Month: April 2014

Closing the gender gap in science


Laurie Glimcher

A March report commissioned by the cosmetics company L’Oréal focused on the disproportionate role of women in science. In a nation that prides itself on scientific achievement, the report reveals, less than a third of women actually enter the field, and even fewer graduate and go on to careers.

Laurie Glimcher, the first female dean of Weill Cornell Medical College and the 2014 North American recipient of the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Award, believes this imbalance stems from societal obstacles that women face in a male-dominated field. “Women in science need role models and mentors,” she says. “That’s why a program like For Women in Science is so important, because it helps women in research develop a network of support globally, and it identifies role models for younger generations.”

Glimcher attributes her passion, success and carrying of the “scientist torch” to mentorship and self-confidence, severely lacking among girls and women.

According to the “For Women in Science” report, there is a shockingly low number of women in science. Does that surprise you?

I’m not surprised by the numbers, but I’m disappointed in them. Science needs women and women need science. If gender equality existed today, the world would have 300,000 additional scientists and researchers, which, when we think about it, means, going forward, a pool of three million potential women scientists in the next 10 years.

Many women face obstacles when entering a male-dominated field. As the first woman dean of Weill Cornell Medical College, did you encounter those obstacles yourself?

Oh, absolutely. The environment has gotten better for women, but I did experience a fair amount of discrimination when I was in medical school and on the wards.

We’d be making rounds and we’d have a female intern and a male intern and a male junior resident. Whether it was conscious or subconscious, the male resident would instinctively turn to the male intern when a patient was being discussed. And the attending physicians, who were almost entirely male, would turn to the male resident intern as if they were on a different plane than the female intern.

That was not uniformly true, but that certainly was frequent.

I was asked more than once, “Why do you want to go to medical school? You’re attractive. You could get married.”

You wouldn’t say that to a guy, right? You wouldn’t say, “You are a very handsome young man, so why don’t you be a model or something?” It’s very pervasive.

The report says, “A girl graduating from high school has a 35 percent probability to enroll in the scientific Bachelor, 18 percent probability to graduate Bachelor, an 8 percent probability to graduate Master, and a 2 percent probability to be a science Doctor.” What accounts for those declining numbers?

It’s still the case that there is more pressure on women. If a man is somewhat aggressive and ambitious, that’s expected. But if a woman is aggressive and ambitious, she tends to be called abrasive or pushy.

Or worse.

Right. The stereotypes just have not changed. Honestly, I think the biggest problem is trying to have a work-life balance. This is a problem that’s tough to solve, because most women do want to have families. It’s not easy to have kids and devote enough attention to them and have a very high-powered career.

The culture at work needs to not just be male. Don’t get me wrong—there has been progress. But I still find the number of women in senior leadership roles is low. I find that many of my female graduate students and post-docs just tend to be less self-confident.

That’s a troubling observation.

Science is a tough row to hoe. Ninety percent of experiments don’t work. You get your grants rejected and your papers rejected.

If science was easy and it was easy to come up with discoveries, then they would all be done. But it isn’t. It takes a lot of devotion, stubbornness, belief in yourself, belief in the science to stick with it—even if you are discouraged—to just soldier on.

I think that women tend to blame themselves when the experiments aren’t going too well, as opposed to male post-docs and graduate students who just kinda brush it off and say, “Well, that experiment didn’t work. I’m going to do it this way.” Whereas, a woman is more likely to come into my office and say, “Well, I really screwed up here.”

Part of the function of a mentor like myself is to provide not just intellectual support, but emotional support and probably even financial support to try to level the playing field. I have a bunch of ideas on that subject.

What are some of those ideas?

One thing I did, because my laboratory was well-funded, was to provide research-assistant help, technical help, to my female post-docs or graduate students who had primary caregiver responsibility for their children. We hired part-time technicians who could do some of the legwork for the physical experiments so that having an 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. day didn’t cripple these women because they couldn’t work 12 hours a day like their male peers.

I thought that was really helpful. The women for whom I provided that went on to do very well. They ended up as tenured professors at academic institutions. Some of them went into the private sector and did very well there. They pursued a certain number of different careers, and successfully.

I think having that boost really made a difference. I did not find resentment from their male colleagues. They understood why I was doing that.

So I think colleges, universities and medical schools should try to find the resources to have such programs. This is one of the things I want to do at Cornell—raise an endowment such that we can offer this to our most talented young female scientists.

It can change a woman’s whole attitude. She can say, “Yeah. I can do this and also spend time with my kids, because I can have my technician do these experiments. I’ll direct her or him on what to do and I can dash out and attend a school function.”

We need to be a little more creative in trying to accommodate women who are very talented scientists who simply can’t work full-time—and I’m not talking about 40 hours a week. I’m talking 60 to 80 hours a week. They want to have some time available for their kids.

How can they be accommodated?

I think it would be great for two women with similar scientific interests to share a lab—the key thing being that each of them had to get full credit for all of the discoveries made in that lab, for all the papers that were written, for all the grants that they receive.

They would share equally and be recognized when it came time for promotion, tenure, or being invited to give talks. They would get equal recognition for the discoveries that were made. But they want to not work 80 hours a week for a few years.

That’s a model physicians and practicing clinicians follow. But the big concern is that when you do that as a scientist, nobody takes you seriously and you don’t get recognized for the contributions. What can university leaders do to help?

It all comes down to the leadership buying into it and providing financial resources. You have to put your money where your mouth is. It’s all very well to be emotionally supportive, intellectually supportive.

But it’s more valuable to say, “I have a technician who can help you.” That would be so important because there’s a big falloff between the assistant professor and the associate professor transition when women get discouraged and leave.

I wasn’t aware of that.

Let’s say you’ve got somebody who has been an assistant professor for three years. She’s gone through her startup package provided by the university, and maybe she has a small grant from the NIH.

Then one day she makes a major discovery, something really exciting. What she most needs to do at that point is to hire a couple more technicians and push it for all it’s worth. But she doesn’t have the funds to do that, and she doesn’t have time to write another grant, because she has a small lab and does most of the experiments herself—and she has two kids at home.

By the time she writes a grant proposal and the NIH sees it and it gets funded—if it gets funded at all—it’s a year later. If the university could provide support equal to an NIH grant, that would make an enormous difference. But it takes money—we’re talking about a $100,000 to $150,000 at least for a year—to allow that young scientist to go for it.

That’s something that I’m trying to do, but none of us do well enough. I consider being a mentor the most important thing that I’ve done as a scientist. Of the awards that I’ve been fortunate to receive, the ones I’m proudest of are the mentoring awards. When I pick up a journal and I see a beautiful piece of work from somebody I’ve trained who now has their own lab, it makes my heart sing.


“App”t descriptions

A few years ago I had a blog called apptdescriptions. This is what it was about:

Welcome to apptdescriptions, dedicated to the wonderful world of iPhone app descriptions. You know the ones I’m talking about. I mean the ones written by people for whom English may not be their strong point. The resulting text is often—accidentally—poetic or, in some cases, even zen-like.

These descriptions are not edited and are copied verbatim from the developers’ original promotional text. All grammar errors, misspellings, and punctuation (or lack thereof) are exactly as they appear in the description. I did not include links to any apps, and often the products aren’t even named. That’s not what this is all about.

Please note: I’m not making fun of these people. I’m just pointing out the… oh hell, yes I am making fun of them.

Not much has changed since I had that blog. App descriptions are still horribly written–and wonderfully hilarious. So I thought I’d revive apptdescriptions as a subset of this blog. I’ll start with some classics from the old blog and add new ones as I see them.

Here we go…

She winked at me. so flirty

Have you ever experience sizzling hot party? This game must remind your memory of running into cool partners. “What a fantastic party!! So many cool girls are here!!” “Wait, wait oh! Did you see her? She winked at me. so flirty” I am going to tell her “Dance with me if you want to get some tonight” What can I do for my girl?

I know anything

You have too many question? You are in choices? Worring about answer? Ask me, i will help to get the answer. You will surprise about my knowledge, I know anything.

The less time spent, the higher score got!!!

You want to know how your memory really strong?then use the memory test it this game…. Rule: First, You are shown some items, Click “OK” button when you have memorized them. Then, you find and
click them among a lot of other items. You advance to the next level if you found all items. But,if you make a mistake in even one, game over. the less time spent, the higher score got!!!

Bring it to whom’s ear, and WOW! AWESOME!

1. Do you want to make freak out of someone? Choose ‘Ahhh!’ sound and put your iPhone somewhere close to them. When they try to reach your iPhone, big scream will come out! haha! 😀

2. Do you want to make fun with your friends? How about ‘rolling stones’ sound? Tell your friends you can detect what their body sounds like. Get your iPhone close to your friend and there you go!

3. Hard to send your words to someone? Record your message with your own voice. Bring it to whom’s ear, and WOW! AWESOME! It can be used to your lover for a touching event with lovely message. Or just simply to send a sorry message.

I can see for miles


Almost 12years ago I had LASIK surgery, upgrading my vision to 20/20 from a lifelong 20/off-the-chart. It was pretty amazing experience. My vision was dramatically improved in a matter of minutes, and it is the second smartest thing I have ever done (the first being marrying my wife). I used to joke that as happy as I was to see clearly, it would have been much cooler if the surgeon could have tweaked things a bit to give me X-ray vision and telescopic vision. Now, it looks like at least part of that wish could come true. This is amazing. I’m really intrigued by something that appears to allow people to see significantly farther than normal. I wonder whether these will ever reach market in a general way. How do you suppose they’d be used? Who is the customer?

Review: Magic Restroom Cafe

537328_150460201794794_568303622_nSo there’s a “toilet themed” restaurant opened in California called Magic Restroom Cafe. Guests sit on toilets and food is served in tiny toilet bowls… really.

Now, I guess that they are so flush with success that they feel they can expand by franchising the operation. (If you are interested contact

Anyway, when I first heard about it a few years ago, a I wrote a “review” that I was particularly proud of, and which I just found on one of the dozens of flash drives I have in a drawer. I share it with you here. (Disclaimer: I’ve never actually been there.)

Magic Restroom Cafe Review
By Tim Goral

I went there with my cistern brother. They weren’t bowled over. My brother said, “What kind of crap is this?” I said, “What do you mean? It’s the Number One place to go. You can grab a quick bite if urine a hurry, septic can be pricey.” My sister ordered the pu pu platter, bidet ran out.


Testing the limits of testing


Anya Kamenetz

High-stakes testing in K12 schools has had a chilling effect on how students are taught and what they learn. The number of school closings from poor test results has nearly doubled annually, from about 1,100 to 1,900, notes journalist Anya Kamenetz. Likewise, the number of school reorganizations has spiked from about 1,000 a year in the mid-2000s to about 6,000 a year in 2010-2011.
A contributing writer for Fast Company and the author of the acclaimed DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, Kamenetz says the fallout from test scores goes deeper than most realize. “It really only takes one school to be threatened with closing to destabilize an entire urban district,” she says. Her upcoming book, The Test (to be published in 2015), is an in-depth look at the history, impact and future of educational assessment.

You wrote an article this year about a school whose students demonstrate connected learning in group projects, but they have had push back that students are not doing enough book learning.
I think we’re living in two worlds, if you will, in the sense that there’s a lot of budding interest in creativity, the importance of higher order thinking skills, critical thinking, communication, and collaboration associated with success, even more broadly than just learning.
At the same time, we have this very entrenched apparatus of accountability in assessment that is based on a pretty narrow conception of academics and tested skills. There’s so much accountability and rewards and punishments attached to the existing tests, that it makes everyone nervous that if we go too far into a creative concept of learning, teaching and testing we’ll fall behind in the assessment areas.
Quest to Learn, the New York school in that story, is an example of a school that tries to live in both worlds.
Within the framework of games, I think what’s interesting is that you learn to play a game by playing. Failure is very much part of the process. You die, you get another life, you start over. It’s the idea of incorporating failure as an interaction and as a reason to try again. That’s so powerful for kids, especially kids that have been subjected to this idea that if you go in on a test and you don’t make the grade, it will have negative consequences forever. This sense of failure really permeates. The fear is magnified from the teacher and district, to the state and federal level, and down to the level of a third-grader.
How did we become such a test-obsessed society?
It’s such an interesting question, and I did have to delve pretty far into the history of intelligence testing to answer it. We really are interested in science. We’re interested in rational thinking. We like to have numbers and we like to have measurements.
Measurements are a great way of making decisions, but you have to be careful that you are actually measuring something that’s real. The problem with tests has always been that human intelligence is extremely elusive and any measurement of it is going to be just an approximation.
When we ascribe precision to these measurements, they may be precise, but they don’t necessarily tell us anything important about the real world.
The sinister side of the obsession with standardized testing is very deep and old as well. The people who developed intelligence tests—almost to a man—were interested in superior and inferior mental ability, what it meant about eugenics, and the sterilization of the feeble-minded.
To me, that stems from a very deep distrust of difference and of diversity.

I wasn’t aware of that history.
It’s really fascinating. Alfred Binet, who created the first practical intelligence test, is an exception, but many of the different figures who contributed to the founding of the SAT and who invented statistical techniques, like the correlation coefficient and factor analysis—these guys were eugenicists. Francis Galton coined the term eugenics and he was one of the earliest psychometric superstars. This is well-documented history, but it’s not something we talk about a lot when we talk about No Child Left Behind.

Students today spend months learning the test. Teachers hate it, the schools hate it, but they are forced to do it. Did you hear that often?
Oh, sure. It’s very real. Students are taking up to 25 percent of class time preparing for tests. And there are all these extra benchmark tests that kids take—field tests and practice tests. I would estimate that almost three years out of school lifetime is spent on taking these tests.
Clearly it distorts the curriculum. We have evidence that it causes teachers to spend far more time on the tested subjects because they want the kids to do well. It’s a very difficult balancing act for teachers to try to promote deeper learning and creativity when they are mandated to perform well on these very narrow measurements.

Elementary and high school students have just begun taking the Common Core tests in 36 states. Is it ready for primetime?
It’s disappointing because, however you feel about the standards, the tests just don’t measure up. Linda Darling-Hammond, who was part of the Gordon Commission—a respected independent commission that reviewed the PARCC and Smarter Balanced tests—told me these are basically not that different from your standard old multiple choice.
And you can tell that by the fact that they’re not that much more expensive to implement. If you are really going to create a test that measures deeper learning—or fewer, higher, deeper, as they say—you have to invest in it. You have to create performance tasks that involve lots of long, free response questions that are graded in lots of different ways. You’d want tests that reflect fluid intelligence and divergent thinking. But these things take time to grade and they are difficult to administer. That’s not what we have. The Common Core tests are pretty much the same old thing, dressed up in new clothing.

I’ve heard educators say the new test will result initially in lower scores, but don’t panic. Yet people are panicking.
Sure. We’ve been conditioned for so long to accept that these proficiency scores actually tell us something meaningful about how our kids are doing or how good a school is doing. If you are going to now come in and say the new scores don’t mean anything, then it pretty much undermines the whole process.

What’s your opinion of the PISA test?
The role of tests like PISA is really interesting. They are given to super large numbers of kids around the world, basically for benchmarking purposes. They’re not high-stakes. I think you can have a lot more confidence that, at least on a comparative basis, they’re giving us some useful information.

Can the United States ever rise to the level of Finland or Korea on that test?
We’d have to really recalibrate our national priorities. There’s a growing consensus that the most important input toward student achievement is child poverty and all the factors that go along with it. Unless and until we recommit ourselves to ending child poverty and reducing inequality, not just in schools but in families and communities, I don’t see us reinventing ourselves. We can’t put the cart before the horse. We’ve spent too long at this point saying, “If we improve schools we’ll erase poverty.” I think it’s really time to try the other way around.

Will your new book touch on the SAT?
Yes. The recent reinvention of the SAT, to me, was a competitive move in some ways. For the first time, SAT has lost ground to the ACT, which has successfully marketed itself to school districts in a lot of states. But in the bigger picture, these tests and all the tricks and traps that go along with them, are not that important. They are not, independently, particularly very predictive of kids’ success in college, which in turn is not necessarily that predictive of their success in life.

The SAT was revised in 2005 with an essay section, and now that has become optional. It seems they don’t know what they’re looking for.
Yeah, it’s pretty pathetic. One of the things I talk about in the book is the importance of assessing expressive language. That’s a very key skill for employers, for life, writing and speaking. Most standardized tests don’t do a very good job of that. The reason for that is mass testing is mass graded, and the grading of essays is not very good quality.
There’s no easy fix. The type of testing that we’ve incorporated in schools has been marked by a mass production mentality. We test what we test because it’s easy and cheap to test it that way. Until we move toward a mentality that’s a little bit smarter about it, we’re not going to get anything valuable out of these tests.