Academic dress code or why women seem to think about clothing more than men

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Last week we saw a blatant example of not considering the implications of your wardrobe. There are a lot of good perspectives on That Shirt worn by Dr. Matt Taylor not the least Terry’s own last week; on twitter #shirtstorm or #shirtgate. Rather than discuss the incident itself, which has received plenty of play already and been written about more elegantly and thoroughly than I can, I want to write about academic dress codes in general. Continue reading

Social media: what is it good for?

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For better or worse, I am the only person in my department who engages regularly in social media. Blogging here, reading other blogs (and occasionally commenting), chatting on twitter…over the last year or so these have become regular activities for me. So for our informal seminar series, I decided to talk about using social media as a scientist. Continue reading

The conference hangover

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This week I definitely had a ‘hangover’. Two weeks of meetings* left me a strange mixture of excited, enthusiastic, invigorated and completely drained. I have lots of new ideas and enjoyed both making new connections and reconnecting with others. But I can forget how drained I can feel after such intense social activity, even if I don’t travel far. Continue reading

Writing a review: thoughts from the trenches.

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Somehow I’m in the middle of writing three review papers so I am gaining some perspective on writing them. The first one is basically my own fault; I started thinking a lot about nectar rewards and how they fit into my research. That thinking lead to a talk last year on some of my ideas to a bunch of like-minded folk at the Scandinavian Association of Pollination Ecologist’s meeting. Main lesson from my experience: never end a talk asking if you should write a review (and/or for interested co-authors) unless you really want to. Continue reading

Invasive species, immigrant emotions and a guilty conscience

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I have a confession to make: I live in Sweden and I have lupines in my garden.

I didn’t plant them, they were there when I moved in, but after two seasons I haven’t removed them either. In Sweden, I see escaped lupines along roadsides and although I’m not sure how much of a problem they are to native ecosystems here*, they are definitely non-native.

Seeing lupines along the roadsides is a treasured memory from my childhood. The kicker is that lupines aren’t even native where I grew up. Continue reading

Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days

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A couple of recent conversations have got me thinking about the culture of academia and grad school training.

The first conversation relates more to the general culture of academia. The complaint was that these days people are very selfish; they don’t want to participate in departmental events or even come into their office unless there is a very personal benefit they can see. The research groups are little islands and everything is about me, me, me. Young professors and graduate students aren’t thinking about how that can and should contribute to the academic community but rather always focused on what they need to do for themselves and/or their group. Now we can debate about whether or not this is really the state of academia or even if it is true for the particular department that was being complained about but it is an interesting thing to think about. In these days of extreme competition, for grants, positions, paper publications, and on and on, are we becoming too focused on ourselves? Is it really all about me? Continue reading

Where do you eat lunch? And does it matter?

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Lunch culture seems to vary a lot from place to place.

I will admit to sometimes eating lunch at my desk, even though it is seems a highly unusual thing at European universities. But these days it is rare for me to do that, partly because most people aren’t and partly because it is just nicer to take a moment and eat properly. Continue reading

Academic self care

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The semester has begun and everyone is returning back to campus. It means my commuter bus is full and I rarely get a preferred seat. Bike parking in Uppsala is a lot harder too. For me this means that I’m returning to my office and there are people walking around in the corridors. I spent my summer doing a mix of work travel, fieldwork, housework, vacation and lots of mad writing at home. It was a nice break from the routine and a hopefully productive summer. Mostly it has meant that I’ve only dropped by the lab every once in a while to run samples but otherwise I haven’t spent much time there.

So when I started coming back into the office, I’ve been catching up on all those things I’d ignored during the summer. There is juggling the samples I’ve accumulated, meeting with students, catching up with my PhD student about her work this summer, chatting with colleagues, digging out my desk, and trying to finish up writing on a deadline.*

When I get into a rhythm of working at home/in the field, I often find that I don’t transition well to being back in my office. I’m not sure why really but I tend to get distracted by all the things that need doing. I don’t drink enough water. I eat my lunch late and I generally push myself in ways that are unhealthy. It only takes heading home with a headache to reset my mindset and remind myself that I don’t need to do all the things. And if I ignore my body it comes with a cost.

In the ‘back to school’ season it is good to remind myself to take care of myself and remember to listen to my body. I think that academia can be quite bad at creating healthy work environments. Although there is the issue of taking care of your mental health, and I know they are connected, but in this post I’m going to focus on physical constraints of a job in academia. I think the job can lend itself to all kinds of bad for you behaviours. I’m definitely guilty of a few.

In my experience, one of the problems of research can be that you never do any particular task (accept maybe computer work) for long enough periods of time to ensure they are ergonomic and not damaging. Now before you start thinking about those long days in the field or lab doing some horribly repetitive task for hours on end and disagree, I’m not talking about hours, days or even weeks here. I’ve done some tasks in physically awkward ways (or witnessed them) simply because it isn’t such a long term thing. You just need to get through these 100, 1000, etc samples/computer files/whatever. If it were your job to do that thing and only that, you’d never be able to sustain it if you didn’t have a good work station. But we often only work on short-term assembly line tasks so they are often not set up in the most ergonomic way. Of course some situations are beyond your control. It is difficult to measure flowers on a plant at an awkward height but you can’t change how the plant grows. You can however, varying your position, use a camping stool, sit on the ground and otherwise make accommodations so you don’t strain your body. The same is true in the lab or at the computer. I know many examples of grad students who developed some kind of repetitive stress injury while doing their research. It a real and can be debilitating thing.

Most of us spend a lot of time at our computers so it is a good idea to create a good desk situation. Separate keyboards from your laptop, raised screens, a good chair… all these things can help long hours at the computer. Meg Duffy has also talked about her treadmill desk and its benefits and limitations. I have an adjustable desk for standing, which I try to do much of the day, but haven’t ventured to a treadmill. But it isn’t just posture at your desk that can cause problems, typing and mouse work can lead to repetitive stress injury so setting up your work station can be crucial to successful computing (some ideas for avoiding bad computer setups and injury here).

Similar principles apply to your lab and fieldwork. The more conscious you are about the way you have to do the activity and think about it before hand, the more healthy you can be. I also find that those few moments of thinking about how to do a job in a healthy way also improves efficiency. It is hard to be efficient at a task if it is physically awkward in someway. So whether you are processing 10, 100, 1000 or 10000 samples, making it easy on your body is worth a few moments of contemplation.

I try to be mindful of the tasks I do and set things up in a way that are ergonomic, even if I’m not going to be doing that activity for extended periods. But it is easy to forget about your body, get caught up in a task. For me it is always the rush to the finish line that gets me; it is precisely because I see the end of the task that I tend to push myself too hard.

I’m definitely not writing from some moral high ground. I am currently battling frozen shoulder, which was probably made a lot worse by spending too many hours painting windows this summer. I’m sure the inactivity of desk work doesn’t help me either. But the experience has got me more conscious of what I’m doing with my body and I hope after some physiotherapy I might be able to lift my arm above shoulder level again some day soon. Now I just need to also remember to take breaks, drink water, don’t over-caffeinate and generally take care of myself at the office.**

 

 

*Who in their right mind accepts to co-author a review due at the end of the summer? So glad I said yes, and more so now that it is submitted, but it definitely made for a crazy summer.

**Thanks to @CMBuddle and @Julie_B92 who got me thinking more about the topic.

A vacationing scientist.

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“I wish those flowers were closer and then we could pick them and you could do the work.” –my daughter to me while on vacation

“I wish those flowers were closer and then we could pick them and you could do the work.” –my daughter to me while on vacation

Last month we traveled as a family to Corsica for a real honest to goodness vacation. We spent days on the beach and exploring medieval towns. It was mostly sunny and warm and relaxing.

But…I did bring my computer. I had minor heart palpitations when I realised that the cottage we were staying in did not come with internet but it helped me actually have a vacation. I was reduced down to a few hurried email sessions at cafes or restaurants where I answered the most critical emails and sent off a few promised items. I worked a little on a paper I’m currently facing down a deadline for but not nearly enough to make this week back to work a breeze. So I vacationed but I didn’t truly drop everything. I rarely do. Some might find this a horrid part of the job—flexible enough to always follow you around but for others that is some of the joy of academic life. Continue reading

Teaching Challenges: group projects

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Science is a collaborative effort and in essence, more and more of our scientific effort is done in groups. We come up with projects together, divide the labour, and co-write the papers that come out of it. So the idea of the lone scientist, working away in a solitary lab is really something for the movies rather than reality.

In teaching, group projects not only mimic the reality of what happens ‘for real’* but also provide a valuable learning experience for students. If you’re interested in reading more about the benefits of group work here is a start and here and here offer some tips on how to implement group assignments. Continue reading

Field courses: a blessing and a curse

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Since I began my position at Uppsala, my summers begin frantically. Although my teaching load is relatively light, the majority of it comes in the spring just when I am getting ready for my own and my PhD’s fieldwork.

I teach in a course on Ecological Methods. Students learn mainly about sampling and survey techniques for a broad range of organisms but the focus is on birds, insects and plants (for which I’m responsible). The course starts in March and runs until the first week of June (therein lies some of my problems but more on that later). Continue reading

How honest should I be about my career goals? My post-PhD story.

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My post-PHD journey is peppered throughout the posts I write here but I was inspired by a blog carnival over at the Contemplative Mammoth to put together a single post. After May 28th Jacquelyn Gillpromises to compile all the links, so if you’re interested in what people do after their PhDs, head on over there.

Long before I finished my PhD, my path in academia was never particularly clear. I came to research late in my undergraduate studies and at every stage I have thought: “Well this is interesting, challenging and fun, so lets see if I can find a masters/PhD/position”. I knew that at each of these filters there was a real possibility that I wouldn’t be able to find the next position. So I remained cautiously optimistic but always thought that at some point I would have to figure out what to do when I go up. Since I was aware of the possibility that I wouldn’t find a position along the academic trail, I’ve never been focused on a tenure-track position as the only career choice that will make me happy. But as I have progressed, I wonder how honest I should be about this fact.

You see I’m not convinced that I will end up as a professor. I know that it takes an incredible combination of skill and luck to land a position. Although I ended up doing a PhD in one of the top programs of my field, when I applied there were other top schools that didn’t invite me to interview. So even at that stage I was aware that there is variance in decisions and that I am not one of the applicants with a flawless CV (at that stage I had good research experience but less than top undergraduate grades and GRA scores). Last year I was one of the selected candidates to interview for two positions in Sweden. Unfortunately for me, I didn’t get either but what was interesting was that I applied for the positions with two of my colleagues. The person who got one of the positions wasn’t even invited to interview at the other and the two of us that did interview for both flipped in ranking between the two jobs. I don’t take this as a sign that the system is random but rather that when comparing good candidates, how qualities are weighted will always vary between selection committees. But of course it does worry me that I might never quite make it to the top of the list.

So given what I think is a somewhat realistic frame of mind, I have always taken the ‘let’s see what happens’ approach. That means that in conversations throughout my career I have not been dead certain that being a professor is my one and only goal. But when I’m honest about my uncertainty, I find that it can be mistaken for a lack of desire or drive. Like hinting that you are aware that there are few permanent professor positions and the reality is that you might not get one means you aren’t interested in continuing in academia.

To be clear: I love my job. I am sometimes afraid to admit how much I enjoy it, like a kid not wanting to jinx my chances. Sure there are lots of things that stress me out about this path but when I take a moment to think about it, I love my job. I love being able to think about new questions and new problems all the time. I love teaching and getting students excited about the world around them. I love the challenges I face that force me to grow and learn all the time. I love to write and present findings at conferences. I love talking to people about their work and collaborating. As a career, I can’t think of any better and I truly hope that I can keep on doing what I’m doing.

But here’s the catch: I’m not willing to sacrifice everything to achieve a tenure track position. I have a family that I need to consider if we make a move for a position, but I also have a family that I want to spend time with. For me that means I work less than I could and that is certainly is reflected in my publication rate. So when I look at my CV, I see that I could do better but I also know that I don’t want to trade-off my happiness now for some uncertain happiness in the future when I have tenure.

So should I be honest about my uncertainty? I have become wary of talking too frankly because I don’t want the perception to be that I’m not dedicated. Thus far I have been fortunate that I have been able to keep going in academia and I haven’t seriously considered other options. I might have to do that when my current funding runs out but for now I continue on working towards an eventual permanent position.

So for me, my post-PhD story doesn’t have an ending. I still feel in flux and don’t know where I will end up, geographically or otherwise. But for now I’m enjoying the ride.

Is grad school a good time to have a baby?

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I have no clear answer and I had my daughter just after finishing my fourth year…

A post on having kids in grad school has been on my roster basically since I started blogging. I sometimes get asked this question because I had a baby in grad school. While contemplating what to write, I realised I actually know quite a few mothers who started their families in grad school. Some have gone on to continue their careers in academia while others made the decision to leave. Although motherhood plays a part of their personal stories, the mothers I know are not unlike the general population of grad students I came through with, who are all also trying to find their way and decide what to do with their lives and careers.

So last year, I decided that to ask all the people I knew who had babies in grad school about their experiences and what advice they would give to the question “Is grad school a good time to have a baby?”. The one thing that these parents all have in common is an enthusiasm for the idea and a lack of follow through (including me!). I posed the question but then got caught up with other things as I’m wont to, just like I’m sure all the other parents who said they’d like to contribute but ended up being far too busy to write about it. Instead of pestering them after having dropped the ball before, I thought I would write my own perspective first.

What follows is a modified email that I sent to a female grad student who directly asked me for advice on whether grad school was a good time to have a baby. One thing that did come to mind when thinking about this question is that I come from a supportive department in this respect and it clearly shows in the number of grad school babies that born there. So my answer to the question is coloured with the privilege of support, both from my advisor and department. Many are not so lucky.

My advice and perspective is also skewed towards mothers, although I know grad school dads as well. Part of the challenge of having a baby during grad school for a woman is, well, having the baby. Although parenting can be a lot more equal pretty quickly as long as both parents make an effort for it to be, the burden of pregnancy and breastfeeding (if you can/do breastfeed) falls squarely on the mother. There are real physical aspects of this time that means extra support and consideration for mothers that I think shouldn’t be ignored. You’ll see some of that perspective in what follows.

Here is my advice from a couple of years ago to a fellow grad student* pondering having a baby before finishing:

I seriously feel unqualified to offer advice–somehow I managed to make it through but I’m still not sure how. So I’m not sure I have wisdom but here are a few thoughts. First, they always say there is never a good time to have kids and although its true, you should never let that stop you. It is a tough thing to plan and it is always more of a crazy disruptive thing then you imagine it will be. But it is also amazing so if you want it I would say give it a try–you will always make it work somehow–sometimes things go a little slower than planned or differently than planned but that is all part of it. I think you will make your priorities happen–if you want the baby and want the PhD, you will make it work. My story was that I did manage to have a double TA at the end and that helped a lot. But I did it in the opposite direction from (another grad student)–I took off a semester (‘writing’)/had Maiken and then double TAed. Somehow I managed to come back, double TA and finish. I think that had a lot to do with the fact that my committee was very forgiving—I am still working through publishing my chapters and sometimes I am amazed they let me go**. And of course, having a supportive spouse is huge–I couldn’t have done it without my partner’s help.

I think everyone’s situation is unique though. I thought I would do some writing when I was off but I did next to nothing those first few months. The birth was a lot harder than I had hoped (I had to have an emergency c-section). The recovery took more out of me than I thought–emergency means bigger cut and it was a while before I could even get out of bed normally. I also did not do well with the sleep deprivation so that made it tough to think and function–the hormones also can make you a little crazy and seriously effect your brain function. No one told me that I would be more forgetful once I became pregnant, for example…. Not to scare you but things can go in unexpected ways and although it is totally doable, pregnancy/breast feeding, etc is definitely a draining experience–but you will roll with those things as they come and they shouldn’t stop you. And many people have it much easier than me and hopefully you will too!

Ultimately, the decision should be up to you and your partner, so in some ways, I don’t think you need to talk to anyone officially until it is certain you are having a baby. Then the logistics can be worked out as they need to be and my experience with the department is that they are pretty supportive. My opinion is that it is your right to have a baby so they need to deal with it and they want you to graduate so they’re going to work with you to make that happen. When I passed 3 months, I went to my advisor and then my committee and the department chair. I basically started by saying I was pregnant and I had a rough outline of a plan of how to finish up. My biggest request was the double TA*** and they were good enough to give me that. I think they thought I was a little crazy and that I would not manage moving to Sweden, having a baby, coming back and defending but they were definitely supportive. I did lose one committee member because they wasn’t around when I needed to defend but everyone was fine with that and since I had four members I didn’t need to replace them. I guess you just should be prepared to be a little flexible and figure out what is feasible but I think it is definitely possible to manage it.

Having a baby is always going to be a huge disruption of everything else in your life and they only continue to be that. But grad school isn’t a bad time to start. You’re time is actually pretty flexible. So even though it was crazy busy, I’d do it again. The writing/stress of finishing always seems about the same to me, whether or not you have a baby (at least from watching other people). You basically fill up the time. When you have something else so huge going on, you are forced to work more efficiently and not worry about it so much. Revisions can always go on forever, when you don’t have forever, you basically have to stop. Part of the reason I am still working on things from my PhD is because I am trying for good journals so that is also a choice…

Anyway, personally, I wouldn’t ask permission/talk to anyone that I thought would try to dissuade me from doing it, at least if they were in a position of power. If they try to say it isn’t for the best and then you do get pregnant you’re possibly creating unnecessary tension. But once you are pregnant, it isn’t like they can advise you not to be. So the discussion will hopefully be more productive and positive about how to make it work.

I hope this ramble makes some sense. Follow your hearts, do what feels right and it will work out.****

So in short, is grad school a good time to have a baby? It was for me.***** I have a wonderful/stubborn/imaginative/annoying/beautiful/challenging/creative daughter and so far a career in science that I love. I wouldn’t change any of it. But having a baby is a deeply personal choice and I don’t think anyone can truly answer for another whether any particular time is ‘good’ or not.

 

*I’m happy to say said grad student now has a lovely daughter and PhD degree.

**Impostor syndrome alert: I had one published chapter and three manuscripts at the time of my defence. Not such an uncommon combination…but I had high expectations of myself and was disappointed that I hadn’t submitted more at that point.

***My salary support was through TAships and doing all my teaching duties in one semester instead of spread across two meant that I could come to Sweden and be with my partner during the first few months of my daughters life (her due date coincided with the start of the fall semester)

****I tend to live by this philosophy, although the ‘working out’ might not be how you first imagined.

*****A recent twitter conversation about grad school stipends directly relates to the finances of being a parent in grad school. I didn’t have to support my family on my stipend, nor was I a single parent, important distinctions.

More backyard reflections: connections between farming and fieldwork

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The weekend was beautiful and I spent a good portion of it in the backyard digging up grass. The plan is to have a small raised garden for vegetables, nothing too extensive but enough to plant a few things and enjoy them straight from the earth. You can’t get more local than that. As happens when doing something physical, my mind wandered. I had some “help” from my 4 year old but she would quickly bore of the repetitive nature of the task at hand so I was often left to my own devises.

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Beginning of the vegetable plot. Looks easy but my body can attest to the amount of digging it took!

Not surprisingly, digging in the dirt got me thinking about the summer I turned 20 and spent 5 months on an organic farm. It was an interesting summer, where I learned a lot but I had no idea I was preparing for a future as a field ecologist. That summer I was a bit lost. I had gone to university for a single semester before dropping out (finances being a major factor) and spent the next year or so working at various service jobs in Vancouver. I knew those weren’t things I wanted to do forever but I wasn’t sure what it was that I wanted. So I headed back across the country to Nova Scotia to live and work on a farm very near where I had spent some of my childhood. The memories of exactly how this plan came to be are foggy for me now (think my mother subtlety encouraged the Nova Scotia angle) but however it came about I ended up living on an organic farm, working for $50/week with three other exploring (or lost depending on how you want to look at it) young women.

Before working on a farm I had a romantic notion that maybe farming was one of things I’d want to do with my life. Farming cured that even though I absolutely loved the summer doing it1. What I saw though was the stress of worrying about the weather, the pests and all the other things that can go wrong. The funny thing is that I face lots of the same problems these days, just in a different context. I’ve lost experiments to deer browsing, mowing and bad weather. One major lesson I took from those farming days is to diversify and protect the truly important “crops” (experiments). I usually have a few field experiments/a few more replicates/etc running ‘just in case’2. A lot of the ‘just in case’ also makes good ecological sense. It is important to know, for example, if the patterns you see are consistent in different populations. It also helps when the deer eat all your plants in one of the populations; at least you still have some data to work with. Protection like fencing is also sometimes a critical part of ecological experiments. If you want to examine plant-insect interactions for example then it doesn’t help if the deer eat everything. If you want to eat the tasty vegetables you plant and know there is at least one hare that prowls your yard, fencing it is.

In plant ecology, often experiments require planting out particular populations or communities. There is the raising of the seeds, planting of the individuals, harvesting of the data and the stress of choosing the right time to do all these things. Sometimes you get it wrong. I always loved this story of a large planting that got hit by a frost; smart and experienced researchers don’t throw up their hands when the frost kills half your plants. If they’re lucky there is variation in survival and they write a paper about that instead.3 However, these decisions aren’t without consequence. While I was a grad student, I witnessed another’s unfortunate loss of an entire experiment to frost shortly after planting one summer.4 So the stress that I thought I was turning away from when I finished at the farm is actually a regular part of my summers. Maybe my income isn’t so directly tied to the harvest as on a farm but if experiments and papers are the currency that allows me to keep going as a scientist, then I’ve definitely paid the price of random events throughout the years.

I learned a lot that summer but probably most things were really about me. I learned I had stamina and that I could push my body and mind to keep going. I learned that I could tolerate bad weather and good to get the job done.5 I learned to laugh at rain and hailstorms and freezing weather and heat that makes you feel like passing out every time you get up.6 I learned that no matter how well you prepare, sometimes you just need to drop everything and change directions. Perhaps most importantly I learned that I liked being out there each day and being proud of what we accomplished. And I learned that some of the best friendships come from sharing the good and the bad of fieldwork (/farm work).

These days I don’t spend 5 months outside maintaining plants and collecting data but when I get to get outside, it is often reminiscent of those farm days. But perhaps that is only since I’ve found myself doing a lot of work in old fields…

And perhaps since I’m not outside toiling in the fields all summer, I have the opportunity/energy to grow my own garden. I know my little garden isn’t enough to even provide for our family. It is really a luxury hobby. But I am growing it because I also want my daughter to have a sense of what it takes to grow food. I want her to be able to recognise what the plants many vegetables come from look like, not just what vegetables look like presented in the store. She’ll probably not grow up to be an ecologist but I want her to appreciate the living world around her, both the wild bits and the tamed.

 

Ecological Life Lessons:

1Try something before you decide! Seriously, think you want to be an ecologist? Then go work in a lab, if you can’t do that, volunteer. Or if volunteering/work aren’t options, take as many courses as you can that expose you to research experience and get on board for a research project/honours/whatever they call it at your institution. The important thing is to get exposure to what ecologists are really doing on a day-to-day basis. Of course, this advice applies to anyone looking to invest a lot of time in training for a job, not just ecologists. But familiarity of the process of research is a really good thing before you start a masters/PhD program.

2The opposite lesson is to avoid spreading yourself too thin. My PhD student has been collecting data like mad and has a lot of really good hints at what is going on in her system but this year we’ve decided that she needs to do less of the different kinds of things and concentrate on a few key studies that will wrap up her experiments nicely. Right now there is a lot of data but often not sufficient to truly say what is going on. Sometimes this is hard to avoid (e.g. we didn’t know that the variation in the things we’re looking at is so great that it is making it hard to detect whether there is a signal in the data) and she’s also had her fair share of run-ins with the deer and mowers.

3I haven’t yet had the opportunity to turn a disaster into an opportunity at this scale but I certainly look at my failed experiments to see if anything is there.

4Learn from other’s misfortune, as well as your own. As a grad student, you’re actively learning how to run your own research but you’re also surrounded by a bunch of people doing the same thing. Talk to them! Hearing about their successes and failures can be just as important as doing the things yourself. This can apply to teaching, writing, analyses, fieldwork, labwork and the list goes on. These days if I know someone who’s done something that is new to me I ask them for advice. There is always so many tricks that make life simpler, once you’ve figured them out.

5Fieldwork is often not for the faint of heart. Know your limitations. I know I need sleep and I don’t function very well without it. More than that, I work pretty poorly at night. So I won’t ever take up a project looking at night pollination. Cool stuff but I know that it would drain me in ways that super strenuous work during the day never would.

6When things get tough you basically have two options: laugh or cry (or get really sour and unpleasant and take it out on those around you). I prefer to laugh (or at least try to), makes for a better field season.

Save the bees, but maybe not this way

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I’m all for saving bees. Heck they’re some of the most important players in the plant systems I study. No bees means no sex for my plants, so there’s that. And I generally have a soft spot for bees. While I was an undergraduate my first real experience in research was working in Mark Winston’s bee lab. I was one of those all round research assistants who moved between projects as the need arose. It was a great experience and the fact that I’m still doing research speaks to that. Maybe it is why I have gone on to study mainly bee-pollinated plants but that is speculation for another day.

So when a few weeks ago I saw a new campaign at Avaaz.org to save the bees, my first thought was: great! It is nice to see an important ecological question gaining attention and donations. But then I read on.

Although I am aware that many ecological issues are political ones, the Avaaz campaign demonstrates how complex issues can lose out when they are made political. Of course it is easy to sell simple ideas and I’m also all for communicating science in ways that everyone can understand. However, much is lost if you translate things down to easily digested political selling points.

So here is what I find distasteful about this campaign to save the bees. First there is the message that we need to fight ‘big pharma’ to stop the use/over-use of pesticides. Now, although you could argue lots of things about whether it is right or wrong/effective or not to stop pesticide use, as a political message I don’t think there is anything wrong with this idea per se. However, the drive suggests that this action will save the bees. By using bees to sell the fund-raiser, a direct link is made between global bee declines (‘environmental holocaust’ as they put it) and pesticides. Now before anyone jumps at this, I am aware that there are lots of studies out there that do show negative effects of pesticides for bees. Back in that summer working with bees, I helped one grad student maintaining bees for her study that showed sub-lethal behavioural effects of pesticides. I’ll admit that I’m not up on this set of literature but I am fairly certain that most scientists wouldn’t leap to the conclusion that all that we need to do is get rid of pesticides and the world will be buzzing again. What is happening with bee populations world-wide and the domesticated honeybee are complex issues, unlikely to be so simply solved.

The second problem I had reading the Avaaz page was their second mission is to raise funds for a scientific study. As stated on the page: “Avaaz may be the only crowdsourced funding model in the world able to raise enough to fund the world’s first large scale, grass-roots supported, totally independent study of what’s killing our bees, that decisively challenges the junk science of big pharma.” (emphasis theirs). And to top it off: “The need is urgent, and if we can’t do this, it’s not clear who can.”

As a scientist, I find this completely offensive. There is so much wrong with this call, I’m not sure where to start. On the one-hand they suggest that the research being done now is ‘junk science’ funded by big pharma. It almost seems silly to write a counter-argument to this, there are scientists all over the world studying bees and many directly trying to address things like how pesticides affect bees. That grad student I helped out? Funded by ‘big pharma’. Even if we accept the hypothesis that science on bee declines, pesticide effects, etc has been ‘junk’, where are they going to find the apparently reputable scientists that will carry out the research to solve the problem once and for all? Who are these scientists? Maybe it is just me but if I was going to give my money for research, I’d want to know who it was going to, especially if they’re expected to deliver on the promise of this campaign. For me the portrayal of scientists as both the bad guys in the back pocket of pharmaceutical companies and the heroes coming in to save the day is both offensive and depressing.

But let’s say the money raised here would be able to solve what is happening to ‘the bees’. Even if that is true, raising money for science is in conflict with the first mission of the campaign. Either you are searching for the answer for what is really happening or you have already concluded that bees are dying due to pesticides. You can’t have it both ways. And beyond the issue of actually understanding why bees may be declining, there are already many scientists addressing these problems from a myriad of angles. For something so complex, it is highly unlikely that any one single study will ever be able to determine what is killing the bees like promised here. Science is generally a collaborative effort and the portrayal of science here suggests a poor grasp of how it is done.

So far I have been intentionally vague about what I mean by ‘bees’ because Avaaz is as well. But I see this as another real problem in distilling down such a broad subject down to a single political issue. For example, the fact the in North America (and elsewhere) honeybees are an introduce farm-animal is often glossed over. Of course, understanding colony collapse and other problems facing honeybees is important; honeybees can be critical domestic animals that provide a huge service in our food production. However, understanding issues with honeybees may or may not provide any answers to our understanding of wild bees. It would be like studying cows to try to understand deer populations or chickens to assess songbirds. Sure there may be links but they are different beasts. So confounding honeybees with bees as a whole is problematic.

So in short, I’d love to see more emphasis on understanding ecological problems and see interest in pollinators as a real positive. So much of our world depends on the interactions between plants and pollinators but reducing complex ecological questions down to single-issue conspiracy theory campaigns may do more harm than good in the long run. It also belittles all the great science that is already going on.

Update (April 23): Jeff Ollerton has added his thoughts over on his blog: http://jeffollerton.wordpress.com/2014/04/23/these-things-arent-to-study-theyre-to-turn-up-very-loud-and-say-hey-once-upon-a-time-everything-was-just-as-easy-as-this/ and there are a bunch of great comments below. All worth a read!

 

Backyard science

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Spring is springing in Sweden and I’m finally out from under my grant writing load. It is pretty easy to complain about writing grants and I am not innocent in this respect. But it is also an opportunity to explore new ideas and topics. This year I decided to try at the more applied government funding agency which I haven’t attempted before.

I generally do basic science. Sure some of my research might one day shed light on a practical problem but I’m in it trying to understand the world around me. So in previous years I haven’t felt my research fit with the more applied funding sources and didn’t want to jam a square peg into a round hole as it were. If I don’t see a real way that my research fits into a funding agencies goals then I didn’t see the point of sending something there. But this year was different because I started thinking about research questions that interested and excited me and were directly relevant to a more applied grant.

So here’s the steps that have lead me to thinking about a new field and exploring the possibility for grant funding. To begin, last year we bought our first house. I have always wanted to have my own garden and it is a true delight. We moved in mid-summer so we didn’t change so much last year but I was actively adding bee-friendly plants and pondering how to get rid of more grass. The former owners left us with a number of lovely flowerbeds that are starting their spring routine now but there is still an abundance of lawn. At the same time as I was contemplating increasing diversity in our backyard, I was also looking for a system to study here in Sweden. I want to work with nectar-rewarding flowers and was looking around for possibilities.

I started noticing fireweed popping up here and there in my travels. I knew the plant from living and working in North America (it is the study system of my master’s committee member, Brian Husband) and a fair amount is known about its nectar production. Perfect. But when I was looking and asking around for potential locations for populations, I wasn’t finding any local large populations. Instead I was seeing patches in and around the towns I live and work. This got me to thinking about the ecology of these urban dwellers. How does natural selection on floral traits work in an urban context? There are a number of flowering plants that thrive and reproduce in urban environments and this got me thinking about all the same kinds of questions I usually apply to ‘wild’ populations.

I causally started looking into the literature to see what was known about flowers and plant-pollinator interactions in urban landscapes. As I read, I discovered that there is a fair amount known about the ecology of these interactions (hence ‘urban ecology’ as a field of study) but much less is understood about how urbanization affects evolution. So I had fun exploring a new body of literature and saw a niche where my skill set could provide some answers.

I’m not sure that I’ll convince the funding agency to give me the money to do so but I have convinced myself that urban evolutionary ecology is a topic I’d like to explore further. I have some pilot projects planned for this year and I’ll see where they lead. I also have another grant application exploring the more basic questions of evolution of signals and reward in fireweed, so in some ways the funding gods will decide which way my research focus goes for the next few years. One of the outcomes for me is that I am more seriously thinking that applying for grants can be the motivation for thinking in new ways or on new topics. Maybe a little desperation (for funding, the next position, etc) can be a good thing and maybe for me I can find some of the answers in my own backyard. For now I’m happy that major grant writing can be set aside for a bit and I can enjoy the spring.

Maybe I am a writer after all

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I’ve been head down, focusing on writing grants lately. These days I spend a good deal of my time writing and thinking about writing, which isn’t what I imagined life as a scientist to be.

When I was much younger, I wanted to be a writer. I read voraciously. Mainly fantasy novels and classics like Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery. I spent a lot of time out in the fields and woods around the places we lived and in my head in worlds far from my own. Being a writer sounded so romantic. But along the way that idea faded. Writing in my English classes was uninspiring and the one thing I didn’t do was write, which is of course what makes one a writer. I continued to read with my tastes broadening (but I still enjoy a good fantasy novel when I get the chance) but honestly I didn’t write that much and most of that was because I had to.

Fast-forward to my first undergraduate research project, I was working on sex-allocation in plants. The measurements came fairly easy (besides all the time they took) but once I had a complete and analyzed dataset, then came the writing. It was my first experience writing and rewriting and rewriting something. And then there was submitting it to a journal and rewriting again. I never had worked so hard at writing something but I definitely done so since then.

As my career in science has progressed, I’ve needed to take writing seriously. As an undergrad, I really had no idea how much writing was involved in most scientific fields. Unfamiliar with such things as peer-review, I was ignorant about the process between doing research and published papers.

These days I’ve published a modest number of papers but the stories behind them have really helped me grow as a writer. There was that paper that we decided to cut a significant number of words (I can’t remember the number but maybe a quarter of the paper) to try for a journal with a strict word limit (where it was rejected from). It meant looking at every single sentence to see if every word was truly necessary. The process was kind of fun and became a little like a game or puzzle. I’m still overly wordy at times but now I’m better at slashing in the later drafts. Then there was that time our paper kept getting rejected and we realized (read: my co-author because I didn’t even want to think about it anymore) that the entire introduction needed to be reframed. So we basically tossed the intro and discussion and started again. It was painful but ultimately what needed to be done. What was there before wasn’t bad writing but was setting up expectations that weren’t fulfilled by our data.

Through all of this and especially writing here, I realised that I became a writer with out even realizing it. My science has taught me more about the craft of writing than any of the English classes I took ever did (but to be fair I stopped taking these after first year of my undergraduate degree). I’m not sure if I’ll ever tackle a fiction story, and that is ok. I turned into a different kind of writer than my childhood self imagined. And I know there is a whole other craft of understanding how to construct a story, which is very different than writing a paper or a grant proposal or a blog post. I’m not arrogant enough to think my writing is a universal skill but if I did want to write a novel I now have a better idea of what that might take (writing and rewriting and rewriting and repeat).

There are lots of scientists who also write books for more general audiences suggesting that the transition from scientist to what most would consider a writer isn’t that farfetched. This Christmas I enjoyed the writing of one of my favourite people from my graduate school days, Harry Greene. “Tracks and Shadows” is a lovely, often poetic read about life as a field biologist, snakes and much more. And I haven’t picked it up yet but another Cornellian I knew has gone on to do science television and write “Mother Nature is Trying to Kill You”. It looks fun. These examples of scientists I know writing books also speak to the possibility of writing beyond scientific papers. And as the Anne Shirley books taught me, you should write what you know.

Maybe someday I’ll decide to write a book, but for now, back to those grants.

Letting go and deciding what is important

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This week has been yet another lesson in patience and letting go. I had a lot of big plans at the beginning this week. There was a hint on Sunday that things wouldn’t go as planned when my daughter was very tired. In the optimistic hope of parents, we thought maybe it was because she’d had a busy weekend. That optimism ended at about 5am Monday morning with a high fever and puking….

So the week has not been a busy one where I accomplish all the things. Instead I’ve gone into campus when I needed and have been the one home when it wasn’t absolutely essential (right now a more equal sharing of childcare is more difficult for my husband). That has meant giving up grant writing time, a course on how to advise students in oral presentations and endless other things (like finishing up a blog post earlier this week). This morning the subtle feeling of panic started to creep in (day 3 at home….). I absolutely despise that moment where you need to assess whether the child is well enough to go to daycare. I really wanted to work today and it is hard to balance that against your child’s needs. When they are really sick, it is easy because it is obvious they can’t go. But that in between time when the snot is still running and they have a tired look around the eyes is tough (or maybe that is just me). Are they still infectious? Will the daycare schedule exhaust them and slow down the healing process? Will they be well enough to drive you mad as you spend another day at home? And there is all that work you want to do!

So I’m at home, forced into giving up much of what I wanted to do this week. But although there are outside forces driving the change in plans this week, it seems that it is a constant in academia. Often things don’t go according to plan. In fact this week my PhD student is struggling to get software for our new spectrophotometer to function, with little success so far. I’m sure she’ll figure it out but she’s had to let go of the goal of running analyses this week. It often seems that tasks you might think will be easy, turn out to be hard and rarely the other way around. It is always good to be ambitious, but important to triage when things hit the fan, as they say.

Letting go also seems to be a bit of a theme in things I’ve been reading lately. There’s the genre of ‘quit lit’ of people giving up on academia (I learned this term from Meg Duffy). I like the positive outlook on doing part-time adjunct work here that reminded me a bit of what it was like while I was on parental leave but the post is also about letting go of goals of a full-time tenured position. I haven’t yet come to a cross roads where I need to make any tough choices about my path in academia but letting go can be a daily theme where I try to cram in as much as possible into the constraints of the day.

Time management is always critical for success in academia and there is certainly no shortage of advice on the subject. What I always found strikes a chord for me is the advice to say no and give up on ideals like perfection. I don’t like giving up and sometimes have a hard time letting go (these traits, of course, are not limited to the academic part of my life). But it is crucial to keep in mind what is important and put efforts into those things.2014-03-13 10.54.43 am

So maybe writing a blog post wouldn’t be top priority in normal circumstances, however, it is something I can do while my daughter colours and occasionally chats with me. So is filling out all the busywork (CV, publication lists, etc) associated with the grants I’m submitting early next month. But I’ve had to put aside the real writing until I can give it my full attention and had give up completely on the course I was to be attending.

So this week is yet another point to assess what is important. Things such as stopping to read a story to my daughter and making sure I can manage to apply for the funding needed to keep my lab and myself going. And I should never underestimate the importance of keeping the panic at bay by checking off a few important but manageable things on my list in the evenings. For now, it is time to leave the computer and play with my sick little girl.

Thoughts on the PhD defence

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Last Friday there was a PhD defence in our department and Terry’s post about open defences in the USA got me thinking about the different cultures surrounding PhD defences. The first thing that came to mind is how different they can be, from country to country, university to university and even from department to department within universities.

A few axes in which defences can vary:

  • defence versus none
  • an open versus closed defence
  • external examiner(s) versus none
  • student presentation versus none
  • external examiner gives a presentation on  or not
  • official book printed prior to or after your defence
  • who makes the decision (a unbiased committee or one that has been involved throughout your PhD)

So, why so much variation?

Well clearly, some variation might come about from outside sources, such as the law. Much of the variation might simply arise from traditions of the university and culture (we’ve always done it this way…). But this got me thinking about the purpose of a PhD defence. In our teaching it is always better if we have defined goals and learning outcomes of the activities we do and a PhD at its core is fundamentally a learning process. Being a bit new to the other side of the equation, I don’t really have any idea about how much discussion is given to the purpose and expectations of the defence in departments. Are there clear objectives? What is the point? What does it all mean? These questions and many more may drive the form of the defence across universities. Clearly there could be a difference in the form of a defence where the main purpose is to evaluate the quality of the work versus where it is seen as a time point to gather your various projects into a cohesive story (and presumably the evaluation of the work has been done earlier, e.g. in the decision that you’re ready to defend). [Update: scroll down to the comments for a much more detailed examination of the purpose of a PhD defence by Paul Klawinski]

When I started writing this post I realised that I don’t have strong opinions about how a PhD defence ‘should’ be. It seems to me that there are lots of different and equally good ways of awarding PhDs. What constitutes ‘good’ will likely vary a lot based on how the entire program is formulated. But seeing different traditions now in Sweden has opened my eyes to some of the benefits of doing things differently. And thinking more seriously about PhD defences has gotten me thinking about the broader potential impacts of the event beyond being able to call yourself Dr. afterwards.

First maybe I should lay out my own experience on the table so that my biases are in the open. I have a degree from the USA and so my defence went something like this: I handed in my dissertation to the committee that I had throughout my PhD a few weeks before the day, I gave a seminar (50 mins) on my research to the department and answered questions, then I went into a room with my committee and talked with them. They sent me out of the room and talked about who knows what while I waited (the time went on forever…). Then they brought me back and congratulated me (hooray!). I think I might have been told that an open defence was illegal somewhere in the planning but honestly with juggling a baby, an international move and finishing up, that time is a bit hazy for me….

What I liked about the process that I went through is that it gave me a defined goal to work towards for ‘finishing’ writing. In my department you only print bound copies of your dissertation after the defence. That means there is still more to do and you need to incorporate changes that your committee suggests. But the seminar gave me a chance to communicate with my department and let them know what I had managed to do in my time there. So although it was a little stressful, I appreciated having a defence rather than not. I think I benefited from doing mine. It was the first full length seminar on my work, for example. And getting through your defence is definitely something to celebrate.

I’m not sure what it would have been like to have an open defence. The ones I’ve been to so far here in Sweden are much more focused on the details of the papers included in the dissertation. To be honest, I didn’t really feel like I was defending anything in my ‘defence’. In fact, my yearly committee meetings were always much harder and challenging than my defence and that wasn’t a bad thing. It made sure that my progress was going in the best possible direct rather than challenging details after it was too late to change them. So my committee and I talked very little about my dissertation but they focused more on big picture ideas. It was a really a great conversation that got me thinking about my place in science and how I could contribute. I think I’m still learning that but it was a wonderful broadening conversation. I was definitely asked some challenging questions in that closed-door portion of the defence, but I wasn’t actually defending my specific papers as I’ve seen more recently. Even in my former department, I think what constitutes the defence varies a lot between students but I appreciated the form mine took.

One thing I think I might have missed out on with an internal defence with my committee is that I didn’t get a chance to have an in depth conversation about my work with someone from the outside. Watching the defences here in Sweden, I am beginning to appreciate how valuable that can be. I know of a number of people who ended up doing a post-doc with their external reviewer. It seems like a great way to meet and interact with a leader in your field and also gives them a chance to get to know you. I also know of another example of a paper that came out of discussions during the defence. Generally the process seems like a great way to connect with someone and in our department the external examiner also gives a presentation about your work to put it in a broader context. In a way, this gets them to be an advocate of the student and really get to know their work. So even if future collaborations aren’t an outcome, you’ve had someone new think deeply and carefully about your work. However, if I had an external examiner for my own defence, I don’t think I would have had the same kind of interesting conversation as I did. It could have been just as good but likely pretty different.

So overall, I can see benefits to different PhD defence styles but unfortunately you can’t do everything…

What are the traditions at your department? Are there active discussions about what could be broader outcomes of the process of the PhD defence (besides a point where you can pass/fail a student)? And please share more extended outcomes of the PhD defence process! I’m sure I’ve only scratched the surface in this post.

Academic House Cleaning

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Around our house, the weekend usually means catching up. There is catching up on sleep, downtime and relaxing, exercise and getting outside, and, of course, chores. I’ve heard about those super-organised people who do their house cleaning on a weeknight so they can leave the weekend free for other, more fun things. It seems like a great plan but it isn’t one that we’ve managed to institute. And although we do a lot of maintenance through the week, we definitely need to take some time out to give the place a once over on the weekend.

Coming off of the past weekend got me thinking about my academic chores, and whether I should start having a ‘chore day’ there too. I’m partly inspired by my decision to clean up my reference files and pdfs. I’m starting a few review/meta-analyses projects with collaborators and it seems like a good time to get my house in order. When I started doing research, my advisor shared Endnote with me. Also a research assistant, I remember doing some cleaning up my advisors references. I think I was ensuring that the filing cabinet (a literal physical cabinet) had all the references that were in Endnote and vice versa. Modeling after that system, I started my own collection of printed pdfs. Somewhere in the course of my PhD, I stopped printing out files and instead read them on my computer. By that time, I never (rarely) needed to make the trip to the library to photocopy anything. When I moved to Sweden, I finally let go and recycled the alphabetized pdfs I’d carried from Vancouver to Guelph to Ithaca.

Right now my system for pdfs and citations needs an overhaul. I have many pdfs saved to a single folder and it is easy to find one, if it is indeed there. But some things existed as printouts (now recycled) and I haven’t downloaded them. Or I did, but didn’t save it to the master folder. Without going into too many boring details about my citations (or maybe I already crossed that line?), I’ve decided that now is the time to clean up the whole system.

For now, I’m linking pdfs to citations in Endnote and discussing with my collaborators what we should use to facilitate database use across Mac and PC. I might be behind the curve on this one but my aim is to have one place that I can go to search citations, link to the pdf and use for writing manuscripts. Right now it is a chore I’m doing in the evenings or when my brain has slowed down and more creative/thinking things are not efficient. The activity is strongly reminiscent of helping my advisor as an undergraduate assistant. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from that! But unfortunately the Endnote version I started with didn’t have an option to link pdfs and there has never been a good time update by adding links….so here I am. I’d like to get to a state where I can just maintain my library  (as I’d been attempting), but I might need a spring-cleaning every now and again.

Cleaning up my pdfs and citation software is just one example of an academic chore. I know labs that have lab clean-up events and there are a lot of other little tasks that need doing as an academic. I’ve mostly been cleaning up as I go but I’m starting to consider whether I should have a ‘chore day’. Of course, this wouldn’t be a whole day or anything but maybe a good thing to do Friday afternoon after the departmental fika (Swedish for coffee break). At home, I know that even though we clean up through the week, without setting aside time to do laundry, pick up those things that got left out and whatnot, our house would quickly descend into a place we wouldn’t want to live. Sometimes my desktop (literal and computer) gets so piled up with things that it is impossible to find anything. I don’t have my own lab space these days so it is important to ensure that things in the common area get cleaned up right after use. But I wonder about getting in the habit of doing some chores every week for the other aspects of my job; cleaning up my desktops, emptying out my download folder, organising my inbox, etc. Maybe if I set aside time each week, I wouldn’t get into a state where a real overhaul is necessary. Although I am pretty good at keeping most things organised, it would even better if more things were.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Fig. 1 My messy desk and full download folder.

Do you have a weekly routine for academic chores? Overall I suspect that it may make me more efficient at my job but there is the balance of not getting too caught up with chores and doing those little tasks instead of the big ones, like writing a paper or grant. I don’t want academic chores to just be a form of procrastination for getting ‘real’ work done!

On deciding what to write for grants

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Spring is the major grant season in Sweden. This year as I’m sitting down to write, I noticed that the grant cycle follows seasonal emotions fairly closely. As we write our grants, we start out hopeful. It is the time when the sun and light and warmth finally begins to reach us here in the north. It is a time for beginnings and a good time to decide the projects we want to pursue for the next four years. Everything is shiny and new and full of promise. By the time you get the answer of whether you are funded, the darkness and winter have started to close in. And for all but a few of us (<10%), it is a bit of depression before we can get distracted by the Christmas season.

This April will be my third time trying for a VR grant (major Swedish government grant). The last two years I’ve received decent reviews and written a fairly solid plan of research, but neither times was I close to being funded. Sweden is like a lot of places (all?) and the competition for large, multi-year grants is fierce. To some extent there is an element of chance to which projects ultimately get funded. So, it is tough to know whether there is some fatal flaw in your project or whether it is worth giving the same project another try.

I’m finding myself in a familiar place again this spring-trying to decide what project to apply for this year. I still think that the projects I have used in the past are good ones, worth doing. I could, of course, improve the grants for this round. But I’m leaning towards completely shifting my study system (although not all of the questions) and writing a new grant. My quick list of pluses and minuses goes something like this:

Advantages:

  1. no fatigue for the idea/project (even though I like my old proposals, I am getting tired of being rejected)
  2. local system (easier to involve masters students, reduced travel costs)
  3. maybe demonstrates more independence from past advisors (something that seems very important here)
  4. get the fun of playing with a new-to-me system but with the advantages of a strong literature on the species

Disadvantages:

  1. more writing/time to prepare (can’t just dust off the old proposal)
  2. no preliminary data of my own to present in the proposal (but lots of other peoples’ publications to back up the ideas)
  3. no North American research (a plus and minus for me)

I’m getting advice from my peers/mentors and reading successful grants to give me more ideas of what I want to apply for. Although our grants are ultimately about the science, it is interesting that there are a lot of factors that go into what projects you actually decide to apply for.

Because I seem to be all about lists today, here’s another with some things (in no particular order) that I consider when writing a grant:

  1. research you want to do/questions that interest you
  2. system/location
  3. sexy science (will it get funded?)
  4. feasibility (can you convince the reviewers that you can do the project)
  5. logistics
  6. tailoring to the funding agency

My choice to switch projects for this next round is in part due to my own funding/position. My salary for my position is running out in the next two years, so any grant I receive will need to cover my own salary as well as other costs. Covering me, means that I won’t have the funds to hire a PhD student for the project. Much of the work I want to do requires a lot of field data collection. It would be really fun to do but at this stage it isn’t feasible for me to leave my family for such long periods, so switching to a system in Sweden where I can support masters students as well as break-up the fieldwork with going home for dinner makes a lot more sense. I can allow practical issues like location drive my decisions on what to study, in part because the kind of questions I’m interested in are relevant to my backyard, wherever that might be.

In any event, I’ll make a final decision about what to propose in the coming weeks and get hopeful again that my project gets funded.

Feel free to give advice in the comments!

Putting faces to names: meeting fellow academics

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I just got back from a tour of North America, including a stop to visit my family in Nova Scotia and a conference in California. It was a great trip and a reminder of how lucky I am these days. Not only did my daughter and I get spoiled by my parents but I also had the opportunity to meet and interact with many of the leaders and new up and coming researchers of my field*.  As we recover from jet lag and get back to the routine, I have a chance to reflect on my travels.

One of the benefits of traveling for conferences is, of course, the chance to meet people. Seeing talks on the forefront of everyone’s research is definitely good for learning and stimulating new ideas, but I often find the most valuable parts of any conference are the causal conversations you end up having. It can also be pretty interesting to put faces (and characters) to the names you know from the literature.

Although not unique to academia, you often ‘know’ people before meeting them through their work. I find that I don’t often have a particular preconceived picture of authors I read, but meeting someone in person or seeing them talk does change the way I interact with the literature to some extent. For one thing, the more people I meet, the more human the literature feels. I can put faces to author names and pictures to their study systems (if I’ve seen a talk). As a student, in some ways the primary literature felt so, well, scientific and perhaps a bit cold. These days, that is less of an issue and science feels much more like an endeavour that I belong to. However, as you become more apart of the community doing science, there is the potential for things to swing the other way. I’m probably more likely to notice a publication on a list if I’ve met the author. It is always nice to see people I went to grad school with pop up in journal alerts, for example. And although I try not to be biased by my impressions of a person when I read a paper, I’m only human after all. I wouldn’t say it stops me from appreciating good work (I hope!) but personal interactions do colour whether I would want to invite a person for a talk, for example. And interactions at conferences, etc. definitely influences who I want to work with. Of course, I’m more likely to collaborate with people I hit it off with then those I don’t. I wonder if that is also true for citations and the like. Are we more likely to read and cite people we’ve met? How about those we like? I’m not sure I want to know the answers to those questions and I certainly try not to let biases like that enter my work, but science is a human activity after all.

I think it is always interesting to meet/see people in person who you know from other means. In academics, that used to be meeting or seeing someone give a talk at a conference whose papers you’ve read. Maybe their papers are seminal to yours, and especially as a grad student, seeing people behind the work can be very eye opening. I once was at a famous ecologist’s talk at a big conference. The room was packed but it was one of the poorer talks I’d ever seen. The slides were directly transferred from papers and impossible to read. Pointing from the lectern to a screen meters away also did not help (‘as you can clearly see…’ was a memorable quote). A friend and I sat at the back trying to figure out the main tenets of the classic theory from this person because it was the keystone of the talk but never directly described (we were of course all expected to be familiar with it, I suppose). The experience taught me that great thinkers don’t necessarily make great presenters. But I’ve also seen wonderful talks by some big names too.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve gotten to see old friends and put faces to more names I’m familiar with. I also got a chance to hear from and meet people I might have never have known otherwise. And seeing what the grad students are up to is always interesting. Communicating science and hearing about people’s studies is part of what I find fun in this job.

Interestingly, this blog and twitter has also opened up my scientific community beyond the boarders of my research. So whereas before putting faces to names was all about meeting people I had read in the literature, this time it included a chance to meet up with Small Pond’s very only leader, Terry. We were lucky to overlap in the LA area for a day and were able to see each other face to face. I have to admit, it felt a bit like an academic version of on-line dating or something. I was nervous to meet. What if it was awkward? What if we didn’t like each other? I’d been having fun posting on this blog but if our in person interaction didn’t work I wasn’t sure what that would mean. I’m happy to report that we had a good time and a fruitful discussion about blogging, twitter and this new-to-me on-line community. I hope it is only the first of many meetings with those that I am getting to know through their blogs and tweets. I’m sure it will mean that I will also pop in on talks far removed from my research if we happen to be at the same conference in the future. I think that is a good thing.

*being a bit of a generalist, the conference was in one of my fields of interest, plant volatiles.

I grew up poor.

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There are two inspirations for my post. First, a conversation over at Tenure She Wrote is really worth reading. Sarcozona started it up with a great post on poverty in the ivory tower and Acclimatrix has added to the conversation with her own personal musings about coming from poverty and class struggles with family. Both are really wonderful/powerful posts and I highly recommend reading them. One thing that struck me was Sarcozona’s call for people to talk about their own experience with poverty. So here I am.

The second inspiration is that I’m currently traveling (a sign of how far I’ve come). I wanted to attend a conference in California, which is 9 hours time difference from where I live in Sweden. Being someone effected by jetlag, that sounded nearly impossible. So I stopped off in Nova Scotia to spend time with my family and give my daughter a chance to see them all too. Then I travelled on alone for the conference. Being home is always a time to reflect on where I come from, and makes these thoughts come even more naturally.

So my confession is that I also grew up poor. It isn’t something I hide but it also isn’t something I talk about often. My parents were teenagers when they had me and so it is difficult to actually talk about my childhood with any generalizations; my parents were growing up as I did. We moved around a lot, they changed jobs and roles, and we didn’t stay poor forever. I never knew the feeling of going to bed hungry and there was always lots of love and fun when I was a kid, so I didn’t feel poor. But we were. I didn’t have the latest, well, most things. A small example is that I had to make do with hand-me-down clothes from my cousin. I can still remember the mix of excitement and dread when those big boxes showed up. Excitement to see what there was but dread because I wouldn’t have much choice in what I would wear for the next year, even if it wasn’t to my liking. We also lived in houses without electricity or running water from when I was about age two to seven. Although there were lots of hippies getting back to the land in Nova Scotia when my parents were, living without modern conveniences and growing your own food was more of a necessity than a social experiment for them.

In many ways my younger years were really magical and for me and my brother, it was often a big adventure. We spent huge amounts of time wandering around in the woods and fields that surrounded the various houses we lived in. I’m sure my deep routed appreciation for the natural world can be directly attributed to the freedom (sometimes/many times forced: “Go play outside!”) I had to explore it. Our vacations were also outside/cheap. We either visited relatives or went camping. As kids, we loved the camping trips, even if it was hard to compare with vacations to Disney that the some of the other kids at school talked about.

Although my family’s financial situation was stable by the time I went to university, they didn’t have a fund to support me to go to school (I have the student loans to prove that). Although there was no pressure in any particular direction I think financial security drove most of my early university education decisions. I wanted to go into healthcare or something that would ensure I got a ‘good’ job afterwards. I started university for a semester and then quit because I couldn’t manage it even with a partial scholarship and a job. I went back to university after working for a couple of years—it allowed me to apply for a loan independently of my parents and therefore be able to afford it. My parents didn’t have the money to help me out with university but made too much for me to qualify for full loans (although to be fair it was me that decided on a university on the other side of the country and I could have stayed in Halifax instead). Even with loans, I worked a lot during my undergraduate years and it took me about six years to finish my degree. I remember seeing opportunities for things like field courses and exchange programs but there was no way I could afford them. I was lucky to get to work with some labs locally and those experiences steered me on the path to research. However, I was jealous of some of the things my richer peers were able to do.

These days, I’m the richest I’ve ever been and my parents are no longer poor either. I don’t want to glorify my childhood but it did instil an appreciation for nature, good healthy food, and getting by with what you have. But I’m happy for my and my parents’ financial freedom. It allows us to travel the distances between us more easily and I don’t worry about grocery bills like I did as an undergrad. I’m glad that my daughter is growing up in a different way than I did. Perhaps more importantly, I’m happy that as a parent, I don’t have to worry so much about money as they did. But having so little at times, meant that a grad school salary actually felt rich to me and I’m amazed that we were able to buy a row house this past year. In some ways the skills I learned from being poor as a kid and then as an undergraduate has made the relatively lower salary I have as a scientist quite manageable for me. But it does mean that I had a very different experience from many of my fellow grad students. I thought seriously about paying for conference travel at times, although for the first time ever my grad school salary was enough to grow a savings account. Having to buy my own car for fieldwork made an impact and money factored into my working locally instead of elsewhere like many I went to grad school with. I don’t mean to say that others were basing their research decisions on their personal funds but it made me nervous to plan a field season far away, not knowing whether I could fund it or not. So my upbringing and relationship to money did/does factor in to how I approach funding research. Mentally, I have a hard time draining accounts (personal or research) because it feels safer to have something tucked away for a ‘rainy day’. So sometimes my reluctance to spend when I have little is something I need to overcome with my research budgets.

Wandering around downtown Halifax has also emphasized some of the relative poverty I came from. It seems like there are lot more empty storefronts then the last time I was here. Nova Scotia is a ‘have not’ province and I’m sure that affects the kinds of opportunities available for students growing up. I certainly noticed a difference when I moved from the county schools I had been attending to the city schools I started in at age 12 (we moved to Halifax then). I had a lot of really amazing teachers who helped lay the foundations for my science career but I’m guessing their access to supplies, etc. was determined by limited budgets in a poorer province. Having grown up poor also means that I walked through a raging snowstorm in downtown Halifax with my four-year old daughter because for some reason I still think paying for a cab is excessive (by the time we came home, we couldn’t have got one anyway because of the road conditions). It was actually quite fun to walk through a shutdown city in the snow and I’m still amazed at what a little trooper my girl can be. But it is a reminder that no matter how different my life is, some things are hard to change.

Getting back to the routine.

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Last year was a pretty big one for me, both personally and professionally. We bought a row house and moved to the city where my husband works, meaning a significantly different commute for me. I also interviewed for two permanent faculty jobs here in Sweden but was offered neither. I started chatting on twitter and writing here. All in all, despite some disappointments, it was a good year for learning and exploring. I’m really excited with the direction both my personal and professional life is going. But by the end of this busy year of challenges and changes, my whole family was exhausted.

This Christmas/New Year holiday, we decided to stay at home. We had some friends visit and share celebrations but we stayed put. Having a 4 year old means that we are also pleasantly forced into taking a real holiday. When the daycare closes, it is family time. In Sweden, Jan 6th is also a holiday, so today is the first day back to reality.

Living without a schedule for a couple of weeks has been relaxing. We enjoyed lazy mornings and unstructured days. Without setting out to do it, this break also became a ‘get fit’ holiday. The weather was depressing here in Sweden; no white Christmas for us. Given that we’re so far north that also means that it is dark and the rainy grey weather really hasn’t helped. But the relatively warm weather was good for getting us out for regular runs. I’m hoping we can continue regular exercise as the semester gears up but I know that it will be harder when balancing few daylight hours, commuting and working.

Academia is a funny place for schedules. Although when you are teaching there is little flexibility for those hours and as the semester gets back under way departmental seminars and meetings start to fill up your schedule, much of our time is quite flexible. There are lots of demands on that time but how you arrange it is often up to you. As a grad student, I used to be much more irregular in my working time, working early or late as it suited. Now with the twin pressures of a commuting schedule and daycare opening hours, my schedule is pretty much set each day. That always makes it challenging to get back in the rhythm after some time away. So this week we all face the challenge of getting back into the regular routine.

How scheduled are your days? Whether you took real holidays or just got away from the scheduled pressures of the semester this break, how do you get back into the routine? I always find that it takes me a bit to get back to being efficient and productive after setting things aside. So I usually tackle small tasks and try to cross off as many things off of a to do list as possible to get me back into work. It helps me feel productive and get a handle on what needs to be done. My first day back includes really reading the review from our recently rejected paper and seeing what to change before submitting elsewhere, pursuing a few papers for a meeting about potential collaborations later this week, finishing up commenting on a student’s work, writing a few emails to collaborators and planning more seriously for the coming days. I’m off to North America in less than two weeks so that should give me just enough time to get back into the swing of things before completely throwing off my schedule again!

Teaching Tuesday: Interpreting figures

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When I was an undergraduate, I experienced one of those aha moments in my upper-level plant ecology class. At that point I’d taken a few ecology courses and thought I knew my stuff or at least the basics. I’d spent time reading primary literature and had to write papers and reports for various courses. I knew how to make figures and thought I knew how to interpret them. Then I came to my first mid-term exam and sitting there on the front page was a figure. The figure had to do with plant colonization following a glacier receding and although I can no longer recall the details, the fact that I can remember anything after all these years suggests the deep impression this question made on me.  Anyway, I looked at the figure, came up with an interpretation and completely missed the main point. Importantly I thought I’d understood the figure and answered the question correctly. So when I got the exam back and saw my major mistake, I realised how little effort I usually put into interpreting figures. Usually I let the paper, the caption or the speaker tell me what the figure showed.

Ecology is a figure heavy science. We often cram a lot into figures, and that isn’t a bad thing. Many figures have multiple comparisons all within one panel and then there are the multi-panels. Sometimes the interpretation is quick and easy, more of one thing in the treatment vs. control and that sort of thing. But often it takes a moment or two to appreciate all a figure is presenting to you. So I think that being able to understand data and how it is presented in figures is a crucial piece of understanding ecology. The vast majority of 214 ecologists that responded to my survey on teaching in ecology also agree.

a prime example of a super simple figure

a prime example of a super simple figure

But how to teach students the art and science of interpreting figures? Well one thing is to expose students to figures in lectures; another approach is to have them make their own for labs/field exercises. I think these methods are common to many ecology classes. You won’t find an ecology textbook that doesn’t include figures of real data (or at least I haven’t seen one). Depending on the level, I think students are generally familiar with the basics of seeing figures but it is easy to fall into the trap of thinking you understand and missing the whole picture, as I did on that exam ages ago. And although making your own figures gives a perspective of how they work and how to understand the links between data and figures, I find students tend to make much more simplified figures that only show a simple aspect of their data.

With my own experience in mind, I created an exercise specifically addressing figure interpretation. For general ecology students, I simply searched through the recent literature for figures of various types. Many of the figures contained multiple panels, or different comparisons within the same figure. For each figure, I included captions that explain all the different components of the figure (shapes, colour coding, etc) but trimmed out any interpretation of the patterns. The activity included students working in groups and coming up the interpretation of each figure and then we discussed these as a group. The activity works well with reasonably small sections but I could also see this kind of thing working for larger classes using clicker questions or something similar. I think it is especially important to take the figures out of context to allow the students to come up with their own conclusions rather than just read what the authors write. Before setting the students loose on figures, I introduced some of the general concepts about figures and their interpretation. There are some suggestions on how to do that over at TIEE.

If you’re interested in my set of figures, just send me a message and I’m happy to share the file.

Teaching Tuesday: talking about teaching

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When I did a survey of ecology teachers earlier this year*, I left a space for further comments on teaching in ecology. Here, I got perhaps some of the most interesting opinions. One respondent took the time to practically write a post themselves, which I have pondered quite a bit. Instead of commenting on bits and pieces, I decided to post it in full:

There is a big difference between large lecture hall sophomore courses (Introductory) and upper division courses.  My approach to these is almost totally in opposition.  In the upper division course I do many of the new fangled things you mention above including- think-pair-share, multiple drafts of written work, in class presentations, etc.  In the lower division course, though, this kind of activity is nearly impossible to execute- and the students, many of whom are uninterested, don’t WANT any of that.  So it becomes a pure waste of time.  I have tried many of these techniques in the large lecture hall setting and it becomes mayhem and nothing is accomplished.  So I settled back into pretty straight lecturing, which seems to work just fine- students are happy, they seem to get it, and my time is not wasted.

My Upper division courses are the opposite end of the spectrum.  Sometimes students enroll in my upper division course because they LIKED my large lecture hall technique, and they end up displeased with all the group interactions, presentations, class participation, etc. that happens in the upper division course.  I actually have a little trouble in my reviews from students RESISTING those techniques (that we all think are student friendly).

I approach upper division courses like a “workshop” and I tell them that before we begin at the start of the semester.  Interestingly, some of my smartest students have told me personally, and also in evaluations- ” YOU are the expert in this field- I don’t want my time wasted by listening to the novice opinions of other students.” I think that is an interesting perspective, although most of the students like a more participatory setting.

Finally, I have been involved in a number of teaching workshops and I think it is important to point out that those kinds of settings can become akin to moralizing.  Preachy, in fact.  And, I have excellent data to support the notion that sometimes the strongest advocates of new, “modern,” student friendly, engaging, technologically innovative, etc. are also people who have terrible natural rapport with students!  I have had advisees come into my office and complain bitterly about how terrible faculty member X is, and how everyone tries to avoid their sections of the class, when I know for a fact that faculty member X is the leading advocate on campus for all of these supposedly student – friendly techniques.  In contrast, I know faculty members who have been around for a long time who just us chalk and a chalk board- that is it- 100% lecture, no AV at ALL, who the students love and get a ton from.

E.g., I went to a session once all about how students these days are “Millennials” and they expect to have information delivered in small packages etc.  Have you ever spelled out that tripe to actual students?  I did in my class a couple of times and the students themselves think this is absolutely ridiculous.  They are not a simple “they” and “they” don’t fit into pigeonholes easily, and they don’t want you stereotyping them this way.

There is a high-horse mentality, and even taking this survey I could feel it a little bit… I expect to see some report from this survey bemoaning how ecology teaching is “behind the times” or missing opportunities for real “student engagement.”

I urge extreme caution before making any kind of statements of this sort.  What is missing from any of this discussion is actual OUTCOMES for students!  Has there been content delivery?  We watched some Youtube clips, had a scientific debate on twitter, used clickers, paired and shared, etc—-so what?  Did they get more than would have been accomplished through use of chalk?  Data on this are VERY scanty in my view- and, unfortunately, a lot of our critique of teaching has absolutely no rigor when it comes to measuring OUTCOMES.

As outlined above, I use many of these techniques, and appreciate them- and I will vocally support anyone who choses to use them.   But, I think they are mostly irrelevant to success in teaching.  In my experience, teaching is pretty simple:

(1) Bring good material to the classroom
(2) Be organized, have a plan for the semester- explain the plan- and stick to it.
(3) Demonstrate that you care about the students- you are not there to battle them or prove them stupid, that you really do want them to “get it”
(4) Be transparently fair in grading and other forms of evaluation.
(5) Demonstrate passion for the topic.

There are things I agree with and many I don’t in this commentary, but I want to be careful to not simply argue with what is written here. Instead, the comments have got me thinking about many of the assumptions, biases and difficulties around talking about teaching. Some of those are highlighted above, some not. Mainly I want to use the comments as a springboard. What follows are the somewhat random thoughts that this reading inspired…

First, should we be concerned with whether techniques are “student-friendly” or not? Or what the students want? I keep coming back to this one. Ultimately, as the commenter suggests, it is the outcomes that are important. So regardless of what the students think they want or are comfortable with, I believe we should be doing what helps them to learn.

That leads me to the purpose of teaching in the first place. What are our goals? Do we want students to pass our tests or to take the fundamentals learned in our courses with them for life? Are we exposing students to ideas or do we want them to understand them? Is the main thing to get students to be passionate or at least respect the natural world around them? None of these are mutually exclusive, of course but the goals we have as teachers will determine the kind of teaching we do. And for some, teaching is just the price for working at a university, the goal is get by doing as little as possible. But in general, it seems to me that we as teachers should mindful of our goals and do what is best able to achieve those. It seems to me that there is a fair amount of evidence that straight lecturing isn’t the best way to achieve learning. However, there are many different ways to engage students.

Another assumption is that technology = engagement. Students can be just as engaged with chalk as with clickers. A YouTube video is just as passive as a lecture. What I find interesting is that using some forms of technology such as clickers can force you as a teacher to be more purposeful with engagement. Maybe it doesn’t come naturally to you to get students engaged, so directly incorporating activities aimed at engagement will make that happen. But one of the things I’ve taken from my teaching is that for anything to be successful, you need to think through what you’re trying to achieve.

Are the data truly scant? It seems to me that there is a lot of research on teaching and learning. I’ve only dipped my toe in the literature but it is its own discipline.  I don’t think I’m really qualified to assess whether there is enough data on particular techniques, etc. I’d have to read much more. But it seems to me that we as teachers could benefit a lot from knowing more about what has been studied. Some of the best exams I ever took as an undergraduate were in a psychology class called simply “Memory”. Now that prof knew how to cut through our crap and ask a multiple choice question that actually tested our understanding. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, that course impressed upon me that understanding how our minds work could lead to better teaching and testing materials.

But one of the big questions I am left with is: Why can teaching be so difficult to talk about? I worked hard to ask questions in the survey in a very neutral tone. I was curious, but not coming from a place of judgement. I wanted to know what people were doing but am a far cry from knowing what the best practises are/should be.  But despite that, even asking about teaching leads some to think that the results will lead to critical conclusions about the field, without even knowing the outcome of the questions. But what are we so protective of? If the data exists that we’re doing it ‘wrong’, shouldn’t we change? And what if we’re doing it ‘right’? How can we know without investigating, both the teaching practice and the learning outcomes? And does discussing teach techniques always come off as moral/preachy? I’ve certainly had different experiences. But I wonder about where the preachy overtones come from—is it the presenters or perceptions of the receivers of the information? I’m sure it varies from situation to situation. But why is it there at all?

Honestly, I was a bit nervous to send out the survey broadly in the first place. I wasn’t sure how people would respond and it was a new kind of data collection for me. Overall, I got a lot of very positive responses to my doing the survey and sharing it on this blog. But I still wonder why resistance to discussing teaching exists. Are we so sure that we know what it takes to be a good teacher? I know I’m not. I certainly look for feedback on my research from experts in the field—why should teaching be any different?

What are your thoughts? Do you think teaching seminars/workshops are too preachy? Are we paying enough attention to the outcomes or getting caught up with flashy new technologies? Should there be more data on what works? Do we pay enough attention to the data that exists?

*for those interested there are some other posts on the results of the survey to be found: here (and links within)

Why I knit (and give thanks)

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I am Canadian, and living in Sweden, I often get comments suggesting that I’m really American (North American, true but somewhere along the line the United States took over the term ‘American’). So, although I know that I am very similar to my American neighbours in many ways, I always bristle a bit at being called an American (probably the one unifying trait of Canadians!). One small thing I could never wrap my head around was American Thanksgiving. I lived in the US for 5 years, so that was 5 Thanksgivings to get used to the idea. But still it always came as a surprise (4-days off work, now?) and I rarely had plans like everyone else seemed to because the date wasn’t engrained on my mental landscape. And it is not like Canadians are foreign to the idea of Thanksgiving… But as a grad student it was often a time to catch my breath during the semester and I usually didn’t leave town or doing anything big.

It is work as usual today in Sweden but Thanksgiving talk on facebook, twitter and whatnot has got me thinking about taking a moment and catching my breath.

As a scientist, a mother to a young child, partner to an also busy man, it is easy to forget to take moments to reflect. I know I’m happier when I do, but that doesn’t mean I always manage it. I like the tradition of taking time to gather your friends and family and remember what you are thankful for. Whenever I take a moment, I realise how much I am truly thankful for.

So Happy Thanksgiving to my American friends! Hope you have a lovely one this year.

As I was thinking of taking a moment to ground yourself and in my case this fall, just calm the f*ck down (interviews, rejections, and other stressors), I starting thinking about on what helps me actually do that. For me, it isn’t surprising given my ecology leaning that being in nature is a good way to restore balance. With our recently purchased row house, I’m also rediscovering the meditation of gardening (although that is mostly come to an end for the season). Exercise always helps. But I also find cooking/baking calming and I’ve always loved to make things with my hands. I come from a crafty family and I have a whole closet full of supplies for beading, sewing and knitting.

In all of this, I started thinking about knitting more and why I do it.

What does knitting have to do with ecology or academics? On the surface, maybe not so much. I happen to do both, so maybe I see connections that few would. Strangely enough, knitting and science came hand in hand for me. When I started my masters program, there was a knitting group starting up. I went out and got some random wool and needles and showed up. One fun discovery was that my hands remembered the motion of knitting learned and quickly abandoned around age 10. I don’t think I ever even finished a scarf then but I guess I did it enough to learn the skill.

Since my knitting has developed along side my science career, the two are loosely linked for me. Here is my semi-random list of what I have learned from knitting and how it applies (in my mind at least) to ecology/academia.

The big picture. It is pretty easy to get caught up in the details of a project. It is only through keeping the big picture in mind that you can troubleshoot along the way and end up with something useful.

Seeking patterns. Now this might mean different things in ecology and knitting but ultimately in both I find that I spend a lot of time collecting information on patterns. In both it is good to know when it is time to stop seeking (reading the literature, etc) and start doing. Research is good but you’ll never have that scarf if you don’t start it. The same applies with a study, experiment or whatever.

Be willing to tear it all apart. Once you’ve constructed a sweater, it would be nice to say, ok, it is done; the same with a manuscript. In both cases, I have had times where things just didn’t fit or weren’t working as I wanted. Whether that means unraveling a sweater or completely reworking an introduction, you need to be able to both accept when it isn’t working and be willing to take it apart to make it better.

Creativity is important. Sure you can always follow someone else’s pattern but some of the best projects are often those that modify an existing pattern. Build on what others have learned but do something new with it. This philosophy works for my knitting and my research.

There is beauty everywhere. Even the most simple, functional items can have a beauty to them. The world around us is a beautiful place. If I pay attention to that beauty, of a well-constructed garment or a weed in a crack in the sidewalk, I tend to be happier and more grounded. In all the hard work (and sometimes frustration) that goes into a project, sometimes it is easy to forget the beauty of it. There is beauty in understanding the world, even the small piece of it that I study. As much as knitting reminds me to keep the big picture/end product in mind, it also helps me appreciate the small things.

Mistakes are common and ok. It’s life. Some mistakes require big fixes but others you need to just let go. Sure it is a lofty goal to make something without mistakes (slipped stitches, typos, …), it is important to remember that we all make them and learn from them. Learning to let go of perfection is important, otherwise the expectation of perfection can be crippling. Although I do admit to cringing at the typos I have missed in a publication.

Everything gets easier with practice. I can now knit simple patterns without constantly looking at the work and there are so many skills that I’ve picked up along the way in my career. Skills all start out slow and awkwardly but with practise can become automatic. It is good to remember that when facing down that new challenge. Maybe someday I’ll try a more complicated colour work pattern (such as Fair Isle) and then there is that spectrophotometer I’ve just order for the lab…

Ultimately, I find knitting calming. It helps clear my mind and lets me feel productive when I just want to shut down my brain. There is something very soothing about being able to directly observe my progress as well. Unlike science, when I learn a knitting technique or stitch or whatever, I can see the results right away. The progress of a project is visible rather than abstract. Sometimes it is nice to have that to contrast the ephemeral accomplishments in science.

What are the things you do to calm down and remind yourself of what you are thankful for?

Are you a fighter? A women in science post.

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Earlier this fall, I had an interview for a tenure-track job here in Sweden. I didn’t get the job, which was of course disappointing, but that isn’t really why I am writing here. The interview process was stressful and it is tough sitting in front of a panel addressing their questions one after another. It feels a bit like everything about you is on trial. I was prepared to answer tough questions about my work, how I would function in the department, as an advisor, etc. But there was one single question that really threw me: ‘Are you a fighter?’

In the interview, my mental response was basically WTF? It felt like a gender-specific question—are you one of those women who will just trying to please everyone and do as you are told or are you a fighter? Now to be fair, I’m pretty sure the question was asked to see how I would respond and I heard the other candidates had a similar kind of experience. Regardless of the reason, the fact that such a question could be construed as gender-specific was disturbing to me.* It pushed a button because I realised that I am a fighter and what is more I have had to be to get where I am.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my scientific career. I’ve had great, if sometimes difficult, relationships with my mentors and advisors. But really, I’ve had lots of support throughout. I also have not experienced any direct sexual harassment in a professional context. So, in that sense, science has been a safe place for me. This fall, twitter and the blogosphere are showing that this is not the case for many (one summary), which is unfortunately not at all surprising (wouldn’t say I’ve lived a harassment-free life). I have been deeply saddened by the revelations about race and gender and sexual harassment. I truly applaud the bravery of the women who are speaking out because I know first-hand how tough that can be. But I’ve been quiet about my own feelings, in part because I haven’t had my own experiences to share.

Unfortunately, there has been another development recently with an inappropriate/offensive joke video where Einstein is seen sexually harassing Curie. If you are not a part of the “online science community”, you’re probably sheltered from these discussions. Being pretty new to blogging and twitter myself, I’ve felt mostly like an outsider—I haven’t been directly affected by what’s happening and I haven’t known any of the players. But all the events have got me thinking about many aspects of privilege and gender.

Of course there have been times where I wonder how my gender plays a role in where I am. Have I been passed over for opportunities because I am female? Have I been asked/hired/etc because I’m female? These doubts can play a role in undermining who we are as women and scientists. Follow #ripplesofdoubt on Twitter to see how pervasive this can be and #ripplesofhope to see positive reflections on change.

Although I haven’t faced direct discrimination, there have been situations where my gender has been at the forefront:

  • On not getting a talk award (think it was meant to be consoling): “Men are more convincing because they have deeper voices and sound more confident. Your voice is too high.”
  • An off-handed comment about having met with someone in a professional context: “He does like talking to the ladies.”
  • Or undermining responses course evaluations about my appearance rather than my teaching.
  • Or those times I’ve watched younger students/mentees turn to a male colleague to seek answers/approval.
  • Or having your male colleagues worry they don’t have a chance at a job because they are male and thereby implying that you have a leg up because of your gender.
  • Or that time I was talking to a high profile evolutionary biologist and I mentioned my daughter as one reason for not staying on in my PhD to do more experiments. The response “Can you publish that?” immediately told me that I wasn’t in a safe place and reminded me that I could be judged for considering anything other than the science when making decisions.

But like many women, I have tended to shrug these incidents off. I haven’t wanted to be too sensitive, and too, well, female. So I pretend that the comments don’t matter and they don’t affect me. But of course they do. Although these are subtle forms of suggesting that I don’t belong or aren’t good enough, they are a part of what many of us experience.

One positive thing that has come out in the last few months has been that people have begun to speak up. I have come to realise that I need to make more effort to do the same. Although it is tough, it is important to speak up both for myself and for other women. Ignoring and internalizing comments changes nothing. We all need to be allies. I’ve been encouraged by the efforts to be positive and change things for the better (e.g., see here for lots of good ideas on supporting other women). Science is a tough gig; it’s what drives many of us. But I hope we can all move towards a more inclusive place where we support each other regardless of race, gender, age, size, hair cut, clothing, family….. Hopefully discussions surrounding causal and not so causal sexism/harassment can help us all get there.

At the interview, when asked if I was a fighter I was thrown off. I was mad and I struggled to regain my footing in the interview. I highly doubt that it cost me the job but I left the interview unsettled.

The next time someone asks me whether I’m a fighter, I know what I’ll say: I am a scientist. I am a woman. I’m here. Of course I am a fighter, what else could I be?**

Post script: writing about sexual harassment and discrimination while simultaneously watching cartoons is both very strange and comforting at the same time. I’m home with my sick 4-year old daughter and being with her reminds me part of why I want to do my bit to change things for the better.

 

*When discussing questions afterwards with two male collaborators who where also interviewing, we were able to match most of the things we were asked, except they were not asked if they were fighters.

**I think that men also face some of the same struggles in academia. You have to have a bit of fight in you to stay in this game.

Teaching Tuesday: Interviewing–the teaching test lecture

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This week I’ve been a bit distracted by instructions I’ve been given for a demonstration teaching lecture. It is for a permanent position in my department so the interview is stressful, important, and far from certain. There are three others interviewing for the spot, all colleagues and/or collaborators*, all friends, and all deserving of the position. It is also a little strange in that you can exactly know the CV of your fellow candidates and that all of us will show up for work after the interview, regardless of the result of the job search. The only difference is that one of us will have a permanent job and the others will not (still). I have talked a bit about the Swedish interview process previously and the upcoming one will function in a similar way. One major difference is that in addition to a short research lecture, we’ve been asked to give a 20 min teaching lecture. The topic is outside everyone’s expertise (Ecology of Plant-Pathogen Interactions), so in some senses an even playing field.

I have taught classes previously but not on this particular topic. But given that I’ve never done a demonstration lecture, I’ve been thinking a lot about how to tackle the task. Unfortunately, teaching talks don’t seem to be a common feature of the interview process, so unlike the research seminars and chalk talks, there isn’t so much out there (see Meg Duffy’s post on links for tenure-track job searches, for example).

However, I did find this helpful post about giving test lectures with a focus on those given to actual students in an on-going class (yikes!). It would be tough to drop in on a class that has already established a rhythm between the students and teacher, although I think it would be a good test of your teaching. It might not be fair to the students in the course, however, if they are continually interrupted by different interviewees. The teaching talks I’ve heard of are more commonly to faculty and maybe grad students. Anurag Agrawal compiles some advice on finding an academic job with this bit of wisdom on the teaching lecture (you can find more advice here; HT: Meg):

Teaching talks: Many places will have you give a teaching talk—they may give you a topic or let you choose one from a list. Some will want a sample lecture—others may actually want a verbal statement of your teaching philosophy. In general, ask those around you that actually teach those subjects for outlines or notes. It is usually fine to have notes for your teaching talk. They will probably ask you to not use slides, but overheads and handouts may be very useful. The faculty may interrupt you during your talk and pretend to be students asking questions. Try not to get flustered by them, but rather have fun with them.

Even before reading this, I began my canvasing of people for lectures on plant-pathogen interactions. So far I haven’t found it to be a common topic in ecology courses (if you lecture on the topic and are willing to share, yes please!). So after researching for this interview, I might also advocate for including the lecture in one of our ecology courses (I have funding for two more years regardless of the outcome of the interview).

I’ve only had one experience with this sort of interview requirement and that was indirect. When I was a masters student, my department was hiring a number of people to expand and we were also going to an Integrative Biology model from an organismal division (merging depts). So there were a lot of positions (~6) and likely a lot of opinions on how to best fill them from colleagues who hadn’t worked together before. In any event, I got to witness a bunch of job talks and meet with a lot of candidates. It was a useful lesson as a grad student but the one portion that was closed was the test lectures. I’m guessing these were to distinguish people’s ability from very different fields but I don’t know what the exact instructions were. We (the grad students) did hear rumours that some people’s talks were terrible, so it clearly doesn’t do to blow teaching talks off. But how to do it well?

Turning to advice on how to give lectures can give some clues. Improving lecturing has a bunch of hints and tips for generally improving your lectures. Another list of practical pointers for good lectures is focused mainly on the classroom but can also be helpful in thinking about how to demonstrate your teaching. I had to link this good talk advice for the hilarious nostalgia it created for the overhead strip tease (advice: don’t do it, and I think this also applies to powerpoint reveals).

From the Columbia University Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center (many useful pdfs here including one on giving effective talks), it is better to:

  1. Talk than read
  2. Stand than sit
  3. Move than stand still
  4. Vary your voice’s pitch than speak in a monotone
  5. Speak loudly facing your audience rather than mumble and speak into your notes or blackboard
  6. Use an outline and visual aids than present without them
  7. Provide your listeners with a roadmap than start without an overview

There is also this simple and eloquent advice from a twitter friend:

My plan is to demonstrate how I would give a lecture to a course, including emphasizing where I would stop lecturing and turn things over to the students. As I move away from straight lecturing, it feels a little strange to demonstrate my teaching through lecturing only. But I only have 5 minutes to describe the structure of the course, where this lecture would fit in and how I would evaluate learning, followed by the first 15 minutes of the lecture. Given all that is required to pack into 20 mins, this teaching talk is really a demonstration, rather than a lecture. I won’t prepare for it as I would do for a regular course lecture and given my unfamiliarity with the topic, it is also going to take a fair amount of research. This is a job interview, so I know it isn’t really a teaching lecture, it is a performance. One I’m hoping will convince the committee to let me get on with actual teaching for years to come.

I’d love to hear from anyone who’s done a teaching lecture as a part of their interview! Advice on how to nail this will be greatly appreciated by me but I’m sure others on the TT job search will also appreciate pointers.

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