Monday, November 2, 2015

Guest post: Bad letters

Letters of recommendation for the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program are due soon. This year I'm writing letters of recommendation for applicants and it has me thinking about how these letters are written, and who is responsible for bad letters. It also has me thinking about the other side, how can applicants be proactive to prevent bad letters and help with strong letters?  Along those lines, would I ever write a negative letter? A couple years ago, I would have confidently said, "no." Now, I'd like to think I'd refuse to write a letter, rather than write an unsupportive letter. But I haven't been tested with that yet. 

Talking with a colleague got me thinking more about this. 

Below is an anonymous guest post by a colleague, written about an experience with a student after last year's round of applications and responses. 

  Bad Letters

The day after Meg Duffy’s great post about crying in science came out, I was in my office with a student who was crying. She was embarrassed that she had been brought to tears but sadly there had been several stresses encroaching on her life and reading the reviews from her NSF GFRP* was enough to push her over the edge. 

The reason why was that her proposal reviewers had included a comment that her letters did not indicate she had a strong potential for success.  She felt betrayed and utterly at a loss as to what to do.

Although she wasn’t my student, I have an open door policy and often find myself as a faculty member that students go to when they have problems. I’m honored by this, and I take this responsibility very seriously. I try to give good advice, or at least to not give bad advice. So when this student came to me asking what she should do I was at a bit of a loss.

She simply asked, “What should I do?”  She is an early career graduate student, with a strong and diverse undergraduate record, and good grades in a top program. Her letter writers were her committee – the individuals who were most familiar with her work. In theory she did everything right, yet still somehow had gotten these bad letters. She was worried. As she progresses she will need these people to write her letters for fellowships, graduate opportunities, jobs etc. She was feeling like she didn’t know who to trust.

I told her I didn’t know offhand, but I’d be willing to ask around to people I know, trust, and respect and get back to her.  I reached out to several friends and got really good advice, and it boils down to this...

This student has been having trouble getting in touch with her committee. They had only been meeting once or twice a semester as a group and she only saw her PI about once a month.  This lack of communication has brought forth several problems.  First, the student did not really have a clear idea of what her committee wanted.  This means that she was going along her own road, and while she is talented, this may mean that she wasn’t doing the things that her committee wanted, simply because she didn’t hear that from them.  Second, this student wasn’t able to communicate what she needed from the committee. She wasn’t able to advocate for herself, to share her successes, and to craft a plan of attack for her thesis based on their advice.  I don’t know the parties well enough to know who was more at fault.  Basically everyone is busy – I get that. But it was sad to see.

I suspect this lack of communication ultimately lead to the poor letter(s). She probably didn’t have a chance to let her committee know what she’s capable of doing, and she didn’t impress the committee because she did not have a clear idea of what they needed her to do. Communication is variable and important - some students need mentoring to be more than a once a month email.

So given this what can she do?  Has the milk been spilled and are we at a situation where the damage has been done? To some extent yes, but because the advisor/student relationship lasts beyond graduation it is important for students to have a group of solid letter writers who they know they can count on.  After getting good advice from my friends I suggested she do the following:

She should email the committee and try to get a time to talk about the GFRP review, both good and bad.  Walk through it with them and take their advice on how to improve the project moving forward. Also, and importantly, come to the committee and say that she knows they’ve had some trouble meeting and that may have resulted in her not always getting the chance to update the committee on what she was up to, and she didn’t always get to hear from them what it was they needed.  Given that she has X months left, she should ask how she could work with them to get to be where they want her to be.  What is she doing well and what are the areas for improvement?

By approaching this in the context of the grant, with explicit comments to address, rather than confronting the committee with “Why did you write me a bad letter?” the student circumvents a contentious encounter with her committee.  Instead, she comes to them in a framework where she can clearly communicate her needs, and in the same breath, admit that there is work to be done. By showing that she is willing to grow and learn as a student, by showing that she wants to be a better scientist, she is demonstrating, at least to me, the indicators of future success.

However I fully admit I could be misreading the situation.  I’d love to hear what you have to say.

* Terry McGlynn has written very eloquently about inequities in the funding allocation and advantages that students at certain schools get when applying for the GFRP, and I am trying to be mindful of that.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Kara Schaffer successfully defends Honors Thesis

Kara Schaffer, an undergraduate researcher in the Wilson Sayres lab from Fall 2015 until Fall 2016, and awardee of the Bidstrup Undergraduate Fellowship for work in the lab, has successfully defended her Barrett Honors Thesis in the Wilson Sayres lab. 

The title of her thesis is, "Evolutionary perspective suggests candidate genes for Turner syndrome phenotype."

Congratulations Kara!!

Monday, October 12, 2015

I'm not laughing.

This week, while attending the annual meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics, I learned  about wonderful advances in the field of genetics and human genetics, including initiatives to push forward personalized medicine, resources for understanding genetic susceptibilities to disease, efforts to catalog typical patterns of human variation, and methodologies aimed at improving our ability to investigate human history, health, and sickness.

This conference also has a large hall of vendors with resources for geneticists. These include services for sample collection, processing, analysis, and interpretation. Generally these vendors have some give-aways, ranging from candy to pens to t-shirts, that help promote their brand.

So, you can imagine my surprise when I passed a booth with a give-away that clearly did not promote their brand. I literally did a double-take, then stood there with scrunched eye-brows while reading this:

Photo by M. Wilson Sayres

Let's break this down just a bit.

Some science
First, the company sells a product for DNA extraction. Each of our cells has many different components that need to be removed if we want to look at the DNA. DNA exists in one part of the cell:

By Eukaryote_DNA.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-EN.svg: *Difference_DNA_RNA-DE.svg: Sponk (talk) translation: Sponk (talk) Chromosome.svg: *derivative work: Tryphon (talk) Chromosome-upright.png: Original version: Magnus Manske, this version with upright chromosome: User:Dietzel65 Animal_cell_structure_en.svg: LadyofHats (Mariana Ruiz) derivative work: Radio89 derivative work: Radio89 (This file was derived from  Eukaryote DNA.svg:) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

DNA extraction is where you take a sample of cells (for example a cheek swab, or blood sample), and you go through a process to separate the DNA within the cells from the rest of the parts of the cell.

The joke hinges on racism
The phrase on the shirt, "MY DNA is PURE," is supposed to be a joke with a double meaning. They are referring to the pure collection of DNA, using their method, but it can only be viewed as a joke or a witty phrase if it is also viewed in reference to language about purity of DNA used by the eugenics movement and white supremacist groups. For the shirt to be funny, you have to understand that supremacists claim to have "pure DNA" relative to other "races", from a misinformed understanding of genetics, but that their company really does give you the purest extraction of DNA.

Get it? Isn't that so funny?

P.S. They are totally not racists.

Discussing the shirt in person
After my double-take, and stopping to ponder why anyone would think that it is okay to use eugenics, an embarrassing and shame-filled history of genetics, as the butt of a joke at a human genetics conference, I decided it would be worth talking with the people at the booth (all white men) about how that message would poorly represent their company. Each of the three representatives were busy, so I waited my turn to speak.

When one of the representatives was free, I expressed my concern about the shirt, how it makes light of the history of eugenics, and how it may send a message of exclusion from their company. It turns out that the person I spoke to is the president of the company. He listened politely, then responded that no one had raised that concern, and they had never even considered that it might be harmful to anyone. I responded, that this type of language is still routinely used by supremacist groups and to marginalize many people, and that it wouldn't send a good message. He responded that he hadn't heard any complaints from anyone else at the conference about the shirt, and that, in fact, many people told him how much they loved it. With that, I thanked him for his time, asked him to please think more about the message this was sending, and then left him to his booth. As I walked away, two people walked up and asked for the shirt.

A larger discussion
At this point, I decided to make a comment on the shirt to the broader conference attendees, using the conference hashtag:

Some people were equally shocked, some were not sure what the shirt could be referring to other than eugenics/supremacy, and then, there were those who either thought I was being too sensitive about the joke, or who completely misunderstood what it was about.

To me, the range of responses illustrates how many people are blissfully unaware of the history of eugenics, whether they are part of the general population, or M.D. and Ph.D. scientists studying human genetics.

Eugenics and before.
Let's take a step back then, and think about eugenics.

With understanding about genetic inheritance came the idea of eugenics: That we could improve the condition of the human population by using genetics, that we could cull harmful features using the wonders of modern genetics. Through eugenics, it was claimed, we could promote reproduction of people with desired traits, and prohibit reproduction of people with undesirable traits. This hinges on the idea that there are people with "pure DNA", who are free from those harmful genetic anomalies that society should eliminate. Ideas about genetic, or "racial" purity, existed well before the eugenics movement, but genetics gave a sense of legitimacy to the supremacist notions that already existed.

The glass of undesirable traits that eugenicists typically promoted removal of ranged from physical and mental disability, to calls to purge whole ethnic and racial groups.

Eugenics is, and has been, used to justify "euthanasia" of people with physical and mental illness, forced sterilization, prohibition of "race mixing" relationshipsmillions of murders, and generally to advocate for white supremacy.

Modern supremacist groups still talk about the purity of their DNA relative to people from ethnic and racial groups that they view as inferior to themselves.

Eugenics does not belong in human genetics
To anyone attending a human genetics conference, the connection between "pure DNA" and the mis-use of genetics to advocate for eugenics should be obvious, and unacceptable.

To anyone who could look around the ~6,500 participants at the American Society of Human Genetics conference, and not be glaringly aware of the demographic disparity is, at best, exhibiting privileged blindness. A message steeped in racism, ableism, and classism, whether intentional or not, can only contribute to a harmful climate for scientists who represent the butt of that joke.

A joke that hinges on eugenics and supremacy does not belong at a human genetics conference. 


Education resources
There are many resources for learning more about eugenics, and I couldn't cover even a fraction of them here, but I encourage you to check out these, and other materials.

A big "thank you" to Dana Waring Bateman for pointing out this collection of lesson plans from the Personal Genetics Education Project . Especially note the lessons on:"History, eugenics and genetics" and "Using primary resources to examine the history of eugenics"

The Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory has an image archive on the history of eugenics here,, including several virtual exhibits you can click through.

The University of Washington has this History of Eugenics Resource guide:

Funding 101: Advice from successful academics

Here is some advice about finding and applying for research funding from two very successful researchers who sat on the panel, Kimberly Scott from the School of Social Transformation and Executive Director of COMPUGIRLS, and Stuart Lindsay from the Biodesign Institute.


  • Approach program officers. They want to talk with you if you have a clear plan, and if you can demonstrate how what you are proposing fits with their program, and with your past research.
  • Send your past research, also send updates to program officers from the project, even after the funding ends (data keeps coming)
  • Some program officers go to conferences. If they're at the same session you are at, introduce yourself
  • Program officers can go to bat for your, especially when you may be off cycle.
  • Volunteer your time as a panel reviewer


  • Do what you do, don't let people push you into an area to fit the funding.
  • Be flexible, adapt to new areas.
  • Be multi-cultural in terms of your language: Need to use a different type of language for different sponsors (e.g. Gates versus NSF). Convey your excitement using a different language.
  • The Feds are like a small town: Everyone talks. Everybody knows everybody. Be consistent with how your communicate with people.
  • Pitched ideas may be shopped around and come back to you.

Advanced planning

  • Get a clear understanding about the expectations from your department as it relates to external funding. Do you have to be funded? Do you need NSF or NIH? Can it be funded by a foundation?
  • Talk to people on the Promotion and Tenure committee.
  • Courtship: Gates foundation grant took years, unlike federal funding. Takes a lot of advanced funding.  Foundations need to get to know you, who you all are. Two years of talking/calls before being invited to submit a proposal.
  • Helpful to find an intellectual partner - "date" your professional partner. Once you are a team with a person (5, 8, 10 years of funding). It's like a marriage. You want to have a good idea of how you are going to get along.
  • Funders are looking for collaborative work.

Communicate clearly and take advice

  • Explaining highly technical things to a lay audience. Review panels are lay audiences. To that reviewer, most of the proposals will be out of their technical expertise.
  • "Explain to your grandma" trope can be useful.
  • Don't be afraid of being pushed. Listen to those big questions from the philanthropists.
  • Continue to learn from people who ask, "Can you do X?"

General thoughts about academia, broader impacts, and funding

  • Every hour that you are in a classroom here, you will be changing lives. At this State school, you are teaching the demographic of the state.
  • Funding agencies are conservative.
  • Heartbreaking to sit on a review panel and watch brilliant ideas smashed by small minds.
  • If your thesis adviser was a bigshot in some field, it is probably an old field.
  • Far better to be an untenured failure and go out with a big idea than spend 40 years doing something you dislike.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Wilson Sayres lab presents at #ASHG15

Two members of my lab will present at the 2015 meeting of the American Society of Human Genetics. To learn about presentations in real time, can follow tweets from @mwilsonsayres, and the hashtag: #ASHG15 on twitter. 

Kimberly Olney will present a poster, also uploaded on FigShare, Inferring biased allele expression across the genome
Thursday October 8th
Poster 1700
Convention Center, Hall E, Level 1
ASHG Poster session. 

I will present a talk, also uploaded on FigShare, Genetic diversity on the human X chromosome suggests there is no single pseudoautosomal boundary
Saturday, October 10
Room 309, Level 3, Convention Center
Full Session 69: The Causes and Consequences of Evolutionary Change (10:30 AM–12:30 PM)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

National Science Foundation Links

When starting as a new PI, if you didn't have the training before, you'll probably be learning as much as I can about different funding agencies, applications, and procedures. It can seem a little overwhelming to know where to start. 

Here is a set of links I've come across, with some information, about applying for NSF funding:

About the National Science Foundation

Finding funding opportunities

Advice for writing proposals

Now that you have it

Monday, September 28, 2015

Year two begins.

Dear Journal,

In the midst of teaching, getting new research projects started, writing grants, meeting collaborators, and getting the lab set up, I find that the second year of my tenure track position has begun.

And it's awesome.

I have a fantastic group of people working with me:

Seriously, they're wonderful. I cannot express to you how inspiring it is to interact with everyone in lab. Their ideas and discussions make it a joy to come in to lab.

We're making headway on new projects. Papers are being written. Grants are... well, they're being applied for.

Science is happening.

And on this morning, I find myself unusually optimistic about the future.

new PI

Fetal microchimerism and maternal health: A review and evolutionary analysis of cooperation and conflict beyond the womb

We have a review and evolutionary analysis of the role of microchimerism in maternal health. It's open access for all to read and please share your thoughts on. My personal take-home, after completing this paper, is that there is still so much biology to understand. Perhaps my favorite part of the whole paper is that we start by stating how little we know:

The function of fetal cells in maternal tissues is unknown

Certainly there are associations, and many labs are focused on understanding the role of fetal cells in the pregnant body, and after pregnancy. At the minimum, microchimerism appears to have been present since placentation first evolved, with advances in sensitivity and specificity of techniques, we are understanding that microchimerism is likely common across eutherian (placental) mammals, and especially in our favorite eutherian, humans. But it is fantastic to me that there is no answer (and in my opinion will never be) to, "Are microchimeric cells good?" At the best, we can say that it depends. And for the pregnant body and post-pregnant body, the role of fetal cells likely depends heavily on the specific interaction of the fetal cells with the immune system.

Levels of explanationDefinitionExplanations for fetal microchimerism

ProximateThe immediate cause of the pathologyPlacentation allows for the transfer of small numbers of cells between the fetus and the mother
DevelopmentalHow the pathology arose as a result of events during an individual's lifeEvidence suggests that fetal cell microchimerism begins before the placental is completely formed, likely beginning with the initiation of placentation itself [26, 111]
EvolutionaryHow natural selection and other mechanisms of evolution (drift, migration) have left the body vulnerable to the pathologyMaternal-fetal genomic conflict, through genetic imprinting may have allowed for selection of higher proportions of fetal cell microchimerism
PhylogeneticWhen, in evolutionary history, did the vulnerability to the pathology arise?Microchimerism has thus far only been detected in eutherian mammals [14, 27-29], suggesting it arose at least in the common ancestor of eutherian mammals, approximately 93 million years ago [112]

With some very talented help, we made the video abstract below:

  1. Amy M. Boddy1,2,*
  2. Angelo Fortunato2
  3. Melissa Wilson Sayres3,4,† and
  4. Athena Aktipis1,2,3,†
Article first published online: 28 AUG 2015
DOI: 10.1002/bies.201500059

The presence of fetal cells has been associated with both positive and negative effects on maternal health. These paradoxical effects may be due to the fact that maternal and offspring fitness interests are aligned in certain domains and conflicting in others, which may have led to the evolution of fetal microchimeric phenotypes that can manipulate maternal tissues. We use cooperation and conflict theory to generate testable predictions about domains in which fetal microchimerism may enhance maternal health and those in which it may be detrimental. This framework suggests that fetal cells may function both to contribute to maternal somatic maintenance (e.g. wound healing) and to manipulate maternal physiology to enhance resource transmission to offspring (e.g. enhancing milk production). In this review, we use an evolutionary framework to make testable predictions about the role of fetal microchimerism in lactation, thyroid function, autoimmune disease, cancer and maternal emotional, and psychological health.

Popular coverage:
New York Times:
National Geographic:
Smithsonian Magazine:
Medical Daily:

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Rock Your Research

Hey, hey, I was interviewed by Chris Jones for the Rock Your Research podcast series about graduate school experiences and academic life. Good times. Check it out:

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Write MOAR!

I was *super* flattered to have a couple people come up to me and say the read my blog.

I know I typically don't comment on posts, so I should know there are people reading and not commenting, but as someone writing, it is nice to have feedback every now and then (I know, I know, be careful what you wish for).

But, I've been pretty quiet this first year here at Arizona State University. So, what's it been like? Well, I'm planning (and really going to try to make it happen) and longer post on it, but let's start with something small.

I can tell you, this first year as an Assistant Professor, blogging has been so far from my mind, except for rare times when I miss the time to sit down and write for fun.

Writing time the last year has been superseded (in no particular order) by:

1. Emails to students/department/colleagues/administration.
2. Preparing lectures.
3. Grant applications - research proposal writing, finding opportunities, re-writing.
4. All the random side documents that need to be filled out with grants (proposal intake forms, administrative forms for the funding agency, etc).
5. Recruiting/screening/training lab members.
6. Setting up the lab & troubleshooting.
7. Doing research!

1. Finding new childcare, doctors, dentists, optometrists
2. Finding a rental, then finding a home.
3. Actually seeing family.

This past year I have neglected working out, but excuse some of it because we bike in to campus/preschool and back most days (117F/47.2C is my cut-off).

It's also difficult to make friends, but in a way, the move, and all of the business of the first year, made it a little less obvious.  I am lucky to have some really good mentors/friends on campus. Knowing them, even if we don't hang out all the time (this isn't grad school anymore), has made a world of difference.

Now, back to work. I have two more early career fellowships to apply for this summer, and one bigger grant I'm hoping to get out before the Fall semester (and my new class!) starts.