Mayim Bialik is a problematic ambassador for science

Mayim Bialik is an actress. She grew up playing TV’s “Blossom,” and recently has surfaced again on television as Dr. Amy Farrah Fowler, a neurobiologist on “The Big Bang Theory.” In between, she went to college and on to grad school, receiving a PhD in neuroscience. She is a “Brand Ambassador” for Texas Instruments and is this year’s featured speaker at the National Science Teachers’ Association conference.

She is also anti-vaccine, and a spokesperson for the “holistic mom’s network,” which eschews much that modern medicine has to offer and features several prominent anti-vaccine advocates on its advisory board.

Reactions have been mixed regarding her gig at the NSTA convention. Skeptical raptor thinks it’s OK as long as she’s just talking about her path to science (presumably, something like this article in Nature) (he clarifies here as well). Hemant Mehta (himself a math teacher) thinks not so OK, and I lean much more that way. As I noted on the Skeptical Raptor’s Facebook page, she may really like science, but the fact is that her position on vaccines undermines not only the science, but also the very *scientists* who do such work. She’s saying that some science is great, but other parts shouldn’t be believed and accepted. This is not cool or acceptable for such a big-name speaker.

That’s not to say that there are not controversial areas within science, or that everyone has to agree on every point. Certainly there are many areas which are fraught with controversy, and which we’re working to understand. But the basics of vaccines are not one of them. Certainly people would be outraged to see Michael Behe or another prominent evolution denier from the Discovery Institute or Answers in Genesis speaking at this conference, even though they may also have a PhD and, likely, a love of science. In Bialik’s case, she is *actively endangering the lives of others,* but because she’s a fellow science lover, it’s OK to give her a podium and additional notoriety? No.

Further, because she’s a PhD, many give her views on vaccines more weight than someone like Jenny McCarthy (who lacks any formal science training and is easier to write off), even though Bialik also lacks training in microbiology and immunology. In my opinion, that makes it even more important to avoid legitimizing her vaccine opinions.

Bottom line: if you love science, don’t actively undermine a part of it that actually affects the everyday lives of millions of people, and if you’re a company or organization who is promoting science, please don’t choose as a spokesperson or honored speaker someone who does this.


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Economic barriers in the elite University (and in science)

This week at #scio14, Danielle Lee is leading a discussion on privilege in science. I’d started this post and abandoned it a few weeks back, but I think it speaks to a similar phenomenon as she describes in her post. Low-income students are being lost not only to science, but often to the college experience in general. This is amplified at elite institutions, but even at the public institutions I’ve worked at, lower income students are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to preparing for any kind of graduate or professional post-bac training. 

My first introduction to one of my college roommates was via snail mail, back in the day. She had 4 names; her two middle names were both honoring sides of her highly-distinguished family. She was fourth generation Yale and had attended the best private schools her entire life. My other roommate was the daughter of a very successful South Korean businessman, and had spent her high school years at an elite private all-girls’ institution.

Then there was me. I was only the second person in the history of my school to attend an Ivy league university. (The first, a generation prior, had gone to Dartmouth on a football scholarship). I grew up in the country, lower middle-class but not precisely poor, playing on my Grandma’s farm and spending way too much time and gas money driving around our enormous  rural school district to pick up friends. I had graduated at the top of my class of 67 at my small high school, which was situated, literally, in the middle of cornfields. Though we had many excellent teachers and I feel I received a good education, we didn’t even have a single Advanced Placement course.

My arrival at Yale was quite the culture shock. When classmates found out about my background, the questions frequently turned to cow-tipping (which apparently all the urban kids knew about, but I’d never heard of. No one who actually grew up around cows would try to do something so stupid) and pointing out my lack of cultural experiences (wow, you’ve never been to Europe? You don’t know that when one refers to The City, that means New York? What do you mean, you’d never seen the ocean before coming to Connecticut?) During my entire 4 years, I only met a few others from rural areas. Even the other public school kids were often vastly wealthier than I was, and had gone to public schools which were well-funded and top-rated in their state, rather than a struggling rural school like mine, always one levy failure away from disaster. One of my classmates had a sports arena on campus named for his family. Receiving expensive cars “on a whim” or other pricey gifts during family visits was not uncommon. Meanwhile, I worked several jobs at a time–at the Yale Telefund, the dining hall,  and waitressing at a local restaurant–just to pay the bills. I was in class with these kids, but make no mistake–I was not *of* their class.

Though racial diversity at Yale was fairly decent while I was there (that is to say, it was in line with other “elite” institutions, even though it certainly was not representative of the U.S. as a whole), economic diversity was not. Since my time here, Yale has instituted some policies to attract more high-achieving low-income students to the university. (The cover of the Yale Alumni Magazine reporting this story even calls such students “low-hanging fruit,” noting that “they’re out there–but hard to find”–an admission that few of us were “in there” at Yale). The article points out that now, Yale waives the parental contribution to a student’s education for families making under $65,000/year. When I attended, Yale had assumed that parents would finance the education–something many of us from lower incomes know was impossible. As such, I and others like me ended up taking out loans for both the “student contribution” and for our expected parents’ part of the bill, even as most of us worked long hours while attending to pay for our living expenses.

This alone set many of us apart from our classmates. Unlike many of our peers, we were not free to focus on our studies. Extracurricular activities? Not a chance. Most semesters I worked at least 20 hours/week, sometimes up to 40, on nights and weekends. This not only further divided me from my wealthier contemporaries who I was serving in the dining halls or begging their alumni parent donors to contribute to Yale,but also meant that I wasn’t able to socialize as much or attend many University events. I couldn’t go on spring break trips to tropical beaches, or even weekend road trips as I typically fit in 4-5 work shifts from Friday through Sunday.

Even with these programs in place, for the class of 2017, the article notes that 69% of Yalies come from families that make $120,000 or more per year. This means that over 2/3 of the student body comes from families in the top 10% of income earners in the US. Even when lower-income students have been actively recruited:

“…the odds were overwhelming that you came from one of just 15 urban areas: San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Dallas, Houston, Chicago, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Portland, Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, or Baltimore. The gears of meritocracy turn most reliably in our cities. Of the poor, smart kids who applied to elite schools in the Hoxby-Avery dataset, a mere 21 percent lived outside an urban area.”

Recently at Slate, Matthew Yglesias discussed a similar issue, suggesting that one shouldn’t donate to elite schools, because even if the goal would be to earmark for financial aid for impoverished students, that’s such a small piece of the pie:

“You’ll often hear that such-and-such a donation to an already-wealthy institution is a great idea because it’s going to financial aid. But when only about 5 percent of your class is coming from the bottom quarter of the income distribution (and we can assume that very little of that 5% is coming from the really truly poor) then even this financial aid is extremely poorly targeted. Meanwhile, the demographics of highly selective institutions reveal that highly selective institutions remain what they always have been—mechanisms for the perpetuation of inequality and hierarchy.”

One thing the YAM article didn’t discuss–perhaps because it was written by an alum whose route to Yale included “load[ing] up our Mercedes station wagon in our affluent neighborhood in Washington, DC” rather than by the swine showman classmate he mentions, is what happens to kids like me when we’re back home. Though not written specifically about Yale, this post discusses the divide that such an education can cause between one’s “new” life as a student at an elite college and at the same time, remembering who you are and what you came from: “Class mobility is not just a process of struggling to fit in amongst your new peers, but also feeling like you’re betraying your roots. It’s really, really difficult to successfully walk on both sides of an invisible line.” Like many who attend Harvard and Yale, when I was at home and was asked about college and where I attended, I’d just mumble “Connecticut,” rather than get into an awkward conversation about Yale that made people from home look at me as if I’d suddenly sprouted an extra head. This wasn’t something my peers from more privileged backgrounds had to deal with; it was more frequently assumed that they’d be attending universities like Yale, after graduating from similarly elite private schools.

There’s also the worry that we’re disappointing people back home if we don’t succeed. The New York Times recently profiled two young men from low-income backgrounds who ended up attending Harvard and Yale. Both talk about pressure they feel and though they don’t name it, imposter syndrome shines through in their essays. The Harvard undergrad, Justin Porter, illuminates some reasons why initiatives like these to lure “atypical” Ivy students alone are not enough:

I do not believe that increasing financial aid packages and creating glossy brochures alone will reverse this trend. The true forces that are keeping us away from elite colleges are cultural: the fear of entering an alien environment, the guilt of leaving loved ones alone to deal with increasing economic pressure, the impulse to work to support oneself and one’s family. I found myself distracted even while doing problem sets, questioning my role at this weird place. I began to think, “Who am I, anyway, to think I belong at Harvard, the alma mater of the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Romneys? Maybe I should have stayed in Mississippi where I belonged.”

This is one thing that no amount of academic preparation can really prepare you for. It was incredibly foreign to me to suddenly be in a place where parents thought nothing of sending their kids a thousand dollars to throw a party for their dorm floor; one where my roomates took me out not to the local Ponderosa or Pizza Hut, but to $50-an-entree places with lines of forks and spoons I’d only seen in movies, or to members-only dining experiences. Alien environment, indeed. And with all of this, I am still very aware that I still have privileges that others who may share my economic situation (or indeed, like many at Yale, far surpass it) do not.

Finally, as I noted at the start, privilege is one of the topics at the upcoming ScienceOnline conference. I can’t attend this year because of the new baby, but the issue of economic privilege experienced by those at elite colleges is very similar to that which hinder those looking to become professional scientists, as previously discussed by Danielle (and also in an older post here which addressed lack of resources) and by Miriam Goldstein. Entering the science field from an economically disadvantaged background carries with it many of the same issues as does entering an elite college. The culture is foreign, the price of membership is costly, and even if you succeed, you can feel alienated from your home community. Those of us who are in positions of privilege–and especially who know all too well some of the difficulties current students face–must work to reduce these barriers when we can, and to at least make them more visible to colleagues who come from backgrounds where they may not even recognize their own privilege or the challenges their students are facing on so many levels. If we want science to be a more diverse occupation, and to have the best and brightest students continue in the field, we must do what we can to be sensitive to the barriers that have been erected, and actively work to tear them down.

[Edited to add this excellent piece in the Atlantic].

Using zombies to teach science

With my colleague Greg Tinkler, I spent an afternoon last week at a local public library talking to kids about zombies:

The Zombie Apocalypse is coming. Will you be ready? University of Iowa epidemiologist Dr. Tara Smith will talk about how a zombie virus might spread and how you can prepare. Get a list of emergency supplies to go home and build your own zombie kit, just in case. Find out what to do when the zombies come from neuroscientist Dr. Greg Tinkler. As a last resort, if you can’t beat them, join them. Disguise yourself as a zombie and chow down on brrraaaaiiins, then go home and freak out your parents.

Why zombies? Obviously they’re a hot topic right now, particularly with the ascendance of The Walking Dead. They’re all over ComicCon. There are many different versions so the “rules” regarding zombies are flexible, and they can be used to teach all different kinds of scientific concepts–and more importantly, to teach kids how to *think* about translating some of this knowledge into practice (avoiding a zombie pandemic, surviving one, etc.) We ended up with about 30 people there: about 25 kids (using the term loosely, they ranged in age from maybe age 10 to 18 or so) and a smattering of adults. I covered the basics of disease transmission, then discussed how it applied to a potential “zombie germ,” while Greg explained how understanding the neurobiology of zombies can aid in fleeing from or killing them. The kids were involved, asked great questions, and even taught both of us a thing or two (and gave us additional zombie book recommendations!)

For infectious diseases, there are all kinds of literature-backed scenarios that can get kids discussing germs and epidemiology. People can die and reanimate as zombies, or they can just turn into infected “rage monsters” who try to eat you without actually dying first. They can have an extensive incubation period, or they can zombify almost immediately. Each situation calls for different types of responses–while the “living” zombies may be able to be killed in a number of different ways, for example, reanimated zombies typically can only be stopped by destroying the brains. Discussing these situations allows the kids to use critical thinking skills, to plan attacks and think through choice of weapons, escape routes and vehicles, and consider what they might need in a survival kit.

Likewise, zombie microbes can be spread through biting, through blood, through the air, by fomites or water, even by mosquitoes in some books. Agents can be viral, bacterial, fungal, prions or parasitic insect larvae (or combinations of those). Mulling on these different types of transmission issues and asking simple questions:

“How would you protect yourself if infection was spread through the air versus only spread by biting?”

“How well would isolation of infected people work if the incubation period is very long versus very short?”

“Why might you want to thoroughly wash your zombie-killing arrows before using them to kill squirrels, which you will then eat?” (ahem, Daryl)

can open up avenues of discussion into scientific issues that the kids don’t even realize they’re talking about (pandemic preparedness, for one). And the great thing is that these kids are *already experts* on the subject matter. They don’t have to learn about the epidemiology of a particular microbe to understand disease transmission and prevention, because they already know more than most of the adults do on the epidemiology of zombie diseases–the key is to get them to use that knowledge and broaden their thinking into various “what if” situations that they’re able to talk out and put pieces together.

It can be scary going to talk to kids. Since this was a new program, we didn’t know if anyone would even show up, or how it would go over. Greg brought a watermelon for some weapons demonstrations (household tools only–a screwdriver, hammer and a crowbar, no guns or Samurai swords) which was a big hit. Still, I realize many scientists are more comfortable talking with their peers than with 13-year-olds. Talking about something a bit ridiculous, like an impending zombie apocalypse, can lessen anxiety because it takes quite a lot of effort to be boring with that type of subject matter; it’s entertaining; and kids will listen. And after all, what you don’t know, might eat you.

Student posts 2012

As long-term readers know, I’ve previously featured student posts on various topics of their own choosing. I’m doing it again this year with my summer course on Applied Infectious Disease Epidemiology. In this course, students learn to take the theories and information from a basic ID epi course and apply them to real-world experiences–analyzing math models, determining the cause of an outbreak, and designing their own studies to test a research hypothesis, for example. As part of the course, communication is also a big segment, examining how information (and misinformation) is communicated over the internet and beyond, and learning how to work with media. Their final assignment is to write a blog post at a level laymen will understand on the topic of their choice. The first posts will begin to pop up tomorrow–enjoy, but please be kind (and constructive!) with any comments or criticisms.

Great editorial response to the Jumbotron ad

The Times Square Jumbotron ad keeps trucking, and with it frustration from the medical and public health community. The American Academy of Pediatrics sent a letter to CBS Outdoors, asking them to pull the ad, to no avail. Rahul Parikh thinks it’s time to do more:

We in medicine need more than letters and passive education for parents on a website. What we really need are some Mad Men of our own. If you want guidance, look at what the folks at the the American Legacy Foundation have done with their anti-smoking campaign, The Truth. Who can forget the TV commercial where a truck pulls up to the headquarters of a tobacco company and teenagers jump out, carrying body bags? We need powerful and unforgettable messages that remind us what’s at stake here.

Have you heard the horrifying whoop of pertussis? Seen how meningitis kills and maims kids, or the painful, paralyzing rigor of every muscle in the body of a child with tetanus? Dear AAP, collect those sights, sounds and the true stories of kids injured by vaccine-preventable diseases and the parents who cried for them when they got sick. Then have the audacity to buy space on a jumbotron, right next to NVIC’s, or in a newspaper the day after Generation Rescue takes out another of its bogus ads. Tell the stories of those parents and children — if they’re still alive today — and make it clear that choosing vaccines means choosing health for kids, families and communities.

I agree with what Parikh is saying, but it’s still sometimes tough to get over my gut reaction to that kind of emotional advertising. He’s right that it can be effective where the simple scientific facts don’t work, but like Chris Mooney notes, it also has to be “presented in a context that doesn’t trigger a defensive, emotional reaction.” For those currently eschewing vaccines for their children, that could be tricky to do, but I wonder how many are true “fence-sitters” and not emotionally committed to an anti-vaccine stance? Those are the ones we really need to work with.

[Edited to add: Steven Novella has a great post up today that reminds us why this is such an important fight: Consequences].

The Columbus Science Pub wants you!

If there’s anyone living in the Columbus, OH, area who’s interested in getting involved (or more involved) in science outreach and the Science Cafe movement, now’s your chance. The Columbus Science Pub, which I started off back in September 2010 and which now boasts over 450 fans on Facebook, is looking for new leadership to take over when Dan (the current organizer) leaves Cowtown at the end of the summer.

Anyone interested should send a note to

For more information on the Columbus Science Pub, go to Columbus Science Pub’s Facebook site or for information on the Science Cafe movement, check out

Rock Stars of Science, part deux: coming to a GQ near you

The second edition of the Rock Stars of Science is now out online, and in the November 23rd (“Men of the Year”) edition of GQ magazine. As Chris Mooney notes, this is a campaign funded by the Geoffery Beene Foundation, working to raise recognition of scientists’ work (and scientists, period, since roughly half of the American population can’t name a single living scientist). Part of the campaign is to make science noticeable and “cool;” I’ll quote from the press release:

ROCK S.O.S™ aims to bridge a serious recognition gap for science, observes journalist Chris Mooney, co-author of the recent book, Unscientific America, and a partner of the campaign.

“The current gap between science and our popular culture,” says Mooney, “keeps Americans from recognizing the centrality of science to their daily lives. They think science is some strange activity performed by slightly geeky others in white coats. In fact, science fuels our economy and is our great hope for cures to diseases that affect all of us.”

“The RSOS™ campaign shines the spotlight on this critical national issue,” says G. Thompson Hutton, CEO and Trustee of the Geoffrey Beene Foundation, supported by the designer menswear brand Geoffrey Beene, LLC, which dedicates 100 percent of net profits to philanthropic causes. “If we invest in research, we will save lives now and trillions of dollars later.”

So, I think it’s a great cause, and a unique way to spread the word. From that side of things, I’m all for it.

But… (there has to be a “but,” right?)

The first campaign didn’t exactly knock my socks off. Chris gives an update on the participants at The Intersection; if you read through it, you may notice the 2009 participants had many things in common: they were universally older, white men. To be sure, they include older white men doing great things (Tony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, NIAID, was one of those featured)–but they promoted the stereotype of scientists as, well, old white guys.

This time around, the lineup is more diverse, featuring 17 scientists–including 4 (white) women and 2 men of color (though still, mostly older). The scientists chosen include notables such as Nobel prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn and physician/astronaut Bernard Harris. The lineup is also heavy on cancer researchers and other biomedical types; understandable, since they are focused on disease and cures. I realize these are easier to “sell” to the public, because we all know someone who has experienced cancer–but if the foundation does a round 3, perhaps some more physical scientists could be included? Even if they maintained the focus on health, climate change, for instance, has the potential for huge impacts on health–and many engineers, physicists, and chemists work on health-related problems.

They also have a cutesy Q&A with each scientist, providing them all the same questions. Some I find to be fairly lame (“What was your worst part-time job?” “Alternate career choice?” “Longest med school study session” [!? why the emphasis on med school?]), along with some that I think make a better impact, like discussing misconceptions of their work, or their best moment in science/research. I realize the “lame” ones are to help the audience see that scientists are just like them, and spent time in crummy jobs, but diversity in the questions would be nice to shake things up a bit. Then they have a portion where the scientist’s research is described…which is terrible. I don’t know if this made it into the print version or is only online, but in many cases, these descriptions are lifted right off the scientist’s professional website. Look at Catriona Jamieson’s, for instance (taken verbatim from her lab website):

Dr. Jamieson specializes in myeloproliferative disorders (MPDs) and leukemia. Myeloproliferative neoplasms are a family of uncommon but not rare degenerative disorders in which the body overproduces blood cells. Myeloproliferative neoplasms can cause many forms of blood clotting including heart attack, stroke, deep venous thrombosis, and pulmonary emboli and can develop into acute myelogenous leukemia. Although some effective treatments are available, they are laden with serious side effects. In addition, individuals can become resistant to the treatments. Dr. Jamieson studies the mutant stem cells and progenitor cells in myeloproliferative neoplasms. These cells can give rise to cancer stem cells. Cancer stem cells may lie low to evade chemotherapy and then activate again later, causing disease progression and resistance to treatment. Her goal is to find more selective, less toxic therapies. In the past two years, Dr. Jamieson’s stem-cell research studies have taken a great leap: from identifying a promising treatment in the laboratory to opening and completing the first clinical trial to target cancer stem cells in humans. This trial is the result of teamwork that has brought together her discoveries in myeloproliferative neoplasms and a local pharmaceutical company’s drug development track.

I mean, really?? I’m a scientist, and just reading that even made *my* eyes glaze over. If one thing they’re trying to convey is the importance and relevance of the scientist’s research to GQ readers, what percentage of the readers are really going to walk away with a deeper understanding of what Dr. Jamieson does by reading that description? It would have been a small thing to ask each participant to submit a layman-friendly version of their research (their “elevator talk” description, for example) for GQ to include.

Finally–one of the “scientists” is Dr. Oz. What is he doing in there? One, I would think he’s already well-known enough; why not save that spot for another scientist? Two, yes, I know he’s actually done research and published, and is on the faculty at Columbia. Fantastic. He’s also a serious woo peddler, who has even featured everyone’s favorite “alternative” doc, Joseph Mercola, on his talk show, and discussed how vaccines may be playing a role in autism and allergies (despite mounds of evidence to the contrary). This seems to completely contradict their goal of “research funding as a national priority,” since Oz is often (and Mercola is always) highly critical of “mainstream medicine.” I really don’t understand his inclusion, and think it’s to the detriment of the rest of the campaign.

I know, this is quite a lot of complaining (isn’t that what bloggers *do*?), but I’m sincere in hoping that this campaign does raise awareness. I hope they expand it beyond GQ–why not do something similar in magazines with a larger female readership, such as Good Housekeeping or even People magazine? Women are the ones who make many of the healthcare decisions, after all. We’re often advocates for health and healthcare research–and if more funding is what they’re ultimately looking for, we vote too.

[Edited to add: Science has an article on the campaign as well.]

New site–“History of Vaccines”

This is great. The College of Physicians of Philadelphia has launched a site on The History of Vaccines. I’ve been poking around, and there’s an incredible amount of stuff to check out. They have a nice FAQ, Top 20 questions about vaccination, as well as some great activities (herd immunity! learn about Koch’s postulates! understand the relative risk of vaccination versus other events!) and a metric fuckton of articles and images. Looks to be a fantastic resource for students, and for anyone interested in understanding vaccination.

Women and Veterinary Medicine

The Dog Zombie has an interesting post discussing women in vet med–and why there are so many. She notes that her school is only 12% male, versus more of an even distribution in med schools, and the recent discussion of gender imbalance in science blogging. This is interesting to me, as my personal vet is male, as are almost all of the vets we collaborate with for our research. Of course, the gender distribution of veterinarians in academia may well be more gender-balanced (or even male-skewed) than those currently in vet school or recently graduated.

DZ posits some possible reasons for this divide:

-Vet med is often seen as a caretaking profession, something that may appeal strongly to more women than men.

-Why vet med and not human med? One difference is that vet med pays a lot less. Are women more tolerant of low pay than men?

I found a few articles on the gender differences; both suggest those factors as well as others. The 2003 Canadian article muses that veterinary medicine may become more like nursing–female-dominated and potentially lower-paying in the future. Both cite some statistics, but nothing that appears as thorough as some of the AAAS women-in-science type of studies. Does the AVMA have a committee on women’s issues, or pay much attention to these reasons?