An open thank-you note…

Dear Universe-

Are you fucking with me? A couple of weeks ago when I was on my way out to lunch complaining out loud to my better half how I was tired of doing all the little shitty shit I have to do at work… birds shat 3 big globs onto my windshield… as if on cue. I laughed.

This morning when I was in the gym before work, sweating my ass off on the elliptical machine, Freddy Mercury (looking terribly fit in those vinyl pants) appeared on the video monitor singing ‘Fat Bottom Girls’.  ???!!! … as if on cue. I laughed. And I was glad that he wasn’t singing ‘Another One Bites The Dust’!

I suppose you are trying to tell me that I should spend more time laughing and less time bitching and being depressed over stuff I probably can’t change.

Point well taken and thanks for the humor.

Sincerely,

DrdrA

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Media Training… need it… or not?

Sometimes, at the request of my institution and very occasionally for other reasons, I agree to be interviewed by reporters.

I do not like to talk to reporters.

I do not like to talk to reporters, because I do not know HOW to talk to reporters. The rules of science communication, after all these years, are clear to me. The rules of scientist- reporter (or fill-in-the-blank profession- reporter) communication are still very muddy. In one of my very first interviews, given at the request of my institution, I made a couple of silly remarks. These comments were not inaccurate or scientifically wrong, but just things I wish I had said differently… maybe in more ‘professional’ language. For a while there, if you Googled my real life name, you could see these things that I said… that I wished reporters hadn’t quoted so darn precisely. I learned to tell reporters that anything that I said that they were going to quote, they had to get OKed by me in print prior to publication or I wouldn’t talk to talk to them. For the most part, this worked out well.

Learning how to talk with reporters- is like everything else we do as faculty that isn’t bench science- is mostly learned by training in the school of hard knocks. I suggest that it shouldn’t be so- institutions should train us to talk with the media. Why? Because these days your hard knocks can end up as a sensational quote on the evening news, in the paper, or on the world wide web. Yet another overly articulate nerd with too professorial a delivery, divulging too much or too little, in jargon no non-scientist can understand. And from a more pro-active perspective- I think if we know how to communicate a message to reporters- we might be able to use that skill preemptively to educate a wider audience about many topics- our scientific subject areas, science policy, how scientific discoveries are made… and how they are paid for.

Anyway, recently I agreed to talk with a reporter about an area of my career that is sometimes difficult, the being-a-girl playing on the boys field part of my career. I feel very strongly that talking equally about the challenges as well as the enjoyable parts of my job are important for the equal advancement of women in science. I recognized during the interview that although I think and write about this subject relatively frequently (how can I not?), I was still unprepared for this interview. Maybe I said more than I should have to the reporter- maybe I naively thought that when I told her something was off the record, it was really off the record. See- my brain didn’t make the shift to a format where I have to censor myself in real time, and where I have to consciously control the message I put out and the information I give out  very, very carefully. In any case- this is one subject, in addition to my area of professional expertise, where it is important for me to have a clear message and to get it out there with no room for mis-interpretation.

I was so uncomfortable with this experience that I decided to go to media training this morning- to gain some insight on what to do… and maybe more importantly.. what NOT to do when giving an interview or talking with reporters.  Yes, the moderator fellow went on and on a little-  and I wished that we could have had some small group exercises to help me hone my interviewee skills… but I think attending was a step in the right direction for me. Here are the rules I took away for providing an effective interview:

A. Prepare and practice. -Who is this reporter and what do they want from you? Who else are they interviewing? ….PREPARE YOUR MESSAGE. Think about the kinds of questions that might come your way- practice SHORT (<10 second) answers to even the most difficult questions you might encounter, staying on your message.

B. Keep it simple. De-jargonify your answers. This is difficult for those of us accustomed to speaking in scientific jargon- but it is necessary for effectively delivering your message to a public that doesn’t generally understand the jargon as well as you do.

C. NEVER wing it. This should be self explanatory.

Seems pretty common sense, doesn’t it? Sounds a lot like some of the rules for giving a scientific presentation- but we have to remember to drop ALL the jargon and stay simple, direct, an on our PRE-DETERMINED message. Stay on your message… practice it… stick to it… don’t allow yourself to be derailed. A couple more things that were said that I found interesting were:

1. It doesn’t really matter what the question was- answer it, or deflect it with a positive statement- Then… make a bridging statement to YOUR MESSAGE point… and deliver your message. (I realize that this is what politicians do that always has me screaming ‘JUST ANSWER THE QUESTION’ at the television)…

2. Listen carefully for questions in which the interviewer is asking you to speculate. DO NOT TAKE THE BAIT.. and do not answer with speculation. See #1.

3. Reporters are not your friends or enemies. Don’t do idle chit chat with them…. lest you forget yourself and say something that you would regret being quoted on later.

I’m sure you all will have something to add… so fire away…

I’m still out here….

I know it must seem like I’ve fallen off the edge of the earth. At least that is how it feels to me right now.

The last couple of weeks have been spent moving part of our lab to a brand spankin’ new building.  We officially moved the bulk of our lab yesterday, and all the boxes have now been unpacked- although things are still in disarray. The move is actually happening in three phases, run by three separate sets of individuals. One move for chemicals, one move for general lab stuff, and a third move for biologicals. Moves number 1 and 2 are complete, move number 3 will probably happen next week. There are little issues to be fixed yet, (who puts in 8-9 feet of counter space without putting any electrical outlets over it?), … incubators need to be hooked up to CO2, natural gas needs to be supplied to every bench- but for the most part things have gone as expected.

I don’t think I’m ready for any toasts yet. Perhaps it is just any kind of big change rocks my world in an uncomfortable way right now. Once the dust settles, I’m sure I’ll be excited. I’m mostly looking forward to quiet and being able to think about science, blogging a bit, and putting together some manuscripts in advance of poster preparation for a meeting next month.

Maybe that makes me the ultimate nerd. My teenager would think so.

Wrong. So Wrong…

Ranty Rant Alert.

This is just so wrong.

So wrong, I hardly know where to begin.

In case you don’t want to follow the link, I’ll just give you all a quote from an article that appears in today’s Huffington Post by Amanda Fairbanks on the recent debacle that occurred when Texas A&M administrators made the mistake of thinking it would be a good idea to treat higher education… scholarship essentially… as a business and calculate the worth of their faculty based only on what they bring in by teaching.From HuffPo:

The study calculated an individual professor’s “revenue” based on the tuition he or she brought to the school — a product of the number of students taught — and the amount of research awards and grants he or she obtained, among other factors. The greater the number of classes and students taught, the greater the revenue. If a professor’s annual salary was lower than the amount of revenue generated, it was black. Otherwise, it was red.

The Huffington Post is equally misguided for putting out an article where they explain that the numbers in the report were inaccurate in many cases- then never-the-less using those ‘inaccurate’ numbers to make a conclusion:

Of the 50 highest compensated faculty members, only five appeared to be in the black and earning their keep. The rest were crimson.

and

The data revealed, for example, that while one faculty member at Texas A&M earned more than $500,000 each year, the average counterpart at its College Station campus made around $120,000.

WTF!!! This is what happens when people make ill fated decisions to undertake a given process, screw it up completely, and then have to release the results to the media by an open records request.  What they have put together ends up being put in the paper by a reporter that puts out a sensational conclusion on numbers they admit are flawed- based only on a conclusion they have ALREADY decided upon. This drivel  gets seen by a national audience, without respect to the (sometimes massive) mistakes made during the process… and viewed by an audience that doesn’t have an understanding of how the modern research university system in this country works. It seems the highest paid people at A&M are …you guessed it.. the athletic directors….

So- here is a shame on you all around.

SHAME ON YOU Texas A&M administrators for undertaking this nonsense analysis- which, BTW, you seem to have done completely wrong AND are now undertaking a second time. First- higher education and scholarship shouldn’t be run as businesses. Faculty in the English department, Philosophy department and Biology departments are equally important in the  mission of educating leaders of tomorrow… regardless of how much ‘revenue’ they bring in in tuition. I’m asking myself where this is all going-  what is the point? Is the point to cut faculty or departments you see as financially under performing with your flawed numbers? The absurdity of cutting salaries or eliminating, for example, an English department for being financially in the red, is just that, an absurdity. The currency of higher education should be in the quality of the students we put out into the world, and not on the number of students we are turning out per person. After all, what has a university accomplished when it puts out 10,000 mediocre students every year? For the love of God- get on board with your faculty and educate the citizens and businesses of your state on the value and importance a solid undergraduate, graduate and professional education.

Second- putting that report out in 1/2 baked form is a disaster. NUMBERS.ALL.WRONG.  I can’t imagine how A&M faculty can have faith in an administration that can’t get the most basic information, like the base salaries of your own faculty correct. Let me be the first to inform you that correct salaries for faculty (indeed for everyone) can be found in the university’s operating budget for state institutions- and this is freely available to you in any campus library. Next time you undertake such an analysis (I’ve just learned that you already have) remember that people will take your 1/2 baked report- not recognize its flaws and it will end up in the national media. You’ll end up contributing to the impression that university faculty are living high on the hog and doing nothing for it. This, pretty much as a rule, IS JUST WRONG.

AND, SHAME ON YOU Huffington Post for a case of terrible reporting. I’m not sure what I expected from you- but you seem to have taken the numbers in the survey itself, that you admit are flawed, and just run with them. The salaries of every member of Texas A&M are publicly available (just follow my link above), you should double check anything you get from a university administrator, or any source for that matter, before you broadcast a mistake it worldwide. And you should find out whether a reported salary is a base (state $$) salary or whether it is supplemented with federal grant dollars that the faculty member themselves brought into the university. Learn something about indirect cost returns… and then REFIGURE the bottom line. If you did that for just a few faculty members you’d appreciate the bad mistakes in this report and you would (hopefully) think twice about basing any conclusions on them.

Or, I suppose, you could have made an open records request for that second super sekrit report the A&M Administration supposedly just presented to its Board of Regents…

UUUUUgh. Demoralizing for faculty everywhere.

PS. Did you know that the salaries of TAMU System administrators are also publicly available? Here is your big chance John Q. Public to find out what they did  to earn these gigantic salaries…

PPS. Sorry for the confusion yesterday… I pushed publish before complete rumination of the article….