Two years of Small Pond Science


Small Pond is exactly two years old. Here’s a reflection on how this site has affected me. Some might call this navel-gazing. I look into that navel infrequently, so after two years I might as well remove this lint.

It takes a few moments to set up a blog. I’m more sheepish about divulging how much time I’ve spent on Small Pond Science over the last two years. I try to give as much attention to this site as I would to a class that I’m teaching, no less and no more.

I’m not used to plans working out, so I was surprised upon revisiting my initial expectations for the site to see that I’m still doing precisely what I set out to do. I think — and not without evidence — that I’ve helped raise awareness of scientists at teaching centered institutions. I’ve tried to do this by bringing up this topic as it overlaps with all that we do as scientists. I didn’t expect the world to change, and it hasn’t. There are frequent indicators that the broader research community still tends to overlook scientists that aren’t working in major research universities.

But sometimes I hear that the conversations here make some kind of difference, and every time it happens I’m newly surprised, gratified, and humbled. As a minor example, after I wrote a post advocating pressure cooking, at least a few people I know actually went out and got a pressure cooker, and are happily using it! That blows me away, but that fact makes some sense in light of this thing that can be called Imposter Syndrome, which feels quite real to me.

I love the idea that we can package together ideas, passion, concern, hopes, annoyances and anxieties, and implement them as a force, across the distance of space and time. I remain a little drunk on the notion that I’ve managed this feat a nonzero number of times. While pheromones are an effective mode of communication in the ants I study, as a member of H. sapiens I feel that words are special. Words can transform brains without even touching them, isn’t that magic?

I detect an irony: my purpose here is to promote the science and scientists in teaching institutions, and it seems to me that the scientist benefiting the most is myself. If I somehow am successful at convincing others that great scientists are at work in teaching institutions, then it can only really happen if that rising tide includes my own boat. I couldn’t credibly argue for the importance of research in small pond academic institutions if I didn’t have credible status as a researcher. It’s no coincidence that my CV on my lab site gets a lot more exercise than it did a couple years ago. (To spare you the trouble, for the little it is worth, google scholar says my h-index is 18 and I got my PhD in 1999; that’s admittedly high for a university like mine, but at or below par for a major research institution.) While I’ve put my credibility on the line here, as far as I can tell I’ve acquitted myself pretty well and my stock in academia has risen because of it. That wasn’t my goal, and I didn’t really think that would happen, but I have to admit it’s pleasant to have broader recognition considering I’m at a university that is mostly unknown even in its own city. I won’t let myself think that this visibility is an indicator of fulfillment or achievement, but it does take the edge off of the anonymity experienced by working in a very small pond. Since the point of research is to make discoveries that change how the world see things, then enhancing my ability to make these discoveries known has to have some importance. I don’t need to be famous, but I do want my work to make a difference.

Here’s what I find really striking about the personal benefit I reap from this site: most of you aren’t directly familiar with my research, which makes sense because this site rarely is about the ecological and myrmecological discoveries made in my lab. Nonetheless, because of this site, you know that I exist as scientist. I know a lot more scientists, and I know a lot more interesting and cool people, than I knew two years ago. Especially students and postdocs. This kind of enrichment is priceless, and my circle of colleagues has expanded in a way that helps me grow as a scientist and also increases the reach of my work. I didn’t expect this to happen at all, and for this I am so thankful, particularly for my blog compadre Amy Parachnowitsch.

What are some of the other Small Pond-related surprises over the last couple years?

There are fewer downsides than I thought there might be. The only important one is that when I try to deal with important issues in a substantial manner, I have screwed up, which can hurt (or at least annoy) people. I’m sure, through this kind of incompetence, I’ve undermined my goals on several occasions.

It’s hard to reconcile the fact that what I write on this site has more exposure than the papers that I publish in peer-reviewed journals. Even when I have a great paper that gets cited really well, investing an equivalent amount of effort into blog posts would reach far more people. This hasn’t diminished my enthusiasm for doing and publishing science, but I have not yet got my head around the implications from the fact that I could write a blog post in fifteen minutes, and that will that will have a broader reach than a project that I worked hard on for many months. I view journal articles as my primary product as a scientist, and the blog is a useful and now important complement to those papers. It remains a disequilibrium and I’m still finding my footing.

There are some people who I have gotten to know personally, who initially only knew me from this site. From what they say, I am apparently mostly like what you might imagine from just reading this site. I find that a little horrifying for a few reasons. First, I make a point of trying to leave myself out of the equation as much as possible (while recognizing that this is a casual, first-person medium). Second, when I look back at what I’ve written, I often see a person that is more strident and less tolerant than I hope to be or hope I am. This makes me want to become a better person than I see in my own words, which isn’t bad but it is an ongoing challenge. Third, it makes me realize that I’ve exposed myself more than I had ever planned. If people can really know me from reading this site — and the data indicate that is true — then I now am living with the notion that there are a bunch of people who I don’t know, who genuinely know me. That’s really intimidating. When I go to my next conference, are there people who know me but I don’t know, and we won’t have the benefit of a friendly chat? On the plus side, the fact that such a thing can happen is a testament to the magic of words, and living with that magic can be special.

What’s in the future for Small Pond? I don’t have any plans for big changes or anything grandiose, other than wanting to build a more representative range of voices from variously sized bodies of water that are passionate about research, teaching and mentorship. I am not only open to your thoughts, but they are essential to the continued usefulness of this site, which is clearly at its best when there are a diversity of perspectives. Thanks for two great years.

18 thoughts on “Two years of Small Pond Science

  1. Hi Terry,

    Congrats on the two year anniversary! I just wanted to say that I really enjoy reading your posts, even though I’m in a completely different field (social science). Keep up the good work🙂

  2. Hi Terry! I mostly lurk here, in part because as a postdoc at a place that I usually nickname Big University, I’m not in anything resembling a small pond place, but your discussion about how you do things and what it’s like working at your institution has definitely influenced my ideas about how I want to structure a career that includes substantial amounts of both teaching and research. So, um, thank you!

  3. You can add another to that list of pressure cooker converts, but know that the reason I am a recurring visitor has nothing to do with pressure cooking and everything to do with my viewing of SPS as a valuable resource for a grad student.

  4. Congratulations! I think I’m topping out on three years now for my own blog, but I feel like you’ve cultivated a much more mature platform for your views, and, based on what you say here, it’s really clearly tied to the effort you put into it (and you’re innate ability to blog naturally!). If I can scratch something out one morning every few weeks I’m happy.

    I’ve appreciated your views on the challenges of teaching in a small pond, and the perspectives you’ve given us (here and on twitter) about the students who are learning at the same institution.

    Anyway, when people ask me about academic blogs to follow yours is one of the first I mention. Thanks for a great two years of reading!

  5. Thanks for this! I started a blog myself last year and let it languish. It’s great motivation for me to read some of the benefits that have come from dedicating two years to this less-formal way of communicating and conversing as a scientist.

    Now time to dust off mine…

  6. Congrats and happy birthday! The ability to have frequency AND staying power that your blog has demonstrated is rare in the blog world. Oh, and the little detail that your content is really great!

  7. A hearty congratulations! Always engaging, and never skipped over in my weekend reads. Here’s to many more successful years.

  8. Congrats on two years! I’m an avid follower of SPS, but one of the people you don’t know. Through SPS, you’ve provided me with some very useful advice at a critical point in my career – as I made the transition from grad student at an R1 to postdoc at a Small Pond, and as I prepare for the transition to a faculty position. Your posts have forced me think more deeply about where I want to land eventually. You normalize many of the issues I face regularly and help me beat back the beast named Imposter Syndrome. SPS is also an easy way for me to keep tabs on current issues in academia/ecology. Although I rarely comment, I look forward to your posts (particularly recommended reads!), and share them with others frequently. My sincere thanks for all of the great advice and encouragement. Keep it up!

  9. Congratulations – My blog had it’s second birthday last month and I totally agree with what you have written. Thanks for providing me with the chance to read your thoughtful essays. i always enjoy reading them. Keep up the good work.

  10. Keep it up Terry!

    Re: still wrapping your head around the reach of your blog relative to your papers, I think it just goes to show that you’re a really good blogger! (Well, and that you’re blogging about stuff for which the potential audience is much larger than the potential audience for excellent entomological research.)

  11. Bon anniversaire, Terry. I sincerely enjoy your posts and am grateful for your review of interesting happenings in science, the blogosphere, and beyond.

  12. I was thinking of the benevolent remarks I’d be getting in the comments of this post when I wrote it, but I don’t mind! Thanks for your kind thoughts.

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