the first DACA Rhodes Scholar

Congratulations to Jin Kyu Park, who was named last week as the first DACA immigrant to become a Rhodes Scholar. The Rhodes Trust changed its rules because of him. Previously, only US citizens were allowed to apply for the Rhodes. In the spirit of DACA, it seemed like Dreamers should also qualify, and Harvard encouraged him to apply last year to force the issue. Though that application was rejected as non-qualifying, the Rhodes trustees subsequently voted in favor of changing their rules to allow DACA recipients to apply, and he was invited to reapply this year, this time successfully.

I was proud to co-write one of his letters of recommendation both times. Jin, a Molecular and Cellular Biology major, took my course MCB 112 Biological Data Analysis, and he also took Elena Rivas’ course MCB 111 Mathematics in Biology. Elena and I wrote a joint rave review letter to the Rhodes. It started with something like ‘he is one of the most impressive individuals we have ever encountered in our careers’ and ended with something like ‘we hope to have the chance to vote for him for President someday.’ What with his DACA status, the latter would require one of the Articles of the Constitution to be amended, but we didn’t say any of this lightly.

I am writing this at my parent’s kitchen table in rural western Pennsylvania, with my large family gathered for Thanksgiving. I just noticed that Breitbart has picked up the story. Both the Breitbart headline [‘Harvard-Backed Illegal Alien Becomes First DACA Rhodes Scholar’] and the comments are what one might expect. Well, I’m one of the supposedly effete Harvard liberal professors who backed Jin’s application. But I grew up here in rural coal mining country. My values are western Pennsylvanian values.

It’s true that the Harvard faculty skew left and affluent. I’m frequently conscious of being somewhat out of place on the faculty. (I’m sure there’s plenty of us faculty who feel out of place at Harvard for one reason or another.) Not just at Harvard, but amongst science “elites” in general, I have certainly experienced some “liberal professor” caricatures occasionally. I’ve had more than one sleek, affluent, private-school-educated colleague tell me that the problem with this country is that rural working Americans are stupid. This sort of crap pisses me off as much as it would piss off anyone else from a place like Creekside, Pennsylvania.

I was raised to treat people as individuals, with honor and respect. Jin Park is an extraordinarily talented and hard-working student. I believe that regulation of legal immigration is a core function of government (yeah, and I believe in limited government, fiscal responsibility, and a strong military too) but Jin wasn’t responsible for the decision to come here from Korea; he can’t help that his parents brought him to this country illegally when he was 7. He grew up here, pretty much like I grew up here. I was given the opportunity to rise through the system, with some things working unfairly for me (white male) and some things working against me (didn’t grow up affluent, no fancy private school education, will never ever be sleek). Jin’s illegal immigrant status is something that’s working against him, but he’s worked damn hard to succeed. He worked his butt off in my class, and in Elena’s. He’s a nice guy too. He deserves every chance to rise in this country, as much as any of us. If we help him, like we would help anyone as extraordinarily well qualified as him, our country will be better off for it.

Because of where I came from, I consider it one of my jobs on the faculty at Harvard to look out for rural Americans with backgrounds like mine; and because of my values, I also consider it one of my jobs to look out for stars like Jin.

mistakes were made

“No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens”


A while back Elena Rivas and I posted a response to a bioRxiv preprint (Tavares et al, 2018) that challenged some of the conclusions in our 2017 Nature Methods paper on R-scape, a method for detecting support for conserved RNA secondary structure in sequence alignments by statistical analysis of base pair correlations. At the Benasque RNA meeting last summer, Zasha Weinberg told us we’d made a mistake in our description of how the Weinberg and Breaker R2R program annotates “covarying” base pairs. We’ve just updated our PDF with a correction, and I added an update section to my July blog post to describe the mistake, and our revision. Thanks, Zasha!

Meanwhile, the Tavares et al. manuscript is still up at bioRxiv, with no response to our comment there, despite the fact that we argue that the manuscript is based on an artifact, one of the more spectacular artifacts I have seen in my career. The manuscript describes a method that finds “covariation” support for RNA base pairs in sequence alignments that have no variation or covariation at all.

I’m told that peer review is broken, and that what science really needs is preprint servers and post-publication review. How’s the preprint and open review culture doing in this example? I bet there are people out there citing Tavares et al as support for an evolutionarily conserved RNA structure in the HOTAIR lncRNA, because that’s what the title and abstract says. If people are even aware of our response, I bet they see it as a squabble between rival labs, because lncRNAs are controversial. I bet almost nobody has looked at our Figure 1, which shows Tavares’ method calling “statistically significant covariation” on sequence alignments of 100% identical sequences. I dunno that you’ll ever find a crispier example of post-publication peer review.

In my experience, this is just the way science works, and the way it has always worked. It is ultimately the responsibility of authors, not reviewers, to get papers right. No amount of peer review, pre-publication or post-, will ever suffice to make the scientific literature reliable. Scientists vary in their motivations and in how much they care. Reviews help, but only where authors are willing to listen. A pre-publication peer reviewer can recommend rejecting a paper; the authors can send it elsewhere. A post-publication review can point out a problem; the authors don’t have to pay attention. And who has time to sort out the truth, if the authors themselves aren’t going to?

Most of the literature simply gets forgotten. What matters in the long run is the stuff that’s both correct and important. It’s mostly pointless to squabble about the stuff that’s wrong; point it out politely, sure, but move on. You can’t change people’s minds if they don’t want to hear it.

I guess what I want you to know is that I’m on the side of wanting to get our work right. If you ever see something wrong in one of our papers, or our code, or any product of our laboratory or whatever comes out of my mouth, I want to know about it. Mind you, I won’t necessarily be happy about it – I’m thin skinned, my second grade report card said “DOESN’T TAKE CRITICISM WELL” — but I care deeply about making things right, both in big picture and in every detail.

So again: thanks, Zasha.