Monday, 21 January 2013

Beyond the Science at Unravelling Human Origins 2013: gender, social media and outreach

Despite feeling like we were falling back into a glacial epoch during days of plummeting temperature and cutting winds peppered with snow, the Unravelling Human Origins 2013 meeting in Cambridge was a hotspot of scientific energy and excitement.
As always, there wasn't enough time to speak to everyone, and this year I found it especially hard to get round to seeing all the posters, some of which looked fantastic. But I did sit in on almost all the presented papers, and I'll be summarising some here on the blog. I'll do a Neanderthal edition separately as for ESHE, and another post featuring other papers that particularly caught my attention.

Yes, we were in beautiful Cambridge but this was the conference venue: the Fisher building at St Johns College.
  As you might have read in the previous post, I needed a serious Research Mojo top-up from this conference, which I got in spades. Not only did I re-connect with many old colleagues and friends, hearing about their new work and plans, but I also made links with people I've wanted to meet (including Twitter friends) and with someone who is starting a postdoc at Bordeaux this year too. The official conference meal was also great, and felt very Harry Potter, sitting in the ancient wood-panelled hall at Peterhouse College. It was really heartening to compare the all-male faces staring down at us representing centuries of establishment scholarship, with the much more gender-balanced researchers busily talking below them.

The conference dinner, held in Peterhouse dining hall. Venerable scholars watching us, sadly didn't move about like in Harry Potter.
I did a little totting up of the gender of speakers, poster authors, session chairs and discussants, and it is pretty interesting. Only first authors were included which could bias things depending on whether senior or junior team members are placed first, but to me this seems to happen pretty evenly. Although over the past 10 years attending conferences (blimey, that's a bit scary in itself!) I have observed that there are increasing numbers of female researchers, the figures for UHO Cambridge are impressive.
17 of the papers were presented by females, while 14 were given by males. This was echoed in the posters, with 18 female first-authors, and 11 male. Although a smaller sample, this was not reflected in the session chairs and discussants, with 3 male chairs, and only 1 female (although she did do two sessions); similarly 2 male discussants against 1 female. These roles at conferences are to some extent honorary positions, given to scholars of high standing, and therefore more likely to be mature in age. The fact that most were also men is possibly because fewer senior female colleagues exist, a phenomenon seen across science. But seeing first hand that the more junior researchers- the young up-coming members of our field- consist of a strong female cohort is very encouraging, and should lead before long to more prominence of women in the most senior roles.

This apparently more equal gender balance can only be a positive development for human origins as a scientific field, as the growing diversity of research strands is underpinned by more scholarly diversity. However, let's not rest on our laurels- gender representation might be better than in the past, but we are still woefully monochrome in racial/ethnic terms, not to mention having no visible disabled/differently-abled colleagues present. Human origins is about telling everyone's story, and although we have become more inclusive in researching people of the past, we need to work out how to become more inclusive ourselves. We need to have role models who can engage the varied children today who will be wondering about the deep past, and yet find only one kind of person studying it. This is a major aim of the fantastic Science Grrl project, which started as a response to a very misguided European Commission attempt at attracting more girls to science careers (see the original "Science- it's a girl thing" video, since removed, here).

EDIT: since posting, there have been some great blog posts from scientists in other fields on diversity and representation: check out Miriam's thoughts, and DNLee's piece.

St Johns College Bridge of Sighs: can we make bridges to groups currently under-represented in our field?
 Even if we have a way to go in improving the diversity of our field, we are making progress on communicating our subject. The conference was the first I've been to with an official Twitter account and hashtag (#UHOCambridge; perhaps a little lengthy), and the organisers used this to great effect by promoting papers and posters several weeks in advance. I managed to livetweet most of the talks (although annoyingly missed Francesco d'Errico's which I really wanted to see), and it was fantastic to see the number of retweets and follows that this generated: clearly the papers were chiming not only with absent academic colleagues but also many other interested individuals on Twitter.

In fact, there was considerably more impact from livetweeting this conference than the first time I seriously did it, at last year's ESHE meeting in Bordeaux. Maybe this is because I have more followers now, hence more people to interact with the tweets, but I think it may also be that more researchers are getting into Twitter too, as there was a genuine multi-authored stream. On the other hand, there was an interesting post-conference twitter discussion while I was travelling home about sensitivities around whether to create a hashtag for the upcoming conference in February hosted by the British Museum- there is clear opposition within our field to Twitter at conferences, and in fact to its general use by academics. Yet this event in particular offers fantastic outreach opportunities because not only is it linked to a major Ice Age art exhibition, but there is also a public (though not free) day of lectures being held after the conference.

I would really like for there to be more open debate about this as many people's concerns and criticisms have already been worked through in other fields of science/ research. Archaeology risks falling behind in taking up the vast benefits Twitter offers us: as academics in accessing new research, collaborative and creative comment, and network building; not to mention being a great venue for generating the public "impact" that we are required to produce by funding bodies- and which we have a moral duty to as scholars.

We should be looking to astronomy -the other "great mysteries" subject that address where we come from and which enjoys huge public interest- for a solid model of social media use, both between researchers and as an outreach method. Almost every NASA spacecraft has its own Twitter account, as do most of the astronauts, research labs and groups, many garnering thousands of followers. The "Curiosity" Mars Science Laboratory landing last year had over 200,000 people (including me) watching the live webcast from mission control - surely the live excavation of a new hominin fossil in an exotic cave/desert is just as inspiring and exciting? We need to be more imaginative about how we can share why we love doing what we do, including the experiential side of amazing discoveries as they happen, as well as how it feels to be a member of a team at the cutting edge of human origins research.

Palaeolithic archaeologists who love what they do and who gave great talks at the conference: Geoff Smith, Karen Ruebens and Rachel Bynoe
So that's my weekend conference debrief; I would love to have people's opinions, especially regarding how we can progress these issues. Check back soon for your first hit of UHO science reportage. Meanwhile here's some more photos of St John's College, Cambridge looking all romantic in the snow.




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