Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Time to Hire a Housekeeper? Really?

I've been meaning for awhile to write about that much talked-about piece in Science Careers on women in academia and housework. This has been covered by many other bloggers, most notably in the discussion between Dr. Isis and the Science Careers editor Jim Austin, but in the interest of blogging about things I spend time thinking about, I'm going to write a bit about it as well.
I recommend following the link to read the original article yourself, but I think a reasonable summary is this: If you want to be a successful woman scientist, it is impractical to expect yourself to take care of your own home and family (and besides, none of you really want to).
If you think I've read it all wrong, please feel free to correct me (hopefully with more tact than profanity) in the comments. Like ScienceMama, I was not sure at first why I was so offended by this article, but I knew that I was! I think I've nailed it down to three main points: 1) Some of us really do want to take care of our own home and family; 2) Under the heading of Solutions, I'd rather talk about raising our sons to be husbands that do housework; and 3) Maybe science should be more amenable to having a Life.
I feel like this article assumes that keeping up with housework is something that we all hate, we all feel obligated to do, and there are no advantages to fulfilling that obligation. Maybe I'm all alone in this, but I don't hate housework. Don't get me wrong, I don't love it, but having an empty sink and all the laundry put up sure does feel good. There is something rewarding about taking care of your own home and cleaning up your own messes. I feel like once we start farming out our housework because we can afford to (collective "we" - I certainly can't afford to!), where does that slippery slope lead? I should hire someone to take care of my kids and take care of the yard and do the grocery shopping and decide what's for dinner, then cook it! If we could just pay people to sleep for us, we may never have to leave work! I realize I'm being hyperbolic, but I think the argument is reasonable - should we pay people to do our "life maintenance" for us just because we can afford to? I think there are inherent benefits to doing it for ourselves. I want my kid to make her bed and learn how to cook and clean up after herself because it builds character. It teaches her discipline, it encourages her to take care of what she has and be respectful of herself and the people around her.
That being said, I don't think it's a cop-out to hire help. It's a choice everyone has to make and I don't think everyone with a housekeeper is a workaholic, or undisciplined, or lazy. I simply resent the suggestion that chores hold no benefit, that they are just a necessary nuisance to being alive.
Although it may not have been appropriate for Science Careers, I would have been more interested to read an article about raising men that will split the housework. I don't have a lot to say on this subject besides that: if you have sons, teach them to be good husbands and fathers! It's not quite as quick a solution as a maid, but the next generation of wives will thank you.
Lastly is the issue of whether or not it's the discipline that should change, not the home life. Should careers in academia be less demanding? I realize this is a ginormous can of worms. For the record, I'm undecided. On one hand, good science takes dedication and one helluva work ethic. When Jonah Lehrer wrote about working as a technician in a neuroscience lab in his book Proust Was A Neuroscientist, he put it well: "The truth seemed to slowly accumulate, like dust." To willingly participate in this accumulation of truth every day takes dedication. But should this dedication be so overwhelming that it preempts mopping your own floors and cooking for your own family? Is it unreasonable to expect people to work as hard as most academics do? I honestly don't know. I believe it when people say that so-and-so left academia because they wanted to spend more time with their family, because they ultimately found them incompatible (although I don't know any myself, and it seems like many of them left academia to "do science" in a less demanding career). I also know academics that seem to work 80-hour weeks and have a great family/personal life at the same time. I'm tempted to say that if this individual variation in response to academia exists, maybe the system is selecting for the right people? When I say selecting for the "right" people, I don't mean the best scientists; I'm sure there are plenty of solid scientists that left academia because of the hours, and that sucks. But the unfortunate truth, it seems, is that being "successful" in academia is not just about being a solid scientist. It is about juggling teaching, research, mentorship, administrative bull-shit (as my PI lovingly refers to it), getting funding, publishing, collaborating, networking, reading, hiring, firing... these are time-consuming. There are people who do nothing but one of those as a career, and PIs are expected to do them all. So what I am suggesting is that maybe it's all necessary, and maybe it has to take 80 hours a week. And if you can't work the hours, don't take the job? That seems like a reasonable enough statement outside of the furor surrounding this topic... why does it suddenly become unreasonable when we're talking about women in science? I think med students in residency get it... I think officers on nuclear submarines get it... should we accept it? Or push for change?

While I'm going to prepare myself for a frenzy of unmitigated Internet hatred in the comments, I'm secretly hoping you'll all be reasonable.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Definitely not.

I am not reading about science. I am also not doing science. I am looking at pretty pictures and thinking about pretty things I want to make or do to my lame off-white apartment. I am poring over pictures at decor8 and design*sponge. It's time for an aesthetic overhaul. Warn my husband.

To vaccinate

People have issues with vaccinating their kids. To be frank, I don't understand why. If it's because of autism, read this; if it's because you're relying on herd immunity, read this study or an explanation at Science-Based Medicine; if it's "too many, too soon", read this study or an explanation at White Coat Underground. The only concern I find putatively legitimate is the use of animal products, and that's by far the argument I've heard the least.
I'm a molecular biologist, which means that I know a whole lot about not very many things. One of the many things that has escaped my thorough understanding is how vaccines are made. My basic understanding of the process is that a few cells are taken from an animal source. They're cultured in a sterile environment and infected with a virus. The cells grow and are fed growth factors to propagate that virus and make tons of it. The mixture is separated into cellular and viral components. Sometimes the virus is partially killed or attenuated then mixed with stuff to become a vaccine against that virus.
Based on that understanding, it's hard for me to see how cellular components could get into the final vaccine mixture. I think when parts are separated out, it's done by centrifugation, which means that the mixture is spun so quickly that everything separates into layers based on relative density, a parfait with cell chunks in one layer and viruses in another. Some anti-animal derived vaccine folks are upset about pieces of chickens or whatever getting injected into our babies. These same folks claim that some vaccines are also made using fetal cell lines. Now if separation of virus from everything else is straightforward in the vaccine-making process, it doesn't seem like this should be a concern with regards to what's being injected. I get that this debate can go further back, to ethical issues with abortion, but that's not what I want to discuss here. Bottom line, I don't think there are bits of other babies in vaccinations.
But I said this was a putatively viable complaint. I said that for this reason: what if there are already viruses in the cells you're using? Now I'm sure vaccine manufacturers have to quality control like it's going out of style. A quick search on the CDC website for "vaccine" tells me they're quite aware that vaccines are a big deal. I work at a large research institution and I have to have 12 people sign off every time I blow my nose. But, hypothetically, let's say they don't catch something. Is it possible that they harvest cell lines from a cow that has a virus, and that virus slips under the radar, and that virus propagates with the intended virus, and now you have a vaccine that contains Crazy Cow Virus? These must be concerns, as the CDC has a phrase for them: "adventitious agents". And there is a body of research in full swing trying to produce vaccines that are free from animal products (possibly because it is a real concern; possibly because it is a real market. Eh? Money, you say?). I'll be reading up on this.
For now, maybe, maybe SOME of the anti-vax people have A reasonable complaint. Or... maybe they're kind of crazy.

Friday, June 25, 2010

My ears, Day 6. The slightly angry one on the far left is the new one. Healing? We shall see...

Monday, June 21, 2010


Yesterday I got a new ear piercing, at a studio in town that I had never been to but came highly recommended from several people. After three other ear cartilage piercings, I was prepared for the standard speech afterwards regarding after-care.

- Use a mild, unscented anti-bacterial soap to wash it at the end of my shower, to remove any residue from soap and shampoo.

- Wash hands thoroughly with anti-bacterial soap before touching the piercing.

- Rotate the piercing often, to prevent a crust from building up.

- If a crust does build up, gently remove it with clean hands or a damp washcloth.

- If uncomfortable swelling occurs, make a low concentration sea salt soak in warm water and soak the piercing for 10-15 minutes 2-3 x a day until the swelling goes down.

- Your piercing should be healed in approximately 6 months.

That is most definitely not the speech I heard. 

This particular studio promotes "dry wound care", which recommends that you do not WASH the piercing, do not TOUCH the piercing, do not remove the CRUSTIES and keep it completely DRY and it will be healed within 3 months.

I asked why this was completely different from everything I had ever heard. Doesn't the piercing get dirty and oily from being attached to the side of my head all day? Doesn't the hypersalinity of the salt soak draw out moisture, decreasing swelling? According to this piercer, who certainly spoke as if he was very knowledgeable and experienced, most of what gets on my ear during the day is tolerable, unless I get dunked in a river or spit on by a cow and that any disturbance of those crusties will only slow the healing process. He likened the crusties to a scab on a normal wound, which I was taught to leave alone until it falls off of its own accord. He also pointed out how very, very non-sterile any sea salt soak I made at home would be, and that this would compensate for any benefits it might provide. (Although one of his complaints on the soak was that I would likely make it up wrong because I'm "probably not a chemist". Now, granted, I'm not technically a chemist, but... I probably did smirk a little.)

I found this after-care regime intriguing. I would be interested to hear opinions, especially from microbiologists and/or other folks that have been pierced (pierced microbiologists? Anyone?), as to which they think is better for a minor wound. I certainly see his point, although it's very difficult for me to believe everyone else is wrong... not because the original after-care regime was so well explained to me, and the evidence for the new one doesn't hold up... but possibly because of the mental phenomenon known as anchoring. Jonah Lehrer, at The Frontal Cortex, wrote a great piece on anchoring recently. It boils down to this: in light of overwhelming new evidence, we will stubbornly hold on to our first impression. In my case, it is piercing after-care, but Jonah extends this principle to the graver issues of how to handle a global crisis when the news told us it was going to be Just Fine. Go check it out.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Grow Stuff

I like to grow stuff, especially from seed. There's something instinctively satisfying and awesome about burying tiny seeds in the ground and seeing something grow out of it. My favorite way to plant from seed is to save the seeds from whatever produce I just ate and throw them in the ground without learning anything about how to grow them. I think it's amazing to see that things just grow most of the time. Of course, I'm sure things grow better and faster and bigger and more often if you learn something about it. I'm sure yield of edible product increases if you fertilize properly and give them the right amount of sun and spray with organic pesticides and cloche (haha). If my diet depended on what I grew, I'm sure I would pay more attention - but I think it speaks to the robustness of a plant that it will just grow after being tossed into the three-square foot plot of terrible Texas clay I hacked up outside my apartment and surrounded with rocks. That excites me. And if I get something edible off that plant? Get out of town. I'm ecstatic. Not to mention that my kid will eat just about anything if it we grow it ourselves.
Now if you're a serious gardener, you're probably laughing at me, or you might even be angry that I'm being so irreverent about my herbology. But I think it's the exact opposite - I'm in awe of a plant's ability to grow in spite of everything that's against it: Texas sun, irregular watering, poor irrigation, terrible soil, pests, being tromped by little feet and soccer balls, weeds competing for resources... it's like Christmas when something green pokes its head out of the soil.
Since last summer, we've successfully grown basil, green beans, hibiscus and potatoes. We're working on kale, tomatoes, carrots and squash. I got nice long pumpkin vines with promising orange flowers (that attracted a couple of bees, which was encouraging) last year but eventually succumbed to powdery mildew. I planted them from the seeds I scraped out of our jack-o-lantern. And they freaking grew.

I had actually given up on our potatoes this year because a friend told me the soil here had to be tilled for potatoes. In a cloud of defeatism, I pulled two of my four potato plants out of the ground this morning only to find eeny teeny potatoes sitting in the dirt. AAHHH!!! I immediately apologized to the plants (like one does) and tried to replant them. Hopefully they won't be too traumatized. Here are the itsy bitsies in all of their glory.

I grew these from pieces of cut-up potatoes. The internets told me to let some potatoes sprout, cut them into chunks, leave the chunks out for a few days to turn black and callous over, then stick them in the ground. I did it, and it worked. Come on, isn't that AMAZING? Have you SEEN what happens to a potato when you cut it and leave it out for a day? It's GROSS. You do not look at that black bruise of a vegetable and think "Something tall and green will definitely pop out of that if I bury it."