This week on #MeetAScientist, get to know Dr. Corina Logan, a research fellow in the Department of Zoology at Cambridge University. She discusses her research into grackles and what they can tell us about human behavior and shares how she has used evidence to craft best practices for her research group. She's thought deeply about how to incentivize a more open and honest scientific practice and create an environment that facilitates equity. We hope you find her answers as enlightening as we did!
When did you first identify as a scientist? Could you describe the science you do today?
I think I first identified as a scientist as a final-year undergrad when I spent a term in Costa Rica doing independent research on coati play behavior (coatis are in the raccoon family). I designed my project and conducted it myself, and eventually ended up publishing it during my PhD several years later. When I was in Costa Rica, I kept seeing great-tailed grackles — a bird species — in urban areas. They would come right up to me and stare me down to try to steal my food. I thought that if I ever worked with birds, I would want to work with this species because they seem like they would be game to try new things. Many years later, I got funding to set up a field site to see whether they are behaviorally flexible. It is thought that species that are able to rapidly expand their range, like great-tailed grackles, must need to rely on flexibility; however, this hasn’t been directly tested in a species yet. I found that they are behaviorally flexible compared with other birds. Now I’m setting up field sites across their range to see how flexibility changes toward the expanding edge of their range, and what other variables flexibility is related to.
What have birds taught you about humans?
For my PhD, I spent hundreds of hours observing the behavior of rooks and jackdaws, birds in the crow family. They are monogamous species that form long-term bonds with their partners and it was amazing to see the birds achieve something it seems that many of us humans think we should strive for — that is, monogamy — but struggle with. All day, every day, rook and jackdaw partners sit next to each other, so close that they are almost touching. They preen, or groom, each other; they eat next to each other; they help defend their partner when their partner gets into a fight. Partners never fight with each other, and if one partner gets into a fight with someone else, after the fight, they will go to their mate for social support. All of this was completely normal for them, every day. I sat there watching them and thinking that monogamy-striving humans would be so happy if it was that easy for us (can you imagine never fighting with your partner and sitting next to them 24 hours per day?). I later learned that most bird species are monogamous, whereas most mammal species are not. So maybe some of us are trying to become more like birds.
On your research page, you note that you avoid exploiting yourself as a scientist and work to facilitate equality and diversity. How do you work to achieve that in practice?
- I only publish papers in journals that are 100% open access because this avoids discriminating against who can afford to read my research. Subscription-based journals charge high fees to read articles and subscription-based journals that offer the option to make individual articles open access usually charge lots of money for this and then also obtain the subscription money. Knowledge is a public good and, as a researcher, I have a responsibility to keep it that way.
- I only publish papers in journals published by publishers who keep money inside academia. Most of the popular publishers are publicly traded companies that make huge profits off of the products (articles) we give them for free. These profits go to their shareholders, not to academia. It is a huge waste of public money and we researchers allow ourselves to be exploited when we give our articles to these publishers. I published a short paper on this — We can shift academic culture through publishing choices — and I discuss more actions I take in an interview: What actions can we take to push for publishing reform and incentivise open publishing practices?
- I am also working to reduce my implicit biases against minority groups in the sciences. A few years ago, I was shocked to learn that I was implicitly biased against women in science. How could that be when I AM a woman in science? Girls and boys grow up in the same culture and learn the same biases, so it makes sense that I had adopted my society's views. I have worked hard to try to see my biases and to take action to reduce them. For example, when I write letters of recommendation, I run the text through a gender language decoder to make sure the letters for women and men are masculine coded because masculine coded letters are perceived as more powerful. I’m also learning that there is no such thing as equal opportunity because implicit biases act throughout one’s whole life so the things we look for in a “strong” CV in academia are heavily influenced by how much privilege someone has. So a strong CV is more an indicator of privilege than of researcher quality. I recently had the opportunity to hire two positions and I did lots of things in the hiring process to try to reduce my implicit biases. For example, I made sure the ad text was feminine coded because this is known to encourage women to apply and it doesn’t discourage men from applying. I avoided buzzwords because this kind of language is discouraging for people from groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences. And I required skills that are needed rather than ones I can train (you can see an example here). I am happy to say that I recently took the Harvard implicit bias test again and found that I am slightly biased toward women in science so my efforts seem to be paying off. However, it is more important than ever for me to stay vigilant because research shows that if you think you don’t have biases, you fall back into your previous implicit biases. I hope that I am also overcoming biases about other groups that are traditionally underrepresented in the sciences.
- As I was learning about all of this and figuring out how I wanted to change my behavior in academia to match my ethics, I found that doing what is best for research — and for researchers from all walks of life — is not usually what is incentivized when awarding jobs and grants. Researchers are rewarded for how well they can spin their results into a sexy story to get their article published in journals that are known for publishing the sexiest research. However, this corrupts the research process, which relies on hypothesis testing and is agnostic to the outcome of the results. A group of us early career researchers at Cambridge, who have been trying to reform how the university manages its contracts with publishers, decided to launch a public campaign to try to change academic culture to select researchers based on the rigor of their research, which can only be judged if their research process is openly shared. We started the #BulliedIntoBadScience campaign in the summer of 2017 and so far 142 early career researchers have signed our letter that calls on individuals and institutions to take 8 actions to better support us in conducting rigorous research, and 73 non-early career researchers have endorsed the campaign. I was just awarded a Shuttleworth Foundation Flash Grant to continue this effort.
How did you get involved with 500 Women Scientists? What do you hope to get out of the group and what do you hope to contribute?
I, like the 500 Women Scientists organizers, was absolutely devastated after the 2016 presidential election results came in. I knew I had to take action if I wanted to continue enjoying freedom and environmental protection in the US. I started looking for groups to join, but it was really important to me that I join a group that was taking effective action. It was only a couple of weeks later that I found and joined 500 Women Scientists. I love that their mission is about taking action to create change, and that they are dedicated to changing culture to be more inclusive of other underprivileged groups as well.
I get an enormous sense of solidarity from the group. This gives me the courage and motivation to keep going and to keep trying to affect change. This group helps increase my awareness of the ways in which women are still underprivileged in our societies, and reading about all of the actions women in the group are taking inspires me. I talk about the group a lot and I think these conversations are important for bringing awareness about these issues to the forefront of people’s minds.
I have contributed to the group by helping establish the Cambridge, UK pod, and my signs in the Women’s March in London and the March for Science in Florida featured 500 Women Scientists and their slogans. I look forward to getting more involved in a pod after I move to Germany next year for a new research post. I think 500 Women Scientists and the #BulliedIntoBadScience campaign are aligned in the sense that they are about inclusivity and conducting solid research so I see lots of room to merge the two efforts in my work.
When you're not doing research or outreach, what do you do to unwind?
I go tango dancing! It is the only thing I’ve found that switches my brain off so I don’t have to hear the incessant noise inside my head. In tango, I have to pay such close attention to what my partner is doing that if I think, I mess up. It is meditative and exhilarating and I am addicted.
Dr. Corina Logan investigates cognition and behavior in birds and mammals as a Leverhulme Early Career Research Fellow in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge. She is particularly interested in how behavioral flexibility works and what brain size means. She co-leads the #BulliedIntoBadScience campaign where early career researchers are working to change academic culture to adopt open research practices to improve research rigor. You can sign the letter and endorse the campaign at bulliedintobadscience.org. Follow along as Corina learns about grackles, implicit biases, and open research on Twitter @LoganCorina and at her website.