Moderating my first Twitter Chat

I was very slow to embrace Twitter and have only had an account since 2013. One of the interesting things about blogging is that you can never really predict when one of your posts will resonate with someone and what the outcome of it will be. Last week I wrote a blog post reflecting on the experience of live tweeting a research talk for the first time. The post caught the attention of our university’s Knowledge Mobilization officer and through that connection I was invited to moderate my first twitter chat at #KMbChat. The topic was my blog post which was very flattering.

The twitter chat took place yesterday and will be archived here . I wasn’t sure what to expect since it was my first time participating in a twitter chat, let alone hosting one! I can happily report that it was an awesome experience and that the community was fantastic and very welcoming. I learned a lot from the experience itself as well as from the content of our discussion.

My plan is to use several of the topics that came up for discussion in the twitter chat as subjects of blog posts over the next few weeks. Based on my experience yesterday, I can verify that Twitter chats are very useful from a professional standpoint and I’ll be actively looking to participate in more of them in the future.

Making bad choices? Blame decision fatigue!

I’ve finally come to realize that I make my best decisions in the morning and my worst decisions in the afternoon or evening. The reason for this is a phenomenon called decision fatigue . It’s the idea that the more decisions that you make during the day, your ability to make good quality decisions rapidly decreases as the day wears on. I used to think that living in a world with a myriad of choices available was a fantastic opportunity, but sometimes it is the availability of the huge number of options in our lives that can be overwhelming. I think that these ideas can feed into procrastination, especially when there are so many choices competing for our attention. I also wonder if this is partly driving why many of my students are so unclear about their next steps in education, life, and career. The more decisions that we have to make, the harder those decisions become.

So what can you do about decision fatigue and/or avoid it? This article at the Huffington Post provides some simple steps. I think that the best suggestion is to make important decisions in the morning when you are still fresh and have a large supply of willpower. The other hint that I think is helpful is to limit yourself to three options only and make a decision based on those. I’ll often do this when buying lab equipment. I’ll first think about the features that the item really has to have and only look at options that satisfy these criteria. This makes it easier to make decisions and feel good about them and avoids the trap of second guessing my decisions after I’ve made them.

The negative consequences of decision fatigue can be high. Maybe it’s starting a research project that ends up being a time, money, and resources sink. Sometimes it’s a bad equipment purchase. It could involve sending your manuscript to an inappropriate journal. Bad decisions are costly for a number of reasons; I do my best to avoid them by consciously choosing to make important decisions about work when I first arrive at work. A fresh brain is a brain that’s capable of making better choices.

Office supplies and technologies that can improve faculty productivity

Below is a list of office supplies and technologies that I find useful in my job as a faculty member.

1) Coloured file folders

We once dreamed about a world where technology would make it possible to go completely paperless. We aren’t there yet and I strongly doubt that we ever really will be. I’ve found it helpful to organize projects into coloured file folders that relate to one particular role of my job as a faculty member. Anything related to administration is burgundy (e.g. service, financials, etc.), teaching is violet (e.g. course syllabi, student assignments, tests, etc.), blue is research (e.g. lab supplies, vendor catalogues, grant applications, etc.), and teal is current projects (e.g. manuscript writing, lab experiments, etc.). I find that this colour coding helps to keep me organized.

2) Post-it Notes

The glue used in post-it notes was a failed experiment which as a scientist I think is hilarious and is a good commentary on the importance of basic research and making mistakes while doing science. I use post-its for a wide variety of reasons and in a multitude of colours. For the past several months I’ve been using 3” x 3” post-its on my personal Kanban board in my office and I hope to write a future blog post on that topic. I also use yellow lined larger post-its for capturing lists or ideas that I need to flesh out in more detail.

3) Label maker

I have already waxed poetic about the label maker in a previous post . It is one of the greatest human inventions ever. Enough said.

4) Writing implements (a.k.a. pens)

I am a pen snob and am very particular about them. About a year ago I discovered the Pentel EnerGel Metal Tip 0.7 mm ball pen in black . No leaking, no smudging, quick drying, smooth…this pen has it all. “Borrow” my pens at your own peril!

5) Notebooks

I prefer to use the Hilroy 80 page 1 subject lined notebooks. Many of my colleagues use bound notebooks (e.g. Moleskine), but I write in my notebooks and then rip out the pages so these don’t work for me.

6) iPad

I use my iPad in my daily work as my calendar, task manager, timer, etc. and have previously written a post on several apps that I find useful .

7) Generic office supplies

I’ve got a stapler, staple remover, paperclips, scotch tape, scissors, and a calculator that I use regularly in a desk drawer. I also purchased a letter opener and the number of paper cuts that I receive has dropped exponentially. I also find that the “sign here” sticky flags have proven very useful for one up approval of grant applications, financial reconciliations, and various other documents that need approvals from my departmental Chair and Dean.

8) External hard drive

I back up my laptop regularly in case my computer decides to go nuclear or on the small chance that my computer gets stolen. I’ll likely migrate to a cloud back-up soon, but if the laptop is in my office then the external drive comes home with me and vice versa.

None of these items is particularly ground breaking or earth shattering, but I find that when used together in my everyday work activities they save me a lot of time and vastly increase my productivity.

Care to share the office supplies that you find useful as a professor?

The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk

Last week the undergraduate and graduate students in our department delivered 15-20 minute research talks at our departmental colloquium. The person who administers our departmental Twitter account @LaurierBiology asked if I would live tweet the talks occurring on the second morning of the colloquium. I agreed and wasn’t sure how this experiment would turn out.

I was a relatively late adopter of Twitter. I’ve only had an account since December 2013 and while I post to Twitter @AEMcDonaldWLU regularly to advertise my blog posts I am certainly not using it to the full extent of the platform’s capabilities. I am slowly mastering the art of the hashtag. I went into the experience of live Tweeting fully expecting that I would be distracted and therefore wouldn’t take in most of the content of the talks.

You can therefore imagine my surprise at how helpful it was to live Tweet a research talk. It forced me to pay attention to the speaker and their content, but it also required me to synthesize and report the major points of their talk in a succinct manner. There is nothing like being limited to 140 characters to force you to be brief and to the point.

I can’t say that I will always live Tweet talks from now on, but I will certainly consider the idea moving forward. I used to assume that people who were using Twitter during research talks at conferences were being rude and not paying attention. Now I know that a fraction of those people are very actively engaged with the speaker, but in a non-traditional way.

Anyone else want to share their experiences with live Tweeting a research talk? Any other benefits or drawbacks that I’ve missed here?

Moms and babies: Maintaining academic productivity while a mother is not a zero-sum game

My friend Dr. Andrea Kirkwood contacted me on Twitter this morning to direct me to this post at The Guardian. In it a new mother talks about her dismay when several of her colleagues judged her for “taking time off” for maternity leave and held her to higher expectations upon her return to graduate school. She felt she had to “make up for” what was perceived by others as a poor choice that proved that she wasn’t serious about her research. The post really resonated with me and I suspect with many female academics who are parents who have experienced the same biased responses upon returning to school or the workforce.

So let’s flesh out and challenge some of the erroneous assumptions that some faculty in the academy still make about parents.

1) Maternity leave = time off

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! This is a good one and is totally hilarious. It is also totally wrong. By far the hardest thing that I have ever done physically and mentally in my entire life is give birth to and care for my children in the first 2 years of their life. Performing Ph.D. research, writing your dissertation, and defending your thesis is a cake walk compared to feeding, bathing, loving, diaper-changing, and raising a small child. Going back to school was far less challenging and demanding than the first 9 months that I spent with each of my children at home being the primary care giver. It is a trial by fire and you come through it changed forever; usually rising like a phoenix from the ashes. If I can handle that I can take whatever science wants to throw down. I’m ready to rumble…

2) Choosing to have children as a female academic = bad choice

My children have increased my appreciation of my life in a myriad of ways. They have opened up my eyes to seeing the world from entirely new perspectives and have allowed me to recognize that my perspective is not the only viewpoint and is not always correct. This is valuable. Having children exponentially increased my productivity, time-management, and project management skills while a graduate student and post-doc. These skills have directly contributed to my ability to secure a tenure-track faculty position and be successful at it.

Let’s replace these erroneous assumptions with some better realities.

1) Having children = getting a healthy perspective on what really matters

Crappy day in the lab? That’s o.k. because your son still wants to play Thomas the Tank Engine with you that evening and your daughter still thinks that you give great zerberts .I will always make the argument that people are more important than projects. Having kids has also made me a much more empathetic and considerate colleague. Everyone has a tipping point where more time spent on science does not equal greater returns and is in fact detrimental. Kids are great at making you realize the irrationality of your first world problems.

2) Having children = checking your pride at the door and learning it’s o.k. to ask for help

When I was younger I wanted to figure out everything on my own because I was ashamed to ask for help, didn’t think it was necessary, or thought that I knew best. Having children reveals the depth of your ignorance on a wide variety of topics. I’ve found that it’s had a profound mellowing effect on my high-strung, Type-A personality. Sometimes it’s o.k. to have cereal for dinner. Lots of times good enough and finished is better than perfect but not completed. Life gives you lemons, make lemonade. There is no point in reinventing the wheel. Great colleagues are always willing to help you out and you can return the favour when they need assistance later. An ability to admit ignorance is a strength, not a weakness.

I’m happy with my academic and personal choices and wouldn’t change much if I could go back in time for a “do-over”. The only thing that I would change if possible would be the attitudes of some people who seemed to think that I had checked-out of an academic career by choosing to have a family while a woman in science. There is an immense degree of satisfaction in having proved these nay-sayers wrong. I also feel fortunate to be in a position where I can help the women and men who are coming up the ladder behind me who would like to combine having a family with an academic scientific career. The view from up here is after all amazing!

The Scientific Persona Mask

I’ve been a practicing scientist since 1997. That’s the year that I started an undergraduate thesis project. My knowledge of what scientists did up until then was based on the portrayal of scientists in media, film, television, and books. That picture of what a scientist is was very homogeneous. These portrayals weren’t anything like me and that made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like an outsider and an imposter. Everyone has a strong desire to fit in and I was no different. My initial impression is that science was a serious business and that there isn’t much room for levity.

Through most of my academic career I’ve kept my intimate thoughts and ideas close to my chest, often out of fear that they were weird, stupid, or incorrect. What I have learned over the years is that what the scientific enterprise really needs is diversity. I think that the only way to get this diversity is to actively invite and recruit “others” into science. When we increase the diversity of people doing science then we increase the diversity of ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking about science and I think that this will do a lot for the advancement of science.

Several thoughtful posts by other bloggers have started to lift the veil on how different people do science. These posts have also served to highlight that it is people doing science and that we aren’t robots and that emotions have a rightful place in the scientific realm. Most of the scientists that I know have a wide range of talents that often are not directly related to doing their science. These can range from athletics (e.g. biking, hiking, swimming, etc.), hobbies (e.g. playing a musical instrument), or a passionate interest in something (e.g. star gazing, stamp collecting, etc.). I’m constantly surprised by the hidden depths of other scientists, but I really shouldn’t be. People are people after all.

I think that perhaps instead of working so hard to fit in, I should start letting other scientists see the other facets of this particular scientist. Perhaps someone else has a liking for scruffy-looking nerf herders, productivity tips, do-it-yourself manicures, and Settlers of Catan. I’m ready to take off my scientific persona mask and be a real person. Care to join me?

Don’t feed the trolls

I think that I was first introduced to trolls in the story of the Three Billy Goats Gruff . In children’s stories the troll is always an ugly character who is up to no good. I particularly liked the treatment of trolls in the film Willow  and the way that they climbed up walls. The next time that I thought about trolls was when my kids were younger and we went through a phase when we all watched a lot of Dora the Explorer . This troll wasn’t particularly threatening, but you did have to solve his riddle if you wanted to cross the bridge. He had a theme song that easily became an ear worm in our house. Recently my husband and I started watching previous seasons of the TV show Once Upon a Time  and there was one episode containing trolls on a bridge.

Last weekend I had an experience with a real-life troll. I am talking about the internet variety. I’ve been blogging for a little over a year now and consider myself fortunate that I haven’t had to interact with any trolls. I feel that way given the frightening amount of trolling that is directed towards women on the internet. I usually don’t check my email over the weekend, but last Sunday afternoon I did. Sitting in my inbox was an email from a person who I didn’t recognize, but I get lots of emails from students looking to do graduate work with me so that wasn’t particularly unusual. Unfortunately the contents of the email were not harmless and were of a sexually harassing nature. This person had taken the trouble to learn some personal pieces of information about me which was very disturbing and signed off the email as a secret admirer. It was thoroughly creepy, distracting, and made me feel very unsafe. It is also unwanted and unwarranted.

I accept that as part of my job as a professor that I will receive my share of unpleasant emails such as those that convey bad news about grants, complaints from students that I teach about my evaluations of their work, or disagreements with colleagues about how to solve problems. In my naïveté I never thought that I would be subject to anonymous sexual harassment by email. I’m now wondering how many of my colleagues have had to deal with something similar, but haven’t said anything out of fear, shame, or bewilderment. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss. I expect that I am not the only person to have had this experience, but I think that it’s important to talk about it and not sweep it under the rug.

I’d appreciate hearing from others who have had this experience and how they dealt with it.

Research Budgeting for Scientists

Prior to starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I had never managed a professional budget before. I’d certainly managed my personal finances previously, but I’d never before had total oversight of a research budget and been responsible for figuring out how to spend it effectively and ensure that I wasn’t going over budget. This is one of those myriad of skills that you aren’t always exposed to as a graduate student or post-doc, although I do know some colleagues who managed research budgets before starting their faculty positions.

I’m pretty conservative with money and how I manage my funds is informed primarily by two things: I think that shopping around for the best price is a good idea and I like to know what the current balances of my accounts are so that I don’t ever run a deficit. These two approaches have served me well in the first five years of my position.

In my personal life I do not particularly enjoy shopping as an activity. The most frequent type of shopping that I do is grocery shopping and we have recently started to use the app Flipp in order to compare prices any given week and to price match items across different stores. I have transferred this idea to how I do the shopping of consumables and supplies for my lab. Usually several suppliers will offer the same or a comparable product; let’s use the example of 1.5 mL centrifuge tubes. In my lab I prefer the tubes to be clear, to seal well, and to withstand high centrifugation speeds. Taking these specifications into account, there are many suppliers and manufacturers who can provide me with a tube that will do the job. My next step is to figure out the price per unit and see who offers a good product at a reasonable price. For most items I’m willing to shop around and to try a new product, especially if the price point is cheaper than what I have previously been using. One thing to keep an eye on is whether there are shipping and handling charges in play. Often an item will seem less costly, but when you factor in the shipping costs that is no longer the case. I also have to make sure what customs charges apply if I’m importing an item from Europe or the U.S. since I’m in Canada as those charges can add a lot to the cost of an item.

In order to avoid running a deficit it’s important to plan ahead and estimate your future costs and also to have a really good idea of the current funds that you have available. Some costs are easier to project (e.g. student stipends, larger pieces of equipment) while some are more challenging to estimate (e.g. the price of agarose 3 months in the future). I’ve found that it’s been useful to go with higher than expected estimates in order to build a buffer into budgets.

I choose to run my research budget in this way because the vast majority if my research funding comes from Canadian taxpayers and they have a right to expect me to be responsible when it comes to spending those funds. I also refuse to put myself and my students in the position of running out of funds for their stipends as I feel that it is morally wrong and irresponsible. I won’t take on a student if I can’t pay for my portion of their financial support package.

I’d be interested to hear how other faculty do their financial budgeting for their research grants. Please leave your thoughts or advice in the comments!

Helping students to draft CVs and resumes

In preparation for this week’s lab meeting I asked all of my students to put together a draft CV or resume. They each emailed it to the other members of the lab and we all made constructive comments on these documents. At our lab meeting each person gave feedback to each student on their document that was useful and insightful. It was also a great way to generate questions and have a good discussion about CVs and resumes.

One thing that all of my students noted was how time consuming it was to put together this document for the first time. We talked a lot about content (e.g. what should go into the document) and organization (e.g. what sections or headings to use?). I also impressed upon them the importance of updating the document regularly (I do mine once a month) because if you leave it too long it becomes very difficult to remember what you’ve accomplished. My students also have a tendency to undersell their skill set or they often don’t recognize that they have particular talents or skills. In a previous lab meeting we addressed that issue by brainstorming about transferrable skills and how to capture and describe them to an employer.

I also encouraged by students to take their drafts to our campus Career Centre. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the non-academic job market, or the academic job market for that matter, and the staff at the Career Centre are much better informed about current job market trends and application expectations. I think that part of my job as a faculty member is to help my students prepare for their next phase of life, whether that is looking for a job, further education, or some other goal. I think that professional development is an important part of training students in my lab.

Tips for designing experiments

One guarantee of being a scientist is that you perform many experiments in your career that do not work. I always warn trainees just joining my lab that this will happen and that they should expect it. This is an issue that I discuss in particular with undergraduate students because often the only lab experience they have is through undergrad labs run as part of a course and those experiments are designed to work and have already undergone extensive troubleshooting. I make sure to tell my students that they will run many failed experiments and that this is a normal part of doing science and is a cornerstone of the scientific method. I tell them that so far in my career I’ve only had a few experiments that worked out perfectly the first time and that a failed experiment can happen for reasons other than their abilities or talent for doing science.

That being said, there are things that you can do to decrease the chances that an experiment will fail right out of the gate. I offer some tips below:

1) The first thing that I suggest to students is that they do extensive reading of the literature and established protocols related to their experiment before starting to design it. I’ve heard the phase “one hour in the library can save you one month in the lab” and I absolutely believe it! It’s really important to understand the rationale behind a particular protocol and the nuts and bolts of why you are doing each step. In the days of commercial kits I think that many people forget this crucial step and it often causes issues later.

2) Make sure that you are including all reasonably possible positive and negative controls as part of your experiment. From talking with several of my colleagues recently it has become clear that many undergraduate and graduate students have not had explicit training in how to determine what the appropriate controls should be for an experiment or are simply not including them. By including controls in your experiment you allow yourself the capability of narrowing down where problems cropped up in your experiments. When an experiment fails, this step can save you a massive amount of time when it comes to troubleshooting and determining what went wrong. The presence of control and experimental groups also ensures that you will be able to conduct statistical analyses of your data in an attempt to demonstrate whether your results are significant.

3) Write up an extremely detailed step by step protocol for your experiment. Try to think about what might go wrong and where key steps are in the protocol. Attempt to troubleshoot the experiment before you even do it. The plans for your experiment should be written in your lab notebook and not on paper towels, scrap pieces of paper, etc. This will ensure that your experiment will be reproducible and will help you to identify potential issues before you get rolling. If someone in the lab has done the experiment or protocol before, go and talk to them. They may have tips or tricks that are not explicitly written down that are valuable. Write out the protocol in your own words with as much detail as you can. I tell my students that if they needed to perform the experiment without thinking about the steps, the protocol should be detailed enough that they could do this.

4) Ensure that all of the materials and reagents that you need for your experiment are available and ready to go before you start the experiment. There is nothing worse than getting part way through a long protocol only to realize that you’ve run out of Tris buffer and have to order more in from the supplier. Complete any prior steps that are needed before starting the experiment. Do you need to culture cells, wrangle critters, grow plants, etc.?

5) Conduct a small trial run of your experiment. Starting things off with a pilot experiment allows you to save money, time, and can allow you to discover problems with the design of your experiment before you fully commit large amounts of resources to it.

Designing good experiments is an art form that requires years of practice in order to get better at it. I am still working on designing the perfect experiment, but I have certainly improved this skill by extensive practice over the years. Due to the challenge of designing an effective experiment it is truly amazing when an experiment works beautifully on the first attempt. This is one of the eureka moments that scientists live for!

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