careful, your bias is showing

Some time ago, a colleague sent me a link to this document, a “Minute to the Director, Trade Commissioner Service” that outlined opposition to the appointment of the first woman Trade Commissioner in Australia in 1963. It makes for some cringeworthy reading:

Even after some deliberation, it is difficult to find reasons to support the appointment of women Trade Commissioners“. Because whereas “A relatively young attractive woman could operate with some effectiveness, in a subordinate capacity…..A spinster lady can, and often does, turn into something of a battle-axe with the passing years“. (I wonder why that might happen?)

More than 50 years on, we don’t see official documents discriminating so blatantly on the basis of gender. There are laws against that. But vestiges of bias still remain. We do, after all, live in an historically patriarchal society where men were expected to lead, and were valued for what they did at work. Women were expected to have children and were valued for what they looked like and their relationship to men. It’s hard to shake those stereotypes.

The media certainly don’t help. Remember these recent facepalm moments? The opening paragraph of the obituary for Thorn Birds author and neuroscientist Colleen McCullough, “..plain of feature and certainly overweight..”, and the opening paragraph of the obituary for rocket scientist Yvonne Brill “…she made a mean beef stroganoff…”. Not to mention “Rona Fairhead CBE, Cambridge and Harvard graduate, British business ambassador, former chair and chief executive of the Financial Times Group and non-executive director at HSBC and PepsiCo”. When it became clear that she was the preferred candidate to lead the BBC Trust in 2014, the sub-editor who wrote the headline ignored all those accomplishments and went with: “Mother of three poised to lead the BBC.”

As I am writing this post, a new study has just come out supporting the notion that sexism in STEM academia is dead. The authors concluded that women are preferred over men by 2:1 as tenure track candidates in the US. Notwithstanding the apparent problems with the study design, or that the data do not support the conclusions, I proffer my own flawed anecdotal evidence that support a contrary conclusion – that sexism in academia is alive and well. This is not a designed study, and the data are not analysed scientifically. It’s a limited self-selected survey describing women’s recent experiences that made them stop and think about how they are treated differently in academia. Junior women and senior women.

How has this information been collected? I often speak at universities and research institutes about gender equity. After these talks, women academics and professional staff regularly share with me their experiences of bias, harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Experiences that seem so minor they are not called out, flagged or reported. These often unconscious microaggressions feed into stereotype threat and impostor syndrome, marginalising and silencing women. Often there are no witnesses, and even when there are, the transgressions are usually trivialised as jokes. The immediate response of the women in these situations has usually been shock, paralysis. Here follows the experiences from those women who agreed to share their stories…..

On addressing gender balance and gender equity in academia…

Senior male professor “We can’t let it (addressing gender balance) affect the quality of our institution“. (Oh, but it will. It will also increase the Happiness Index and the Diversity Index).

Senior male professor “As long as the women are attractive” and then after a pause, realising this might not have been a very politic thing to say, “you know, like the men have to be sporty and athletic”.

Senior male professor to female group leader “I will lead this (ongoing venture), and I want you to be my deputy. I will set everything up the way it should be. Then you can take over as leader and just keep everything going the way I arranged it.”

A conference committee comprising middle-aged and older men decided they should address gender balance on their committee. They welcomed suggestions of new female appointees that were young, attractive and “acquiescent”, but rejected out of hand a more senior woman nominee because she was “too old“. She was younger than many of the committee members.

Lately, there has been talk of the pay gap in universities and how the sector might achieve gender pay equity. This appears to have caused confusion in some circles: “Yes, but HOW MUCH equity? Do you mean, like, 90% equity?“. (No please, tell me what you really think).

The Senior Man, Junior Woman Dynamic

A PhD student discussed her research with an invited international speaker at a conference dinner. He was not impressed with her project and said that she now had two choices. “Either make a career in research – and I can help you with this” (over another drink at the bar). “Or have babies and a family. That should be easy – you are reasonably good-looking“. Everything else, including any combination of those two, would be a waste of time. He then proceeded to hit on her.

An invited international speaker attended a celebration dinner with the organising committee after a conference. Soon after everyone was seated, the lucky young woman seated immediately opposite to the speaker was surprised to feel his shoeless foot between her legs.

A senior professor asked a freshly-minted PhD student at a conference dinner “You look so yummy, won’t you come and dance with me?”.

A mid-career female group leader talking research strategy with a senior professor. Mid-sentence, he interrupts her to pick up the necklace pendant from her cleavage and ask a question about it.

Advice from a senior professor to young women researchers considering applying for early career fellowships “Have a baby, it will increase your chances of success“.

It’s not just junior women. On a tour of a science facility, a senior professor slipped his hand under the lab coat of a senior woman on the tour, placing his hand on her bottom and saying “Don’t worry, I will look after you“. (I think I know who she needs to look out for).

When the only woman attending a meeting of senior staff entered the meeting room, a senior professor patted the seat beside him, saying “Come here, sit next to me“.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who hold entire conversations with women academics, their eyes focused all the while on the woman’s breasts.

Many examples of professors/supervisors who come up behind junior women and grab them around their waist.

A primer for those who are not sure:

Let’s be clear. Touching women without permission is not OK. Neither is condescension. Nor objectification. Yet as a woman, it’s really tricky to call out overt or even microaggressive or “casual” unintentional sexism in the workplace, especially when its coming from a supervisor or a senior academic. And when unintentional or unconscious bias is present in the people sitting on hiring, promotion, grant review and fellowship committees – well I submit that this has contributed in part to the current inequity. How do we address this? The first step is to acknowledge bias. Like accents, we all have biases, but no-one likes to admit it. Yes “good” people have biases too. Men and women. So take the Harvard implicit association test and find out what your biases are. Then address them. Establish unconscious bias management training for all supervisors and all decision makers.

People in decision-making positions, senior people (and let’s face it, that most often means men), have a critical role to play. Powerful people dictate how things operate “now” and set the example for what is acceptable leadership behaviour to the next generation. Powerful good people share leadership, and support women and men equally. How can you check if you support people equally? Ask yourself the Cate Blanchett question: “Do you do that to the guys?“. If you wouldn’t say or do something to a man in the workplace – and that means the office, the lab, social events, field trips and conferences – then don’t say or do it to a woman.

Finally, think about the impact of your actions and words using this 3-point test:

1. Is this appropriate? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

2. Is this inclusive? If the answer is no or not sure, don’t say or do it.

3. Will this reinforce gender stereotypes? If the answer is yes or not sure, don’t say or do it.

The 2015 paper by Williams and Ceci may have concluded that women now have advantages in STEM academic careers. Me, I think there is still a long way to go.

how to measure a professor

“Many of those personal qualities that we hold dear….are exceedingly difficult to assess. And so, unfortunately, we are apt to measure what we can, and eventually come to value what is measured over what is left unmeasured. The shift is subtle and occurs gradually”. So wrote Robert Glaser of the USA National Academy of Education in 1987.

Those words – written about the standardised tests used in American schools in the 1980s – ring so true today for the way we assess academics. The things we tend to measure, because they are easy to measure, are things like publication numbers, impact factors, H-index (regrettably not the Happiness index), citations, grant income. And we tend to value most those who have big grants and papers in big name journals. Are we “driving out the very people we need to retain: those who are interested in science as an end in itself…“? Is the current “Impact factor mania (that) benefits a few” forcing academics to participate in a “winner-takes-all economics of science“? Is the “tournament” competition model ruining science by adversely affecting research integrity and creativity? Have we fallen into the trap Glaser warned of: do we now value what we can measure at the cost of losing what is actually most valuable?

Inspired by Glaser, education policy researcher Gerald Bracey generated a list:

Personal Qualities NOT measured by Standardised Tests

creativity     critical thinking    resilience    motivation   persistence    curiosity    question-asking    humour    endurance   reliability     enthusiasm    civic-mindedness    self-awareness    self discipline    empathy    leadership    compassion    courage   sense of beauty    sense of wonder    resourcefulness    spontaneity   humility

Do metrics for academics assess these qualities? In some respects, they do. Publications and grant success require a level of creativity, critical thinking, motivation, persistence, curiosity, question-asking, enthusiasm. But at best they are a proxy measure. And there are deeper issues. Counting grant income as well as scientific publications – well that’s double-dipping. What’s more, current metrics completely ignore many key responsibilities expected of academics. Committee work. Conference organisation. Reviewing. Mentoring. Outreach. I’ve been fortunate to work with fantastic supervisors and collaborators – people I trust, respect and like – but that’s certainly not everyone’s experience in academia. How do we ensure that academics with integrity, empathy, humility and compassion – as well as leadership, critical thinking and creativity – are rated highest and valued most of all if these personal qualities are not assessed or incentivised? In my mind, the best metrics would (1) enable a fair assessment relative to opportunity, (2) assess more of the duties expected of academics and (3) report on the personal qualities we hold dear in people we want to work with.

To address point 1, the metrics for those who have made it – full professors – ought to be different from those we use to assess academics still in the pipeline.

How might we measure a professor? Well let’s imagine a few more new metrics…..

Publication Efficiency. Currently we focus heavily on three metrics: publication quantity, publication quality and grant income – and “more is better”. Professors are expected to secure competitive grants, attract junior researchers (many bringing in their own competitive fellowships) and train scholarship-funded students. The more dollars pulled in (grants, scholarships, fellowships), the more people in the team, and hence the more outputs generated. But large teams are not necessarily better. How productive has the team leader been with those funds? Using the publication efficiency (PE) metric, publication metrics are weighted by income:

PE = PO/RI

where PO is a measure of publication output over the past 5 years (eg POc could be total citations past 5 years, POn number of publications past 5 years etc etc) and RI is the total research income over the past 7 years (that is, the certified total dollar value of all grants, all scholarships and all fellowships to all team members over that time). Seven years is chosen for research income aggregate, rather than five years, because it takes time to generate scientific publications. The higher the PE, the better.

Sponsorship Index. One of the most important roles a professor can take on is training the next generation of research leaders. Trouble is, the way we rank and assess academics leads to a hypercompetitive environment. Take for example publications, the major currency of academia. The senior author position on papers is highly coveted because it identifies the intellectual leader of the research. Future grant success (= future survival) for senior academics requires senior author papers – and the more the better. A well-established professor, leading a large group, traveling extensively and with a large admin/committee/teaching load, relies on mid-career researchers within the team to generate ideas, direct the day-to-day research, train students, analyse results, write the papers. Yet the way the system works at present, the professor needs to take the senior author positions on papers. This is justified because the work was done in the professor’s lab, using equipment or protocols they established and using grant money they brought in to cover the salaries of the team members. The sponsorship index, SI, changes the incentives. It rewards professors for supporting mid-career researchers in a team:

SI = (SAS+2M+4A) / N

where N is the total number of papers from the team in the past 5 years, SAS is the number of papers over that time for which senior authorship was shared between the professor and a team member, M is the number of papers where the professor was middle author and a team member was senior author, and A is the number of papers where a team member is senior author and the professor is gratefully thanked in the acknowledgements (and not by inclusion in the author list). Requiring that a professor maximise their sponsorship index will place greater emphasis on selflessness and in turn this will help ensure career development of the next generation of academics.

Good Mentorship Score. Following on directly from sponsorship is mentorship. Using current metrics “whether you are the best or worst mentor is irrelevant“. But it’s hardly irrelevant to potential team members and colleagues. How can a PhD student or postdoc find out if a professor is a person they can rely on to help them achieve their career goals (whatever they may be)? Horror stories abound of professors who treat team members appallinglytoxic academic mentors. Sadly, despite university policies that prohibit these behaviours, it’s usually the victims that suffer most. People in positions of power above the professor may not be aware of the problem (asshole behaviour is usually directed downwards) or may have an inkling but the grant income and papers generated by the professor are too valuable to risk losing. So how to address this? My solution – get references. From former team members. HR can provide a random selection of 10 diverse former team members (ie male/female, PhDs/postdocs, different ethnicities). These referees then use a 5 point scale, where 1 is strongly disagree and 5 is strongly agree, to rate the professor against various statements. You know the sort of thing: “My ideas for developing my research were respected and valued”, “I felt included and appreciated as a team member”, “My goals as a researcher and a person were supported”, “The professor was someone I respected and trusted and want to be like”, “I was confident to speak to the professor about issues that arose regarding my work-life balance”, “I was encouraged to explore career options outside the traditional academic path”. Perhaps we should also poll mid-career colleagues in the same school – for example “The professor actively helps more junior colleagues develop their career”, “The professor takes on a fair and equitable teaching and committee workload”, and “The professor is a positive and encouraging role model”. To generate the good mentorship score (GMS), the scores are averaged across all questions and all reviewers. The GMS can then be used in discussions at performance reviews and considered in a mentoring component of track record assessments for grants and fellowships.

Civic-Mindedness Tally. Academics are expected to do much more than research and teaching – though it is research and (to a lesser extent) teaching that are assessed, measured to the nth degree, and valued most highly. Those other things we do – contributing to department/institute committees, professional societies, conference organisation, peer review and community outreach are difficult to measure, so they tend not to be measured or assessed and therefore are not valued highly. The civic-mindedness tally (CMT) ensures that outstanding professorial citizens, who give their time for the good of society, are recognised for their altruistic contributions. The CMT is simply a sum for each year over the past 5 years of each certified committee, representative role, organisational appointment, grant review panel, editorial responsibility (see also academic karma for a new take on valuing peer review), science communication and community engagement – and yes I think that should include blog posts :-) .

I know, it’s too simplistic. But it’s better than nothing, which is what we do now. On its own, a high CMT won’t lead to *favourite* status for a professor. But in combination with current metrics, and the metrics described above, it should do wonders for improving the Happiness Index of institutions.

There you have it. That’s my philosophy for how we should measure a professor. It’s only a start, and no doubt there are many things that could be improved or are still missing (for other ideas see roadmap to academia beyond quantity and is competition ruining science?). So now over to you, what are the measures you think should be implemented to assess the qualities that really matter in our professoriate?

imagine there’s new metrics (it’s easy if you try)

Academia has become obsessed with metrics. Institutions jostle for the “top” positions in international rankings, departments are evaluated nationally to identify the “best”, and individuals are lined up against one another to find the “leaders”.

Let’s take the international rankings (eg THE, QS, SJ) for example. These were established, apparently, to help students and staff identify the highest quality universities. The rankings would allow people to make informed decisions about where to study, teach and conduct research. It follows then that a higher rank will mean more students, especially international students, and this in turn means more money coming into the business university.

Indicators used to calculate these rankings include things like academic reputation, research income, number of publications, number of citations to these papers, industry income, and the ratios of faculty:student, international:local student, international:local staff, and doctoral:bachelors student. Data are gathered from detailed surveys sent to academics, employers, and universities, as well as from companies that specialise in providing research citation data (Thomson Reuters, Scopus etc).

There are two things that are troubling about these indicators. The first is that there are no upper limits where there probably should be. Considerable effort is expended by institutions to increase each indicator with the aim of getting a top spot. If we extrapolate, without applying upper bounds, what could be the consequences of behaviours driven by these metrics? Hmm, let’s see. If the number of PhD students is a key indicator and there is no upper bound, this might lead to oversupply. In turn, this might result in PhD student disenchantment with academia during the course of their studies. If large numbers of PhD graduates are being produced, it’s likely that a considerable proportion of early career researchers will be unable to find positions in academia. The pressures on PhD students to focus on producing research papers would lead to a lack of time and opportunity to “explore (other) aspects relevant to their future career options”. This situation might produce a generation of highly intelligent, highly qualified PhD students/early career researchers who feel like failures.

The second thing that troubles me is that international rankings are meant to identify the best workplaces, yet none of the rankings evaluate important indicators like job satisfaction, work-life balance, equal opportunity. Taken to the extreme, the research quality indicators might drive behaviour that leads academics to work ridiculous hours, taking no time off during the year, not celebrating their successes, and expecting the same work ethic from their team. In this scenario, leaders of the largest research teams would thrive, because they would produce more results than smaller groups, so that we might see the rise of academic Ponzi schemes (BTW the independent development plan linked in that blog is worth checking out).

With funding cuts to research and a growing number of large teams led by senior researchers, we might also see grant funding success fall to record lows and junior researchers miss out on funding. Those who work best in collaborative, cooperative settings will become disenfranchised and demoralised in the hypercompetitive environment that develops. Researchers might consider cutting corners, and the academic pipeline will likely leak first with those who have significant domestic and caring responsibilities. Perhaps we might observe an increase in mental health issues among academics.

Hmmm, does this set of circumstances seem familiar to anyone else?

While there are good reasons to evaluate research quality and impact, it is inevitable that bad things will happen when no checks are placed on how the loftiest research heights are attained. If the goal of international rankings is truly to identify the best places to study and work, then new metrics are needed to identify institutions that combine achieving research and teaching greatness with offering the “best” diversity in their professoriate, boasting the “top” work-life balance, and supporting “leaders” who train research students for positions outside academia.

With these thoughts in mind, I’ve dreamed up a few new metrics to use alongside the more traditional ones. Maybe this combination might lead to rankings that identify the most successful, most highly productive higher education training grounds and workplaces that are also best at supporting career aspirations and mental, emotional and physical well-being.

1. The no-asshole rule

A few weeks ago at the SAGE Forum in Canberra, I heard about the no-asshole rule. We’ve all met them. We’ve all had to work with them. According to Bob Sutton who wrote the book on the no-asshole rule, assholes are defined by two characteristics:

  • after encountering the person, people feel oppressed, humiliated or otherwise worse about themselves
  • the person targets less powerful people

If these characteristics apply, there is your asshole (figuratively speaking). Bob outlined the dirty dozen* actions that assholes use on a regular basis, and described an asshole scoring system (levels 0-3) and management metric. To be eligible to participate in the new international rankings, universities must teach the no-asshole rule to freshers, employ no level 3 assholes and tolerate no level 3 asshole behaviour by staff or students (see, one of too many recent examples, Dalhousie “gentleman” student dentists). One asshole incident without consequences means the whole institution gets the big red dislike button.

2. H-index

No not that one. This is the Happiness index. Bhutan has one, it’s called gross national happiness. Staff and students at universities will be surveyed each year to measure their happiness in the workplace. Someone else has already done the hard part by working out the questions for Bhutan, though no doubt we’ll have to add a few new ones for academic happiness (eg fairness in allocation of – and appropriate recognition of – teaching and service roles, simplicity of university travel approval system, availability of high quality coffee (or tea and biccies in my case) etc). An essential indicator of happiness will be the annual leave ratio (ALR). This is a simple calculation:

ALR = ALT/ALA

where ALT is the combined number of days of annual leave taken by all staff (unprompted by HR) for the previous year, ALA is the combined number of days of annual leave available to all staff each year (with a minimum of 20 days per staff member). Universities for which all available annual leave is taken by staff would rate highest with an ALR of 1.

3. F-index

The F-index is about fairness. Despite published pay scales, men are paid more than women in the upper echelons of academia for doing the same job. Because “loadings”. In my perfect world, to be eligible to participate in international  rankings, universities would make public the average pay for men and women in leadership (professoriate and above) by posting the data on the front page of their website every Jan 1. The F-index is calculated as follows:

F = W/M

where W is the average salary for women in leadership positions and M is the average salary for men in leadership positions. Universities with the highest ratio (and thus the smallest gender pay gap) would rank highest on international rankings. It would be a fun experiment to see how long it would take for this indicator of university ranking to reverse the gender pay gap in academia. Looks like the University of Sydney will skyrocket on this measure: the VC indicated at the “Women at Sydney” event in late 2014 that remedying the gender pay disparity is a strategic objective for the university in 2015.

4. D-index

D is for diversity. Diversity is goodDifferences in perspectives and methods of approaching problems lead to better outcomes. In Australia, our universities are populated by people of diverse culture, gender, age, socio-economic status. Yet our leaders are mostly male and mostly white. The D-index measures how well the leadership teams at universities (professoriate and above) reflect the diversity of the broader university (all staff and students). For example, let’s take gender. Plenty of studies show that more women in the workplace, especially more women in leadership positions, is not only the right thing to do it’s the smart thing to do because it’s good for business. Yet gender equity in leadership positions remains at dismally low levels (<20%) across the board while male CEOs dig their heels in at quotas. To counter the entrenched system, the D-index for gender (Dg) will be evaluated:

Dg = GB(lead)/GB(all)

where GB(lead) is the gender balance or proportion of women in leadership positions (usually <0.2) and GB(all) is the proportion of women across all staff and students (usually >0.5). Most universities would have Dg values of 0.4 or below. Those who score the maximum D values of 1 would zip up to the top of university rankings. If the D-index was implemented, would we see an exponential rise in women, POC, Asian and Indigenous people in leadership positions? I’d sure like to find out.

5. K-index

K is for kids. One issue that crops up again and again, is that primary caring responsibilities often fall to women, with a consequent reduction in their academic competitiveness (unless their track record is considered, fairly, relative to opportunity). So problematic is this issue, that some women choose to forgo having children to remain competitive in their career. Why do we make it so difficult for the smartest women to reproduce? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? At the same time, male academics want to spend more time caring for their kids, but face stigma and lack of support from colleagues and bosses for taking time off for parental duties. Why do we make it so difficult for the brightest men to participate in the most important work of all? Wouldn’t it be good for the world, and for universities, if we made it easier? Germany dealt with this specific problem by awarding an extra two months to the standard 12 months paid parental leave when both parents took time off to care for their children. The K-index celebrates the birth of children to academics:

K = (A+3B+C+D)/E

where A is the number of days of parental leave taken by women over the past year, B is the number of days of parental leave taken by men over the past year, C is the number of childcare places on campus, D is the number of parenting rooms on campus and E is the total number of staff and students on campus. On this metric, those universities that best support and encourage families will rocket to the top of international rankings, and most likely will have to turn away large numbers of outstanding students and academics.

endnote

You may say I’m a dreamer (but I’m not the only one). I’m also something of a realist. No doubt if these indices are implemented, game-playing would follow with unintended consequences. Nevertheless, it’s been interesting to think about university metrics that might drive new, perhaps more socially just, workplace behaviours. Maybe I’ll dream up some indicators along the same lines for ranking individual academics in the next post….

 

*Bob Sutton’s dirty dozen

  1. Personal insults
  2. Invading one’s “personal territory”
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and intimidation, both verbal and nonverbal
  5. “Sarcastic jokes” and “teasing” used as insult delivery systems
  6. Withering e-mail flames
  7. Status slaps intended to humiliate their victims
  8. Public shaming or “status degradation” rituals
  9. Rude interruptions
  10. Two-faced attacks
  11. Dirty looks
  12. Treating people as if they are invisible

life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans

A week or so ago, my family stood in the cemetery in roughly the same place we’d stood more than two decades earlier. Though we were laying to rest a second family member, the scene could not have been more different. This time, the sun was shining. There was sadness, but no tears. The container of dad’s ashes – labelled with the metal panel from his coffin – was placed gently into the space dug near the 23-year-old plaque. Petals collected that morning from flowers in mum’s garden were sprinkled over the container, some falling on the weathered old plaque nearby. Mum commented that dad would have liked the simplicity of the ceremony.

The attendant – John – carefully filled the hole, saying he would put fresh turf over it the next day. In a broad Aussie drawl, he apologised for not wearing something more formal. Normally he would be in a suit, but he’d been called in at the last minute. Cemeteries have emergencies too. He needn’t be worried, someone said. If anything, the weekend work clothes he had on were more appropriate for dad, a working-class man. John had worked at the cemetery for many years and remarked that he sometimes stopped by the plaque and wondered about the man pictured there. The photo was of a handsome young man, taken at his best mates’ wedding where he’d officiated as best man, a month before he died.

Peter

At that time, I was a post-doc at Rockefeller University in Manhattan, New York. I’d started on April 1, 1991. I could have taken up the post a few weeks earlier, but had delayed a little so I could attend a sister’s 21st birthday party. I’m glad I did. As it turned out, the celebration was the last time all the family would be together.

By Oct 1991, six months after arriving in New York, I’d furnished my studio apartment on 63rd and York, successfully navigated the subway to find all the places I needed to get to, and had hosted several visitors from Australia. One visitor asked whether I would consider returning to Australia as a group leader. “No way,” I replied “not as a group leader. That’s far too stressful, too much work.” Strange thing to say really, I was already working days, nights, weekends in New York. I did, though, take time out to enjoy the incredible diversity of museums, cultural centres and restaurants that the city had to offer.

Friday, October 25, 1991 started off like any other. I got into the lab around 8 am, and spent a few hours purifying proteins from bacterial cultures, preparing to set up crystallisation trays later in the day. By late morning, I needed a break. I returned to the office I shared with three other postdocs. Unusually, there was no one else around, but a note had been left on my desk. It said that I should call the number written below. It was a Melbourne number, but not one I recognised.

“That’s odd” I thought “why would anyone want me to call now, it’s the middle of the night in Melbourne”. No alarm bells rang. Completely unprepared for the devastating news that was to come, I called the number and heard that I’d reached the emergency department of a major public hospital close to my family’s home. My mum and sister both worked there, so perhaps it wasn’t that unusual to get a call, but it was strange to come from the emergency department in the early morning Melbourne time. Maybe the number had been written down incorrectly, maybe mum/my sister were working night duty.

I explained to the voice on the other end of the line that I was in the USA and had been left a message to call that number. I half-expected the voice to say “Oh, sorry, there’s been a mistake; we’ll put you through to theatre (where mum worked) or CCU (where my sister worked)”. But that didn’t happen. There was a few second’s silence, then “Just a minute, we’ll put you through”. It was about then that the alarm bells started clanging.

My sister came on the line. “Jenny……something awful has happened.”

WHAT. NO. NO. PLEASE NO. WHO? MUM? DAD? The questions tumbled out.

“There’s been a car accident. Peter suffered severe head injuries. He’s just been declared dead. We are all here.“

Within a few hours, I was on a flight from JFK to MEL via LAX. It was surreal. That morning I’d been purifying protein, now I was on my way home to help organise my youngest brother’s funeral. My brother Peter. So full of life and mischief.

The service would be held on 31 October, Halloween. That day now forever linked to sorrow. Etched in my memory of that week is the physical pain of the raw grief, the utter anguish and despair that – together with the overwhelming perfume of condolence flowers – filled my parent’s home; the hundreds of “in sympathy” cards; the pathos of a phone call dad made to explain why Peter wouldn’t be coming into work any more. Choosing the clothes Peter would wear for the last time. Viewing his lifeless body. Saying goodbye.

The funeral was witnessed through a blur of tears, though some memories stick: the hundreds of young people in attendance; the sight of brothers and cousins waiting patiently with the coffin resting on their squared shoulders at the end of the service while the music master scrambled to find the recessional music; the solemn procession under racing grey clouds, of dozens of cars en route to the cemetery; the vivid green grass and muddy soil surrounding the final resting place; the gentle descent of the coffin into the earth; the bright red roses cast into the deep pit. I remember too the counsel of a friend at the wake “This is a time for grieving. When you think of Peter now there will be tears. In time, though, you’ll be able to think about him and smile.”

In loving memory of Peter William Martin. 20.4.1966 - 26.10.1991 Beloved son of Jack and Judy.  Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec) A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.  These things we will remember of you with love.  The measure of your life is the love you left behind.  In God's care.

In loving memory of Peter William Martin.
20.4.1966 – 26.10.1991
Beloved son of Jack and Judy.
Loved brother of Anthony, Ian, Steven, Jennifer, Catherine, Geoffrey, Jan-Maree, Carolyn and Gerard (dec)
A cheeky grin, twinkling blue eyes, strategist, car enthusiast, active, helpful, loyal, gentle Peter.
These things we will remember of you with love.
The measure of your life is the love you left behind.
In God’s care.

Peter was 25 when he died. The same age as Phil Hughes, the Australian Test cricketer who passed away recently. Like Hughes, Peter’s death was a tragic accident. Like Hughes, Peter’s character was defined by his cheeky grin, and twinkling eyes. He had a wicked sense of humour. As a boy, he was a walking encyclopedia of facts about World War II, often interrupting movies we were watching to explain anachronisms – “that tank is wrong, it hadn’t been built at that time”. As he grew older he developed the gift of drawing you in to his world, charming you with the delight, the joy he took in whatever had captured his imagination, a book he’d just read, a historical fact he’d just discovered, a painting he was working on, his dungeons and dragons obsession. Whatever it was, in his presence it became the most important thing in the world.

Peter was 5 years younger than me, and the youngest of the 5 boys in the family. Like many brothers he could be most annoying at times, and then at other times he would be extraordinarily generous and considerate. When my black and white cat (named Sylvester, what else) disappeared I was devastated. Peter, all of 9 or 10 at the time, brought home a tiny black kitten for me, a stray he’d found on a light industry site where he delivered newspapers after school.

Despite scorning my music preferences, he offered to tape the entire 3 hour soundtrack for my 21st birthday party, and followed my instructions to the letter. As a birthday gift that year, he gave me the ugliest figurine you can possibly imagine, of a cockatoo. It was his idea of a joke, to remind me of his pet budgie Billy. A badass budgie that nipped anyone that came near him. Except Peter. He loved Peter. And yes, I still have that figurine.

figurine

When I moved to the UK to undertake a DPhil at Oxford in the late 1980s, I was desperately homesick and asked family to send Christmas gifts that would remind me of home. Peter and I both supported the same football team; he sent me his cherished bombers flag, the one he’d waved at the Essendon premiership a few years before. Sadly that flag no longer exists.

His untimely death impacted family members in different ways. For me, it meant insomnia for several weeks requiring medication, and relentless guilt for not being there when he died. It also cemented in my mind that I would not choose to live overseas for my work, even if the opportunities might be better. I vowed to knuckle down, complete the work I was doing in the US, and then return to Australia. So it was that in mid-1993, two years after declaring I didn’t want to be a group leader, I took up an ARC QEII Fellowship at the University of Queensland where I established my own protein crystallography group. Of course, there were many other reasons to select UQ. But the choice of country was not negotiable.

So when I’m asked at career forums about my career decisions, why I returned to Australia after a very successful PhD in the UK and a very successful postdoc in the US, I say I made the decision for family reasons.

It was one of the best decisions I ever made.

5 things I love about Japan

I’ve been in Japan for the past two weeks on a Japan Society for Promotion of Science short-term Fellowship, visiting laboratories and major research facilities to cement current linkages and to develop new collaborations between Australia and Japan. I’ll need to provide a formal report on my activities from this visit, but what won’t be included in that report are the following important points.

the welcome

I had an unnecessarily long flight to Japan from Brisbane. It was my fault entirely. I had left the travel organisation so late that the only affordable flights were via Singapore. This meant 24 hours of travel from Brisbane to my final destination of Sendai, rather than 14 hours. After arriving in Nagoya, I was already very tired and then a little annoyed when the gate-staff very gently asked me to check-in my hand luggage because it was too large for the commuter flight to Sendai. However my tetchiness melted away when, from my window seat on the plane, I watched the ground staff on the tarmac skilfully prepare the aircraft for takeoff and then alternately bow and wave towards us for several minutes as we pushed back and then taxied out to the runway. Unexpectedly, that sight gave me a warm and fuzzy feeling that uplifted me for the whole day and set the scene for the entire 2 weeks. Welcoming and farewelling people arriving and leaving an establishment – hotel, café, restaurant, ticket office, laboratory – is a lovely Japanese custom. I needn’t have worried about my luggage either, it was already making its way around the carousel when I arrived at the baggage collection area in Sendai. Mind you, I’m not looking forward to the return 24 hour flight to Brisbane tomorrow.

I’m tall

At 5’4″ (1.63 m) I am relatively short in Australia, but relatively tall in Japan. Well perhaps not so tall, but at least on the upper end of the normal curve rather than the lower end. That meant I was the go-to person in my row of seats to retrieve articles of luggage from the overhead shelf on the Shankensen train. While this relative tallness may seem like a good thing, there are some downsides (pun intended). For example, sometimes when getting up from my seat on a domestic flight I would bang my head on the overhead luggage compartment. Sometimes my feet dangled over the end of the hotel bed when lying at full stretch. Then, perhaps more a consequence of advancing years than advancing height, I couldn’t get comfortable at a restaurant when sitting at a low table on a cushion with my legs folded underneath me in the traditional Japanese manner. “No problem,” said the woman Prof seated beside me “just stretch your legs under the table like I’m doing. No one else will do that, so there’s plenty of room.”

the food

I don’t eat fish. You might think this would make it difficult to find a diversity of good quality food that I would enjoy in Japan. But you’d be wrong. The food is delicious. The flavours are incredible. The diversity is astonishing. I can’t wait to investigate new options on my last day today. On several occasions these past 2 weeks I had been invited to dinner by academic hosts around the country, so I let them know about my food preferences in advance. I was treated to the beauty and theatre of shabu shabu, sukiyaki, teppenyaki, Korean barbecue and tempura meals as well as a traditional Japanese dinner (where I swapped the sushi course with my appreciative neighbour at the table).

My Shabu Shabu meal

My Shabu Shabu meal

One potential difficulty was in Yokohama, a port city renowned for its fish markets and seafood restaurants. In this case, my host’s secretary was charged with the mission of finding a restaurant to suit requirements. An internet search helped her select a new establishment run by a Japanese chef who had trained in France. He was developing – experimenting shall we say – his own dishes in a renovated traditional Japanese home with a beautiful Japanese garden. The whole enterprise was located opposite a famous Buddhist temple in Yokohama. Not content with an internet evaluation only, the secretary paid a site visit to the French-Japan fusion restaurant to go through the menu with the chef to ensure each course – there must have been a dozen – would be appropriate. It was amazing. Shades of Iron Chef. The only little issue was that the seaweed dish was rather slippery and difficult to consume as it slid off chopsticks or fork. Transferring it with the fork to the finger-sized slices of de-crusted homemade bread on the side plate was a winning combination. Verdict. Delicious. Like everything else I’ve had here.

the trains

ticket

Shinkansen ticket Tokyo to Sendai

I’m in absolute awe of the rail system in Japan. So many trains. So many directions, speeds, options. So much order in commuting chaos. Long distances. Short distances. It doesn’t matter. The trains don’t just run on time every time, they also stop at exactly the same spot each time. The carriage doors line up with platform queues formed along painted lines assigned to each train carriage. Incredible. You can arrive 10 min before your train does, and make your way to exactly where your carriage will be. None of this frantic lugging of suitcases around from one end of the platform to the other trying to find your carriage and seat. And then there’s the astonishment that comes with the realisation that it doesn’t matter which way up or around the train ticket is inserted into the electronic access reader at the gate, it is still read and stamped and spat out within a millisecond in the correct orientation on the other side of the gate. Thanks Helen_E_MC for pointing out that lovely gem. (caveat – bending the ticket will cause conniptions). The electronic screens inside the carriages on suburban Tokyo trains report and update in real time the number of minutes to reach each of the remaining stations on the journey. In Japanese and English. When the Shinkansen glides into the terminus, and before it glides out again on the return journey, all the seats in all the carriages perform a slow pirouette in unison to face the new direction of travel. What’s not to love about that?

timer

Pot of tea and 3-min timer

the little things

There are so many little things that simply delight. The 3-min timers that accompany teapots to the table at cafes (5-min for coffee pots). Baskets provided at restaurant tables to stow luggage, such as my ratty old backpack which has – let’s be honest – seen better days. The backpack in its basket was often also covered with a large brightly coloured cloth. I was assured this was to protect it from spills and splatters but I suspect it was more likely to protect other patrons from the unpleasant sight underneath. Tiny little kettles in the tiny little hotel rooms, for tea-making (my current hotel has a tiny little induction heater built into the desk for the tiny little kettle). Warm towels handed out ceremoniously before a meal. Beautiful ceramics used to serve food. Self-heating lunchtime bento boxes. The way serving staff accept payment and provide change using both hands. And the ubiquitous vending machines, serving everything from Pocari Sweat to Creamy Blendy. The obsessive replacement of shoes with slippers upon entering not just houses and restaurants and hotel rooms, but also some experimental labs – mass spec, NMR, SAXS and x-ray crystallography. The thoughtful provision of shoehorns to speed up the process of reintroducing feet to shoes (note to self – wear slip-ons rather than lace ups next time in Japan). And I haven’t even mentioned the fascinating electronic toilets.

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

Tiny kettle on tiny induction heater on hotel room desk

I’ve had a wonderful visit to Japan. I’ve been treated like royalty, by everyone everywhere. Although this isn’t my first visit to Japan by any means – I’ve been here on conferences and synchrotron trips on a number of occasions – it’s the first time I’ve had the opportunity to really enjoy and travel around this wonderful country. I hope it won’t be the last.

thank you Gough

I didn’t expect the death of former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam to affect me so deeply. Perhaps I was already feeling fragile after the passing of my father, and then my father-in-law, in the past few weeks. But they were both family. Whitlam was not. And he was, after all, 98 years old. It’s not like his life was cut short; this was no tragic, untimely end.

Maybe it’s because he led Australia during a time when I first became aware of politics. But I think probably the reason I am so saddened by his passing is because his reform agenda impacted on me directly; it literally changed the course of my life. Elected in the early 1970s after decades “in the wilderness”, Whitlam’s Labor Government had a whirlwind three years in power, pushing through reforms that shaped our nation: universal health care, abolition of conscription – including releasing draft dodgers from prison – lowering the voting age to 18, implementing the racial discrimination act, no-fault divorce, the Family Law court, free tertiary education, paid maternity leave for women in the public service, and connecting outer urban areas to the sewerage system. He also established a Department of Aboriginal Affairs, and appointed the first Prime Ministerial adviser on women.

Screen Shot 2014-11-09 at 9.46.25 am

As David Berthold noted on twitter “Gough Whitlam, appropriately, was Australia’s 21st Prime Minister: he was our coming of age.”

 

“Only those born bereft truly know the power of opportunity” Aboriginal lawyer Noel Pearson said at Whitlam’s memorial service in Sydney this week. Maybe not bereft, I was certainly born poor, and I truly know the power that Whitlam’s vision gave me. It gave me access to an education. The family I was born into had never had anyone attend university. Indeed, neither of my parents finished high school. Tertiary education was beyond reach until Whitlam’s reforms. Born at just the right time to benefit, I took the opportunity and ran with it. I aced the Pharmacy degree in Melbourne, winning many undergraduate prizes, and that set me up for a Masters research degree in Melbourne, and then a DPhil at Oxford and a postdoctoral position at Rockefeller University in New York. My scientific research career has taken me around the world. As I write this post I am in a hotel in Tokyo, on a 2-week visit to build connections with Japanese researchers. Whitlam’s education legacy gave me the springboard to build a career and then to have a voice in my field of molecular research and in science gender equity policy in Australia.

What would my life have been without the opportunity the Whitlam Government gave me? I cannot imagine. I dare not imagine.

Whitlam’s “It’s Time” policy platform had three overarching objectives that still ring true today:

  1. to promote equality
  2. to involve the peoples of Australia in decision-making processes
  3. to liberate the talents and uplift the horizons of the Australian people

Thank you Gough for your vision of a fairer Australia. Thank you for giving me and millions of others equality and opportunity. Thank you for liberating my talents and uplifting my horizons.

I cherish your values. I celebrate your life. I mourn your passing.

for dad

If you’d known dad only in the past few years, you’d think of him as a frail and sometimes grumpy old man. But let’s wind the clock back more than 50 years to when I first knew him. In looks, dad was tall [1], dark and handsome. In manner, he was the strong and silent type.

1960s: kids, cat and home. Photo credit: Judy Martin

1960s: kids, cat and home.
Photo credit: Judy Martin

Mum says that when they first met in the 1950s, he would visit her at the nurse’s lounge and stay for over two hours. If he said more than two words in that time it counted as lively conversation. It’s a good thing that mum easily does the talking for two, otherwise none of the next generation of Martins would be around today. But things did progress; the family eventually included Tony (stepson), Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter, Jan, Cally and Gerard.

Dad was born to a very poor family, and left school aged 14. It was 1944, towards the end of WWII. He took a job in a paper bag factory in Melbourne and later worked as a courier for an engineer, an odd-job man at a guest house – milking cows, catching rabbits, and doing the gardening – and finally landed his dream job driving trucks and buses. By the time he was 18 he was driving trucks interstate – delivering beer from Adelaide in SA into NSW and QLD. Some 10 years later he drove the bus connection from Sale to Bairnsdale in Victoria, delivered logs from Bullumwaal near Bairnsdale and then returned to interstate trucking.

To me, dad’s occupation as a long-distance truckie – or cartage contractor as he liked to refer to it – really suited his character. It gave him time on his own to think and contemplate. What’s more, he could spend the long days driving his White “Road Boss” semi-trailer through the beautiful Australian countryside he loved so much. At the same time though, traveling around Australia meant he was away from home. He was often torn between work and home, because he would be gone for more than a week at a time. On some occasions, leaving home for a long trip was a huge effort. Mum remembers he would find excuse after excuse to get out of the truck and come back into the house for something he’d forgotten, finally admitting “I really just want to stay here”. I think that’s why his favourite song, the song he expressly asked to be played at his funeral, was John Denver’s “Back Home Again”.

The White "Road Boss" Photo credit: Jack Martin

The White “Road Boss”
Photo credit: Jack Martin

I worried about dad being on his own so much. For one birthday in the early 1980s I gave him a soft toy wombat to keep him company on the road, and to remind him that his family was thinking of him. That wombat travelled everywhere with dad, and stayed with him long after he stopped driving trucks in the mid 1990s. It went with him into aged care two years ago, and literally followed him to the grave.

For someone whose formal schooling was so brief, dad had a remarkable intellect. He read widely, could do complex maths in his head or on paper and he had the most beautiful copperplate handwriting. He loved puzzles, cryptic crosswords, and jigsaws and when we were young there were loads of board games too. Dad also had a photographic memory for the country roads of eastern Australia – he knew them like the back of his hand. In the early 1990s when I first moved to Queensland, I planned to drive on my own from Brisbane to Melbourne one Christmas, a journey of 1600 km (1000 miles). However, I got stuck halfway down with floodwaters in New South Wales. I called dad from a payphone. Yes, this was a long time ago. There were no mobiles. No GPS. No Google Maps. But I didn’t need them – I had dad – and when I explained my situation, dad knew exactly where I was. He gave me detailed instructions on which roads to take to avoid the floodwaters so that I arrived home safe, dry and on-time.

Dad also visited me in Brisbane on several occasions over the years, usually when I was in some sort of a pickle. Once or twice that meant helping me pick up the pieces of a broken heart. The last time though was the very happy occasion when Michael and I were married, in 2005. Dad stayed on for a week after the wedding to take on cat-sitting duties while we went away on honeymoon. At the time, dad was 75. Thinking about it now, I can’t imagine many other 75 year olds taking on that task – traveling interstate, and looking after two spoiled cats for a week – yet it seemed so natural to ask dad because he knew Brisbane so well and he loved animals. He did it with pleasure, and took the opportunity to call on some old mates from his trucking days who lived in south-east Queensland. He didn’t meet up with all of them though, because like many country folk of his era, he didn’t let them know he was in town, he just turned up unannounced.

A country boy at heart, when we lived in suburban Dandenong dad would take us on Sunday drives in the old Rambler Matador station wagon up to the nearby hills, or to south Gippsland or the Mornington Peninsula. On summer holidays, he’d drive us to Lake Tyers in East Gippsland where his mum had a holiday house. The kids would run along the shady wooded path down the hill to the white hot sandy beach, with the noise of the pounding waves providing the soundtrack, and dad would get the fishing rod out for a spot of surf-fishing.

The kitchen was always the centre of the home in our house. Dad was an excellent cook, specialising in comfort foods. Although he had trouble expressing his feelings in words, he had no trouble showing his love for us through food.

  • On a cold winter’s morning we’d often wake up to dad cooking porridge on the stove;
  • He made a mean lasagne, and the best pea and ham soup ever;
  • There was egg and bacon pie, sausage rolls and meat&veg pasties – all favourites of the family to this day;
  • Many, many sweets: orange cake, raspberry coconut slice, hedgehog;
  • And batches and batches of scones that would go as quickly as they came out of the oven.

Since the late 1990s, dad lived alone on acreage in countryside about 50 km south east of Melbourne. He surrounded himself with animals – dogs and cats, as well as horses on agistment – and his garden; vegies and herbs, Australian natives, rhododendrons, proteas. He loved the animals, the garden, the space, the peace and quiet, the solitude. Despite urgings for over a decade from family members that he move closer to family, he refused to leave his paradise.

His own paradise Photo credit: Cally Martin

His own paradise
Photo credit: Cally Martin

Like his mum before him, dad was keen on astrology. His star sign was Gemini, the twins, characterised by a dual nature. Whether you believe in astrology or not, dad certainly had two sides to his character. On the one side he could be stubborn, uncommunicative, quick-tempered, unkind. On the other, he could be gentle, helpful, caring, supportive. No doubt some of this duality was a consequence of depression, which he struggled with for decades. More recently, he battled dementia. This meant short-term memory loss. Dad couldn’t remember things that had just happened. His older memories though were vividly intact. On a trip to the Dandenongs two years ago, just after he moved into permanent care, we drove through The Basin where he had spent time as a boy and young man. Dad pointed out the street and the house where he used to live, he remembered where he was standing when he saw bushfires coming down the mountain towards the town and he described the dance hall at the top of the hill.

Dementia didn’t touch his trademark understated dry humour either. Soon after the diagnosis, his GP asked dad a series of questions to assess his memory. To questions like “What day is it?”, “Who is the prime minister?”, “How old are you?”, dad gave a straight answer – but when the GP asked “What state do you live in?” he simply replied “A state of confusion”.

One of the saddest things about dad moving into care was the institutionalised food. But he found a simple way around this problem. He left. Late on Christmas Eve 2013 he disappeared from the nursing home. When the police brought him back 4 hours later he had travelled several kms, had no money with him, but was carrying two grocery bags filled with cold cans of coca cola. I happened to be there when the police returned with him. Worried sick for his safety, I said that he really shouldn’t go for walks without telling anyone because he didn’t know how to get home again. “Yes”, he said pulling his sleeve up with a wry smile on his face “Perhaps we could get tattooed here “Inmate of ……”.”

Early this year, he was moved to high care, and even there he would attempt to follow visitors out as they were exiting. When the staff caught up with him he would say “I’m just going out for fish and chips” or “I just wanted a meat pie”. Realising that discretion is the better part of valour, the good staff ordered food in especially for dad, and we brought him the food and drinks he liked too, which made a big difference to his comfort. In this respect, we completed the circle, showing him our love by providing food he most enjoyed.

On Friday last week, dad was admitted to hospital with acute pulmonary oedema resulting from chronic kidney failure. Most people on their deathbed being fitted with an oxygen mask and told “You might die without it” would accept the advice obediently. But not dad. He refused, saying “I might die with it too”. He was moved to palliative care for the last few hours of his life. I arrived from Brisbane late on Friday evening to join most of his family who had been at his bedside all day. He was unconscious when I got there, and passed away barely an hour afterwards.

Dad died as he lived. His own man. Uncompromising. Doing things his way. Sorting through some of his possessions this week, I came across a stamp he had used for many years to mark cheques “Not Negotiable”. In some ways, that phrase described the way he lived his life too. Perhaps the most succinct description of dad came from a staff member who looked after him at the nursing home: “He was a nice guy. A bit of a shit at times, but a really nice guy. And he will be missed.” Yet there was more to him than that too.

He was a complex man. The most precious things to him were family, home, kids, animals, his footy team (Essendon) and nature. He battled demons we cannot know about. He was father to a brood of strong, and strong-minded, women and men. He was fiercely proud of and loved every one of them.

Reading a paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Reading the paper; cat on lap. Photo credit: Cathy Martin

Now that he is gone, this man I once thought invincible, I will think of him through simple things that we both enjoyed: a quiet cup of tea, a native flower, a cat on my lap. I will miss those enormous, all-encompassing bear hugs with the sloppy kiss on the cheek when he said goodbye. I will treasure the times I spent with him recently – too few – helping him when he couldn’t help himself. And I will remember dad the way he was when I first knew him. Tall, dark and handsome. The strong and silent type.

 

MARTIN — Allan John “Jack”

18.6.1930 – 27.9.2014

Passed away peacefully.

Will be sadly missed by his family Judy, Tony, Ian, Steven, Jenny, Cathy, Geoff, Peter (dec.), Jan, Cally, Gerard (dec.), and their families.

Now at Peace.

 

This post was prepared in part from text used in the eulogy (Cally Martin) and tribute (Jenny Martin) given at the funeral of Allan John “Jack” Martin held on Thursday 2 Oct 2014 at Wilson Chapel, Springvale Cemetery, Victoria.

[1] Well, OK, maybe not that tall, but then I’m pretty short