Archive for the 'sexism' category

Uncovering the Past

Jul 31 2018 Published by under female scientist, sexism, trying to please others

I took a trip recently to help my dad move. He has lived in the same house for 23 years, during which I went to middle school and high school, then moved away for college and slowly began to visit less frequently for shorter stints.  There are lots of memories in that house. There are the ones that live in my head and the ones that live in boxes. Boxes that I haven’t looked at in over a decade. During my stay, I went through photo albums, journals, yearbooks, trinkets, and transcripts. It is an interesting thing to look back on yourself with that much distance. To read your own words that feel at once familiar and like words of a stranger. It was difficult because I was an awkward and insecure teen. Looking at the photos and reading my own words, I kept wanting to give my former self advice. Don’t get that haircut! Teen boys are not worth that much mental space! Be kinder to your parents! Relax! And perhaps most importantly, don’t be afraid!

suffragette

I am a shy person, which I think is a just fine personality trait in moderation. However, being timid is a little different than being shy, and I have often found myself timid as well. I have lived much of my life trying not to be disruptive, trying not to hurt anyone’s feelings, trying not to take up too much of anyone’s time. My mother often told me “don’t be mousy,” which of course only made it worse at the time but was honestly good advice.

At the time of each little action of shrinking myself, it seems to make sense, it just fits. Oh, I don’t want to be a bother. In the rearview mirror, though, it is clear that it is not right thing to do. It is often not the kindness to others I imagine it to be. It does not make the world a better place or make those around me happier. It certainly doesn’t make me happier. Most importantly, it comes from a place of not valuing myself enough.

While this feels very personal to my situation, taking up less space is actually, a common problem among women in girls. The ideal feminine woman in many cultures is one that does not talk out of turn or stand up for herself. This cultural insistence that women take up less space manifests in the ways women take up physical space. Women are told to be smaller by losing weight and by body language. As opposed to feeling free to take up space as men do, women often take up less space and there is backlash when they do not. It is related to rape culture and anti-abortion fanaticism, where even women’s bodies are not their own.

It also manifests in how the world views women’s ideas, with a culture where a man’s ideas are more valued than a woman’s, mansplaining is rampant, and gaslighting a common concern. It takes a lot of internal strength the value one’s own ideas when it feels like the world does not. The physical and the mental collide in the classroom, where girls raise their hands less, a phenomenon reinforced by society. Luckily, some girls are becoming aware and pushing for girls to raise their hands more.

These influences, some small, some huge, all affect how we move through this world as women. They affect how we influence the world, as it is not a stretch to imagine that taking up space relates to whether women take on positions of power. It affects women’s careers, in science and otherwise, where their ideas are taken less seriously.

So for now, while this reminder is fresh on my mind, my mantra for myself is “take up space” a call to action to be confident, to value my own opinions highly, and to not be afraid. And for all the girls I interact with, I must instill that in them as well.

 

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When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

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When should details of misconduct be made public?

Amid the #metoo movement, we have seen extreme publicity of the Hollywood allegations of sexual misconduct, including the shocking and sensational details revealed by victims coming forward. We have seen some spread of this movement and publicity to other arenas as well, including research in STEM fields. Academic institutions should already be prepared to deal with allegations as they arise, but should also be able to respond to the growing attention paid, by both the media and people in the field or organization, to issues of misconduct.

A recent termination of a prominent scientist at a prominent research institution raised a lot of questions – with no answers apparently forthcoming. The particular scientist and institution are not essential for the message of this post, but you can read about him here. This institution, like many others, has a reputation for quelling accusations before they reach a level where action must be taken, and for not taking action when many deem it necessary. So, many people were happily surprised to find that someone (a prominent someone!) would and could be terminated for breaching institutional policies.

But what were those policies? What actually happened? The institution has not revealed this, except to say that it was not scientific misconduct, which leads one to believe that it must have been inappropriate interpersonal behavior. Indeed, even some employees in the researcher’s lab have no idea what happened, and reportedly have asked the institution to explain, with no further information obtained.

It is certainly important to consider that the institution may be acting in the interest of the individuals involved – both perpetrator and victims – to keep the details undisclosed. But is that the best course of action?

In a time where we – all of us, right? – are trying to rid our institutions of the sexual misconduct infestation that negatively impacts both individual and field-wide well-being and advancement, institutions should be doing everything in their power to make it known that this specific act will not be tolerated here. This would encourage others with allegations to come forward, and discourage potential perpetrators from initiating or continuing similar actions, and, all in the best long-term interest of the institution, enhance the overall image and attractiveness of this place as a safe environment where misconduct will be investigated and not tolerated, leaving the work to be the central feature.

Institutions should endeavor to be as brave as the many women who have come forward to share their stories – for the benefit of the people and the future.

3 responses so far

#Me Too

Last Sunday night it started popping up on my Facebook feed…
“Me too.
If all the people who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”

I almost didn’t speak up, again.

I worried about how it would make my family (and my husbands family) feel. Hurt, sad, embarrassed?

I worried about my coworkers and my friends seeing and worrying that I was talking about something they did. Sometimes I was, most of the time I wasn’t.

I started reliving the memories, rehashing them. Imagining what I could have done differently if I didn’t always freeze.  I don’t want to presume, I don’t want to be impolite and make things awkward.

I started making excuses. Was this one just a misunderstanding? That one was so long ago. I didn’t scream. He was drunk. I flirted. He’s old, was it ok back then?

I justified, it wasn’t so bad.  Others have been through so much more.  I’ve moved on.  The day-to-day instances a so small. They don’t hurt me any more.  I don’t want the attention/pity/questions if I say “me too.”

I got angry that I was still thinking about all of this; frustrated that I couldn’t either just join or just let it go. Why should I have to deal with this all again and speak up?

Then I remembered, there was a reason my mentors were mostly women.  It was a conscious choice I made, because I didn’t want to put myself into “that position.”  I remembered that I chose not to pursue a position in an exciting lab at a top University because the PI had a reputation and I was scared. I remembered that when choosing my new job, on the con side (unfairly for him) of my pro/con list was that my boss would be a straight man.

Maybe it is my problem. Maybe my experiences do count. Maybe I am one of the women they talk about, who don’t speak out. Maybe this is my chance not to freeze.

I posted.

#Me too


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Gender exclusive STEM education?

This summer I enrolled my 6-year old daughter in a math camp exclusive to girls, “Girls Rock Math.” I knew about the existence of the camp before my daughter was old enough to enroll, and this year as she became eligible I did not hesitate to sign her up. She is showing keen interests in numbers and math, constantly performing arithmetic in her head. The one-week-long camp was held at a botanical garden, with its theme “Math-Magical Garden.” The campers explored patterns, shapes, mental math, and logical reasoning inspired by nature. My daughter had a great time. Everyday the camp ended with singing of inspiring and empowering songs about math, girls, female mathematicians, pi number, and not giving up, and she still sings the songs after five weeks.

In Seattle where I live, there were many other STEM camps and programs exclusively for girls. I marveled at the number of opportunities and thought this is a great era. Given the current demographics in STEM fields, girls interested in STEM could use all the opportunities and encouragement.

As summer ended I came to find out that Seattle Parks and Recreation newly created a science class for parents and children to attend together, called “Sonsational! Mad Science.” The original description of the class indicated that this class was for boys only. There was a bit of an uproar, and many concerned parents protested that it gave wrong messages to girls, and that the boys already had enough opportunities in STEM there was no need for new one. The office responded and claimed that the class was created in response to community requests. The city held “father-daughter dance” for more than 25 years with good attendance, and they were asked to organize a similar event for boys. Yes, nice dinners for girls and science for boys. Parks and Recreation later edited the description that even though the class is titled “Sonsational,” it is still open for all children. The office also claimed that the “father-daughter dance” is open for parents and children of any gender.

There were many responses and entertaining discussions in social media.  Many responders advocated to make the event title, description, and event itself gender neutral. Why not make it all inclusive? Why single out one sex in any activity? I got to thinking, should STEM education / programs be segregated between the sexes?  Is it helpful? To both sexes?  What are pros and cons?  

I asked my daughter, what if there were boys in the math camp?  Would things be different?  Would she still have liked it?  She said, boys tend to / can be more rough and disruptive than girls. The presence of boys would have made the camp less calm and peaceful.  She really enjoyed being with just girls and female teachers and assistants.  

Is this answer positive or negative?  Has she already formed a stereotype for boys?  A preference for not working with boys?  Should she just learn to get over roughness and disruptions and deal with it? Should she learn to cultivate and pursue her interests in any type of environment?  Is “Girls Rock Math” a good idea?

There are studies (for one) showing that graduates of all-girls schools have higher confidence in their math and science skills compared to their cohorts in coeducational schools. The proportion of girls who pursue careers in STEM fields is much higher in alumnae from single-sex schools than coed.  What is it about female-only education that produces such outcomes?

A recent survey by Microsoft lists conformity to social expectations, gender stereotypes, gender roles, and lack of role models as reasons girls steer away from STEM fields. Perhaps those stereotypes and traditional gender expectations are less obvious and less reinforced in female-only surroundings.  So do we educate girls and boy separately, and build up their skills and confidence, and send them to the world?

Eventually, girls will grow up, go to college, and work side-by-side, up-and-down with male colleagues/superiors/subordinates.  If neither party was exposed to each other in professional settings until that point, would there be more seeds for conflicts than potentials for successful collaboration? Perhaps gender stereotypes are even more strengthened in segregated settings. If my daughter continued in girls-only camps and classes, she may never find out how to work with boys, or that there are calm and cooperative boys out there, too.

I suspect that the Google employee who wrote that now famous memo was never sufficiently exposed to female counterparts during his training.  If he was exposed to more female colleagues (i.e. bigger sample size), he might not have formed those blatant prejudices regarding women. Would not mutual respect be more likely together than separate?

It is a conundrum. How do we achieve equality, when one group is underrepresented?  Is segregation of the lagging group the best way?

Would I still enroll my daughter in “Girls Rock Math” next summer?  I have 6 months to think it over (sign ups start in Feb!).  My current parental challenge lies in maintaining my daughter’s math interest beyond the age of 15, segregated or not.


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Variability of sexist behavior

Mar 20 2017 Published by under female scientist, sexism, women in science

“Science is not about conforming to an ideal, masculine or feminine, but instead relies on the diversity of perspective that gives rise to insight. The individuals do not derive identity from the group; the group is defined by the identity of its component individuals. Or, as I phrase it to myself, the point is not whether I think like other scientists do; it’s that one scientist – me – thinks like I do.”

I love this quote from the essay “The Truth is in The Distribution” by Indira Raman. Her article gives a number of liberating insights for women in science based on her personal perspectives, which I found to be refreshing.

 

In other parts of the essay, she extends the discussion of variability to the range of behavior – good and bad – observed in scientists, relating specifically to the challenges faced by women in science. This part hit home for me, as I had been thinking a lot about the circumstances under which I ascribed someone’s behavior to sexism. These thoughts come across best in the cases of two individuals I had been dealing with.

Case 1 – a young man, fellow postdoc. In informal seminars where discussion is encouraged but usually occurs at low levels, he often interjected to ask the presenter (usually female) a question, but more often, to share a story or concern of his that was similar. In one instance where a fellow female postdoc was giving a practice talk for a presentation at a conference and several faculty members started critiquing her, the male postdoc added in his generic talk advice.

Case 2 – a young woman, research technician. In lab when faced with a problem, she would ask my advice. I would give her advice such as, “I would do X.” She would respond, “I’ll just do X.” What I just said, rephrased to sound like she just thought of it and didn’t need my advice after all. I never heard her do this with a man, including those more junior to me in the lab.

In the first case, my initial reaction was to label this guy a classic mansplainer, and consider how I could talk to him about what he was doing. After some thought and further observation, I recognized that he is just a super-talkative guy who believes everything he thinks is important enough to be said out loud, though he wasn’t typically condescending, and it was just circumstance that made him look like a mansplainer since he was often the only male in the room*. In the second case, my first reaction was to think this was just a really annoying way of talking through ideas. But after thinking more, I believe she is a mansplainer, who doesn’t like any idea unless it comes from her own mouth, but only when the other party is a woman.

So I realized that I was quick to ascribe bad behavior to sexism in a man and quick to forgive bad behavior as a personality trait in a woman, and it is important to consider the individual as only representing him or herself. That said, however… there are clearly patterns of bad behavior, and the range and variability of those patterns are not the only important metrics – the number of women affected by sexism (i.e. virtually all women) is arguably the most important, as was brought to collective awareness by the #YesAllWomen counter to #NotAllMen trends. Therefore, whenever we see sexism at play, even from a small number of men, we can’t simply write it off as individual variability. That is where I felt Raman’s essay was lacking – by accepting that it is a relatively small number of offending individuals making the field more difficult for women, it can indeed be liberating, but it remains essential to act against sexism where we see it, as well as proactively. She does acknowledge that she appreciates these efforts and that is not the focus of her essay.

For my part, I will continue to try to be more judicious in my own evaluations of people’s behavior that may or may not appear sexist to me, remembering the range in people of all sexes.

 

*Though of course it is valid to consider him (and us) a product of our culture generating this male-typical behavior, making it no coincidence at all that the only man in the room was also the only one who felt like his ideas were important enough to interject.


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“I do it for all the little girls”

So we didn’t shatter that highest glass ceiling yet. Like many people, since last week I’ve been trying to stay positive and think of things I/we can do to promote a better, supportive society. A recent article in the New York Times shares stories from women who were told they couldn’t do something because of their gender, but they did it anyway.

I wanted to be inspired by this, but was totally depressed by all the times women have been suppressed or just not recognized as the capable people we are. One particular story that got me was of a young woman majoring in computer information systems who said, “It has been hard to stay motivated, but I do it for all the little girls who are told what they can and cannot do.” If I read that the week before the election I may have found it inspiring. But today, I just think of this poor woman trapped in something she doesn’t love (or worse, maybe she used to love it but has been worn down by all the negative reactions people have given her), ultimately doing it for someone else.

I want to be a good example. I love that Hillary Clinton was (is!) an amazing role model for girls everywhere. I want more women in STEM so that girls who are interested can see themselves in those fields. But is it a good decision for someone to devote their career to something because of a sense of duty? I really don’t know.


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Do the same rules apply to all genders as mentors?

parks-and-rec-nbc
Image source: http://zap2it.com/2015/01/parks-and-recreation-leslie-knope-feminist-goddess/

I have great summer student. She was a student of mine at my previous institution and came to do research in my current lab for her summer internship. On her first day I was really busy and sorry I didn’t have time to do much more than set her up with her training, so I said, “Why don’t I take you out to lunch tomorrow?” I thought it would be a good chance to catch up and get to know her better. So we went out and got to chat about what was going on in her life and she asked me a lot more about my career history. It was great, and exactly what I would hope for from a mentor-mentee relationship.

And then, because I always love over-analyzing things as a gender-based thought experiment, I wondered how this would be different if our genders were different. Could taking a student out to lunch to get to know them better be perceived as inappropriate if my student was male? Probably not, but it would almost certainly be less comfortable for me and probably for the student. What if I was male and my student was female? That gave me pause. Of course this one event was within the bounds of normal mentoring, but I could see the potential for something like this to make a student uncomfortable or to be the beginning of a series of problematic events where the power differential* makes it difficult for the student to say no to increasingly line-crossing interactions.

Should I be okay with behavior that I don’t see a problem with in one gender combination, if I do see it as a potential problem with a different gender? The image above is an extreme example (since everything Leslie Knope does is extreme and awesome), but there are many things that can seem not noteworthy coming from women that would never be acceptable from men.

On the one hand, I think it is even more important for women to get close and mentor other women to help them overcome the obstacles we continue to face. However, when I think about a man mentoring another man [preferentially], it makes me feel like the old boys club is being perpetuated. Is it fair to think that one is essential and the other should be avoided, as long as there is an imbalance in the field?

Further, why should the line be drawn in a different place for me as a female mentor than for a male mentor? Should I hold myself to the same standards and distance that I would expect from a man?

There are certainly ways male and female mentors may have different benefits, for either female or male mentees, and for this among many reasons, it is advisable for a student to try to have several mentors. But what should a mentor take into consideration for his or her interactions with different trainees? How does one give each student the mentoring they need or deserve without favoritism, and is it possible to support stronger relationships between more similar people without perpetuating the existing hierarchy?

I’m really asking! What do you think?

*I’m not factoring sexual orientation into the equation here, mostly because the focus is on gender-based power differentials, and I’m trying not to consider sexual or romantic circumstances; I do recognize that people who are not heterosexual or cisgender may have even greater cause for worry or discomfort when presented with unclear lines in social situations related to the workplace.


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Discussing obstacles for women in science – when is the right time?

I recently had the pleasure of seeing Ben Barres speak at my institution. His talk about his research on reactive astrocytes (something I knew nothing about) was very intriguing. But what I want to comment on here is the 5-minute aside he took in the middle of the talk to discuss obstacles that women in science face. He brought up some issues that I was aware of and some that I wasn’t – i.e. the fact that by his estimate, around 95% of women have been hit on at conferences, making women less likely to feel comfortable attending networking/social events, potentially inhibiting their careers, similar to the column by Kelly Baker today advocating codes of conduct at conferences. All those points were thought-provoking and important, but that’s not my primary focus here either.

What really struck me was simply the fact that Dr. Barres, a prominent name with a large draw (as the Chair of Neurobiology at Stanford among other notable experiences), pointedly took time from his resesarch-focused talk, when he had a captive audience, to bring up this issue that is so clearly important to him, and to many of us.

As I looked around the crowded auditorium I saw that, as usual, 75% of the audience consisted of a combination of old white men (PIs) and young women (grad students, postdocs), while the other 25% were mostly young men and a few senior women. I thought to myself, “Who in this crowd would have ever chosen to attend a talk about the obstacles that women face in science?” I would wager that it would almost exclusively be the young women – those with the most at stake in the issue, yet those who are arguably the least capable of removing the obstacles.

For that matter, if one engaged senior PIs in a conversation about sexism in science, would they be receptive to hearing the message or would they take the opportunity to state their own view, or dismiss the conversation out of hand? In the context of Barres’s presentation, they had virtually no choice but to sit and politely listen without inserting their own response.

In short, I thought this was a brilliant way of getting an important message heard, forcing people who could and would avoid or ignore the issue in other situations, the people who really need to be aware of the issues and how they need to be the ones to act to change them, to actually listen. While I would not advocate or appreciate every academic talk turning into a political soapbox, I would love to see more prominent people taking on important and relevant issues like how we can foster women and underrepresented minorities in science.


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Schrodinger’s Gender

Today’s guest blogger is a PhD statistician, mother of two, and thirty-something transgender woman. She works in the medical device industry as an applied statistician, with specialization in the areas of experimental design, statistical process control, product reliability, and bad math puns.

An on-the-job gender transition is fraught with uncertainties. Or at least mine was. In the months leading up to my coming out at work, my mind was quite skilled at dreaming up transition-related uncertainties for which I could not provide a good probability estimate.

  • Will my consulting work suddenly dry up if my scientific colleagues are uncomfortable working with a trans woman?
  • Will there be massive riots regarding the restroom I use, as anticipated by my very nervous HR representative?
  • Will I be tolerated as a quirky and benignly amusing math nerd?
  • Will I be accepted for who I am, and be allowed to thrive in my career as both as a professional statistician and a (trans) woman?

In the 11 months since my coming out at work, the vast majority of my colleagues have fallen somewhere on the spectrum between tolerance and acceptance. No bathroom riots have broken out, no lurid gossip has been floating around, and none of my most important colleagues have ceased working with me.   Not only was there an absence of disaster, but there was a deluge of kindness in the days after my coming out. Many colleagues wrote me heartfelt emails of support, and the vast majority quickly honored my request to call me by my new legal name and my desired (female) pronouns. A few brave colleagues were even willing to stand up for me when, shortly after my transition, they heard a non-supportive individual casually dropping some transphobic slurs behind my back. The colleagues immediately challenged the language and later reported the incident to the relevant manager. These outpourings of support left me quite overcome with amazement and joy.

To be sure, there were challenges in the transition process. It was something of a logistical nightmare to time my legal transition to be on track with my changing body, and to navigate the IT and HR bureaucracies regarding my name change.   Health insurance coverage has been an ongoing battle. As a final logistical hurdle, there was no corporate funding to provide education on transgender issues, so my allies and I had to organize our own education session shortly after my coming out. Despite the challenges I faced, being a trans statistician has largely been a non-issue. Being a female statistician, however, is an ongoing adventure.

As hormones have helped my appearance to align with my own (female) identity, the way in which colleagues treat me has changed in subtle yet pervasive ways. Transgender women provide a rather unique lens into sexism and women’s issues, given that we essentially form our own controlled gender experiment of size n=1. That is, I have all the same mathematical skills as I did before transition, and I would argue I’m an even better statistician now that I’m not distracted by the angst of gender dysphoria. So the differences I notice between my male and female working lives are likely clues to the subconscious structure of workplace gender. A few negative observations include

  • When I teach classes within my company, there often are one or two guys staring at my body rather than listening to my lecture. To be clear, the majority of my students are entirely respectful, but the change in behavior is noticeable.
  • I teach exactly the same classes as I did before transition. My teaching has always garnered good reviews in class evaluations, but only after transition have I noticed outliers (usually 1-2 people per class) who give me negative feedback. Overall, my post-transition reviews are still fantastic.
  • In large meetings, I need to work harder to get my voice heard, especially if I am the only female present.
  • Even with my PhD, occasionally guys (with very little statistical education) attempt to “man-splain” to me some statistical concepts that they don’t actually understand. My statistical knowledge is doubted more now, especially by men who never knew me before transition.

None of the above issues prevent me from being successful; I just need to work a bit harder as a woman to gain the respect of new colleagues.

The forms of sexism I’ve encountered are infinitesimal in comparison to all the positive changes I’ve experienced in the workplace. Overall, my relationships with my colleagues—both male and female—are much better now that I no longer need to wear a mask at work.  I’m happier by multiple orders of magnitudes than I ever was before, and I believe that my positivity makes me more effective as a statistical consultant. Despite all the jokes about statisticians being boring introverts, I think the most effective ones are actually quite good at building relationships with scientists, and I feel such relief that now I can finally build those relationships on a footing of personal truth. I am so proud to be a transgender statistician, a female statistician, and a statistician who no longer is afraid to speak the truth.


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