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. :)

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Academic hiring committees aren't doing enough.

I'm sitting on my first search committee this year (assuming we get approval for the two hires). It is sometimes hard to believe that I'm on this side of the equation now. Being here, I feel a lot of responsibility. 

The first thing I started thinking of was ways we can do a better job of recruiting a diverse pool of applicants. There are many people who have been thinking, writing, and talking about this, so searching google, and asking twitter is helpful. I can share what I've learned there. I'm also happy that the committee I'm on has already been vocal about not sparing expenses on advertising in as many diverse venues as possible. 

Why come here? 
But, it's nagging on me, that it isn't ever going to be enough to just advertise in a variety of places. Why should someone want to join us? Why should they want to be my colleague? What are we continuing to do to build an inclusive environment that values and respects each person's contribution? And how are we making that known? How are we, as a department, as a University, sensitive to all the bigoted garbage that disproportionately affects people from underrepresented groups? How do we support them? 

Academic job hiring is always a two-way street. I want colleagues who choose to come here, over somewhere else, because it is a great academic environment that supports their growth as a researcher and a person. Every academic department should be like this. 

I'm not doing enough. 
For the past two years, since I started in this position, I've been focused on how I can build the best laboratory environment. We (mostly I) will always be learning, and adjusting. I feel privileged by the students and trainees that have chosen to join my lab. I try to advocate for my trainees. I try to make a space where we can be open, and inclusive. 

Last year I ran our seminar series, and worked to take suggestions from across the department (it's technically a school, but I'm using department because that is how most places are structured), and invited a group of speakers that were representative of the range of disciplines in our unit, as well as considered other dimensions of diversity. But I could have done better. I see ways in which I could have improved - working more with each faculty group to build up a more diverse list. 

This year, my service to the department is co-chairing the Evolutionary Biology graduate program. In doing so, we are working to build a sense of community among the members of the program. We had a welcome potluck, we are hosting a journal club, and working to set up peer-mentoring for writing grants/fellowships. 

Okay, so I can work on my lab. I can work with the graduate students in my program. But, what am I really doing to contribute to the department as a whole. How am I making a lasting impact on the climate of the department? I think it has to start small, with the lab, with a program, but I need to contribute more to the department as a whole. I'm still working on how best to do this. I welcome your suggestions. 

Advertising isn't enough.
I also think every academic should be thinking about the health of our working environments. It isn't enough to advertise broadly. It isn't enough to carefully craft the language of an advertisement to be inclusive. Though, surely, those things are important. 

Some units are small, with single digit faculty. Some, like mine, have around 100. In every case, there will be people we want to recruit who don't look like us. Their science is different, their experiences are different, they won't look or sound like us. But, our motivations should be the same. We should all be motivated to lift each other up, to do the best science we can, and to be good mentors and educators. That motivation  - shared across the department - should be abundantly clear to all applicants. Maybe it could be simple. As an academic, this is the question I want each department to ask: 

How are we building an environment that someone who doesn't look like us will want to join?

We need to ask ourselves this routinely, and work towards answering it. It is the long game. It takes conscious and persistent effort. And it will never be a question we don't have to ask. I think making our environment the best it can be is the most productive recruiting strategy we can have. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Genomic signatures of sex-biased demography

Oh hey look! Our paper is out today!


Genomic signatures of sex-biased demography: progress and prospects

Sex-biased demographic events have played a crucial role in shaping human history. Many of these processes affect genetic variation and can therefore leave detectable signatures in the genome because autosomal, X-linked, Y-linked, and mitochondrial DNA inheritance differ between sexes. Here, we discuss how sex-biased processes shape patterns of genetic diversity across the genome, review recent genomic evidence for sex-biased demography in modern human populations, and suggest directions for future research.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Third year

I've received the email that reminds me that it is the beginning of my third year as an assistant professor, which means (here) that I need to prepare my packed of my third-year evaluation.

This evaluation is all the content I'd submit for a tenure review, and goes through the same review process, except that the University doesn't ask for external evaluation letters at this point.

Technically I'm on a three-year contract, so at the end of this year, ASU can decide not to renew me for another three years. While that possibility looms, I feel like I've been doing my best in the three areas I've been hired to work in - Research, Teaching, Service - and there isn't more that I could have done up until this point.

I still consider myself a #newPI, still learning about grant-writing, how to be a better educator, and learning about University goings-on. But, I feel more comfortable.

How are things? 
The lab is set up, and I'm really fortunate that my lab is filled with wonderful people who chose to work with me: http://www.wilsonsayreslab.org/lab/#/lab-members/. I really love teaching Evolution every Spring, and this semester I'm teaching three one-credit courses (two of which are new as of this semester, about coding topics, which I'm *super* excited about). I have some really wonderful colleagues, and this year I get to sit on a search committee to choose two more!

Quiet around here
Well, quiet on the blog. I haven't been blogging around here, but I have been doing a lot of writing:

  • Blogged for CEM: How Rare is a Rare Disease?
  • I've responded to a lot of questions from K-12 students for Ask a Biologist.
  • Since I started in August 2014, I've written, or contributed to writing, seven publications that have been accepted, four that are in revision, and another five that are in various stages of preparation/review (as in, I could get you a draft if you wanted). 
  • Umpteen grant applications

And the thing is, I have so many things to tell you all! We've been doing so much good science and fun outreach. I just need to make time to write about them. Partially, in the last several months, I've traded blogging time for working-out time. I needed it. And as much as I miss writing, I need the exercise more.

So, it's all rainbows?
Well, no, of course not. There are plenty of things to nit-pick and complain about. And, get me alone over coffee, or after a poster session, and I'm sure I'll complain with you. But, taking a step back, I can say this:

I have my dream job. 

Being a professor, teaching, doing research, service... this is what I've wanted to do before I even know what to call it. I get to science, and I wouldn't want anything else.

Where we're going 
I'm going to make a goal of getting up one blog post a week, updating on the projects in the lab, and my thoughts about science/lab/life.

One a week.

I can do that.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Show me your teeth

Yesterday I had the most wonderful surprise!

Last year I had two wisdom teeth out, and two symmetric supernumerary teeth removed. In January I was able to go pick up the autoclaved teeth, for science, of course. (I also had two wisdom teeth removed more than a decade ago, but not sure where they are, so couldn't donate them.):

Then, I dutifully delivered my teeth to the lab of Gary Schwartz. Yesterday, he very kindly showed my my prepared teeth!

Look at those wise teeth!

Teeth are sectioned, then set, in preparation for thin slicing.

There's my tooth! Prepared for slicing.

To my understanding, after a thin slice is made, it will be polished down and vacuum sealed in a slide. Then, it will be ready for analysis.

Science is so cool.

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

ASU Staff and Personnel Policy #815

I just received this announcement, and am so happy to be a member of the Arizona State University community that developed it.

I only wish that it were more general. Instead of "student", why not make it a "person" over whom they exert control or influence, real or perceived. This would protect staff and trainees at all levels.

​ASU has a new policy, effective March 25, #815 in the Staff Personnel Manual, entitled Romantic or Sexual Relationships Between Employees/Volunteers and Students. The new policy is below and available at http://www.asu.edu/aad/manuals/spp/spp815.html.

Romantic or Sexual Relationships Between Employees/Volunteers and Students
Staff and volunteers (collectively "staff") are prohibited from engaging in a romantic or sexual relationship with a student over whom they exert control or influence, real or perceived. Such control or influence includes, but is not limited to, service as a formal or informal advisor to a student organization or club, university program or activity; exercising responsibility over a student's academic status, such as academic advising; financial aid or residency determinations; or exercising responsibility over a student's housing such as a community assistant or director would exercise.
A staff member who, prior to the effective date of this policy, exercises control or influence as described above over a student with whom the staff member has an existing romantic or sexual relationship shall disclose the existance of the relationship to the head of their department or college. The head of the department or college shall immediately take steps to ensure that moving forward the staff member has no control or influence over the student.
This policy is in addition to all other university policies addressing the relationship of employees, faculty, or volunteers with students. Employment relationships shall be governed by existing university policy. Violation of this policy may lead to counseling or disciplinary action up to and including termination of employment.​ 

Thursday, February 4, 2016

You are worthy.

Dear Students,

People do bad things to other people. Sometimes this happens in academia. Sometimes this happens in our field.

If you, or a friend, has been harassed (sexually or otherwise), you are not without options. Sometimes none of those options are easy. A more important point is that you are not alone. 

I am not a chair, or a dean, or a president. I am a professor. I am your professor. I am here to do whatever is in my power to support you.

I will not tolerate your harassment. I will advocate on your behalf. In my position at the University, I am a mandatory reporter. In my position as your advisor, mentor, instructor, or collaborator, I owe you a personal responsibility to do what I can to create a safe environment for you to science in.

The thing is, science isn't a safe space. Science isn't a place where you can trust every person you meet. People will make racist and prejudiced comments to you. They will make sexist comments to you. They will treat you as inferior because of your ethnicity, gender, race, accent, age, disability, and sexual orientation. People will touch you in ways they shouldn't. They will take advantage of you. People will back you into a corner where you think there is nothing you can do, and no one you can turn to if you want to keep doing your job.

They will steal the joy you take in doing the thing you love. 

The power dynamics inherent in academia allow behavior like this to persist. The hierarchy within and across institutions, the hierarchy within departments and training programs, the hierarchy of funding agencies, they all lead to power imbalances that allow those at the top to act with impunity. Money and power affect decisions at all levels. Money and power (often? sometimes? routinely?) win out over concern for people, especially people at the bottom of the hierarchy.

I cannot change the system we live in. That will take time and many people working together. Hiring committees, department chairs, society governing bodies, grant reviewers, program officers, journal editors, peer reviewers, all have a hand to play in this.

But I am not powerless. Nor can I say that I have no influence. My influence may be small, but I will do what I can.

I will listen to you.
I will believe you.
I will report.
I will insist that harassment is not okay.

I wish that I could come in and just science. I wish we all could. But being able to just science is a rare privilege. Until we can all just science, I will be vocal about my support for you.

Thank you for your optimism. Thank you for your enthusiasm. Thank you for being willing to take a chance on this science thing, despite the hurdles you've faced, and the challenges to come.

You are important. Most of all, you are worthy.

It is my privilege to support you.

Dr. Melissa Wilson Sayres


Updated Feb 5, 2016 to add, "age" and "disability" to the list of ways you may be treated as inferior. There are many more things. We are treated as inferior for a variety of reasons. While the list cannot be exhaustive, these two I felt should be included.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Blogging and growing up.

Oh, hey. How's it going?

I remember how much I used to like blogging. Now, it isn't that I don't like it, but that my time to do so has evaporated. Maybe I'm sounding like a broken record. It isn't a bad thing. It's just a thing.

While I haven't been blogging, I have been doing a lot of writing, between manuscripts, and revisions, and grant applications.

And, I realize that there is another reason I haven't been blogging so much. When I started this, I was brutally honest with my thoughts about different topics. Now, I'm more cautious. Not that I won't share what I'm thinking with you in person (and some of you may wonder what I'm holding back, given what I post here), but it is a feeling I'm struggling with.

I'm in an age group that has seen the introduction of social media, its transition to mainstream, and now its near ubiquity in some aspects of life. I'm still learning how exist in this environment. How to still be open and accessible without oversharing.

I've pulled back on some parts of my life, and maybe too much, leading to silence here.

So, I'm going to move back towards sharing again. Sometimes it will be mundane (because expectations of "normal" are nice in academia), but I'll also share challenges, and the celebrations.

No resolutions, no promises, but a genuine interest in talking to you all more.