Writing for a Media Organization

I’ve always liked writing as an activity. When I was in Grade 5, my awesome story about a young chicken was published by the school board in a collection of children’s stories. Writing style needs to change with your audience. The majority of my writing for the past 20 years or so has been writing academic projects for fellow scientists.

Several years ago I attended a great workshop by Shari Graydon who is the founder of the organization Informed Opinions. Her goal is to increase the representation of women’s voices in Canadian media. After the workshop I started thinking about what kind of writing I could do as a scientist that would reach a broader audience.

At the end of summer 2017, I came across a posting in my Twitter feed about a cool article written by Dr. Thomas Merritt at Laurentian University published by the online newsite The Conversation. He’s a fruit fly biologist and had written an article on how to kill fruit flies and the article had an incredible number of people read it. The model for The Conversation is that the articles are written by researchers or academics who work at a university or research institution.

I decided to give this kind of writing a try. In December of 2017 the new Star Wars movie “The Force Awakens” was coming out in movie theatres. I decided to write an article about some of the biology concepts present in the Star Wars universe . It was a lot of fun and the entire process took about 4 hours. Amazingly, the article has been read over 19,000 times! I wrote and published an article earlier this month on the symbiotic/parasitic concepts present in the new Venom movie  which has been read over 4,600 times. I’ve gotten faster, as the second article was completed in about 2 hours.

If you are an academic looking to get your feet wet in media writing and wanting to reach out to a broader audience I can highly recommend pitching your idea to The Conversation. The editors are efficient and reasonable and it’s a lot of fun to see your article come to life!

 

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Paying for convenience: what is your time worth?

I like to think of myself as technologically savvy, but I have been pretty slow to jump on the online purchasing bandwagon. There have been a couple of reasons for this and the main two have been that I like to actually touch and/or try out a product before I buy it, and the fact that I don’t like some of the employment practices of the larger companies that almost have monopolies in the online space.

My partner and I are pretty good about minimizing the time and effort spent putting food on our table to feed our family. We meal plan most weeks in advance and generate a shopping list, which definitely saves us a lot of time during the week. We usually select meals that are quick and easy to prepare and have recently increased our use of the Instant Pot (a hybrid slow cooker and pressure cooker) which saves us a lot of time.

A while ago, one of the large grocery store chains in our area started offering its customers the option of ordering their groceries online, having a store employee pick out and pack the items, and then bring them out to your car at a pre-selected pick-up time. In some ways I am ridiculously frugal, so the $3-5 cost associated with this service struck me as silly, due to the fact that I can shop for groceries in person in the store for free. We recently realized that a competing store offers the same service, but it is free of charge if you spend $50 or more. Thus began our foray into online grocery shopping.

A few caveats to be upfront about; we did not purchase any butcher meats or produce on this order. Those are two categories of items that we are very picky about and we didn’t want to end up with mushy apples or cuts of meat that were too fatty for our liking. There are 3 main advantages to this service that we identified after using it:

1) It takes considerably less time to select and order our items online off a shopping list than it does walking the store aisles. We probably saved ourselves about 1.5 hours.

2) You are able to keep a running tally of how much your groceries cost as you add items on line. If you need to stay within a weekly budget for groceries this is incredibly useful.

3) Random items that are wants and not needs do not find themselves mysteriously leaping into your shopping cart. This is a huge perk, especially if you have small children who have an obscene love of Laughing Cow cheese, Brisk iced tea, or pretzels. It is also useful if you have an obsession with cinnamon coffee cake.

A few disadvantages:

1) Price matching is difficult to do and not worth the effort when shopping online. I assume the same goes for using coupons.

2) You need to plan and order ahead. The booking of a pick-up time generally occurs 12-48 hours in advance of actually picking it up at the store.

We feel a bit late to the party on this one; but will certainly use the service again. We easily spend more than $50 in groceries and associated items per week in our household. This is an easy way to get back some of our time on the weekend so that we can use it for more valuable activities.

Doctor Al Digest 28

A few things that I’ve found interesting in the past few weeks:

A nasty case of alleged sexual harassment drives home the point the dangers that are inherent in a system where a graduate student has only one faculty member as their research advisor. It’s important as a grad student to develop a network of mentors.

In some cases, it is worth your time to improve a skill that you are poor at, especially if it is a required skill for your career. In many cases though, it is a better use of your time and efforts to capitalize on your strengths.

The “Dear HBR” podcast is excellent, but the Harvard Business Review “Women at Work” podcast is phenomenal! The podcast has recently returned for its second season and is better than ever! Honest, frank discussions of the challenges faced by professional women in their workplaces and practical advice on how to navigate this minefield. I can not recommend it enough!

I’ve written my second column for The Conversation Canada on the Venom movie that opened last night. The focus is on symbiosis and how an alien could go about hacking a human host.

 

 

Book Review: When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel H. Pink

When

This is the first book that I’ve read by Daniel Pink, but it likely won’t be the last. I read it because I’m interested in being efficient and effective using time-management techniques and the book certainly has much to offer in this area. It also contains lots of other interesting insights into human relationships with time.

The book is divided into three parts and each has its own focus. The first part focuses on daily rhythms of the human body and the need for recharging and replenishing. The second part takes aim at beginnings, midpoints, and endings and why each is important and can be influenced for positive outcomes. The final part discusses working with others and how people think about and are obsessed with time.

Something that I really liked about this book is that there is a “Time Hacker’s Handbook” at the end of each chapter that is full of hands on advice and tips that are extremely useful. You can think of it as the Cliff Notes version of each chapter. One thing that I did not like about this book, likely because I am a scientist, is that only scientific research that supports each thesis is presented. No results are presented that refute the author’s hypotheses. This comes across as rather one sided.

The writing style is easy to follow and I learned a lot of interesting things by reading this book. I know that a book is engaging when I’m constantly sharing little facts from it with my immediate family members (much to their chagrin!).

This book would be useful for people who have some time-management systems and habits already in place and are looking for improvements and ways of tweaking what you are doing to improve your productivity.

 

 

Why I will continue to use the title Dr.

I was a bit annoyed yesterday when the decision by the Globe and Mail to update their style guide came across my Twitter feed. I get to be an associate professor of biology upon first reference in an article, but become Ms. McDonald on second reference. I guess this is how the Canadian Press have been doing things for years, but I find it irritating and I’m going to tell you why.

I’m a professional and an expert and earned a credential, namely a Ph.D., that reinforces these facts. Now you may ask why I need these facts reinforced. It is not because I have a gigantic ego, think I’m better than everyone else, or am a member of the non-existent Canadian “elite”. The fact that I’m a professional and an expert needs to be enforced regularly because they are questioned regularly several times each term due to the fact that I don’t look like a typical scientist. There are huge social and cultural contexts at play here and that Dr. title is therefore really important to people like myself; that is women and persons with disabilities.

I can only assume that because I look younger than I am and because I am female that people feel free to tell or ask me:

1) that I don’t look like a scientist (hello, stereotypes!)

2) I’m too pretty to be a scientist (umm, these two things are not mutually exclusive like you seem to think they are, and ewwwwww!)

3) Which professor do you work for? (I’ve run my own research lab for 8 years thank-you very much)

4) I thought you were so and so (insert some other female academic here), I’m so confused! (We are both petite and female presenting so we must be interchangeable then)

The above are interactions that I’ve had at academic science conferences.

My credentials and authority often also get challenged in the classroom. This is not a unique experience given that it happens to most of the other female professors that I’ve mentioned it to. We were commiserating about it over lunch a few years ago and our male colleagues were in disbelief because it never happens to them.

That doctorate is one item that I can use to level the playing field in academic science. I earned it, I need it, and you can pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

 

DoctorAl Digest #26

Word from a psychologist that the productivity advice to “Eat your frog” first thing in the morning doesn’t match well with how human brains actually function.

An amusing piece from the journal Inorganic Chemistry on “The Five Stages of Rejection” when it comes to submitting a journal manuscript for peer-reviewed publication.

Equity, inclusion, and diversity requires that work must be assigned fairly. A great article in Harvard Business Review.

The Special Challenges of Being Both a Scientist and a Mom

Modest Advice for New Graduate Students

 

 

Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.

 

Reflections on Teaching a Three Hour Evening Class for the First Time

Since I’ve started teaching courses at the university level, the classes that I have taught have been 1 hour timeslots three times a week on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, or 1.5 hour slots on Tuesdays and Thursdays between the hours of 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. This semester I taught a 3 hour class for the first time and it was on a Monday evening.

I think that when dealing with timeslots that you haven’t experienced before that it is important to go into the experience with an open mind. Prior to teaching this particular course I spoke with some colleagues who had done 3 hour classes before to get an idea of what they liked and didn’t like about the experience. I also went online and looked more broadly about what other professors said about preparing for and teaching a 3 hour class.

Here are my lists of pros and cons that I experienced:

Pros

1) I liked teaching once per week as opposed to 2 or 3 lecture slots per week. I think this considerably decreased my overall stress level because my days weren’t as fragmented this term. While I enjoy teaching, it was great to know that my classroom time was completed by 10 p.m. on Monday. I felt like the rest of the week was open and full of possibilities.

2) Monday evening was a good timeslot as my students were coming off a weekend and were definitely more lively than if the class had been scheduled in the early morning. Getting them to participate in class was fairly easy.

3) I never felt rushed going through my teaching material. I also felt that I could deliver the material more efficiently and in less time in a single 3 hour block compared to three 1 hour blocks.

4) I was able to offer my students some class time to work on a major group project.

Cons

1) Three hours is a long time to teach and to hold the attention of students. The first hour was always good. I then gave a 10 minute break and we launched into the second hour. After that I gave a 5 minute break and moved on to the last hour. I have to admit that the 3rd hour was pretty tough. I was starting to get tired and holding the full attention of the students was very challenging because they were reaching the limits of their ability to focus.

2) It was disheartening to lose a few students after each break. The vast majority did stay for the second hour, but larger numbers left during the second break. This was at its worst on my very last day of class.

3) I found it harder to run active learning exercises in a 3 hour class compared to a 1 hour class. This might have been because there was more time and less urgency to get through an activity and I think this threw off my sense of timing a bit.

4) If a student missed class on Monday evening, they missed a lot of material.

Overall, I liked teaching a 3 hour class Monday evenings and it’s given me a lot to think about in terms of my teaching, classroom management, and pedagogy.

 

Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

Personal Productivity: Meal Planning and Grocery Shopping

At my house we are pretty good about eating dinners at home together every night. My partner and I decided early on that we were going to make it a priority and it allows us all to chat over a meal and find out what is going on in everyone else’s lives. My kids have activities several nights a week, but thus far we have still managed to do this by eating earlier on some evenings.

Over the years we have gotten better at planning, buying food, preparing, and serving dinners at home. A great deal of the credit goes to my partner, who does the actual cooking, while I am on clean up duty. It’s a split of chores that works well for us.

On Saturday mornings we update our finances and determine how much money is available in the grocery budget for that week. Our goal is to come up with 6-7 dinners for the upcoming week. Once those are decided, we go through the recipes and our cupboards and freezers, in order to determine what needs to be purchased to make the meals. I enter the required items into an app on my iPhone called Flipp. This is an awesome app as it allows us to have a grocery list and the app shows us where each item is on sale that week. You can circle the sale items in the store flyers right in the app and this makes price matching so easy! We buy the bulk of our groceries at a store that price matches and this easily saves us several dollars each week.

Once the menu is planned for the week, we list the meals on a white board in our laundry room. This allows our kids to see what the dinners are for the week and this means that there are no surprises and a lot less whining about what’s for dinner. On the white board there is also a place for the kids to make requests for meals for the upcoming week, and a running grocery list where they can request that certain food items get purchased. If we run out of a type of food, everyone is pretty good about putting it on the list to be bought the next week.

The 6-7 meals get made the next week, but we don’t slate them into particular days. On days where someone has an activity or event in the evening we often make something easy in the slow cooker. On days where there is more time, my partner will make a more complicated meal. The dinner list also helps us to remember to defrost or marinate food the night before in preparation for the next day’s meal.

Most weeks my partner and I do the grocery shopping together. The kids usually don’t come and that is an advantage as fewer impulse items make it into the cart. We often shop on weekends, but are playing around with going during the week in order to avoid the crowds. We select our own items, but have toyed around with the idea of shopping for groceries online and picking them up at the store, but we haven’t tried that yet.

This pre-planning and purchasing cuts down on a lot of stress and has mostly gotten rid of the dreaded “What’s for dinner?” question in our house. It also saves us a huge amount of money as we are less tempted to eat delivery, take-out, fast-food, or at a restaurant during the week out of desperation.