Making mistakes and owning them: How I submitted corrections to published papers and (currently) live to tell the tale

 

838-02493432

by Dr. Lauren Robinson

It’s the nightmare scenario: you look back at an old bit of code and realize you’ve made a mistake and, to make matters worse, the paper has already been published. This year I lived that nightmare scenario. I had shared my code only to discover that a variable that should have been reverse scored (which boils down to multiplying the number by -1), wasn’t. It was a minor oversight that I’d made as a 1st year PhD student learning new statistics, I hadn’t caught the mistake until now, and, worse still, the code had been used in two papers I wrote simultaneously. I considered changing my name and hiding but as I had a postdoc and my mother claims to like me, I figured it was better to keep my current identity.

‘…the right decisions don’t come without risk….’

Reaching out to the senior author we knew there was only one solution: We had to redo the statistics and submit corrections. As an early career researcher, I was panicked. What if the results were drastically different, was a retraction (possibly two) in my future? Fear aside, a mistake was made, we had to own it, and if we were going to believe in scientific integrity then we had to show ours. It’s been my experience that the most difficult decisions, the ones that I’m truly afraid to make – those are the decisions I know to be right. But the right decisions don’t come without risk and I can’t pretend that I wasn’t, and continue to be, worried that not everyone would see this as a minor mistake. Science is competitive and the feeling of having to be flawless, particularly at this phase of my career, is a weight. As a woman in science I already have to fight to be taken seriously, to be seen as competent, and I had committed a sin, I had made an honest mistake that had been published, twice. Before I could find out the results of my mistake on my career, I had to find out their impact on my papers.

‘As a woman in science I already have to fight to be taken seriously, to be seen as competent…’

I somehow survived three painful hours while I waited to finish work at my postdoc and could get back to where I kept the study data. Upon sitting at my desk (liquid courage in hand) I redid the stats, anxious to find the results. Now look, I’m no slouch with numbers, I know what multiplying by -1 does to them, but panic overrode sense in that moment and I needed to see to believe. First paper: Flipped the direction of effect on a non-significant variable that remained that way. Okay, fairly minor, just requires that the journal update the tables. Second paper: Again, the only thing that changed was the direction of effect, though this variable had been and still was significant, means we had to adjust the numbers, a line in the abstract, and three sentences in the results. Not great, but as variables go it hadn’t even rated being mentioned in the discussion.

Okay, okay, okay (deep breaths, bit more whisky), this could be so much worse I told myself. I screwed up but hey, everyone makes mistakes, I was learning something new, I should’ve have caught it earlier, but it was caught now. Onto the next step, making the corrections, contacting coauthors, and letting the journals know. Time to really live by our ideals. But first! Another moment of panic while I wondered if I had made the same mistake in my two newest papers. Opening code, reading through, and…no, I hadn’t made the mistake again. Somewhere along the way I had clearly learned how to do these statistics correctly, I just hadn’t caught it while I was working on these two papers and had copy-pasted the code across them. Good news, I am in fact capable of doing things correctly.

‘I had lived my nightmare and it felt, as least in this moment…completely survivable…’

Writing the email to my coauthors wasn’t something that I was particularly looking forward to. “Oh hey fellow researchers that I respect and admire, I screwed up and am going to let the journals and the world know. PS, please don’t think less of me and hate me. Okay, thanks.” While that’s not what I wrote, that’s what it felt like. An admission of imperfection, shame, guilt, a desire to live under a rock. However, I’ve been blessed with caring and understanding collaborators, each of whom was extremely supportive. Next, I sent an email to the journals explaining the mistake and requesting corrections be published. Each journal was understanding and helped us write and publish corrections and that was it, it was done. I had lived my nightmare and it felt, as least in this moment…completely survivable. I had imagined anxiety and panic and battling my own shame and guilt. This…this was a feeling of stillness that I was not prepared for.

Prior to contacting the journals and writing this blog, I asked myself how much this would hurt my career. Would a small mistake cost me my reputation, respect, and future in the science I’d already sacrificed so much for? Would writing this blog and openly speaking to the fact that I had made a mistake only further the potential damage to career and respect? Would a single mistake, done at the beginning of my PhD and not since repeated, mean that others didn’t trust my science and statistics, not want to work with me? Would I trust my own skills, and more importantly, myself, again? There was so much uncertainty and so little information available on this experience, yet mistakes like this must happen more than we think, they just go unspoken.

‘…genuine mistakes? We have to make those acceptable to acknowledge, correct, even retract, and speak about, to learn and move on from.’

This, this is the crux of a problem in science, there are unknown consequences of acknowledging and speaking openly about our mistakes and, by failing to do so, we only further increase the chance that mistakes go uncorrected. Let’s hold those that perform purposeful scientific misconduct accountable, but genuine mistakes? We have to make those acceptable to acknowledge, correct, even retract, and speak about, to learn and move on from them. Those who don’t learn from their mistakes? Well, they may be doomed to face the consequences. As a note, if we’re going to move towards openness and transparency in science then we need to be particularly careful that those in underrepresented groups aren’t unfairly punished or scrutinized for admitting and speaking about mistakes as these groups are already under a microscope and face unique and frustrating challenges. We cannot allow openness and transparency to be used as one more excuse for someone to tell us no, not if science is to diversify and progress.

‘What kind of person and scientist do I want to be?’

Of all the questions I asked myself, deciding to write this post came down to one: What kind of person and scientist do I want to be? As an animal welfare scientist, I have long believed in being transparent and open in science, I realized that’s who I am as a person as well. Living by my ideals meant not only correcting my mistake but also talking openly and frankly about it. These choices, challenging as they may have been, are the right ones. To err is human and luckily for me I have divine friends, mentors, and colleagues that forgive me my mistakes and sins. I believe that we should all be so lucky and that mistakes should be openly and transparently discussed. For now, I live to science another day and look forward to the challenges, mistakes (which I intend to catch prior to publication), and learning that come with it.

For those interested in working with me (imperfections and all) when my current postdoc ends this January, feel free to get in touch via ResearchGate (https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lauren_Robinson7) or Twitter (https://twitter.com/Laurenmrobin).

Links to published corrections:

http://psycnet.apa.org/buy/2016-39633-001

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S016815911830193X

Read about Lauren’s fascinating research (with lots of monkey photos!) into animal welfare and animal behaviour here.

Advertisements

DNA Databases: Between Crime Fighting and Human Rights

by Lauren O’ Connell, University College Dublin.

DNA

Many of us remember learning about DNA from either science class during our school days, or perhaps, our favourite detective series or film. But what is DNA? How did it get to be used in the criminal justice system in the first place? Most importantly, how is it being incorporated, used and understood by the criminal justice system? This piece provides a short introduction to this area of law in Ireland.

DNA stands for ‘Deoxyribonucleic Acid.’ A sample of DNA can be extracted from our saliva, blood and bone for example. Each person’s DNA is structured differently, meaning that our DNA is unique to each of us alone.  DNA profiling was discovered in 1985 by Sir Alec Jeffries and his colleagues in Leicester, and allowed the development of a ‘DNA profile’ from a physical DNA sample. A DNA profile looks similar to a barcode and is a digital representation of a DNA sample. Following this discovery, DNA became a prominent feature in the investigation of crime.

DNA evidence is important in the context of a crime because it can allow for the identification of a specific person at a crime scene and can help to identify unknown bodies. If DNA is found at a scene and then matched with a suspect, it places the suspect at the scene. DNA evidence has been praised because it is often seen as objective, scientific evidence. This has been considered preferable to other forms of evidence such as witness statements which are often subjective and unreliable. Despite these benefits, a problem can arise if DNA is discovered at a crime scene but there are no suspects to test it against. This limits the ability of DNA to aid in an investigation as, although it was obtained from a crime scene, it cannot be compared with anyone. In light of this, the storing or banking of DNA profiles for comparison purposes became desirable for those investigation crimes. DNA storage allows a DNA profile generated from a crime scene sample to be tested against a range of profiles which have already been collected from a pool of people. This is where the central appeal of DNA databasing originated.

Forensic DNA databases organise and store DNA information for the purposes of criminal investigations, and to aid searches for missing or unidentified persons. Therefore, theyallow “rapid comparison” between profiles collected from crime scenes and profiles collected from people who are included in the database (Bieber, 2004: 29). Another frequently mooted (and often debated) benefit offered by DNA databases is the ability to deter people from committing crime, as criminals may have a heightened expectation of being caught.This claim has been disputed however, both because of the difficulties in actually measuring deterrence, but also because criminals may merely adapt to the new circumstances by becoming more forensically aware.The storage of DNA information, even limited information such as a profile, has attracted much debate, particularly in relation to human rights. For example, while databasing is efficient in terms of managing information, a database can also be used “to track, group and classify people with or without their acquiescence” (Jasanoff, 2010: xx). People who have their DNA profiles stored on a forensic DNA database lose privacy, freedom and autonomy, and may be reluctant to engage in active citizenship (such as in protests) given the ability to identify them (Jasanoff, 2010: xxii).

The Irish DNA Database System

Ireland recently incorporated the DNA Database System into law, under the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014. The2014 Act is extensive, but the main purposes of the Actwere neatly summarised by Colm O’Briain (who also provides a wonderfully succinct synopsis of the 2014 Act) (2014: 1-2). The main purposes include an overhaul of the previous legislation and common law practices in the area of taking DNA samples (from several different groups of people such as offenders, suspects and volunteers), the establishment of the DNA Database System, along with providing management and oversight for the System, and the implementing of the Prüm Council Decision, which provides for the international exchange of DNA evidence. Part 8 of the 2014 Actspecifically addresses the DNA Database System, which is currently controlled by Forensic Science Ireland, an independent body based in the Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park.

Given the potential of DNA databases, one of the central debates which follows is who (or what offences) should qualify for entry onto the database. Typically, sex offenders are mooted as one of the key categories which should be included on a database. However, most databases extend beyond this to include people who have already been convicted of other serious offences such as murder for example. In some jurisdictions, inclusion criteria are based on the length of the sentence which the offence might warrant (premised on the logic that the more serious the offence, the lengthier the punishment). However, it is not always restricted to people who have been convicted of an offence. A DNA database can also include ‘volunteers’, who are innocent people not convicted or suspected of committing an offence. This has led to discussion on the possibility of population-wide databases, although these are often dismissed as being impracticable both on the grounds of human rights and logistical concerns.

In the case of Irish DNA Database System, there are four main ways that a person’s DNA profile can lawfully appear on same (O’Briain, 2014: 9). These are as follows:

  1. If a person is detained for a relevant offence

A ‘relevant offence’ is an offence for which a person may be detained under Section 9 of the 2014 Act. Offences include those under the Offences Against the State Act 1939, along with drug-trafficking offences, murder, false imprisonment, and offences which may be punished by a term of five years imprisonment or more. O’Briain (2014: 8) neatly summarises that the minimum requirement is an offence with a maximum sentence of at least 5 years.

  1. If a person is an offender or former offender

Offenders are identified as those who have been convicted of a relevant offence and are either (1) serving a sentence, on temporary release or subject to a suspended sentence, (2) convicted before or after the commencement of the Act and sentenced to imprisonment, (3) serving a term of imprisonment on foot of a transfer of prisoners provision (so long as the offence involved corresponds to a relevant offence) or (4) subject to the requirements of Part 2 of theSex Offenders Act 2001at the time of the commencement or at any time thereafter.

  1. If a person volunteers to provide a sample and then allows the profile to be entered onto the System

The taking of DNA samples from volunteers is governed by Part 3 of the Act, with the entry of volunteer profiles onto the DNA Database System covered under Section 28.

 

  1. If a DNA profile was generated under the previous statutory regime, then it may be entered onto the System under transitional provisions. 

Prior to the 2014 Act, the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence) Act 1990governed the taking of DNA samples. This provision therefore accommodates the transition of samples collected under the previous legislation and allows such samples to be entered onto the System.

The next debate that follows relates to how long we need to retain this information. As a result, retention periods make up a large part of the discourse on the development of DNA databases around the world. One argument for retaining the information for longer periods of time is that it may mean that detection rates are improved. However, retention of such data has also been considered an invasion of privacy. For example, the UK’s DNA database was subject to “serious scrutiny” which culminated in the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) reprimanding the UK’s approach to retention of data in the case of S and Marper v United Kingdom (2008) (Kazemian et al. 2011: 49). England, Wales and Northern Ireland were the only countries in the Council of Europe which allowed for the indefinite retention of DNA data of people who were not convicted of a crime. The ECtHR held that this indefinite retention of data was a violation of Article 8 (the right to privacy) of the European Convention on Human Rights (see Prainsack, 2010: 15-16).

Under the 2014 Act, there are different retention regimes for DNA profiles and samples depending on the origin of the sample. For example, volunteers and those who work in the forensic science laboratory have different retention regimes. It is therefore beyond the scope of this piece to explain each of these different regimes. Instead, this piece specifically considers those who are arrested for a ‘relevant’ offence. In Ireland, the retention regime for this category of persons is quite interesting. Under Section 80 of the 2014 Act,if a person is detained for a relevant offence and their DNA profile is entered onto the System, it is only removed in the following situations:

  1. If proceedings against a person are not instituted within 12 months of taking that sample (unless the reason for the delay is because the person has absconded or cannot be found).
  2. In the case that the proceedings have been instituted, then removal will occur if the person is acquitted of the relevant offence, if the charge is dismissed, or the proceedings discontinued.
  3. If the person’s conviction was identified as a miscarriage of justice.
  4. If the person receives an order under the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 for the relevant offence and they have not been convicted of a relevant offence in the 3 years following that order.

This is subject to Section 81, which allows the Garda Commissioner to extend the retention period for 12 months. This power to extend can be done up to a maximum of 6 years (so extending retention by twelve months six times). The person can however appeal this decision to the District Court. However, there is also a provision under Section 93 which allows the Garda Commissioner to apply to the District Court to extend the retention period once there is a “good reason” to do so (see O’Briain, 2014: 16). This indicates that removal is restricted to certain instances, and that retention of the information appears to be preferred by the legislation.

To conclude, DNA forms an important part of investigations into criminal activity and missing persons. DNA evidence can be highly useful, but the potential is limited if there is no source with which to compare it. To combat this limitation, DNA database systems have been established in jurisdictions around the world. Ireland has now joined this group by enacting the Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014 which governs this area of law.

 

References

  • Bieber F. R., (2004) ‘Science and Technology of Forensic DNA Profiling: Current Use and Future Directions’, in DNA and The Criminal Justice System: The Technology of Justice, edited by Lazer D., The MIT Press, Cambridge, pp 23-62.
  • Jasanoff S., (2010) ‘Foreword’, in Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing, edited by Hindmarsh R. and Prainsack B., Cambridge University Press.
  • Kazemian L., Pease K., and Farrington D. P., (2011) ‘DNA Retention Policies: The Potential Contribution of Criminal Career Research’, European Journal of Criminology8 (1) 48.
  • O’Briain C., (2014) ‘Criminal Justice (Forensic Evidence and DNA Database System) Act 2014: An Overview from a Criminal Practitioner’s Perspective,’ paper presented at the 15th Annual Conference of the Director of Public Prosecutions, available online at:  https://www.dppireland.ie/filestore/documents/PAPER_-_Colm_OBriain_-_2014.10.18.pdf
  • Prainsack B. (2010) ‘Key issues in DNA profiling and databasing: implications for governance’ in Genetic Suspects: Global Governance of Forensic DNA Profiling and Databasing, edited by Hindmarsh R. and Prainsack B., Cambridge University Press, pp 15-39.

Feminist research, activism, public participation, and social change

Research needs to look towards a future of public participation and institutional disruption, writes Yvonne Kiely, Dublin City University

Research questions often come about in response to an identified problem. Whether this problem is social, scientific, political, micro or macro, researchers attend to the minutest details with their chosen methods in order to affect a change in our understanding of these problems, and ultimately the problems themselves. My own field of feminist media research has, at its core, issues of social justice and disruption; there is a conscious and deliberate aim to readdress inequalities within the media-gender relationship. For many researchers and institutions, the aim is social change.

And change does happen. Since the 1970s – since feminism was realised as a worldwide movement – feminist media research has been disrupting and enriching discussions about the relationship between gender and media in society. The first feminist critique of media was heard in Mexico City at the first of three UN Decades for Women conferences in 1975, and this milestone, where women’s representation by media and within its structures was a central issue, added another critical dimension to the wider feminist movement, and to academia (see Byerly, 2016). The beginnings of feminist media scholarship were rooted within this identification of a problem and the desire to disrupt the status quo for the sake of equality and justice. In doing so, the public, lived experiences of women within media industries became an integral part of how research was directed and articulated in policy and institutional strategy. Today, the field is still evolving and challenging researchers to investigate the structures of our media institutions with fresh critical thinking.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research.

The potential for direct social impact is inherent within feminist research. As some scholars have written about the relationship between feminist research and activism, “Many feminist researchers have been influenced by the research questions generated by women’s movements and consider it a moral imperative that their research should include women’s voices. They wish to change both the subjects and the objects of study” (Ackerly & True, 2010).

Among many academic institutions worldwide there is a strong and visible commitment to feminist research, gender studies, and the social good that can be achieved through engaging with communities. However, there is a problem within the protocols and practices of higher level education. The reality which all too often acts as a book end to huge swathes of good, painstakingly uncovered knowledge is one of inertia and stasis. From an insider’s perspective, you can see time and time again, significant pieces of research entering a normalised cycle of publication and citation with the full potential of the research itself locked behind a paywall. Uninterrupted access to the vast majority of this knowledge requires you to be a member of the institutional framework – an academic, or a student – which again comes with its own price tag. The reality of these institutional frameworks is arguably the biggest fault of academia. It is a reality that requires us to think differently about the research journey.

It is a reality that can be readdressed with the understanding that the full potential of socially impactful research resides in the encouragement and inclusion of public action and participation.

My journey from research question to publication brought me face-to-face with the stickiest catch-22 of higher level education. In the summer of 2017 I investigated gender in the music industry. Over these months I interviewed six women who occupy various roles within the music industry in Ireland. Coupled with this was a content analysis of two popular music magazines; Hot Press(Ireland) and Rolling Stone(USA). I tracked over forty years of gender on the covers of these magazines and applied a total of 8,721 individual categorisations to the people in these spaces. The result: gender matters in the music industry, and it matters in very specific ways.

It was the decision to make my research publicly available on my website* earlier this year which revealed to me the voices that academic protocols and paywalls are excluding from the conversation. They are the people to whom the research is most relevant.

The first article I published discussed my initial research question and the journey which led me to the real question that needed to be asked about gender, power and visibility in the music industry. Specifically, in relation to women music producers, the question of ‘why are there so few?’ is imprecise, and the figure of ‘less than five percent’ extensively cited by articles is inaccurate. There is a difference between what we see in the visible, widely established music industry, and what is actually there; the question we need to ask is ‘why do we seeso few?’

The second article detailed the investigation of gender on music magazine covers, and for the first time the shared transatlantic trends of how gender is constructed on the covers of Hot Press and Rolling Stonewere uncovered and articulated.

Combined, these two articles have been read 947 times in almost 60 countries across five continents. Within the space of six months the reach of these articles has exceeded my expectations, and their longevity endures today as they continue to be read. Since the first article was published I’ve received comments and emails from female identifying people in the music industry congratulating me on the research and thanking me for it. Through participatory spaces within online music networks, this research has travelled. Though I cannot say for sure that the people in Albania, Guadeloupe, Mongolia, or Serbia would not have read this research had it gone through academic protocols and been published by peer-reviewed journals, I can certainly speculate as to the difference in reach and accessibility.

One approach that aims to disrupt the traditional boundaries between researcher and subject, and calls for the restructuring of academic frameworks is Participatory Action Research (PAR). Through witnessing the tangible social impact of research sharing in public space, PAR has become critically important to how I conceptualise the research journey.

“Feminist principles of equality, reciprocity, partiality and valuing the voices of ordinary people as expert and authoritative on their own lives are reflected in PAR” (Pain, Kindon & Kesby, 2007).

PAR also asks us to challenge ourselves as researchers.

“PAR introduces new questions about representation, audience and product that compel us to rethink the role and impact of research. More than an epistemological shift, this approach brings commitments to action that push researchers to work in new and sometimes unfamiliar ways” (Cahill & Torre, 2007).

The argument presented by this article is directed squarely at the protocols, politics and paywalls of academic institutions. By all means, we need the peer-review system; research needs to be critiqued and scrutinised by an objective overseer before it is given the zeal of academic approval in a journal. But the cycle of publication and citation behind closed doors needs to be disrupted to allow for public engagement, to allow for the subjects of these socially significant pieces of research to become part of the conversation. For feminist researchers taking inspiration from the questions raised by women’s liberation movements and feminist activism, and for activists who change the language of gender politics and give voice to the changing needs of an equal and just society, there is a mutual interest in the creation of shared participatory spaces, and the disruption of a system which defines access to knowledge as a question of wealth, protocols and institutional status.

*Parts one and two of the ‘Researching gender in music series’ can be accessed here.

 

 

 

References

Ackerly, B. and True, J. (2010). Back to the future: Feminist theory, activism, and doing feminist    research in an age of globalization. Women’s Studies International Forum, 33(5), pp.464-  472.

Byerly, C. M. (2016). Stasis and shifts in feminist media scholarship. In C. Cerqueira; R.    Cabecinhas & S. I. Magalhães (Eds.), Gender in focus: (new) trends in media (pp. 15-27).

Cahill, C. and Torre, M. E. (2007). Beyond the journal article: representations, audience, and the     presentation of Participatory Action Research. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds),                      Participatory Action Research Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation    and place (pp. 196-206).

Kindon, S., Pain, R. and Kesby, M. (2007). Participatory Action Research: origins, approaches and            methods. In S. Kindon, R. Pain & M. Kesby (Eds), Participatory Action Research   Approaches and Methods: connecting people, participation and place (pp.9-19)

Shedding Light on the Dark Universe

By Dr Alexandra Amon, Stanford University

 

Dark Matter

Shedding light on the Dark Universe

It would be easy to imagine that the Dark Universe was a malevolent force in the latest Star Wars movie, it’s leaders the enemy of the Federation, or that dark energy had some kind of demonic origin. However sinister it may sound, the dark side is entirely innocent and, in fact, it comprises 95% of our Universe.

To give this perspective, Earth is an almost infinitesimal speck in the cosmos. It orbits the Sun, one of billions of stars, swirling around and bound together to form our galaxy, the Milky Way. Moreover, there are billions of galaxies in our Universe, each boasting their own hoard of stars and planets! Observational cosmology tells us that these structures, that are made of particles whose physics we understand, only constitute about 5% of everything in the Universe. The rest is dark matter and dark energy.

Dark matter is a special type of matter that neither emits nor interacts with light, but plays an important role in the story of our Universe. More than three quarters of the mass in our Milky Way galaxy (and other galaxies) is the invisible dark matter, rather than the stars and the planets. Therefore, the dark matter creates a large gravitational effect and acts as the glue holding our galaxies together.

Dark energy is even more mysterious. It is a form of energy that drives the accelerated expansion of our Universe. That is, our observations reveal that while stars stay tightly bound in galaxies, as cosmic time marches on the galaxies themselves are moving further away from each other, and our best theory holds dark energy responsible. While we can’t see these entities, we infer that they exist from their effect on things we can see.

 It may sound like cosmologists have the Universe sussed, but there are cracks in our Standard Cosmological Model. While we understand the effect of dark matter in the universe,  particle physicists are yet to detect its particle in their giant dark matter net experiments. On the other hand the best theory for dark energy, as predicted by quantum physics, is starkly wrong. To put it politely, there is much work to be done! It is possible that we are missing something in our theory of gravity- Einstein’s General Relativity- and may need to invoke some new physics in order to solve the dark energy phenomenon. That is, just as Newtonian gravity, which satisfies experiments on Earth, was revolutionised by Einstein’s theory in order to explain measurements in the solar system, perhaps we need another upgrade to explain even larger-scale observations. We focus on observing how dark matter changes over cosmic time, which sheds light on how dark energy evolves and allows us to test gravity on cosmological scales.

 Cosmology has a vast toolbox of independent methods to understand the nature of the Dark Universe and to test the laws of gravity. Techniques include measurements of the brightness of supernovae- the explosive ends of binary pairs of unequal mass stars; exquisite observations of the Cosmic Microwave Background-temperature fluctuations across the sky from the light emitted in very early universe, just 380 000 years after the Big Bang; charting the distant Universe by obtaining precise velocities of and distances to galaxies; and meticulously measuring the shapes of distant galaxies. The latter is called weak gravitational lensing.

 Weak gravitational lensing

 As we observe a distant galaxy, we collect its light in our telescopes after it has journeyed across the Universe. According to General Relativity, dark matter, like any massive structure, warps the very fabric of the Universe, space-time, as depicted by the grid in the image below. The path that the light travels along, indicated by an arrow, also gets bent with the space-time and as such, the image of the galaxy that we capture appears distorted. The presence of dark matter or massive structures along the line of sight has the effect of lensing the galaxy- making it appear more elliptical in our images and inducing a coherent alignment among nearby galaxies.

PastedGraphic-1

A depiction of weak gravitational lensing. As light from distant galaxies travels towards us, it passes by massive structures of dark matter, shown here as grey spheres. Dark matter’s gravity curves the local space-time as well as the path that the light follows. This curvature distorts the images of the background galaxies that we then observe, with the amount of distortion depending on the distribution of dark matter along the light path. By measuring this distortion, we can infer the size and location of invisible massive structures (dotted circles). Image credit; APS/Alan Stonebraker; galaxy images from STScI/AURA, NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team.

The stronger the average galaxy ellipticity is in a patch of sky, the more dark matter there is in that region of the Universe, assuming galaxies are in reality, randomly oriented. Therefore, the induced ellipticity of the galaxies is a faint signature of dark matter inscribed across the Universe. If we can measure this alignment to extreme precision, and combine with the equations of General Relativity, we can infer the location and properties of the matter- both visible and dark- between us and the galaxies.  By mapping the evolution of the dark-matter structures with cosmic history and documenting the accelerating expansion of space and time, we learn about dark energy.  

I work as part of a European team, called the Kilo-Degree Survey, imaging a 5% chunk of the sky a few hundred times the size of the full moon. We have measured the positions and shapes of tens of millions galaxies, as the universe was when (at most) half its current age. While this sounds wildly impressive, we are only now seeing the tip of the iceberg for what is required to truly understand our Universe. That is because while gravitational lensing is a powerful cosmological technique, it is extremely technologically challenging. The typical distortion induced by dark matter as a galaxy’s light travels through the universe, is only enough to alter the shape of that galaxy by less than 1%. As the lensing effect is weak, in order to detect it we need to analyse the images of millions of galaxies. This entails a data challenge, necessitating rapid processing of petabytes of data. A scientific hurdle arises as the weak lensing distortions are significantly smaller than the distortions that arise in the last moments of the the light’s journey.  Due to the effect of the Earth’s atmosphere and our imperfect telescopes and detectors, instead of measuring the shapes of galaxies in images that are beautifully resolved like the Hubble Space Telescope image below, in large lensing surveys, galaxies can appear as fuzzy blobs that only span a few pixels. Just to up the ante, the terrestrial effects change between and throughout the night’s observations as the wind, temperature and weather vary, even in the exquisite conditions of the  mountaintops of the Atacama Desert, Chile, where lensing data is often collected. In order to isolate the dark matter signature, the nuisance distortions are modelled to extremely high precision and then inverted, allowing an accurate recovery of the cosmological signal. Further complications arise from the physics of the galaxies. They have an intrinsic ellipticity and dynamical processes that we do not perfectly understand, but must also factor into our calculations.

PastedGraphic-3

Hubble Space Telescope image of a cluster of galaxies called Abell 1689. The larger yellow galaxies are members of this massive galaxy cluster, bound within a dense clump of dark matter that gravitationally distorts the space and time around the cluster. The small blue objects are galaxies that are behind the cluster, whose light path has become bent as it journeys towards Earth, passing by the cluster. Gravitational lensing effectuates the giant curved blue arcs that you can see surrounding Abell 1689- the distorted images of the distant galaxies . The five blue dots with rainbow crosses are just stars in our own Milky Way Galaxy. Image credit: NASA/ESA/STScI.

 

The Kilo-Degree Survey, as well as similar American and Japanese experiments, act as stepping stones and a training ground for an epic coming decade for observational cosmologists. We are at the dawn of several major international projects that will survey the sky to greater depths and resolution than ever before. The Large Synoptic Survey Telescope will image the entire Southern sky every few nights, building the deepest and largest map of our cosmos, the Euclid satellite will survey the sky from space, eradicating the worry of Earth’s atmosphere and the the Dark Energy Spectroscopic Instrument will delivery extremely precise locations and velocities of over 30 million galaxies. I look forward to helping these projects to map the distant Universe, trace the evolution of the dark matter and dark energy from 10 billion years ago to the present day and in doing so, bringing us closer to fathoming the other 95% of our Universe: the dark side.

It is a humbling field that asks what the Universe is made of and how its structure evolved for the formation of galaxies and our existence. In our insignificant snippet in the grand story of the Universe, it is remarkable that technology allows us to observe objects at distances beyond our comprehension and that our diverse range of measurements even vaguely fit a consistent model.

The Wheat We Eat: Quality or Quantity?

Building better bread: Using genetics to study senescence and nutrient content in wheat.

by Sophie Harrington, John Innes Centre

Wheat provides over 20% of the calories consumed worldwide, the second most of any crop after rice (1). Nearly all of us will eat wheat in one form or another every day—staple foods like bread and pasta as well as our favourite treats, from cake and biscuits to certain types of beer. For many cultures, wheat has been essential for thousands of years –  it was originally domesticated around 10,000 years ago. The wheat we eat today is descended from 3 different kinds of wild grasses which crossed together at different times to produce the wild ancestor of wheat (Figure 1)(2). Some of us can take it for granted now that we’ll be able to pop down to the corner shop and pick up a loaf of bread at a moment’s notice, but it took thousands of years of selection by farmers to get to the wheat that we’d recognise today.

SH2

Figure 1: Wheat originated from two separate crosses between wild grasses. The first occurred around 400,000 years ago, producing wild emmer. Wild emmer then crossed with a different grass around 10,000 years ago. This final cross produced Triticum aestivum, which would be domesticated into bread wheat by humans. At each cross, the genomes of the wild grasses were combined, resulting in Triticum aestivum containing 3 separate genomes (shown as “AABBDD”, with each letter corresponding to one of the ancestral genomes). Figure courtesy of Dr. Cristobal Uauy.

This process of selection was accelerated in the mid-1900s, during the period called the “Green Revolution.” A combination of research into better breeding techniques and new chemical fertilizers, among other factors, contributed to the substantial increase in yield seen during this period. One critical change involved reducing the height of wheat plants which allowed more energy from photosynthesis to be moved into the grain rather than being stored in the leaves and stems of the plants. The yield increases that came about due to the Green Revolution were essential to keep up with the demands of the growing world population.

Most of the work during the Green Revolution was focused on increasing yield alone, boosting the calories that could be extracted from a single field of wheat. But the benefits of wheat extend far beyond calories along. Perhaps surprisingly, wheat provides 25% of the global protein intake (1). Most of us would think of meat or beans as our main sources of protein, but as a staple crop wheat is essential for our protein intake. The nutrients present in the wheat grain, like iron and zinc, are also essential in our diet.

Campaigns to eradicate hunger have had unprecedented success in recent years, and over 89% of the world’s population are able to obtain enough calories for their basic needs (3). Yet increasingly it is the nutrient content of our diets that is leading to the growing health crises globally. At one extreme, malnutrition, defined as the lack of essential nutrients in a diet that has sufficient calories, is one of the leading causes of childhood stunting (3). At the other extreme, obesity in both childhood and adulthood is more common, partly a result of highly calorific food with poor nutritional value becoming so easily available.

Quality Control

During the development of wheat, the period of growth known as “senescence” is critical in regulating the amounts of proteins and nutrients in the developing grain. This is the period where wheat changes from its living, green state to the dead, yellowing state that is so familiar to us at the end of summer. As the leaves die, the molecules in the leaf start to break down and the elements that make up these molecules are transported from the leaves into the developing grain. At the same time, proteins and carbohydrates are also being remobilised from the leaves and moved to the grain. It’s this movement of nutrients and protein that is essential in establishing the quality of the grain. Different levels of protein determine what the grain can be used for. Bread making requires high-protein flour—this protein makes gluten which creates the structure of bread. At the bottom end of the scale, lower quality wheat can be used as feed for livestock and poultry. However, while increased quality is desired, historically a trade-off has been seen between wheat quality and yield (Figure 2).

SH3

Figure 2: Increasing quality and yield often leads to a trade-off. As senescence moves later, yield tends to increase, while quality (such as protein and nutrient levels) tends to decrease. The reverse is found with earlier senescence. This leads to a balancing act with the timing of senescence—how can you maximise both yield and quality?

My research is focused on understanding how the process of senescence is controlled in wheat in the hope that we can use this knowledge to increase the nutritional quality of wheat grains. I’m particularly interested in studying genes that are involved in regulating senescence. These genes are called transcription factors, and they act as master regulators in the cell. Transcription factors are able to bind to DNA and influence the expression of other genes. Oftentimes, changing how a transcription factor is expressed can have a large impact on many other downstream targets.

Previous work found a specific transcription factor, known as NAM-B1, which promoted the onset of senescence (4). When this transcription factor wasn’t active, senescence in wheat was significantly delayed (Figure 3). This delayed senescence was also correlated to a drop in the nutritional content of the wheat grain. This suggested that the timing of senescence could directly influence the levels of nutrients and proteins in the grain. Notably, grain size was not affected by the change in nutrient content and senescence timing, suggesting that studying the NAM-B1 gene might provide insight into how to break the trade-off between quality and yield.

SH4

Figure 3: Reducing the action of NAM-B1 (left) leads to delayed senescence in wheat compared to the wild-type plant (right). Panel from (4).

I’m now trying to identify new transcription factors that also regulate the timing of senescence. One way that we’re approaching this question is to look for proteins that interact with NAM-B1. We know that the NAM-B1 transcription factor is only functional when it is bound to another transcription factor in the same family, called NACs. This partner might be another copy of itself, or it could possibly be a different NAC transcription factor entirely. We hypothesised that NAC transcription factors that bind NAM-B1 might also regulate senescence. To study this, we can use different experimental techniques in species as varied as yeast and Nicotiana benthamiana, a relative of tobacco, to look for proteins that can bind to NAM-B1.

Once I’ve identified proteins that bind to NAM-B1, the next question is what these proteins do in the wheat plant. A recently developed resource, the wheat TILLING population, has started to make this process much quicker and easier (5). This is a large set of different lines of wheat that have been mutated by a chemical known as ethyl methanesulfonate (or EMS). This chemical leads to specific single-base-pair changes in the DNA sequence. This means that, in at least one of the thousands of different wheat lines, you’re very likely to find a mutation that knocks-out the action of your favourite gene. All of the mutated wheat lines in this TILLING population have had their genes sequenced. This means that all of the mutations in the genes have been identified and catalogued. Now it’s very easy for us to search for mutations in a gene we’re interested in, and we can order the lines we want online.

After identifying mutations in the genes I’m interested in, I then need to start making crosses before I can look at the effect. This is because, unlike us, wheat is a polyploid. This means that wheat has three different genomes, a legacy of the way wheat was domesticated from three different wild grasses (Figure 1). One of the big effects of this is that there are usually at least 3 copies of each gene—one for each genome. So a mutation in one of the three genes may not actually make any difference to the plant, as the other two copies can compensate. As a result, it’s very important to make crosses so that all of the copies of the genes have mutations in them. Otherwise it would be very easy to think that a gene isn’t important as a single mutation doesn’t cause any change. This polyploidy is one of the reasons that breeding in wheat has historically been so difficult, as random mutations are unlikely to happen more than one copy and are thus often obscured—what can be called the “hidden variation” (2).

Once you’ve found your candidate genes, identified mutated lines, and made all of your crosses, you’re ready to see if your gene has an effect. I do most of my trials in the greenhouse, so that I can look at my plants on a smaller scale than you would need for the field. By scoring for senescence onset and progression in my mutant plants, I’m able to identify whether my mutants influence the timing of senescence (Figure 4). This is quite important as earlier senescence may lead to increased nutrient content, so it’s a useful proxy as it’s quick and cheap to study. After identifying mutant lines that have an interesting phenotype (in this case variation in senescence timing), I can directly measure the levels of nutrients such as iron and zinc in the grain. This is an essential final step to see how the variation in senescence timing correlates with the grain nutrient content.

SH5

Figure 4: Variation in chlorophyll breakdown in mutant plants. The mutant plant on the left has yellow leaves, indicating that the chlorophyll is being broken down much earlier than the wild-type plant on the right. This suggests that certain pathways associated with senescence are being activated earlier in the mutant plant.

Currently in my research, I’m still in the process of scoring my plants for senescence and identifying interesting mutants. Wheat takes quite a long time to grow in the greenhouse—about 4 months from seed to seed—so it takes quite an investment of time to get through the generations needed for crossing. A new technique for wheat growth called, appropriately, “Speed Breeding” is starting to change this (6). By growing wheat under special LED lighting for 22 hours a day in rooms where the environment is kept constant we can reduce the time for each generation to between 8 and 10 weeks. This is a significant time saving, and is incredibly powerful particularly for generation of new lines from crosses.

It still remains to be seen whether the proteins that I found to interact with NAM-B1 play a significant role in regulating senescence. There are some promising initial results from the mutants I’ve developed, but it will require another few sets of experiments in the glasshouse and the field before I’m sure we’ve honed in on good candidates. Watch this space!

University responses to sexual violence on campus: comparing English & American approaches

by Erin Shannon, University of York

Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

What can we learn from a comparative framing of responses to sexual violence in universities?

Sexual violence in English and American universities is not a new phenomenon, yet its corresponding field of study is relatively new. Such scholarship dates back to the 1980s but has gained traction in the last decade, possibly due to several high-profile cases, national awareness-raising efforts including campaigns like ‘It’s On Us‘ and ‘I Heart Consent‘, and the rise of survivor-activist groups such as ‘End Rape on Campus‘ and ‘Know Your IX‘ in the United States and ‘Revolt Sexual Assault‘ in the United Kingdom. Despite this growth in mainstream media coverage and activist work, research on sexual violence in universities remains limited: England only began investigating it in 2010 at the urging of the National Union of Students (NUS, 2010) and while the United States has a longer record of studying the subject, the existing literature often overlooks structural issues in favour of more individualised studies of perpetrator behaviour or the impact on victims/survivors (Phipps and Smith, 2012, p. 358). Comparative studies on sexual violence in universities are even rarer, as a single study exists that analyses campus crime rates across England and the United States (Fisher and Wilkes, 2003) and this only briefly touches on sexual violence.

Looking beyond scholarship, current institutional responses to sexual violence in American and English universities fall into one of two polarised approaches: a heavily structured framework (e.g. United States) versus a culture change model (e.g. England). While these models are not mutually exclusive, universities currently treat them as such. A comparative examination of American and English universities’ responses to sexual violence highlights that both approaches are necessary, yet neither on its own is sufficient to properly respond to sexual violence in universities. On a practical implementation level, the necessity of a comparative study becomes clear: Though England does not currently have a national response framework for sexual violence in universities, Universities UK (UUK) noted in its (2016) Changing the Culture report that it is working towards creating one, and, in doing so, is studying established structures—such as the United States’ Title IX—for potential adaptation (p. 4). We must therefore understand the existing responses in both countries if we are to seriously consider policy borrowing.

Before we can discuss what this best practice sharing could look like, we need to understand how we arrived at this discussion. Policy borrowing implies a level of sameness between two contexts, and American and English universities are indeed similar. The student make-up in both countries is comparable: In the 2015-2016 academic year, 40.5% of 18-24-year-olds in the United States and 49% of 17-30-year-olds in England attended university (National Center for Education Statistics; Adams, 2017). The majority of these students are white and female (National Center for Education Statistics; “Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17,” 2018). Victimisation rates in both countries are also comparable: Though more data exists about the prevalence of sexual violence in American universities than in English universities, the available research does illustrate similarities. The (2015) Association of American Universities (AAU) Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct found that 21.2% of final year undergraduate students experience some kind of attempted or completed sexual assault prior to graduation (Cantor et. al., p. xiv). The most vulnerable of these were female students and “TGQN” students— “transgender male, transgender female, genderqueer or non-conforming gender, questioning, not listed, and ‘decline to state’” (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. vii)—who experience sexual violence at rates of 33.1% and 39.1% respectively (Cantor et. al., 2015, p. xiv). In England, the (2010) Hidden Marks report found that, of its respondents, one in seven female students experienced a serious sexual or physical assault (NUS, p. 3, 11) and 25% experienced a form of sexual violence while in higher education (NUS, p. 16). Another constant across both countries is the perpetrator profile: The most frequent perpetrators of sexual violence in universities are not “‘masked strangers’” (Hartmann, 2015, p. 291), but rather (ex-)boyfriends, friends, classmates, or acquaintances (Fisher et. al., 2000, p. 17; Krebs et. al., 2007, p. xviii). The Hidden Marks report further revealed that the level of intimacy the perpetrator had with the victim/survivor varied across types of violence: The more severe the assault, the closer the relationship between them (NUS, 2010, p. 19).

Despite these similarities, American and English universities respond differently to student disclosures of sexual violence, and these responses represent either side of the structured framework versus culture change binary mentioned earlier. The United States has a relatively standardised federal approach, while England is witnessing many different responses by individual universities. In addition to the structural difference between the countries, there appears to be a value difference as well. Although the United States has the infrastructure to respond to student disclosures of sexual violence, there seems to be little commitment to changing campus cultures that permit sexual violence to occur. If American universities have the infrastructure without commitment to institutional change, English universities have recently demonstrated a higher level of commitment to ending sexual violence with little infrastructure to do so.

The American Framework

The framework that the United States has in place consists of two key federal directives, Title IX and the Clery Act. Title IX prohibits any discrimination based on sex in education and the (2011) Dear Colleague Letter (DCL)—updated implementation guidance from the Obama administration—explicitly situates sexual violence as an issue covered by this: “Sexual harassment of students, which includes acts of sexual violence, is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title IX” (Ali, p. 1). The DCL mandates the following: Universities must publish a non-discrimination notice that has the contact information of the Title IX Coordinator in an easily accessible place, must assign the responsibility for Title IX compliance to at least one employee, and must create and disseminate their procedures for sex discrimination complaints (Ali, 2011, p. 6). It discusses how student conduct investigations should be carried out by detailing what standard of proof is acceptable (preponderance of the evidence or “more likely than not” as opposed to a higher standard such as “beyond a reasonable doubt”); that the complainant (alleged victim/survivor) and accused (alleged perpetrator) should have equal opportunity to present evidence, though they should not directly question each other; that investigations should not take longer than 60 days; and that universities should have an appeals process in place for both parties (Ali, 2011, p. 10-12). Should a university fail to respond appropriately and quickly to a report of sexual violence, the Office for Civil Rights can revoke the university’s federal funding (Ali, 2011, p. 16). In addition to Title IX, universities must adhere to the Clery Act, which requires them to log information such as the “‘nature, date, time, and general location of each crime;’” release statistics of crimes that happen adjacent to or on campus; send out ‘timely warnings’ about immediate and/or ongoing threats to campus safety; and create an emergency response strategy (Griffin et. al., 2017, p. 403-404).

Critics of the American response framework, particularly Title IX, often point to the lack of compliance universities exhibit and its punitive, legalistic qualities. When measuring the efficacy of Title IX in responding to sexual violence, what is often actually being measured is how successfully schools comply with guidance rather than how successfully they address sexual violence. Compliance, however, can still speak to how universities (de)value student victims/survivors; it’s therefore worth noting that, despite these improved procedures, there were still universities in 2015 that lacked a basic Title IX policy (Richards, 2016, p. 20). This compliance culture—or lack thereof—illustrates a previously mentioned issue with the American response to sexual violence in universities: Tani (2017), citing Leon’s study of the 2014 Office for Civil Rights investigation of University of Delaware, points out that American universities may have the structure in place to facilitate effective responses to sexual violence, yet limited or no institutional commitment to cultural change (p. 1890). Furthermore, beyond failure to comply with the system lie issues with the system itself. These critiques point to how such a punitive model results in a ‘zero-sum game’ between the rights of the accused versus the rights of the complainant and how the policy’s rape mythology imported from criminal law hurts victims/survivors (Hartmann, 2015, p. 314, 294; USVreact, 2018, p. 9).

The English approach

Conversely, the recommendations set out in UUK’s (2016) Changing the Culture report focus on facilitating cultural change through the creation of streamlined reporting, recording, and support processes. The Changing the Culture report highlighted that some universities are responding, but these responses are not centralised and there is not yet an outlet for sharing best practice across the UK (2016, p. 5). Based on responses from 60 of their member universities, UUK found that the majority did not have dedicated policies in place to respond to sexual violence, as this was often included under an umbrella policy for harassment and bullying (2016, p. 27). Under-reporting of sexual violence and the lack of reporting and recording infrastructure were common issues among respondents (UUK, 2016, p. 28). Despite the absence of internal reporting resources, however, many universities had developed working partnerships in their local communities with police and crisis centres (UUK, 2016, p. 29). UUK formed recommendations based on recurrent themes in university responses which include: achieve senior leadership buy-in, implement an institution-wide approach, work to prevent violence through forming a zero-tolerance culture and using bystander intervention training, create a system to centrally record all reports and make sure that there is a clear path to disclosure and support, create or strengthen partnerships in the local community (NHS, rape crisis centres, etc.), and ensure best practice sharing (2016, p. 58-59).

While Phipps and Smith (2012) caution us against “mobilising simplistic dichotomies” (p. 366) in comparing English and American responses to sexual violence in universities, the themes of infrastructure and commitment offer an opportunity to understand why two countries with relatively similar student make-up and rates of violence have taken such different approaches. The United States may have a developed infrastructure for response, yet the presence of this framework and the federal sanctions it can impose then make universities more concerned with compliance than with addressing and redressing sexual violence. On the other hand, without national legislation, England has the opportunity to discuss what supporting victims/survivors and preventing sexual violence looks like without universities facing national sanctions if their response does not fit a certain mould. The English guidance generated does not fixate on infrastructure aside from what will help students—easily accessible reporting and support pathways. In reviewing the American and English systems, we come to understand that merely having formal structures in place to respond to sexual violence in universities does not lead to broader cultural change, and that lacking standardised policies does not mean universities are not working to end sexual violence. The absence of standardised procedures in England may contribute to issues of accountability when universities act negligently, yet the United States shows us that the mere presence of a uniform response strategy does not guarantee that all universities will implement this even under the threat of losing federal funding. We then must grapple with the idea that change may not be best achieved through the creation of punitive umbrella policies that aim to foster compliance out of fear, rather than compassion for student victims/survivors. As someone who was heavily involved in Title IX activism throughout her undergraduate education in New Jersey, this idea has not been easy for me to confront.

What can we learn from this?
What then can we learn from a comparative framing of sexual violence response in universities? I am still very much in the process of finding out. The preliminary findings from my literature review suggest at the very least that a comparative framing would help us envision radically different options for response, that we do not have to remain committed to one way of responding because that is how it has been done. In a precarious moment for Title IX—thanks to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos buying into the mythology of rampant false accusations (McNamara, 2018; “False Reporting Overview,” 2012) and subsequently making it more difficult for victims/survivors to find justice (United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, 2017)—it is now more important than ever for Americans to remember that there are possibilities for achieving justice beyond a system that can be weaponised against the very people it was designed to protect. It is also important for England, in working towards a national response framework, to take into account the critiques of the United States’ system when considering it for possible adaptation. Ultimately, it is my hope that my doctoral thesis will help to identify how universities in the United States and England may engage in policy borrowing to better support university student victims/survivors of sexual violence.

 

References

Adams, R. (2017, September 28). Almost half of all young people in England go on to higher education. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/education/2017/sep/28/almost-half-of-all-young-people-in-england-go-on-to-higher-education

Ali, R. (2011, April 4). Dear Colleague Letter.
Cantor, D., Fisher, B., Chibnall, S., Townsend, R., Lee, H., Bruce, C., & Thomas, G. (2015). Report on the AAU Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct. The Association of American Universities. Retrieved from https://www.aau.edu/sites/default/files/%40%20Files/Climate%20Survey/AAU_Campus_Climate_Survey_12_14_15.pdf
False Reporting Overview. (2012). Retrieved July 11, 2018, from https://www.nsvrc.org/sites/default/files/Publications_NSVRC_Overview_False-Reporting.pdf
Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The Sexual Victimization of College Women. National Institute of Justice. https://doi.org/10.1007/springerreference_223719
Fisher, B. S., & Wilkes, A. R. P. (2003). A Tale of Two Ivory Towers: A Comparative Analysis of Victimization Rates and Risks between University Students in the United States and England. The British Journal of Criminology, 43(3), 525–545.
Griffin, V. W., Pelletier, D., Hayden Griffin, O., & Sloan, J. J. (2017). Campus Sexual Violence Elimination Act: SaVing Lives or SaVing Face? American Journal of Criminal Justice: AJCJ, 42(2), 401–425.
Hartmann, A. (2015). Reworking Sexual Assault Response on University Campuses: Creating A Rights-Based Empowerment Model to Minimize Institutional Liability. Journal of Law & Policy, 48, 287–320.
Higher Education Student Statistics: UK, 2016/17. (2018, January 11). Retrieved June 14, 2018, from https://www.hesa.ac.uk/data-and-analysis/students/whos-in-he
Krebs, C. P., Lindquist, C. H., & Warner, T. D. (2007). The Campus Sexual Assault (CSA) Study (No. 0209487). National Institute of Justice. Retrieved from https://www.ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/grants/221153.pdf
McNamara, B. (2018, March 12). Betsy DeVos Said She Doesn’t Know Whether False Rape Allegations Outnumber Real Ones. Retrieved July 17, 2018, from https://www.teenvogue.com/story/betsy-devos-false-rape-allegations-outnumber-real-ones
National Center for Education Statistics. (n.d.). Fast Facts. Retrieved June 12, 2018, from https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=372
NUS. (2010). Hidden Marks: A study of women students’ experiences of harassment, stalking, violence and sexual assault.
Phipps, A., & Smith, G. (2012). Violence against women students in the UK: time to take action. Gender and Education, 24(4), 357–373.
Richards, T. N. (2016). An Updated Review of Institutions of Higher Education’s Responses to Sexual Assault: Results From a Nationally Representative Sample. Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 886260516658757.
Tani, K. M. (2017). An Administrative Right to Be Free from Sexual Violence: Title IX Enforcement in Historical and Institutional Perspective. Duke Law Journal, 66(8), 1847–1903.
United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights. (2017, September). Q&A on Campus Sexual Misconduct. Retrieved from https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/qa-title-ix-201709.pdf
Universities UK. (2016). Changing the Culture: Report of the Universities UK Taskforce examining violence against women, harassment and hate crime affecting university students.
USVreact. (2018). Training to Respond to Sexual Violence at European Universities: Final Report of the USVreact Project. Retrieved from http://usvreact.eu/wp-content/resources/USVreact_Report_2018_ENG.pdf

Exploring Power, Sex and Knowledge in the Feminist Debate on Pornography and Sex Work

Screenshot_20180717-185056_Google

Venus with Drawers, by Salvador Dalí

by Caroline West, Dublin City University.

What counts as knowledge in the sex work debate amongst feminists? Who is permitted to be an expert? Who is heard the most in this discussion? Why does ‘my body, my choice’ apparently not apply to sex work?

These questions occurred to me while studying pornography during my masters in Sexuality Studies. I noticed a trend: the voices being heard in the debate were primarily those of white anti-porn feminists. This is reflected in mainstream media too, where most of the voices heard are the same – with the voices of those actually doing the work marginalised in favour of those campaigning against sex work. Of the voices of those who have direct experience in sex work, the women who report negative experiences appear more than those who report positive experiences. Looking at the feminist debate, we have seen feminist authors such as Sheila Jefferies completely dismiss the lived experiences of sex workers such as Annie Sprinkle and label them as ‘victims’, with the people who listen to them labelled as ‘mistaken’. When we consider that Annie Sprinkle has decades of experience in many different aspects of the sex industry, as well as achieving a PhD in human sexuality, we must consider the ethics of this framing. What are the ethics of framing someone as a victim when they do not feel that term reflects their experiences? Indeed, what are the ethics of insisting someone is a victim, while making a career of campaigning against their chosen employment? And what are the ethics of publicly excluding someone from expert status when discussing their lived experiences? When someone like Annie Sprinkle has such a wealth of experience, why does this experience not count as valid knowledge and why is it subjected to dismissal?

Ethics is further critical when we consider the terminology used in discussing sex work. Some feminists will argue that sex work is not a valid term, and claim it hides the issue of sex trafficking. These feminists will write sex work as ‘sex work’; the use of these sneer quotes deliberately situates the term in a state of ambiguity, outside the realm of acceptable language. However, the term was coined by a sex worker named Carol Leigh who used it to recognise the labour of the worker, rather than a focus on the consumer. The outright dismissal and denial of women to name their work and identity in a way that works for them, is a critical question of power and ethics in the feminist debate over pornography. Through my research with sex workers, I have come to understand it as a form of violence, specifically epistemological violence. This nuanced form of violence is when a person is excluded from the status of expert, and their knowledge dismissed as not ‘true’ knowledge. It is exclusion from ways of knowing.

For all the heated discussion about pornography, there is very little research on the realities of working in the industry. Often, anecdotes are used in place of large scale, ethical, sound research, and anecdotes that tell of negative experiences are promoted in favour of ‘non representative’ positive anecdotes’. Porn studies is a relatively new field of research, and often ideology is substituted for rigorous research. You could almost count on your fingers the numbers of studies that actually talk to women in the industry; studies that talk to men or trans people are even rarer. Yet we see plenty of headlines talking about the ‘realities’ of working in the industry, generally written by outsiders to the industry. In any other field of research, this would be unacceptable and poor research would be instantly dismissed. Perhaps research subjects like porn and sex is too ’icky’ for some, or too extreme, or too close to home.  I have had a number of women come up to me after presentations on my research and tell me that the women who told me they willingly engaged with the industry were wrong, and they didn’t in fact consent. I ask how they know this, about these women they don’t know and will never meet, and the answers are always the same : ‘no woman chooses to do that’. And they will refuse to listen, instead preferring to cling to their beliefs. Or they end the conversation with a curt ‘we will have to agree to disagree’, without listening to what I or my interviewees actually have to say. Other porn researchers have confided the same has happened to them. It’s a fascinating glimpse of the relationship between power, sex and knowledge, and how this relationship can violently exclude and contribute to stigma.

My research involved interviewing women working in the American porn industry, travelling to the AVN awards show in Las Vegas to conduct my interviews. This research project will be one of the few studies that looks at the nuances of stigma experienced by women working in the pornography industry, a sorely neglected area of research. Along the way, I’ve learnt so much about how power operates in this debate, and how exclusion and dismissal of a marginalised group of women is justified by factions of feminists who simultaneously proclaim ‘my body, my choice’ and ask us to believe women’s stories.  A PhD will only address so much, but there is a massive scope for improving scholarly research in this area. A new approach that favours methodologically sound research over ideology is very much needed; one that is inclusive and goes beyond the usual tired binary of looking at sex work as being either exploitative or empowering. This approach will allow the multitude of lived experiences in between these opposites to be discussed in a more holistic and ethical way. But we also need to become more reflexive as researchers, and ask ourselves why we are doing this research; if the research contributes to harm to sex workers through stigma and exclusion, and if the research is accurately reflecting the experiences of the studied population. The violent Othering of research participants is of utmost ethical importance, especially in this field, and one cannot claim to contribute to a nuanced understanding of sex work without being cognisant of these concerns.

Pride aside: Beg, borrow and fully realise the struggle of chasing the academic dream

by Dr. Zarah Pattison, University of Stirling.

Aaaaaaand…SEND.

When you have worked your arse off, gotten three degrees and work experience; sending (begging) emails to make people aware you are looking (desperately) for a job can hurt an already Imposter Syndrome riddled ego. Oh, and let’s not forget my Twitter CV post frenzy either…ahem.

I love where I work at the University of Stirling. Five months before I finished my PhD, I had secured a postdoc position with another group in the same department. This was something I never thought I could achieve. I worked furiously trying to finish the PhD whilst setting up the experimental design for my postdoc research. I handed in my thesis and went straight into my postdoc field- and lab-work for the next year. Once my data were collected, I had 6 months left and instead of smashing through the analyses and churning out a paper or two, I knew I had to start job hunting. Being in the position of not earning a salary was financially and mentally not an option for me.

I knew I wanted to stay in Scotland, preferably Stirling. So I wrote fellowship applications, grant applications, postdoc and lectureship applications – you name it. I also applied for a job outside of academia, as well as postdoc positions abroad. However, I didn’t want to move. I have recently gotten married and my now husband, who was previously supportive of a nomadic life, now says; ‘No, I am not moving unless you get a contract longer than a couple of years’. He has fallen in love with Scotland and has a job which enables him to support his daughter. But I can’t shift all the blame on him. I don’t want to move either. I enjoy where I am too.

ZP4

Zarah at her doctoral graduation

So herein lies the academic conundrums:

  • Don’t settle down, it will kill your academic career as it reduces your options.
  • To be a good scientist you must move institution.
  • Two bodies are more difficult to move than one.
  • This list could go on… (For example, I am not even going into to the whole ‘I am getting older what about having a kid’ situation).

This is how I am dealing with the academic conundrums occurring at this stage of my career:

  • ‘Don’t settle down, it will kill your academic career as it reduces your options.’

We want to stay here for now, so we are. A sacrifice which means accepting a non-academic position.

  • ‘To be a good scientist you must move institution.’

To be a good scientist is to gain various perspectives on your work and collaborate. So this is what I am doing. By collaborating and writing grant applications with current mentors and new ones at different institutions.

  • ‘Two bodies are more difficult to move than one.’

For now he keeps his job, we buy a house and focus on the present (like me trying to clear my years of study debt).

  • ‘This list could go on… (For example, I am not even going into the whole “I am getting older what about having a kid” situation).’

This is not my focus, but definitely on my mind.

Never underestimate how time consuming and draining the process of job hunting is. It became my full time job. This ultimately meant falling behind on my current postdoc work and triggered all-consuming guilt. However, I am lucky to have a supportive mentoring team. They looked at my applications, listened to my practice presentations for interviews and gave me the freedom to develop and chase my career.

I did not manage, as yet, to secure a long term academic post. I have accepted a post outside of academia, as well as being recently successful with two grant applications. Which is in itself another conundrum:

  • Give up a full time job for a short term postdoc contract?

Not possible for me in my current situation, but I am attempting to solve this another way. Wish me luck!

 

For more on imposter syndrome, read Eve Kearney’s excellent piece: ‘Dr Kearney Or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Imposter Syndrome’

Is Street Art Subject to Copyright?

by Dr Aislinn O’ Connell, lecturer in law at Royal Holloway University of London.

Is there a copyright in street art? And if so, to what extent can artists use that right to protect and control their artworks? If Banksy wished for his work to remain on the street, and not be sold in a museum in Miami, is there anything he can do to enforce that wish?

Banksy art buff

A Banksy piece entitled ‘Art Buff’, which was returned to Folkestone in the UK from Miami, USA, following a lengthy legal battle. Photo via Helmut Zozmann.

In 2018, retail giant H&M launched an advertising campaign which showed a model wearing their clothes, in front of a wall which had been illegally sprayed by street artist Revok. He sent them a letter requesting they cease using his artwork without payment. H&M responded by seeking a declaration from the Eastern District of New York court that illegally placed graffiti is not subject to copyright protection.[1] Although H&M later dropped the suit, and posted on their Twitter that they did not intend to ‘set a precedent concerning public art’, interest in the legalities of protecting street art is clear, and growing. In the time between beginning[2] to write this article for Women are Boring and the time of publication, another lawsuit regarding street art has hit the headlines. Oakley, a glasses manufacturer, was named as the defendant in a Californian lawsuit.[3] Donald Robbins and Noah Daar, better known as Keptione and DJ Rakus, alleged that their artwork was deliberately included in an Oakley advertising campaign without the correct licence.

Street art – that is to say, visual artworks located in public – is not going away. Although the practice of writing on walls stretches back tens of thousands of years,[4] modern graffiti and aerosol painting dates slightly more recently, to the 1970s in New York,[5] then spreading to other locations.[6] The practice of writing and drawing on walls is not new, from London advertisers[7] to loyalist murals in Northern Ireland.[8] The monetisation of that work, however, brings new issues with it. With street art pieces selling for six-figure sums,[9] street art pieces being sold ‘with house attached’,[10] and disputes being taken to court over who owns the wall on which a Banksy mural was placed,[11] street art is a valuable commodity. It was this specific case – Creative Foundation v Dreamland – which ignited my interest in this area of law. Although it was a protracted legal battle over who owned an artwork, the person who created the artwork – anonymous street artist Banksy – was only briefly mentioned in the judge’s decision, to state that he presumably owned the copyright in the work.[12] From there, my interest was ignited. Is there a copyright in street art? And if so, to what extent can artists use that right to protect and control their artworks?[13] If Banksy wished for his work to remain on the street, and not be sold in a museum in Miami, is there anything he can do to enforce that wish? Why might street art be seen as less deserving of protection than other forms of art? Can multinational companies attempted to deny creators of artworks the right to profit from further use of those artworks?

Graffiti, street art, or any form of damage to property, is a criminal offence under s1(1) of the Criminal Damage Act 1971. Local authority officers who suspect that an individual has been writing graffiti or fly-posting are empowered to issue a fixed penalty notice[14] of £100[15] on the spot. They can alternatively prosecute for penalties under the Criminal Damage Act, including a custodial sentence of up to ten years for sufficiently severe damage.[16] Local authorities are also empowered to serve notices on property owners, requiring them to remove defacements to their buildings,[17] or allowing the Local Authority to recover the costs of removing such defacements.[18] While there is much discussion on whether graffiti is art or crime (or both),[19] graffiti prevention and control,[20] urban perspectives on graffiti cultures,[21] there is little discussion of how, or whether, street artists can exercise their rights to control their artwork, and the tensions that might create when juxtaposed against the criminal penalties which exist, as well as the rights of property owners whose works are – arguably – defaced by the artist.[22] Therefore, when works of art are being sold for millions, or reproduced for public consumption, is there any benefit to the artist from this?

Under the Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, any artistic work, any painting, drawing, chart, map, or plan, is protected by copyright.[23] Copyright is the set of rights which allows the owner of that copyright to control the reproduction and distribution of that work to the public, as well as controlling renting or lending to the public, communicating the work, or doing any of the above with relation to that work.[24] Simply put, an artwork cannot be reproduced or distributed without the permission of the author, or the person who the author assigned their copyright to. This applies regardless of the artistic quality of a work[25] – so a work of majestic skill and passion is protected to the same extent as a work which is badly drawn, badly executed, and visually unappealing – provided the required standard of creativity is met. The standard, which was set out in a European case called Infopaq,[26] states that in order to attain copyright protection, the work must be ‘the author’s own intellectual creation’.[27] This means it need not necessarily be skilled work, simply creative work. Thus, while there may be some street art that does not meet the required standard, it is so unlikely as to be impossible that all street art would fail the standard, meaning it is not a barrier to copyright protection. Thus, from a reading of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, together with relevant case law from the European Courts, there is nothing that prevents copyright from arising in works of street art. However, this then runs into tension against the conception of street art and graffiti as discussed above, illegal criminal damage, and subject to criminal penalties. As well as this, there are procedures in place to prevent those who commit crimes from profiting from that criminal activity – which could apply to those who seek to gain economically from graffiti or street art.[28] However, control of one’s art – and the rights granted by copyright – are more than just economic rights. Copyright also grants moral rights, including the right of attribution[29] (to be identified as the author of the work) and the right to object to derogatory treatment of the work.[30] As such, while the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 may prohibit artists from gaining economically from their criminal vandalism, it would not necessarily prevent the copyright from arising in the first place. It would simply empower the recovery of profits made after the fact.

While there have been multiple attempts by graffiti and street artists to claim copyright in their works, all have settled out of court or been dismissed, including suits against fashion house Moschino,[31] fashion house Cavalli,[32] McDonalds,[33] and American Eagle Outfitters.[34] Equally, street artists have exercised rights which are ancillary to copyright in both the UK and the US. Anonymous street artist Banksy profits[35] from the Artist’s Resale Right,[36] a right which entitles creators of physical artworks to a proportion of the proceeds from the sale of their work. Although not strictly copyright, the Artists Resale Right is closely linked to it. Similarly, a 2018 New York case granted almost $7million dollars in damages to 45 street artists after their (placed with permission) artworks were whitewashed by owner of the buildings they were painted on. This too was not under copyright, but under the Visual Artists Rights Act 1990,[37] which grants specific protections to artworks of recognised stature which are displayed in public.[38]

However, while the granting of ancillary rights may go far to suggest that street art is gaining legitimacy as art which is protected by law, there still is not yet a case precedent which adequately settles the question of whether street art is subject to copyright protections and provisions, whether legally or illegally placed.

All of the cases mentioned immediately above were from US courts, which have similar – although not identical – provisions to the UK. There is, as yet, no similar complaint which has been lodged in the English courts. The only mention in English courts – aside from prosecutions for criminal damage and vandalism – is in the 2015 Creative Foundation v Dreamland[39] judgment. In this case, which concerned the removal of a Banksy mural from a wall in Folkestone for sale in Miami, the dispute was whether the wall (and consequently the mural which was painted on the wall) was the property of the landlord of the building or the tenant occupier. In finding for the landlord, Arnold J stated:

For the avoidance of doubt, I am not concerned with the copyright in the artistic work, which prima facie belongs to Banksy[40]

This presumes not only that the copyright in the work belongs to Banksy, but also that a copyright actually exists in the work. However, it is not a binding declaration, and does not explicitly grant copyright in works of street art.

I would argue that an interpretation of UK copyright law as it stands does include street art and graffiti which reaches the required standard of creativity. There is no statutory provision or case law which denies those automatic protections to street art, and there is arguably case precedent which supports it. Although there are inherent tensions between the criminal nature of some works of vandalism and the granting of artistic rights, depriving artists who paint without permission of the rights which automatically arise for those who paint with permission is an unjustifiable derogation from current law which is not supported by an interpretation of the provisions as they stand. And, as the history of artists taking others to court to protect their rights shows, I am not alone in this stance.

 

[1] H&M Hennes & Mauritz GBC AB et al v Williams, EDNY 1:18-cv-01490

[2] H&M [hm]. (15 March 2018). https://t.co/NMLCiv4iSt [Tweet]. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/hm/status/974384097316491264 accessed 25 June 2018. The tweet consists of an image, with the following text:
H&M respects the creativity and uniqueness of artists, no matter the medium. We should have acted differently in our approach to this matter. It was never our intention to set a precedent concerning public art or to influence the debate on the legality of street art. As a result, we are withdrawing the complaint filed in court. We are currently reaching out to the artist in question to come up with a solution. Thank you for your comments and concerns, as always, your voice matters to us.

[3] Robbins et al v Oakley, Inc et al, Central Californian District Court 2:18-cv-05116

[4] Valladas and others, ‘Radiocarbon AMS Dates for Paleolithic Cave Paintings’ 2001 43(2B) Proceedings of the 17th International Radiocarbon Conference 977.

[5] Norman Mailer, Mervyn Kurlansky and Jon Naar, The Faith of Graffiti (New York: Praeger, 1974)

[6] For more, see photographic collections of street art such as Magda Danysz, From Style Writing to Art: A Street Art Anthology (Drago, 2010); Martha Cooper and Henry Chalfant, Subway Art (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1984); Henry Chalfant and James Prigoff, Spraycan Art (Thames & Hudson Ltd, 1987).

[7] On which see Alison Young, Street Art, Public City: Law, Crime and the Urban Imagination (Routledge, 2013), 5.

[8] Magda Danysz, From Style Writing to Art: A Street Art Anthology (Drago, 2010) 304.

[9] Maev Kennedy, ‘Sotheby’s cleans up on Banksy at £500k a time’ (6 June 2014, The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/06/sothebys-banksy-artist-exhibition-street-art> accessed 25 June 2018.

[10] Sara Newman, ‘Banksy mural goes on sale – with a house thrown in’ (10 February 2007, Independent) <https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/banksy-mural-goes-on-sale-with-a-house-thrown-in-435813.html> accessed 25 June 2018.

[11] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch)

[12] ibid, 2.

[13] You may question why this article does not include any images of works of street art; this is because of its conclusion. I would argue that street art does attract copyright protection, and thus to include pictures of street art without a proper licence would be an infringement of copyright. Even if I took the photographs myself, the artwork which is depicted in the photograph would have a separate copyright, and thus publishing that photo without a licence for the street art work would be a violation of copyright.

[14] Anti-Social Behaviour Act 2003, s 43(1).

[15] Environmental Offences (Fixed Penalties) (England) Regulations 2017, Reg 7.

[16] Prolific tagger Tox, whose tags are visible on trains, buses, walls, bridges, from London to Paris, was sentenced to 27 months in prison after being convicted of multiple counts of criminal damage in 2011. Paul Cheston, ‘Prolific Graffiti vandal jailed for 27 months’ London Evening Standard (18 July 2011) <https://web.archive.org/web/20111217055429/http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23970702-prolific-graffiti-vandal-jailed-for-27-months.do> accessed 25 June 2018.

[17] Anti-social behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014, s 43.

[18] ibid, s 47.

[19] See, for example, Cameron McAuliffe and Kurt Iveson, ‘Art and Crime (and Other Things Besides … ):

Conceptualising Graffiti in the City’ (2011) 5(3) Geography Compass 128

[20] For example, Jeff Ferrell, ‘Urban Graffiti: Crime, Control and Resistance’ (1995) 27(1) Youth and Society 73; Rob White, ‘Graffiti, Crime Prevention and Cultural Space’ (2001) 12(3) Current Issues in Criminal Justice 253

[21] For a fascinating look at feminism in American hip hop and graffiti cultures, see Jessica Nydia Pabón-Cohón, Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in Hip-Hop Urban Diaspora (2011, NYU Press).

[22] That is not to say that there is no discussion. See, for example, Enrico Bonadio, ‘Copyright protection of street art and graffiti under UK law’ (2017) 2 Intellectual Property Quarterly 187; Marta Iljadica, Copyright Beyond Law: Regulating Creativity in the Graffiti Subculture (2016, Hart).

[23] Copyright, Designs, and Patents Act 1988, s4.

[24] ibid, s16.

[25] ibid, s4.

[26] Infopaq International A/S v Danske Dagblades Forening (2009) C-5/08. This case concerned whether short summaries of news articles attracted copyright protection as creative works in their own right, or whether they could be freely copied on the basis that they did not meet the minimum standard for copyright protection. The court found that they were sufficiently creative, and were subject to protection.

[27] Infopaq at paras 1, 6, 7, 11, 33, 35, 37, 44, 48.

[28] For more information see Criminal Prosecution Service, ‘Proceeds of Crime’ (undated) <https://www.cps.gov.uk/proceeds-crime> accessed 25 June 2018.

[29] Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, s 77.

[30] Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988, s 80.

[31] Tierney v Moschino et al, Central California District Court, 2:15-cv-05900-SVW (PJWx).

[32] Jason Williams, et al v Roberto Cavalli SpA, et al, Central California District Court, CV 14-06659-AB.

[33] Berreau v McDonalds Corp, Central California District Court, 2:16-cv-07394.

[34] Anasagasti v. American Eagle Outfitters, Inc, New York Southern District Court, 1:14-cv-05618.

[35] Maev Kennedy, ‘Sotheby’s cleans up on Banksy at £500k a time’ (6 June 2014, The Guardian) <https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jun/06/sothebys-banksy-artist-exhibition-street-art> accessed 25 June 2018.

[36] The Artist’s Resale Right Regulations 2006, s 3.

[37] Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990 (VARA), 17 USC § 106A.

[38] Aislinn O’Connell, ‘The 5Pointz Case: Damages awarded against property owner for whitewashing street art’ (2018) 7(1) Journal of Intellectual Property Law and Practice 529.

[39] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch).

[40] Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd, [2015] EWHC 2556 (Ch) 2.

How I Changed from Science to Technology

by Azahara Fernández Guizán

AF4

How I changed from Science to Technology

I was never a kid that was sure about what professional career I wanted when I grew up. And this has been a good thing for me, because it has let me experience many different fields, and led me to where I am today.

I was born in the north of Spain, in a mining zone of Asturias. My father was a coal miner and my mother a housewife. I attended a local school and a local high school. My grandmother says I was an unusual kid, preferring to be bought a book rather than a box of sweets. I also started learning English when I was 6 years old, and spent my free time reading historical novels and biographies.

I enjoyed visiting museums and monuments, and I used to search for information in my town’s library before going on an excursion. I loved to write stories and tales, and had always obtained high marks in school, which led my teachers to suggest that I study medicine. But I always changed my mind –  from architecture, to journalism or even dentistry, depending on the book I was reading or the museum I’d just visited.

At that age, only one thing was clear: I wanted to be an independent and strong woman like the ones that inspired me. I hadn’t seen many role models during my primary education, but one teacher told us about Marie Curie. At the library, I discovered Rita Levi-Montalcini and the Brontë sisters.

 

SECONDARY STUDIES

During the last year of high-school I was a mess, and the pressure was high because I had to make a decision. All I had were doubts

In Spain at that time, after finishing your last secondary education course, the students that want to continue to a degree have to take a general exam, the PAU. You could choose the subjects you want to be tested on and, after the exams took place, you were given a mark calculated to take account of your secondary school marks and the results of PAU exams. According to this mark, you could register for certain degrees.

At that point, I decided to take more exams than necessary on the PAU in order to have more options in different types of degree, for example, science, engineering, or languages… But the worst moment of my student life came, and I had to decide.

I had two options on my mind: a Software Engineering degree, and a Biology degree. I must admit it, but at that time I only knew engineering stereotypes and I never liked video games or anything related with hardware, so I decided that a Biology degree would suit me better.

BIOLOGY DEGREE AND NEUROSCIENCE MASTERS

During my degree, I decided that plants and animals were not my passion, but I loved Microbiology, Genetics, Immunology and Neuroscience. I discovered more female role models, researchers who really inspired me, whose lives were incredible to me. I worked hard during my degree and travelled a lot during the summers, thanks to some scholarships that I was awarded (I spent one month in Lowestoft, another in Dublin, and another one in Toronto), and started learning German.

AF2

Azahara in the lab

During the second year of my biology degree, I decided that I would become a scientist, and started to look for a professor who would let me gain some experience in their laboratory.

During my penultimate year, I started working in a Neuroscience laboratory, studying the 3D eye degenerating pattern on C3H/He rd/rd mice. After finishing my degree, I decided to enrol in a Masters of Neuroscience and Behavioural Biology in Seville. During this masters, I worked in another Neuroscience laboratory doing electrophysiological studies, trying to understand how information is transformed in the cerebellar hippocampus circuit and how this mechanism could allow us to learn and memorise.

This was a period of my life where I worked a lot of hours, the experiments were very intense, and I had the opportunity to meet important scientist from all the world. I also had a physics peer that analysed all our data, and developed specific programmes in Matlab, which impressed me profoundly.

IMMUNOLOGY PHD

After this period, I continued working in Science, but I decided to start my PhD on Immunology, back in Asturias.

I worked in a laboratory in which, due to my friends in the lab, every day was special. We worked hard studying different types of tumours and testing different molecules, but also had the time to share confidences and laughs. After three years, I became a PhD in Immunology, and as it was the normal thing to do, I started looking for a post-doc position.

Rather than feeling happy or enthusiastic about the future, I discovered myself being upset and demotivated. I really didn’t want to carry on being a scientist. A huge sensation of failure invaded me, but as J.K. Rowling said “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not lived at all. In which case, you’ve failed by default”.

I want to specify that I don’t consider my PhD a waste of time – it has given me, apart from scientific publications, many important aptitudes and abilities, such as team work, analysis, problem solving, leadership, organisation skills, effective work habits, and better written and oral communication.

BECOMING A SOFTWARE DEVELOPER

As you might imagine, this was a hard moment of my life. I was unemployed, and doubtful about my professional career – just as I had been after high school.

Thanks to my husband, who supported me while converting my career, I decided to give software development a try.  As I didn’t have the necessary money or time to start a new degree, I signed up for a professional course in applications software development. The first days were difficult since all the other students were young and I didn’t feel at ease.

But as I learned software languages as HTML, CSS, JavaScript and Java, I also participated with good results in some software competitions which allowed me to gain confidence.

AF3

In 2015 I started working as software developer in .Net MVC, a language that I hadn’t studied during my course, but I had the necessary basics to learn it quickly and become part of a team. For me, one of the most marvellous things about software development is that it consists of team-work.

I also discovered that there are a lot of people working in this field that love to exchange knowledge, and I regularly go to events and meetups. I have also started recently giving talks, and workshops, some of them technological, with the aim of promoting the presence of women in technology.

AF4

Women and girls need to be encouraged to discover what software development really is. The software industry needs them. Software can be better, but only if it is developed by diverse teams with different opinions, backgrounds, and knowledge.