Doing the Work

When applying to tenure-track faculty positions, my first statement on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) simply detailed stuff I had already done in this domain. Actions speak louder than words, I thought. But when I showed it to my friends, one said, approximately, “I see what you’ve done, but I don’t know why you’ve done it!” And so I wrote the paragraph below, and came to refer to it as my “manifesto paragraph.” I’m quite happy with how true it still feels to me.

Several principles underlie my work in the domain of fostering diversity, equity, and inclusion in academia. First, I focus my efforts on equity and inclusion because I believe that it is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people from underrepresented groups into a community that has not historically been designed for them without also ensuring that they are supported and advocated for. My approach is necessarily symbiotic with efforts to increase diversity, and thus ensures that I do not suffer from the illusion that I can do this work alone. Second, I believe that, though discrimination itself is systemic, it takes principled and concerted action from individuals making up the system to change it. I therefore work with community members to build the tools and structures that support taking such action, in addition to taking action myself. Third, I view any community through the lens of power—who has it and who does not, and how the lives of the less powerful are impacted by this distribution—and use my own standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.

Since writing and submitting the job applications that included this paragraph, I’ve had a lot of time to think about how these statements engage with the daily work of making academia more equitable. And what I’ve come to realize is that in order to write and evaluate these statements we have to shift from the mindset of leadership and into the mindset of community. If we think only of leadership, we lack perspective on our capacity to influence the world and on our responsibility to do so. I want us to strive to be knowing cogs in this machine of societal change.

This idea of being a knowing cog crystallized for me in several ways. The first was the experience of seeing a fellow postdoc, a man, leverage his privilege, power, and confidence in support of me as I advocated for gender equity. His actions amounted to two extremely simple but well-timed sentences which led a group of us to make the decision that needed to be made and which I, in the circumstances, could not have made alone. It was the most tangible example I’ve seen of the work of allyship. In that moment, I felt a strong sense of solidarity with my colleage, as we pushed our community a little closer towards justice. And yet his actions were so small and context-dependent, their outcome nothing more than the absence of an awfulness. This combination is hard to explain. I have no idea how he might write about this moment—its motivations and its repercussions—in a DEI statement, or if its importance would be recognized by those evaluating these statements. I’m doubtful that the description of such actions, this work of a knowing cog, would lead his evaluators to check any boxes on their rubrics.

The second crystallization happened in a seminar on equity and inclusion. In the question-and-answer session, someone (a white man) made the predictable comment that surely one could not expect all of us to be experts in DEI work, so evaluating job applicants on such expertise was unreasonable. Someone else (a woman of color) responded carefully that if we didn’t expect everyone to do this work, it would continue to fall, over and over again, to those of us with the least power, and our efforts would not be valued, and so nothing would change. It was in this tension that the idea of being a knowing cog further solidified in me—while not all of us could be experts, all of us needed to do the straightforward and yet so difficult work of pushing against unacceptable status quos. We don’t always need creative solutions or flashy interventions. We do always need a continuous commitment to trying, and trying better, failing, and failing better, in all the little and big ways that add up to something bigger.

The third crystallization has been longer, slower, and steadier in its growth. It began when I started organizing for graduate student unionization at Harvard. I joined this effort just before the first vote on unionization, urging colleagues in my department to go vote and to vote in favor. I joined in, with no training and a slim grasp of how unions worked, after a couple of conversations in which people told me “oh, you’ve made a better case for unionizing than the people who are actually part of the union!” In other words, I joined this collective action because I was being told that I was special, that I could demonstrate superior skill. Sure, I was committed to solidarity and change, and my motives were wholesome, but I was pushed to do something potentially uncomfortable by the comfort of feeling special. Since then, two years of organizing with the University of California Postdoc and Academic Researchers Union (UAW5810) has shown me that being special is overrated. Stepping out, over and over again, to send an email, have a conversation, yell a chant, hold up a banner, knock on a door, hand out a flyer—actions that any other organizer can do with as much skill as me—has shown me that actually doing the work is so much more important than being uniquely skilled at doing it. What matters to how I effect change is my unique position in society, and not my specialness. What has made me good at this work is knowing why I do it, and using that knowledge—of my values, my politics, my goals and hopes—as the reason to do it over and over again.

Twelve-step programs speak of “being right-sized,” of our need for perspective on what we can and can’t change in this world. Nothing is more humbling, and nothing is more empowering. The work of organizing, of pushing for change, demands that we find, each in our own way but with each other’s support, how to be right-sized. Come, let’s all do this together.

Manifesto for Equity in the Academy.

  1. Responsibility It is neither ethical nor effective to recruit people into a community that has historically been designed to exclude them (us) unless we ensure support for them (us). Such advocacy is distinct from, but symbiotic with, efforts to increase diversity; do not suffer the illusion that one can do this work alone. 
  2. Change Discrimination is systemic but it takes concerted action by individuals to change it. Work with community members to build the tools and structures that support such action.
  3. Power Always be ready to view a community through the lens of power. Who has it? Who does not? How are the lives of the less powerful impacted by this distribution? Use your standing in a community to facilitate the empowerment of its marginalized members.
  4. Emotion This work is as much about feelings as about logic. Relate to one another with intention. Listen, to each other and to the voices in our heads.
  5. Perspective Remind yourself constantly that this work is not glamorous; we are not special for doing it. Change your internal narratives through a combination of diligence and compassion.
  6. Commitment Do the work for today, for tomorrow, and for the future. Play the long game, but never let it excuse delaying what needs to be done today.

 

(Many thanks to Ned Burnell—for pushing me to write the manifesto paragraph in my DEI statement and his enthusiasm for manifestoes more generally, for editing this piece, for helping me be more explicit and thoughtful about my politics and responsibilities, for deep insights into organizing, and for making all of this fun! Thanks to Didem Sarikaya, Yong Zheng, Max Lambert, Sam Hopkins, Malcolm Rosenthal, Becca Tarvin, and Cathy Rushworth for conversations that shaped these ideas. Thanks to every single organizer in UAW5810 for showing me what solidarity can mean).

 

Statement regarding recent retractions.

On January 17 2020, a paper by Kate L. Laskowski, Pierre-Olivier Montiglio, and Jonathan N. Pruitt was retracted for “irregularities in the raw data.” Today, another paper by Kate Laskowski and Jonathan Pruitt has been retracted. In the last two weeks, since learning about these retractions and the reasons underlying them (detailed by Kate Laskowski here), we past students, postdocs, and collaborators* of Jonathan Pruitt have been grappling with this professionally and emotionally fraught situation. We have all been engaged in a close examination of every piece of data we’ve ever been handed by Jonathan Pruitt. We have been working day and night to uncover all irregularities and communicate with the relevant journal editors;  issues that appear similar to those described here have already been identified in several datasets. Many of us have also published papers co-authored with Jonathan Pruitt for which we collected the data ourselves–we stand by the veracity of these data that we have collected ourselves, and the resultant papers. 

We would like to assure the scientific community that we are committed to setting the scientific record straight. This will take time but the right thing will be done. If the data and results of a paper are found to be untrustworthy or un-reproducible, it will be retracted. In the meantime, we ask for your patience and understanding as we navigate the difficult situation that we are now faced with. 

We welcome the entire community to alert us to findings that would help set the scientific record straight by approaching the paper authors directly, so that the situation can be processed through the proper channels at our respective institutions and with the journals.

Respectfully, 

Noa Pinter-Wollman

Nicholas DiRienzo

Colin M. Wright

James L. L. Lichtenstein

Ambika Kamath

*Several co-authors who have been fully engaged in this process are unable to comment publicly at this time. 

#WorldMentalHealthDay

Note: this post was written by an academic peer of mine, and I’m hosting it here anonymously because (1) I agree with it completely and (2) I want these powerful words to exist in a place where they can help others feel some solidarity, as we fight against a system that diminishes our mental health struggles. And if you’re struggling in the here and now, reach out for help and support–it’s so difficult, I know, but trust me, it will be worth it. 

It’s #MentalHealthAwarenessDay. Twitter is abuzz with talk of self-care, and work-life balance. And I’m furious. Because implicit to so many messages that I’ve seen, messages that are ostensibly advocating for mental health, is the idea that if you are suffering, it is YOUR fault. You are not engaging in enough self-care. You are not managing your time well enough. You are not mindful enough. You do not have enough gratitude. And in the case of mental illness – be it major depression, or generalized anxiety, or whatever else may be plaguing one’s mind—this narrative is so, so damaging.

I’m LIVID that in the face of rampant systematic barriers to equity, amid omnipresent stigma, those who are supposed to be advocating for mental health are merely proposing the 2010’s equivalent of “get over it”. Call it “mindfulness”, call it “self-care”, call it whatever you want. If you say that solving a mental health challenge is up to the sufferer alone, you are telling them to “get over it”. Advocating for self care in the absence of calls for systemic change is nothing if not virtue signaling.

You know what people with mental health difficulties need? The systems around us to change. We need things like leave policies that provide time off for dealing with crisis, and for seeing a therapist or a psychiatrist. We need the people we work with to learn how to interact with us, to appreciate the difference between illness and perceived laziness, to know what to do if we need help. We need there to be support for mental health infrastructure, so that we don’t need to wait for months to get an appointment if something is going wrong now. We need to know that coming out as mentally ill won’t destroy our chances of getting a job, or finding a mentor.

Yes, I’m angry. I’m frustrated. I’m sick of being an academic with mental illness surrounded by institutions who think the solution to the mental health crisis is to run another workshop on mindfulness or time management. I’m sick of having my institutions tell me to get over it. I’m resentful that I’m so afraid of the backlash to this paragraph that I’m publishing this anonymously. I should not have to be afraid. But in a world where my suffering is seen as my own fault, I don’t have much choice. Change needs to come from the top down—because I guarantee you, those of us suffering from mental illness are already doing the most we can.

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Best and Worst Times

“I just don’t understand the “grad school sucks” takes I see on here constantly. Only time better than GS is being a postdoc.”

A tweet from Andrew Kern that got pretty thoroughly ratioed (116 replies to 13 retweets, last I checked) keeps popping back into my twitter feed. Each time the tweet returns, I feel a lot of feelings and think a lot of thoughts. Unexpectedly, these thoughts and feelings simply have not coalesced into a straightforward narrative. But each time, they seem more and more insistent that I weigh in on this recurring debate, so here goes.

I am, thus far, a successful academic. I had a spectacular grad school experience—I got along fantastically with my famous grad school advisor at an elite institution, found a few other mentors from whom I learnt a lot, found friends who are among the next movers and shakers in biology and for whom I’m very grateful. On paper, I’m doing about as well as I could hope. I have a prestigious postdoc fellowship and a pretty kickass CV. I even won a prize that I’m super excited (and not at all humble) about!

In this period that’s supposed to be, and may well be, the best part of my career, I’m also exhausted. In the last month, I’ve crisscrossed the US for different fieldwork trips, gone on job interviews, visited my long-distance partner after a gap of more than two months, and traveled halfway across the globe to be with my parents as my father lies critically ill in hospital. Every single one of these trips has felt, has been, essential. Planning and re-planning them—amidst the necessary uncertainty of illness, the inevitable uncertainty of human emotion, and the offhand, sometimes callous uncertainty of the academic job market—has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

I’ve leveraged my jetlag to get writing done, partly because I love the collaborations I’m currently working on and partly because I can’t afford to go without publications in 2019. There’s no room to explain, in a cover letter or research statement, that life is difficult sometimes and I’m just as brilliant, just as motivated right now as when I was publishing more. And so it’s easier to forego the sleep that’s reluctant anyway. I find that those stolen hours of writing in my childhood bedroom, and a 3:30 am phone call with a collaborator, let me feel excited in way that I so badly need right now. Does it suck to be a postdoc, or am I immeasurably blessed to be a postdoc? The answer is always both.

A little while ago, I had a nervous conversation with a faculty mentor from grad school about how I seem to be doing nothing these days, even as I juggle more and more different projects than ever before. He patiently explains that this is what it feels like to transition to being a PI. It’s a bigger relief than I imagined that he understands how I’m playing the long game here, the confident game wherein I behave as though I will get a faculty job, and plan accordingly. But the relief inevitably gives way to a more practical acceptance that he understands me only because he knows me well enough to give me the benefit of the doubt.

Thing is, I can’t expect to get that benefit of the doubt. My elite education probably gets me the benefit of the doubt more often than I realize, and I know that my education is the result of an unparseable combination of privilege, hard work, and skill. I also know that my elite education leads people to expect me to be a certain way, the status quo way, and that I unsettle people when they discover that I am not. Every time I face the question of whether or not to conform, and whether my lack of conformity should be public or private, I influence whether or not I will get the benefit of the doubt. I’m lucky to have this choice.

And the advantages of an elite education somehow don’t go so far as to shield me entirely from the consequences of being, well, not the norm. My identity trumps it often…try as I might, I can’t seem to forget how men in my grad school cohort would explain statistical analyses to me that I’d been doing for years and that they had never done. Or the NSF reviewer who asked why I hadn’t specified who would teach me the statistics I would need to use to analyze my data. Being Amherst-and-Harvard educated didn’t lead them to say, “well, surely she knows this, or could figure it out.” What they saw was a woman, who couldn’t know math, a South Asian woman who could probably follow instructions but would never be creative enough to forge her own path. Does it suck to be a not-quite-the-norm grad student? Sometimes, it does. Is it a remarkable privilege that I got to do those statistical analyses, publish that paper, get that Harvard degree anyway, despite their doubt? Absolutely.

I can’t shake the weight of these moments of being denied the benefit of the doubt, moments that have added up slowly. But the weight that’s bigger, that I’ve somehow absorbed, is the weight of worse experiences of those around me. In the last several years, I have put more time and energy than you can imagine into advising, mentoring, and mediating in the face of abuses of power within academia. I do this because I believe it is the right thing to do, and because I’ve said that I believe so publicly. I am asked to do this work because I do it well, because people know I care, and because I’m a woman of colour. I do it despite not being able to talk about it publicly anymore. My current quietness is a direct consequence of committing to the academic job market—how can I talk, when I can’t know how the people who hold my career in their hands will respond to what I say and how I say it? This costs me more than I’d realized, because writing is usually how I come to terms with these experiences. I also know that writing about these experiences previously has gained me credibility on the job market, which now sometimes cares about how future professors will make academia more inclusive. I have benefitted and I have suffered, and I’m lucky that I have not yet suffered irrecoverably, from fighting against injustice. I know it’s a privilege to be able to fight at all. Does it suck to be a postdoc in this world? I can’t say.

So do I get to complain about grad school, about being a postdoc? All I know is that you can’t tell me whether or not I get to complain—things are too complicated for that. And that means I don’t get to tell you whether or not you get to complain—there are resonances, but no straight lines, between your experiences and mine. And that means I don’t get to be surprised when you say “this sucks.” There is no room for surprise when our existence breaks what is normal. We can grow forward from here only by really listening, so let’s talk.

 

How to Find a Therapist

One of the best consequences of being open about my mental health struggles is that people have begun to ask me for advice on how to get help with maintaining their own mental wellbeing. I’ve now conveyed my thoughts about finding a therapist to several friends, and figured I may as well share those thoughts here. This assumes that (a) you are in the U.S. and (b) that you have health insurance that covers visits to therapists (if not, some therapists offer sliding scale charges, though they’re often quite a bit, and other low cost options do exist. I’ll update with links after searching for this information). In the interest of making this a communal resource, if you have anything to add or disagree with anything I’ve said below, please leave a comment!

In searching for a therapist, start on Psychology Today’s search website. Filter by your location, insurance type, and any other preferences you know you have. I often begin by searching for licensed clinical social workers (LICSW) because in my experience their focus feels broader, with an emphasis on societal factors outside of you as an individual…also they seem more compassionate. But my current therapist isn’t a LICSW, and also she’s someone I found out about by word of mouth, so ask your trusted friends for their recommendations but know also that personal preferences vary wildly. Then once you see the therapists’ profiles/websites, listen to your gut instinct on whether you’ll feel comfortable with them, and if yes, schedule a phone consultation (always free). Not everyone will get back to you, and insurance information on websites is often out of date. Make sure you know what in-network and out-of-network benefits you have to be able to ask pointed questions re: insurance.

On the phone, have a brief summary ready of why you’re looking for a therapist, and maybe think a bit about what you’re worried about in finding a good therapist. Have a couple of questions for them about their practice/values. For example, I always ask about whether they have experience interacting with racial and sexual minorities. A friend asks if they know what the “A” stands for in LGBTQIA–they only get the green light if they know it’s “asexual” and not “ally”. Pay attention to your instincts in gauging their responses, and see if you can discern from them what you want or don’t want. For example, I knew I wasn’t looking for a cognitive behavioral therapist–that felt too logical and goal-oriented for me, and so I paid attention to how much people would talk about feelings vs. logic in their descriptions of how they practice.

Then, be prepared to go to a bunch of first sessions. It’s like dating. Many of these may suck, and it’s tough–it takes work to rebuild yourself after you’ve been vulnerable with someone who doesn’t know what to do with that vulnerability. Look for the feeling of being safe, for someone who is kind, and will respond with compassion to the things you beat yourself up about. Schedule in some recovery time after these, don’t expect to be able to go straight back to work/life. Try not to be too guarded unless you know right away that they’re terrible, because it then might be tougher to get a feel for how they’ll respond when you’re unguarded. I’m pretty picky at this stage–if I don’t feel unambiguously good about them after a first session, I don’t go back. Resist the pressure when they ask if you want to schedule another appointment–a good therapist will not assume that the session was a good one, and will ask you first about how you felt.

Good luck!

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A Final Creature Feature Round-Up

After a run of almost forty pieces, my natural history column for The Hindu Businessline’s BLInk is now on an indefinite (likely permanent) hiatus. Here are the last three columns I wrote:

  • About the human and biological history of an iconic little fish.
  • About the world of microbes, and how they change our perceptions of nature.
  • About the role of interdependence in the life of the Joshua tree.

I am so grateful to the editors at BLInk–Nandini Nair, Veena Venupgopal, Soity Banerjee, and Aditi Sengupta–for the opportunity to write this column and for their help and guidance. Writing Creature Feature has broadened my knowledge of the natural world, kept me interested in biology while my Ph.D. dissertation felt dreary, and forced me to become a clearer, more concise writer. Thank you to the many people who I’ve interviewed for pieces here–your enthusiasm for the natural world is infectious. And most of all, thanks to all of you for reading and responding to my pieces! This has been tremendous fun.

I’m not going to stop writing for general non-scientist audiences, though I’ve certainly gotten slower at it. I’m looking for new challenges–I want to write about weirder things, and get better at writing more abstractly. I want to learn how to craft longer pieces that jump more between topics in ways that can make sense. Do let me know if you have any ideas or advice–I’m wide open to suggestions!

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A Cape Glossy Starling, as thanks for sticking with me through this popular science journey!

Territoriality: Attempting a One-Two Punch

In my major Ph.D. project, I questioned the idea that territoriality is a good or useful description of Anolis lizards’ mating systems. When I began working on this question, I planned to primarily use an empirical approach, measuring the movement patterns and mating patterns of a population of Anolis sagrei in a way that didn’t depend on territoriality. But anticipating future criticism, I realised that because I’d be working in one population of one species, my empirical work could readily and reasonably be dismissed as an aberration without a broader foundation on which to place it.

This realization led to the historical review in which my Ph.D. advisor Jonathan Losos and I examined the history of research on Anolis territoriality. I’ve written about this historical research quite a bit before, but haven’t said much about the empirical work, leaving the two complementary halves of this project unintegrated. That’s partly been because the empirical work wasn’t published until recently. But it’s also because in contextualizing the problem tackled by the empirical paper, I have to basically recount the whole of the historical review. There really hasn’t been room to talk about both in a single venue, and there still isn’t, but I’m going to tell you a bit more about the empirical paper to balance things out. You’ve heard a little about it before–I wrote field notes about one of the males in this study (interesting addendum: U131 fathered none of the offspring of the females he encountered!) and about a tiny survey of green anoles that we conducted concurrently.

The empirical paper is now published, in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B! Here’s an awesome press release about the study from UCSB that will give you the gist of it, but in short what we did was:

  • Catch and mark almost every lizard we saw, and then measure the spatial locations of as many lizards as we could by repeatedly surveying as big an area as we could.
  • Make a map of all the trees within our sampling area.
  • Measure the body size and estimate the population-level growth rate of males
  • Collect a subset of the females, bring them into the lab, and collect the DNA of their offspring.
  • Devise a mathematical approach to estimating encounters between males and females from data on their spatial locations. Combined this with the growth-rate estimate to calculate the size of males at their encounters with females.
  • Use DNA sequencing to figure out the likely fathers of the females’ offspring; we leaned on the estimates of male-female encounters to do so.
  • Use a clever and (I think!) pretty original approach to quantifying sexual selection on body size and movement patterns by comparing the traits of males that encountered females to the traits of the subset of those males that actually fathered offspring.

In sum what we found was that male and female movement patterns spanned larger areas and were more dynamic than many of us had previously imagined, that females encounter multiple potential mates, that at least 60% and possibly up to 80% of females  mate with multiple males, and that sexual selection acts on male body size as well as males’ spatial extent and the timing of male-female encounters. I’ll let you read the press release and the paper itself to learn more about what we found (here it is on BioRxiv, essentially the same paper but freely accessible)!

Viewed together, I hope the historical and empirical papers make a convincing case that we’ve been looking at Anolis mating systems in a limited way for a long time, and that other, newer ways of quantifying mating systems in ways that don’t depend on territoriality can yield both interesting and sensible results. I see this work as opening up an arena of questions, both in Anolis and in other taxa where mating systems have been described in a static way for a long period of time.

I’m very proud of this paper. I remember a phase of grad school when I found it impossible to convince people that this work would turn out interesting, or maybe it was just that my own self-doubt prevented me from seeing others’ interest and support for this research. It remains true that this is one study of one population of one species, and it may well be that I turn out to be all wrong. Perhaps new explorations of Anolis mating systems will eventually lead us back to territoriality. But even if that’s the case, I feel confident that, thanks to this work, we’ll be able to approach that or any description of Anolis mating systems with clearer, more skeptical, and more discerning eyes.

This won’t be the last you’ll be hearing from me on this subject of lizard mating systems; for one, there are responses to our historical review that are in the process of being published, and we’ll have a chance to respond to them. I’m very excited to engage in an actual scientific dispute, and will do my best to do so respectfully and productively, especially since I have on-the-record views about what makes such disputes annoying. But in terms of research, I seem to be heading in other directions, which I think will be related to this work but maybe not directly. So I wanted to make sure that I put down here, all in one place, what I see this project as and what I hope it will achieve. Let me know what you think!

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One of our marked lizards for this study. Photo by Jon Suh.

Hey Look, Creature Feature is Back!

My column is back! It’s in the Hindu Businessline’s BLink, and is on the natural history of all kinds of organisms. Here’s what’s been published so far in this second iteration:

September 2017: A piece on migrating loons, change, and death, in memory of Dr. Terry Wheeler.

October 2017: About asking scientific questions from within and outside science.

November 2017: A piece on how we know what we know in science, based on my work in lizard mating systems (and this old blogpost).

December 2017: A piece on parasites that take over the actions of their host, and looking for messy narratives instead of the seeming-perfection of adaptation.

January 2018: All about pelicans, as poetic and prosaic.

Looking forward to lots more writing! As always, I’d love feedback on old column pieces and suggestions for new ones!

 

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Impostor Syndrome and a Sense of Self

I’ve been puzzling over this for years—what does it mean to be me, when me is a scientist and also a woman and also Indian? I cannot conform to all of the stereotypes of each of these identities, or the sub-identities they contain—they are, in totality, mutually exclusive. But I also cannot resist all of these stereotypes—that would leave no room to be a person.

I tried, for years, to resist all the stereotypes—don’t be nurturing, be more passionate, you can be a leader, be more of a nerd, be more sexy, you’ll never be a leader, why bother being sexy, be less of a nerd, be less passionate, be more caring…I kept maneuvering myself into smaller and smaller crevices between huge rocks, and suddenly found myself without room to breathe. But when you recognize the impossibility of fitting you—all of you—into such little space, into negative space even, you have no choice but to break the rocks down.

The impossibility I was living in became apparent when I saw women ahead of me on the academic ladder who managed to be their whole selves. They seemed to have fought off the weight of contradictions that I thought their identities must have imposed on them. There had to be a tunnel out from where I was, because these women seemed to exist in sunshine beyond it.

And so I began carving, claiming for myself the parts of my identity as a woman, as Indian, as a scientist, that felt truly mine, picking up so many shards of other identities along the way, some of which fit into the mosaic that is now mine. With the guidance of two therapists, I broke myself down and put myself back together, and still I arrange and rearrange. My sense of self, which had lived earlier in interstitial spaces, moves closer my center and gains strength.

Somewhere along the way, my academic impostor syndrome mostly disappeared. Its departure came on the heels of success-of-sorts, in the form of a paper rejection from a great journal, with thoughtful, considered reviews. Sure, they didn’t want my work, but being taken seriously felt better than I thought it could.

I found that while I enjoyed my newfound confidence, I didn’t know how to talk about it. I was a senior grad student with a postdoc lined up, about to enter the most uncertain phase of academia but also far along enough that junior scientists had started asking me for advice, mostly on being a woman of colour in academia. People like me are meant to be the definition of impostor syndrome. So in talking about my lack of impostor syndrome, suddenly the weight of identity came tumbling back. We are told that feeling like an impostor is what is holding us back, not that we are actually treated like impostors because of how our identities are perceived. We are told constantly that we need to battle impostor syndrome, but then we’re also told that if you don’t suffer at its hands then surely you are clouded by arrogance. This feels an awful lot like being shoved back into an impossibly small crevice, the sort I am working so hard to escape. Now that I know what that escape can feel like, I refuse to climb back in.

As advice goes, my take isn’t particularly useful—do the work of uncovering yourself from within the pile of stereotypes you’re expected to conform to, and maybe your impostor syndrome will disappear along the way. And it’s presumptuous—who on earth am I to say you haven’t discovered your sense of self already? And it’s definitely premature—what if my impostor syndrome comes raging back in a month or year or three? But for now, it feels like the truest thing I can say about a subject that comes up in my conversations with academics again and again and again. As always, I’m writing about it in the hope that perhaps it’ll resonate with a few of you.

Animals Grow: How an Idle Tweet led us to uncover a Whimsical Academic Exchange

In July, I was writing a paper that is, in part, about sexual selection on body size in Anolis lizards. I had found, as is common in many animals, that sexual selection favours bigger males, and was arguing that this might be tantamount to selection favouring older males because, well, animals grow.

I was agonizing over writing this section. On the one hand, I didn’t want to leave the reader to connect the dots between size and age. But on the other hand, was I really going to state the obvious? I decided that I was not only going to state the obvious, but also back it up—I found myself searching for a citation to lend the statement that animals grow a bit more gravitas, before I stopped myself and took to twitter instead.

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Needless to say, I wasn’t expecting this idle, procrastinatory tweet to lead me to an actual paper! Ellstrand (1983) tackles the question of the “evolutionary significance of…the fact that juveniles at birth are usually smaller than adults,” and goes on to discuss six (six!) adaptive hypotheses for why juveniles are smaller than adults (there’s even an acronym!—“juveniles’ small size” or JSS). What makes this paper fantastic is just how plausible each of these hypotheses sounds, until you stop to really consider the question at hand. It’s delightfully deadpan, with only the last paragraph cementing a casual or careless reader’s suspicion this paper is not in fact completely serious: “Both selective and historic forces are probably responsible for JSS and why it is so widespread. Adaptive explanations can be sought for other juvenile characters as well. In particular, another juvenile character is even more widespread than JSS and deserves some thoughtful theoretical attention, the fact that juveniles always seem to be younger than their parents.”

But the story of this paper, and of that last sentence, is perhaps as whimsical as the paper itself! It all began with a reply from Ellstrand himself to our conversation on twitter.

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After Ellstrand’s tantalizing response, Yoel Stuart and I decided we needed to pursue this story further. We emailed Norm with a request for the reviews and some commentary on the experience of writing and publishing this paper, and he most kindly obliged:

“The short story:  I was a post-doc with Janis Antonovics in 1978-79. He and his group would often lampoon the ‘Adaptive Paradigm’; the discussion would often end with Janis saying something like ‘somebody should write a parody using a trait that is universal but has nothing to do with adaptation’. That was the inspiration.

I had some time on my hands at UCR and wrote the first draft of ‘juveniles’ in a day.  After a month or so of polishing and getting feedback, I submitted it – without explanation – to American Naturalist to see what the response might be.”

The reviews from American Naturalist are fantastic. I guarantee, had I been reviewing this paper as a serious submission, I would have had the same earnest responses as reviewers 2 and 3, especially because the original submission lacked that telling last paragraph. Reviewer 2 tries valiantly, though perhaps a tad condescendingly, to rescue the paper, saying “since juveniles develop from the reproductive process of a parent, they are smaller at birth for trivial physical reasons. The real question the author is asking is not why are juveniles smaller than their parents, but rather, why is there so much variation among species in the size of the offspring at birth.” Reviewer 3 is more scathing: “While I suspect the subject and the things mentioned seem new and fresh to the author, in fact they are stale and have been worried over a great deal…I know of no papers with this title, and I can understand the author’s desire to get the question explicitly attacked. However, he does not in fact tell us anything that we don’t already carry around in our heads.” And Reviewer 1 comes so very close to figuring out the whole thing that we give you their comments in full:

“It is unclear to me that the author has chosen a significant question to study. Does the fact that juveniles are smaller than adults require an adaptive explanation, as the author indicates? How can an adult produce offspring or propagules that are in fact larger than itself? It is difficult indeed to imagine how organisms with a placental habit, such as mammals or flowering plants, could give birth to offspring with greater mass than their own. At a broader level, it is difficult to see how any organism with a nutritionally dependent juvenile could produce a juvenile with larger mass, unless the adult acts like a nutrient pump over a long time period, slowly inflating the ballooning infant.

The author suggests several adaptationist explanations, i.e. smaller infants are more easily controlled by parents, smaller juveniles eat different resources (unlikely with nutritionally dependent juveniles) that are facile. Perhaps if the question were rephrased “What are the constraints on juvenile size?”, the author’s other suggestions of dispersability, freedom from predation, etc., might provide interesting avenues for exploration. With the question as it stands, however, the author must demonstrate that in the absence of selection, juveniles larger than adults are equally possible as juveniles smaller than adults, before he invokes adaptationist answers. The author has not yet met this test, and unless he does, I am unconvinced that the question he asks is indeed meaningful.

A minor point: the lead quotation from a popular (?) record lyric [“Let’s get small”—S. Martin, 1977, actually a comedy album] does not contribute to the paper, and in fact leads me to wonder if the paper was written as a satire on the adaptationist program in general.”

SO CLOSE!

Norm continued, in his email: “The rejected [manuscript] stayed in my files for some months until it occurred to me to call Doug Futuyma [at the time, the editor of Evolution] for his advice about submitting it.”

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Doug’s response, published with permission:

“Dear Norm:

I’m amused by your tongue-in-cheek manuscript, and even more amused by the fact that reviewers took it seriously. After giving it some thought, I think it would be nice to lighten the tone of the journal by publishing the essence of it. The only problem is that I have trouble justifying using the very limited (and expensive) journal space. So if you wish to go ahead with it, I will, if you are willing to figure out how to cut one or two pages of text and also delete the figure (a nice touch, but you can make your point without it). The only other issue is that there are passages in which I can understand why reviewers took it seriously—these are where you seem to be talking about whether offspring should be large or small, rather than whether they should be absolutely smaller than the parent…You may also wish to include something at the very end that is so outrageous that even the dull-witted can’t miss the point.

So send me back a shorter version, and I’ll publish it.

Best wishes,

Doug”

And then, a hand-written postscript:

“P.S. I think I’d better insist that you pay page charges”

So the paper was published, and in the following years, both Ellstrand and Futuyma received many responses to the paper, the latter getting so many complaints that he composed a marvelous form letter to send out in response:

“Dear Colleague:

I have received several inquiries about the article by Dr. Norman Ellstrand in the September 1983 issue of Evolution, entitled “Why are juveniles smaller than their parents?” Dr. Ellstrand intended the article to be a parody, and it was accepted for publication in the same spirit. The last sentence of the text of the article should make its thrust clear. Some colleagues have expressed dismay at the possibility that the article was meant to be serious. Therein lies, perhaps, both a moral to the story and an explanation for the appearance of Dr. Ellstrand’s article.

Sincerely,

Douglas J. Futuyma

Editor”

And below, a handwritten note: “Norm – I have sent this letter to several people who wrote. I hope you don’t get too much flak about the article”.

Of course, Ellstrand received regular correspondence about the paper as well. “Also, I get a letter or email once every three years or so regarding the paper,” he told us.  “I have sent a scan of the one I treasure the most, from Isadore Nabi.  Surprisingly, it took me about two years to learn who Nabi actually is! (Google searches not available at the time – but that’s no excuse, I guess).”

“Dear Dr. Elstrand [sic]:

Just a note to congratulate you on the brilliant insight in your article in Evolution for September, 1983. I only wish I had seen the point myself and had written so brilliantly on it.

Yours sincerely,

Isidore Nabi”

I’ll do my best to sneak in a citation of Ellstrand (1983) into my next revision of the paper that led us to uncover this exchange, and hope that someday another of my idle tweets leads to something this delightful! Many thanks to Norm Ellstrand and Doug Futuyma for giving us permission to share their words, and for scanning their correspondence.

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