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Boy or Girl...or both?

I’m currently reading “The Polynesian Family System in Ka’u, Hawai’i” by ES Craighill Handy and Mary Kawena Pukui.  Kawena (her full name is Mary Abigail Kawenaʻulaokalaniahiʻiakaikapoliopelekawahineʻaihonua Wiggin Pukui) was a very notable and respected author on Hawaiian culture, having written over 50 scholarly works including “the” Hawaiian-English dictionary and “‘Olelo No’eau“, a collection of 3000 Hawaiian proverbs.  If you have any interest in Hawaiian culture or history, pick up anything and everything written by Kawena.

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I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and I need to put my Nigerian fortune in your bank account

My blog has (barely) garnered enough hits to get seriously targeted by comment-spam; comments that almost sound like someone is interested but clearly is meant to sell something.  While WordPress is very good about catching these spams, and I generally ditch them without a thought, the most recent one caught my eye as it seemed to provide just about every possible permutation of comment-spam I’ve ever seen.  Reading through them, I realized that while they are hideously repetitive, abysmal in their spelling and grammatical structure, and offensive in their obvious lack of context, they are nevertheless subtly appealing in their effusive compliments and positive reinforcement.  Indeed, I would love if one of my blogs forced someone “to try and do therefore” (whatever that means), and only spam would thank me not once, but three times in a single comment.   If we were to shed the buy-me links, are we left with context-free ramblings or psychologically therapeutic mantras ala Stuart Smalley?  Is this mechanized gibberish or literary art for the 21st century?

I’ve trimmed the massive spam to the 10 “themes” that seem to repeat themselves.  Read for yourself and decide if Deepak Chopra should be worried for his career.

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Demographic breakdown of our survey sample

We have finally finished writing up the results for our survey on perceptions of appropriate behavior between students and advisors for the 2009 Women in Astronomy and Space Science Meeting.  It was quite an effort – 10 scenarios, 579 respondents and over 2000 comments have been merged into a poster (presented at the conference) and a four-page write-up for the conference proceedings.  All the details can be found at:

A short summary of our results:

  1. Perceptions of appropriateness vary considerably in the astronomical community at all levels, even for situations that might be deemed “obvious”.
  2. Perceptions of appropriateness vary with age and professional status, with younger astronomers and those at earlier stages in their careers (students, postdocs) typically viewing behaviors as more appropriate.  In particular, there were frequently differences in perceptions of appropriateness between students and advisors.
  3. On average, scenarios were seen as more inappropriate for student/advisor pairs with different genders than pairs with the same genders. Given that female students are less likely to have a same-gender advisor than male students (see my last blog post on this), this trend may have a negative affect on young women’s student/advisor relationships.
  4. Our survey attracted a small fraction (8%) of highly negative and fearful criticism, overwhelmingly from men.  There unfortunately appears to be continued resistance to open discussion of appropriate behaviors between students and advisors.

Comments are welcome!


Genders of advisors and their students in our survey. These numbers are based on the 2959 students that 252 respondents reported they had advised over the past 5 years. The students are separated by education level (high school through postdoctoral) and gender (green for female, yellow for male), while the bar graphs indicate the fraction of students in each subgroup advised by a male or female (total numbers of students in each subgroup are listed outside each bar). The fraction of female students advised by female advisors decreases with later educational levels, as low as 26% at the postdoctoral level. Male students, on the other hand, are advised by male advisors 65-74% of the time.

I’m currently completing the write-up for a study Jacqueline Faherty and I did for the Women in Astronomy 2009 conference this past October, looking at perceptions of inappropriate behavior between students and advisors in astronomy (see the next blog post).  We polled 579 students, researchers, teachers, staff and other astronomy affiliates as part of an online survey to examine how perceptions of behavior change according to gender, age, professional status, etc.  Our results (when we’re finished writing them up!) will eventually be posted here.

In the course of analyzing the mounds of biographical data we collected from our respondents, there was one thing I realized we could look at: who is advising our female students? One of the issues that continually comes up in addressing the disparity in gender representation in professional astronomy is the problem that female students are less likely to have a female advisor.  I realized that with our survey data we could actually measure this, as we explicitly asked respondents who indicated that they were advisors how many students they had advised over the past five years, and what the genders of those students are.  By matching these statistics with the gender of the respondents, we get a measure of the gender match between students and advisors in astronomy overall.

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Women in Astronomy 2009

My graduate student Jackie Faherty and I are running a survey about perceptions of appropriate behaviors between students and advisors in astronomy, as part of our contribution to the 2009 Women in Astronomy and Space Science Meeting.  We came up with 10 scenarios that one or both of us have experienced as advisors and/or students where the appropriateness of the situation or behavior could be ambiguous depending on your gender, age or professional status.  The survey runs through the end of October, so if you are an astronomer or interested in astronomy, and have dealt with advisor/student issues, please take our survey – it only takes 10 minutes!

The survey can be accessed at

Results will be posted at in November.

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