Category Archives: Alaska

Turning a blind eye to the University of Alaska: Academic entitlement and survivor bias

On my daily 6 AM walks, I have been contemplating why there has been no surge of support for faculty and students in the University of Alaska system. The anger makes for an energetic walk and the walk serves as a cooling mechanism on the anger. The answer I loop back to is elitism.

Twitter, unlike Facebook, is mostly liberal and its users tend to have completed or at least had some higher education. I have felt, in the past, that Twitter was a positive professional networking tool and generally supportive of real issues faced by minorities and the growing problems in neoliberal academia. Now, I realize it is not so simple and only selectively supportive.

I think I started to understand how elite the vocal academics on Twitter are when I saw a thread on whether it is OK to ask a graduate student to pay half the open access fee. The replies were visceral and unpleasant, smacking of entitlement in their assumption that anyone publishing with a student has resources the student doesn’t have such as a funded lab, ICR to spend on publications, and/or disposable income to support students out of pocket. Come on, even in the sciences, not everyone has a lab let alone lab funds and some universities do not distribute ICR to PIs (UAF Fisheries only gives $500 flat to PIs). So, check your entitlement and realize that the 99% have different experiences that might justify a PI and a student talking through the costs for open access–high citations but great personal cost. Some profs are just as poor as the students. I have colleagues who are crippled with student loans and personal debt accumulated from career investments in the hopes they would pay off someday. They have old cars running on the hope they will last because taking on a car loan is too much. Many are at universities that have been faced with draconian budget cuts and receive no support for conference travel. In my own experience, six years of teaching intensive positions not only handcuffed my early career research efforts but cost me dearly in terms of personal finances.

To compound the myopic view from the top is their unchecked survivor bias. A moaning tweet from a student who was critiqued in a grant application for productivity was accompanied by a clip of his CV. There are many reasons the critique may have been valid. The first that comes to my mind is that if you are born of a rich lab with massively-authored papers flying out the machine at a rate of 10/year, 9 papers in 5 years is unproductive. Another is that the quality of the papers is low (quality is not assessed by a ‘lab’ name or a specific journal). Another is that the contribution to authorship is not clear–what did the student actually do? A long list of publications doesn’t mean you actually were heavily involved in any of them. One angrily supportive response to this student was that the one Nature-fill-in-the blank was enough to show productivity. Sorry, it’s not. That’s like saying, ‘my daddy drives a Porsche’ so give me a Porsche. I know nothing about this student nor do I care other than to use it as an example of how, to put it bluntly, a student in a well-funded lab is expected to do more because they have more of everything. Sadly, a student struggling in an under-funded program is then compared against this rubric. The context of the work used to matter, not the metrics that surround it. The 1% of academia have internalized the neoliberal message that there are certain hallmarks of success that can be neatly summed in numbers, such as the impact factor of a journal, the number of citations you have, or the amount you earned in funding. Contemplate Gregor Mendel. His work was not cited or appreciated or valued in his time. He was told to give up his science and get back to his ecclesiastical work. Hell, even Darwin didn’t bother to cut open the journal that contained Mendel’s answer to the problem of heredity. By modern academic standards, and certainly according to our 1%, Mendal was an academic failure at a backwater institute who was unproductive with low citations on one article in a low impact and obscure (e.g., not English language) journal–he didn’t even have a grant to do his work! The father of genetics as viewed by the neoliberal academic.

The last example of elitism that has been badgering me for months is how many people are humbled and honored to be starting new jobs, got promoted, got this award, and the list goes on. You are not humbled because you are bragging about it on social media. You are not honored because you secretly feel it is the pay-off for your hard work. What you are is excited and relieved to escape the terror of the alternative pathway in life. Just stop. Announce a new job without the passive-aggressive emotions. Bear in mind that the other half of your Twitter feed are your opposite numbers who can’t get jobs and are leaving academia. You didn’t make it because you earned it or deserved it and you arguing otherwise is saying that those who haven’t made it don’t deserve it–just like you didn’t until you had your break. Luck and possibly knowing the right people (if you are in the UK) are the keys to your success. This is not a meritocracy and no one has a boot-straps story that isn’t simply survivor’s bias. My career trajectory is luck, just as much as anyone at the 1%. We ALL work hard and we all deserve stable and steady employment. We all have our academic strengths but many of us have never been given the opportunity to develop a competitive portfolio and will not likely make it. Hard work doesn’t pay off for everyone and that’s where luck and entitlement come into play.

In the midst of all this, there has been no voicing of concern about how to stem neoliberal assaults on higher education or even expressions of sympathy for the white-knuckled months UA faculty must now live through before learning whether they will be retained. Everyone knows about it–ignorance is not the problem. What happened to the solidarity expressed for UK academics who were taking a hit on their pensions? As a point of comparison, we don’t have pensions at UA and our system opted out of social security leaving us with only our savings in retirement. So, it isn’t the scale of the problem–Alaska is bigger than the UK but less populated and our educational system is more vital as it is the only one (in the UK, there are ~130). 2500 people have already been forced to take 10 days of unpaid leave to deal with immediate budget shortfalls. While our scholarship money has been given back and there is a bill to pay us enough to get through the year (assuming no governor veto), that is a short-term measure. The outcome is the same–we will be one UA Fall 2020 and that one UA will see a huge reduction in faculty and therefore student services. The University will shrink by selling assets and buildings and cancelling educational efforts. Enrollments, our only source of revenue, will drop because there is no point investing your education in a dying system. And, to be clear, grants (which we awash in) are not revenue but offsets to research costs. How will we maintain costly research with infrastructure reduction? Not very well and granting agencies may be leery to invest in those who have Alaska-based research needs.

The nuclear winter of neoliberal values projected onto higher education in Alaska is coming. We have been living under severe budget cuts for about five years now and it has changed us. There are emergency counseling sessions across campus with dial-in available. There are emergency financial planning sessions available as well. Many people have fled to other jobs (some lateral moves, some steps down from full to assistant professor, and some out of academia entirely). The escape routes are not well lit and there is no support at the other end. The tone on the ground is like a back-alley black market with secrets and rumors being traded as rapidly as deals are made that provide a false hope X department will be saved or Y faculty will be valued high enough for retention.

Why is this happening? According to the elite of Twitter via their messages of support to other academics , it is because we didn’t work hard enough, we didn’t earn it, we aren’t good enough. One of the few reactions to the crisis in Alaska I received is one that I pass on to you should you ever face anything near to what we are currently facing: good luck with that.

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Filed under Alaska, Career, Conflict, Ethics, Higher education, Hostility, neoliberalism

Consider Smell: Arctic Edition (Afterthoughts)

Since the exhibit came down last week, I thought I’d post a few memories of First Friday exhibit opening night at Ursa Major Distillery for Consider Smell: Arctic Edition and some followup on responses from visitors to the gallery over the month-long display! 20160304_172712We had a nice long line waiting for drinks before seeing the art on Friday as well as a good crowd throughout the night. 20160304_174332






People seemed to have fun engaging with the smells we made for my photos:

We offered people a chance to respond to the exhibit and my favorite was:

senses embody everything we experience

from the feeling of fresh grass on bare feet

to warm socks on a chilly hardwood floor

your senses are everything



We asked people to circle a favorite word and this was a fun response:

My first gin and tonic was at an outdoors club in a cave-like setting in Thailand.


Warm and river were popular words–not surprising with breakup starting!



We even had a few creative reactions!



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Filed under Alaska, Olfaction, Senses

What does this smell like?

At the Consider Smell exhibit at Ursa Major Distillery during the month of March, visitors were asked to write down what they thought an unlabelled vial (birch) smelt like. The word cloud interestingly shows smoked/smoky/campfire as common responses–a lot of people were reminded of smoked meats and fishes either from fall hunt or spring spawning, a regional lifestyle specific response!

What do I smell like?



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3 April 2016 · 21:59

Consider Smell: Arctic Edition (Behind the Scenes Sneak Preview)

Join #considersmell this Friday in Fairbanks Alaska for an Arctic Edition of a travelling series of events that explore smelling, and other senses, through time and space. Come to the Ursa Major Distillery on Parks Highway from 5-8 for a multi-sensory experience!

prepartySome tools to get us started: the smoking gun! We use this to create foods from local trees (well, mostly!) Sadly, we can’t serve that yummy leek ash pasta on Friday!

a walk

the team


Our team takes a break! A walk in the woods to contemplate the light, the art, the science, and to smell things (we brought a pro along for help!).


a blue ballThe installation explores the synergy of art and science. Actively engage your senses and travel the interlocking sensual pathways that lead to perception. Explore molecular cocktails (we love the Arctic blueball mojito-see blue ball photo!), neurogastronomy, olfactory art, smell masks, a sound installation, 3D odor molecules, and photography enhanced with bespoke smells.The first thing installed is calm!


read meThe exhibit is partially up! First goes the calm–that and the cocktail (thanks, Rob!) helped make the vinyl cuts even more fun to put up! A few photo nooks masked out and the rest up tomorrow!


Here’s a sneak peak of some things on offer–photographs with smells created, curated, and distilled!

earth-fall-k isovalericSmell fall in Fairbanks…

rural-super snow-j snow


Winter in Fairbanks…

urban-harringey-urban decay
Urbanity in Haringey…

urban-banksy-j urban decay

or the Banksy’s stone canvas at Turnpike Lane.

Maybe sweet Chinese incense along Regent’s Canal after an afternoon on Primrose Hill.

Or the fresh air of Whitstable Seafront!



Smell Masks! They tell a story unique to an individual–a bespoke blend of smells crafted collaboratively. Come and smell the narrative of the Yukon Crossing and the Arctic Change.smell mask

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Filed under Alaska, Food, Olfaction, Science, Senses

Consider Smell: Arctic Edition

Kara C. Hoover and Julia Feuer-Cotter

4 March 2016. Anthropology Colloquium in Bunnell 405 from 3-4:30
Consider Smell: Smelling Imagined Geographies through Time and Space

4 March 2016. First Friday at Ursa Major Distillery from 5-8pm
Join us for a multi-sensory experience that opens the nose to engage deeply across the senses via multisensory molecular cocktails with locally produced spirits, neurogastronomical foods, and interactive art that imagines other geographies. Art pieces range from molecular rendering of olfactory signaling, photography enhanced with bespoke smells, interactive sculptures, crowd sourced smell maps, and smell masks which explore another person’s reality through the nose. This series of works explores the synergy of art and science via the sense of smell. Kara C Hoover uses the nose as an environmental probe to explore smelling across time and space. Julia Feuer-Cotter explores how this environmental perception is enacted in Alaska’s recent past through cultural practices along the Dalton Highway.

14-17 March Arctic Perspectives at the UAF Gallery
Visit “Exploring the past with the sense of smell: circumpolar narratives and the creation of place: at the art show “Arctic Perspectives” at the  Fine Arts Complex/UAF Art Gallery. An opening reception for the exhibit will be held on 14 March 2016 and all are welcome to attend.  Art will be on display 12–17 March during regular Gallery hours, 9am – 5pm. The Gallery is located in the Art Department wing of the Fine Arts Complex, Room 313. On the left side of the Great Hall, the Gallery is the first door to the left immediately upon entering the wing.

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Filed under Alaska, Denisovan, Neandertal, Olfaction, Science, Senses

Smelling in the polar vortex

Since so many parts of the US (mainly the Great Plains, mid-west, and parts of the northeast) are experiencing normal interior Alaska winter temperatures right now, I thought I’d write about what/if we smell when it gets cold.

Our ability to smell things is related to temperature because temperature is a key factor in volatility (tendency to vaporize). We tend to smell volatile compounds (those with high vapor pressure at normal temperatures) that have molecular weights below 300 daltons. Volatiles with lower molecular mass tend to have lower boiling points and evaporate and diffuse more rapidly than compounds with high molecular masses. For example, ethanol (pure alcohol) has a mass of 46 daltons and will vaporize and diffuse at a lower temperature and more rapidly than indole (a fecal smelling element often added to jasmine perfumes to produce a musky scent) which has a mass of 117 daltons.


Ice fog in Fairbanks

Boiling is one end of the vaporization extreme and freezing is the other. The freezing point of water is 0 but other molecules have lower thresholds–however, even if a molecule isn’t frozen, the colder it is, the less thermal energy it will have and its volatility will be reduced (think  of how the aroma of cooled food is not as strong when it was hot). When temperatures are extremely cold, the sense of smell is de facto eliminated (even if your nose weren’t blocked by anti-frostbite protective gear like balaclavas). During the winter in Fairbanks, the only things you can reliably smell outside (down to a certain temperature) are wood burning stoves and car exhaust pollution–both in heavy concentrations trapped close to the ground due to temperature inversion. Maybe another reason we like hot bevvies during cold weather is the welcome rush of volatiles!

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Filed under Alaska, Science, Senses

Smell of the week: Fire

A favorite olfactory pleasure is the smell of burning wood  (even if the guilt from wood particulate pollution diminishes it a bit). I had the first fire of the season in my cabin last night as pictured to the right (I do my best–the wood was dry and seasoned). Not coincidentally, Starvation Gulch takes place at UAF this weekend, 24 September. The first event held in 1923 featured an entire town that was built for daytime entertainment and burned for nighttime fun and warmth (fall comes early here in Alaska). Now students compete to build the most elaborate and creative structures. Throughout the years, the nature of the annual ‘passing the torch of knowledge’ has changed tremendously from shotgun defenses of student wood piles in 1948 to drunken brawls in 1956 which prompted a 16 year campus alcohol ban (luckily we are no longer a dry campus and have our own pub). Saturday night is the culmination of the festival when everything is burnt to the ground (the pic below is mine from last year).

Volatiles are released when the temperature of the chemical interaction between wood and oxygen is between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Volatiles such as hydrogen, methane, ethylene, ethane, benzene and carbon monoxide are released up to 1300°F. Trees have different chemical compositions which result in different odors (to a degree).

Volatiles are particularly relevant to the food industry for making better wood-smoked products. BBQs fueled by hickory or other aromatic wood chips smell better and enhance the BBQ’d foods with the aroma. Meats (like jerky or bacon) that are smoked with different woods are seen as more flavour-filled or richer tasting by some consumers. How then to synthesize this scent if you aren’t a small-scale producer of gourmet smoked foods? Again, we turn to chemists for their analysis of wood volatiles to find the key chemical compounds for that smoked flavour. Oak (used in so many smoked foods, fires, and alcohol) has a keynote of whiskey lactone (quercus lactone), a compound with a strong coconut aroma!

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Filed under Alaska, Olfaction, Senses, smell of the week