Monthly Archives: January 2012

Childhood obesity, fat shaming, and the science of it all.

After all the hubbub about that Strong4Life campaign in Georgia and the talk of fat shaming, I’ve decided to finally throw my hat in the ring.  The first part of this post is a dissection of a recently poorly-written response to a study on the impact anti-obesity campaigns have on eating disorders.  The second part of the post is me tossing my hat in the ring.

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Today on Babble, Julie Miner wrote about the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health.  The study looked at the impact that in-school anti-obesity campaigns had on rates of eating disorders (or behaviors indicative of them) in children 6 to 14 years of age and concluded that there may be a correlation between the campaigns and the disordered eating.

Unfortunately the actual study PDF is small (meaning it’s not a research paper), and in a font that my computer cannot read, so I’m left to rely on the press release.  The take home message from the study’s author was:

“The issue of childhood obesity is a serious problem. In order to intervene in what seems like an epidemic of childhood obesity, everyone needs to be involved,” says David Rosen, M.D., M.P.H., Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Psychiatry at the University of Michigan Medical School and Chief of Teenage and Young Adult Medicine in the Department of Pediatrics.

However, Rosen says, “When obesity interventions are put in place without understanding how they work and what the risks are, there can be unintended consequences. Well-intentioned efforts can go awry when children misinterpret the information they’re given.”

“Many of these behaviors are often dismissed as a phase,” says Rosen, “But given what we know about the association of these behaviors with the development of eating disorders and knowing that eating disorders are increasing in prevalence, they should be taken very seriously.” Source.

And here’s the only figure they provide:

Source.

Seems to me like a measured conclusion based on the data.  No shrieks of “Anti-obesity campaigns cause eating disorders!” or “Teaching kids to be healthy makes them fat!” or any such nonsense.  At least not from the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

For the nonsense, we need to turn to Julie Miner who apparently read the same study (although she didn’t link to it or otherwise facilitate her readers making their own determinations) and concluded, “Essentially, [the study concludes] that anti-obesity programs are scaring kids into starving themselves or over-exercising.” (Source.)  Somebody needs to bone up on her reading comprehension, and I don’t think it’s me.

Having set up this straw man, Miner proceeds to knock it down with four main points.

“1.This is one poll. There are thousands of studies that show that anti-obesity education programs effect positive behavior change.”

Well, since Miner provides not a single citation and I already have a full-time job, I’m not going to PubMed search “thousands of studies.”  However, I’m going to venture an uneducated guess that the “positive change” she’s alluding to is weight loss or decreased rates of obesity.  Fair enough.  The CS Mott study’s authors didn’t look at the efficacy of anti-obesity campaigns, only the prevalence of behaviors associated with disordered eating (ie over exercise, refusing meals, pre-occupation with food labels/calorie counts, etc.).  If the “thousands of studies” Miner mentions but fails to cite, had weight loss/obesity rate as the readout of success, there is nothing to rule out the possibility that the “positive change” was affected by such increases in disordered eating.

“2. These headlines may discourage future obesity prevention and health promotion programming in schools.”

Well, I can’t say that it won’t, although I can attest to the public being kind of slow to come around to the science, so I doubt this will happen.  That said, if these anti-obesity campaigns are having detrimental consequences for the emotional and physical well-being of school kids, then I certainly hope these programs are discouraged/discontinued. Although, like the authors of the study, I hope it isn’t a result of this study alone, since they authors draw no firm conclusion that there is a problem, just suggest that there may be a problem and it warrants further study.  (However, that measured conclusion doesn’t make for a good straw man, so it’s easier to overstate the conclusions when trying to refute them.)

“3. Childhood obesity is perhaps the most important pediatric Public Health issue this country is facing.”

I’m guessing that the authors of the CS Mott study wouldn’t argue with this- you know seeing as how they work at a children’s hospital, treating children, and studying obesity and all.  However, I’m guessing they would disagree that they should keep their scientific findings to themselves because, as Miner puts it, “That mixed messages exist about the importance of prevention education is troubling. That a lack of clarity could diminish our commitment to solving this problem is unacceptable.”  As far as I can tell, the authors of the CS Mott study think that prevention education is super important.  They would probably argue that their study points to a major need to do more research, get clarity on how best to implement prevention education, and get on with the business of educating.  Just because science doesn’t necessarily agree with the current methods being used, doesn’t mean it is at odds with the overall goal.  Miner’s argument here basically boils down to, “It doesn’t matter if our current approach isn’t working, or is having detrimental, unintended consequences.  We need to forge ahead blindly!  Ignore that science.”

“4. There is no clear consensus on the right way to do this and these findings only muddle the issue further.”

Uh, what?  If there is no clear consensus, shouldn’t we do more research?  Isn’t the fact that this study points to a potential problem with current anti-obesity campaigns reason to do more work to understand the problem?  Why would you throw out good science that doesn’t fit with your fore-drawn conclusion if your ultimate goal was to prevent childhood obesity?  I hate to be the one to break it to Julie Miner, but that’s not how science works.  Scientists are always muddling their hypothesis- with data.  If the data muddles the hypothesis, that means you do more experiments, not ignore the results and stick to your hypothesis.  Further, clarifying the hypothesis doesn’t always mean proving it right- lots of times it means your hypothesis was wrong.  Scientists are invested in the outcome whether they are proven wrong or right (although like everyone else, they prefer to be right).  Putting one’s head in the sand so as not to upset the status quo is not a good way to make public health decisions and I’m dumbfounded as to why Miner would suggest doing so.

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Now, scientist hat off, I have some other comments on this particular Babble post, as well as Georgia’s Strong4Life campaign that’s been the focus of so much debate, see samples below.

In a recent piece for XOJane, Lesley Kinzel hit the‎ nail on the head when she wrote, “The only thing you can tell for sure by looking at a fat person is the degree of your own bias against fat people.”  So I would like to encourage you to investigate their own biases and prejudices before you address this topic, especially before addressing the science of this topic.

My main objection to Georgia’s campaign and what drives eating disorders- is SHAME. Most of these efforts to prevent obesity Miner mentions revolve around shaming overweight kids and sending a message to all kids that thinner is better. As Miner said in her Babble post, “There are a myriad reasons and correlative effects that could account for the negative behaviors noted in the [CS Mott] survey.  The most significant of which is the age of the students in question (they ranged in age from 6-14). It is precisely at this age when body image begins to affect behavior…”

These programs amount to ridicule, harassment, and shaming of overweight kids by their peers as a motivator to get them to change their ways. (If you doubt me, imagine that the posters from the Strong4Life campaign were drawn by some middle school kids and taped to some overweight kid’s locker- somebody would be going to the principal’s office.) They also plant the seeds of weight being a measure of self-worth in all kids. Even if those efforts succeed at goading kids to lose weight- is it worth the emotional and psychological toll? Are we, as a society, willing to torment kids to get them skinny?

Also, what of the skinny kid who sits at home playing video games, eating junk food, but thanks to genes and metabolism isn’t overweight? Is that kid healthy just because he/she is thin? Is weight the measure that matters most?  Nobody is taking up the banner that we find a way to shame that kid into getting outside and exercising after a healthy snack.

I agree that schools should teach about how we keep our bodies healthy- what fuels/foods are best and how exercise is beneficial, dental hygiene, sex ed, etc. What I disagree with is that the only metric that anyone seems to care about for measuring health is weight.   As Lesley Kinzel wrote, “The only thing you can tell for sure by looking at a fat person is the degree of your own bias against fat people.”   As a scientist, I know that weight is not the sole predictor of health.  As a mom, I don’t want my kids to equate their weight (or any other aspect of their outward appearance) with their self-worth.  As a fat woman, I’m sick of people thinking they know everything about me- my health status, my ability to do my job, my worthiness to be loved- based on my size.

Shame isn’t a wide-spread tool for spreading messages of public health. We are constantly trying to “remove the shame/stigma” from problems as a way of encouraging people to address them- child abuse, sexually transmitted diseases, domestic violence, drug addiction, alcoholism, etc.

I propose a thought experiment.  Look at the poster above meant to “encourage” kids to lose weight and parents to help them do it.  Does that seem effective?

Now, how would you propose we reach out to teenaged girls to discourage them from having unsafe sex?  Would we mount campaigns to shame kids into not having sex?  What would that poster look like? A young girl with a caption that says, “It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re a whore.”

What about domestic violence?  Would we depict battered women as objects of ridicule who need to come to their senses and make better choices?  What would that poster look like- A women with a black eye and some cuts on her face with the caption “It’s hard to be a good mom when you’re a punching bag.”

If these ideas sound like a terrible public health campaign, why then, do we do this with fat kids/people?  If you think being fat is a choice, then ask yourself two things.  1- given how derided fat people are, why would someone choose to be fat?  2- how much do you know about obesity, metabolism, and weight loss?  Then read this and stop being prejudiced against fat people and kids.

Now, I am a scientist, and I am careful never to equate anecdotes with evidence.  I may only be a sample size of one, but I have lots of fat friends and family that would back me up on this one.  Shame is not a motivator to lose weight.  I have been shamed, tormented, ridiculed and disparaged for my weight from the moment I started kindergarten.  I remember feeling fat and ugly as a kindergartener.  Having people around me want nothing more than to make me feel miserable about myself did not result in my losing weight.  Further, there were times when I felt like crap and turned to food to comfort myself.  It resulted in my having to work extra hard to maintain a sense of self-worth apart from my size.  My good grades, public service awards, scholarships, friends, family, Ivy League education- all of those things can still be negated by one teenager screaming, “F*ck you, you fat whale!” because I deigned to ride my bike in the crosswalk and he nearly hit me with his car.

If Strong4Life thinks these ads are going to make a lightbulb go off for these fat kids and they are going to get off the school bus, holding back tears so their tormenters don’t see them cry, then go home, eat a carrot, and exercise, they are deluding themselves.  If anything, those kids are going to run home (hey, at least it’s exercise!) so they can burst into tears the moment the door to their house closes, turn on the TV to try to forget the bus ride home, and eat the Chunky bar to which they were likened by the *ssholes on their school bus.  Then their attempt to forget what pieces of cr*p they are to the kids at school will be foiled by an ad from Strong4Life interspersed with their TV show to remind them that it isn’t just the kids on the bus who think they are piece of cr*p, it’s everyone.

We cannot ignore the emotional consequences of being overweight in a society that readily shames people, nor should we capitalize on it in the name of public health.  You want a public health campaign to help combat obesity?  How about we educate people how to be healthy instead of just how to be skinny?  How about we teach people that fatties aren’t just lazy, fried-twinky eating, dolts trying to drive up insurance premiums?  How about we clue people in to just how hard it is to lose weight and keep it off so that they stop blaming/shaming themselves and others for their size and just focus on being as healthy as they can be in the body they’ve got?

Further reading, posts and articles that resonated and informed me in the past few weeks:

The Fat Trap by Tara Parker-Pope of The New York Times

What’s Wrong With Fat-Shaming? by Lesley Kinzel of XOJane

Leave Paula Dean Alone by S.E. Smith of XOJane

School obesity programs may promote worrisome eating behaviors and physical activity in kids by CS Mott Children’s Hospital.

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Why shouldn’t my daughter have a play kitchen?

For Christmas, my parents got Mabel a play kitchen.  I picked it out.  It’s as close to the one I had when I was little as I could find.

She’s really enjoying it.  Making things for everyone to eat, wearing the apron her other grandma got her, baking, microwaving, etc.

I posted this picture of Mabel with her kitchen to F*cebook on Christmas Day, with the caption, “Best Christmas present!”

A friend of mine semi-sarcastically responded, “Oh, I know you wanted this, but seriously, cooking? Shouldn’t she be doing something a little less lady like, as in blowing stuff up? Mixing chemicals? Ha ha, MERRY CHRISTMAS!”

I replied, “Following recipes for baking is just like following protocols for experiments! It’s good practice!”

I certainly don’t want to inundate Mabel with princess paraphernalia, but there is nothing wrong with a girl having dolls and a kitchen to play with.  I had all those things, and I became a scientist!

What I said is true.  Baking and following recipes are good practice for doing experiments and following protocols in the lab.  There’s a reason most biochemistry departments started out as food science and nutrition departments.  There’s real chemistry behind the need for baking soda versus baking powder in a recipe.  Yeast that leaven our bread do so by metabolizing the carbohydrates in the dough and producing carbon dioxide- and it’s not coincidental that baker’s yeast is a commonly used/studied strain in labs across the world.

Not every toy has to be blatantly educational.  Kids learn through play, and that’s educational enough for me.

However, I also don’t think I have to be paranoid about allowing my daughter to play with ‘girls toys.’  She plays with whatever interests her.  It’s her choice that she prefers the Little People Farm to the Little People Dollhouse- she has access to both.  Mac and I are conscious of societal gender constructs (Hello!  He’s a stay at home dad and I’m the wife with the full time job).  When given the choice, we generally choose gender neutral items.  The reason for this is two-fold.  First, it’s practical, knowing we wanted more children we didn’t want to have to purchase new items if the second kid was a boy (which is it), and second, we didn’t want to force pink/princess/girlie stuff on our daughter.

Mabel’s 2nd birthday was earlier this month.  We got her an easel (she’s really into drawing right now) and a ‘feeding set’ for her dolls- with those cheapo bottles where the liquid ‘disappears’ when you tip it up.  She can pretend to me a mom and an artist.

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Pregnancy made me lose my curls.

When I was little I had pretty straight hair.  When I started the earliest stages of puberty- around 3rd grade or so- my hair got super curly.  It stayed curly until I got pregnant with my daughter.  Exhibit 1:

So what happened?  Why did my hair change?  I didn’t know, but was curious and went in search of answers.

First I asked around- I found a few other moms whose hair had gotten curlier or straighter during/after being pregnant.  Since they were all scientists, they could speculate why, but nobody knew for sure.

A quick Google search turned up tons on info on post-partum hair loss, and articles about how thick and full hair can get during pregnancy, but nothing about a change in texture.  Therefore- a more in depth Google search.

Here are my findings…

Most of what I knew about hair growth, I actually learned from mice.  Hair growth is cyclical, with two primary phases:  anangen (when the follicle is actively growing hair), and telogen (when the follicle is resting and sheds the hair it had been growing).  There are a variety of mouse mutants that have long hair- thanks to changes in genes that prolong the anangen phase.  The length of the cycles vary depending on the location of the hair and are controlled by a variety of growth factors and hormones.

Source

Normally the majority of the hairs on your head are in anagen (about 90%), with 10% in telogen.  So you lose hair everyday, but since it’s the minority of hairs on your head, it’s not noticeable.

While you’re pregnant, estrogen and other hormones prolong the anagen phase, meaning you lose fewer hairs and most women report thicker, fuller hair.  Once you give birth, your hormone levels fluctuate and the follicles on your scalp that had been kept in anagen, transition to telogen and you shed lots of hair at once.  That process is called post-partum alopecia and is a form of telogen effluvium.

Telogen effluvium could explain how my curly hairs fell out, but it doesn’t explain why the hairs that grew back weren’t curly.  So, what makes hair curly?

Turns out, the shape of your hair is due to the actual shape of the follicle from which it grows.  This post by Anne Tecklenburg at Stanford was really helpful at explaining hair texture .  The take home message:

Source.

So did my follicles change their shape after I was pregnant?  Were hormones responsible for my hair getting curlier at puberty and less curly during pregnancy?

It is known that estrogen strongly influences hair growth (see here), and we know that estrogen levels fluctuate during and after pregnancy and birth.  However, the exact molecular mechanisms responsible for the change in hair texture during pregnancy may not be known- or are an area of active research.  This great piece on NPR addresses just that possibility:  A Hair Mystery:  Curly Hair Gone Straight.

The conclusion from all this- while not definitive- is that yes, hormonal changes during pregnancy can alter the texture of hair, most likely by changing the shape of the hair follicle.

A coworker of mine had her hair go from stick straight to very curly with her first pregnancy, and from very curly to wavy with her second.  As I’m now almost 19 weeks through this second pregnancy, and hair grows about 1.25 centimeters per month, I have about 5.5 centimeters of hair that has grown since I got pregnant.  While I have noticed less hair loss, so far, I don’t see it getting curlier, if anything it’s getting even straighter.

I’ll be sure to update when my hair growth normalized post-pregnancy.

Some references:

WebMD- Telogen effluvium

Standford’s Ask a Geneticist-  Hair Biology

NPR- A Hair Mystery:  Curly Hair Gone Straight

Wikipedia- Hair Follicle

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Medical ethics- not much has changed.

What do an intellectually disables 2 year old and a middle-aged illegal immigrant have in common?  Neither of them can get the kidney transplant that could prolong their lives.

Back in December I came across this article in The New York Times:  For Illegal Immigrant, Line is Drawn at Transplant:  Illegal immigrant’s transplant, cheaper over life, isn’t covered.

The crux of the article, due to his illegal status, an immigrant cannot get a kidney transplant, only a lifetime of free dialysis.  The transplant would cost $100k.  The dialysis costs $75k PER YEAR!

Illogical?  Absolutely.  An ethical conundrum?  Apparently.

The article talks about the problems facing this immigrant, his family, his healthcare providers, and the healthcare industry as whole with regards to rising costs, irrational constraints, and the ethical decisions that govern care.

Some might say that the man is here illegally and thus entitled to no care at all- he should be deported, end of story.  However, there are safety nets in place for everyone- legal or illegal- that will cover this man’s dialysis at $75k a year.  Wouldn’t it make more sense to spend $100k once and get him the transplant?  The costs of follow-up care and long-term treatment post-transplant are dwarfed by the cost of the dialysis.

This month, currently causing an uproar is the story of Amelia Rivera, a 2 year old with significant developmental disabilities due to a genetic condition, who needs a kidney transplant.  Her mom turned to the internet for support after the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia said that Amelia wasn’t eligible for the transplant because she is developmentally delayed.  So we ask ourselves, again, who qualifies for life-saving treatment?

The Times article mentioned a piece in Time Magazine written in 1962 about the first dialysis machines, how their use was studied and implemented, and in particular, the moral weight of deciding who gets access to the care that would save his/her life.  The article “They Decide Who Lives, Who Dies” really struck me for how little the debate has changed in 60 years.  The criteria used to pick patients for the treatment included their intellect, their ability to comply with treatment, their ability to support their families, etc.  Dialysis is widely available now, but there is a major problem with access to lifesaving treatments- look at Amelia and the immigrant.  The debate over who gets access to healthcare as a whole is still a moral dilemma in this country.  And what of the immigrant- do we owe him, as a human being,  a life-saving transplant?  What about Amelia?  Doesn’t she deserve to live?

Source.

In Amelia’s case, I don’t think her intellect should rule her out from a transplant.  She is early in the process, and her family says they are willing to donate a kidney for her, meaning she wouldn’t be ‘competing’ with others languishing on the transplant list waiting for a scare organ.  No brainer, treat the little girl!  However, what if none of her relatives are a match?  Does that complicate the decision?  Should she be denied a place on the transplant list because of her intellect?  Criteria like age, ability to comply with treatment regimens, and overall health are used to rank people on the transplant list.  Should intellect be as well?  Who decides that?  How do they decide?  I would be hard pressed to agree that her intellect and its implications should weigh in the decision-making process.  However, her genetic disorder does dramatically alter her life-expectancy (average life-expectancy is between 18 and 34 years).  That may be a more pressing and relevant factor to consider.  What about quality of life?  Can we judge how her intellect affects her quality of life?

In the case of the illegal immigrant in The Times article, I think it’s a no brainer that paying for the transplant is the best thing to do- even if just from a pragmatic standpoint that it would save the system (which is already willing to cover the dialysis) money over the long-term.  Morally, I would have trouble telling anyone that they do not deserve a life-saving, life-improving kidney transplant.

As to the drain that the uninsured pose to our healthcare system, be they citizens or immigrants, illegal or otherwise, I think the answer is to provide care for everyone.  Will it cost money?  Yes.  Is it the right thing to do?  Yes.  Do I need such insurance right now myself?  No, but I know people who do, and I know one day, I might.  If you think that your private insurance makes universal healthcare something you won’t ever need, think again.  Most personal bankruptcies are caused by medical problems (62%), and most of those people had health insurance (78%) (Source).  You are not immune.  You are one catastrophic illness, either your own or a loved one’s, away from being the subject of a NYTimes article.  Why wouldn’t you make sure there were enough life rafts for everybody?

I do not envy the doctors and health care providers that are faced with making these decisions.  How to you tell a patient or a child’s family that they do not qualify for a treatment that will save their life- either because of money, age, health, immigration status?  I cannot imagine being in the position to make that decision or share that kind of news.  And what of being on the receiving end of such bad news?  My heart breaks for Amelia and her family.  I pray that the immigrant in the Times article gets the transplant he needs to improve his life, and save our healthcare systems tens of thousands of dollars a year that could be used to treat other patients.

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ETA:  This article from ABC News does a nice job of talking about how Amelia’s condition might influence decisions on her eligibility for transplant- regardless of her intellectual disabilities:

Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome occurs in about one in 50,000 live births. Health problems can vary from child to child, but some serious impairments include seizures, hearing loss and eye malformations, as well as kidney, brain and skeletal abnormalities. Heart disease and frequent lung infections are also immune deficiencies also reported.

Patients can be denied an organ transplant for a variety of reasons, according to the American Society of Transplant Physicians. Transplantation will not be offered to those would could be harmed by the surgery itself or by the immune-suppression that is required to prevent organ rejection.

Patients with weak immune systems or a high risk of infection, such as some children with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, cannot be immunosuppressed, according to those guidelines.

Some doctors have reported that patients with the syndrome have difficulty with anesthesia because their heads and mouths tend to be small, making it hard to place a breathing tube during surgery.

Patients with severe heart disease may have an unacceptably high risk during surgery. Also, those who are not expected to live five years may also be denied a kidney transplant.

Patients with severe intellectual impairment may be considered for transplant if the benefits outweigh the harms, say guidelines.  Source.

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The science of racism?

In honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. I thought it was time to admit that I’m racist.  I’m white, and I’m racist against blacks and Asians, mostly, not so much Jews (although they are arguably Caucasian).  I’m thinking, chances are, you are racist too, against people who aren’t of your race.

Source.

Now, as a biologist who took a biological anthropology class with this guy in college, I am fully aware that there is very little genetic basis for our racial designations.  I mean, if we share 97.5% of our DNA with mice, and 99.9% with apes, how different could humans be from each other?  Turns out, not very different at all- we differ from each other by about 0.01% of our DNA.  Those small differences can mean a lot of diversity in how our genes function, but in reality, we humans are more genetically diverse within out racial groups than we are between them.

That pattern of diversity is why a black couple can give birth to a white baby, or why one twin could be black and the other white.

Even though race is genetically irrelevant, as a social construct, it’s quite germane.  I first realized I was racist in graduate school.  I was walking on the campus of my Ivy League University with VERY few black students.  I saw a young (college-age) black man in a white T-shirt, black pants, and sensible black shoes.  I took one look at him and thought, “He works in the dining hall.”  I walked on, and then had a moment…

Why did I assume he worked in the dining hall?!  How racist was it to assume that a young black kid mustn’t be a student, he had to be a dining hall worker?  Very racist, I realized.  I made the assumption because my brain takes lazy, racist shortcuts.

It was a fact that the majority of dining hall workers on campus were black.  Yes, I had seen many dining hall employees take off their ugly uniform shirts, leaving them in the remainder of the uniform- T-shirt, black pants, sensible black shoes.

However, I’m sure there were students who worked in the dining halls as part of their work study.  I’m also sure there were young, black, male students who got up in the morning, and got dressed in a white T, black pants, and sensible black sneakers.

Truth be told, when I realized how racist I was, I was ashamed of myself.  I’d always been open to meeting new people, had a diverse group of friends, etc.  Heck, the majority of my college friends (from a variety of ethnic backgrounds) had worked in the dining hall!

It was simply a lazy, racist, shortcut that my brain made.

There are other things I do/think that make me take notice of my racism.

For instance, I have to make a concerted effort to recognize the women who paint my nails when I go for a mani/pedi.  Over the years, I’ve had places that were big and busy- with a dozen nail technicians.  The place I went to in grad school had mostly Spanish-speaking technicians (I don’t know where they were from) with long, black hair.  The place I go to now has all Asian technicians (I’m not sure what nationality they are, and I’m not worldly enough to be able to identify their language).  What makes it even harder to recognize which of the women did my nails (other than the fact that all I can see of them for most of the time is the top of their heads) is that both places have employees wear uniforms!  There is no remembering ‘red shirt’ or ‘denim vest’ to help me find her with her tip.

So, basically, when I go to get my nails done I feel like a “they all look alike” racist.  There is a scientific basis for my inability to ID my nail tech when all the techs are the same race as one another, and a different race from myself.  Turns out, it’s just the way our brains work– we are less capable of remembering and distinguishing between the faces of people who are not of our racial group.  I still feel like a schmo for having to sit in the massaging chair memorizing earrings or names on name-tags so I can leave the appropriate tip to the appropriate person.

Once I realized I was racist, I took steps to compensate for it.  Now that I know my brain will take these shortcuts, I try to recognize them for what they are- generally irrelevant and racist.  I don’t know that it’s possible to not be racist- there are obvious differences between races, and even little kids notice.  Kids don’t necessarily care, but they notice.  For instance- this is my toddler (front row, blonde hair) at story time at our local library, where she was much more interested in that little girl’s braids than the storyteller.

A few years ago I was taking my niece (technically my cousin’s daughter, but for most intents and purposes, she might as well be my niece) to the aquarium in Boston.  We were on the bus with an androgynous black person- I honestly couldn’t say if the person was male or female, and I didn’t particularly notice or care until I saw my niece staring at the person.  I told her it was impolite to stare and she asked me flat out if the person was a man or a women.  I told her I didn’t know.  She asked why they person was dressed “like that” (brightly colored clothes, skin-tight jeans, long dreadlocks, knee-high Converse, etc.).  I told her that the person was probably dressed that way because it’s what they preferred and liked to wear.  It was an awkward conversation, and I’m not sure I handled it that well- mostly because I was concerned that the person could hear us or would notice the conversation and feel uncomfortable him/herself.

As my own daughter grows up, I’m sure I’ll have many more of these conversations.  I was intrigued by this article from the authors of NurtureShock.  I don’t want my daughter to grow up racist, but it seems research shows it can’t be helped.  I hope at least I can help her to recognize when her brain takes lazy, racist shortcuts.  I think it’s pretty clear that frank conversations will be crucial.  For while it may be impossible for kids to be color blind, or fall back on other stereotypes of gender/race/religion/orientation, it seems there is a way to combat prejudice:  From this article on Huffington Post.

It seems we can retrain the biased brain, according to prejudice researcher Patricia Devine. But, these three steps have to take place: First, we need to become aware of our implicit biases. Next, we must be concerned about the consequences of those biases. Last, we should learn to replace those biased responses with non-prejudiced ones–ones that more closely match the values we consciously believe we hold.   Source.

I hope that living in a diverse community will help my daughter to make a diverse group of friends she cares about.  I’m close with all of my cousins as we have children close in age.  Our family is diverse- a mishmash of Tibetan, Puerto Rican, black, Japanese, Irish, and others I’m forgetting.  I hope that growing up loving people in all those different groups will do the trick.  I know that for me, loving people makes it really hard to think of them as ‘other’ and really helps to dismiss negative sterotypes.

Have your kids noticed different races?  Have they asked you questions?  How did you handle it?  Are you racist?  How do you plan to avoid passing on your biases?

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I’m sorry, I can’t hear you over the sound of how awesome science is!

A friend posted this on Facebook the other day, and I just had to share it.  When I saw this, I laughed out loud!

Source.

If you don’t recognize that man, you should.  It’s Neil DeGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History.

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Rookie Mistake

On Friday, I made a rookie mistake.  Part of the reason being that I’m a rookie, and part being that I’m cheap, even when spending other people’s money.

Last month I was SHOCKED to be invited to speak at a conference.  So shocked that when the woman with the British accent invited me over the phone, I assumed it was a scam and asked her to send me information via e-mail.  Much to my delight/surprise/excitement, it was legit.  A grad school classmate had even participated in the conference the previous year, so I could get first hand confirmation of the legitimacy and usefulness of the conference.

Following the realization that the offer to speak was legitimate (the first time I’ve ever been an invited speaker, as opposed to having a submitted abstract chosen for a talk), I got an acute case of impostor syndrome.  I thought, “There’s no way I have enough stuff to make a worthwhile presentation.  I’ve only been at this company a little over a year- are they going to agree to send me?  Should I even bother mentioning this to my boss and the executive director?”

Source.

I turned to Facebook for encouragement and posted:  “I’ve got a serious case of impostor syndrome.  Moxie, don’t fail me now!”

I e-mailed the information to my boss and our executive director.  Their response, “Work up an abstract and let’s see if there’s enough here for a talk.”

I scrambled and the next day sent them an abstract.  The executive director made a few changes and said, “Go for it.”

So, I did.  I accepted the invitation.  I’m nervous.

Then came the rookie mistake.  I got an e-mail from the organizer, who had initially contacted me, with info on how to register and a coupon code for $500 off the registration fee if I registered by Friday.  Even though my company pays for me to attend conferences, I wanted to save $500.  So, I registered.  Mistake.

A few minutes later, while awaiting my confirmation e-mail, I got a message from the organizers:  “I hope you’re well. I just received your registration for the stem cells meeting, as a speaker you aren’t obliged to pay for your place at the meeting.”  Whoops.  I thought that might be the case, but since the woman I had been corresponding with was the one who had e-mailed me about registering, I did.

So as if I didn’t feel like an impostor before, now I really look like one- an invited speaker who totally doesn’t know the ropes.  D’oh.

They’re going to refund the money.  Lesson learned.

With that faux pas behind me, my focus is shifted.  As is the conundrum when writing abstracts months in advance, I was optimistic and included some stuff that wasn’t quite nailed down yet, so myself and my technician are pushing ourselves to get as much data as possible before the talk in March.  Even if the worst happens and we don’t get it, I think I’ll still be fine.  I only have to fill 15 minutes.

I am glad I spoke up and seized the opportunity.  It will be a nice bullet on my CV that I’ve been invited to speak.  I certainly think my boss and executive director were excited about it.

Now, since this conference is being held in the city where I did my post-doc, I’m looking forward to seeing old friends, taking Mac and Mabel with me, swimming in the hotel pool, oh, right- and I’m excited about the science.

(To find out more about Valerie Young and her work on The Impostor Syndrome, go here.  And many thanks to ASCB’s WICB* committee for organizing a workshop years ago that helped me to ID and overcome acute cases of impostor syndrome) (*That’s the American Society for Cell Biology, Women in Cell Biology)

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