Climathon 2019 in Heidelberg

This year, I’m co-organizing a Climathon in Heidelberg. Climathon is a global movement dedicated to solving local climate challenges and supported by the European Institute of Innovation & Technology. On October 25th, 2019, there will be 24-hour climate hackathons held all over the world in which developers, engineers, scientists, and innovators will gather together to tackle local climate challenges.

Climathon 2018 map

In preparation to a Climathon, cities identify their climate challenges. The main idea is that realistic and effective solutions developed by the Climathon participants are later implemented by the local partner organizations. Here are some success stories:

  • London: mobile air pollution sensor enabling better coverage over the city area (link)
  • Washington: picking up durable goods (e.g. furniture) and reselling for lower price (link)
  • Zurich:  an app for offering unwanted food to your neighbours (link)
  • Cork: a transport app that awards citizens discounts in local stores based on the carbon savings they make (link)
  • Manchester: sustainable drainage systems and community parkland architectural planning (link)

To set up climate challenges, we are currently communicating with local organizations including the Heidelberg Office of Environmental Protection, Trade Supervision and Energy, the Heidelberg Center for the Environment at the Heidelberg University, the Carbon Neutral group at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory, das Umwelt- und Prognose-Institut, Ökostadt Rhein-Neckar e. V., as well as other organizations and companies interested in the climate-related issues.

Climate challenge ideas we started discussing so far:

  • solutions for multiple-location conferences, with the goal of reducing flight CO2 emissions; run the same conference simultaneously at different locations
  • a map app for cyclists populated by the public, with the goal of making city cycling safer and more comfortable
  • modeling and prediction of car demand for the local car sharing company

I’ve already learned so much from these discussions. For example, that growing CO2 emissions in Heidelberg are mainly caused by overseas tourism. And which streets in Heidelberg are most dangerous for cyclists. And that there are repair cafés in the area. And what are the issues with the university campus traffic. And how waste separation is organized at EMBL. This list goes on and on and I’m looking forward to learning more.

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Ally skills

Last week, Malvika Sharan, Sofya Mikhaleva and Paul Gerald Sanchez invited me to co-organize a session on ally skills as a part of the Women’s Day at the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. The concept of the ally skills training was originally developed by Valerie Aurora, a former Linux kernel developer. Valerie has designed extensive and well structured materials offering guidelines for learning and teaching how to step up and use our social advantages to support others in workplaces and communities. Here is Valerie’s talk on the topic.

Let me cite some of the definitions introduced by Valerie.

Privilege: an unearned advantage given to a person or a social group. Oppression: systemic, pervasive inequality present throughout society that benefits people with more privilege and harms those with fewer privileges. Target: someone who suffers from oppression. Ally: a member of a social group who enjoys some privilege and is working to understand their own privilege and end oppression.

Each of us can be a target or an ally depending on the context. For example, in the gender bias context I’m a target, whereas in the LGBTQ or racial context I’m privileged. Valerie is teaching how to recognize oppression and consciously act as an ally.

Most of the diversity and equality initiatives are aimed at changing the behaviour of targets (e.g. special scholarships, programs and mentioning for the under-represented social groups). Valerie points out that it’s efficient to focus on changing the behaviour of privileged people. Privileged people acting as allies have more power and influence as well as more time and energy as compared to targets. Moreover, they are not penalised for “diversity-valuing behaviour” and not accused of jealousy, but are rather seen as altruistic, giving, and kind.

Following these ideas, we set up an 1 hour ally skills session. After an introduction of the basic concepts, terminology, and motivation, we did a short empathy exercise. Everyone was asked to stand up, look around and think of something nice about any 3 people in the room. Then the main part of the session started.

The participants were split into 6 groups from 4 to 6 people each. Each group received two scenarios to discuss. Here’s an example scenario:

A woman you don’t know who is using a wheelchair is near your group at a conference. She is alone and looks like she would rather be talking to people.
What would you as an ally do?

Looks easy, right? Just invite her to join! But if we think deeper about it, questions arise. Does it make a difference that it’s a wheelchair user? Does it make a difference that it’s a woman? Can we even assume that it’s a woman without knowing the person? What is the best way to invite the person to join?

Before starting the discussion, the groups were asked to select a gatekeeper responsible for interrupting people who were speaking too much and asking people who weren’t talking as much if they wanted to speak. Our goal in this session was to simulate an ideal comfortable space for discussing most difficult topics with mutual respect so that every voice was heard. We suggested the participants to pay attention to the dynamics of the conversation and be mindful about it.

It often happens that targets feel uncomfortable speaking publicly. Although it’s totally fine to be an introvert and to have no need to share, nobody can represent people’s interests better than themselves. Therefore it’s important that every person has a chance to speak and be heard when they need it.

Since we had only 1 hour for the whole session, we could afford only 15 minutes for group discussions. This definitely proved to be not enough; the recommended time for an ally workshop is at least 3 hours. After the group discussions were over, each group briefly presented their solutions and we further discussed them all together. During this last part of the session organizers were giving further recommendations and pointing out interesting patterns. For example, in a few cases the groups were assuming that a protagonist of a scenario was a man, although the scenario was introduced in a gender-neutral way.

Overall, the participants were coming up with well thought out solutions and the atmosphere was very positive and productive. We hope that this experience will motivate them to act as allies in their work environments and communities.

Academic punk

Despite common stereotypes, punk subculture has much more to offer than aggressive music, spiked mohawks, and ripped clothing. While punk covers a spectrum of social and political ideologies, one of its cornerstones is non-conformism. Punk challenges social agreements and hierarchies and reminds us that no rule is holy. Rules and agreements have been made by people, are relative, and should be revisited and revised. In this sense, punk goes back to the anarchist philosophy of the 18th and 19th centuries. A proper punk performance is supposed to be illegal and provocative.

In authoritarian countries, punk action art is often used as one of the few available forms of political protest, e.g. the Pussy riot performance at 2018 FIFA World Cup Final. In the countries with more freedom of speech, illegal guerilla art can still be a powerful form of political and social expression, e.g. punk climate activism of Extinction Rebellion or installation of Snowden’s statue.

Following the punk footsteps, my friend Alberto Bailoni and I made a performance focusing on diversity and inclusion in academia. Many of you have probably seen the staff boards hanging in the university hallways. They usually look like this, especially in STEM:

Explicitly hierarchical, mostly white men as professors and group leaders, women as secretaries. The lower you go down the academic hierarchy, the more diversity appears. We believe that the reason for this situation is, among other things, the implicit bias (read my post on this topic).

To draw attention to the issue, Alberto and I entered some of the university buildings in the night and shuffled the pictures on the staff board aiming at introducing diversity in every academic group. We also left a QR code pointing to the implicit bias studies and test. This was the result:

As far as we know, the pictures were rearranged back the next day. But we hope to have caused a few discussions on the topic.

Non-conformism in academia

I’d like to start this conversation with a 4min video of interviews with my friends.

As I was mentioning in my post on diversity of perspectives, in the western academic system scientific findings and results are valued more if they lead to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research if they want to get funding. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable. It turns science into a race, a competition rather than a collaboration.

This situation might be perfect for competitive scientists, but I hear over and over again that many others are unhappy with it, because it adds lots of stress and destructs their focus. If publications, citations, and obtained funding are the metrics to evaluate scientific achievements, then we end up with the system that trains scientists to be good at publishing and securing funding rather than at doing research relevant for our planet and society.

New metrics have been proposed such as social media outreach or number of software downloads and the discussions go on and on (cf. 1, 2, 3, 4). These discussions are important, because the metrics are necessary for foundations distributing money and for employers hiring and promoting scientists.

However, changing metrics does not change the situation. If we, scientists, mostly care about looking good with respect to the metrics, then what we ultimately care about is our career and comfort. An alternative is as simple and natural as telling the truth — do not care about metrics. Any metrics. Let us leave it to those who are evaluating us: supervisors, foundations, communities.

If we stop thinking about metrics, we get a freedom to focus on important things. On why we are doing science in the first place. Publish only when the results are in a good shape and ready to be shared and not because someone can scoop us or because funders are demanding publications. Do not care which journal we publish in. Be happy instead of jealous when learning that someone has already solved the problem we’ve been working on. Collaborate only with people we like and respect rather than aim at having a publication or a project proposal with a ‘big shot’. Write honest project proposals and spend obtained funding on achieving the project goals rather than juggle with hot topics and keywords to get money at any cost and spend it on something else. Share all our code and data instead of sitting on it.

Of course, this honesty comes at a price:

  • you might not end up at the most prestigious institution, which means less resources of any kind
  • you might have less world class colleagues to work with
  • you might have difficulties obtaining funding
  • you might never get a stable position or get it only quite late in your career

To sum up, less resources, opportunities, and stability. But in return we can do science, be true to our values and focus on things that matter. From what I’ve seen throughout my academic career, there are two options to make it happen.

The first option is to adapt to the existing environment. Refuse to play the game where everyone plays it. This is pretty much what I’ve been doing so far. Choosing a non-competitive and non-pushy supervisor who is happy with the idea of a flat hierarchy. Not conforming to any manipulations. Leaving the group when realizing that it goes in the direction I don’t want to take. Although this approach requires confidence and determination, I neither had much difficulties nor felt disadvantaged.

The second option is to find a perfect environment or to create it. This is what I would like to do now and it’s one of the reasons why I decided to join Homeward Bound. Through the program, I hope to connect to like-minded people and start meaningful projects together.

In the following months, I’ll be working on a series of interviews with non-conformist scientists to offer role models to those who’s sick of playing the game, but doesn’t see any alternatives. If you have time to chat with me about this topic, please drop me a line.

Diversity of perspectives in STEM

Last week I was talking about computer science, implicit bias, and climate change to high school students of my friend Lisa Mason, a native Hawaiian STEM educator and scientist working on the Big Island, Hawai’i.

Lisa’s goal as a teacher is to decolonize STEM in her classroom and create authentic cultural spaces for learning. Lisa wants her students to develop their sense of place in Hawai’i and to feel empowered through science. She offers them numerous extracurricular activities applying what they learn in the classroom in authentic settings, e.g., native tree planting and forest restoration, watershed maintenance, hiking, fishpond studies. Watch Lisa talking about her vision.

The purpose of my talk, similar to most of my talks on the Big Island, was to inspire students to learn computer science and consider a STEM career. The problem of the low numbers of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders going into STEM-relevant careers is well known and discussed. However, it is mostly discussed in terms of barriers preventing students from succeeding in the academic environment. I invite you to look at it from a different point of view.

In the ‘western’ science, the main focus is on acquiring knowledge, at any cost. The acquired knowledge is valued even more if it leads to technological progress and economic profit. Successful scientists are celebrated and promoted. As a consequence, the academic system forces scientists to market themselves and their research. Topics and approaches are often chosen accordingly, to be catchy and marketable.

As I learned from my Hawaiian friends and university colleagues, for most Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, their local community is in the center of their value system. Science and knowledge are important as long as they give back to the community. While ecological thinking is relatively new in the western world, it has been deeply embedded into the Hawaiian and other Pacific Islanders cultures for centuries.

Hawaiian students willing to pursue an academic career might feel strongly conflicted. The requirement to market themselves contradicts Hawaiian values. They are doing science not to become famous and make a career, but to support the community. How is it important for the community if they are writing papers and giving presentations at conferences? The western scientific paradigm forces us to detach ourselves from any cultural and personal background to be objective, which contradicts Hawaiian identity. The western academic excellence system is built in a way that does not encourage a connection to a place. To be a successful scientists means, among other things, to work at a top institution. Local colleges and universities serve as filters for more prestigious places. MIT, Harvard, Stanford, Cambridge, Berkeley — this is where everyone wants to end up. Being good at science and staying home, with a strong connection to your local community and environment, is considered to be a kind of downshifting. Watch my friend Misaki Takabayashi talking about these issues.

According to Misaki, academia currently fails to embrace true diversity, because it focuses on appearances rather than perspectives. Nowadays you can get into academia no matter your gender or skin color (of course it’s still not equally accessible to everyone), but you should leave your values and perspectives at home and adapt to the system. This is what I believe should change. Not only different approaches to knowledge, but also different values and perspectives can strongly benefit science especially with respect to making it serve our planet. Hawaiian and other indigenous values are not barriers for doing science. It’s western academia that surrounds itself with barriers.

I was trying to communicate to Lisa’s students that STEM and computer science can help them to care about their environment and communities. At the same time, their unique cultural and individual perspectives are very valuable for science and academia.

Watch my friends from around the world talking about diversity and sense of place.

My first fundraising experience

My main doubts about joining the Homeward Bound program (read my post on why I joined it) concerned fundraising. Homeward Bound is a training program for women in STEMM aimed at equipping the participants with leadership and strategic skills with the goal to make science serve our planet. The program runs for a year (and beyond) and culminates in three weeks in Antarctica. The total program value per person is $30,860. Around half of it is sponsored. Each participant has to fundraise or pay herself $17,000 to cover the Antarctica trip.

Apart from having serous doubts that I would be able to fundraise such a huge amount of money, I was struggling with the idea. Going to Antarctica is so expensive. Is it really necessary? There are two explanations of why Antarctica is a perfect location. First, Homeward Bound is strongly focusing on climate change and Antarctica is definitely the place to witness climate change happening and having a huge impact on the environment. However, there are other places severely touched by climate change that are much easier to reach, like Great Barrier Reef or Svalbard. The second reason is that being on a boat together for several weeks and experiencing Antarctica creates strong bonds between participants, which is one of the main goals of the program. Still, other experiences might be equally bonding.

My main problem with the expenses is not that it’s difficult to fundraise such an amount of money for me personally, but the fact that this requirement creates a natural filter. People who cannot afford the risk of failing fundraising do not apply. For example, a close friend of mine, a Hawaiian STEM scientist and educator, would be, in my opinion, a perfect candidate for Homeward Bound. When I learned about the program, I immediately contacted her and suggested to apply together. She was initially excited, but couldn’t afford the financial risk. Was this filter intended by the program organizers? I don’t know yet, but I’m sure there will be an opportunity to discuss it.

Nevertheless, I decided to apply. Even though I did not agree with the Antarctica part, the program looked like what I needed at this point of my life. Let me refer again to my post in which I explain my motivation. I was very lucky to get accepted. Right after I read the exciting news, I took a deep breath and started thinking about fundraising. I was not present on social media (this post explains why), no contacts with companies or organizations, my employer wouldn’t pay that much. How was I going to make it?

I remembered how I learned about Homeward Bound. We received a postcard from Antarctica after my husband Theo supported fundraising of one of the last year participants. He donated without even knowing what the program was about. I thought about how Theo and I always rushed to help our friends and colleagues whenever they were doing fundraising or needed support otherwise. I thought about many places I lived and worked in, and many friends and colleagues I was lucky to have. Of course they would support me! And maybe even convince some of their friends to do so. This way, I would easily collect at least a third of the amount. And then I’d have to look for sponsors, go to companies and so on. That would be the difficult part. This is what I was thinking.

First, I made a 30 min video of the interviews with my friends discussing the topics I was planning to focus on in the program. It took me a looong time to do it, but I’m very happy how it came out and it was definitely worth my time. Everyone told me that the video was too long for fundraising. So I prepared a 2 min promo, which was also quite time-consuming and much less fun to work on. Then I set up my fundraising page. My closest friends helped me with initial donations. I was good to go!

Early morning, I sent an email to about 100 of my friends and colleagues. All of them knew me quite well and for a long time. My husband Theo, who has about 800 Twitter followers, twitted about my fundraising champaign. And then we waited. And waited. And waited. Nothing happened that day. Nothing happened the next day. Let me spare you the details of how anxious and excited I was at first and for how many days I’ve been crying afterwards. In total, besides initial donations, I received 4 donations and one email with comments and questions. Otherwise, silence. Not even good luck wishes.

I was truly heartbroken. I just couldn’t understand why it happened this way. What was wrong with me? My ideas about relationships, trust, and support collapsed. I was having difficulties communicating with people, looking them into the eyes. I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that I was not worth even a 5 Euro donation in their world. Why? What did I do wrong?

To get over this situation, I decided to ask some of the people I sent this email to why they didn’t donate. Interestingly, everyone listed different reasons. Here are some their answers:

  • In Europe, fundraising is not generally supported, because funding should come from organizations and institutions rather than individuals.
  • My email was not personal enough.
  • Helping me over Internet felt impersonal and uncomfortable.
  • Donating too little felt useless, donating more felt uncomfortable.
  • My perks were not good enough.
  • My goals were not clear enough, it was not clear what exactly would be the outcome of my participation in the program.
  • My email was too long and unclear.
  • Asking for money to have fun in Antarctica was improper. If I was dying from a disease, they would have donated.

All these explanations sounded reasonable. It was the first time in my life I was doing fundraising. It was the first time I was asking people for support on such a large scale. Naturally, I did many things wrong, and I can imagine that my mistakes could put down those who did not know me well. But that email was addressed to my friends and colleagues! How did it matter if it was not formulated well? If my explanations were unclear, why did nobody (except for one person) asked me for clarifications? I was still confused and heartbroken.

Then I talked to a friend who is actively using social networks and messengers. She told me that I just didn’t understand how modern media space and information flow work. That I shouldn’t take it personal. That online interactions are very different from the real life. That people are currently flooded with information and messages and if one really needs something that requires an effort, one should ask and remind many times. That nowadays people prefer to do such things as donating publicly so that their friends and followers could see they have donated. To summarize, she said that my problem was not my personality or relationships, but that I didn’t use social media networking.

Hearing all of it helped my recovery. But I have to keep in mind that most of the people I was asking for support probably did not use social media that much. And that there were things I could have done better. Shorter and more personal email? More relaxed and catchy video? Clearer goal description? Explicit reminder that any donation helps?

All of it happened in November. It’s January now and I didn’t touch fundraising since then. But it’s time to revisit it. The next step will be looking for sponsors. Let’s see how that goes. But I’m positive that no matter what the outcome will be, it won’t be as bad as it already was. Hopefully there are better experiences ahead 🙂

Social media struggle

In the Homeward Bound program (see my post on why I joined it), a large part of communication happens on Facebook. Therefore the moment came for me to do something I was successfully avoiding my whole life: join social media. And now my struggle begins.

I was not considering being on social media because of the two main reasons. First, I cannot accept our society letting these tech behemoths do whatever they please with our personal information. Track any step we take, analyse it, sell it, use for manipulating our opinions etc.  It’s very likely that already in 50 years people will be shocked when learning how we have completely voluntarily exposed ourselves to these companies and gave them an incredible power over our societies and private lives. We allow Google to collect information about our location every 5 minutes. There have been massive leaks and misuse of Facebook user data, but we keep using it.

When I discuss this topic with my friends, I often get the same response: “My personal life is not that interesting, even if someone steels my data it won’t be so bad”. However, it’s not a breach of my privacy I’m worried about. I’m worried about how the data is used. Based on what we put online, the companies decide what information to show to us and what to hide and massively influence our opinions, views, connections, and behaviour. Although statements that customization on social media and search engines creates a filter bubble and polarizes the society are to be taken with care, there exist multiple evidence of social media being employed for political manipulations, including the recent Facebook data scandal. Even if you are on social media only to connect to your closest friends and family, think about your neighbours that might use it as a primary source of information about what’s going on in the world.

It’s in our best interest to get more social control over these companies. And while things are slowly moving forward, the situation is still far from being acceptable. To protest against companies, we don’t need to march on the street with posters, be confronted by police, get arrested. It can be done much easier – by refusing to use their products. And this is what I was consciously doing so far (although I’m still on gmail which is pretty bad 😦 )

(Did you know that, thanks to General Data Protection Regulation, you can now explore the data Google stored about you such as location and search history, delete the data, and prohibit Google to track you in future? Go to myactivity.google.com to do it!)

The second reason why I was never interested in social media is related to how I obtain and share knowledge. Let me tell you how I became vegan. I met a vegetarian person, who is now a close friend of mine. He was never bringing up the topic of being vegetarian. But we used to share many lunches; over time I noticed that he didn’t eat meat and I got curious. We kept discussing the topic for a couple of years before I decided that this was something I wanted to do myself. The same way, several friends of mine (and also some of their friends) are now vegetarian. I best learn and share by example and long personal discussions rather then by catchy slogans.

Social media, as any news feed, offer you lots and lots of information, trying hard to grasp your attention by any possible means. Instead of browsing though long pages of short messages, I prefer to spend my time exploring one topic in depth, spending days, months and sometimes years on it, before I can form an opinion. I’d call it ‘slow information’, similar to ‘slow food’.

And yet here I am joining Facebook, which feels like betraying my own views. So far, I had a truly bad experience with it. Years ago, I have registered to see how it works and immediately forgot about it. When I wanted to delete my profile months later, fb asked me to provide my id, although I knew my password and my email was functional. I obviously refused. This profile is still somewhere out there and it will probably outlive me.

This time I was well prepared. I created a random email account by a minor German email provider. I set up an empty fb account and joined the Homeward Bound group (a closed group where you have to be approved by an organizer). This was all I wanted. But after 2 days, fb asked me for a phone number, otherwise I couldn’t log in. I fed it some number. Soon I figured out that I couldn’t post links in my comments to the Homeward Bound group. Very annoying, but I could live with that. After a week or so my account was blocked again ‘for my safety’ and I was asked to provide a photo with my face. Ok, I fed it a photo. It was unblocked after another week. A couple of weeks of quietly reading the group messages and sometimes commenting (without links). And then BANG! For no reason, without any explanation, my account was disabled. To submit a complain one needs to provide an id. Seriously??? Otherwise, there’s no feedback, no customer service, nothing. Of course, I didn’t send my id. After about a month, I tried to log in and magically my account happened to be functional. I was reading posts again, this time without even commenting. Nevertheless, my account was disabled for the second time and it still stays this way. Let’s see if anything will change next year. If it will, I will probably have to ask a couple of Homeward Bound participants to add me as their friend. Maybe this could make me a bit more trustworthy for fb. But nothing will make fb trustworthy for me.

Apart from my traumatizing experience with fb, I also started exploring Twitter, because many of the Homeward Bound participants use it as well. So far Twitter appears to be less hungry for my personal information. No demands to provide phone numbers, birth dates, locations, pictures, or anything else. One email is enough. I still need to get used to the Twitter culture though. Everything there is inspiring, life changing, exciting, ground breaking, successful, and emotional. Or on the other side: challenging, devastating, depressing. It’s like a constant flow of mini TED talks.

My Twitter feed is going to be mostly mono-topic. I’ve been following people tweeting about issues related to Homeward Bound: climate change, ecology, diversity, leadership, ethics in science. Similarly, I will only tweet on the same issues. Thus, it can be seen as exploring one topic over a long period of time and hopefully keeping the ‘slow information’ approach. But oh man, being on social media is challenging 🙂