Do you really want to burst your bubble?

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We all live in our bubbles. Our family bubble, our friends bubble, our work bubble. It is interesting to think how much of our life is organized around preferences. We tend to go to certain places, and we tend to meet and interact people that have the share the same preferences than we do. It is easy to get trapped on your own little bubble and not realize there is a whole world outside of it.

One of the past episodes of Invisibilia was about reality bubbles and it told the story of a young man from California that suddenly became aware of the constraints of his life and built an app to do “bubble-hopping” – and get out of his bubble (you can read/listen to it here). Although I think it is an interesting idea, I believe there are more “conventional” ways to try to break out your bubble.

So when it comes to Twitter, things are not different. Even though *in theory* all tweets are public and easily found in the internet, what you are writing is being read only by your own Twitter bubble. Basically, an echo chamber. When it comes to political views, there are basically two very separate Twitter “wings”. And both blue and red Twitter rarely talk to each other. This was the subject from a recent study published in PNAS and you can read a description of its results on this article.

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The graph represents a depiction of messages containing moral and emotional language, and their retweet activity, across all political topics (gun control, same-sex marriage, climate change). Nodes represent a user who sent a message, and edges (lines) represent a user retweeting another user. The two large communities were shaded based on the mean ideology of each respective community (blue represents a liberal mean, red represents a conservative mean).
Brady et. al, 2017. Emotion shapes the diffusion of moralized content in social networks. PNAS 114:7313-7318.

On the paper, the authors state that emotions tend to be highly associated with moral judgments. They propose that moral and political messages with a stronger combination of moral and emotional contents would reach more people than messages with a weaker combination of moral and emotional contents. A phenomenon they called “moral contagion“. What they found in the end was that although tweets containing at least one moral-emotional word were largely retweeted, rarely those tweets made to “the other side” of the political bubble.

After I read this, I went to the list of people I follow on Twitter. It’s not as intuitive as it is on Facebook (where you can easily see how many friend in common you have with your contacts), but yes, most of the accounts I follow on Twitter are followed by a great number of “people you know”. So there I am, living in my giant Twitter liberal bubble. Although I agree that one step towards getting out of your bubble would be unfollow people that everyone else follows, the great improvement would be to follow (and engage) with people “from the other side”.

Problem is I have seen how nasty those political discussions can get on Twitter and Facebook. I am not a confrontational person. I even avoid reading convos from others when they start to fight about certain topics. I am also a very passionate person, so engaging in those types of convos would take an enormous emotional effort from my part. In order to try to be aware of my political bias, I started to include conservative news to my daily routine (yes, I read Fox News now…). I am not entirely sure if this helps anyhow, as I am constantly mesmerized by how obnoxious they are.

What I have been trying to do is to engage to the (very few) conservative people I know. I enjoy to hear their arguments and although our debates can become somewhat heated, the friendship that we have makes things easier, and I am more free to simply say “you don’t wanna go there” or simply walk away from a discussion. Yes, I know you can also create friendships on Twitter, but this is much difficult to happen if you’re not alike the other person to begin with.

Despite the fact I truly believe that communication between political bubbles is necessary if we want to live in a better world, I am not sure if I can do it. A compromise I’ve chosen is to create a (private) Twitter list of conservative accounts and read their tweets without following them. To engage with them is a totally different story, though…

What about you, dear reader, do you live in a bubble? You can determine how thick is your bubble by taking this quiz. In the meantime, let me share this post on my Twitter bubble!

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Do you know what’s your dream job? Try the Flower Exercise!

This is a blog post that’s been among my drafts for a long time, and I never got the time to finish writing it. But recently IBAM reminded me of this topic with a tweet, followed up by a poll:

YES! So much this. When you are in academia, you are deeply immersed in that environment and it is easier to see and understand what are the tasks and duties of most of the people working there. Once you decide to leave, there is a wide open world full of possibilities to explore. You can do so many things but it is super hard to decide for anything. There is also the feeling of failure, so of course, if you are leaving academia, it must be for a BETTER job, a job that makes you HAPPIER. That’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself!

Networking is important. The more you talk to several people, the more you understand the options that are out there. Most importantly, you start to quickly realize what you DON’T want to do. But sometimes the more you talk to people, the more confused you feel about what is what you really want for your next job. Keeping an open mind is crucial, but there’s a time when you need to stop and take a deep look at yourself. To help out with that, there were a couple of good suggestions among the replies to IBAM’s tweet, you should check them out. However, that reminded me of the flower exercise, suggested to me by my friend Aidan Budd a couple of months ago.

This exercise is described in the book What color is your parachute and it is a self-assessment exercise intended to help you know yourself, your strengths, and your preferences. Each petal is an aspect of your life that you should consider carefully:

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I am not going to details about what to consider in order to fill up each petal, but you can easily get this information on Google (or ideally read the book!). I haven’t read the book yet, but decided to try to make my flower before reading it, and see if it changes afterwards. It was hard! Even though I thought I had a pretty clear idea of where I want to go, filling my flower was much harder than I thought it would be. It required a lot of soul-searching and prioritization to come up with a reasonable result. Here is what I came up with:

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Now that I have a pretty good idea of what I want, it’s *just* a matter of finding, applying, and getting the dream job! Of course, if life would be that easy. But knowing what you want is a very important part of the process. But keep in mind that it is easy to feel stuck and hope that magically the *right* opportunity will come to you. That reminds me of a podcast episode from the Hidden Brain, and a blog post I’ve wrote about it.

People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many.

Don’t wait for the dream job to start applying. Especially if you are in the process of leaving academia, the actual tasks of a given job may be way different that the add description. Some jobs allow some flexibility and may be adapted according to your skills. So maybe you can transform that position into your dream job along the way. Or use it as experience for the next one!

And don’t forget, as we always say in our Recovering Academic Podcast “your next job doesn’t have to be your last job. And it probably won’t. And that’s okay“. Good luck!

 

Who am I on Twitter now? (Part 2)

One of the (many) good things about blogging is that every once in awhile you see something on Twitter that reminds you of something you’ve wrote about in the past. That happened today, with @katiesci:

As a recovering academic myself, I relate so much to this. When I left academia two years ago I also felt somewhat lost in the twitterverse. And I wrote about it – you can read my post “Who am I on Twitter now?“. And because of today’s Twitter convo, I felt it would be good to address it again, more than one year after I wrote that post.

Yes, there was a period where I slowed down my twitter time, and felt like I had nothing to contribute to the conversations I’d see there. I’ve also considerably slowed down blogging during that period (in 2015 I wrote only 4 posts for the whole year!). But I believe this was part of the big changes that one undergo as we leave academia. You’ve been in that environment for so long, put so much effort and time into that, it’s tough to live a life that doesn’t involve this anymore.

But Twitter, as life, is not just about work, we build real relationships there! And those are too valuable to be lost. You might lose a couple of acquaintances here and there, but still, you are part of a community! And the thing is, everything changes. I am not the same person I was when I started using twitter, and neither is the sci community out there. Even if you stay in academia, you might start tweeting as a grad student, then you move to a postdoc, or a junior PI and your view of things change! And even if you don’t change, people out there do. I miss when we would set up google hangouts with tweeps and just chat about lab life while drinking wine. Or the youtube pubscience when some researchers would discuss science live on camera – mostly pseudos wearing masks to protect their IRL identity. It was fun! That doesn’t happen anymore, and it’s not because I left academia (or at least I hope I’m not being left out of those…).

Because those changes happen over a long period of time, you fail to notice them. The process of leaving academia can be long, but when it actually happens it is something abrupt, so it may take some time for you to adjust to it. Personally, I don’t really know when or how I started to feel comfortable on Twitter again. I think it was just another change that happened slowly and I wasn’t really aware of it. I know I follow more “alternative” accounts now that I did in the past. Still mostly scientists, but having a diverse TL helps.

In the end it’s mainly about sharing your thoughts, your ideas and your passion. Or to vent. And to incite discussion! Twitter is awesome (minus the trolls, of course), and I am so glad I didn’t quit. I might have lost a couple of followers in the process, but I am happy to say that I believe I’ve found my new niche and made new friends.

Life is a dynamical system, and just like math, can be affected by many variables. And if you look at life’s bifurcation diagram you’ll notice there is more than one possible steady-state in there. You may oscillate a bit transitioning from one to the other, but eventually the system (your life) will find its way to the next steady-state!

Choices

You are more powerful than you think. I am a truly believer of this, and of the phrase “be careful with what you wish”

One of the most difficult things for me when I left academia was to work from home, by myself. As a 100% extroverted person, the lack of human interaction hurts. Everyday by 4pm or so I felt like a wild animal in a cage and simply HAD to go out from my house to do ANYTHING that involved people around me. Yeah, being extroverted sometimes is not as easy as you may think it is!

That’s the reason I’ve applied for a part time job at the hospital with a friend. Now I screen newborn babies for hearing loss and I am pretty happy about it. It is a ‘casual’ part-time – I usually work 2x/week, about 5h per day, and sometimes during weekends. It doesn’t pay much, but it serves my purpose of a nice distraction from my main job. And it feels good to help!

Occasionally, I also used to serve as a local interpreter, helping Spanish speaking people that need medical attention and cannot communicate in English. It turns out that now there is a person from Guatemala that is doing physical therapy 2x/week and I’ve been constantly on call for this last month. And that happened more unless at the same time when I started my 2nd job. So from one slow job, it suddenly turned into 3 jobs!

Now my life is a big huge and busy mess. I’ve learned to be more focused on my primary job, and it is easier to wait for email responses. But I feel I have been neglecting a bit of my PMS personna. Haven’t been able to be on Twitter that much, haven’t been blogging, and my job applications have slowed down. Luckily, I’ve been finding the time to keep up with our #DiversityJC and the Recovering Academic podcast (season 2 coming soon!) – thanks to my dear friends, co-moderators, and co-hosts @DrEmilySKlein, @IHStreet, and @ladyscientist 🙂

Sometimes I wonder if I made the right choices, filling all my life with extra work instead of focusing on finding a new job that would fulfil my science and people needs. But I am happy with the amount of human interaction I have now. And having more idle time would not make me work harder, because I’d just spend more time away from the computer trying to fill the need to be around people. I’m starting to adjust to this new rhythm of life. I just wished my day would have more than 24hs lately!

How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we do?

It is no news to any of us that science is currently under attack with the current administration – with EPA dismantling, proposed funding cuts to the NIH, but also with erroneous views about climate change and vaccines causing autism. But more importantly, this seems to me to be a consequence of how the general public view science, overall. They tend not to trust scientists because they cannot relate to us. They don’t understand what we do, and also they don’t believe to know any scientist. The #ActualLivingScientist hashtag was a great response to this, but we still need to fix the fact that the general public don’t really understand what we do.

The scientific community as a whole does not think about the public as being an audience of what we do as scientists. When we get a grant, we should be thinking about how to explain to the public why we are doing this, to get their engagement in the science (@SenatorPhD, heard on the ScienceDisrupt podcast)

During the last #AAASmtg there was a lot of discussion about #SciComm and public engagement (you can read more about this on a previous blog post). Yes, most scientists agree that they should do science outreach,  but do we really know how to do it? Scientists are trained to communicate their research in a technical level, but not to talk about its impacts to society. How can we expect the general public to trust scientists if they don’t understand what we are talking about?

Last month I published a guest blogpost at the PLOS Neuro community discussing a very interesting paper on neuroendocrinology of female reproduction. I was very happy with the final result, but IT WAS EXTREMELY HARD TO WRITE IT! First, because it was my former area of research, and I wasn’t sure how simple I should get. But also, having read so much about this particular topic made it harder to actually make it more simple and appealing to non-experts. Writing to a general audience is not an easy task, and it requires a lot of practice and attention to the language (passive voice and jargons, anyone?)

It is important to properly communicate our results to the general public – not only to gain their trust, but also to avoid misinterpretation of results. We discussed this topic during our last #DiversityJC and how this can harm science and society in general. One of the main critics to the #OpenAccess movement is – “why should science be open to the general audience if no one is going to be able to understand the research?”. In fact, science needs to be more open, but also more accessible!

Apparently there are a couple of journals that already started including ‘plain-language summaries’ to their research articles. eLife published a nice guide explaining its summary (called e-Life digests) and the importance of doing so. But if the journal where you published your research is not among those, there are still several ways you can increase the visibility of your research, and among all those suggestions, I totally encourage you to blog your own research. It’s great practice to “explain or expand upon your research for non-specialist audiences, and to provide additional information and background that perhaps didn’t make it into the final version of a paper.”, as @protohedgehog suggests.

You may say why should I bother if there are already science journalists and communicators that are trained to do this job? The problem is that only super hot-topic research ends up being presented and discussed to the general audience. Others may also argument that no one reads science blogs anymore. I can tell you by experience that the general audience will not follow your blog, but it will sure find your blog post using google. My post about Prolactin secretion and miscarriage was published back in 2013 and since then it hasn’t had a single month without a reading.

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As Albert Einstein said: “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough”. And we all should start practicing to be able to explain it simply. To share your knowledge and to fight for science!

Where do you want to go?

As most of you are probably aware of, lately I’ve been looking into new job directions. As a true extroverted person, I have been pretty open about it, both online and IRL. And as I’m getting more excited about it, I talk more and more about it (For those who doesn’t know me IRL, I talk… a LOT!). Now people are starting to ask me how my career change is going, and they get surprised and excited to learn about my (small) progresses. But the thing is, the more I talk to people, the more I realize that many of them are not happy with their current professional life. Or with some aspect of their lives.

As my mom used to tell me:El hombre es un animal de costumbres” (Man are creatures of habits). It is easy to get used to things. I’ve been there. You’ve been there. In a way or another, I am pretty sure everybody has been there. Also, one cannot forget the principle of least effort, that postulates that animals, people, even well-designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or “effort”. But many times the reality is, “If you want something you have never had, you must be willing to do something you have never done.” (Thomas Jefferson).

When I left academia, I was pretty much pushed out of it. Our grant was not renewed and I was unemployed for 4 months. During that time, I had the opportunity to look into some of the inumerous paths that a PhD can take besides being in academia. But as the months went by and I was becoming more and more anxious about weather I was going to find a job or not, getting a job became the priority, not exactly choosing one. I was lucky, ended up finding a position that allowed me to be “academic adjacent” and that I sincerely enjoy doing it. However, after two years working on sales, there was no novelty anymore and as a people person, working remotely from home became really painful.

So here I am, again, looking into a second career change. But this time, I am taking the time to reflect, to explore, to discuss. I am far from getting where I wanna be, but now I have a much more clear vision of what I would like my future to look like. It has been taking me much longer than I’ve thought, as you can see in past posts from November, DecemberMarch… I don’t know if I will ever get where I wanna be, and I am not claiming I have all the answers. Things work differently to different people, but I’ve decided to share what has been working for me so far.

  • STOP! Acknowledge the fact that something is not right.

This may be the hardest and the most important part of the process. As I mentioned before, it is so much easier to take the path of least resistance and just “keep going”. There is no such thing as a perfect life. Of course there are little things that bother you here and there, but when those things start to become a burden, then it’s time to do something about it.

  • THINK! Where you wanna go / what you wanna be and how?

In my particular case, I knew I wanted to change my career path, but I wasn’t sure where to look, which way to look. One thing that helped me in the beginning was to create a prototype design of my life. I’ve stolen this idea from the Hidden Brain Podcast and cover it here: Before you do problem solving you have to do problem finding. I came up with the different possibilities for my career life: 1- Continue working in Biotech Sales, 2-Science Outreach, and 3- Come back to academia. And then, I’ve started digging into each one of them. As time went by, my options 1 and 3 faded away, and the more I explored option 2, the more I realized that was the way I wanted to go. I’ve read a bunch of things in the internet. I’ve made a lot of informative interviews. One thing that never ceases to amaze me is how much people are willing to help you, if you ask!

  • ACT! Start working towards your goals.

A lot of times, you may need to undergo some internal changes first, in order to achieve bigger changes later on. I think of it as weight loss. Even though I’d absolutely love to lose 20 pounds overnight, I know this is unrealistic and I have to change my daily habits if I want to be in better shape. Baby steps. Changing takes time, and it can be painful. But most importantly, keep yourself on track. Be aware. Be alert. In my case, what I’ve been noticing is that I have waves of intense activity intercalated with waves of passivity. I believe this is part of the process, and it’s okay. Again, changing takes time, and it can be painful. But I truly believe that, with patience, it can be done.

Everybody feels stuck at some point. And most of the time, people don’t really know where they want to go, to begin with. People complain that they don’t know what to do with their lives, and they want to find the right pathway (that is already there, and we just need to find it). What people usually don’t realize is that there’s not only one right destination, there are many.

And I hope that you and me both will find one of those many destinations!

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When science meets freakonomics

I subscribe to a couple of podcasts, and usually use my long runs to catch up with some longer episodes. As I am a slow runner, yesterday I was able to listen to two new episodes of different podcasts, and listening to them in sequence made me think about the connection between them.

The first podcast was Science Disrupt. This particular episode I’ve listened was about building the science startups of tomorrow (very interesting one). But a peculiar thing about this podcast is that after every interview, the hosts always ask the same question to all guests: “Thinking about the science ecosystem as a whole, what else do you think in science still needs to be disrupted?” – and they always get very interesting answers! The other podcast was the second episode of the Earth 2.0 series from Freakonomics Radio. This series is supposed to answer the question “What if we could remake earth? What would you change?

As I was listening to this Freakonomics episode, my mind just wandered around replacing the word “economy” by “science“, and I was amazed how the discussion still seemed pretty pertinent (in my mind). They asked A LOT of questions along the podcast, but I’m just going to go over a few of them. I’m going to try to describe the parallel here, and hopefully it will make sense on paper as much as it did while I was running…

  • “If we had the chance to totally reboot our economic system, what would that new system look like?. That seems like an unanswerable question – both economic and science-wise – and why we bother to discuss this?

Abhijit BANERJEE: I think that doing things consciously with thought, asking lots of questions; not doing them because this is how we’ve always done things, this is our tradition, this is the normal in the world … Asking questions: “Why do we do these things?” “Is this the right thing to do?” “What is the actual evidence for it?” That’s key. We won’t have a blueprint for the world. But we will have a better way of building a better world.

Applying this to science, it is easy to say that a lot of things need to change in our science system, regarding the way scientists are hired, funded, evaluated. Along those lines, our publishing and peer-review system also needs some evaluation. However, can you propose a real and feasible strategy that will make our scientific system work better? Paraphrasing Paul Ryan re: health care reform, “it’s a lot easier to oppose something than to be for something.”

Still, scientists should still reflect about the system and not simply do things automatically only because it’s how things are done. Are you happy with the current system? No, so what can you do to change it? If you don’t know where to start, the article How Scientists Can Influence Policy has some interesting suggestions. Figure out what is already happening. Expand your readings. Write letters, emails. Pick up the phone!

  • “What should be done about income inequality?”

KANTER: To make things work well, inequality doesn’t help. If you have a lot of people who feel left out of the system, well, they do get angry, and they sometimes surprise you with their feelings. But also, they often go passive. They think nothing could be done to change anything. And because of that, they’re not very motivated, and nothing does change.

Yes. Inequality doesn’t help in science either. Every time that I see a list of grants /prizes awarded, there’s a pattern there. You always see a lot of money going towards the big institutions and less or even no money awarded to small Universities. You can say that money comes to big institutions because they do better research, but how can small institutions do better research if they are underfunded?

I believe some researchers may become angry when thinking about the current funding climate, but most of them fall into the later category: go passive. As a salesperson that sells expensive laboratory equipment, I talk to many professors on a daily basis. Many times, when I suggest that they could apply for a equipment grant, or group with other researchers to get a multi-user equipment, they just sound so… unmotivated. Almost like “why bother to write a grant for that, if I know that it will be rejected?”.

I know government funding for research has never been that low, but there are alternatives. Ryan Bethencourt (Program Director and Venture Partner at IndieBio) suggested on the ScienceDisrupt podcast that researchers should start looking at partnerships with the private sector – partner with biotech companies to raise additional money and bring your research forward.

  • “Why North America has been more successful economically than South America?”

Tyler COWEN: Whereas, say, the Spanish colonies were more likely based on the idea of extracting wealth from other people, or taking a lot of the resources out of the ground and not investing as much in human capital.

Why some research groups are more successful than others? Is because of the institution that they are located? Or it’s because they research a topic that’s more appealing to the grant funding agencies? Also, this question made me think about all the team supporting a research group. Graduate students, postdocs, technicians. When a PI is training a GS or a PD, does it make a difference if they are just interested in their skilled labor, or if they are really training them to be better scientists? I truly believe so.

As much as a lab PI is supposed to be the leader, the mentor of its group, a successful lab still needs to be a group. And it’s the PI’s job to make this group cohesive and motivated to science! It is important to take your time and teach your group what takes to be a successful scientist. Also, keep in mind that not all GS (or even PD) will necessarily go towards an academic position. Knowing your group, understanding the goals and limitations of each one of its members can really make a difference!

  • “If you want to think about building the perfect economic system, there are so so so many elements to consider. Money, for instance. What is the optimal form of money?”

SURI: The biggest two findings are that mobile money improves financial resilience, which is the ability to deal with bad events. Basically, we find that it has an effect on poverty; it’s going to reduce poverty. (…) You’re saving more because you have the ability to save in your phone, and so people are able to do these things.

What is the currency of academia? Publications and grants. Not only number of publications, but also the impact factor of the journals on which they are published. Publications are part of the measurements of a researcher’s success, determining if they are going to get hired, funded, and be successful in their careers. The podcast suggested that the use of mobile money could decrease poverty, and I wonder if academia could somewhat change its currency to be more fair to all researchers.

  • Is the World Ready for a Guaranteed Basic Income?

CAPLAN: Saying, “Let’s give everybody free money no matter what. People perfectly able-bodied. People perfectly able to take care of themselves.” That seems crazy at the outset. But more importantly, if you do a small amount of math and realize how much would it cost, the cost is enormous. Right now, the welfare state — we’re able to keep the cost down because we don’t give money to everybody.

So, with all bias and problems regarding grant funding, what about if we just gave some funding to all researchers to do their research? I certainly don’t believe this would be a good idea, as there are so many researchers from different fields, all requiring different amounts of money to perform their research. Along those lines, a new grant funding system was proposed by Johan Bollen at Indiana University where scientists would just give each other money: “Self-organized fund allocation” (SOFA). Unfortunately, I don’t believe this would work either, as the bias (and pressure) towards funding your own friends would be enormous, and also making things even harder for junior researchers.

I don’t have an answer to most of these questions. But it was nice to reflect on those issues, economy and science-wise. One of the conclusions of the Freakonomics podcast was that it’s hard to build a good economic infrastructure without a good political infrastructure. I do truly believe we have a lot to learn from economics!