Tag Archives: scicomm

The oft Spotted Groper

Dear Creepy SciComm dude,

This is a letter addressed to you, as there are several things I would like to never see happen again in my life time, after making your acquaintance late last year.

The first would be to never again see you snake your arm over the shoulder of one of my friends, while she is focusing her phone for a celebrity scientist selfie, and clamp your hand over her breast. This blatant grope was at the conference dinner, early in the evening, before entree and before the drinking began in earnest. You did this, despite being at a conference that had a clear non-harassment policy. But hey, maybe you arrived late on the first day and didn’t hear the usual announcement of such a policy. That doesn’t explain why one of your male academic colleagues had felt compelled to warned me three days before, to watch out for you, as you are well known ‘sleaze’ in the discipline. This wasn’t the ‘whispering of women’, this was one of your male academic peers, who only interacts with you at discipline specific conferences, not SciComm events.

Clearly, you have a track record for this behaviour which is repeated over many years, revealed by a quick google search of your name and the term ‘sexual harassment’. Many, many blog posts about similar behaviour, that have been redacted or removed after threats of litigation. Which explains why I haven’t named you here, even though I would like to shame you in this article. (Although I do have someone looking out for a pro bono defamation lawyer based in your country, just in case.)

It irks me that your voice is one of the loudest shouting for the organisers of the Science March on DC, a group previously guilty of downplaying the needs of the most marginalised people in science. You have no right to downplay the lived experience of these people, considering you have caused of significant amount of marginalisation of women personally, as an individual. Although no court in the land has convicted you, due to presumably deep pockets to fund litigious behaviour. You should not be held up as a paragon of pro-science virtue, as you are part of the problem that causes limited diversity in science, not part of the solution.

Why didn’t I complain to the organisers of the conference at which I saw you grope my friend? I tried to support my friend at the time and to get her to make a complaint, as she was a victim of your poor behaviour. I tried to get her to give me the incriminating photo that she took of your hand on her breast, but she’s decided to hang onto it in case she needs it as evidence in the future. I didn’t make an independent complaint to the organisers, of my eyewitness account, as they are enthusiastic volunteers and I did not want to give them the trouble of dealing with such complaint of this nature, of your sexual misconduct.

Why have I decided to write this now, so many months later? It’s because of my anger at seeing your name ‘in lights’ as part of the pro-science movement in the US. It’s also due to the fact that I had to answer direct messages on Twitter from a female academic in your country, who had seen my necessarily oblique references to this groping incident on Twitter , asking me how her students could avoid being treated in the same way as you had treated my friend. 

Am I going to bother to write to your institution, to complain of the behaviour I witnessed from you? No, as they have a reportedly poor track record in dealing with your behaviour as they tend to look the other way because you add so much value with free advertising for the institution. Which is a pattern which is repeated by institutions hosting people like you, time and time again. A bit of unsolicited groping of women at conferences is okay as long as the celebrity SciComm person brings in media attention and/or grants, right? [insert sarcasm font]

The reports (and possible sound recordings) of you ridiculing our local custom of acknowledging the traditional owners of the land on which we meet, when you visited another part of the country on that (funded) trip also disgust me. The lack of indigenous scientists in Australia is something we need to work so hard to try and address, so to have a ‘celebrity’ scientist heckle this most basic act of respect, is a disgrace.

I do not want to see you darken the door of my country ever again. If I had the power to instruct DFAT to refuse your next Visa application, I would. Sadly, I do not have that power. I do however, have a few friends and contacts amongst the TV and radio producers of science and current affair shows in this country. I have asked them to put out the ‘word on the street’ that you should never be asked to be a ‘talking head’ on any tax payer funded television shows or radio shows again. The last time I saw you* on my TV, publicaly commenting on women in science issues, it was to deny that there was an issue. It was refuted at the time by another panel member, a senior advocate for women in science in Australia, who set you straight on your denialism.

So this letter is to let you know that you’ve dodged a bullet. If I had more evidence of your misconduct, to protect me from inevitable litigation, I would name and shame you, as I find you an odious man, whose behaviour is abhorrent. Your continuing power and your mystifying popularity is a sad indictment to the state of science globally.

Yours in disgust,

That woman you will have forgotten, in a distant land. 

(Original version edited to remove references to sexual assault, due to lack of actual bodily harm…replaced with the non criminal act of groping)

*Update: I went back to TV recording for this point, only to find it to be a different old white US based SciComm dude from same discipline (with no alleged history of SH) ….Geez, these guys that deny or marginalise the lived experience of women in STEM all blur into one!


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Epic SciComm Fail, Mummy!

Dear Kids,

I am writing this missive to you, as I sit listening to your innocent games. It’s been a tough few months for our family, after I temporarily lost my sight at the end of last year and we found out sometime later it was due to an active lesion in Mummy’s brain, caused by MS.

I remember seeing the lesion on the CD of images, on that fateful day, as I sat by the Christmas tree. It was so large, I didn’t need a degree in medical imaging to understand that this couldn’t be normal or likely to be explained away as an artefact of the MRI process. As I zoomed in and out of the sliced brain images, I felt a dawning horror, but also a morbid fascination for the incredible technology behind the images.

I remember showing you both the images a few days later, when the initial shock had worn off and only the ‘Wow, that’s cool!’ wonderment remained. The contrast agent spilled out of the lesion like overturned milk, a bright white stain on the left side of my brain. I showed you the images as I wanted to explain what was happening to me, as a science communication exercise. My mantra of ‘you’re never too young to learn some science’ back fired spectacularly when I experienced your reactions to the abstract pictures.

Yes, I was able to now provide empirical evidence, to you, DS7, for my previous claims of being ‘Queen of the Zombies’ (a family meme I developed to ameliorate your fear of the bogey man and the dark) and you seemed mollified. What I wasn’t expecting from you, DD3, was the visceral reaction to the images. I considered you too young to see the images as anything more than abstract. But you reacted immediately with fear and loathing and proclaimed ‘Mummy, I’m scared of your brain! I don’t want a brain!’

Instantly, I knew I had made a science communicator’s biggest mistake, I had woefully misjudged you, my audience. I started damage limitation, by trawling the internet, to find a cutesy cartoon of the brain doing all the important work that keeps our bodies functioning, to show you. You, DD3, could not be pacified and I ended up having to take you to sit on my knee, whilst they infused IV corticosteroids ‘to fix Mummy’s brain’ at the hospital. I asked the poor Neurology Registrar to pick up the communication baton and explain to you that the brain was important. She struggled, as I had, under your uncompromising gaze.

Over the New year’s break, my sight came back, my right pupil returned to its normal size and my ‘Roid rage’ retreated. Many strangers (who I had made friends with, online) visited our home, to offer their support. You both seemed to adjust quickly to the new Mummy. But it breaks my heart to have you, DD3, role play everyday activities with me, that I’m often too exhausted to do now, in real life – like walking to the park and playing on the swings.

You both have now made career decisions based on my condition. You, DS7, have decided that cone shell venom could cure my MS (after watching an episode of Octonauts) – and hence want to be a research scientist, perhaps to work in my friend Charles’s Lab. You, DD3, have eschewed my dedicated grooming to become an Engineer and now want to become a medical Doctor.

How do I feel about you both wanting to have your futures defined by my illness? Non-plussed, to say the very least. Whilst I try to encourage you to question the world around you and cling to your current inherent wonderment, I want you to do that without the spectre of ‘fixing Mummy’s brain’ looming large in your collective consciousness. I want you to find your own path in this life, unfettered by such a filter. I want to have to same infinite world of possibilities that I had, when I was growing up.

My hope for you both? I just hope that as you grow up and away from your dependence on my care, that you also become somewhat complacent about my disease. I want the mundane minutiae of your self-obsessed teenage years, to replace your current worries for me. But I will support whatever decisions you make, as to your respective futures, for as long as my cognitive abilities hold. When you are much older (even though you, DD3, are eyeing off my diamonds already), we will have to discuss my future and my plans for a controlled and dignified death. I hope you will be well down your life paths by that time.

Love Mummy (aka Queen of the Zombies) Xx

(Image from ZomTeez )


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Know your enemy…

As I sat having ‘date night’ as a patient on a 6-bed Ward last night, after an epidural ‘blood patch’ for complications arising from last week’s lumbar puncture, a random visitor decided to enter our (full) ward and engage a woman in conversation.

He was visiting a family member in the next room, but clearly decided he was some kind of self appointed ‘life coach’ and wanted to ‘cheer up’ random strangers in other parts of the Ward. He targeted a 91yo woman, who after patronisingly calling her a ‘young lady’ and commenting on her ‘pretty face’ asked her personal medical questions. After finding out she was to have a hip replacement the next day, then regaled her with stories about how he broke his leg once and that it all turned out fine. He then started wheeling out some fatuous positive affirmations, one gem of which was: ‘I’ve got a three letter word for you, N.O.W’ and the words ‘brave’ and ‘fight’ may have been used.

The nurse assigned to our ward was at my bed, doing my obs, when this man was subjecting the woman to his unsolicited bonhommie. We simultaneously *eye rolled* at his braying and I whispered to her, ‘Does he know her? What about respecting other people’s privacy?’ At that point, he introduced himself to the lone woman & the nurse immediately seized on his name and use it to politely (but firmly) dismiss him from the ward with a sentence. I was in awe of her efforts!

But it did cement something I had been pondering about my recent experiences going ‘public’ with my health issues. Previously (when healthy) and having been a cancer researcher, I was often discomforted by the ‘you have to fight this evil disease’ meme that often surrounds this condition. In fact, I disliked it so much, that given the first opportunity to return to the clear cut world of infectious diseases, I took it!

The ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’ narrative of infectious diseases is one that readily lends it’s self to the ‘battle’ and ‘fighting’ memes. A foreign agent has invaded the body and must be eradicated (with minimal damage to the host and the other ‘good’ guys). It’s an easy narrative to exploit for science communication especially with younger audiences.

However, the use of the ‘brave fighter’ in a ‘battle/war’ meme is used with cancer, autoimmune attack and [insert any non communicable disease with significant morbidity and/or mortality here] is not entirely appropriate. I concede that it may be just me that feels this way, and is probably born of a superior knowledge of the cellular mechanisms of disease and an interest in veracity in science communication. ‘Me’ versus ‘Myself’ maybe more accurate from a cellular perspective, but is not as clear cut as ‘Us’ versus ‘Them’. Fighting your own cellular mechanisms that have gone awry sometime seems a futile ‘battle’ and hence can be isolating for people who understand this.

But as the doyenne of cultural memes, Prof Deb Verhoeven (@bestqualitycrab) pointed out in a twitter conversation on such, the ‘brave fighter’ metaphor ‘implies agency and responsibility where none might exist’. She then pointed me to this book by Susan Sontag on the topic.

Others placing an expectation of ‘warrior’ status on a person trying to deal with a life limiting or life ending condition, for which there may be imperfect or incomplete medical interventions available, can be an extra burden. I have had much support for my recent issues, but if I had a crowd funding campaign attached to a ‘chronic illness bingo’ card and got $5 every time people have used the word ‘brave’ or ‘fighter’ in reference to my good self and my ability to ‘beat’ my issues, I’d be rich!

My training gives me added insight and abilities to make connections whilst reading relevant literature. However, even if I came up with a new treatment in the lab tomorrow, it would still take 20 years to develop into a drug used to treat people with my condition (which is still undetermined) even if it was shown to be safe and efficacious in clinical trials.

But until then, I’ll be focusing my ‘brave fight’ to the existing ‘battle’ to change the current state and federal laws to allow voluntary euthanasia…because I may need the option, sooner than I had originally anticipated.


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