Grad Seminar 2016

After getting preliminaries out of the way in the first class for Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science, today’s class discussed the process of publication and peer review. However, the discussion broadened into biases in science, including gender bias, and (very briefly) the issue around reproducibility in science (or the lack thereof).

Regarding gender bias in ecology, it is worth watching this video featuring Professors Emma Johnston and Mark Burgman. Emma Johnston also has a recent article in The Conversation.


Regarding reproducibility, read this, this, and this.

We also discussed topics that we want to cover in the class, things that we like about The University of Melbourne, and things we don’t like. We’ll post about those things shortly.

Nuclear energy for biodiversity conservation

We are going to kick off our subject Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science by discussing this recent paper by Barry Brook and Corey Bradshaw:

Key role for nuclear energy in global biodiversity conservation

Here is the abstract:

Modern society uses massive amounts of energy. Usage rises as population and affluence increase, and energy production and use often have an impact on biodiversity or natural areas. To avoid a business-as-usual dependence on coal, oil, and gas over the coming decades, society must map out a future energy mix that incorporates alternative sources. This exercise can lead to radically different opinions on what a sustainable energy portfolio might entail, so an objective assessment of the relative costs and benefits of different energy sources is required. We evaluated the land use, emissions, climate, and cost implications of 3 published but divergent storylines for future energy production, none of which was optimal for all environmental and economic indicators. Using multicriteria decision-making analysis, we ranked 7 major electricity-generation sources (coal, gas, nuclear, biomass, hydro, wind, and solar) based on costs and benefits and tested the sensitivity of the rankings to biases stemming from contrasting philosophical ideals. Irrespective of weightings, nuclear and wind energy had the highest benefit-to-cost ratio. Although the environmental movement has historically rejected the nuclear energy option, new-generation reactor technologies that fully recycle waste and incorporate passive safety systems might resolve their concerns and ought to be more widely understood. Because there is no perfect energy source however, conservation professionals ultimately need to take an evidence-based approach to consider carefully the integrated effects of energy mixes on biodiversity conservation. Trade-offs and compromises are inevitable and require advocating energy mixes that minimize net environmental damage. Society cannot afford to risk wholesale failure to address energy-related biodiversity impacts because of preconceived notions and ideals.

The full paper is here. Have any counter arguments to this piece been published? Do any such arguments exist? What is the evidence to support these counter arguments? I look forward to the discussion.

Species’ responses to climate change

Yesterday in Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science, we discussed the paper by Sinclair et al. (2010) that critiqued the use of species distribution models for helping inform management of species under climate change. A few recent papers related to this topic are worth considering. One is discussed in The Conversation (Moritz and Agudo 2013), part of a special section of Science, and another is in press in PNAS (Blois et al. in press). In particular, the latter paper suggests that species distribution models can indeed help to predict response of species to climate change. These models are not perfect (that’s the thing about models – they are not meant to be perfect), but they seem helpful.

As an aside, a commentator in The Conversation suggested that the last paragraph of The Conversation piece was not appropriate for scientific commentary. What do you think? Is it appropriate for scientists to make such statements? This question is relevant to the second discussion we had about the role of science in public debate.


Blois, J. L., J. W. Williams, M. C. Fitzpatrick, S. T. Jackson, and S. Ferrier (in press). Space can substitute for time in predicting climate-change effects on biodiversity. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Moritz, C., and R. Agudo, (2013) The future of species under climate change: resilience or decline? Science 341 (6145): 504-508.

Sinclair, S. J., M. D. White, and G. R. Newell. (2010). How useful are species distribution models for managing biodiversity under future climates? Ecology and Society 15 (1): 8.


Women in science

By Michael McCarthy and Georgia Garrard

A woman teaching geometry. The frontispiece of a Latin translation of Euclid’s Elements, c. 1309–1316; from Wikipedia.

While the situation of women in science is improving, there are still fewer women than men staying in science, and the women who do stay tend not to progress as far in their careers as men. There are a range of reasons for this. In an effort help both women and men understand these reasons, we dedicated a session in our Graduate Seminar class to discussing “Women in Science”.

Discussing challenges faced by women in science is important, particularly among younger scientists.* So, what makes a good discussion of women in science? Do you know of similar discussions? Can you suggest a way to run them and some topics to discuss? If you are interested in running a similar discussion, you might find the following summary helpful. Here’s how we did it:


In canvassing topics, we selected themes from various readings, and then Mick tweeted to see if we had missed anything. Here are the tweets and the responses:

Mick also had one response via email from Erica Fleishman:

“Wish I could be a fly on the wall at your seminar.

Suggestion — it is not just maternity but sometimes can be unequal expectations in any family-type partnership. Who is the primary domestic in partnership? Who has more difficulty making or shifting professional plans at last minute? I do not have same-sex relationship experience — might be worthwhile to examine that too.”

Thanks to those who responded and re-tweeted Mick’s request: @biogeomicroblog, @LeMoustier, @MargotSaher, @AWISnational, @allip85, @weecology, @GertyZ, @JacquelynGill, @davidjayharris, @skmorgane, and @qaecology.

Tweeting topics for discussion and asking for feedback was a last-minute idea. It would have been good to do this further in advance, perhaps also asking for suggested readings. But the reading had already been set and there was no time to change it.

Writings on a wide range of relevant topics are abundant – where to start? We wanted to base the discussion on both personal insights, and repeatable evidence. We decided to use the review document “Why So Few?” because it cited evidence from a wide range of studies. We set Chapter 8 on “Implicit Bias” as required reading, and suggested other parts of that document, particularly Fig. 15 on stereotype threat.

Figure 15 from “Why so Few?” showing the influence of stereotype threat on mathematics scores of women relative to that of men. Telling participants that women are worse at mathematics causes women to perform worse.

We also asked the students to read Jacquelyn Gill’s post on curing imposter syndrome. This piece had numerous benefits: it was a personal reflection; it addressed a topic that we suspect is very common, especially among young scientists (both male and female); and it offered ideas about how an individual can tackle some of the challenges faced by women in science.

As this was only one of three one-hour sessions in a week, we didn’t want to load the students up with any more reading. However, we suggested they take the Implicit Association Test on Science and Gender. This evaluates how strongly an individual associates male with science disciplines versus associating female with liberal arts. Check it out if you want to take the test yourself.

The class

To start the class, we noted some reasons for discussing women in science:

  • We’ve seen evidence of discrimination based on gender, and increasing awareness of this is important.
  • Discrimination based on gender (and various other attributes) is illegal. Everyone, including those about to enter the workforce, needs to be aware of these issues. Using gender as an example helps raise awareness of other forms of illegal discrimination.
  • Men tend to be less aware of gender discrimination than women, so we wanted the men in the class to become more aware of the issues.
  • Women can be guilty of gender discrimination (even against women), and they are the most common victims. Even assuming that the women in the class were already very aware of the issues, we wanted them to know something about what can be done.
  • We emphasized that the session was not designed to attack blokes. It was designed to increase awareness of the issues and some of the research.

After this introduction, we asked “What are some factors that disadvantage women in science?” The first point noted was maternity. Science disciplines are getting better at accommodating maternity, but it is still not ideal. By coincidence, on the same day that we ran this class, our lab group discussed some of the progressive policies of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute (WEHI) with Marie-Liesse Asselin-Labat. WEHI have some great approaches to gender equity, including funding to support childcare, and a room where kids can play and parents (including fathers) can work.

There are lots of posts about accommodating parenting within science, so we won’t write more here, except to say that one of Mick’s favourite posts is Athene Donald’s “Get a Wife”.

Of course, people sometimes discriminate directly against women on the basis of maternity. For example, people might be reluctant to offer a job to someone because of pregnancy, or even potential for pregnancy. At least in Australia, such discrimination is illegal. It is important that everyone knows their rights and obligations about this. But women will always be battling against disadvantage when pregnancy weighs unfairly on the mind of potential employees and colleagues.

We also discussed stereotype threat. This is illuminating. If women and men take a mathematics test, their results can be equivalent. However, if the participants are told that women are worse than men at mathematics, the women’s tests seem to decline noticeably, while those of men can improve. This is apparently a highly replicable result, and it also occurs in other domains (e.g., racism). One student asked what happens if people are told that men perform worse than women. Has that research been done? After the class, we couldn’t find any cases. Also, some doubt has been cast on whether stereotype threat can explain differential performance of men and women in mathematics. We’ll have to wait to see how the research plays out.

We briefly mentioned the idea that science is somewhat based on a culture of competition, and that men might tend to be more comfortable in such environments. Of course, some men are not comfortable in such environments, and some women are. Also, some areas of science are more aggressively competitive than others, while others have different degrees of collaboration.

However, the culture of a workplace is important. An engineer once mentioned to one of us that, when recruiting staff, he tended to try to gauge whether the female candidates were comfortable working in a male-dominated environment. Whoa! Surely, female engineers are fully aware of the male-dominated nature of their field.  Regardless, the recruiters were coming at this backwards; all employees have a right to feel comfortable, safe and respected in their work place. The recruiters should have been going out of their way to modify their work place so it was welcoming regardless of gender, rather than trying to determine whether the female candidates were able to conform.

The discussion then moved to implicit bias. Mick’s results for the Implicit Association Test were revealing. He responded much faster when science was associated with male. He even noticed his implicit bias when conducting the test. Once conscious of this bias, he raced even faster through the test. Not surprisingly, Mick ended up with a strong association of men with science and women with liberal arts, but many other people, including women, had a similar association.

Mick repeated the test after a couple of days, trying to force an association between women and science in his mind to see if the results could be manipulated by consciously trying to break his association. The result? No change. Mick still had a strong association. These things are hard to budge! Is it because he grew up in a household with an engineer for a father and an historian for a mother**? Perhaps – we can always blame our parents for all our foibles, can’t we? But it shows that implicit bias can be ingrained. We suspect implicit bias reflects the social environment over a person’s lifetime. It does not necessarily reflect a person’s values.

Implicit bias is extremely important. Study after study seems to have shown that simply changing someone’s name on a CV is sufficient to change the perceived performance of that person. These studies have shown that both race and gender can influence perceptions. It is compelling evidence that implicit bias is important in workplaces, even amongst those who strongly value equity and diversity.

We discussed Jacquelyn Gill’s post on imposter syndrome, and many people said they could identify with it. Rather than just identifying a problem, one of the great things about Jacquelyn’s post is that it describes a solution (well two solutions). This brought the discussion to its final phase, which addressed what can be done.

Beyond ways to get over imposter syndrome (covered in Jacquelyn Gill’s post and our subsequent discussion), we also noted that being aware of some of these topics is important. For example, the literature suggests that being aware of implicit bias, and assessing performance with quantitative criteria, can help to overcome problems of implicit bias.

Secondly, it is important to stand up against illegal discrimination. It is everyone’s responsibility to address this. Of course, taking a stand can be difficult, and understanding how to do it effectively is important. One can always get advice. Many organizations have advisers in this area. Government agencies also exist, and these are especially useful when the organizational systems fail. Become aware of organizations in your own jurisdiction that can provide useful advice.

In summary…

How would we do this better? If Mick had tweeted about the seminar session earlier, we probably would have tried to steer the discussion to some of the upsides a bit more. However, we did uncover some good news. For example, until the 1960s in Australia, female academics were sacked when they married – ok, it’s improved from a base far below sea level. But we did discuss other positives.

Edit: Here is an excellent positive post about life as a female scientist by E.J. Milner-Gulland:

Reading Jacquelyn Gill’s post was valuable because it is an example of a success story. She is also early enough in her career that the students could relate to her. Jacquelyn Gill’s post demonstrates that people can overcome a sense of not quite fitting in. This linked to a few other examples that we discussed where people had overcome a sense of not fitting in because of their gender and race.

Perhaps our biggest omission was not emphasizing the value of finding mentors and networks for support. Two networks that we have found are the Women in Science Enquiry Network in Australia and The Association for Women in Science in the US. There is also a strong network via Twitter. For example, look for the #WomenInScience hash tag and various organizations and people such as @4womeninscience, @AWISnational, @SoapboxScience and @UnderMicroscope. Several bloggers cover women in science; one of Mick’s favourite blogs is by Athene Donald. Our lab group has a strong network and discussion group based on women in science. Why not start your own network?

It would have been good to discuss topics such as cultural expectations, spanning individual and personal decisions (e.g., who does the housework at home, how to balance two careers) through to social structures (e.g., who can get parental leave). It is hard to fit the wide range of topics into a single hour session. What we did was a start***.

After discussing some solutions, we finished with an example of what not to do…

Oh dear – did they read the research on what attracts and repels women from science? At least we finished with a bit of a laugh!

Edit: While I have some concerns about a cosmetic company benefiting from its sponsorship of women in science, this video is clearly much better:


* It is also a potentially sensitive topic, and some people may feel uncomfortable. By opening it up to discussion, we are trying to make people more comfortable with this topic. Still, in a classroom setting, it is important that students understand that they are in a safe, respectful and judgement-free environment during such discussions. In writing this summary, we have avoided documenting the personal stories of the students.

** Speaking of which, you might be interested in the biography of Henrietta Dugdale by Mick’s mum. Henrietta Dugdale played an important role in women’s suffrage in Australia. She is significant internationally because Australia was the first country that allowed women to be elected to parliament, partly as a result of Henrietta Dugdale’s efforts.

*** By the way, our lab group has discussed most of these topics over the course of several weeks. We’re planning to blog about those discussions too. We’ll let you know when they are posted.

There are lots of online resources and reports if you want further reading. In addition to the links provided in the post, here is a small haphazard sample:

Edit: there is a list of 40 online resources at:

Edit: Here’s some more advice about how to approach discussions of diversity. Written in a different style from this piece, it is well worth reading: The Straight, White Dudes’ Guide to Discussing Diversity: Handy tips and tricks every guy can use to be more helpful and avoid the eye roll

Get a job…

Georgia Garrard, the co-coordinator of our subject Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science, arranged for Cathy Oke and Al Jones to discuss how recent graduates can increase their chances of getting an Environmental Science job. Cathy Oke is currently a Greens Councillor at the City of Melbourne (PhD in science and with lots of recruitment experience). Al Jones is a recent graduate of the Environmental Science stream of The University of Melbourne, and is now employed in the graduate program of GHD. They provided valuable perspectives on recruitment.

Here is a summary of what I heard in the discussion:

Applications should be tightly focused on the specific selection criteria;

Employers are looking for people who are smart, have initiative, can communicate well (including effectively dealing with conflict, and can write and speak clearly), are self-motivated, are committed, and can learn quickly and independently. Some technical skills are helpful, but many positions will involve training. That might be depressing for students who have completed 5 years or more of study, but employers use academic performance as an indicator of some of these attributes;

Use examples and narratives that illustrate the attributes that employers are seeking, and that address the selection criteria. Be prepared to talk about these examples in an interview;

Don’t expect recruiters to read every word of every application – your application needs to be to the point and engaging. For example, be aware of what (how little) people read of CV’s;

Do background research so that you undertand the organisation and the role;

You will need to be persistent – some jobs will have dozens of applicants or more;

Take advantage of networking opportunities. Seek out mentors in relevant organisations who can help identify opportunities; and

Gain experience via volunteering and vacation employment in relevant areas.

Edit on 30 Oct 2012: I have just have a Twitter conversation with @Dr24Hours and @ChemJobber about volunteering. It is important that you think carefully about what you might volunteer for. You need to genuinely think about whether the skills being gained are worth the time being spent. There is the real risk that the volunteer might be exploited unfairly. In fact, even in paid work it is important that one isn’t being exploited. As @Dr24Hours put it: “There’s a difference between volunteering for an organization because you believe in their goals …and being force to volunteer because the people with the keys to the kingdom won’t pay you.” While it wouldn’t be a primary reason to help, volunteering for an organization because you believe in their goals can also help your career. Depending on what you do, these benefits might include experience with organizing people and projects, managing budgets, learning about leadership and teamwork, etc. Having examples of these skills and experiences outside of life as a student can help for some (most?) jobs.

Also, I just read this article about internships in The Age: These seem different from what I had previously regarded as internships where students gain academic credit towards a degree via their internship. Am I right? But I can see why @ChemJobber and @Dr24Hours were less enthusiastic about volunteer positions – the style of internship in the article seemingly crosses the line towards exploitation.

And this too:

There are probably lots of other points that have slipped my mind, but these seem to have been the key ones.

Edit (12/11/2013): Here is some advice about getting a job in conservation:

Using stories to communicate science

In our grad seminar class (Graduate Seminar: Environmental Science), we’ve had the honour of hosting a few guests this year. Perhaps the guest with the highest profile was John Brumby, the former premier of Victoria. Among a range of other issues, he noted that scientists need to use narrative to communicate effectively with politicians.

Using stories to communicate science goes beyond interactions with politicians. John Brumby’s advice resonated with similar recent comments from a few other people about science communication. These comments have inspired a blog post on my research site. Check it out.