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My experience with sexism on the academic job market

27 Jul

Earlier this summer I spent a day at Stanford to be on a committee for a PhD defense. As I grabbed a coffee before driving to Stanford I ran in to one of my SF State colleagues. He was surprised and impressed that I was “allowed” to be on a committee at Stanford.

I work at SF State, a Master-granting institution. This means that we don’t have PhD students and most labs have no postdocs. At SF State, we quickly learn that we are not playing in the same league as our colleagues at PhD-granting institutions. I do biomedical research, but my department of 42 professors hadn’t had an R01 grant for years, in part because we’re advised to not apply for them (I did get one in 2017, in part because I had missed the memo about not applying for them). We are not allowed to apply for HHMI funding because, according to HHMI, our institution is not research-intensive enough. And I don’t think SF State Biology has ever had a McArthur Genius award or a Sloan fellowship. We also have a higher teaching load than most faculty in PhD-granting institutions, which makes it harder for us to write grants and do research.

So, when I am “allowed” to be on a committee at Stanford and rub arms with some of the smartest and most influential population geneticists of our time, it feels good! It reminds me that, even though I work at SF State, I am in their league. And it is not just a committee at Stanford, I often get invited to interesting places. I have been invited for talks at ESEB, SMBE, ASM, Biology of Genomes, a Gordon Research Conference, and PopGroup 2019 in Oxford (UK). In 2018 I am flying to Europe for three different invited seminars. These invitations remind me that I am respected in my field. But the invitations also remind me that I don’t work at these places. When I hang out with colleagues at these trips, they are almost always at institutions where they get better salaries, more research support, and fewer teaching duties [at least in the US. Things are sometimes quite different in Europe]. The obvious question therefore arises: How did I end up at SF State?

How I ended up at SF State University

Now, before I talk about how I ended up at SF State, let me make one thing very clear: since I have been here, I’ve learned that SF State is a great place and a great place for me. I love working there, I have amazing colleagues and students and we do important research. I have thriving collaborations within my department, but also with Chemistry/Biochemistry and Computer Science. The quality of teaching is higher than I have seen anywhere else. For these reasons, I love my work. But those reasons are not why I went to SF State.

I took the job at SF State because I had no other way to stay in academia, since no other department was willing to hire me. Stanford, Berkeley, UC Merced, UCSD and about 50 other schools did not invite me for an interview. The University of Arizona, NYU, UC Irvine, the University of Vienna and a few others did invite me for interviews, but they didn’t offer me a job.

Why did I not get a job at a PhD-granting institution?

It is not immediately clear why it was so hard for me to get an academic job. I had 18 papers on my CV in the last job season in which I applied for jobs. Papers in journals like PLOS Genetics, Genetics, MBE and American Naturalist. A few of these papers were very influential in my field (if you are in population genetics or evolutionary genomics, you have probably heard of soft sweeps – this term was coined by my PhD advisor and myself in 2005). Together, the papers from my PhD are now cited more than 1000 times, which is a lot for theoretical population genetics papers. That success early in my career should have made it possible for me to land a job at a PhD-granting university. I also think that I interviewed quite well, at least the last year I was on the market. After my interview at the University of Arizona (a visit that I enjoyed a lot!), one of the people on the committee wrote in an email: “I have to say, in my opinion, you gave one of the best chalk talks I’ve seen.”

So, I don’t think that my publication record or my interviewing skills explain my struggles on the job market. Here are my alternative hypotheses:

  1. My work is too interdisciplinary.
  2. I have a foreign PhD.
  3. I am a woman and implicit bias makes it harder for women to get jobs.

Why do I think that my gender played a role? Well, first of all because of well-known biases in academia as shown by a large body of published work. For example, Knobloch-Westerwick  showed in an experiment that abstracts are rated higher when authored by men (Knobloch-Westerwick, Glynn and Huge, 2013). Moss-Racusin showed in an experiment that faculty judge a male candidate for a lab tech position to be higher quality than the identical female candidate (Moss-Racusin et al., 2012). And Van der Lee showed that women score lower on “quality of researcher” for research grants in The Netherlands, but not “quality of proposal” (van der Lee and Ellemers, 2015). These biases probably exist search committees too.

Secondly, I got insight in the opinions of a committee that was judging one of my job applications, and what they wrote wasn’t pretty. Written reviews for job candidates are uncommon in the US, but one of the jobs I applied for in Europe had a stage where outside reviewers looked at my file and wrote an opinion about me. Three of the reviewers were very positive, but two of them were quite negative. Here are some quotes. Judge for yourself.

A rare look behind the scenes of a committee of reviewers

One reviewer says I am vocal but know nothing about evolution

Reviewer A: “The candidate is an avid organizer (see CV) and can be quite vocal (see the article in PLoS). However, she is not ready for a science leader position.”

This comment suggests that being an avid organizer cannot go together with being a good scientist. Then it says that I am “vocal” in my PLOS Computational Biology paper (2012). Now, I think you’ll agree with me that this is a strange comment about a technical paper in a technical journal. The reviewer may not think it is a good paper, that’s their right, but publishing my results about standing genetic variation and effective population sizes in HIV in a journal like PLOS Computational Biology is what computational biologists do. It is hardly “vocal”.

The reviewer continues: “I feel she needs to acquire more experience in general evolution theory, virus evolution theory, applications to HIV and other important systems, and understand basic principles of data interpretation and parameter handling”

So, this reviewer may think I don’t know theory or data-analysis, but by that time, I had published 16 peer-reviewed papers, 4 of them on new evolutionary theory (soft sweeps and sympatric speciation) and the rest on different experimental systems which all relied on data collection and data interpretation.

Another reviewer suggests I was simply too “light”

Reviewer B: “I do not think that the applicant has shown the ability to build an independent research group at this stage of her career. I hope she will not find my comments too harsh. These are in no way a critique of her abilities but rather the reflection of the fact that her achievements and her project are too light for this position.”

This reviewer thinks I am not ready for a junior group leader position. It is not so clear why he/she thinks this. I had published extensively and my work had appeared in textbooks. I had also successfully applied for research money alone and with others. I had started and run a successful company, coordinated a Master’s program and produced a series of prize-winning videos about evolutionary research. How on earth was I too “light” to run a junior research group?

This reviewer also doubts whether my achievements are actually my achievements.

Reviewer B: “It is difficult to know whether the number of citations the articles from the applicant has attracted is due to her or to her supervisor (in fact, she is not the lead author on her most cited paper, which accounts for 150 citations of over 350). So far, approximately 80% of the citations she has attracted are on articles with her supervisor.”

Well, that’s how academia works. We learn by working with advisors and I have had amazing advisors! It is worth noting here that the paper that got all the citations (Hermisson and Pennings, 2005), is also Joachim Hermisson’s most cited paper.

The same reviewer suggests that my peer-reviewed work in PLoS Computational Biology is scientifically incorrect. 

Reviewer B: “The main aspect that struck me while reading this article is that none of the mathematics are shown in the article (everything is in the online supplementary materials). (…) It makes it very difficult for the reader to assess the solidity of the methods and usually implies that the article rests upon the author’s capacity as a writer rather than the scientific correctness.”

Nowadays, in most biology journals it is quite standard to put most or all math in the supplementary materials. There is nothing special about the lack of math in this paper. Plus, if they were worried about the correctness of the math, they could have just read the supplementary materials, instead of implying that the science is wrong.

When asked about whether the job environment would be good for me, the first reviewer concludes:

Reviewer A: “I have no information regarding environment, but Dr Pennings hardly needs more stimulation. She needs restraint”

I am not even sure what to say about this comment. She needs restraint?!? [I think I need to have that printed on a t-shirt.] I cannot prove it, of course, but I don’t think a man with the same CV would have been judged like this.


My academic job search was extremely frustrating. After a very successful PhD, an HFSP grant to go to Harvard and Stanford, and several papers from my postdoc time, I expected to be able to land a job as an evolutionary biologist at a PhD-granting institution. That wasn’t the case and I think that sexism played a role.

When you want a job in academia, you need to convince a committee, or sometimes an entire department, that you are the right candidate. One or two people on a committee can sow doubt about a candidate. For at least one of my job applications, two reviewers sowed doubt about me. Among other things, they argued that I was (1) “vocal” and (2) “too light” for the position. They also argued (3) that my papers were not really my achievement. These arguments would unlikely be made about a man. The result was that despite very clear quantifiable achievements (papers, citations and funding), their reviews made it sound like I was a newbie who had no idea what I was doing.

Now it is 4 years later. I am happy at SF State. I am still a successful researcher: I am publishing, bringing in grant money, and I get invited for talks. I love it when I get invited to talk about my research at a conference or when I get to sit on a PhD committee at Stanford, but these invitations also remind me of the times where these very same places didn’t invite me for job interviews. And it reminds me of what these lost job opportunities cost me every day in terms of salary and in terms of lost opportunity (HHMI, if you are reading, I would love the opportunity to apply for a grant with you!).

Of course, I acknowledge that I am privileged and my struggles are small compared to what others face. I am white, straight, married, and I never lived in poverty. So many of my colleagues and my students have to fight even harder because they are Black or Latinx or gay or poor or undocumented or a combination of those.

The silver lining of this story is that thanks to certain doors being closed to me, I ended up in an amazing department that has made opening doors for marginalized people almost its core business. Next to my research, I am now in the business of opening the doors of Computer Science to women and minority students. I am picking up a lot of “door-opening” expertise from Drs Letitia Marquez-Magaña, Kimberly Tanner, Blake Riggs, Diana Chu and others. I will try to take that expertise with me on my trips to conferences and departmental seminars and to contribute to some doors being opened at PhD-granting institutions.

PS: I want to thank the soccer player Abby Wambach for making me see the situation more clearly. Worth watching:

Thanks to Diana Chu and Rori Rohlfs for comments on an earlier version of this post.


New paper in PLOS Genetics. CpG sites are costly for HIV

28 Jun

We are publishing a new paper today in PLOS Genetics!

Title: Within-patient mutation frequencies reveal fitness costs of CpG dinucleotides and drastic amino acid changes in HIV.

“We” here means 6 coauthors of 5 different nationalities (which shows why travel bans are bad for science)! This is the first published result of our collaboration with Adi Stern in Tel Aviv.

Screenshot 2018-06-28 08.51.05


Result 1: CpG sites are costly for HIV.

The most surprising result of our paper (to me at least) is that mutations that create CpG sites are significantly more costly than mutations that do not create CpG sites. We know that they are more costly because they segregate at lower frequencies. Clearly, CpG sites are not good for HIV!

In this figure (which shows synonymous mutations only) you can see that the light blue dots are at lower frequencies than the green dots – each blue dot is the frequency of a synonymous mutation that creates a CpG site and each green dot is the frequency of a synonymous mutation that does not.

Screenshot 2018-06-28 08.59.05

Why are CpGs bad for HIV? This paper suggests that CpG sites are recognized by our immune system because Zinc-finger Antiviral Protein “binds directly and selectively to RNA sequences containing CG dinucleotides”.

Result 2: It works!

A more technical result is that we show that we can actually use within-patient mutation frequencies to estimate fitness costs of mutations. This means that we can study costs as they occur *now* (as opposed to phylogenetic approaches) and *in vivo* (as opposed to cell-culture based approaches).

This figure shows the single-site frequency spectra for three sites. Mutation frequencies are observed in 160 different patients. The second row shows simulated mutation frequencies using inferred cost estimates from the data. They look very similar to the real site frequency spectra!


Here we show that average in vivo mutation frequencies are lowest for nonsense mutations (black), higher for non-synonymous mutations (pink) and highest for synonymous mutations (yellow). This is exactly what mutation-selection equilibrium predicts.

Screenshot 2018-06-28 08.58.48


Using index cards to get feedback from all students

10 Apr

I do my best to find out what students are thinking and learning in my class. I use iClicker questions every period, I ask students to share ideas with the class, and I am always open for questions. Still, in most classes, I don’t hear from most of my students (I have about 55 students present in each section on a given day).

One solution I love to use is to let them write anonymous feedback on an index card at the end of class. Yesterday my prompt was: “Tell me one thing you learned today and one thing you are confused about.” I receive about 100 index cards (over 2 sections) – which takes about 10 minutes to read. It turned out that many (many!) of my students are confused about SNPs, markers, loci and genes and they are confused about how to read Manhattan plots. So good to know! I’ll spend the first 10 min of class tomorrow on these topics! So happy I found out now, and not next week at the midterm exam!


Summer opportunities for undergraduate students at SFSU

3 Jan

REU programs (paid research for undergrads during the summer)

The National Science Foundation funds a large number of research opportunities for undergraduate students through its REU Sites program. An REU Site consists of a group of around ten undergraduates who work in the research programs of the host institution. The programs usually provide travel money, room and board and some stipend. There is also an REU program at SFSU, but most spots in this program go to non-SFSU students.

The deadlines for these summer programs are early February to early March.

MARC program / SEO office fellowships (paid research for undergrads during the summer and academic year)

Science students at SFSU can apply for fellowships through the SEO office. The MARC fellowship description says:
“Purpose: To prepare students from underrepresented groups (African-American, Native American, Hispanic American and Pacific Islanders) and students with disabilities for biomedical careers by providing academic support and a stimulating research experience. The goal of the program is to prepare each participant for entrance into a competitive graduate program and successful completion of a PhD in the biomedical or physical sciences.”

A MARC fellowship provides mentoring, research experience and financial support ($12,588/year and partial tuition for the junior and senior years). If you are unsure if you are eligible, consider applying nevertheless!

Deadline: March 16th!

PINC summer program (not paid, coding and research)

The exact form of the 2018 PINC summer program is not yet clear. In 2017, 15 undergraduate students were part of the program, and together with 4 graduate students, they learned coding skills in R or python, they read research papers and they performed a small research project. The students spent 8 hours per week on the program for 9 weeks. In terms of coding skills, some students were absolute beginners, whereas others had taken a CS class before.

We will open op the program for applications in April of 2018.

Research (mostly volunteer, possibly for credit / paid)

If you are interested in getting research experience during the summer, you can see if any professor is looking for students to join their lab in the summer. Start with the professors you know or whose research you are particularly interested in. Some professors post opportunities on posters in the hallways of Hensill Hall, but many don’t and so you will just need to go and ask – by email or in person during their office hours. Almost everyone on this list does research and gets help from volunteer undergraduate students. Some students get credit for doing research (fairly common) and some get paid (not so common, but not impossible).

In the biology newsletter that you get by email every week, there are often opportunities posted, for example from labs at UCSF. If you are looking for a volunteer or paid research opportunity, make sure you read the newsletter!

Letters of recommendation

Many times you need a letter of recommendation from a professor when you apply for a fellowship or other opportunity. For us, professors, writing such letters is part of our job. Some professors only write letters for students they know well (for example, because they come to office hours often or because they volunteer in the lab of the professor). Other professors are happy to write a letter for anyone who has taken their class (that’s me!). Either way, don’t be afraid to ask! The worst that can happen is that they say no.
If a professor has agreed to write a letter for you, make sure that you email them all the materials that you also use to apply to the opportunity (e.g., unofficial transcript, essay, resume). Having those materials at hand makes it much easier for us to write a good letter! Plus, if you send them early enough, you may get some useful feedback. Once a professor has written one letter for you, they are usually happy to send that letter to as many programs as necessary. So if you want to apply to 20 different REU sites, go ahead! Our letter can go to all of these places, and really, we don’t mind. It’s our job.


Students in the 2017 PINC summer program.

New plans and new HIV stories

3 Jan

I love making plans and I love the beginning of the new year and the new semester. I actually think that the yearly rhythm of semesters and breaks is a huge benefit of being in academia.

Today I spent some time thinking about the writing I plan to do in the coming semester and the talks I will be giving in the near future. The first talk that’s coming up is an invited talk at Stanford. I am very honored to be an invited speaker at the CEHG symposium alongside Anne Stone (ASU) and Graham Coop (UC Davis). I want to try and use the opportunity of the talk to think about what stories I want to tell and I plan to write the story up for publication in addition to talking about it at Stanford.

So what are the stories I want to tell? There are many! But here are some thoughts:

“The evolution of HIV evolution.”

Recently I’ve given seminars in which the overarching storyline was “The evolution of HIV evolution.” I focused on the evolution of drug resistance within patients and explained how drug resistance evolution used to be very fast, but became slower over time. When people were treated with a single drug (AZT) in the late 80s and early 90s, the virus would evolve drug resistance very quickly and the treatment would quickly become useless. Freddy Mercury probably died because of a very fast evolving virus. Over time, treatments improved (using combinations of drugs and using better drugs) such that it became harder for the virus to evolve and nowadays, drug resistance evolution is so slow in patients on treatment, that it is no longer a big worry, and people can stay on the same drugs for many years.

Screen Shot 2018-01-03 at 12.45.01 PM

A slide from a talk I gave at SMBE and ESEB in the summer of 2017.

“HIV does it all”

Here is another storyline. Any field in science needs some systems that are looked at in detail. In evolutionary genetics, these systems are fruitflies, yeast, humans, mice etc. HIV is a great system as well in part because we know so much about it and data is abundant. One of the things we have learned in recent years, thanks to work by people like Richard Neher and Kathryna Lythgoe, is that HIV evolution can surprise us again and again. For example, HIV evolution, even in absence of drugs, can be fast within patients and slow at the epidemic level. It can be happening with a lot of recombination, or showing clonal interference (unpublished, Kadie-Ann Williams and PSP), and sweeps can be hard or soft. Within host populations can be panmictic or structured. So if everything can happen, how can we make sense of this all?

“Drugs to prevent HIV”

I like the story of how drugs were and are used to prevent HIV infection. In the 90s and well into the 2000s, drugs were used to prevent mother-to-child-transmission of the virus during child birth. In fact, this was one of the big successes in the world of HIV before treatment was really working to keep infected people alive. Nowadays, drugs are available for HIV-negative people who are at increased risk of HIV infection. Pre-exposure-prophylaxis (Prep, marketed as Truvada) is probably contributing to the shrinking of the HIV epidemic in San Francisco as many of the HIV-negative gay men in the city are taking Prep. When drugs were used to save babies, they were uncontroversial, but when they are used to save gay men, they continue to be controversial and there are many places where Prep is not available (for example, in my home country, The Netherlands).

How is this story linked to evolutionary genetics? When someone is taking drugs to prevent HIV, but they end up getting infected anyways, there may be a high risk of drug resistance evolution (this happened in the babies, in their already infected mothers, and it is happening occasionally in Prep users). Also, at an epidemic level, if a large part of the population is on Prep, this may lead to sub-epidemics of drug-resistant viral strains. There is some interesting modeling work by Sally Blower on these questions.


OK, that’s enough brainstorming for today. I’ll develop one of these stories into a presentation for CEHG and for an article to be published somewhere. If you have any questions or suggestions, let me know!



I support the NFL players who kneel for the anthem

26 Sep


Read this essay by Eric Reid in the New York Times.

The links between eugenics and rescinding DACA

7 Sep

This week Trump and Sessions announced that they will end DACA, a program under which certain young immigrants who came to the US as minors and who went to school in the US, can study and work.

The announcement that DACA is rescinded is extremely worrying news for 800,000 people who benefit from DACA plus their families, their friends, their colleagues, and many other people. If we were to lose those 800,000 people, it would be a human tragedy and a great loss for the country.

It should come as no surprise that Trump is doing this, because it fits with his racist ideas and policies.

You may not realize though (and I didn’t realize until recently) that the United States has a long history of using immigration policies to try to keep the country white. So what Trump is doing is not new. And whereas nowadays, California seems to be one of the states that are treating their immigrants better than other states, California was once a hotbed of racist genetics. For example, David Starr Jordan, who was the first president of Stanford University, worked to keep people of color out of the country. Wikipedia writes:

“Jordan promoted the concept of improving human genetics, through removal from the breeding pool of those deemed unworthy to reproduce,[17] in his series of publications titled The Blood of the Nation. He then chaired the first Committee on Eugenics of the American Breeder’s Association, from which the California program of forced deportation and sterilization emerged.[18] Jordan then went on to help found the Human Betterment Foundation as a trustee. The Human Betterment Foundation published “Sterilization for Human Betterment,” a text which formed a cornerstone of the Nazi eugenics program.”

The eugenics movement was strong in the US before it was adopted by Nazi Germany.

Here is a short video from The Rachel Maddow Show about the links between Eugenics and rescinding DACA.