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Dangerous Experiments

Dangerous Experiments is the LabSpaces spot for guest bloggers. The purpose of the blog is to give new and old bloggers a space to experiment with blogging. If you'd like to contribute to this experiment, send us an e-mail or contact us on twitter at either @LSBlogs or @LabSpaces.

My posts are presented as opinion and commentary and do not represent the views of LabSpaces Productions, LLC, my employer, or my educational institution.

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Monday, April 4, 2011

This week's guest blogger is Canadian Girl Postdoc.  She lives and works in the United States and writes about things that lie at the interface of biology, gender, and culture. Always a little bit of bitch and a little bit buddhist, she can't promise to be PG13. In fact she promises not to be PG13. She can be found on her blog at blogspot and also on twitter as @CdnGirlpostdoc.

------------------------

When I was asked to write a guest blog for LabSpaces, I was flattered.  But I stopped and asked myself the question why.

Why was I flattered?

At the most basic emotional level, I was flattered because it made me feel much like I did when I was a 12-year old girl with pigtails, glasses, one-eyebrow, and braces waiting for the cute, white, popular kids to select me to play on one of their soccer teams.  But each time, I was disappointed. Despite my talent, I was relegated to the sidelines to watch as the other girls played.  [Eventually I found a team and we kicked the popular kids asses.]

So when I read an article by Walton and Cohen (2011 Mar 18 Science) I was not surprised to find that a sense of social belonging, feeling like you have positive social interactions with others improved the academic and health outcomes of minority students (African Americans) over a 3-year period.

But it did remind me that the science blogging communities: Scienceblogs, Scientopia, Occam's Typewriter, DiscoverBlogs, NatureBlogs and yes even LabSpaces, are a little like the soccer teams of my childhood.  Somewhat exclusionary.  These virtual communities are exclusionary because there is little representation from minority scientists.  And much like the real world, very few minority scientists get to play in the field.  Occasionally one of us will be invited to play as a "guest blogger," but I wonder if the guest blogger status simply reinforces our nature as "the outsider.”

It’s an important issue in science because there are many parallels to the lack of women in science.  The most recent study (Ceci and Williams 2011 PNAS) suggested that the under-representation of women in the STEM fields has to do with self-selection.  Ceci and Williams (2011) argued that women are choosing either of their own free will or because of the constraints imposed by society to leave academia.  I think that similar questions can be asked about minorities?  Why aren’t there more African American and Latino-Americans in science?  If there are so many Asian graduate students and postdocs, where do they go if not into academia?  Wherefore, the minority academic?  Is it self-selection and if so why?

The sociologist Erving Goffman wrote “The central feature of the stigmatized individual’s situation in life…is a question of …acceptance.”  Intellectual achievement depends on confidence, which comes from a sense of belonging.  And chronic uncertainty about belonging can undermine academic performance and yes, physical health.  How people perceive the quality of their interactions matters more than the number those positive relationships.  A single instance of feeling excluded can affect performance - just think back to that lab meeting or manuscript when your graduate supervisor chose to exclude you.  How big did the feeling of isolation and loneliness become? How long did it take for you to get over it?

This 3-year study by Walton and Cohen (2011) used ‘psychological intervention’ on college freshman to encourage a feeling of confidence and to assure the students that the difficulties and social setbacks they felt during the transition to college were common, short-lived, and did not provide evidence of a lack of  belonging.  Treatment group students read reports by senior college undergrads that had had similar concerns, and were asked to write an essay describing their experiences.  The treatment group students were video recorded as they read their essay.  The students were told that the video would be shown to future students to help ease their transition into college.  This “lie” was told to avoid feeling stigmatized and allowed the students to see themselves as benefactors.

Two groups of students European Americans (N=43) and African Americans (N=49) were randomly assigned to the “belonging-treatment” or the control group.   A second control group was used and involved getting GPAs from individuals that didn’t participate in the study (European Americans N=1362 and African Americans N=194).  For those that did participate in the study, GPAs  were assessed at the beginning of the study and periodically throughout the three years (Fall and Spring Terms of Sophmore, Junior, and Senior Year).  Students were asked to complete daily surveys in the first week of the study.  And at the end of their college tenures, students completed a survey to determine the long-term effects on their well-being and physical health.

What did they find?

 

First of all, initial GPA had no effect on final GPA for either racial group.  Neither control group showed any significant improvement in the GPA.  But what was interesting was that, as you can see in Figure 1 above, the GPA of African American college students in the belonging treatment increased such that the gap between the two racial groups was cut by 79%.  Secondly, the intervention tripled the percentage of African Americans earning GPAs in the top 25% of their class.  Lastly, the intervention affected long-term well-being and physical health of the treatment group African Americans, as they reported fewer visits to the doctor and scored higher on the Subjective Happiness Scale.  Although many remembered the intervention, the efficacy of the study did not depend on conscious awareness because few could describe “the most memorable and important information” nor could they recall the content of the treatment.

What I found surprising was that the feeling of social belonging had improved self-reported health and the number of doctor visits.  That there could be such an effect of feeling like you belong on physical health was a little bit of a surprise to me.  So I did a little digging.  A previous study showed that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), an area of the brain that is thought to act like an alarm system detecting when physical pain is present is also activated when an individual is feeling distress caused by social exclusion (Eisenberger et al. 2003 Science).

So when we ask ourselves why we don’t see minority scientists?  This research tells us that maybe we should turn the question around and ask instead, do minorities feel like they belong?  And if not, what can we do to change this?  One solution is definitely to increase the presence of role models, for as Danielle Lee states in her guest blog at Scientific American,

"I can certainly relate to this role model effect as an early career professional. My dissertation advisor was female, as well as nearly half of the other members of the Biology Department. All of them are heavy-hitters in their own right, which made it easier for me to envision myself as a scientist and professor. "

But it’s not enough to have role models, we have to hear their stories.  Because hearing their voices will remind us that the social, academic, and scientific adversity is shared and short-lived and that we do, in fact belong.

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Blog Comments

Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Great topic for discussion, GirlPostDoc!  I don't think the networks are trying to exclude minority posters.  I know we're not!  There have been a couple of calls for diversity over the last year, and I'd love to see more of a minority voice in blogging and science in general.

Looking back on your experience as an undergrad and a grad student, do you feel like a sense of belonging could have made you more successful?  Or alternatively, what do you think made the difference for you in being so successful in school or science?  Did you have a good mentor early on?  Where did you get your passion?


JaniceF
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No I don't think that blogging networks are intentionally excluding minorities.  I think the low representation is in part because there are fewer minorities present in the scientific sphere.  Thus,  there will be fewer minorities present in the virtual sphere.  But I do think that the ones that are there should be heard on the mainstream stage - it would only encourage participation.  Think of how female scientist bloggers have made a difference.  I think that it is difficult to tease apart whether my sense of belonging was hampered because I was a minority or simply because I was a grad student.  But I do believe that if I had more confidence and support I would have understood more clearly that adversity was a wading pool and not an ocean, and I might be further ahead today.   I had no mentors during grad school and it isn't until now that I have found one (not my supervisor).  I'm still looking for my passion - it comes and goes.


Dr. Girlfriend
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Very interesting post.

I honestly never felt like I really belong anywhere, not even with my own family. I’m not always sure why that is. Sometimes I enjoy feeling like the outsider and at other times not so much. Mostly I prefer the company of cats.

 

DNLee5

Guest Comment

I completely feel you Girl Post-doc.  The feeling of belonging matters.  And when you get feedback, some verbal, some non-verbal and some deliberate or unconcious that is negative, it really takes a toll on you.  Now that I'm on this side of game, I see how it plays out on young students from poor/working-class families and/or crappy public school districts.  They haven't been adequately prepared for the social culture of college. Sometimes they get professors or other students who send the message that they don't 'belong' and when they do less than well in class, it reinforces that low expectation.

It sucks. Creative sensitive learning environments and having quality mentors available for all students is a college's best chance to stem this loss of students from higher ed and as well as from STEM.

And this post inspired me to write my own take on this topic.


Suzy
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Hi Canadian Girl- really great post and really interesting studies that you found in this area.

I had no idea what race you were but also the thought never crossed my mind to wonder about it. One thing I like about anonymous blogging is that perhaps it can even the field a little more depending on how anonymous one wants to be.

In the past, I've felt less accepted as a blogger because I am not in academics. But I think a lot of that comes from my own insecurities and feelings and not from anyone else. I think I sense things because it is in my mind and not because anyone is doing anything. At least, that is what I tell myself.

Anyway- my point is that I can understand what you're saying and it makes sense. Certainly the few times I thought about quitting blogging were times when I felt too much like an outsider. (Side note, I think the whole Pepsi blog thing accentuated how much company scientist bloggers are not considered part of the blogging community.)

Then I remember why I write- for myself- and stop caring what other people think.

With science and minorities, yeah, I can see how the same effect would occur. And if one is young and not confident in their ability (writing or scientific) and lacks the support, it would be easy to talk yourself into doing something else.

Good post. Very introspective.

 


Psycasm
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Jade makes an interesting point - that one might not necessarily consider race or gender of the author. I know I don't. And I think your assessment that lack of representation online is probably due to lack of representation in real life.

It's an interesting post, but I'm left wondering 'what's your point'? I'm really unsure what to feel regarding this. Do you have any thoughts on what you might like to see done, by groups, or individuals, or ... whoever? I'm not the most prolific blog-reader, but I know that when I find an interesting post or author I'm entirely unlikely to even check their bio.


Brian Krueger, PhD
Columbia University Medical Center
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Danielle has a great post up in response about her experiences.  Have a read!


JaniceF
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@Dr. Girlfriend  The feeling of being an outsider can be really strong especially if it's family that you feel outside of. Cats!  LOL!

 

@DNLee

I see how it plays out on young students from poor/working-class families and/or crappy public school districts.  They haven't been adequately prepared for the social culture of college. Sometimes they get professors or other students who send the message that they don't 'belong' and when they do less than well in class, it reinforces that low expectation.


I can only imagine how hard it must be to overcome those difficulties.  Nice blogpost by the way!  I totally relate to what you are saying about being conspicuous and invisible at the same time.  It's truly weird.

 

@Jade

I had no idea what race you were but also the thought never crossed my mind to wonder about it. One thing I like about anonymous blogging is that perhaps it can even the field a little more depending on how anonymous one wants to be.


Yes.  I think that it's generally difficult to assess colour, however, some aspects of a blogger's identity is pretty obvious - for eg if a blogger is female or male.   If they are a postdoc, faculty, grad student.  These are all aspects that reveal where we are situated in the social blogging hierarchy.  WHat's the Pepsi blog thing?  Personally I really enjoy hearing from scientists outside academia.

 

@Psychasm

that one might not necessarily consider race or gender of the author. I know I don't. And I think your assessment that lack of representation online is probably due to lack of representation in real life.  but I'm left wondering 'what's your point'? …. Do you have any thoughts on what you might like to see done, by groups, or individuals, or ... whoever?

 

Yes.  As I said in an earlier comment, I think the low representation is in part because there are fewer minorities present in the scientific sphere.  Thus, there will be fewer minorities present in the virtual sphere.  But I do think that the ones that are there should be heard on the mainstream stage - it would only encourage minority participation in science.  Think of how female scientist bloggers have made a difference.  Walton and Cohen (2011) showed that hearing other people’s stories can impact how minorities perceive adversity and ultimately how it impacts their sense of belonging in the college environment. I am suggesting that putting the stories and voices of minority scientists centre stage could actually encourage participation and help retain minority scientists. 


Suzy
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If they are a postdoc, faculty, grad student.  These are all aspects that reveal where we are situated in the social blogging hierarchy.  WHat's the Pepsi blog thing?  Personally I really enjoy hearing from scientists outside academia.

Very true about social blogging hierarchy. Where do you think corporate bloggers are on that ladder? The very bottom.

The Pepsi thing: I don't want to cause a side discussion on this subject because it was very heated. So to summarize very briefly, about a year ago, or so, the Scienceblogs network owners invited scientists from Pepsi to have a nutrition blog on their site. The members of that blogging community were outraged because they thought the blog would be Pepsi marketing staff writing about their products and not about science. They were also upset about not being asked their opinion/permission before the invitation to Pepsi was made. We never found out what the blog would be like because they had to take it down at the threat of bloggers leaving. They left anyway.


Tim Skellett (Gurdur)
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Great post. Bookmarking for later in-depth discussion

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