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  • NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Nature’s 2019 PhD survey, and older women in sci-fi novels

This week, delving into the results of the latest graduate student survey, and assessing ageism in science fiction literature.

In this episode:

00:45 The graduate student experience

The results of Nature’s 2019 PhD survey are in. David Payne, Nature’s Chief Careers Editor, takes us through them. Nature’s PhD survey collection

06:45 Research Highlights

Giant tortoises are quick learners, and colour-changing magic mushrooms. Research Article: Gutnick et al.; Research Highlights: Why magic mushrooms turn dark blue when picked

08:52 Where are the older women in sci-fi?

Author Sylvia Spruck Wrigley has been looking into the number of older women that appear in sci-fi novels, and the roles they play. Essay: Space ageing: why sci-fi novels shun the badass older woman

16:45 News Chat

A trove of mummified remains causes excitement in Egypt, and Italy plans a new science funding body. News: Rare mummified lions add to Egyptology buzz; News: Italy’s plan to create €300-million research agency draws fire

Never miss an episode: Subscribe to the Nature Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify or your favourite podcast app. Head here for the Nature Podcast RSS feed.

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-019-03680-4

Transcript

This week, delving into the results of the latest graduate student survey, and assessing ageism in science fiction literature.

Host: Nick Howe

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, the results of Nature’s latest PhD survey…

Host: Shamini Bundell

And the absence of older women in science fiction. I’m Shamini Bundell.

Host: Nick Howe

And I’m Nick Howe.

[Jingle]

Host: Nick Howe

Before we start the show proper, a quick announcement. We want to make the podcast even better but we need your help. We’re launching our 2019 listener survey and we want to find out what do you like? What are you not so keen on? This is your chance to let us know. We’d really appreciate it if you could just give us ten minutes of your time to fill it out. In fact, if you do, we’ve made a little behind the scenes video as a thank you. You can find the survey over at go.nature.com/podsurvey19.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Speaking of surveys, this week, Nature is publishing the third in a series of features written about PhD students based on the results of a survey of early career researchers. Earlier this week, David Payne, Nature’s chief careers editor, dropped into the studio for a chat with Noah Baker to tell us more about the survey, the findings and what comes next. Here’s David.

Interviewee: David Payne

Well, it’s a survey that we run every two years. We’ve done it since 2011, so I think this is our fifth survey, this year, and also the highest response rate that we’ve had, this year. We had 6,300 responses from all over the world, which we’re absolutely delighted with, and we do it for two reasons really. One is to get a snapshot of what the graduate student landscape is around the world, what are the pain points, what are people feeling positive about, what are people finding more challenging, and obviously, we get lots of free text responses in as well, so we also use those to kind of look at what the trends are and how we might kind of address those trends during the following two years.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And we’ll get to some of those in a minute but before that, when you’re writing this survey, it’s a list of questions that is sent out online, how do you come up with those questions? What’s your process?

Interviewee: David Payne

It’s important first to ask similar questions year on year so that we can actually get a sense of how the landscape is shifting, but every two years we introduce new questions. We reached out to our community of authors and readers and said we’re running the survey this year, what do you think we should be asking? And I have to say, that yielded some fantastic responses. We’ve introduced questions this year around student debt, we’ve introduced questions about bullying and harassment – things that you kind of thought, I can’t believe we weren’t asking these originally.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

You had all these results back and you’re doing various things with them – what are the overarching trends? Are you seeing things that you have seen before? Are they continuing? Are things changing?

Interviewee: David Payne

The kind of take home measure I felt from two years ago, which was a surprise to us, was the amount of people that are still really hankering for a career in academia, but the other thing that leapt out at us two years ago was this whole question about graduate student mental health. And I think the survey two years ago really helped get that topic talked about an awful lot, so it was a question that we obviously had to ask again this year, and two years ago I think 12% overall said that they’d sought help for anxiety and depression caused by their graduate studies, and this year it was even higher, so it’s almost at 1 in 3, which for me was a very stark reminder of the pressures that PhD students are facing.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Now, I’m also really interested in hearing another branch to this PhD survey, which is the free text responses you referred to earlier on, and there are some really insightful stuff that came back. Someone said that they have sleeping bags in their lab in Japan. Did any of these really surprise you?

Interviewee: David Payne

Yeah, so that one really leapt out at us, and the other ones that spring to mind was this really fundamental question of should a PI be seen as a mentor, a colleague or a boss, and I think we have to unpick that a little bit because that’s a really interesting observation about what a supervisor should be. Yes, there was a reference about sleeping bags in the lab in Japan and work-life balance and working hours got talked about an awful lot in the survey. There was also a question around entrepreneurship and then the other one that I think really leapt out at me was does the world really need that many PhDs.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

A whole bunch of things to unpack there. When people say do we really need that many PhDs, are they saying people shouldn’t be doing research anymore or just doing research in a different way?

Interviewee: David Payne

Well, I think it’s about managing expectations, isn’t it, and I think it’s people going into the PhD programme with their eyes open, knowing what the opportunities are, knowing what the landscape is like, doing their research beforehand, and to value the PhD for what it is, which is hopefully a rewarding, very intense exercise that will make you a better project manager, bring you all these other skills, team working, collaboration, science communication, just really trying to harness all the things that a PhD gives you without sort of limiting your options when you embark upon it.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And in terms of the options you might have out the end of your PhD, one of the responses that you had was about how many people are interested in joining start-ups perhaps or moving into tech firms after their PhD, and of course, these sorts of academic associated start-ups are becoming more and more prevalent. Is this something that you have been looking into in the careers section in Nature?

Interviewee: David Payne

Yes, we did quite a few things in 2019 around sort of the entrepreneurship side of science, the business of science, as it were, so I know that in 2020 we’ll be looking in this at a lot more detail and actually showcasing examples of great entrepreneurship and innovative start-ups.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

If there’s anyone listening that didn’t get a chance to fill in the careers survey or perhaps has any other thoughts that they might want to send to you, their experiences, questions they might have, is there somewhere they can send that?

Interviewee: David Payne

Yes, so we have a dedicated email address called naturecareerseditor@nature.com. So, if there’s a topic that you read about in the survey that you feel that you’ve got a personal story to tell about, do please bear us in mind and we’ll be delighted to hear from you.

Host: Nick Howe

That was David Payne, chief careers editor here at Nature. You can read more about the survey in three features over at nature.com/news. You can also listen out for more on PhD life over at our sister podcast, Working Scientist, which is made by David and his team. Find that wherever you get your podcasts.

Host: Shamini Bundell

At the end of the show, we’ll be hearing about the uncovering of new artefacts in Egypt – that’s coming up in the News Chat. Right now, it’s time for this week’s Research Highlights, read by Dan Fox.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Tortoises are famously slow, even when beating hares in races. But though their limbs are slow, it looks like their minds might be a little quicker, at least, quick enough to learn a simple memory task. Experimenters working with giant tortoises in Austria and Switzerland taught them to bite at a coloured dog toy on a stick in return for food. The giant Galapagos and Seychelles tortoises quickly got the hang of the task and in the next stage, learnt to pick a particular colour from a choice of two different coloured toys. Some of the tortoises were tested again nine years after the initial training and though they didn’t remember which colour they were supposed to choose, they picked up the task much quicker this time around. This suggests that these long-lived reptiles also have long-lived memories. Don’t forget to go to Animal Cognition for more on that.

[Jingle]

Dan Fox

Magic mushrooms – those containing psilocybin and psilocin – are best known for their psychedelic properties. But if you see these fungi start to turn blue, don’t worry – you may not be hallucinating. A number of mushrooms have the peculiar property of turning blue if they are damaged or bruised. But what exactly caused this unusual colour has been the subject of debate. Now, researchers in Germany say they’ve pinned down the exact chemical reactions responsible. They identified two key enzymes which catalysed the conversion of psilocybin into a mixture of oxidised molecules, resulting in a blue colour. It seems likely that the reaction is a part of the fungus’ chemical defence system. Have a dose of that paper in the journal Angewandte Chemie.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

Fiction is filled with archetypes. Whether it’s science fiction or fantasy, common tropes include the young hero guided by the wise old mentor, fighting the villain and possibly rescuing a princess along the way. Women tend to get a bit of a raw deal in general in fiction – I’ve seen far too many films where the only female character is a love interest for the male hero. But there’s a particular group of women who are even more underrepresented in fiction, and that’s older women. This week, I spoke to Sylvia Spruck Wrigley, who’s been digging into how old women are represented in science fiction novels specifically. Sylvia joined me in the studio and before getting onto science fiction literature, I wanted to ask her about old women in fiction more generally. Who are they? Who would be the equivalent of Gandalf or Obi-Wan Kenobi or Professor X? Who are the famous, older women?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

So, the one genre that gives us a lot of older women is cosy mysteries, and for some reason you now have this little, old lady solving mysteries and that appears to be the old women’s genre. You do get women in supporting roles in fantasy. So, Professor McGonagall in Harry Potter is an example of this, and Lady Olenna, Queen of Thorns.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

That’s Margaery Tyrell’s grandmother in Game of Thrones.

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Exactly, and she really does fill the show and she is active, but that’s really not typical for old women. Generally speaking, they are there to be interacted with but not in a strong position of their own.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And how did you come to be interested in looking at science fiction literature in particular?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

The whole thing started because I had made a statement saying that in speculative fiction, women are in these supportive roles and somebody pointed out to me that all of my examples were fantasy, and I said, ‘No, that’s fine, science fiction has the same thing going on, for example…’ and then I didn’t have an answer. And it seemed very obvious to me that I wanted to look at novels so that I could see what’s specifically happening in science fiction and in this futuristic view of the world to come, where were the old women and what were they doing?

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

So, you’ve got an essay that you’ve written for Nature’s Books and Arts section where you’ve specifically gone into the literature and done a search and said right, where are the grandmothers, where are the old women, and what did you find?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

I actually crowdsourced the problem because I realised that trying to get through the huge amount of science fiction there is was going to take me… I would probably not survive to finish the job!

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

You would be an old woman yourself.

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Exactly, and in talking to people, I did get some good examples, and so I thought well, I need to talk to more people. I used the internet, I used conferences, I used science fiction clubs in different countries, trying to get a view. The first thing I found with crowdsourcing is I needed to do definitions. What is a woman? This got very complicated immediately because it’s like well, she’s an AI but she uses a female pronoun and it’s like okay, but she doesn’t have a lifespan. Then the question, which is still kind of an open question, is what is old? How old do you have to be to be an old woman? So, the definition I came up with for ‘old’ was that the woman has clearly lived most of her expected lifespan and she has more years behind her than ahead of her.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

That’s a nice scientific definition that can apply to different alien races usefully.

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Yes.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And did you find that your sort of initial top of the head calculation that there really aren’t many, did that hold true?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

Well, originally what I said was I’m going to find all these books and I’m making a lifetime commitment to read every single one of them. And now that I’ve actually narrowed down the field, I could actually read all those books in a year. I’m actually probably halfway through them now. So, it’s no longer as big of a project as I thought it was going to be.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And so, do you feel that this lack of older women in science fiction has anything to do with real science? In sort of STEM fields there’s a lack of women or there’s a lack of women staying in those fields. Is that all sort of tied together?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

I think it’s absolutely tied together, and a lot of people say, well, it used to be a problem but it’s not so much a problem now, but when you look at the science fiction literature, in 1940 was the first Susan Calvin story, which was a part of Asimov’s I, Robot series. So, at that point, he could see a future with women who were scientists and logical and together and yet we’re still in this position where women are treated as more emotional, as less reliable, as less logical. And the amount of people who, when I say, well, women in science fiction and women in STEM, they say Susan Calvin, and I say great, who else because everybody knows this particular character but there is a real lack of similar women and if you look at stories that are based on scientists and engineers, the older ones are all male.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

And so, you were mostly sort of focusing on women in science fiction literature, but you mentioned in the essay that you also looked at non-binary characters, you looked at the sort of intersection of race with that as well. What did you find there?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

I was very much aware, pretty early on, that this was a very, very white landscape. In my submissions, in my data, there were a number of people who put forward well, there’s this book about non-binary people or this book about a non-gendered society or aliens who are not gendered. I didn’t particularly look at that angle but I did find that there was a similar problem, that it doesn’t seem to intersect with older characters or especially not older human characters. The other interesting correlation I found was that most of the women were sort of vanilla, heterosexual – either never having thought about sex or fondly remembering the men of their youth but that’s it. Now, there were some exceptions to this, but what really struck me was that every single exception was identified in the book as lesbian or bisexual.

Interviewer: Shamini Bundell

It sounds like there’s a lot more that you could go into, but to finish us up, I’m someone who is one day hoping to be an old woman as I imagine you are as well, so as a writer and for me as a reader, is there anything that we can be doing to kind of help this current lack of older women in science fiction?

Interviewee: Sylvia Spruck Wrigley

For a writer, there’s the very obvious thing that if you write an extremely sexually active and excited woman who is heterosexual and over 50 then you’ve already broken boundaries that most people didn’t even realise existed. A trans woman over 40 would be a win. So, there’s some very simple characters that just don’t exist yet. I’ve been excited at conferences where I’ve been talking about this to have people approach me and say, ‘I’m thinking about my main character and I made her 30 and now that I think about it, she’s got the experience, why shouldn’t she be 60?’ So, I think I’m going to have to stop the project because I’m now influencing my data, but I’m pleased about that.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That was writer Sylvia Spruck Wrigley. You can find the essay she’s written about the invisibility of women in science fiction over nature.com/books-culture.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Finally on the show, it’s time for the News Chat and I’m joined in the studio by Ehsan Masood, Nature’s Africa and Middle East editor. Ehsan, hi.

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodHello, Nick.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Thanks for joining me. So, for our first story this week, well, it’s been a busy few months for Egyptologists.

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodIt certainly has been a busy few months. In the middle of October, middle of last month, there was probably one of the biggest ever coffin finds – 30 coffins sealed, found – probably the biggest such find in about 100 years, and then just a few days ago there was another huge find, but this time of animal mummies and animal statues. There were crocodiles, certainly some cats, probably we think a couple of those would have been lion cub mummies, and the only other time that that’s been found was in 2004 by a French team, so that really is extremely rare.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Wow, so, presumably then the researchers involved in this field are quite excited?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodThey are very excited and it’s come as a bit of a surprise because they were all meeting – they had their sort of big annual congress and this year they’d just finished their annual congress just a couple of weeks back in Cairo – and they didn’t really know what was happening. All of this was being uncovered by Egypt’s government which is in charge of all of the research. So, yes, surprised and excited.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Despite this excitement though, not everyone will be able to look at these finds as it stands at the moment.

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodThat’s right, yes. So, under the rules of Egypt’s Ministry of Antiquities, which has overall responsibility, so first thing they’re going to be doing and they are doing now computerised tomography scans of the remains because they can’t open the coffins. In the old days, they used to be able to take them apart, unwrap them and that was basically pretty wrong, so these days it’s all non-invasive. So, these days there’s a lot of scanning to be done. Then they’re saying first dibs for the actual research is going to be given to Egypt-based institutions.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And I suppose, if you’ll pardon the pun, there’s a bit of history that means that Egypt might be a bit cautious about letting people in there.

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodWell, goodness, yeah, I mean talk about the history. Modern Egyptology is a pretty young field and it emanates, essentially, from colonial times when Egypt was very much part of the then great power rivalries between France and Britain, when they were both big sort of empire nations, and a lot of researchers, as was the way, would go in, they would take artefacts. Often, there would be theft, there would be no permissions, they’d bring them back. Often, they’d be sold on the black market, some of which is still happening. And then of course there’s the really big artefacts that we know are sitting in museums. The material from the last coffin find is in places like Leiden in the Netherlands and then of course here where we’re sitting in London there’s the famous Rosetta Stone in the British Museum. So, Egypt has a lot to be worried about, there’s no doubt.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

With the worries that they have, how will researchers and the community move forward?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodSo, the way forward would be for Egypt to lead or to put out calls for consortia, where an Egyptian institution, university, the supreme council of antiquities could say here’s what our requirements are, here’s the questions we want answering, and hey, universities of the world, come and join us. We’ll be in the most responsible position – it’s our heritage. We need to understand it, we need to conserve it, but hey, you can come and help us do it. That might be the way forward.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Well, speaking of countries leading their own research, in Italy they have started making a new independent funding agency and Ehsan, what can you tell me about this?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodThis is a rare attempt by Italy to create a funding agency of the type that are quite common in the US and elsewhere in the European Union. In fact, we think that Italy is probably the last of big economies not to have one, so Italy wants to move away from this idea of having ministers and ministerial teams involved in research priority and funding, and actually to give that role to a more autonomous agency which they’re calling ANR.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And this may be a bit of a naïve question, but what’s the benefit of having an independent autonomous agency?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodI think there are several reasons why this is really important and why it’s a bit of a surprise that Italy has sort of taken this long to get here. The first question is that when you have research questions and you want to put out calls for proposals, you kind of want the community to be involved in setting what those questions are. They know the boundaries and the contours of a field or where are the gaps, what are the questions that need answering, and you also want them to be doing the peer reviewing around that, and so those roles are generally best done outside of a government body. Of course, the government still provides the funding, but they would sit at arm’s length.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

With this move towards it, I guess scientists are quite happy in Italy?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodThey are certainly really excited, a lot of anticipation. I think a little bit of nervousness as well because it’s a first. Lots of things are being promised and people are not sure whether those promises will be kept. And also, because you would expect that if the agency was to be autonomous then there’d be lots of consultation with universities, with independent scientists, in labs or maybe in companies, and that consultation hasn’t got going yet, so there’s a sort of draft law that’s being discussed and debated in parliament, but the consultation process with the community hasn’t started and I think when that gets going, at that point I think people will feel a little bit happier.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

What other concerns do people have with the draft law as it currently stands?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodSo, the main concerns they have is, for example, I think one of the big sort of flags is that there might be representatives of ministries sitting on governing bodies and possibly even the Prime Minister’s office, so that’s like the top person sitting on a science funding agency. That’s weird. That really is weird. So, I think that is a bit of a flag. And I think also, you want to get down to the nitty gritty fine print rules of how many peer review panels and how will you choose reviewers? Who’s going to make those choices? Will it be the scientists? Will it be other people? So, there are some of the unanswered questions.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

So, given that there are these concerns, are there going to be any further changes to this draft as it currently stands?

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodSo, the minister for education and research is a really interesting man. His name is Lorenzo Fioramonti. He’s a political economist. He’s an academic. He was a working academic until very recently. And it just sort of gives you a sense of the political culture in Italy where he is the minister but actually he doesn’t have all the power and the control – there are other people in other departments that also have influence on this decision – so one of the first tasks for him is in fact to wrest control of the decision-making and to try and persuade more of his colleagues to support the idea that if you’re creating an autonomous agency then let’s start behaving and giving some of that power back to the community and not holding it within the sort of political structure, so he’s got a bit of a battle on his hands.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

Well, I guess we’ll keep an eye on this situation in Italy then. Ehsan, thank you for joining me.

Interviewee: Ehsan MasoodThanks so much, Nick. Really appreciate it.

Interviewer: Nick Howe

And listeners, for more on those stories, head over to nature.com/news.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That’s all for this week. There’s just time to remind you that if you fill out our survey, it’ll really help us out. You can find it over at go.nature.com/podsurvey19 or there’ll be a link on the podcast page. I’m Shamini Bundell.

Host: Nick Howe

And I’m Nick Howe. See you next time.

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