Requiem for a sabbatical

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I haven’t had any service or teaching duties on my campus since May 2016. That ends today. I know, boo-hoo. Now I’m looking back at what sabbatical did for me and what I did for sabbatical.

Did I go anywhere? Not really. I continued to stay (mostly) at home, as my spouse was settling into the 2nd year of a new position, and as my son was completing his last year of middle school. I traveled a bit more. In addition to my normal academic trips to Costa Rica and Australia, I also spent a few weeks in Michigan, and few weeks in New Zealand (that image above is of The Remarkables in NZ). I gave a few seminars. And went to some conferences, and had some quality vacation. When I was at home, I was based out of the Entomology Department of the Natural History Museum of LA County, where they have been gracious enough to host me as a Research Associate (which is closer to my home than campus, geographically if not temporally.)

When folks have been asking me about how my sabbatical went, I have answered in three different ways, all of which are true. Here I’ll share each of my assessments. (This is handy practice because I’ll be owing a report to my dean and provost soon.)

First: “I think I accomplished about 5-10% of what I had hoped to get done.”

Second: “There are three things I set out to do, and I can fairly say that I’ve done them.”

Third: “I had specific plans, but I also went into sabbatical with some kind of vague mission or mid-ish-career crisis, to try to figure out what my next chapter should be. I’ve now been working on all kinds of stuff at my field site in Costa Rica for more than 20 years. It’s been rewarding, and gosh it’s so darn easy to work there, but I realized that if I just continue to run more experiments for 20 more years, I’d be excited and happy but not as fulfilled as I’d like to be. I felt like I need to be doing something more and different, but didn’t know what that was.”

How could I have accomplished what I set out to do, but only gotten 5-10% of it done? I think I just had (typical but) unreasonably high expectations. The three big things were to: 1. land a book contract, 2. publish a backlog of papers, and 3. get proficient with R.

And, yay! I did all three of those things. Sorta. 1. I am now under contract to write The Field Guide to College Science Teaching with the University of Chicago Press. 2. I have some papers accepted, I have some in review, and more that should be ready to go out soon enough. 3. I’m using R for my stats.

But where am I falling short? Well, I’ve had the book contract for months, but the book isn’t done. I’ll make my deadline, but it would have been nice to finish before sabbatical ended. While I’ve been publishing, I still have some very cool papers that I have yet to submit. That’s because I told myself I’d be doing the analysis and figures with R, and doing this in R is still really slow for me. I’m probably not proficient, at least not compared to an experienced R user, but I’m getting there.

As for my vague quest to find a new thing, well, that ended super-duper well. I came in to sabbatical with an open mind, and I was working out of the Natural History Museum because it was a good fit for me to do writing and maybe a little collections-based work. But it’s evolved into much more. The people are great, the science is equally great, and well, museums are just wonderful in general and this one is particularly special. Their brand of public science is compelling, and the capacity of the museum to reach into communities throughout the Los Angeles area is unparalleled. I’m now collaborating with them on public science projects and have gotten a bit of support from my university to continue my work with the museum into this upcoming semester. I’m still doing tropical biology, but I’m thrilled to do science in my own city, in a way that is makes it a lot easier to meaningfully connect to my local community. I don’t know if this is a magical direction that will fulfill me, but for the first time in a few years I’m not compelled to wonder what new direction I should be taking. So I’ll chalk that up as a win.

It was a nice sabbatical. At this moment, the idea of sitting in on a couple campus committees is far less hideous than it felt a year ago, so I guess I’m ready to go back.

What are best ways to learn R?

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Screen Shot 2017-08-06 at 3.35.38 PMOver my year of sabbatical, I planned to become comfortably proficient with data manipulation and analysis with R. I’m getting there. (I was doing a lot more over sabbatical of course, but this was one of my main objectives.) I figure it’ll take at least a few more manuscripts to get comfortable. As I really should be cranking out a dissertation’s worth of stuff in the next year, I have plenty of opportunity to get better, and the rate limiting step for me is sorting out the code. Continue reading

What’s up with preprints?

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image from prepubmed

Preprints are not a standard practice in biology. Nowadays, most papers that get published in peer-reviewed journals were not uploaded to a public preprint server.

Maybe this is changing? It looks like preprints are starting to take off. It’s not clear if this is a wave that will sweep the culture of the field, or just a growing practice among a small subset. Continue reading

Recommended reads #108

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Wow. This opinion piece written by a scientist, who is a whistleblower working in the Department of Interior, is both important and landmine. They essentially reassigned him — and many other senior scientists — to work in the mailroom. Far away from home. We knew in advance that our new federal government was going to be anti-science, and in places like this, it’s as clear as ever. If you haven’t seen this yet, it’s a short op-ed and a key piece of information if you’re trying to stay even the slightest informed about science policy in the US kleptocracy.

This one-minute clip of a US congress member asking a NASA scientist whether it is possible that a civilization was on Mars thousands of years ago is also a must-see. Continue reading

Thinking critically about the ways we help our students

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wskqpFolks can throw around the word “mentoring” rather sloppily. Which can lead students to being told that they’re being mentored, when they’re not.

I’ve seen a bit more of this while reviewing a variety of formal “mentorship plans” (in the context of panel service). A lot of people get what mentorship is about. But a good fraction of the plans weren’t so much about mentorship as they were about supervision — they said what the “mentee” would be doing for the “mentor,” but not specific about how the “mentor” would be supporting the specific needs of the “mentee.”

So what is mentorship and what isn’t? I volunteer an example for your consideration: Continue reading

We need to stop calling professional development a “pipeline”

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When we talk about increasing the representation of women and ethnic minorities in STEM, the path towards a professional career is often characterized as a “pipeline.”

The pipeline metaphor is so entrenched, it affects how people think about our deep-rooted problems. This metaphor has become counterproductive, because it fails to capture the nature of the problem that we are trying to solve. Even if we were to magically repair all of the so-called “pipeline,” we still would have what some would call “pipeline issues.”

What are the problems with the pipeline metaphor? Continue reading

How bad is the loss of NSF dissertation improvement grants?

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Last week, NSF announced they have stopped awarding DDIGs – the Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grants in the divisions of Environmental Biology and Integrative Organismal Systems.

How bad is this decision? In the words of Jane Lubchenco:

Continue reading

Recommended reads #104

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It’s been two weeks already!? Here’s some reads for what remains of the long holiday weekend, for those of us in the US.

In mentorship, a sense of belonging may be most important

Getting past Bloom’s taxonomy in a way that focuses on the minds of the students

This online comic as struck a big chord with a a lot of women I know. It explains how many men don’t share the burden of parenting and running a household by simply thinking that doing stuff when asked is enough. The cognitive load of keeping track of domestic affairs is not a trivial matter. Continue reading

Making scientific conferences more engaging

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In scientific conferences, the talks are often the least constructive part of the meeting. That’s my experience and opinion, at least. This is ironic, because at least in theory, the talks are the raison d’être of a conference.

When people fly in from great distances to be together, should we really be spending most of the day in dark rooms listening to canned talks from our colleagues? Should we be spending our time on things that we could just as easily do in a webinar? Continue reading