Friday, May 11, 2018

Do we need white privilege to teach about race?

Last year, in the wake of Charlottesville, I saw quite a few biological anthropologists state on social media that they would use their white privilege to expand how they address the anthropology of race and human variation. While I appreciate their commitment to using white privilege to dismantle myths about race that underlie white supremacy, this statement made me uncomfortable. If anthropologists need white privilege in order to teach white students about race, what does that mean for anthropologists of color teaching these topics? What does that mean for students of color, in a classroom curriculum that may unintentionally center the education of white students?

So I drafted a blog entry which I didn't post. I didn't quite feel comfortable posting something that critiqued senior colleagues' good intentions. But in the light of more recent discussions about the way in which anthropology pushes students of color out of the "pipeline," and recent discussion on twitter about the challenges black professors have in teaching about race, I think it's worth revisiting.

In my own experiences of teaching biological anthropology, I've used my own identity as an example of how its difficult to categorize people based on appearance. While others do similar exercises with online resources or pictures of celebrities, I think my identity can be an asset in engaging students in a personal way. On the other hand, it can also negatively affect how students perceive my expertise and effectiveness as a professor, and make it riskier for my to teach challenging topics. As a visible minority, there's limits to what I can teach and how I can teach it without risking pushback from students. I discuss race from a biocultural perspective, but avoid directly tackling the issue of white privilege, whereas white colleagues can more easily address it because they share that experience with their white students.

I wish colleagues would explicitly recognize that their white privilege affects both their ability to teach challenging topics and how students evaluate them--and  that this has greater implications for the inclusion and retention of minority students and faculty within anthropology. Student evaluations play a role in if contingent faculty get renewed contracts, how job candidates are evaluated, and whether tenure-track professors receive tenure. They are well-documented biases based on race and gender. Racialized minorities, particularly women of color, need to constantly assess how their teaching will be received in light of these biases. And often, "diversity" is valued in the classroom for educating white students, which may came at the expense of minority students. When educating white students is centered, I worry that it may shine an uncomfortable spotlight on students of color. I've been in situations where I was expected to share my experiences of racism to educate white colleagues, and it's incredibly uncomfortable. We need to be mindful of how, often unintentionally, these experiences alienate minority students.


Wednesday, February 7, 2018

"Are we othering you?" The elephant in the room when we talk about minority inclusion in Biological Anthropology

Yeah... I can relate to that. From
 http://www.melbrown.org/elephant-in-the-room/


The first year of my master's I was friends with a grad student who would make odd comments about my appearance and identity. There would be comments about my skin color, or comparisons to Parminder Nagra, or about how our friend group was "so diverse" because there was a blond, a redhead... and me. And they were followed by the question "Are we othering you?"

Today I would call those comments microaggressions, and recognized the challenge in that question to actual call her out. I didn't, and it took a lot more overt bullying and eventually ostracism for me to realize that she was not a genuine friend. But as I read the recent article on Race and Diversity in Biological Anthropology, and especially Savannah Martin's commentary on "Othering" that was cited within it, those words echoed in my mind.

I've experienced more of those microaggressions from other anthropologists than I've ever experienced from non-anthropologists. And I suspect that's because anthropologists have an idea that they "know" about race, because, hey, they talk about and teach about it, right? But their discomfort ends up bubbling out, in jokes and odd comments and weird treatment. That discomfort was obvious when I was a TA for an archaeologist teaching an introductory class on biological anthropology and archaeology. On the way to teach the "race" lecture, he told an anecdote about his young niece, who was half-Indian. "She's Indian. Dot, not feather!" He looked me in the eye and laughed at his joke, while the other TA and I exchanged panicked glances as we wondered how he was actually going to handle talking about race in class (spoiler alert: it was pretty bad).

These are the sort of things you have to just brush off if you are a racial minority within anthropology. Of course, even with trying to ignore them, the accumulated toil of those comments can negatively impact mental and physical health. But when those may be the people serving on committees who decides who gets into graduate school, who passes comprehensive exams, and who gets tenure-track jobs... is it any wonder that so few minorities make it through the gauntlet from undergrad to tenure-track and tenured positions?

Anton, Malhi, and Fuentes review many of the issues that serve as impediments to racialized minorities within anthropology, especially highlighting the impact of "physical" anthropology's racist origins, and the problems inherent in the name of the discipline. They present survey data from 30 anthropology programs that suggests that biological anthropogy loses minorities at two key junctures: from undergraduate to graduate school, and graduate school to faculty positions.
Figure 1 from Anton et al, 2018. Minorities get a pretty tiny slice of the bio anthro pie.

They also review some of the programs that the Committee on Diversity has implemented to increase recruitment and inclusion, and suggest priorities for the future. Some of these are focused on recruitment to graduate programs, such as suggesting that departments eliminate GREs as a requirement for admission. They also discuss the need to improve retention, through methods such as mentoring and valuing service and outreach.

Utimately, my cynical opinion is that these solutions are not going to fix the underlying problem. I'm not so optimistic about recruiting more minority students just to expose them to a gauntlet of microaggressions and exclusion. And while mentoring may help in forming supportive networks, it still puts the burden on "solving" the problem of minority inclusion on minority students and faculty.

Yeah, let's just recruit more students of color to run the gauntlet...
From Swedish artist Emanu


A few years ago, I was on a campus interview where the search commitee emphasized how much they value diversity, and their goal of making the campus environment more inclusive. The next day, I had breakfast with the one minority professor on the faculty, who wasn't on the committee. She warned me that although they give a lot of lip service to the idea of "diversity", they don't actually "want" diversity, because it makes them uncomfortable (spoiler alert: I did not get the job).

THIS, right there, is the problem. Until the white majority of biological anthropology faculty actually confront their own discomfort around racial and ethnic minorities, we are not going to be actively included. We will always be the "other," and never part of the "us." The message is clear that we are not wanted, no matter how much lip service is given to "diversity" and inclusion.





Friday, January 5, 2018

Human infants prefer helpers, but adult bonobos prefer hinderers

Over the past couple of days, headlines about a new bonobo paper caught my eye:

"Unlike Humans, Bonobos Shun Helpers and Befriend the Bullies"

"Humans like Helpers, but Bonobos Prefer Bullies"

"'Laid-back' Bonobos Take a Shine to Belligerents"

My initial reaction to the stories was mixed. One one hand, I'm really glad we are moving beyond stereotyping bonobos as peaceful "hippy chimps" who are constantly having orgies and nice all the time. Bonobos can be aggressive, both to their bonobo conspecifics and sometimes human caretakers. They do have engage in a variety of sexual behaviors with all age and sex classes, but that sexual behavior is typically over in a matter of seconds. Much like humans and chimpanzees, their lives are full of complex social relationships that include friendship, fighting, and jockeying for power and position.

My bonobo bestie Susie, who lives at the Columbus Zoo,
taught me that bonobo social lives are just as rich and complicated as our own.

On the other hand... having survived both junior high and academia (so far), I certainly do not buy the idea that humans like helpers and shun bullies. I'm familiar with the study that elegantly demonstrates that human infants prefer "helpers" to "hinderers," but my personal experience with humans suggests that for older humans, such behavior is likely vary context-dependent. And having spent some time studying bonobos, I suspect that, like us, how they would react in such situations would also likely be context-dependent.

But to evaluate this evidence, I needed to read Krupenye and Hare's article. They did four experiments on bonobos from ages 4-19 at Lola ya Bonobo, a sanctuary in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In the first experiment, they repeated the study done with human infants, where a square and triangle with googly eyes help or hinder a googly-eyed circle in climbing up a hill. The bonobos could then reach for a food reward under a cut-out of the mean, "hinderer" or nice "helper." Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward reaching to the hinderer cut-out for food. However, when adults (> 9 years old) and subadults were analyzed separately, this bias was ONLY significant for the adults. In control trials with non-googly-eyed helpers/hinderers, there was no bias toward others.

Figure 1 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

In the next two experiments, bonobos watched humans act as helpers or hinderers, and then could reach out to either to take a food reward. In Experiment 2, the bonobo subjects watched a human playing with a stuffed animal and dropping it. The helper tried to return the toy, while the hinderer snatched it away. The bonobos could then choose food offered at the same time from either the helper or hinderer. In this experiment, there were no significant differences when all age groups were lumped together. However, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, adults exhibited a significant preference for "hinderers", while subadults didn't.

Figure 3 from Krupenye and Hare (2017). See caption for more detail.

Experiment 3 followed the same protocol as Experiment 2, but they did four trials beforehand where the bonobos were just offered food from the same two people. If bonobos exhibited a preference for one person, that person was assigned the "helper" position. If bonobos exhibited no preference in the initial trials, the 'helper" position was assigned semi-randomly. Bonobos exhibited a significant bias toward shifting to take food from the "hinderer." However, only adults participated in this experiment.

Finally, in Experiment 4, they did another experiment with the googly-eyed shapes, only this time they showed one googly-eyed shape displace the other for position. Displacements, where one individual takes another individual's spot, is a demonstration of dominance in primates. Humans do this too, and bonobos should recognize the "displacer" as the dominant individual. Overall, the bonobos exhibited a significant preference for the dominant individuals. Like the first experiment, when adults and subadults were analyzed separately, only the adults exhibited significant results.

So what do these results tell us? I think Krupenye and Hare have nicely demonstrated that adult bonobos in a sanctuary setting prefer "hinderers" or dominant individuals. However, these results don't hold for the younger bonobos (ages 4-9). And that's where the comparison to humans fall short. We can't compare human infants to adult bonobos, and then conclude that this is a species difference. I suspect that this may be an age difference in both species, though there also may be greater variation depending on culture, personality, socialization, etc.

Female bonobo Unga grooms infant Jerry at the Columbus Zoo. Bonobo mothers invest heavily
in caring for their offspring, so orphans who lost their mothers may potential behave differently.

Additionally, I have some concerns about how rearing history and choice of actors may have affected results. The bonobos were orphans who typically arrived at the sanctuary around 2-3 years old. Before this, they most likely witnessed their mothers (and possible other group-mates) killed by poachers. They then may have been held in cages and poorly cared for before being confiscated. Then, they are nurtured primarily by Congolese women that work at the sanctuary, while having access to play with peers. Thus, all of the bonobo subjects have a history of early trauma that may potentially affect their interactions with both humans and other bonobos. The people acting as "helpers" and "hinderers" were both Congolese men who had never interacted with the bonobos before, and I think it's possible that their identity may be a factor that could affect bonobos choices.

Nonetheless, this is some fascinating research, and hopefully it will be replicated with chimpanzees and other primates. The full-text of the study is available online, and you can watch the supplemental videos to get a better idea of what the experiments looked like.

Monday, September 18, 2017

#2017MMM: An Example of Multimedia Scientific Communication

I wrote this to fulfill one of the requirements of the 21st Century Scientists Science Communication Certificate at University of Illinois. The certificate is geared toward graduate students, but open to postdocs too! If you are interested about it or have any questions, feel free to e-mail me or tweet me!




To observe a science communicator, I observed March Mammal Madness, which is a public engagement project started by Katie Hinde. Since its inception in 2013, March Mammal Madness has grown into an international event with a large team of scientists sharing the planning and execution of this month-long outreach endeavor. The concept is modeled on an NCAA tournament, with different animals competing against each other in a bracket. Data on each animal’s size, habitat, and fighting abilities are used to generate probabilities of each winning, and randomness is introduced in selecting the winner of each outcome. Higher-seded animals get the advantage of competing within their own habitat in the first rounds, and in the final rounds, habitat is chosen at random. The scientific team then develop a narrative surrounding the battle that incorporates facts gleaned from peer-reviewed sources, and then live-tweet the narrative of each battle. After each set of battles, the tweets are documented via Storify and posted on Hinde’s blog and the March Mammal Madness Facebook page.

My 2013 Bracket--I think this was my first selfie EVER!

 I originally participated in the first March Mammal Madness in 2013. Back then, it was on a smaller scale, and it seemed that it was just for a bunch of animal biology nerds to have some fun with March Madness. Since then it has grown exponentially, and some educators now build classroom curricula to coincide with March Mammal Madness. This year, the organizers made the bracket selection available to educators early to plan curricula, and over 200 educators took advantage of this. The scientific planning team has now expanded to include eight scientists narrating the battles. Additionally, a scientific illustrator creates accompanying artwork, two additional scientists tweet facts about the individual species, and the American Society of Mammalogists and Cleveland Museum of Natural History tweet facts and images. This year, #2017MMM began with additional fanfare, including an outreach event at Arizona State University and a green-screened theatrical version of the wild card battle. Additionally, fans have created their own blog or video recaps.

I’ve followed along March Mammal Madness every year, but my interest often wanes. Each year, I start out following enthusiastically, but lose interest as my favorites become eliminated. This year, I intended to follow the entire tournament. I was especially invested in this years’ battles, as my favorite animal and study species, Geoffroy’s spider monkey, was a competitor. One of the great strengths of March Mammal Madness is that it’s easily adaptable to needs of different educators and interest groups. In the past, my participation was for fun. However, I have colleagues that used it in teaching undergraduates and high school students. For some, it was a fun teaching opportunity that they could incorporate for extra credit. For others, they could build a curriculum around it. Many scientists and educational organizations now use it as an opportunity to share facts about their study species. This year, in addition to incorporating it as one of our lab’s social activities, I wrote a blog post about the spider monkey’s shot at the championship and took advantage of the spider monkey battle days to tweet pictures and fun factoids about spider monkeys. And, since many scientists enjoy trash-talking the competition, I took advantage to share pictures, facts, and some trash-talk about a fellow primate competitor, the white-headed (or white-faced) capuchin monkey.

Capuchins are cute, but seriously, they are little punks!

            The drawback of March Mammal Madness, however, is that it’s so drawn out, and keeping up with the live-tweets is time-consuming. The first week, each battle day took about three hours to live-tweet—for a total of approximately nine hours a week. Despite my best intentions, I didn’t have the time or energy to spend following the live-action, so I ended up focusing on tweeting and following the action on days when the spider monkeys competed, and caught up the next day with recaps and Storify. However, while they were useful summaries of who won/lost, reading through the Storify can be tedious, and I imagine for those that aren’t familiar with twitter, it may be hard to follow.

            While the spider monkeys made it to the final four, they were beaten by the honey badger, and as usual, my interest waned once my favorite was eliminated. While, March Mammal Madness is fun, and a great opportunity for educators to introduce mammalian biology and behavior, I think it’s hard to track over the course of the month unless you are very invested. In our own lab group, I did my best to provide updates, but by the end, none of our lab’s undergraduates kept up and tabulated their brackets. Nonetheless, I think it’s a great resource for elementary school teachers, who can take advantage of the early brackets and associated information to build their own lesson plans around the mammalian competitors. This year, it received a large amount of media attention, including articles in Gizmodo, NPR, and other outlets, and the media interest indicate it’s become an incredibly successful outreach effort. The lessons I’ve learned from March Mammal Madness are that 1) public engagement can and should be fun, and 2) building a recurring, large-scale public engagement project requires a lot of initial investment, but requires a larger team to be sustainable.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Science of Sex Differences: It's Complicated (and Biased).

UPDATE: An updated version of this  was published at This View of Life. Head over there to read it!



There's a lot of discussion about the problematic Google manifesto, and one of the issues that's brought up is the science of sex differences. Part of the problem is that it's easy to cherry-pick evidence to support your own biases. Based on research on young chimpanzees, I could claim that humans have an evolutionary basis for females to be tool-oriented and males to be more socially-oriented. But it's actually quite harder to truly understand human sex differences because we still don't have the data to fully understand them. 

If you only know a little bit about human biology, it might sound simple. XX or XY? Ovaries or testicles? Estrogen or testosterone? But in reality, there's a wider range of developmental possibilities.  Development of sex-typical traits isn't just determined by the sex chromosomes, but is guided by multiple pathways that start in the womb, and continue through adulthood. For example, individuals with androgen insensitivy syndrome (AIS) may be XY, and produce androgens such as testosterone, but may develop female-appearing or intersex genitalia due to lack of functioning androgen receptors. Furthermore, the actions of any given hormone is interdependent on many other hormones, proteins that bind to them, and enzymes. For example, testosterone plays a role in male sex drive, but only because its converted to estradiol in the brain. Hormones can also have somewhat paradoxical effects. For example, administering oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding, in experimental settings can make people more trusting, but it can also make them more xenophobic. But most importantly, hormones are calibrated to developmental environment and daily experiences, which means which we can't attribute anything we measure in adult humans to "just" biology or genetics.


So, biology is complicated. BUT, measuring biology is equally as complicated, and very susceptible to biases. The impact of these biases in shaping scientific  research was explained by Stephen Jay Gould in the Mismeasure of Man, and others (such as Marlene ZukHolly Dunsworth, and Ambika Kamath) have added to that. But we are still far from overcoming those biases. Biomedical research has only recently begun to require including female rodent models. Most of our understand of mammal biology and neuroscience comes from rodents, but its still largely biased toward understanding male rats. And most of understanding of human psychology and neuroscience is biased toward Western, Industrialized, Educated, Rich, Democratic (WEIRD) populations. That means a lot of the science of sex differences is based on the norms of a limited set of cultures. Furthermore, the research process often requires weeding out 'outliers.' Imagine that you are researcher studying sex differences in personality in a population of university students. Are you going to include students who are intersex or trans? Probably not. Are you going include students who are gay or bi? Probably not. To get the nice, neat data you are looking for, your selection criteria requires omitting a lot of the variation that could obscure your results. And even the variation you do see at that stage is going to be shaped by the common cultural enviroment your participants were raised in.

There's an extensive body of literature on sex differences in children, but many of these are attributed to socialization. It's impossible to separate the impact of biological sex from the influence of gender socialization that begins from birth. There's a reason baby clothes are so strongly gendered--it gives people cues that impact how people respond to "girl" or "boy" babies. This makes it very hard for us to separate out out the impact of biological sex versus the impact of cultural socialization in shaping sex-typical behavior.

But one area in which we have growing evidence is in the impact of perceptions of gender (and ethnicity) in evaluating students and potential job candidates. Research indicates that simply switching a name can influence how someone is perceived. For example, candidates for a lab manager position with a female name are rated as less competent, and offered lower salaries, despite equal resumes. And manipulating the gender or ethnictiy of a name can influence the likelihood of getting a response from prospective supervisors. There's also research showing that class indicators help men receive positions, but decrease opportunities for women.

Add to that hostile or unsafe environments and harassment, and we can see evidence of cultural barriers to women's participation and advancement in some areas of science and technology. So why are these discounted? Quite simply, it all comes back to those biases. We all have cognitive biases, and they are shaped by our cultural environment. In the study examining candidates for lab managers, female scientists were just as biased as male scientists in evaluating female-named candidates. We can take steps in critically examining our biases and take steps to account for them in our research and hiring practices. But nonetheless, part of "overcoming" those biases is realizing that we can never completely overcome biases, and instead recognize how they shape the science that we do and the we way we evaluate the competency of the people around us.

To examine your own biases, check out Harvard's Project Implicit. For further reading on the role of hormones in development, I recommend Randy Nelson's An Introduction to Behavioral Endocrinology. For more background in biases in studying human traits, I recommend Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man.





Monday, July 17, 2017

Smart Sakis: A Spoonful of Termite Mound helps the Bitter Seeds Go Down

Captive Sakis at the Como Zoo

One of my academic siblings, Dara Adams, just published some interesting new research from Saki monkeys in Peru!

New Scientist has a nice summary, as well as accompany video, see feel free to check that out!



Saki monkeys are a Neotropical primate found in Amazonia. They are seed predators, which means that rather than ingesting seeds and passing them whole (like spider monkeys), their teeth and digestive system destroy the seeds they eat. This is a good way to get maximum nutrition from those seeds, but the seeds contain high levels of secondary compounds like tannins. Tannins are the bitter, astringent compounds that give coffee, tea, and wine their unique flavors, but high levels of tannins (much higher than we consume), can be toxic.  Other Amazonian seed predators, like parrots, eat soil with clay and high cation exchange capacity, both of which neutralize the toxic effects. Seeds eaten by parrots in the same region have tannin levels toxic to most verterbrates. If the Sakis are eating the same seeds, how do they cope with those levels of toxins?

Sakis eat termite mounds, which contains soil, clay, and nutrients. Adams and colleagues tested between two hypotheses: 1) Sakis eat the termite mounds because they provide nutritious minerals (like vitamins), or 2) to help counteract the potentially toxic effects of secondary compounds (like a detox supplement). If the soil they ate from termite mounds contained more micronutrients, that would support the vitamin hypothesis. If the soils contained that have more clay and and cation exchange properties, that would support the detox hypothesis.

They observed how long the monkeys ate termite mounds, which age/sex classes at the termite mounds, if there were termites present. They also collected samples from termite mounds that the Saki fed at, and compared to control soil samples and unvisited termite mounds.

About 2/3 of the termite mounds contained termites, and Sakis did eat termites at the active mounds. However, they fed from both active and inactive termite mounds, all age/sex classes fed on the mounds. Termite mounds did have higher levels of some minerals than topsoil, and those levels were similar in the both the Saki-eaten mounds and univisited mounds. The eaten- and uneaten-termite mounds did not differ in in clay content, but the termite mounds that were eaten had twice the cation exchange capacity. Adams and colleagues conclude that the Sakis are eating the termite mounds primarly because it helps counteract the effect of the tannins, supporting the detox hypothesis.

So basically, Sakis are wisely self-medicating with termite mounds to counteract the effects of their potentially toxic diet!

An important caveat: Adams and colleagues do not use terms like the "vitamin" or "detox" hypothesis--I use these terms only to simply the function of termite-mound eating. Also, humans are not seed predators, so we do not have the same need for detoxing. Most talk of "toxins" in human diets is pseudoscience, and unless you're eating some strange things that are not suitable for human consumption, you should have no need for detoxing!

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Who Tells your Story?


Recently, there's been a lot of twitter discussion on the negative experiences of women in academia, and follow-up discussions on the experiences of POC and WOC in science.

These discussions dovetail with my current research, as well as recent research published by members of my lab.

Women in science experience biasdiscrimination, and harassment, and these experiences are intensified for women of color.  Many of us know this personally or anecdotally. But we're at the stage where more of those experiences are being shared openly, and some personal and anecdotal information (which is so easily dismissed or denied by others who haven't experienced it) is being codified in peer-reviewed data.

But I have mixed emotions as I read others responses, and grapple with my own analysis of qualitative data on women of color's experiences. It's INCREDIBLY important that people contribute to these discussions. But in response to the concern that people might not want to share openly, there was an anonymous survey posted, so that those responses could be shared on Twitter. And something about that made me uncomfortable.

Often, we can only share those stories anonymously, because of the discomfort of bringing attention to our own experiences, or the fear of negative reprisals. BUT, I worry that when we report those eexperiences anonymously to others, we give away the power to tell our own stories. Storytelling has power, and those stories have power regardless of who's telling them. But I'm reluctant to tell my own stories in an anonymous way, because I don't want to give away agency over my own story.

This puts pressure on me to consider the way I report the qualitative data I've gathered from participants. Other people have entrusted me with their stories. How do I report on the emerging themes from those accounts while giving them full agency over their own experiences? This is a question I'm going to have to keep thinking about as I move forward in analysis and writing.

 But for my own stories I'm not ready to share many of my experiences openly on Twitter, nor do I want them to give them away to be told anonymously. I want to maintain agency over my own story, so that I can tell it on my own terms.

I highly recommend reading Ambika Kamath's perspective, I Have Forgotten. Also, in case you were under the impression that only underrepresented minorities experience discrimination in science, read RajLab's Anti-Asian Bias in Science.