An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

August 18, 2010

Grad School Applications, Recommendations, and Mentoring

Filed under: Education — Tags: , , , , , , , , — Radical Scientist @ 4:38 pm

This post is part of 49 Percent’s zomg grad school!!!1 carnival. Go check out all the other lovely posts over there.

There is one part of the grad school application process that scares me shitless. I’ll stare down the GRE with gritty determination, and I can swallow my pride and lay claim to my lackluster GPA. But even thinking about having to ask for letters of recommendation makes me consider food service related career options instead.

I got my BS on the installment plan, over 8 years. Along the way, I worked more than I studied (out of necessity), and had a couple mental health flare ups, eventually culminating in a hella-awkward-at-the-time gender transition. I didn’t handle any of those issues as well as I should have. None of which is my professor’s fault (ok, maybe that one asshole who taught intro to calc), but let’s just say my best work was spread out across the years. Add in one mentor who retired and decided to move to a remote island with no phone, and a lot of giant lecture hall classes where the professors struggle to recognize more than a few of their students on sight, and, well, it’s a less than ideal situation.

I get that LOR’s serve a specific purpose in graduate admissions. Grad programs want students who work well with faculty, who have made a positive impression on at least a couple of their instructors, and they need some perspective other than the numbers on a transcript and the student’s own self-praise. And now that I’ve spent a couple years working in labs, I understand that any worthwhile professor or PI considers handing out recommendations for their protégées to be a standard part of the job. But no one told me that, at least not until I was…oh, 25 or so.

Some students can feel comfortable asking their professors or mentors to take the time to send out a half dozen recommendations for grad programs or internships. There are some academic environment factors–smaller classes and smaller departments breed familiarity. And some students will be outgoing no matter what barriers are thrown up in front of them, and some will always be shy.But at the broad generalities level, asking for recommendations is even more fucking terrifying for students who have grown up being told that the old guard of professors–white, male, straight, cis, and middle to upper-middle class–are their social betters.

Sometimes those fears are founded, often they’re not. But so long as they exist, they are one hurdle to the sciences (or any other discipline) becoming more welcoming and diverse. I know I, for one, am not looking forward to tracking down professors from several years ago, trying to get them to remember me, coming out to them (lest I get the wrong name on my rec letter), and then asking them to take the time to write letters to a number of schools and federal programs.

Meanwhile, my frat boy classmates have nothing to fear. They’re unafraid to ask, to send deadline reminders, to specify which of their most charming attributes they’d like highlighted. Even those who are, shall we say, on close terms with the gentleman’s C. They’ve spent their lives learning to navigate Old boy’s Networks; they seem to know what’s expected, and feel that they deserve to succeed.

I had a small honors class once where the professor did a wonderful job of pulling everyone in, and driving us to excel. Before handing out the final exams, he gave us a short speech about how lovely a class we’d been, that it had been a pleasure to  teach us, etc etc, but he ended by saying he’d be glad to write a recommendation or be a reference for any of us whenever we began applying to jobs or graduate programs. It was a revelation to me.

I understand that it’s unusual to have an entire class full of students you’d be willing to vouch for. But in my brief time in the science blogosphere thus far, I’ve seen a lot of great discussions on the value of mentoring, the importance of making science more ‘diverse’ in various ways, how to mentor, and so on. One thing that I haven’t heard (and I freely admit I may have just missed), is the value of offering recommendations. To student workers and interns, to students who excel in your classes, and to advisees. Look at each one, and think ‘would I be comfortable writing this student a warm recommendation, if they asked me to?’ If the answer is yes, for god’s sakes, tell them. Make sure they know you are willing to help them advance, and that that is part of what you do.

Sure, assertiveness and self confidence are good characteristics to develop. Ideally, students would have the self-confidence to a gruff senior professor for professional help based on their performance, rather than the professor’s friendliness or whether they feel inferior to their instructor.  But being unapproachable doesn’t weed out people who are bad at science, it weeds out people who are afraid to ask old white guys for favors. And that’s one more little thing that gives us a new generation of scientists no less homogeneous than the last.


July 15, 2010

Trans Job Discrimination: Now With Numbers!

Two trans members of Make the Road/New York’s LGBTQ Justice Program were turned down for fast-food jobs in 2008, six years after the city banned gender identity based job discrimination. Which is hardly news, in and of itself–job discrimination against transgender, transsexual and gender-nonconforming people is tremendously common, and looking at the statistics for POC or women, it’s not hard to figure out that simply outlawing employment discrimination doesn’t end it.

But anything resembling hard facts about anti-trans discrimination are hard to come by. When their members got passed over for jobs, Make the Road decided to work on that. The end result is this recent 22 page report, aptly titled Transgender Need Not Apply, which details their DIY trial of a sociological technique–matched pair studies–to get some numbers to show the rational-fetishist crowd. You can guess how that turned out.

How it Worked

They picked two pairs of their members who were similar in as many ways as they could control for–one team was composed of Asian-American women in their late 20′s, the other of white men in their mid 20′s. The experimental difference was that one member of each pair was cis and the other was trans, and the the trans applicants disclosed their status on applications and in interviews.  They were outfitted with made-up resumes that gave them similar backgrounds and experience, with a slight advantage to the trans team members. And they underwent serious training to match their demeanors and interview behavior as much as possible.

The pairs then set out to apply for jobs at high-end retail stores–J. Crew, Trader Joe’s, Starbucks, Brookstone, etc. 24 different stores in all, for a total of 42 applications for each experimental group.* The cis testers got 14 job offers. The trans testers got 2. The way the numbers shake out, that totals to a discrimination rate of 42% against trans applicants, which is, well, pretty freaking high as discrimination stats go. How does 14:2 equal only 42%? The employers were saved some by that fact that many stores didn’t offer anyone a job, and a single store (the Virgin Megastore) picked the trans applicant over their cis counterpart. Once.

What Does it All Mean?

In their report, MtR were careful to point out that their study is too small to tease out intersectional discriminations, which they assure us they’ d like to do in a larger study that could measure the degree to which race and class factors interact with transphobic discrimination (I’d put my money on ‘multiplicatively’ or ‘exponentially,’ if anyone at the Radical Scientist Gambling Parlor were dumb enough to take the other side of that bet)

Personally, I’d be curious to see how trans men fare vs trans women, as there’s plenty of anecdotal evidence that transmisogyny (that is, the particular cocktail of misogyny and transphobia aimed at trans women & other male-assigned trans people) is a huge, huge magnet for job discrimination, even compared to the transphobia-served-neat (and often with a chaser of male passing privilege)** faced by trans men. Unfortunately, with only 2 freaking job offers going to the trans testers, this particular study isn’t going to help there. You can’t study intra-community differences in hiring until someone hires some more freaking trans people. Like, a statistically significant number of trans people. Sheesh. We may be waiting a while for that one.

Thanks to Questioning Transphobia for picking up this story before me.

*Note that an experimental group is made up of the all subjects sharing a variable. So, the two cis testers are one experimental group and the trans testers are the other. Meanwhile, we also have two teams, one of a trans woman and a cis woman, and another with a trans guy and a cis guy. I know it’s a mess, but obviously, it matters how you divvy up the data.

**No more liquor metaphors, I promise. Not till we get farther into the weekend, at least.


May 18, 2008

The Moral Panic of BPA and the Feminized ‘Boy’

As a follow-up to yesterday’s rant post about the anti-feminine fear-mongering often present in media coverage of endocrine disruptors, Rebecca Hammond was kind enough to give me permission to republish the following essay. She says it far better than I could.


I can see it now. 2008 will go down as the year that polycarbonate, the durable tough clear plastics we were all nursed on, the little plastic #7, takes the fall as the culprit responsible for emasculating our males for the past half century.

more specifically, it seems that everywhere – from blogs to the eco-media to the earnest conversations that happen on play dates around swingsets – talk is fixated on the horrors of BPA (biphesnol-a). BPA is found in polycarbonates as well as in the lining of canned foods (as well as in other non-food goods).

i’ve had this unease about the growing clamour around BPA. now, there are many stories within this story to catalyse unease: the discrepency between publicly and privately funded studies into the health effects of low-dose exposure to BPA; the nonaction by global and national bodies to stem the 7 billion pounds of BPA that’s created on an annual basis; the growing body of research highlighting potentially harmful effects on human health at exposure levels far below what’s considered ‘acceptable’.

yes, these are all troubling. i, however, am as much troubled by the panicked response to this chemical as i am by the chemical itself.

now, there is steadily mounting, and increasingly irrefutable, evidence linking BPA to breast, and possibly prostate cancer in adults. but a chemical linked to cancer, particularly one that is only marginally linked at the present time, has never been ganged up on like this. then *what*, i’ve wondered, is driving this unprecedented reaction? what has shifted in the eyes of moms across the continent to suddenly see the innocuous sippy cup as an object that incites panic about the health of their children?

i’ve come to conclude that such a sudden, complete reaction without a definitive health outcome means that concern is going beyond health concerns alone. sippy cups have become an object of moral panic, tweaking deep seated fears that our ‘boys’ are becoming weaker, more sensitive, and ultimately more feminine.

what is important to understand is that BPA is a chemical that mimics the effects of estrogen in the body. this estrogen masquerade it plays is why, in particular, concerns have been raised about long-term BPA exposure (as well as exposure at a young age) and the development of breast cancer – many forms of which are triggered by, and dependent upon, estrogen exposure.

BPA and cancer: here the link is inconclusive but strong enough to warrant serious attention. what has happened though is that BPAs estrogenic properties have triggered a fear that goes far beyond this. buoyed by studies in rats, such as this, many in both mainstream media, as well as in progressive ecological publications, are selling magazines and papers by stoking fears that BPA may be closing the gap between the genders by altering the gender-normative behaviour of ‘boys’ and ‘girls’.

now, before i go further, i want to say that I certainly would not dispute that limiting exposure to is a positive effort. we certainly should not wait for final and conclusive evidence linking BPA to breast cancer and other health outcomes, we should act now. what i worry about though is what fears are we reenforcing by playing up on enduring cultural fears of feminized boys (and, to a lesser degree masculanized girls)?

selling science stories is hard. and it appears that scientists have, perhaps unwittingly, found an effective route to catalyse change around BPA. media outlets are keenly are of this: mothers worry less about their own health and more about the health of their children; in particular, they worry about the social health and status their child will have. thus, even raising suspicions that they could be unwittingly poisoning their ‘boys’ by exposing them to estrogens has proven, in the case of BPA, to be the ‘story that sells’.

what is somewhat ironic is that mothers of appear to be *more* distraught about their ‘sons’ BPA exposure than their ‘daughters’. this is despite the much stronger evidence showing that BPA is going to affect the health and cancer risk of females more than males. this inversion of concern appears to be (yet another) irrational fear of the feminized male.

articles are promoting that BPA may not just alter behaviour but the bodies of ‘boys’. two days ago, the widely-read journal Discover chose to focus an article less on the links of BPA to cancer than on the effect that BPA and similar chemicals have on the size of baby ‘boys’ penises, on the distance between their anus and genitals (a sexually dimorphic trait, i.e. it’s longer in males than in females), and on suppression of testosterone within these ‘boys’. in its conclusions, the article *does* strongly highlight the mounting research linking BPA to cancer. but, by this point the reader has been whipped into a panic having images of micro-penises and fey little boys burned into their minds, the cancer data is icing on the cake.

scientists and media are thus seemingly eschewing evidence in favour of tapping into deep fears of femininity, specifically as its expressed in males, as a way to means to an end: to ban BPA. with sensationalist images like those in the Discover article, it’s not surprising mothers are tossing their lattes and reaching for protest signs in support of a ban on BPA.

and the results from this recent change of tactic are dramatic. the canadian government has recently (and the first country in the world) declared BPA as potentially harmful to human health. not waiting for government regulation, stores that sell themselves on being ecologically aware have pulled products with BPA off their shelves in many other Western countries. it seems that the fear of possibly emasculating the males of our nations overrides the drive for corporate profit. who knew?

the question that remains is ubiquitous: does the end (that being a partial or complete ban on BPA) justify the means we’ve used to get there?

the fear, perhaps even abject horror, affixed to feminization is a prevailing and shameful cultural cornerstone. it stands at the root of phobic outlashes against many queer men and trans women. trans men (and many cis men as well) who may not match up to external markers of masculinity can also experience bashing because of a perceived insufficiency of masculinity . ‘gender-variant’ ‘boys’ are referred at a rate of 20:1 to the Centre for Addiction & Mental Health’s Gender Identity Clinic – highlighting a broader cultural belief that being a feminine boy is *such* a problem that we have to treat it, nip it in the bud. and, of course, we all know the fate of a ‘boy’ choosing to wear a dress to school.

taken more broadly, our prioritization of masculine traits over feminine ones has helped to create a society where power, aggression, and authority are the currencies of power. women are perenially kept out of power and, like men who don’t match up to masculine norms, are subjected to violence and socio-economic penalties. being feminine is a handicap in the Western world, there is no disputing this.

the public reaction to BPA is a story about panic. and, while awakening to the health consequences of BPA are without-a-doubt important, it is also important to challenge our cultural prioritization of the masculine over the feminine and to address the panic that is instilled in us when our boys express femininity. the backlash against BPA has given strength and legitimacy to that panic. it may even catalyse a new wave of trying to (re)masculanize ‘boys’ that may have supposedly been ‘exposed’. this whole ordeal may *even* trigger the medicalization of femininity.

perhaps this is why i feel great unease.

*N.B. I have used quotes around ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ to call attention to the cisnormative way that male and female children are raised in our society. given that approximately 1 in 1000 of these boys will go on to be girls, and women, one day (and vice versa) i wish to stress that these labels are applied without first allowing the child to form and name their gender identity, and thus, these labels of ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ are both assumptive and transient.


May 17, 2008

The Right Wing Says Soy Makes You Gay

Thanks to Bria for sending this my way. The article is old, but it’s some pretty amazing fear-mongering from a popular right-wing news blog thing. I’d never heard of ‘em before, but Wikipedia says it’s big. The guy says he’s warning parents about the risks of endocrine disrupters, but he gets it all wrong. For starters, apparently soy foods are the only source of estrogen mimics out there. Not biphenol-a, not DDT, not whatever DES might still be floating around out there. Just soy. Take a look:

Soy is feminizing, and commonly leads to a decrease in the size of the penis, sexual confusion and homosexuality. That’s why most of the medical (not socio-spiritual) blame for today’s rise in homosexuality must fall upon the rise in soy formula and other soy products. (Most babies are bottle-fed during some part of their infancy, and one-fourth of them are getting soy milk!) Homosexuals often argue that their homosexuality is inborn because “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t homosexual.” No, homosexuality is always deviant. But now many of them can truthfully say that they can’t remember a time when excess estrogen wasn’t influencing them.

So, what is all that hippy food doing to our children? He mentions the toll endocrine disruptor can do to one’s fertility, and the sharp uptick in cancer amongst people who have been exposed to synthetic estrogens (not naturally-occurring phytoestrogens, like those in soy) early in life. But all of that pales in comparison to the fear of effeminizing little boys. And, apparently, here’s not difference between beingintersex, being a ‘feminine male’ and being gay. No matter that the assertion that gay men have a testosterone deficiency/estrogen surplus was disproved the moment someone developed a handy way to test hormone levels. Giving gay men extra testosterone just makes them want to have more gay sex, since testosterone tends to up your sex drive.

Honestly, I couldn’t stomach reading all 5 parts. I have a short attention span, and I’d need to artificially extend it to wade through all that psudoscience. Plus I can’t even figure out who this guy’s misinterpreting, because all his citation either lead back to the home page of the site, or to a 404 error. Which I guess says it all.


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