Collectively, as a scientific community, we have so many blind spots. I remember running into one of these blind spots about 15 years ago.
For a good long while now, I’ve been working in catchup mode, like Indiana Jones running from the big stone. I had made a lot of commitments, and following through on them kept me so busy that I didn’t have enough hours in the day to focus on building new things.
Summer is sometimes a contemplative time for me. It used to be long hours in the field would give me time to think but now it is just as often that I’m weeding my garden or some other summer activity. Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about negative results.
I read an interesting piece from a computer science professor at Bucknell, who documented his path to discovering universities “in the middle” — where both research and teaching are valued.
A case of scientific dishonesty has hit close to home and got me thinking. This isn’t a post of the details of the case (you can read more here if you’re interested) or the players involved (I don’t know them more than to say hi in the hallway) or to comment this particular case since I don’t have any more information than what is publically available. So if you’re looking for insider gossip, the following is bound to disappoint. Instead this example has got me reflecting in general about scientific dishonesty and what I can do about it.
As scientists, we live for those lightbulb moments. I imagine we’re more likely to have these moments if we know more natural history, which lets us piece together fundamental facts about our natural world in a new way.
Many research strategies, developed inside large research institutions, don’t work well in small teaching-centered institutions.
One of these strategies, I suggest, is the use of a biological model system.
I’ve read a lot of research proposals and manuscripts. Some manuscripts were rejected, and some proposals didn’t fare so favorably in review. What have I learned from the ones on the lower end of the distribution?
Here’s an idea. It can’t explain everything, but it’s something to avoid.
Science is a community endeavor. Much of our knowledge is unwritten, and subsists in the hive mind of our collective social unit. Some of the cooler and bolder — and perhaps more important — ideas are the ones that might not make it to print. My fellow ecologists don’t publish most of what we know, as Mike Kaspari recently reminded us with a quote from Dan Janzen.
We rarely share our piles of negative results, or the little curiosities for which we can’t find the time. Getting a peer-reviewed paper out the door is a non-trivial amount of work, and just mentioning it in a conversation is easier. But, hey, I have a blog where I can mention this stuff.
So let me tell you about two things that I find rather weird, but haven’t put more resources into figuring out.
It’s not the time, it’s the people.
The popular conception is that scientists at teaching-focused institutions have lower research productivity primarily because they spend so much time teaching. I disagree.
My sabbatical officially started a few days ago. I was half-expecting a kind of weight to lift. But my brain isn’t letting me have any of that.
For the last year or so, I’ve been stockpiling things “for sabbatical.” Now, I’m looking at the weight of that list.
It’s been argued that in ecology, like politics, everything is local.
You can’t really understand ecological relationships in nature, unless you’re familiar with the organisms in their natural environment. Or maybe not. That’s probably not a constructive argument. My disposition is that good ecological questions are generated from being familiar with the life that organisms out of doors. But that’s not the only way to do ecology.
As often happens to me, I have a post idea banging around in my head (or sometimes started on the page) but before I fully flesh it out, some amazing scientists post about the idea even better than I was thinking. Sometimes that inspires me to finish my own post and put it up, others times I let it drop because what has been said feels like it fills the niche.
This week was no different. But reading the connected posts actually speaks to the topic itself so I’m inspired to write my own piece.
I’ve been thinking a lot about creativity and what is novel in science. There are two great posts on creativity (Experimenting with Creativity) and novel ideas (Where do ideas come from and what counts as “novel”?). Both are worth the read.
My own inspiration started outside science with a gift of a colouring book this Christmas. I haven’t coloured in years and here was the opportunity to try again. Perhaps it would even allow me to create a kind of meditative peace to deal with all the unknowns of unemployment*. The book sat around for a few weeks (we had a puzzle to finish) but I eventually picked up the pencils and a picture and went for it. Is colouring in someone else’s lines creative? I’m sure it isn’t nearly as creative as drawing the original outline but the act of colouring is not without choices. Obviously what colour you use is a choice but also how to combine them, how hard to press, whether to use texture all affect the outcome. Here’s an example of the independent choices made by me and my six year old daughter for the same picture:
Science is full of ideas that people somehow accept to be true, just because people say it’s true. We’ve all heard wonderful just-so stories that are waiting to be dispelled by data.
Let me tell you about three myths.
The first myth was that gastric ulcers are caused by stress. All kinds of medical treatments were predicated on this notion. When a researcher figured out that gastric ulcers were caused by bacterial infection, it was considered so outlandish that he had to infect himself to convince the medical research community. (In 2005, the Nobel Prize was awarded for this finding.)
For the second myth, consider the three-toed sloth. For about a century, it’s been said they specialize on Cecropia leaves. One twist on the story is that that the trees are tastier to sloths because they have weaker chemical defenses, because the plants are defended by ants. Then, in the 1970s, two biologists radio-tracked sloths for a couple years in Panama and found that yes, they eat Cecropia, along with many other plant species. If you track them with radio collars, then you get to see that they are not Cecropia specialists.
The people who radio-tracked the sloths did not receive a Nobel Prize.
If you look at scientists in teaching-focused institutions who have robust research programs, there’s one thing they tend to have in common: They have active collaborations with researchers outside their own institution.
When people ask how I run my lab group, I don’t know how to respond. It boggles me because these perfectly normal questions often have assumptions baked into them, about my university, my students, and the kind of work that happens in my lab.
It’s only natural that folks might compare my “undergraduate research lab” to the template of major research institution lab, most of which also feature undergrads in substantial roles.
The way I run my research program, and the students involved, is probably different than you might imagine unless you’ve spent a bunch of time at an underfunded regional state university like mine.
The Ecological Society of America has wonderful program called SEEDS, which is designed to support and mentor underrepresented undergraduates who are pursuing careers in academic ecology*.
Let’s extend the metaphor of undergrads-as-seeds further.
A few months ago I got a Fitbit, which for those of you who haven’t heard of it is basically a step counter. I’d been thinking about getting one for a while to help me motivate my exercise and keep my work-life balance somewhat on track. Perhaps symptomatic of not managing the balance, it took me awhile to get around to deciding what to get and actually buying it. Luckily for me, in the mean time, my husband bought one as a present and now I get to obsess about how many steps I take in a day.
Have you thought of collecting real, publishable, data as a part of lab that you’ve taught? Specifically, is it workable to use a single lab activity, conducted over multiple sections over multiple years, to build a dataset to ask a pending research question?
There are different kinds of mystery. Subatomic particles are almost illogically tiny, so we can only figure out what’s happening with big machines, long-term data, ingenious experiments, and a bunch of logical inferences. Because science is hard, then there are some simple facts about the world that we don’t know. For instance, the cause of gravity. It’s a mystery, but we have a specific question that we’re trying to answer, even if we don’t know the direction from which the answer will emerge.
We are missing fundamental facts at the foundation of physics. As Donald Rumsfeld would say, there are known unknowns. We know that there are certain things that we don’t know about physics, and are working to know them.
Ecology has a different kind of mystery.
Faculty members get unannounced visits from book reps on a periodic basis. They offer free books, and sometimes bagels. Then, they have two outrageous requests:
I just had the pleasure of spending a couple days hiking around the interior of Catalina Island. The last time I did this was about 23 years ago, when I was a student on an undergraduate field trip for a course in Conservation Biology.
I learned a lot from that course, and a lot of specific things from that field trip stuck with me. The biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Goats. The second biggest thing that I remember from that trip was: Pigs.
Over the past week, I’ve been reading Moneyball, by Michael Lewis.
I’m not a baseball person (though I do keep tabs on
football soccer). I found Moneyball to be interesting in its own right, but particularly when considering how its lessons may be applied to academic culture.
Lewis tells the story of Billy Beane, the manager of a small-budget major league baseball team, who assembled a crew that was better than most big-budget competitors. How did Beane pull this off?
According to Moneyball, Beane saw through the intellectually inbred and reality-challenged worldview that permeated the baseball community at the time. Scouts were picking players — and offering them humongous salaries — on the basis of athletic traits that didn’t help teams win games.
We typically need manipulative experiments to truly know how a biological system works.
Nevertheless, on most days, I feel that the subculture of ecology suffers from a fetish for manipulative experiments. In some cases, people design experiments that don’t entirely make sense because they know that the reviewers and the community will value that experiment more than observational research. Even if the experiment isn’t really that informative.
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.
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.
At the moment, I have the great pleasure of working with a bunch of students at my field site in Costa Rica. Which means that I’m really busy — especially during the World Cup too! — but I’m squirreling away a bit of time before lunch to write about this perennial fact that permeates each field season.
We are used to stuff working. When you try to start your car, it turns on. When we set alarms to wake us up, they typically wake us up. You take a class, work hard and study, and earn a decent grade. Usually these things things happen. And when they don’t happen, it’s a malfunction and a sign of something wrong.
I’ve developed a mechanism to make sure that I stay productive: when I submit abstracts for meetings, I promise data that I haven’t finished collecting. Of course when I give a talk, I can say almost whatever I want. Nobody’s going to cut me off if my talk doesn’t match the program.
I just realized that I always have been in the habit of submitting abstracts for projects that are so fresh, I haven’t even gotten all the numbers, much less run analyses. In grad school, that was the only option, because at one point I didn’t have anything else to say. Now, even when I have other newish finds that I’ve yet to present, I submit abstracts for projects that still lack a rudimentary answer. I do this at least once a year, writing a check for results that aren’t yet in the bank.
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.
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.