Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Summer thoughts

Ever since I finished my PhD five years ago, my research is not directly affected by the academic calendar - where the year is divided into three terms: football, spring and summer. Living in Florida, where we have warm weather 90% of the year, I can only tell that it is officially summer by the dwindling number of cars on the road when most of the students take off. But research never stops, and my husband and I managed to find a daycare for the kids that is open year-round (and almost all holidays) to avoid the summer lull. Hence, we can work most of the time and also take vacations at random times.

Many of our summer vacations were taken outside the university's official break weeks. Dada's teaching schedule is mainly a month out of a team-taught class, unless he offers a journal club. Mainly we need to plan around his field schedule. I still remember having to plan our wedding in Brazil in between pollinations and harvest. This year we went to Brazil for my grandfather's 96th birthday in mid-May, at the start of the summer term but before pollinations kicked in. Last year we went sailing with the kids on the Chesapeake Bay late August - fall semester had started but planting was done. A few years ago we went to England for a friend's wedding mid September and fall semester was in full swing.

It hit me today that, for the first time in my life, I am not associated with an academic institution. Nevertheless, as the academic calender has not affected my life in the last five years, I don't think I will notice much of a change. Living in a college town, I might still get caught up in the university schedule. However, working on the outskirts of town I might be able to ignore the hustle and bustle on campus. Maybe I'll even escape the football season pandemonium, but that might be hoping for too much...

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Unintentional Propagation of Gender Bias

It all started with pink shoes - sparkly pink sneakers to be exact. My oldest son asked to buy shoes at a store, instead of them coming in the mail. At the store, I made an off-hand comment about pink being a girl color and now I am bombarded daily with questions on the gender of every color and everything else. Having a 3 year old tell me I cannot do something because I am a girl would be less offensive if he was not my own son. Now I have to dig myself out of this hole...

I have nothing against men wearing pink - or skirts - or whatever else they feel like wearing. But my son is 3, and the kids at daycare are merciless. I would rather he decided to fight the stigma when he is mature enough not to fall for the teasing. Nowadays he seems to fall apart when someone calls him a baby...

Moreover, I do not think I am the only one pointing out differences between boys and girls. He is probably hearing things at school too. Unfortunately it is not just which line to get in to use the potty... Some days he comes home with statements such as "girls like princesses and boys like action figures". Then Dada jumps up and says that boys like princesses too - they marry them. My reply is that I like action figures too - Aquaman was always my favorite. My son looks puzzled - is it because he is trying to comprehend that boys and girls can like the same things or is he trying to figure out who Aquaman is?

But how can we teach children about gender without pointing out some differences? I worry that making gender distinctions will unintentionally propagate gender discrimination - biases that I feel affronted by in my adult life. The basics are easy: Dada is a boy, Mama is a girl. Only mommies have babies in their bellies. The rest seems like only personal preferences. Mama can use Dada's tools when she needs to, including the sharp saw - and the drill. She just cannot pee standing up...

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Organic & Natural

Maybe I am biased, but somehow the word "organic" does not inspire me to think wholesome food thoughts. Maybe it is because of those months I spent in organic lab... Anyway, what I really do not understand is why organic has been equated with healthy to the point of all other foods being called unhealthy. I do agree that some of the more widely consumed foods are indeed bad for you - even without watching Super Size Me. I also understand that large quantities of chemicals are indeed used in conventional agriculture as pesticides and herbicides, which might not be very appetizing or healthy. And I will not deny that I am a proponent of genetic engineering as a solution to many agriculture problems. Nevertheless, I feel that this health food movement reminds me of the vegan craze I was exposed to in college. Even though I am not an avid meat-eater, I still favored a more balanced diet.

My main concerns with the organic label are exactly what they are advertising as better. I worry about the shelf-life and after-opened life time because of the lack of preservatives. I know how easily (and fast) my cell culture media gets contaminated - even in the fridge - if my sterile technique is not as careful as it should be. Unfortunately there is no biosafety cabinet in my kitchen... The lack of pesticides spark my suspicions, especially where fungi are concerned. Aflatoxins are the first things that comes to my mind when I see packages of organic nuts or grains. Advertisements for lack of pesticides in produce that do not have the organic label are even more disconcerting, as I know that phosphite fertilizers used in large quantities will have a fungicide effect - because it is toxic! And as it is not a pesticide per se, its use is not regulated as such. However, there are indeed some products that I prefer to buy organic. Yogurt for instance, even though it has nothing to do with the fact that it is organic but because it is the only kind available made with whole milk. I just make sure I pay attention to the sell by dates.

Another major concern I have with organic farming is the "free-ride" factor. Janet D. Stemwedel at Adventures in Science and Ethics has a great post on why by not vaccinating your children you are counting on the protection gained from the vaccinated population - and this only works if only a few cases are exempt. I think the same can be said for organic farming. As long as more than 95% of the farming area is using pesticides, there is a general protection that can be correlated to herd immunity. However, once that threshold is met, we might notice an increase in food poisoning. Then again, considering that only the top 5% of the population can probably afford organic food, we might be far from reaching that point.

The main argument here is not whether there should be an organic option, but that organic farming is not sustainable. It cannot be done in large scale and it depends on the pesticide use of its neighbors. The more I think about this, the more I understand the reluctance towards genetically modified foods. If indeed one can engineer resistance to major pests and pesticide use goes down, then this herd immunity will disappear. The farmers most affected by this will be the ones conforming to organic standards. However, this is not an argument we hear in the media - most of the discussions center on what is natural. As most people do not know where their food comes from or why it tastes the way it does, this argument seems to be valid enough. Yet food is not natural at all. On the other hand, snake poison is natural, but I would not want it in my food.

Modern crops were domesticated for consumption, and most of the preferred varieties are mutants. Corn (maize) does not resemble at all its wild ancestor teosinte, and sweet corn has mutations that prevent it from turning sugar into starch. Conventional breeding has taken advantages of naturally occurring mutations, but has also developed new varieties by crossing established crops with wild relatives. Wild tomato is poisonous, but it has been used to improve the crop by crossing it to edible varieties. As far as I know, the selection of favorable varieties involves looks, shelf-life during transport to consumers and how it tasted to the farmer. I do not think safety concerns are as stringent for new varieties as they are for transgenic crops, where the effect of the inserted gene needs to be assessed with respect to undesired changes to the plant. When you cross two plants their entire genomes are mixed, hence you cannot attribute the phenotype change to a particular gene without extensive analysis.

I do not believe there is much out there that is truly natural, whether it is at the major supermarket or the farmers market. Humankind has imposed its will on food, mainly to grantee its own survival. Maybe I am a skeptic, but the health food craze scares me a bit. I stick with fresh produce and cook from scratch because I believe it is better - but mostly because I can afford it and I take the time to put in the effort. I stay away from artificial flavorings and sweeteners mostly because they make me sick. I try not to be instigated by advertisement; fat-free candy still has way to much sugar, and sugar-free does not mean it is not sweetened. If you favor organic labeled food, go ahead and splurge for them - but I will find it very hypocritical if you pair an organic meal with a diet soda.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

I could have slept all night...

Bed! Bed! I couldn't stay in bed!
My house's too loud to try to settle down!
Sleep! Sleep! I couldn't sleep throughout.
Due to all the callings from the fawn!

I wished I'd slept all night!
I could have slept all night!
And still have slept some more.
Between one's potty trip,
The other's water sip
Just like the night before.

I never know when there'll be howling;
When all at once I'll wake in fright.
I only know when he
Began to call for me
I wouldn't sleep,
sleep more all night!

I could have slept all night!
I should have slept all night!
And still have slept some more.
I wish I'd closed my eyes
And let out some sighs
My head just not as sore.

I'll never know
Why my mind goes wondering.
Why all at once my thoughts take flight.
I only know when three
Shows on the clock at me.
I could not sleep, sleep more last night!

We can not stay up late,
Just like on our third date.
No days like those afore.
Now there is house and kids,
And other thousand things
We did not have before.

I never thought
Things changed dramatically.
How all at once our life took flight.
But then you roll towards me,
And whisper your plea
Who needs sleep, just sleep, tonight?

For the music check out the following YouTube video. This one has Audrey Hepburn singing, not the dubbed version from the movie.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Mirror, mirror, on the wall...

Who is the fairest of us all? Now that is a loaded question... Have you seen how many definitions of "fair" there are in the dictionary? Moreover, even if what we see in the mirror is fair, our judgment may not be. We seem to constantly compare ourselves to some ideal or another, and lo and behold we do not quite measure up. Once in a while I try to discuss this with Ihctap, but all she does is roll her eyes at me. Hence, I took my wondering to the blog wide world and I got a Scientiae Carnival out of it...

Indeed, there are women out there that face the mirror with confidence. Field Notes has been seeing many physical changes in her mirror, but these changes do not seem to affect her true identity. Pat at Fairer Science hopes she still is who she thinks she is. Academic at Journeys of an Academic knows she is following the right dream by the sparkling eyes she sees in the mirror. Kate at Academic Ecology hopes that leaving her twenties behind will not impair her self image or her ideals. Despite here stress, EcoGeoFemme at The Happy Scientist sees determination when she looks in the mirror and gears up to defend her dissertation. JaneB has a thorough description on how she sees herself up at her place. She seems to have a clear idea of who she is, for better or worse. The Ethical Paleontologist also has a very detailed portrait of the woman who looks back at her, even though she points out how strained their relationship is:
We are worse than best friends with our criticism of each other. Sometimes when I catch her gaze she looks absolutely repulsed by my body. In turn, I spot every lump and bump (although I also notice that the bitch always looks pretty damn good in the bedroom - if only she would look as good in the shop windows as I walk past).
As it happens, taking a fair look at oneself is harder than just looking in the mirror. Leigh at The Path Forward says that she purposefully hides her true self behind a protective image. Maria at Speech and Science sees her reflection in two opposing mirrors and ponders which one is telling the truth. Professor in Training has a difficult time reconciling the differences between what she perceives to what others around her see. Indie PhD pointed out that she tried to face herself at least three times before she decided "to stick to a list for now" due to too much baggage. Alas, even the Goddess seems to be having trouble...

Perfection seems to be a holy grail, sought but not found. Volcanista points out that one can eventually outgrow their teenage issues with the mirror:
If we’re talking body image, I’m past most or all of the issues I had as a girl and teen, the issues that most or all teenage girls have with thinking their bodies have problems because they don’t fit the beauty ideal. So physically, I generally like what I see, though everyone has their bad days when they notice all the little imperfections, and I’m no exception to that.
But that does not mean we are not trying to see how we measure up to other ideals. Career, family, society in general... Fia over at Academia and Me wrote that she has been trying to figure out who she is. A scientist? A mother? Adventurous? Zen? However, she never seems to measure up to her own standards. Karina at Ruminations of an Aspiring Ecologist is proud of who she has become, but she still believes she is not quite there. ScienceWoman tries to be realistic as she assesses her progress towards tenure, but she seems to look more at what is lacking than at what she has. DamnGoodTechnician feels inadequate because she sets the bar too high, even though she knows she is being unfair to herself:
Am I being fair to myself in doing this? Of course not. But does anyone see themselves fairly? I can't imagine that they do. My problem here is that I never measure myself against my peers, and instead I find someone who's better at whatever-it-is, and set them as the bar for competency. My comparisons are always against the postdocs or lab heads, and never against another tech. Essentially, I've come up with an invisible ruler to measure myself against. I can't see this ruler, and neither can anyone else, but this doesn't stop me from authoritatively saying, "Nope, I fell short again. See? Can't you see this line here? I totally missed it."
Are we just striving for personal growth, wanting to be better day after day? Or are we truly setting ourselves up for guilt and failure by unreasonable criticism? Are we being fair to ourselves? Melissa over at Confused at a Higher Level thinks it is "the lack of well-worn paths and the variety of personal perspectives upon looking in the mirror that makes the larger picture so difficult to discern." I think Jenny from A Natural Scientist would agree... She says she does not recognize the woman she sees in the mirror, as her life choices have taken her in such an unexpected direction. There is no right or wrong path to take, and how to proceed is not taught in a class or written in a book. I think Kylie from PodBlack Cat has an important point (I am purposely quoting out of her context of religious skepticism):
To assume that ‘teach X will automatically lead Y’ in this case, to me, leaves out other factors. The quality of teaching, the environment of the school, the home environment, the socio-economic status of the student, the pressure from peers and culture, even role-models… I’m just not confident that it’s as easy as ‘here’s a website’ or ‘here’s a book’.
Maybe we need more role models - Pat from Fairer Science points out that some subfields of science (and drag racing) are still lacking women. Maybe we need less guilt - Alice from Sciencewomen would probably second that, while she tells you how hard it is to be your own subject matter. Or maybe this is what blogging is all about - Kim over at All of My Faults Are Stress Related pointed out that bloggers might be looking for an outlet more than an audience. Mirror, mirror, on the web... As you look at yourself and interpret the image, I hope you interpret yours fairly!