A mini rant about diversity at meetings #STEMDiversity #YAMMM #manel

Notes from Searching for Life meeting Dec 2015 #NewLife15

I helped organize this meeting that happened Dec 16-17 in Pacifica, CA. It was mainly organized by people from DOE-JGI and Global Viral. Officially titled “Exploring Diversity of Life.”

Wrap up of #WiSTEMspotlight: How Men Can BE Allies for Women in STEM: Bridging the Gender Gap.

Thanks to Digital Science and Laura Wheeler for inviting me to participate in this amazing forum yesterday on Ada Lovelace Day on “How Men Can BE Allies for Women in STEM: Bridging the Gender Gap.” I participated via Google Hangout (everyone else was in London).  It was an inspiring conversation … see more about the event in the Storify made by Digital Science below:

Some suggestions for having diverse speakers at meetings

Been having a lot of discussions online in response to my post (Apparently, the National Academy of Sciences thinks only one sex is qualified to talk about alternatives to sex #YAMMM) tracking the awful gender ratio for speakers and session chairs at meetings run by the National Academy of Sciences in their Sackler series.  Some people were asking what one can do to improve gender diversity at meetings so I thought I would post this which I was meaning to do anyway …


I wrote this in an email to a meeting organizer after I had turned down their invitation due to the imbalance in gender of the speakers (more about this another time — this is not the same case as the one I wrote about here: Turning down an endowed lectureship because their gender ratio is too skewed towards males #WomenInSTEM). 

Anyway, my colleague wrote a long and very helpful email to me after I withdrew from the meeting when I saw the speaker list.  In the email she detailed things that her organization was trying to do to increase diversity of speakers at meetings.  She ended it with this:

Thus, I take your comment to heart and wanted you to know that I care about this issues as well.  I would love to hear how you balance these inequities at your meetings and learn as much as I can.  Thank you for taking the time to bring this up I know how busy you are and appreciate your candor. Truly looking forward to more scientific exchanges and perhaps some education around gender issues.

And I wrote back, quickly, without digging into the literature or all the posts in the world about this some quick suggestions which I think others might find useful. So here is my response – again – was not meant to cover all the things one can do – just examples:

Thanks so much for the response and I am really glad to see all you are trying to do in this area. 

In terms of how we try to balance inequities at meetings I organize I would note a few simple things

  1. Do not try to invite only the famous people or the people doing the “top” work.  This usually biases one towards more established researchers (as in, older) and this alas also usually is accompanied by distortion of diversity.
  2. DO try to invite people across the breadth of career stages.  Meetings to me should not be only about getting the PIs whose labs are doing the best work to talk.  It should also be about giving opportunities to junior researchers – PhD students, post docs and junior faculty who are doing exciting work – perhaps more focused or smaller scale – but nevertheless exciting.  If one opens up a invited speaker list to people at diverse career stages one generally greatly increases the gender and ethnic diversity. 
  3. DO try to invite people from diverse institutions – research universities, research institutes, companies, non profits, NGOs, the press, non research universities, and more.
  4. DO try to be flexible about times and dates for talks – I have found that women more than men have other commitments (e.g. kids) for which they cannot change dates of activities. 
  5. DO try to provide child care assistance (as you are doing).
  6. DO try to make sure women are on the organizing committee See http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/01/the-easiest-possible-way-to-increase-female-speakers-at-conferences/282858/
  7. DO make sure to provide travel funds.
  8. DO try to include some talks on related areas that may not be the main theme of the conference.  For example history of science and ELSI related topics increase the pool of women and speakers with diverse backgrounds which can be invited.
  9. DO ask the women who turn down invitations if they care to say why.
  10. DO commit to spending a decent amount of time searching for qualified female speakers.  Sometimes there are people who fit ALL the goals of a meeting and they are just missed because women on average have lower public profiles than men doing the same type of work.

Just some ideas off the top of my head.


see also 




Talk for UC Davis Pre-Health Meeting (#UCDPHSA): Opening up to Diversity

Sunday I gave a talk at the “12th National UC Davis Pre-Health Student Alliance Pre-Medical and Pre-Health Professions Conference“.  I normally try to not give talks on weekends (to spend time with my family) but I made an exception here since this meeting has a strong commitment to issues relating to diversity in health and STEM fields.  This mission statement for the meeting reads:

The UC Davis Pre-Health Student Alliance’s objective is to introduce and support academic, admission, and preparatory opportunities for all students interested in health professions with a focus on those underrepresented in healthcare (with regard to gender, economic, social, educational, linguistic, cultural, racial, and ethnic background). We target universities, community colleges and high schools throughout the United States. The UC Davis Pre-Health Student Alliance aims to impact health education, increase diversity amongst the healthcare workforce, and inspire future leaders of healthcare through hosting the largest national pre-health professions conference.

It was that mission statement that got me to ditch my wife and kids Sunday AM (and also much of Saturday PM for a dinner and to work on my talk).  I went to a dinner Saturday for some of the speakers with the new Dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine Julie Freischlag.  The dinner had about 20 or so people and I met some quite interesting folks there working on various aspects of human and animal health.

And then Sunday AM I got up early, decided to use slides (was not sure) and finished off the slide set I had worked on the night before.  I decided that, in the spirit of the meeting, I would talk about two main things – diversity and access.  And I planned to tell three stories about my work in this area.  I wove in some personal stories since, at the dinner the night before Barbara Ross-Lee (who I sat next to) helped remind me of the importance of making talks personal.  So in the end I talked about myself, diabetes, diversity of microbes, antibiotics, diversity in STEM, and open science.  I came up with a title I was OK with: Opening up to Diversity.

My talk went well, I think.  I am pretty sure it was vbideotaped but not sure where that recording will end up. I did however post my slides to slideshare.  See below:

Opening up to Diversity talk by @phylogenomics at #UCDPHSA from Jonathan Eisen

And I also recorded the talk using Camtasia (basically, it allows recording of the screen, the video camera on my computer, and the audio).  I posted the recording (without the video feed which shows mostly my neck) to Youtube.  See below:

UPDATE 10/16 –

I have scanned in my notes that I made in planning this talk.  Figured, why not post them.

Update: 12/10/2014 – just discovered a video of the talk was posted to Youtube 

Quick Post – Interview of me is up on the Story Exchange re: #WomenInSTEM especially at conferences

Thanks to the Story Exchange and Candice Helfand for featuring me and the issue of Women in Science on their blog.  Here is a link to the interview she did with me a few days ago that she just posted:  Welcoming Women at STEM Conferences – and Beyond | The Story Exchange.  The interview discusses not only some of the reasons to care about diversity in science and at science meetings, but also how I got interested in the topic in the first place.

For some other background on my work and posts in this area see this page with a compilation of my Posts on diversity (gender, etc) in science.

Some selected ones are below:

Bacteria & archaea don’t get no respect from interesting but flawed #PLoSBio paper on # of species on the planet


Uggh. Double uggh. No no. My first blog quadruple uggh. There is an interesting new paper in PLoS Biology published today. Entitled “How many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean?” PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127 – it is by Camilo Mora, Derek Tittensor, Sina Adl, Alastair Simpson and Boris Worm. It is accompanied by a commentary by none other than Robert May, one of the greatest Ecologists of all time: PLoS Biology: Why Worry about How Many Species and Their Loss?

I note – I found out about this paper from Carl Zimmer who asked me if I had any comments.  Boy did I.  And Zimmer has a New York Times article today discussing the paper: How Many Species on Earth? It’s Tricky.  Here are my thoughts that I wrote down without seeing Carl’s article, which I will look at in a minute.

The new paper takes a novel approach to estimating the number of species. I would summarize it but May does a pretty good job:
“Mora et al. [4] offer an interesting new approach to estimating the total number of distinct eukaryotic species alive on earth today. They begin with an excellent survey of the wide variety of previous estimates, which give a range of different numbers in the broad interval 3 to 100 million species”
“Mora et al.’s imaginative new approach begins by looking at the hierarchy of taxonomic categories, from the details of species and genera, through orders and classes, to phyla and kingdoms. They documented the fact that for eukaryotes, the higher taxonomic categories are “much more completely described than lower levels”, which in retrospect is perhaps not surprising. They also show that, within well-known taxonomic groups, the relative numbers of species assigned to phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species follow consistent patterns. If one assumes these predictable patterns also hold for less well-studied groups, the more secure information about phyla and class can be used to estimate the total number of distinct species within a given group.”
The approach is novel and shows what appears to be some promise and robustness for certain multicellular eukaryotes. For example, analysis of animals shows a reasonable leveling off for many taxonomic levels:

Figure 1. Predicting the global number of species in Animalia from their higher taxonomy. (A–F) The temporal accumulation of taxa (black lines) and the frequency of the multimodel fits to all starting years selected (graded colors). The horizontal dashed lines indicate the consensus asymptotic number of taxa, and the horizontal grey area its consensus standard error. (G) Relationship between the consensus asymptotic number of higher taxa and the numerical hierarchy of each taxonomic rank. Black circles represent the consensus asymptotes, green circles the catalogued number of taxa, and the box at the species level indicates the 95% confidence interval around the predicted number of species (see Materials and Methods).
From Mora C, Tittensor DP, Adl S, Simpson AGB, Worm B (2011) How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biol 9(8): e1001127. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127

They also do a decent job of testing their use of higher taxon discovery to estimate number of species.  Figure 2 shows this pretty well.

Figure 2. Validating the higher taxon approach. We compared the number of species estimated from the higher taxon approach implemented here to the known number of species in relatively well-studied taxonomic groups as derived from published sources [37]. We also used estimations from multimodel averaging from species accumulation curves for taxa with near-complete inventories. Vertical lines indicate the range of variation in the number of species from different sources. The dotted line indicates the 1∶1 ratio. Note that published species numbers (y-axis values) are mostly derived from expert approximations for well-known groups; hence there is a possibility that those estimates are subject to biases arising from synonyms.

So all seems hunky dory and pretty interesting.  That is, until we get to the bacteria and archaea.  For example, check out Table 2:

Table 2. Currently catalogued and predicted total number of species on Earth and in the ocean.

Their approach leads to an estimate of 455 ± 160 Archaea on Earth and 1 in the ocean.  Yes, one in the ocean.  Amazing.  Completely silly too.  Bacteria are a little better.  An estimate of 9,680 ± 3,470 on Earth and 1,,320 ±436 in the oceans.  Still completely silly.

Now the authors do admit to some challenges with bacteria and archaea. For example:

We also applied the approach to prokaryotes; unfortunately, the steady pace of description of taxa at all taxonomic ranks precluded the calculation of asymptotes for higher taxa (Figure S1). Thus, we used raw numbers of higher taxa (rather than asymptotic estimates) for prokaryotes, and as such our estimates represent only lower bounds on the diversity in this group. Our approach predicted a lower bound of ~10,100 species of prokaryotes, of which ~1,320 are marine. It is important to note that for prokaryotes, the species concept tolerates a much higher degree of genetic dissimilarity than in most eukaryotes [26],[27]; additionally, due to horizontal gene transfers among phylogenetic clades, species take longer to isolate in prokaryotes than in eukaryotes, and thus the former species are much older than the latter [26],[27]; as a result the number of described species of prokaryotes is small (only ~10,000 species are currently accepted).

But this is not remotely good enough from my point of view. Their estimates of ~ 10,000 or so bacteria and archaea on the planet are so completely out of touch in my opinion that this calls into question the validity of their method for bacteria and archaea at all. 
Now you may ask – why do I think this is out of touch. Well because reasonable estimates are more on the order or millions or hundreds of millions, not tens of thousands. To help people feel their way through the literature on this I have created a Mendeley group where I am posting some references worth checking out.

I think it is definitely worth looking at those papers.  But just for the record, some quotes might be useful.  For example, Dan Dykhuizen writes

we estimate that there are about 20,000 common species and 500,000 rare species in a small quantity of soil or about a half million species.

And Curtis et al write:

We are also able to speculate about diversity at a larger scale, thus the entire bacterial diversity of the sea may be unlikely to exceed 2 × 10^6, while a ton of soil could contain 4 × 10^6 different taxa.

Are their estimates perfect?  No surely not.  But I think without a doubt the number of bacterial and archaeal species on the planet is in the range of millions upon millions upon millions.  10,000 is clearly not even close.  Sure, we do not all agree on what a bacterial or archaeal species is.  But with just about ANY definition I have heard, I think we would still count millions.

Given how horribly horribly off their estimates are for bacteria and archaea, I think it would have been better to be more explicit in admitting that their method probably simply does not work for such taxa right now.  Instead, they took the approach of saying this is a “lower bound”.  Sure.  That is one way of dealing with this.  But that is like saying “Dinosaurs lived at least 500 years ago” or “There are at least 10 people living in New York City” or “Hiking the Appalachian Trail will take at least two days.”  Lower bounds are only useful when they provide some new insight.  This lower bound did not provide any.
Mind you, I like the paper.  The parts on eukaryotes seem quite novel and useful.  But the parts of bacteria and archaea are painful.  Really really painful.
Mora, C., Tittensor, D., Adl, S., Simpson, A., & Worm, B. (2011). How Many Species Are There on Earth and in the Ocean? PLoS Biology, 9 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1001127