A place for the stories of science & its harms

We were on a fast train from Brescia to Venice, my partner and I seated on opposite sides of one of the tables that filled the cars. Across the aisle, a middle-aged white couple sat on one side, an older Asian couple on the other. We had helped the latter stow their luggage when they boarded before settling in for the two-hour train ride. I was reading a book that I’d started earlier in the trip.

After a while, the Asian man stood. He was slight but not frail. I was a little surprised but unbothered when he sat down next to me. With no pretext, he inquired, “I am from Tokyo. Why are you reading this?”

Book cover, large sun rising behind a Japanese style bridge. John Hersey, Hiroshima.

“This” was John Hersey’s “Hiroshima”. Originally appearing in The New Yorker in 1946, it chronicles the stories of six individuals who survived the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. In the edition I’m reading, Hersey went back 30 years later to find out what happened to those survivors.

The traveler’s tone wasn’t confrontational, rather soft yet direct. I paused a moment. How did I explain to this man what and why I was reading about this atrocity, taken against his country by mine 40 years ago?

I have been reading about history and science recently, I tried to explain. I want to better understand those things, what we’ve done.

“This is about bomb, yes?” he verified.

“Yes,” I replied. I briefly described the provenance, that this was the story of survivors and what they saw and experienced that day. That it had been written to show Americans what had been done.

We continued to chat for a while. He was 73 years old, so he would have been a toddler at the time the atomic bombs were dropped. He asked if I knew of Kenzaburō Ōe, a Nobel laureate (I did not); he had read Ōe’s book about Hiroshima.

The conversation expanded to include talk of travels, drawing in the other couple across the aisle. The Japanese man was a lover of art, especially Italian Renaissance art he had learned about in school. He and his wife were retired. This was their third trip to Italy, and this one would last 50 days. Before parting, he got a pen from his wife and scrawled “Hersey Hiroshima” on the back of a train ticket, so he could look for a copy later.

In the end, it felt like a wholly inadequate explanation, and really it was. The answer was complex. It was difficult to summate my motivations succinctly, and here I faced the additional challenge that English was not his first language, and I knew only a few key words or phrases in Japanese or Italian.

I hadn’t been reading many books in the recent years. All throughout undergrad and grad school, I typically stayed with suspense, thriller, sci-fi, and fantasy. I’d sometimes pick up a piece of “literature”—a classic or a book that had picked up a prestigious prize.

Late last year, I started picking up books, but the genre changed dramatically. I wasn’t looking to escape into fantastical tales. I wanted to learn and understand more about history and society, their interplay, how they shaped norms and laws, and their continuing effects and echoes today. I had been reading many posts and articles online about such issues, but I wanted to engage with longer, deeper narratives.

This particular book selection arose out of a conversation with Hilda Bastian. We’d been talking about science communication and the frequent focus on the “Look at this amazing thing science has done.” She mentioned Hersey’s writing on Hiroshima as an important example of different perspective, one that was out of step with how others were approaching the bombing.

Though Hersey’s report is rather short for a book, I’m still working my way through it. Yet it’s a clearly powerful narrative. It’s one thing to know the specs of an atomic bomb, the 30,000-foot view of its power, the clinical view of what it does to the human body. It’s quite another to connect with the stories of individuals who experienced it. With the former, we may feel sympathy toward those affected, but the details and nuance of human stories bring us closer to empathy.

In recent months, I’ve seen a trope surfacing often. “Science is apolitical. Some scientists do bad things, but science itself cannot harm people. Science can’t be racist or sexist or biased in anyway. That’s just the people involved.” But that’s simply not true.

Science is, by its very nature, a human endeavor. There are laws of nature, such as gravity and chemical equilibria, that are immutable. But science is the process of building and applying bodies of knowledge. That means we cannot separate science from the actions of individuals who conducted unethical experiments, often using vulnerable and marginalized populations, to “advance” science. That means we cannot claim that the destructive outcomes of feats of science and engineering are not part of the canon of science.

Practitioners and advocates for science should wrestle with these issues. We should understand the historical context and the environmental and human costs of scientific achievements, both in how we got there and what society did with it. That goes for scientific and technological development today. We continue to see impacts of gender and racial bias in what gets focus, how questions are framed, and what’s produced.

We cannot claim that science has saved millions of lives through the development of antibiotics and vaccines while simultaneously exiling death and destruction of the atomic bomb as the purview of politicians. If we want to claim the benefits as victories of science, then we must also acknowledge the harms are just as much a part of science. To acknowledge them, we must learn our history—the history of science and society—and the stories of those in its midst. And so, though you, my fellow traveler ,will likely never see this—sir, that is why I am reading “Hiroshima”.

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You can read Hersey’s “Hiroshima” free online. The New Yorker also published a short piece on the background and reception of the report for the magazine’s 85th anniversary. Hilda Bastian’s post on the early history of science journalism also includes some discussion of Hersey’s “Hiroshima” and other contemporary reporting on the atomic bomb

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Worlds within worlds of careers

Over the last couple of years, I’ve chatted with grad students and postdocs one-on-one about careers beyond the bench. Often conversations start with something like, “I’m interested in science policy.” or “I think I might like to do science communication.” They always prompt an immediate question from me: “What do you mean by that?”

We naturally group things into categories. For science careers, they’re things like academic, industry, communication, policy… These can be good starting points for discussion and exploration, but they belie the complexity of the career landscape. Though people may be thinking of a research tenure-track position when they say “academic,” there’s far more to academia—research, teaching, administration; certificate programs to research-intensive institutions. Similarly, policy might mean advocating for research funding or changes in training structure to on person, but another thinks about synthesizing evidence to inform practice and regulation.

As you start thinking about careers, this complexity is obvious, but it’s worth acknowledging explicitly and diving deeper into what terms mean to you. There are many options within each category. Often real-world jobs bleed across categories. Contemplate what precisely it is that interests you, what’s drawing you to a particular category. Think about your mission. Articulating these things may open your eyes and enable others to imagine possibilities you hadn’t considered before.

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Changing Course, Part 9: Making meaning of deadlines

The last year and a half haven’t been very active for the blog, as my “free” time shifted to other things like editing an association newsletter. But I miss writing, taking some thoughts out of my head and putting them into words, so I’m trying to reclaim some time for that. A while back, I started writing about changing course from being a research-focused postdoc to being… well, something else. You know the ending (I got a job, which I’ve now been in for 3 years), but this is about the experience of getting there. After the slow realization that I didn’t want to become a PI anymore, I had to decide just what I did want to do and how I would get there. My postdoc adviser—who’d been supportive of postdocs pursuing the career path they chose—was taken aback by my consideration of a career outside academia. So I approached a call with my PhD adviser with some trepidation—and instead found a receptive ear and some valuable advice. And that’s where I last left you…
Sometimes deadlines are just dates when things need to get done to avoid negative outcomes. Submit this form so you can keep getting paid. Send in your payment so you don’t get fined. Those are just part of the background. Other deadlines mean something more intangible, even though you may not realize it at the moment.
Earlier in this process, a deadline I kept missing prompted me, in part, to really re-evaluate what I wanted to do. My postdoc adviser and I had a plan for me to write a career development award proposal. There were 3 cycles per year, 3 possible deadlines to aim for. Yet I just couldn’t seem to get started on the proposal. I’d fiddle with some specific aims, but I was making no headway on the core of it. Some of this was related to my mental/emotional state. Marital dissolution stress and some accompanying anxiety and depression were not conducive to deep focus and thinking. But as the cycle of prepping for a deadline and missing a deadline continued, I realized that the deadlines I met might be telling me something about my priorities. Writing a proposal that could be the next step in my academic research career was looking like it wasn’t one of those them.
Those missed deadlines, in part, prompted me to take an inventory, which started the process of changing the direction of my course. Another deadline helped me along in a different way.
I’ve talked about this before, but one thing that immediately captured my interest was science policy. The deadline for a major policy fellowship was just a few months away. Unlike the research career development award that had multiple deadlines, the policy fellowship. If I didn’t get an application together quickly, then I’d either be taking the fellowship off the table as an option or putting my career plans on hold for a year. I wasn’t prepared to do either.
So I got to work. I had clear tasks that needed to get done for the fellowship application. With a hard deadline, I couldn’t just leave it to whenever I “found” the time. I had to be sure I was protecting time to get those things done.
On the surface, a fellowship application might seem like a niche output with little relevance to anything else. But the core element of the policy fellowship application was the personal statement. This statement was meant to capture the essence of what you wanted to do, both during the fellowship and in the long term, and to outline what you brought to the table. I’d been thinking in broad terms and keeping an open mind. But this forced me to articulate, with some degree of specificity, what I saw in my future and how my past experiences were logically leading me there. The application also called for restructuring my CV.
The policy fellowship deadline kick started tangible actions. When I submitted the applications, I had an arc for narrative and a CV that was starting to look more like a resume. As I’d planned, in the weeks after submitting the fellowship applications, I started dipping my toe into the job application process. Without that proximal deadline, it would have taken me considerably longer to get that ball rolling.
Deadlines took on two valuable meanings for me in this transition process. One deadline missed served as a cue that I needed re-evaluate my career goals. Another deadline met served as a catalyst for moving forward in my career change.


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Where we might boldly go

Today marks the 50 years since Star Trek made its television debut. For some, Star Trek is just another show. But for some of us, that fictional universe broadened our horizons.

My parents were just kids when Star Trek premiered. By the time I entered the world, the series had been off the air for more than a decade. But it lived on in re-runs and marathons. My dad would tune in as his schedule and religious observance allowed. That was my first connection to the series.

There was a fair bit of excitement in our household at the news of The Next Generation (TNG), the year that I started kindergarten. I couldn’t tell you what night it aired anymore, but I know that my family was there to watch each new episode.

Just as the original had captured my dad’s imagination, so did TNG irrevocably pull my brother and I into that universe. As we grew up, play between my older brother and I often took the form of away missions. Some time later, after we got our first computer, my brother took to writing screenplays. As portions were finished, my dad, brother, and I would huddle around the computer. We’d each take different characters, throw our voices, and read the scenes. I had my own fan-fic stories, though I kept them to myself mostly. I devoured books­, those written for my age group and those written for the adults. I crafted my salutatorian speech around the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition.

But Star Trek inspired more than just fantasies about space travels and aliens. It was kindling for scientific curiosity. Mine was not a household where textbooks lined the shelves or copies of scientific articles took over tables. But there were books about stars and planets and galaxies. I have little doubt that Star Trek, in no small part, drove a family interest in astronomy.

It certainly spurred my own interest in science. Beverly Crusher (the physician on Picard’s Enterprise) and Jadzia Dax (the intrepid science officer on Deep Space Nine) were brilliant characters, using data and scientific knowledge to solve mysteries. In middle school, we had an assignment to imagine what we might be as adults. The drawing was telling­–that future self was styled rather a lot like Crusher. I don’t recall what exactly I called the job, but it was certainly related to using science to improve medicine.

The truth is, at the time, I didn’t really grasp that such jobs actually existed, or that I might head down (though later leave) a path like that some day. In my view of reality, I envisioned that I would become a physician. That concept was accessible to me. Physicians lived and worked in my town. Scientists did not. None ever came to my schools to talk. Summer programs, when available, were geared toward becoming health professionals.

Yet I still carried that ember of scientific curiosity. In my mind’s eye, I think, science carried a bit of magic. It would carry us forward. In my mind’s eye, there was no reason to think that women would be any less likely to become (or remain) scientists. I really think that Star Trek had some role in that. Yes, Star Trek was fiction. Yes, even the science part of the fiction was ludicrous at times, maybe even often. But, for some of us, it sparked interests in the real thing.

There are many self-appointed guardians and antagonists of science fiction universes. There are those who set themselves up as the oracles who “know” what a story creator truly meant and who should be allowed in “their” temple. There are those who feel the need to establish what makes a True Sci-Fi FanTM. There are those who need to make it clear to everyone that some adored universe is ludicrous or not cool or completely out of step with the dominant social circle. There are those who have a sense of duty to tear into the fictionalized science for being too far removed from reality.

These worlds are not without their problems. When I watch Star Trek these days, I can see problems I didn’t years ago. It’s an imagined future that carries marks of the day. The science, philosophy, and society of Star Trek have their flaws. Nonetheless, that universe holds a special place in my heart. For some of us, it showed us a world where science had a central and visible role in solving problems. It helped create a subconscious view that gender wasn’t a barrier to what we could do or what we could become. It inspired us to boldly go where we might never have imagined before.

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(Not) finding the time

Needless to say, blogging has taken a back seat in my world over the last year or so. Why is that?

Well, it’s many things. First, it was adjusting to a new job outside in a new city. The relocation put me closer to my partner, so that now he and I are able to spend most weekends together. So my weekend time began to fill. During that first year, I was also trying to create consistency in fitness endeavors; it was something important to not just my physical health but my mental health as well. And speaking of, then I needed to take some time to work on mental health. There were seismic shifts in my personal and professional life in a short time, and I needed to address coinciding issues.

As I began to feel I was settling in, I began to feel I wanted to find some new way to contribute to communities I felt connected to. An opportunity presented itself, as I saw a call for applications for an editor-in-chief of the National Postdoctoral Association (NPA) newsletter. I decided to throw my hat in, and just over a year ago, I started volunteering in that capacity. Although it’s a quarterly publication, there are aspects I have to pursue and maintain in the intervening periods too.

Then there are the times I just have to turn my brain off. Or take care of laundry. Or check in with family. Or organize my space. Or…

As a blogger, I’ve never been great with posting consistency. Other things in life encroached on the time I used to put into this blog. The more recent spate came at a time when I also began re-examining what this blog should be about. I am no longer on the academic track. I’m not even a research scientist anymore. There are still experiences I want to share, that I hope someone out there will find useful. There are still many issues I care about, but the way I want to approach them – the way I need to approach them – has changed, and that approach takes more time.

I wish I could I commit more time to this space. And I know it’s more often about carving out time for the things I prioritize. So I’m going to try. I have some ideas and strategies. Now it’s a matter of implementation.

In the meantime, a few glimpses at some things I’ve been doing over the past year:

  • Finished a marathon, this time under 5 hours (barely but still)
  • Visited Paris – a week after the November attacks
  • Presented a poster at the AAAS Meeting
  • Attended the NPA Annual Meeting
  • Had a miserable half marathon (cold, wet, and slow)
  • Led a session at the ASBMB Graduate/Postdoc Professional Development Program
  • Broke 2 hours in half marathon for the first time
  • Caught up with old friends and colleagues on an impromptu trip to Boston
  • Slogged through our first ever trail half marathon – a beast that took more than double our best half marathon time
  • Took an 8-day vacation in Argentina
  • Plunged into training for the next marathon (about 3 months out)

What have you been up to, dear readers?

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