Career Palanca

Yesterday, I asked my academic friends on Facebook what they thought of giving a copies of letters of recommendation to the students they’d written them for, as a way of giving those students encouragement they could reread when the going gets tough. Most people who responded thought it was a good idea, and many in fact already do this regularly. However, a few pointed out that in some cases, jobs require the letters of recommendation to be strictly confidential (you can tell if this is the case, as you will likely be required to certify that the student has not seen the letter as part of the submission process), so it’s not universally OK to pass along letters of recommendation even if well-intended.

Today, I was talking about encouragement with my friend Nina Tandon, and we had what I think is a pretty good idea. For context, Nina and I have known each other since high school, and are both now scientists (she is a tissue engineer at Columbia and founder a new company, Epibone). The high school we went to is Catholic, and has a tradition of writing palancas.

You: “WTF is a palanca?”

Palancas are letters, written to a particular person and collected on their behalf by someone else, who then delivers the collected letters to them in one batch. In Catholicism (and perhaps religion generally– I’m not sure how widespread palancas are but I’m not sure if they are specific to Catholicism), these letters are usually supposed to be about god. Now, I’m an atheist, and if memory serves, there was some stuff about god in the palanca I received… but mostly what was great about it was that it was an envelope full of letters from my friends saying nice things to me. Who wouldn’t want that?

 So here’s an idea that I think would work not only for students, but for anyone going through a difficult time or transition in their career (grad school, postdocs, tenure process, etc), which circumvents any issues with letter confidentiality: write them a career palanca. Here’s how it might work:

1. Pick someone to write to. We already have to write letters for our colleagues, so chances are you’ve already even written some of what you’d write to them anyway. You just need to ask a few other people (say other members of your research group, other colleagues, whoever seems appropriate) if they would write to that person. Shoot for 5-10 letter writers. 

2. Collect letters on their behalf. This can be via email or actual physical letters, whatever works.

3. Pick a time to give the recipient their letters. You can use this as a way of commemorating some occasion (e.g. defending your thesis, or getting a new job), but I’m pretty sure there’s no bad time to tell someone you think they’re good at what they do.

4. Give the recipient their letters… and then let them read them whenever they want. I recall the experience being pretty moving, so they might want to read it in private because FEELINGS.

What do you think? Is this something you can see yourself doing for a friend or colleague?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

That Time We All Talked About Peer Review Together

Yesterday morning, I was pretty sure my greatest accomplishment for the day was going to be braving the blizzard (or PolarBearSharkNadoVortex or whatever we’re calling it now) to see the Pixies in Newark with some friends. I went to work, where every morning we spend about a half hour talking about all the papers that have come out that day on astro-ph (if you’re not an astronomer, this is what I’m talking about). Astro-ph Coffee is one of my favorite things about Princeton– it’s short, informal, has a lot of participation by the faculty, and since it happens every day, it’s a great way of keeping up on what’s happening in the field (outside of one’s own subfield in particular). It also occasionally dips into entertainment, as a number of people in our department are possessed of the deadly combo of extensive knowledge and rapier wits. The discussion is largely about science, but once in a while, someone throws a mic-dropping gem of devastating commentary into the mix.

When that happened in yesterday’s discussion, I was reminded of the (possibly apocryphal) story about Hemingway being challenged to write a story in only six words– so I left the following sitting out on the internet:

and went about science-ing for a bit. When I looked again, well… I was going to Storify it, but there are literally hundreds of tweets.

Here’s a live feed of the hashtag, filtered for spam:

So, wow… do we all need a cup of tea and a sit down or what? It’s not like I was unaware of the ongoing debate/discussion about improving academic publishing and peer review, but I have to admit I’m surprised by just how much steam everyone needed to blow off. The common themes are not surprising, and many tweets fall into a few big bins (where some are more disturbing that others), e.g. “This paper didn’t cite me enough”, “You’re grammer its bad”, “Your institution isn’t fancy enough”, “My unpublished data refutes your result”, “I am only pretending to be qualified to review this paper”, etc. Amidst the hilarity, I think the following two tweets nicely encapsulate my thoughts at the end of the day:

I particularly like Alice Bell‘s call to action, because I think a fair amount about how we could make reviews better for everyone, and also what the role of anonymity is in the review process. Certainly this week, we saw a pretty clear example of how anonymity plays differently depending on privilege, where pseudonymous science blogger Dr. Isis was “outed” by Nature editor Henry Gee as a means of dismissing and intimidating her (here is a post by Dr. Isis on what happened, and here is further commentary by Michael Eisen). While in principle I like the idea of reviews being completely open, in many cases it is “safer” for early career researchers to critique the work of their more senior colleagues from behind the veil of anonymity, particularly if the review is negative in any way. Double blind reviews are another great idea and have wide support within the scientific community: Nature GeoSci went double-blind last summer, with somewhat mixed-but-evolving results. Practically speaking, though, I think that blindness is likely to be imperfect– if you are qualified to review one of my papers, you are likely to recognize my research (I also have a fairly distinctive writing style– seriously, I so overuse em dashes my emails are like really boring Emily Dickinson poems).

One idea for peer review I’ve been tossing around comes not from science, but from creative writing: face-to-face group reviews, usually known just as “critiques”. I first encountered critiques in college, where many of my electives were in fiction writing. Here’s how it works: your writing gets distributed to the class, and one of your peers serves as a primary reviewer who kicks off the discussion (sound a bit like proposal reviews, scientists?). Horrifyingly, you have to sit there with your mouth shut (completely shut, no talking, no rebuttal, nothing) while your peers then dissect and discuss your work in front of you– much like they might do if you were not in the room. The reasoning behind this is, of course, that you are essentially never going to be in the room with your reader to correct them on how they should be interpreting your work. The professor was present (though usually hands-off), so people made an effort to be constructive, and the conversation could be steered if it went too far off course. Only after the class had thoroughly discussed the work was the author allowed to speak, to either comment on what they had been trying to do, and/or to ask questions on how to improve the piece. It was a pretty mortifying experience as a young writer, but I think it also improved my work– and what’s more, it taught me how to critique other people’s writing while simultaneously helping me with my own.

So how might this work in academic publishing? Imagine first that having multiple reviewers was a standard practice for all journals (in astronomy, most journals have only a single referee)– let’s say three. Rather than soliciting written reviews from all reviewers up front,  imagine instead that you committed to spending an hour or so discussing the paper via Skype/Google Hangout/phone. When I’ve floated this idea to people in the past, the idea of having an actual discussion is sometimes met with groans– but I suspect that actually devoting that time to discussion rather than silo’d reading of a paper on your own being the only form of review might actually result in a more efficient process. For one thing, multiple reviewers would be able to bring the totality of their backgrounds to bear, sidestepping holes in the knowledge of one reviewer or another (holes that remain when multiple reviews proceed in parallel without discussion). Discussions could be on the record, and editors could even moderate if needed. If one were to really keep to the analogy with creative writing critiques, the lead author could also listen in on the discussion (and/or ask questions afterwards). Via voice alone (no video), I think this could actually be almost blind, though of course certain things like gender might be obvious. Another possibility would be analogous to proposal reviews, where one of the reviewers serves as a primary, collect the other reviewers’ comments and generating a written report of revisions to be distributed to the authors.

Like most of the suggested changes to the peer review process, implementing something like the above would take a cultural shift in our respective fields, and certainly a community demand for change. But given how many people had something to say about peer review today, it does seem to me that the momentum is at least a good part of the way there. The question is, what do we want to do about it?

That’ll take more than six words.

Worst. Superpower. Ever.

Worst. Superpower. Ever.

Posted in academia, academic publishing, open science, science, social media | 4 Comments

Second Ride of the #ScienceTrain

Two Saturdays ago, ScienceTrain took its second ride on the NYC subway! Our numbers expanded a bit this time, with Renee Hlozek (Princeton) and David “Doddy” Marsh (Perimeter Institute) joining Jeff Oishi (AMNH) and myself aboard the C train. We also had a few science communicators in tow– Mike Lemonick (who wrote a nice piece about the day for Amelia Schonbeck (who previously covered the Intergalactic Travel Bureau), and Steve Mirsky (who creates podcasts for Scientific American)– and my partner Michael Rau, who created another great video for us!

With two pairs of scientists in two adjoining cars, we got a chance to experiment with tactics a little– and by “experiment with tactics”, I mean Renee and Doddy have a totally different engagement style than Jeff and I! You can see this a bit in the video above, but to state it simply, Jeff and I let people approach us on their own, while Renee and Doddy actively announced themselves and talked to people directly. I think both approaches have their merits– as an introvert and veteran subway rider, I personally dislike it when strangers approach me, but there’s no doubt that a lot of people find that approach really engaging (and it helps that Renee’s enthusiasm is ridiculously charming!).

Ridership was better this round, which took place on a Sunday afternoon (rather than Saturday), in somewhat less temperate weather, resulting in more people talking to us overall. Last ride, Jeff and I supposed that having statements rather than actual questions on our “Ask An Astronomer” sign was perhaps discouraging, as many people told us they’d been trying to think of a question to ask. This time, we made signs that had direct questions, and gave the previous ride’s signs to Renee and Doddy to use. Interestingly, we still got the same comments– even when presented with a list of questions from which to choose, people felt they needed to come up with one of their own. When people made that comment (or alternately seemed to be showing interest but hesitating to strike up a conversation), we asked if there was a particular topic they wanted to hear about (e.g. “planets? black holes? galaxies?”). That approach seemed to work pretty well– when presented with a few options, they were often willing to just pick one and the conversation went from there. Perhaps a better tack to take on the signs would be topical suggestions? Maybe worth a try next time!

The #ScienceTrain will ride again in the near future, and if you’re a scientist (of any discipline, in any city with public transport) we would love to have you along for the ride! I’ve created a permanent sign-up page where you can provide your email. Emails will only be used for querying about which upcoming dates work, and for notifying you of upcoming dates for coordinated #ScienceTrain days. You don’t have to wait, however– all it takes is a sign, a train, and the willingness to talk about science, so if you decide to try it in your city I’d love to hear about it!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Open Call: Next #ScienceTrain, Oct 27

Are you a scientist who’s excited about your work, and interested in sharing that excitement with others? Do you want to help people have a serendipitous encounter with how cool the natural world is? Is there a public transportation system near you?

Then join us for #ScienceTrain, a day of mobile Ask-A-Scientist events! The first #ScienceTrain took place over the summer, comprised of three astronomers riding the C train on a Saturday afternoon in NYC. This time around, we would like to open it up to any scientists who want to join in, wherever they happen to be.

If you are in NYC, #ScienceTrain will take place the afternoon of this coming Sunday, October 27, and we will meet up at Die Stammkneipe/ Der Schwarze Kölner at 5pm for post-#ScienceTrain celebrating!

What you need:

  1. Yourself and a friend, preferably with a similar scientific background. ScienceTrain seems to go best with people working in pairs (one pair per car).
  2. A sign. We found that putting a few questions on the sign to draw people in is helpful, so pick some intriguing ones from your discipline (just putting open-ended statements or prompting people to make up their own question turned out to be intimidating, as people were concerned with coming up with a “good” question). Whether you can hang the sign or not depends on what the rules are for your transportation system, so use your best judgment.
  3. Patience and respect. Lots of people may want to talk to you, or no one might. Their questions might be interesting, or nuts. To participate, you just need to be willing to engage with others and talk to them about science, but you should also be mindful that they might not want to talk to you, and that’s fine too. Moreover, be considerate of the fact that the public transportation system is not actually a science museum, so if the car is getting crowded, or you are in people’s way either physically or metaphorically, hop off and ride a different train/bus/bike/whatever.
  4. Optional: writing implements and outreach materials (flyers, pictures, etc). Last time, we brought some mini whiteboards with us and dry erase markers, as well as some Zooniverse flyers. We ended up not using the whiteboards much (flailing hand gestures are much more fun!), but we did give away the flyers to anyone interested in learning more.

If you’re planning to join in #ScienceTrain, either here or elsewhere, please feel free to let me know! I’m @shaka_lulu on Twitter, or you can be in touch using the form below.

Posted in science, science communication, science train | Leave a comment

End note: the show (er, conference) goes on!

Previously, I’d written about the political barriers facing the Kepler Science Conference, with an update last week that only (only!) the government shutdown stood to derail the meeting. I’m happy to report that the end to the shutdown means that the meeting can proceed in its original location, and will be inclusive of our fellow Chinese researchers.

Below is the message sent to the meeting registrants from the Local Organizing Committee.

With the re-opening of the US government and the lifting of furloughs, we are happy to announce that the Second Kepler Science Conference will go on as planned November 4-8 with an opening reception on Nov 3, at NASA Ames.

We anticipate that foreign national registrants will be cleared for attendance prior to the conference start.  All foreign national registrants will receive notification as soon as clearance has been granted. 

We hope to see you in two weeks to celebrate the science enabled by the Kepler Mission!

Thanks once again to AMD for offering their campus as an alternate venue, and to everyone who responded with offers to help. Now, back to science!

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Circling the airport (or possibly, the drain)…

It’s been just over a week since I originally posted about the Kepler Science Conference, so I thought I’d post a quick update.

First of all, I’d like to thank everyone who has been in contact about alternate venue options for the meeting. I am really heartened at the sheer number of responses offering either actual physical space, introductions to venues, creative solutions, or just words of encouragement. It speaks strongly to how supportive people are of science, and in particular of international collaboration. It seems many people out there are willing to dig in and find solutions to a daunting problem… would any of you like to run for Congress? Seriously.

Towards the end of last week, AMD stepped forward and generously offered to host the conference (thank you in particular to John Fritz of AMD, who first got in touch with me and has been the primary point of contact in making this happen). However, flaring tension over the barring of Chinese foreign nationals between Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Charlie Bolden (the NASA administrator) have turned the meeting into something of a political football. At the end of last week, NASA moved to reopen the applications of the potential Chinese attendees and approve their attendance, but as the government is still shut down (with 97% of NASA employees furloughed), there is no one to process the approvals.

Chair of the scientific organizing committee, Alan Boss, was quoted as saying:

“The efforts of NASA’s Ames Research Center to ensure that our Chinese astronomer colleagues will be able to attend the Second Kepler Science Conference have been halted by the fact these approvals must be entered into a computer system at NASA HQ in Washington DC,” Boss told

“Because of the ongoing federal government shutdown, there is no one at NASA HQ who can complete the approval process.”

“The ability of scientists to attend an open scientific meeting about the spectacular results produced by NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope is another likely fatality of the failure of the U.S. Congress to enact a federal budget for FY2014,” Boss added.

The bottom line: if the shutdown ends soon, the meeting will proceed as planned, at NASA Ames, and will be open to those Chinese researchers whose applications are scheduled to be approved. However, if the government continues to be shut down for much longer, the meeting will not proceed at all, unless it is moved. In the meantime, given that the meeting was convened by NASA, and the vast majority of the organizing committee are NASA employees, we are stuck circling in the same wait-and-see holding pattern as everyone else who depends on the US government.  

Again, I am so grateful to everyone who has tried to help make this meeting happen in spite of the current political quagmire. It truly is a testament to the fact that there are people out there thinking on a planetary scale, who are willing to help solve problems in trying times. Though I believe this meeting is important, what is more poignant to me than the troubles of 400 astrophysicists with uncertainty about a conference venue are the trouble of those for whom the government shutdown means uncertainty about basic human needs.

Get it together, Congress.

Posted in politics, science | Leave a comment

Seeking Alternate Venue for the Kepler Science Conference

In the following open letter, I am representing myself, not NASA or any other institution (although I did confer with non-NASA-employed members of the KepSciCon organizing committee before taking this action, and have their support). 

I am writing with a plea to help save science from politics: the Kepler Science Conference is seeking an alternate last-minute venue, and needs your help.

During the first week of November this year, ~400 astrophysicists from all over the globe were intending to gather to discuss new insights into the universe gleaned from NASA’s Kepler Mission. Kepler, a telescope designed to find Earth-size planets orbiting in the habitable zones of other stars, has been one of the most successful missions in NASA’s history– not only discovering thousands of planets over the past four years, but telling us that our Galaxy may be teeming with planets similar to our own Earth.

Today, the current political landscape is rending the scientific community apart, at a time when knowing that our Earth is but one planet amongst many should be bringing us together.

Here’s the story:

The meeting is slated to be held at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA– Ames was an advantageous venue, as sequestration prevented the meeting from being held anywhere where there would be associated cost.

Unfortunately, earlier this year (after significant planning for the meeting had already taken place), further restrictions were implemented on foreign nationals visiting NASA centers. These barriers are an expansion of those led by Congressman Frank Wolf (R-VA), which barred collaboration between NASA-funded US scientists and Chinese scientists back in 2011. Under the new restrictions, foreign nationals from certain countries are summarily banned from visiting NASA centers.

Although the Kepler conference organizers fought this restriction, we were informed a few days ago that young, talented astrophysicists from foreign countries would be barred from attending the meeting. As this meeting is arguably one of the most important opportunities to share and discuss new findings about these newly-discovered alien worlds, this restriction both damages scientific discourse within the community as a whole and directly damages the careers of those who are banned from participating. As a result, astronomers who originally planned to attend the conference are now planning to boycott in protest of these xenophobic policies.

To make matters worse, the current government shutdown now prevents all NASA employees from doing any work related to their employment– meaning that the NASA scientists and staff who played key roles in organizing the meeting cannot take any further steps associated with it until the shutdown ends. If the shutdown continues indefinitely, NASA Ames will remain closed and the meeting will not happen at all.

I strongly believe in science as a powerful platform for enabling multinational cooperation and collaboration. The wicked problems faced by humanity cannot be solved by one nation working alone, but require concerted effort by the brightest minds, no matter the place of their birth.

In a Hail-Mary attempt to see science succeed in spite of political barriers, I am writing in search of a venue that would give the Kepler Science Conference a home, one that will support attendees of all nationalities. I realize that ~400 people is a very large number of attendees, and that we are within a month from when the meeting is supposed to happen, and that we do not have funds to offer, but I believe that science must go on and that makes it worth asking. If you’re aware of a conference facility in the Bay Area that can accommodate ~400 please be in touch (contact info below). At a basic level, we need physical space and bandwidth– and I am willing to entertain any creative alternate solutions you can suggest.

Thanks for your attention– per aspera ad astra.

Lucianne Walkowicz

Henry Norris Russell Fellow, Princeton University
2013 TED Senior Fellow
(909) ASTRO-LW
Posted in politics, science | 4 Comments