Natural history museums; Use ’em or lose ’em

I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett’s discworld novels and one of my favourite concepts is the Unseen university library. For those unfamiliar with those books, the library operates on the aphorism that “Knowledge is power”. Ergo:

l space

which is all to say that large quantities of books (magical and mundane) warp time and space around themselves, opening a portal to L-space. The “L” stands for “library” and it links all libraries everywhere and every when across the multiverse. The result is that virtually any bookshop could become infinite.


Did I mention that the librarian is an orangutan?

To slide obliquely onto my actual topic, there have been a couple papers published recently about the relationship between ecologists, taxonomists, natural history museums and open access. The first postulates that the primary datum of the ecologist is usually thought to be the measurement or count of a species. In other words, some number. But, in reality, a measurement has been made long before that, at a much more basic level: that ecologist has designated that organism as a particular species.

Now, the term “species” is to biology as the term “language” to linguistics: our every-day use of the term obfuscates the sheer number of often-incompatible definitions. Deciding when two animals are two different species and when they are the same comes down to probabilities a lot more often than you may think and, when philosophies change, it’s not unheard of for one scientist to completely overhaul a taxonomy (the classification of different species). I am no taxonomist but I did visit some sheet-web spider collections in the South Island over the last month and when looking at some of the older specimens (old as in <1900s), there was the odd species label which arched the eyebrow.

But in every other respect, these visits were fantastic

The point is that every time an ecologist looks at a plant and decides “Oh that’s an X”, that is an interpretation. So the authors argue that, in addition to open access to numeric datasets, it is imperative that ecologists make any physical samples available. Natural history museums seem like a sensible place to store these.

The second paper supports this notion but acknowledges that natural history museums often lack the resources to take these ecological collections. And by resources I mean a) curators, b) space and, c) capital which kinda determines the previous two. Given this, the authors argue that a cultural shift needs to take place within ecology. Not only do ecologists need to start storing their samples in collections but they also need to be more supportive of natural history museums, whatever form that support takes.

Because support is needed. I’ve been a member of the Entomological society of New Zealand for three years and, in that time, members have been called upon twice to make submissions in defence of members facing the employment axe (or at least the employment shave). In both cases, these other members were taxonomists and curators of significant insect collections who had fallen within that immense shadow which hangs over natural history research nowadays.

(The shadow’s called “Perceived irrelevance” and apparently I wrote a bit about it in a previous life (read: pre-PhD)).

Discworld Unseen University stamp

So to bring things back to my laboured Terry Pratchett introduction [“It’s our party we can do what we want”], it would be fantastic if we could have collections which were are infinite in size, fully integrated across space-time (hello, internet) and curated by a single highly skilled orangutan paid in bananas. But we can’t so instead we have to lend support to taxonomists and natural history collections when opportunities arise and make use of collections and experts when appropriate. If an ecological sample is too large to store, subsample representatives of key taxonomic units, deposit that and remember to acknowledge which institution is holding that sample.

Take home message: Give a taxonomist a hug and drop a sneaky fiver in their pocket.

(Take home message 2: Don’t)

(Take home message 3: I mentioned visiting museums to measure spiders which makes this count as a PhD update)


The enemies we can’t see; Institutional sexism in science in the wake of Hunt

(Edit: If you’re looking for some excellent lady-scientists to follow on Twitter in NZ, check out the two students who organised the Women in Science science, Megan Friesen (@nudibranch) and Rachael Sagar (@inexpectata). You can also follow some of the wonderful the panel speakers including Assoc. Prof Jacqueline Beggs (@JacquelineBeggs), Dr Margaret Stanley (@mc_stanley1) and Dr Christina Painting (@cpaintingnz))

I’m giving myself 35 minutes (Edit: HAH) to write this before I go run an extraction because doctorate.

So recently Nobel laureate Tim Hunt said some unfortunate things about women in the lab and offered a woeful non-apology. The reaction on social media and traditional media has been as predictable and forthright as a shorn-off shotgun. Now the roar of justified anger begins subsiding into a low growl and the question, again, comes around to whether the courthouse of Twitter and social media was “fair” in its treatment of Hunt. In short, we saw the same thing happen in response to Dr Matt Taylor’s shirt.


I do not have an opinion on whether the repercussions of what Hunt said (or indeed of Taylor’s shirt) have been “justified” because, unlike a court ruling, what has happened over the past week can’t be “overruled”. It is what it is. What he said was undeniably stupid; how could we ever measure the damage his views have done? But by that same token, how would we meter out some “acceptable” amount of infamy? We are still coming to grips with what it means to be an even moderately public figure in a hyper-connected world.

It took me a long time to build up the motivation to read the Tim Hunt story and over the past 24hrs I’ve realised why that is: for me, hanging out one sexist to dry is less than half of what needs to happen to improve gender equity in STEM fields. That is not to say that we shouldn’t tackle overtly sexist attitudes when they arise. It’s just that, if you removed every Tim Hunt from every lab in the world this very second, we would still not get an equal number of women in top science positions.

What I’m thinking about of course is institutional discrimination and its other similarly unconscious relations.

At the end of last year, a couple of PhD students in my lab hosted a “Women in science” panel discussion with staff from our department. I had meant to do a write up shortly after but sheer-existential-doctorate-anxiety and field work got in the way (Fig. 1). At this event, the majority of the discussion was about unconscious forms of discrimination rather than social sexism.

Fig. 1: Me circa-December 2014

Fig. 1: Me circa-December 2014

Let me be clear, sexual harassment and social discrimination does still occur in STEM fields and the consequences of these are amplified by gender inequity within STEM and by gender issues within broader society. But at this panel we heard about some other problems that exist within institutions rather than within individuals. So since we’re all still hanging around the bomb site that is the Hunt media circus, let’s keep these in mind:

  1. Female and male scientists behave differently but male behaviour is rewarded.

Begin on a tricky one, why don’t you? Bear with me.

Specifically, the panel suggested that female scientists are less opportunistic than their male peers. Earlier in 2014, ecologist Dr Margaret Stanely demonstrated that female scientists are less likely to request longer talks at conferences compared to male scientists. The panel agreed from observation and personal experience that women are less likely to apply for promotions or other opportunities unless “everything’s lined up” and they feel confident that they can succeed. By contrast, male staff members apply for career advancement or other opportunities the moment they become available – even if they are unlikely to be successful.

Similarly, women scientists often shy from self-promotion and rarely use the word “I” in applications, opting instead for “we” while male scientists barrel on ahead with “I”. To a selection committee, “we” suggests a lack of independence. Associate professor Jacqueline Beggs recalled a situation in which she had to explain this behavioural difference to a male colleague on a selection panel. As piece of advice, a senior lecturer from the audience suggested that women give applications to the toughest male scientist possible for feedback to learn “this is how you write a ‘boy’ application.”

It’s easy to argue “so women just need to modify their behaviour to conform to expectations”. This would help. But this will needs a) time and b) changes in how we expect women behave in broader society. These changes are happening…but on the time scale of generations and societies. If we want to see equity in the STEM fields anytime soon, selection panels, institutions and individuals need to recognise that male and female scientists behave differently and that it is no reflection on their abilities as scientists.

I should point out that, again and again, the panel emphasised that male colleagues do not consciously pigeon-hole their female peers loading them up with pastoral and catering roles and similarly they are generally open to hearing about female colleagues experiences. However, these conversations cannot begin unless women are brave enough to lightly agitate and bring attention.

But while it can be nerve-wracking to have these discussions with male colleagues, it’s even harder to tackle the institutional artifacts of a historically male-dominated space. Of course I’m referring to the lack of provisions to accommodate those managing both work and family. So:

2. The baby elephant in the room

Children were one of the first topics of discussion at the panel itself which advised, in unison: there is no “best” time. Research careers are frankly not accommodating to the responsibilities of “outside life” and this is not unique to STEM. But it’s hard to not be a little disappointed that the institutions boasting some of our most creative and analytical minds presently and historically which have and continue to contribute to our understanding of life and matter at a national and international stage somehow do not have the tools to do something as simple as judge academic output while controlling for parental leave.




Associate professor Beggs recalled being pulled up in an interview for not publishing as many papers during the years following her first child. Her output was measured not in terms of working hours (she was part-time at that point) but instead on the time period, the assumption being that she had been full time given that she was working at all. Dr Stanley was expected to be as productive following the birth of her children as before.

The tools to achieve a more level playing field do exist. In Sweden, funding application submission forms sported a little box asking whether the applicant had been on parental leave during their career. This is such simple way for institutions to take personal circumstances into account and it is disappoint that the Marsden grant does not offer this declaration. Apparently parental leave will be taken into account if the applicant openly offers the information but the onus is theirs.

I have to acknowledge that parental leave could be a problem which affects men and women equally. But as an audience member warned early on in the panel “pick the daddy of your baby wisely…sometimes old fashioned notions win out.”

3. General advice for women in STEM

Needless to say, this does not cover everything that was said. It was an inspiring afternoon and provided a feast for thought. I hope that there will be another panel soon.  Just to close off, here is a list that the panel had for other women in STEM fields (practising scientists and students):

Stand up for yourself. Apply even if you aren’t likely to succeed. Have conversations with peers if you are uncomfortable or disagree. Agitate. Express interest. Ask for help.

Stand up for other women. If you aren’t suited for an opportunity, try to think of someone else who is. Be willing to help them with the application if necessary. Mentor and give opportunities to female students. NB: Truly “give” these opportunities and do not expect that student to succeed beyond any other student. Ask conference organisers if they have female speakers in mind

Find champions and grow networks. Find senior scientists to champion grants. Seek out a range of mentors. Join committees and panels (it looks great on a CV and develops your network). Develop strategies to help you approach other scientists. For example, if you find approaching people at conferences difficult, before attending, write a list of people you want to meet and, no matter how scary it is, get that list ticked off!

And just to give extra emphasis:

Make decisions which allow you to live and work according to your priorities

Be honest about your career and life choices

Have a good week and let’s look after one another, ‘kay?


Everyone’s a critic; Thinking science thoughts at the Auckland Writers Festival

So I had told myself that my next post would be about my PhD but, like my PhD, plans change and sometimes it’s just not worth getting hung up on why, how or whether it matters.

So I took a break from pipetting and squeezing spider muscles out of their legs like a teensy calippo to go to the Auckland Writers festival. In particular I went along to The Role of the Critic, a panel (but really more of a conversation) between NZ art critic, Wystan Curnow, and international Shakespeare critic, Peter Holland, mediated by Rosabel Tan.

writers fest

Holland is on the right, Curnow in the middle, a logo on the left

Both Curnow and Holland believe that art criticism is not about assigning a value judgement per se (in the spirit of the original Greek term meaning “to judge” or referring to “a judge”). Rather, criticism comes from a personal impulse to understand the object (e.g. theatrical performance, artwork, song), to retain some memory of the live experience or indeed even possess the art through writing about it, and, above all, criticism is compelled by a deep abiding passion for the critic’s preferred medium or object. Peter Holland explained in response to a question that there are very few works without some redeeming quality and that examining why an object failed can be as compelling as pronouncing how it succeeded.

However, both also acknowledged that the critic mediates the space between the object and the public. In particular, Holland described how important it is for critics to understand the process involved in producing art and recounted a time when prominent theatre critics were invited to direct a play. One of the critics remarked that they had had no idea what happened in a rehearsal. Using this understanding must only aid the critic in another task which Curnow outlined. He spoke about the critic translating art works for the public, referring them to as “art knowledge” and “literary knowledge”. He emphasised that art is a body of knowledge in the same way that other academic knowledge is “knowledge” and that, in this way, one of the primary roles of the critic is to help translate this knowledge for others. Holland agreed that part of his role is to help others to see the “value” of the work. (In this case “value” refers to new ideas or experiences that an object bears rather than about assigning an artwork a place in a hierarchy).

So. I now spend more time in the biology building than the English department so I naturally twisted this all around in my head to think about science and how it is communicated. I strongly believe that science and art are more similar than we usually give them credit for but, even if we only think about them as bodies of specialist knowledge in which are the products of drawn out, largely unseen processes which are, in turn, packaged and sent out for public consumption well…you get the idea.

Mostly it just re-iterates the idea what there is value in having science communicators who can translate and re-frame scientific information for the public. Let’s face it, scientists do a lot of study in very abstract concepts before they’re allowed to start publishing papers and its not workable to expect the layperson to immediately recognise the same beauty or value in an elegantly designed experiment or in a high r-squared.

It also raised questions about value and distribution. Most universities have subscriptions to your major journals but what is the end product of our science for the public? Where is that information coming from, in what form and how is it being framed? Furthermore, how is science judged? I don’t mean in terms of citations or altmetrics but what are the value judgements ascribed to science and who are applying these judgements?

We already have people who I think we could call science critics such as Siouxsie Wiles, Shaun Hendy and other members of the New Zealand Association of Scientists. But could we use more? Art critics already have to battle with the false need for objectivity, balancing their authority to judge and their authority to speak to personal experience. Is the concept of a large number of individual critics compatible with science given that it is broadly considered more “objective” (strong quotation marks there). How qualified should you have to be to critique science? What avenues are there for critiquing science?

Too many questions for a Friday afternoon. Time for a pint.

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“…for a Maori”; The “I, too, am Auckland” project

On Wednesday of this week I had the privilege of attending the first screening of a series of short videos put together by the “I, too, am Aucklandteam. Inspired by the “I, too, am Harvard” project, “I, too, am Auckland” is a student-driven initiative which gives a platform to Maori and Pasifika students who are still subject to racism and whose presence at university is still contested.


These days the racism is subtle and often unintentional meaning that, while it continues to alienate Maori and Pasifika students, it can be harder to address, particularly in the moment. A common example, described in the videos is how tutors seem surprised when Maori or Pasifika students continue attending tutorials. Another example, which I have experienced several times, is when anything Maori comes up in conversation and, being in the minority, the group turns to you to speak on behalf of your entire race on a topic of which you may only have a very superficial understanding. It feels extreme to bite back when this happens because the microaggressor never intended any harm. Nevertheless, you have been compartmentalised and your cultural background reduced.


No argument, this sort of thing isn’t as bad as “We don’t need to worry about the Maori because they’ll drink/drug themselves into extinction soon” (real words said by a real New Zealander. [Side note: Being Maori/Pakeha/Thai I generally get passed off as half-Asian/sometimes Middle-Eastern which often makes me privy to statements which people wouldn’t actually have the balls to say in front of Maori or Pasifika]). No, it’s not as bad as “Maori are [expletive]”. But it requires greater explanation as to why it is hurtful and it’s difficult to explain that: the problem isn’t the one time someone compartmentalised you, it’s how it just keeps happening.

Which is why these videos are important; they demonstrate the ubiquity of these experiences and show how, little by little, Maori and Pasifika students are ground down and alienated within our dear tertiary institution. The result is students recede into themselves and gradually begin to drop off the radar.

There are three videos – two of which are live on youtube. The first catalogues the experiences of Maori and Pasifika students, the second (which hasn’t been put up yet) deals with perspectives on targeted admission schemes, and the final looks to the future.

Watching these videos in the Fale Pasifika and surrounded by (largely) Maori and Pasifika staff and students was…emotional but also unsatisfying. The observations made by students and staff in these videos got laughs and nods but that was all. There was collective understanding and empathy but there was no surprise.

As I see it, there are two audiences for these videos:

a) Maori and Pasifika students who may not realise that their experience is common and need reminding that they, too, deserve to be at university and

b) everyone else.

These videos are important because they are evidence of the Maori and Pasifika tertiary experience. I realise it might be uncomfortable to accept that the life as a minority at the University of Auckland is at odds with our self-perception as a highly accepting and multicultural society. It’s easy for me. I both empathise with these students and recognise the way I have largely skirted notice by hiding in my pale skin and Asian features. I worked in the Tuakana program for several years (a mentoring scheme which provides support to Maori and Pasifika students within different departments) and have experienced the way the general student populace (and some staff!) dismiss our work and our students. I care because I am Maori. But that shouldn’t be a pre-requisite.

I’m getting tired of the way I and my own father (who founded the Tuakana program and gave the keynote speech at the event) have to explain the importance of young Maori and Pasifika in economic terms. Apparently we cannot expect people to sympathise without some degree of self-interest.

I get angry about this but only because we can do better (and I do mean “we”. I’ve come from a privileged background and there are a few residual prejudices I haven’t quite winkled out yet). We need acknowledge these experiences without trying to make excuses. We need empathy, not sympathy and we need to understand the difference between “equity” and “equality”.

So watch the videos and check out the “I, too, am Auckland” facebook page

PhD: Selective memory

Almost three months have elapsed since my last update. Obviously a lot has happened in that time but for the sake of my sanity and for the sake of not turning my poor diary discipline into a mini-thesis, I’m going to go on and pretend that the past three months didn’t happen and just refer to them in future as a little in-joke to myself.

So where am I at right now: Mostly writing permits, planning collecting trips for the summer and measuring spiders at Landcare and the Auckland museum.

I have conducted preliminary allometric analyses on my measurement data for C. foliata males and have found that there is some evidence of an allometric relationship both in male chelicerae size and in the length of their anterior legs. There are some complicating factors about whether to log-transform my data. I have also been reading up on sexual size dimorphism as body size is going to be a very important variable when it comes to examining role of weapon size in predicting fight outcomes.

In other news I also don’t have to keep getting up at 5:30am to drop my boyfriend at a real job. I’m looking forward to getting back some mental alertness.

Next time: Will be within 3 months.