lewis, a local RD.  So what can an apparently trained RD "expose"? 

A quick google search shows that the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium has been duped.  They have scheduled what will likely not be a scientific talk, but an activist parasite posing as science.  This is the most disgusting of all scams. And they fell for it.

A little poking around shows that Ms. Lewis is an anti-GMO advocate.  In a local promotion for the same event on SouthFlorida.com they show the event's true colors: 

Blinded by Science?  But the $3 Irish Car Bombs will "kill any GMO in a radius of 17 feet from the food on your plate."  Science is awesome?  Sounds like something a Science Center might endorse? 

The promotion claims that Lewis will describe "their potentially harmful effects", which is code for "these have no documented health effects over 17 years, but that's not scary so we'll talk about potential effects". This sure looks like an activist rant posing as a scientific presentation. 

*** and alcohol kills 88,000 in the USA every year. That's exactly 88,000 more than GMOs in 17 years ***

There still is no hard evidence that this is a credulous activist talk posing as science.  It could be a typo, or the work of some intern that has been since fired for besmirching science. Or not.

It does not take too long to see that Ms. Lewis is steeped in naturalistic fallacy, and uses that platform to raise activist issues.  The website dietbalance.net  cites the November 13th event and provides a brief dossier.  It seems reasonable at first, but then gets to "She is an advocate for locally sourced organic food production and the labeling of genetically engineered foods and cloned foods".  

Cloned foods?  I guess those organic bananas, strawberries, citrus, and dozens of other crops are off the table. 

A little more digging and it's clear that she's in cahoots with Food and Water Watch, an activist hive that spends a lot of time trashing sound transgenic technology.  She has spoken at several events in support of food labeling.  Read this and weep, science lovers:

Wow, same old junk.


And if you poke around more you can find even more evidence that the proposed speaker adheres to the naturalist fallacy, and therefore has to deny, and fight, the science of biotechnology. 

So congratulations South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, you've been bamboozled by activists posing as scientists.  You've been tricked by someone with a lot of letters after her name that chooses to ignore the scientific literature, and that should be frightening.  

I would strongly recommend canceling the event, or at least taking away your endorsement and leave that to the crystal rubbers and ear candlers. This is not science and you are being used. 

Of course, if you like this kind of thing I can get a Jesus on a T. rex stature for your foyer...