Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Come see SexChrLab members at ASHG 2019

Although I can't be there, I couldn't be more thrilled with all the trainees from lab presenting at the 2019 American Society of Human Genetics meeting this year. Please go say "hello!".


Angela Taravella
The genetic structure of human pastoralists in Northern Kenya
Wed, Oct 16th from 2-3pm
Poster Number: PgmNr 2403/W


Kimberly Olney
Sex differences in gene expression found in term uncomplicated human placentas
Thursday October 17th 2-3pm
Poster Number: PgmNr 619/T

Heini Natri
Genome-wide DNA methylation and gene expression patterns reflect genetic ancestry and environmental differences across the Indonesian archipelago
Thursday, Oct. 17, 3:00pm-4:00pm
Poster number: 3358T


Tanya Phung
X chromosome inactivation is heterogeneous in the human placenta
Friday, October 18th from 2-3pm
Poster number: PgmNr 620

Emma Howell
Evaluating variant calling best practices in a non-European population
Friday, Oct. 18, 1-2pm
Poster number:  1745F

Thursday, April 4, 2019

Aiming high enough

There's this thing I heard growing up, and internalized as:

If you aren't getting rejected, you aren't aiming high enough.

That phrase comes back to me all the time, especially in academia.

Tonight I got a grant rejection that... I was just so hopeful about. It was one of those two-stage grant applications, where you have to make it through the first round, and then you get the chance to write a more detailed proposal for the second round (but with fewer people competing).

Turns out there were only 15 of us in the second round. And 5 were awarded. First of all, that's amazing! I'm so happy that this award exists, and so many people support it, and it was able to fund so many people.

I really thought my idea was a good one. And, y'know what, it was good enough to get to the second round.

I just looked up the five people who were awarded, and they are all doing really awesome, cool stuff. It's all very different from each other, and from what I do. They also are all a lot more established in the field of this application than I am.

And, honestly, that feels pretty awesome. To think that I made it to compete with those people.

We're going to keep pushing forward with the idea, and I'll plan to apply again next year.

I'm not going to lie, the constant rejection isn't easy. And sometimes, it's downright harmful. So please don't think rejection for the sake of being rejected is a good thing. And sometimes, when it comes to grant ideas, at least, you also need to learn when its time to move on to the next.

But, when it's a highly competitive field, it's okay to still feel good about being considered, even if you didn't get the thing.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Changing your name after divorce in academia

I've tried to write this so many times, and I keep putting it off. I have a grant to finish. I have grading. I have emails to respond to. And then... how do you announce to everyone that you're divorced? Well, the easy thing is that you don't have to, if you don't change your name. And what's in a name?

Maybe it's just easier to keep your name?

I've already built a reputation with the name I changed to while married. It was after I published two papers, but now have published several under the married name. People don't explicitly know that the last name I had is shared with my ex. At least not new people that meet me. I could just keep it, for the rest of my career, and I wouldn't have to have this awkward conversation.

And then all the paperwork. Changing my name legally. Changing it locally. My accounts. My child's school.

And now I won't share a name with my child. That hurts more than I thought it would. It probably shouldn't, for all the reasons. But it does.

And making this change in the year I go up for tenure? Several people have asked or commented on different variants of "If you change your last name, how will anyone know who you are?"


I mean, I know we build up our reputations with our names. But, maybe people in the field will still know me. We have, Orcid, so that helps. And GoogleScholar. My CV will list all my papers and accomplishments, with my name in bold. There are a lot of ways to keep my identity together.

More importantly, I hope to be doing this for a lot longer. I love this job. Being a professor is my dream job. It is the best job that I could ever have. I love science. I love teaching. I love interacting with students. I love mentoring. I love research. I love getting to come in every day and just questions to my heart's content (though it will never be enough). I love the struggle of figuring out the answers (when we can). And I want to be genuine to myself.

For me, that means changing my name. Again.

I don't *have* to make an announcement. I could, as I've been doing, quietly change all my media, my signature, work on slowly making these changes, so people will see the brand transition. But after talking to a lot of people, I decided to write about it, because there is so little out there on thoughts about changing names after divorce.

Maybe you're wondering: what would I suggest to people deciding whether to change their names?

Well, crap.

I thought I'd thought about it:

And, oh, gosh. Reading those is so hard, because I was so hopeful. I thought it was all a good idea. Not just the name. I thought that was going to be the rest of my life. And I hope that's what everyone thinks when they make the decision to change their life in such a big way. The name is a small, but very public, piece of it.

But, it wasn't the rest of my life.

Would I change what I did? Mostly, no. For me, the only change I would have made is to have kept publishing under "Wilson". It would have been consistent, and easy. It was an option that I didn't take at the time.

The changing your name, or not... it's all so loaded. For me, so frustrating and stressful. Why did I feel so much weight to it?

I think about several examples of people who publish under a name they don't go by. Or people who changed their names (after marriage, or transition, or other circumstances). And we all still respect them, or at least know them, and their work.

My advice, if I can call it advice is this:

You are the one who is most important in deciding what name you should have. So, it's worth making an informed decision. Know that there will be some hassle if you change your name (once, or twice, or more) that you will have to deal with - no getting around that, but people are smart, and they'll figure it out.

Those who give you advice about your name are, I truly believe, looking out for your best interest. They know the hassles of going with the norm, or stepping outside of it. But in the end, it is your name. It is what people know you as. And sometimes we change.

Scratch that. We are always changing. But sometimes that change is more public than we'd like.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Not the awesomest 7-Year postdoc.

When I was a postdoc, I read Radhika Nagpal's, The Awesomest 7-Year Postdoc or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Tenure-Track Faculty Life. I definitely appreciated many of the sentiments, and advice, especially that of focusing on life now, instead of delaying it on the hopes of achieving tenure. I think this sentiment should persist across academic ranks (trainees, faculty, staff). I think the advice in that post are all really important - re-reading it just now was a good reminder.

As a postdoc at the time, I couldn't yet say whether being a faculty member could be anything like being a postdoc or not, but equating a tenure-track faculty position with a postdoc didn't sit right with me. (It was also, in my opinion, easier to write about not caring about tenure *after* having gotten tenure.)

So, let me be on the record, writing publicly and openly about my thoughts about the tenure-track, in the thick of it. I've been an assistant professor for three years now, halfway through. I can say unequivocally, that my job is not like being a postdoc, nor should it be (with the side-note that certainly postdocs and graduate students have some of these responsibilities as well, but I'd argue to a different degree).

1. I am responsible to so many people.
I am a researcher, a supervisor, a mentor, a teacher, a writer, a role model, a boss, a collaborator, a PI, a grant writer, a grant manager (hopefully), a mediator, an editor, and an advocate. I manage people and projects. I need to think of projects that I think will be successful to work on together with the people in my lab, and contingency plans if those projects fail. I need to find ways to compensate these people. This includes startup (which ends at the end of this month - we get three years here), and writing applications for funding to so many different agencies (government, foundation, internal, inter-institution, you name it, I'll apply). I never appreciated how terrible it would feel to tell someone I can't afford to pay them to continue doing the great work they are doing. 

2. I am a gatekeeper. 
I am in a position of authority over others in a way that I wasn't as a postdoctoral fellow or a graduate student. I can affect the trajectory of trainees in so many ways: grades, admissions, recommendations, candidacy exams, thesis defenses, access to collaborations and professional opportunities. I have the power to intentionally harm an application by giving a bad recommendation. (Note that I won't agree to write anything but positive recommendations.)

More insidiously, I learned in my first year as a professor that I can unintentionally harm an application - not just in gendered language, I was aware of that - but in all the content that people expect in a letter of recommendation for different types of applications. I hadn't sat on these committees (I have sat on several now), to see how skillfully some professors deploy the letter of recommendation to really make a strong case for the applicant. Whoa. Happy to talk about this more later. 

3. It can be lonely.
The cohorts typically keep getting smaller, from the number of other people who are undergraduates that you can interact with, to the number of graduate students that you interact with, to a dwindling number of postdocs, to you, as a new professor. Depending on the size of your department or institution, there may be a a few other new professors, but likely not that many. That isn't to say that there aren't more established professors for one to interact with, but the interactions, in my experience, have been fewer and further between. I don't know what I was expecting, but I wasn't expecting the number of daily interactions to be this different (reduced) from being a postdoc. 

4. There are new expectations for interacting with the lab. 
Merging the three previous thoughts... one inclination I had/have is to treat members of my lab as peers. But, it's more complicated than that because of the power dynamics. The members of my lab are definitely colleagues. Per Wikipedia
"Colleagues are those explicitly united in a common purpose and respecting each other's abilities to work toward that purpose."
While a peer is someone: 
"that is of equal standing with another"
I have the ability to shape letters of recommendation, open doors, close them, or otherwise influence the career trajectory of people who are in my lab. By virtue of that, I need to be especially careful to recognize that we are not on a level playing field. There is a power imbalance. The people in my lab are not complete free to speak their minds with no fear of potential retaliation. They can't decline my invitations without a twinge of concern that I might interpret it negatively, even subconsciously. Given how academic institutions and funding structures work, there are so many concerns for them, literally for their livelihoods. 

Sure, as a postdoc, I could, some day, have an effect on my peers, and on the graduate and undergraduate students in the lab. But I wasn't directly above them in the food-chain. If they didn't want to come hang out, it's no biggie.  More than anything, this transition has been the one that caught me off guard the most. 

Can I hang out with my lab? Of course. 

Do I have to be constantly aware of how there is a power differential that is tipped in my favor? Absolutely. 

Not a postdoc, but still a person.
I have responsibilities to the students in my class, to the members of my lab, to my peers, my colleagues, my administration, and to the public.  I feel the weight of this responsibility. As a professor, there are so many more ways for me to fail. There are so many more people for me to fail. Being a professor on the tenure track is not like being a postdoc in many ways. But, maybe in the ones that matter most, it is: this is my life. I'm living it right now. It isn't on hold. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Why I'm not blogging

I have five minutes. That's all I'll take for this. 
  • There are all the things to write: papers, grants, letters of recommendation, evaluations of the students in the program I'm co-chairing, more papers, more grants, annual evaluations.
  • I have trainees to mentor - it takes time to actually sit down with everyone, listen, and try to respond.
  • I like to see my family. 
  • I am giving seminars and conference presentations
  • I'm doing research - I've been so excited to be coding lately! It's really great to be doing hands-on research.
  • I'm teaching, grading, reading, meeting with students.
  • Sometimes (often?) the things I'm thinking are much better said by other people.
  • I'm sitting on committees at my University.
  • I'm a council member.
  • I'm peer-reviewing.
  • I'm editing papers for journals. 
  • I'm packing lunches, walking dogs, cleaning the house, grocery shopping...
  • Sometimes, I make it to the gym.
  • I bought a book I might get to read.
I love blogging. I love reading other people's blogs. So, maybe I can give myself five minutes here and there to do it more. 

Time's up. Back to work. 

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Being nominated

A little over a week ago I found out I was nominated as a BadAss woman of ASU.

I was totally (pleasantly) surprised by it.

Yesterday Shantel Mareka wrote an article about it that made me tear up (happy tears):

Science is full of many challenges and constant rejections. There are the things that go wrong that we don't have any control over, and then there are the mistakes we make ourselves. There are external and internal pressures. There is self-doubt, and questioning. There are successes, too, but somehow I don't hold on to good news as much as I do the criticisms.

I don't know how to express how much it means to me that students and colleagues would share such kind words. That other people would spend their precious time, for me. I will hold this so close. I will treasure your sentiments. I will take them to heart. I appreciate you all.

Thank you for reminding me of the value of all that we do together, because surely we do this together. We learn together. We research together. We help each other see our errors and move past them. We commiserate in our losses. We celebrate our discoveries and successes together. We move science forward. We move each other forward.

Thank you.

Sunday, February 19, 2017


It would be an understatement to say I was moved by the broadcast of Allegiance today. I was, like many other people in the theatre, softly sobbing at many parts of the performance.

The show today was, as is every performance of Allegiance, a tribute to the 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were wrongfully detained 75 years ago today in internment camps during WWII.

I learned about internment camps during WWII, but as a side-note. There's a song near the end of the musical that sums it up so well, and illustrates how I learned about these, as a "whoops, we thought you were the enemy but we were wrong." No acknowledgement of wrong-doing. No apologies.

It was easy to connect and empathize with so many of the characters, but the one that drew me in the most, was that of Greg Watanabe's Mike Masoaka. His role is curious in both being immensely influential at the time, and only a side-character in the show. He has a book that he co-published (presumably about himself) in 1987, They Call Me Moses Masoaka: An American Saga. But, I didn't see another biography of him on Amazon. I did find his obituary in the New York Times from 1991, which is surprisingly brief:

Perhaps it's primarily because of Watanabe's performance, or the way the character was written, but I'm so curious about how he really felt about the reports he gave on the news, his stance on the camps, and the 442nd Regimental combat team. For whatever his motivations, after the war, it seems he was instrumental in the passing of, among other things, an act (that took until 1998) to compensate the 60,000 surviving Americans who were interned.

Most of the people portrayed in Allegiance were invented for the musical. The portrayal of the pain, humiliation, and anxiety that we put our fellow human beings through, and their joy and resilience is palpable throughout the show.

I don't need to see someone's hurt to know I should care for them or that they deserve respect. That said, historical dramas, to me, are a constant reminder of the history I've neglected, and a renewed motivation to be proactive to not repeat our shameful past.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

He made a difference.

At a time when I was lost and alone and questioning, my math teacher, Mr. Tim Boerner, made a tremendous positive impact on my life. And now he's gone.

My parents were in an ugly divorce. We moved from Arizona to Texas to Kansas to Nebraska in a matter of months. My brothers and I knew no one in Nebraska. We were all new kids in a small town. Thanks to differences in school districts across States and moving to a small town, I was also skipped up a grade. In a weird transition, I spent three days in 8th grade before I was moved up to the high school, in a different building across town. In a town of 1,600, everyone knew everything, and knew I didn't fit in.

Mr. Boerner (I'll never be able to call him by his first name) taught math. He also ran the Math club, and encouraged me to join. I never thought I was very good at math, but I liked it, and his encouragement made me feel like it was okay to just like math. He took the time to take our small town group of students to Math events around the local area, and even to the University of Nebraska Lincoln (UNL)'s Math Day every year. There we got to interact with over 1000 other students, tour the campus, compete on teams with timed questions, and take individual exams. I realize that may not sound like a lot of fun to some people, but to me, it was incredible, and something I looked forward to every year. I got to do all of this - to fit in - because of Mr. Boerner.

Mr. Boerner was nerdy and gruff. He saw potential in all of us. He got frustrated with students who didn't pay attention. High schoolers are an unforgiving group, and he took us on. He answered our unending questions and worked with anyone who asked for help. He gave us opportunities to see how math could be used. He didn't tell us, he showed us. He showed me that diligence and practice matter.

He showed me how I could push myself to learn, even when things are difficult. He showed me that being challenged by something doesn't mean I should give up. He showed me how to persevere. That is key in education, but especially in mathematics, where I've heard over and over that I must be smart for doing math.  I'm as smart as anyone. More than that, I don't give up. And, I have to thank Mr. Boerner for that.

I've thought about him often over the years, but am sorry I never told him. I never told him how much he gave me something to look forward to at a time when I didn't know what was going on in my life. I never told him how his consistent and logical demeanor was an inspiration to me. I saw his unwavering dedication to teaching, to his students, and it made a lasting impact on how I approach the world.  I've since earned a B.S. Mathematics and a Ph.D. Bioinformatics & Genomics. I get to teach hundreds of students every year, both formally and informally about science, including math in biology. I see some struggle, and I continue to be inspired by Mr. Boerner's example to never give up on them. He was tough, fair, and (perhaps unknowingly) helped me find solace and self-confidence at a very uncertain time. I don't know how I can ever pay it forward enough.

If there is one thing, I hope you can take away from this, it is that Mr. Boerner made a difference. I don't know what would have happened if I'd never known him, but I know that his life made mine better.

Thank you, Mr. Boerner.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Come say, "hi"

It's going to be a busy two months coming up, but if I'll be in your neighborhood, please let me know, and I'd love to say "hello"!

Oct 4 
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
Human Genetics, University of Utah School of Medicine
Salt Lake City, UT

Oct 11
Seminar: Convergent evolution of dosage compensation in human and green anoles
New York, NY

Oct 13
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
New York, NY

Oct 15-17
Hack-a-thon organizer: Inferring sex chromosome and autosomal ploidy in NGS data
HackSeq, Vancouver

Oct 18-21
Platform presentation: Modeling the subclonal evolution of cancer cell populations
ASHG, Vancouver

Nov 4-6
Invited participant
Irvine, CA

Nov 7
Seminar: Sex-biased genome evolution
Human Genetics (Genetics & Genomics), UCLA
Los Angeles, CA

Nov 17-19 
Conference organizer, presenter
Tempe, AZ

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

I forgot about self-promotion.

Yesterday at a faculty meeting, we started the meeting by being asked what the most exciting thing going on with us was.

Excited about teaching computing skills
I was pretty stoked because this class I'm teaching - and introduction to research computing topics - has been super-well attended (there's an option to take it for credit, or anyone can show up for a single session). It's a hands-on introduction to computing topics (e.g., SSH, SFTP, HPC, command line scripting, etc), and later it will be more domain-specific topics across different departments at my institution. I've been doing assessments after each class, and getting really constructive feedback, which is awesome. And, attendance has been awesome!

Exciting?! I got this!

I piped up about this being the most exciting thing right now. Then, in an effort to keep it brief so we could get on with the meeting, let the next person go. Short and sweet. Well done, self.

So... everyone else in attendance made sure to highlight multiple current research projects in their lab, and current/pending publications.

Right. Yes. Listening to everyone do this, I realized that is probably what I should have been focusing on too.

In my excitement about how well this computing teaching has been going, I forgot to mention those things that I probably should have. Those things academics value, for self-promotion, even among colleagues. They won't know unless I tell them.

For example, I should probably have mentioned that the lab has had two publications this month, and another coming out next week:
Narang P and Wilson Sayres MA. 2016. Variable autosomal and X divergence near and far from genes affects estimates of male mutation bias in great apes. Genome Biology and Evolution (accepted).  
Pagani L… Wilson Sayres MA… et al. 2016. Genomic analyses inform on migration events during the peopling of Eurasia. Nature (advanced access online). doi:10.1038/nature19792. 
Webster TH and Wilson Sayres MA. 2016. Sex-biased demography across human populationsCurrent Opinion in Genetics and Development  3(41): 62-71. doi:10.1016/j.gde.2016.08.002 
And, I also didn't mention that we've got some really great RNAseq data back, as part of a collaboration that we're starting to analyze. Seriously, it's the prettiest data I've seen to date, just look at it!! 

It's okay, you can be jealous.
Back to work
I'm really not sure what the best approach is. I *love* talking about my research. I do it incessantly. But, I also get distracted (I'd say, "motivated") by things outside of lab that are going well. For now, I'd better get back to work, so I'll have new science things to talk about the next time someone asks about how things are going. :)