Academia selects against community ties


Academics tend to harbor a conceit that our job is really different from other jobs.

This might not be as true as folks like to believe, though we have flexibility and freedom to do almost whatever we want. Another thing that makes us really different from most people is that we move around a lot. Most of us are close to or well past 30 before we move to the city where we’ll set down some serious roots. And, there’s a decent chance that we’ll move again.

I think one consequence of academics being so mobile is selection against involvement in the local community. Continue reading

Conference travel awards that you can’t apply for until after the travel is done are bad


I’m about to make some statements that I think should be obvious. In fact, everything I say in this post about travel awards will probably be obvious, but I feel moved to write about it since these obviously bad travel awards exist.

Grad students are typically on very tight budgets.

Grad students are expected to attend and present their work at conferences (usually at least one per year).

Departments or schools often have funds available (as conference travel grants or similar) to students to help cover the costs of attending conferences, which is good.

Some of these grants require students to wait until after the conference is over and include all receipts for their expenses before they can apply, which is bad. Continue reading

Self-funding your research program


In the last few months, something has been on my mind. I’ve brought up the topic a few times, with some research scientists who hold tenured faculty positions. It would go along these lines:

I’m thinking of funding all of my research out of my salary. If I imagine a scenario in which…

  • I take a 20% cut in salary
  • I get that money in research support
  • I don’t spend any more time writing grants

… it just makes me happy.

Every time I’ve brought it up, this was the response.

“I’ve been thinking about doing this, too.”

I was pretty much amazed. I thought it was just me. Continue reading

Who you know really matters


People say that it can be important to go to conferences once in a while because “networking” is important.

I wouldn’t put it that way. I would say that, for junior scientists, attending a conference regularly is critical because knowing people in your field is necessary for academic success. This is particularly true if you don’t have prestigious connections.

It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. It’s a cliché, but it’s one I’ve seen affirmed time and again. Continue reading

Costs and benefits of attending conferences as a student


Recently I attended the annual meeting of the Entomological Society of Canada, which this year was held jointly with the Société d’entomologie du Québec, in Montréal. While chatting with a (professor) friend at the conference it came up that we both don’t really like attending conferences for a lot of reasons, but attend anyway because we think it is important to do so. At the time I remarked that I thought there were few tangible benefits of attending conferences as a student. Since then I’ve been thinking a bit about the costs and benefits of attending academic conferences as a student, and here I will summarize my thoughts.

The obvious costs of attending conferences are time, money, and energy. Continue reading

The conference hangover


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

When are minority-focused conferences the best choice?


Sometimes, the title has a question mark. The body of the text usually has the answer to the question in the title. This is not one of those. I don’t have an answer to this question.

Have you heard of SACNAS or ABRCMS?* These organizations put on a big science conference somewhere in the US each year. (SACNAS is passing through my own city next week.) Continue reading

Graduate training, missed opportunities and the good ol’ days


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

A vacationing scientist.

“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

Conferences need students: make them affordable


People go to conferences for a variety of reasons. Conferences are used to align future research priorities, and students and postdocs can “network.” Meetings also provide an opportunity to travel to cool places and take a vacation.

When conferences are in fancy places, they might attract more people, but only those who can afford to go. We need to have students and postdocs at conferences, for their own sakes and for the future of the field. At least in my fields, international conferences often are designed to make it very hard for students and postdocs to attend. Continue reading

Respectful conversation at academic conferences


You’re probably familiar with this scene from academic conferences:

Person A and and Person B have been chatting for a few minutes. Person C strolls by and makes eye contact with Person A. Person C gives a big smile to Person A, which is reciprocated, perhaps with a hug. Both A and C enthusiastically ask one another about their lab mates, families, and life in general.

At this moment, Person B is feeling awkward.

Continue reading

Conference report from a non-expert: Geochemistry


Last week I went to the Goldschmidt conference, which is a convergence of geochemists. I’m not a geochemist. I’m not even an ecosystem ecologist (though I’ve pretended to be one a few times). I was there to speak about how insects respond to the legacy of geologic history in a rainforest, and to share a bit about how animals may affect long-term nutrient cycles. In short, to remind them that animals might, just maybe, actually matter.

I learned a heck of a lot. Here are a bunch of stray observations and ideas that occurred to me throughout the meeting. Continue reading

Preparing a talk for a conference


I distinctly recall a little non-event at a conference: I was scooting to catch a friend’s talk on time. I found him sitting in the hallway outside the room, slide carousel* in his lap. Grabbing a bunch of slides and putting them into his carousel. He was picking out slides, on the fly at literally the last minute. Figuring out both his content and his sequence Continue reading

Submitting abstracts for conferences without having the data


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. Continue reading

Putting faces to names: meeting fellow academics


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.

How all ecology grad students can benefit from an OTS course


If you’ve only just started grad school, or if you’re getting ready to finish, there are a ton of great reasons to take the OTS course this summer. The Organization for Tropical Studies courses aren’t just for tropical biologists, and the experience is useful for all ecology grad students.

  • Breadth of research methods — Gain experience in running experiments in a great variety of biomes, fields, and taxa. No matter your speciality, it can be useful and important to know how to mark insects, do biogeochemistry and microbial ecology, dissect flowers and do pollination experiments, mist net birds and bats, make and analyze sound recordings, and much, much more.
  • Making connections — You will work very closely with a large number of faculty from universities all over the United States and elsewhere. More important, you’re in the course with a bunch of other grad students who are typically fun-loving and academically talented. The course is work hard-play hard environment and you’ll go back home with new friends and colleagues, some of whom you’ll stay in touch with for the remainder of your career. You want to emerge from grad school with a network that goes well beyond your own institution. This is a great way to make that happen.
  • Experimental design — This course will have you designing and conducting experiments at many different sites in small groups. This really helps you learn how to develop the right questions, design the most appropriate experiments and that you’ve had the best analysis in mind the whole time.
  • Data analysis — Because you are involved in so many experiments, you gain experience with may kinds of analysis. The course has expert faculty including well-recognized statistical gurus who communicate in common English. You’ll get training in R to give you the tools that you need.
  • Science communication skills — Learn how to produce media that communicate your science with the public, by working with PhD scientists/filmmakers. Here are the tremendous results from a brief science communication project on the OTS course, from a post on the National Geographic Explorers Journal. The course runs its own blog and you have an opportunity to create podcasts and posts.
  • Experience with conservation in action — You’ll have the chance to interact with land managers and conservation professionals on the sites of ongoing projects. If you’re thinking about getting into the this aspect of the ecology business, you’ll have experiences and opportunities with making connections.
  • Tropical nature — If you haven’t ever spent time in the tropics, the biological diversity is stunning compared to the meager biota of the temperate zone. You get to see these biomes in the company of researchers who are experts in this environment and conduct a number of experiments. If you want to learn natural history and biodiversity, this is a chance to be in the field with the experts who can show you what you what to learn.
  • Units — You get six credit hours from the University of Costa Rica that (typically) count towards the coursework requirements of your program. So, there’s that, too.

Speaking just from my own experience, the course gave me so many skills — and ideas — that have been useful in many unpredictable ways. I’ve yet to meet anybody who has taken the course who has said it is anything short of incredibly useful, and I think everybody has rated it as a spectacular experience. In the course of your graduate career, it definitely is worth your time.

Here’s a pdf flyer with more info.

Here is the link to the course for summer 2014, with its list of great faculty and remarkable sites the course visits, and instructions on how to apply. The deadline for applications is just over a week away, but then there are rolling admissions afterwards.

Flexibility is wonderful, and horrible.


Academics have a wonderfully flexible job.

If my kid is sick, or has a performance at school in the afternoon, I can change my schedule. I can work from home if I’m not teaching. I can focus on a crisis, or a grant, or revisions and drop everything else if necessary. I can get new tires for my car on a weekday morning instead of the weekend.

This flexibility shouldn’t worry those who think that we somehow have it easy. It turns out that we university scientists work far, far more than the 40 hours that is contractually required of us.

The downside to our flexibility in scheduling is that we grow to depend on that flexibility. And we have the capability to schedule ourselves into traps.

Because we are accustomed to flexibility, we have the latitude to schedule things that other, more reasonable, people might not schedule. We have the capability to create untenable and inflexible schedules.

Take, for example, my schedule at the moment. I’m now somewhere remarkably far away from home for two weeks. Before this trip, I was away from home for a week and a half. So, I’m gone for almost the entire month of January.

I’m traveling for two good reasons. I’m now setting up some students with exceptional research opportunities And I also found it too tempting to turn down an opportunity to join a field course, which was fun but also an important obligation in my view.

I also have two, more important, reasons to be home. My spouse and my kid.

This is a very long time away from home, especially considering that I spend weeks away in the summer on fieldwork. At the moment, I am a delinquent parent and a delinquent spouse. While I’m away, I’m missing important events (both good ones and bad ones). I’ve put an undue and undeserved burden on my spouse, who I clearly owe big time when I get back home. I don’t want to be the oafish not-adequately-involved dad who prioritizes science and career over family. This trip, I’ve pushed that margin too far.

We agreed to all of these scheduled things in advance, but that doesn’t make the situation any better. It looks different on the calendar than when you’re actually away.

What’s the fix to the inflexibility of our own flexible schedules? How do we make sure that we don’t overcommit ourselves, just because we can? The answer is simply to say “no” once in a while. But of course it’s not that easy. If it were, I wouldn’t be in this mess, having a remarkably fun time, but far away from my family with whom I want to, and should, be with.

Collected observations from travels among universities


Invited seminars and job interviews offer a unique opportunity to learn (and remember) what grad school is like and how universities work. You get to have a lot of intentional sit-down conversations on a wide variety of topics. Spending time meeting new people and learning new stuff rocks. And when you chat with other people about themselves, and their work, labs and universities, you have a chance to put your own way of doing things in perspective.

I’ve had a few such opportunities in the past month. There were a number of recurring conversational themes and undercurrents. During these visits, you get to have conversations to learn not just about all kinds of research, but about how people chose the directions that led to their current trajectories. And, you often learn about how personal lives shape our research directions and priorities, both by design and by hap.

Here are some of the highlights. None of these observations are shocking news by any measure. But I was struck by the obviousness of these ideas and the frequency with which they emerged, even when I wasn’t looking for them:

  • Research universities are no longer primarily oriented towards training excellent scientists. They are now primarily oriented towards teaching students how to publish and to get grants. If a grad student develops the desire to become an excellent practitioner of science, this is probably going to emerge from the undergraduate experience.
  • Anybody currently building a future in the quantitative sciences needs to learn how to write code to promote their own research success. Being able to manage and analyze super-duper huge datasets (bioinformatics) is really useful.
  • High quantity data will never be a substitute for high quality data.
  • People need to get off their goddamn phones.
  • Genomics is now at the point when all flavors of biologists are in a practical position to figure out heritable mechanisms accounting for phenomena involving organisms in nature. For many kinds of questions, any species can now be a model system.
  • Most ecological theories are ephemeral, and are either myopic or wrong. The parenting of popular, ephemeral and myopic theories is the prevailing route to success.
  • It’s difficult to maintain the presence of mind to recognize the power of one’s own authority.
  • In ecology and evolutionary biology, women fall out of academic careers most heavily in the transition phase between from Ph.D. to faculty. Lots of parties are at fault, but the ones that seem to be the most significant are some senior faculty (of both genders) and some spouses. Deans have many opportunities to proactively make positive changes, but that rarely happens.
  • The number of students who want to do serious, long-term, field biology in the service of contemporary research questions has sharply declined. This limits our potential to answer some major wide open questions in biology.
  • Universities that maintain a strong faculty actively keep their professors from going on the market in search of greener pastures. Universities would not lose valued faculty members as often as they do, if they actually supported faculty commensurate with the degree to which they are valued. Once someone is driven to look for a new faculty job on the market, then it’s impossible to not take a great offer seriously, even when there are many good reasons to not move.
  • The beauty of life – both in biodiversity and our relations with fellow humans – is immense beyond words. Humanity might be ugly, but people are gorgeous.

Hittin’ the lecture circuit


Over the next couple weeks, my show is going on the road!

Tour dates:

  • 18 Oct 2013 – Boulder
  • 28 Oct 2013 – Miami

No tickets required. I am likely to entertain, and there’s a good chance of some enlightenment. There’ll be fun natural history, big questions, medium-sized answers, and a refutation of dogma.

It’s not frequent that a person from a teaching-focused university, like myself, ends up getting invited to give a talk at an R1 institution. It’s not a freak of nature or anything like that either. But if you look at the roster of speakers in most seminar series, it’s usually a roll call of other research universities. So, when you see the roster of the departments hosting me, it tends to look something like this:

Moab sticker

If you think that’s self-deprecating humor or some kind of dig at myself, please look in the mirror. Because Moab rocks. I love being from (the metaphorical) Moab. Clearly, Moab is the outlier, just like California State University Dominguez Hills is an outlier among Stanford, UMass, and the University of Vermont. That’s not a bad thing; I think it’s wonderful.

I just read something written by a professor who just left her job at an R1 university for a job at a Liberal Arts College, in order to solve a 2-body problem, and she is still settling into the new job:

I am learning that folks still define themselves as researchers here.

This shows that there is still plenty of work to be done, when a researcher shows up on campus and doesn’t even realize that her own colleagues are also researchers, and perceive of themselves that way!

One of these days, perhaps, it won’t be so surprising that tenure-track faculty at colleges and universities see themselves as researchers, and that the broader community will recognize the same. The more they invite me, and other research-oriented faculty from teaching institutions, to seminars at R1 universities, this fact should become self-evident to grad students before they leave grad school.

If universities aren’t inviting research-active faculty from teaching institutions as a part of their seminar series, then they are only perpetuating the misrepresentation of the status quo in higher education.

But for the moment, these invites are uncommon, and it provides an extraordinary opportunity to show folks what kind of research happens at my university. I’m excited for the trip because it’s going to blow some folks away how badass my stuff is, and how many of them won’t even see it coming.

I’ve got my work cut out for me, because whether I like it or not, I’m representing a whole class of researchers who do great work in teaching institutions. Even after I give a kickass talk, it’s inevitable that at least a few people will think that I’m punching above my weight. But if I go in with that kind of attitude, then that would only reinforce the false notion that I might have a chip on my shoulder about not coming from a research institution. Am I conscious of the issues face by researchers in teaching institutions and how we are perceived? Of course I am – I started a whole blog about it!

So, I’m just visiting to have fun, hang out with fellow biologists, share what I can, and learn what I can. And if you’re on the front range or on the toenail of the Florida panhandle, then maybe we can chat about your stuff, frontiers in the community ecology of rainforests, and, of course, ants.

More on seminar series tomorrow.

Making the most of a daily commute (guest post)


Amy Parachnowitsch is an ex-pat Canadian scientist, who studies the evolutionary ecology of plant-animal interactions and floral traits. She is halfway through a 4-year assistant professor position at Uppsala University, Sweden.

Maybe it is the recent discussion about field sites both far and wide (both highlighted here) that has got me thinking about distances and research/work. Or maybe it just because I’ve been sitting on a bus trying to make the most of my newly acquired commute. Whatever the reason, I have been thinking about how travel, whether daily or to your field sites, can affect how you arrange your work.

A little context: this summer I moved from the town where I work to one an hour away. There were a lot of personal reasons that went into the decision but one of the main factors was my work flexibility compared to my husband’s. Unlike him, I can use the commute to work and have shorter days in the office. A good theory but now I’m actually testing it during the one hour (each way) I spend on a bus. Right now my days are about two hours shorter in the office than they were when we lived a ~15min bike ride away.

So far, I am seeing some pluses to the arrangement. When I’m in my office, my time tends to get fragmented during the day by various interruptions. An hour on the bus is long enough to pull something out and get somewhere with it. One of the big benefits is that I am not completely connected; I do have a smart phone but I keep my computer off-line. So far this has functioned to give me some solid writing chunks during the day. There is lots of advice out there about writing daily and it has always seemed like a good idea to me. But this commute is the first time I’ve been consistent with a daily writing routine—we’ll see if it results in more submitted manuscripts as I hope. Another long-term advantage is that it will also be much easier on the family when I go away for conferences or research (we have a 4-year old). Even short trips were difficult for my husband to manage both child-care (e.g. dropping and picking up from daycare) and a long commute. Although I did a number of work-related trips from Uppsala, there have been opportunities that I haven’t taken because it was too much to ask of my very supportive husband. All in all, it will probably take a while for us to fully realize the advantages of the move but I am hoping that it will make me more effective and freer to participate in the things that interest me.

The disadvantages are of course the commute itself. I’d rather bike or walk to work than ride the bus. It will also mean that staying late or popping by my office or lab is more difficult. On the small scale—a long daily commute can have some of the advantages/disadvantages of long distance fieldwork: when I’ve left for the day, I can’t go back. The change won’t be so dramatic for me because I was already limited in doing ‘off-hour’ work by my child (and commuting husband). And unlike data collecting, I can always bring a lot of my work home with me. But I’m not sure how my shortened campus time will function once the semester is in full swing. I’ll get a better feeling as the fall progresses if there are any hidden costs to regularly leaving early. Commuting also changes the timing of the kind of work I can do during the day because now there are many things that I won’t be able to do in the commuting hours such as meetings, lab work, extensive literature searches, adding web content to lectures, etc. I think it will take more time to know if this is a plus or minus for me.

Unlike your field sites (or lack thereof), choosing where you live seems more a personal choice and might be limited by many factors (e.g. city university vs. college town). But as I have experienced from moves in the past, where you live can also effect how you work. Gone are the days when I could do that one last thing before rushing off to pick my daughter up from daycare. I don’t know if this will make me more disciplined with my time in the afternoon or more likely to give up a task earlier so I don’t have to stop in the middle of it.

Overall, I think I will be very motivated to keep my commute productive because the alternative is really long workdays. With a young child, I think it is especially important that we have some time together each day. If I spend 8 or so hours in my office, I’ll rarely see her.

I’ve known lots of different styles of professors: those that are always in their office, those that leave early to pick up kids, or come in late because they work better at night. One of my colleagues even commutes on a weekly basis from Norway. Ultimately, academia is a job where your accomplishments often matter more than the time you do it and we’re generally given a lot of freedom to arrange how we work.

I’m curious about other people’s decisions. How do you schedule your day and what do you find to be most effective way to do your work? Does where you live effect how you work? Do you use your commute to work/think about work or is it a time-out in the day? Above all, any advice from long-distance commuters would be greatly appreciated!

Supervising students from afar


Note: Heads up, the site is going to stay a little quiet for the next few weeks, during some vacation. Posts will continue, at 2-3 week, though I won’t be able to respond to comments or moderate. Come mid-August, things will pick up.

With students in the lab and the field during the summer, there are plenty of times when undergrads are working and their PIs are not working alongside them.

It’s typical for a PhD student to go off to do one’s own research out in some remote place, like Andean glaciers.  Undergrads, however, probably shouldn’t venture off on their own, if their project is going to be tremendously successful. And they probably don’t even work in the lab for extended periods without regular check-ins.

We can’t work alongside our students all the time. Our academic lives in the summer can’t principally consist of labwork and fieldwork. We have writing, conferences, and vacation.

As my lab is primarily built around field experiments, my students spend the summer in the field. The field, however, is several thousand miles away from home. This normally could be a problem with an undergraduate field crew, but I base the lab’s work out of an active field station. This site hosts a full community of other researchers, as well as great infrastructure that helps ensures that the resources for research are available, as well as meeting needs with respect to health and safety.

Am I concerned that the science might not work out as well as it might if I were there all of the time. A little bit, but not much. I have some rockin’ students, and I have full confidence that things are working out. Not only do my students know what they’re doing, but they also are good at diagnosing when they have doubts.

They know that I am easily contacted to deal with problems as they crop up. Except when I’m not available. I’m just returned from teaching a field course in a place that lacks cell coverage. I had wifi, but I wasn’t checking it every minute. Now that I’m heading on v

This is where I remind myself, this isn’t only my research; the students own the project as well. If they didn’t have the opportunity to make independent decisions, and have them be genuinely independent, then they wouldn’t be getting as much out of it. And, I’ve learned that when great students are making the calls things are often better than when I am in charge.

How much distance do you create/tolerate from the day-to-day work of your undergraduate research projects? What level of engagement leads to the greatest level of success?

“What are you doing for vacation?”


I feel a little put out when people ask me what I’m doing with my 3 month vacation. Um, what vacation are you talking about?

Does summer mean vacation for a university scientist? Heck yeah! Just not for 3 months.

It looks like vacation comes in second, only topped by the backlog of manuscripts, in voting so far.

Summer is when the most science gets done, but, come on, it’s glorious out and your schedule isn’t going to be more open than this. You’ve got to get away at some point.

I’m one of those vacationers, for a few weeks in July/August. I’m mentioning this because you might be interested in knowing how I arranged my vacation – it’s a home exchange.

If you live in a place that others might want to visit, then you should really think about signing onto a home exchange registry. The way this works, is that you arrange a swap so that others move into your house for a while, and you move into theirs. You can swap cars, too. (I haven’t seen this movie, but people have told me there’s one in which Kate Winslet falls in love with Jack Black, during some kind of home exchange.)

A couple years ago, we spent 2.5 weeks in Iceland, and this year, we’re spending almost three weeks in Paris. The only real cost of the vacation is getting there. No rental car, no housing expenses, a kitchen to cook in, a comfy house for an extended stay. The only challenge is that getting our abode ready for the exchange won’t be a minor tidy job. If you have questions about how home exchange works, put ’em in the comments and I can answer for everyone. I’m not a pro because I’ve only done it once so far, but it’s pretty straightforward.

Would I spend the kind of money needed for an apartment or hotel for an extended stay in a very nice place? Maybe, but it’d be painful. Nor would I want to impose on any friend for my family of three to camp out in their home for anything more than a short visit. The home exchange is the best way to go, a comfortable home away from home, with many conveniences, and you can’t beat the price. And someone to water your tomatoes while you’re gone.

When vacation time rolls around, it doesn’t help that I’m also hoping to submit a biggish grant with a deadline on the last day of this trip. But I’m committed to making this not a working vacation. In more than two months away. A lot has to happen before then.

So, off to the field! Things might be getting a little slow on the site, but I’ll check in periodically, at least a couple times per week if not more often.

A field course about ants this summer (some self-promotion)


Last year, a new field course on ants launched at the Southwestern Research Station, in Portal, AZ, USA called Ants of the Southwest. It got rave reviews, and it’s happening again.  Are you interested in going?

Here’s how to sign up!

The course is designed to provide a generalized hands-on approach to the pragmatics about research with ants. How do you observe and manipulate behavior in the field and in the lab? What kinds of ecological experiments are possible, and how do you do them? How do you collect, identify and maintain a collection of ants? How do you keep colonies in the lab?antsofsw2

There is a diverse set of experienced and talented instructors (in addition, I’ll be there for much of the time).

antsofsw1Don’t mistake this course with the long-running and superb Ant Course run by Brian Fisher from the California Academy of Sciences, which focuses on identification, taxonomy, systematics and building a collection. The Ants of the SW course is a complement to the Ant Course as a different introduction to ant biology, emphasizing ecology and behavior. It’s targeted towards graduate students, but is accessible to folks with other levels of experience.

If you are thinking about using ants as a model system but don’t have years of experience with them, this course would be a great place to figure how to do things, what works and what doesn’t, and will give you the chance to spend time in a community of myrmecologists in a hotbed of ant diversity.

If you have any questions about the course, you can contact me or leave a comments, and of course you can follow the link to the course page and contact the station. I hope to see some of y’all in July!

I got me the travelin’ blues


I imagine that when other scientists need to travel for research-related business, they file some paperwork, and then hop on a plane.

I only dream that I could do the same.

The official rule at my university is that faculty need permission one month before any work-related international travel. Period. Even if the funding is external. And even if it’s okay with your chair and doesn’t interfere with teaching.

This rule, in itself, is a massive handicap that puts my research program at a disadvantage.

During moments like these, it can feel like my own administration is the enemy of my research program. I know that they everyone is, in fact, quite supportive, at least in spirit. Nonetheless, I’ve had to grow accustomed to an administrative obstacle course.

Each year, I schedule round-trip travel for about ten people to go to Costa Rica. I’ve been doing this since I arrived at this university, and every year, weird stumbling blocks are put in front of me.  Because of this rule, I’ve kept home people home who would otherwise could have joined our research trip, and I’ve spent several extra thousands of (taxpayer) dollars on airfare because of administrative dillydallying. (I’m sure my administrators see it differently, of course.)

To get travel authorization, I need signatures from a long series of administrators. Before signing, they have a series of questions about budget, insurance, and logistics that require detailed answers before a signature arrives. Sometimes this process has taken a few weeks, and that’s with our departmental admin person chasing the process diligently the whole time (for which I am eternally grateful).



There are a few reasons why these questions posed to me are unnecessary, overly silly, and frustrating. First, all of the questions they ask could be easily answered by looking at the text of the grant itself, which was already approved by administration. Second, these administrators are aware that I essentially am doing the same thing every year with the funds, and so nothing changes. If I was approved the year before, what’s wrong with this year? Third, all of these funds are administered by the fiscally independent university Foundation, which operates outside contracts and grants, and technically my administration has no control over these funds and only need to approve my time away from campus. Also, this travel happens off the clock of the academic year, so really the only branch concerned with my time and the funds should be the Foundation.

This year, I should note, the process has gone smoother than ever before. It might be because I have the same Provost for two years in a row, which is a new record for me in the past six years. (So far, he’s been a keeper.) Moreover, the Provost’s lead administrative person is the most awesome ever, who used to work in my Dean’s office. Having her there is soothing.  (Apparently, she spent an hour on the phone with my equally excellent departmental admin person sorting out technicalities that she was required to attend to.) I just got the signatures last night, and bought the tickets. This time it only took a couple weeks to get permission!

I can only take so much solace in the fact that an unnecessary process is less painful than it has been in the past.

How hard is it to travel with your university? Are the international travel rules overly onerous? How much of your time have you spent dealing with paperwork that you could have spent on teaching or research?