DoctorAl Digest 12

This week’s edition focuses on mentoring and mental health.

Meghan Duffy talks about “How intensively do you mentor undergrads working in your lab? over at Dynamic Ecology.

Terry McGlynn believes that “A lot of scientists are kind, careful and caring at Small Pond Science.

Scitrigrrl speaks “On my role/effectiveness as a mentor at Tenure, She Wrote.

A very clear and honest list written by a student entitled “Dealing with mental health: A guide for professors” over at University Affairs.


What can bystanders do about sexual harassment in science?

I’ve been enjoying the new podpast “Not Just Scientists by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science and his colleague H.K. Episode 3 called “Under Pressure” was particularly interesting as it featured a discussion that centred around what male scientists could do if they realized a female scientist was being sexually harassed. The episode was really honest, with Terry and H.K. expressing dismay about not really knowing how to appropriately respond to these kinds of situations. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment and knows many other female scientists who have as well, I’d like to offer a list of what I personally would have found helpful before, during, and after I had been the victim of sexual harassment. I am not an expert on this topic and strongly encourage you to educate yourself by contacting your local sexual assault support centres for additional advice and resources.

Before- Prevention

1. I think that it’s really important to have explicit policies in place about acceptable behaviour in our workplaces, field sites, laboratories, teaching environments, and conferences. I realize that policy can only go so far, but it’s a solid start. There also have to be consequences with teeth. For example, if someone is sexually harassing female trainees, then that person at a minimum should no longer have access to any trainees for their research program. I believe that sexual harassment is a zero tolerance offense.

2. Take a hard look at the climate for women in your department, faculty, institutions, and scientific societies. The climate that you are experiencing may be very different from that experienced by your colleagues. Ask your female colleagues what their experiences have been and be prepared to listen. Believe what they are telling you is true even if you don’t like what you hear or if it hasn’t been your experience.

3. If policies don’t currently exist or your climate is chilly then advocate for improvements that will address the concerns of your female colleagues as effectively as possible. You may need to step up and advocate due to power differentials being at play (i.e. your female colleagues may feel unable to do this due to career stage and/or cultural and social constructs and stereotypes).

4. If you run a research group, model appropriate professional behaviour and make it clear what behaviours are unprofessional and unacceptable. Talk about these topics in your group lab meetings. The SAFE paper published last year is an excellent starting point for these discussions.

During-Witnessing an Episode of Sexual Harassment or Assault

1. If you witness one of these acts then you need to call out the perpetrator and explicitly let them know that the behaviour is unacceptable. If it is safe to intervene, then please do so. I can’t count the number of times that someone has said something inappropriate to me while others stood by awkwardly. Everyone knew that something awful had just happened, but stood there in stunned disbelief. The moment passed and things continued on as if everything was normal. Please do not make excuses for the behaviour of the harasser. It is not o.k. to say “he’s just socially awkward”, “he didn’t mean anything by it”, or “don’t be so sensitive”.

2. After the immediate threat has passed, communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. In some cases they will want to do nothing, sometimes they will want to report using a policy, and other times they may want to report to the police. You need to respect and support their choice. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

3. Write down how you experienced the event. Put down as much detail as possible; date, location, time, situation, who else was present, what was said or happened, etc. You may never need these notes, but if you do you’ll be glad that you have them.

After-Someone discloses to you that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault

1. It has taken a lot of courage for this person to disclose to you. Communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. Depending on the law in your jurisdiction you may be a mandatory reporter of cases that involve your students. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

2. Be proactive about removing people from potentially harmful situations, or even better take steps to ensure that harmful situations cannot arise. Terry talked in the podcast about warning female colleagues about predatory scientists and actively preventing the harasser from accessing potential victims.

Much has been said recently about the “culture of silence” with regards to this topic in science especially with the recent situation at Berkeley.

Women in Astronomy blog

The San Francisco Chronicle


Please think about active steps that you can take to remove this “culture of silence” from your academic field, societies, and institutions.


Solid Advice on “How to Choose a Good Research Problem”

Running a lab and doing science are hard. I owe thanks to the Twitterverse for directing me to a thoughtful piece written by Uri Alon in 2009 which is still relevant today. The title is “How to choose a good scientific problemand it’s a very quick read, but it articulates very clearly the challenge in selecting scientific problems for yourself and your trainees. He relates that any scientific problem can be mapped out on two axes which are feasibility and interest. He argues that you want to avoid spending time in the quadrant containing problems that are hard and yield a small gain in knowledge. The efforts that you’d have to rustle up in order to solve a problem in that quadrant won’t pay off much. In contrast, putting a new student with little experience on a problem in the quadrant where the project is easy and produces a small gain in knowledge is a smart choice. As trainees gain experience and confidence (e.g. senior graduate students and post-docs), you can move them into solving problems that are a bit more challenging and lead to larger gains in knowledge. I really liked this approach for selecting good problems to work on and how to assign them to particular trainees. I also like his idea of making his trainees “take time”. He makes his trainees wait for 3 months or more before they commit to a particular problem. During this time his trainees read, plan, and question and come up with a solid problem to solve before they dive into research. I also take this approach with my trainees when they first enter the lab and there are certainly times when we both feel that we are wasting time by not producing results immediately. I will make the argument that this initial investment in time pays off in terms of my trainees better understanding their research and being more motivated and engaged in solving their defined problem. The other powerful observation that he makes is contrasting two different schema when it comes to visualizing what the research process looks like. The Scientific Method is taught in classes as a series of linear steps, which I think is wrong. Perhaps because of this false structure, many scientists view research as a series of sequential steps (e.g. that you must go directly from A to B). This leads to a lot of frustration because in my experience research never directly goes from A to B, but meanders all over the place. Alon suggests that it is better to start with a nurturing schema for research that expects that meandering will occur and takes steps to nurture students while they are stuck in “the cloud” (i.e. when everything goes wrong and your assumptions prove to be false). This schema accepts and embraces the possibilities for new research directions and personal and professional growth.

I’m often guilty of biting off more than I can chew with my own research problems, but I try to protect my students as best I can from this tendency. Alon’s short essay has given me some new things to think about and has confirmed some of my conclusions about choosing a good scientific problem that I have made during my first 5 years as the head of a research lab. I recommend reading his piece and seeing if it influences how you choose your future research problems.


Doctor Al Digest 11

Those of you who have been following the blog for a while know that challenges facing women in science are important to me.

Here are some recent articles from the web on these topics that I think are worth reading:

A great article from Lauren Morello summarizing the experiences of female scientists on Twitter in light of the sexist scandals of the past year.

The costs of being a minority professor are hard to quantify. Here’s an insightful article about the service part of the job with some concrete examples.

Previous posts of mine on similar topics can be found below:

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work

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

Don’t feed the trolls

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

A New Hope

This is not a post about Star Wars; sorry if you saw the title and came here expecting something else. It is instead how I felt last night once I had a chance to look at the new cabinet selected by our Prime Minister (PM).

The first thing that struck me is that the cabinet and the PM arrived together on a bus and that members of the public were welcomed to the grounds of Rideau Hall to take part in the event. This is a great change from the closed door policy of the previous government and the previous method of having each minister arrive separately. These new ministers look happy to be there. I was also pleased to see that the PM included his partner and his children in the events of the day. I have hope that this will be a functional cabinet where ministers are free to be themselves and express their opinions.

The second reason that I have hope is because of this photo.

new cabinet image

Image copyright CBC

This is an awesome photo! This photo matches what I think of when I think about being Canadian. People who have different genders, gender identities, sexuality, ancestry, religion, personalities, regional affiliations, experiences, life realities, challenges, and motivations. It is so wonderful to see people who look like me in this photo; it makes me feel like I belong in this country and that a version of my voice will be heard in Parliament.

Several other things that give me hope…

We have a Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development. This highlights the key role that science and technology play in a financially successful Canada.

But wait! There’s more! We have family doctor who is the new Minister of Health. We have a Minister for the Status of Women!! We have a Minister of Environment and Climate Change!!!! We have a newly created position of Science Minister!!! All of these portfolios are held by individuals who have impressive credentials, life experiences, and the ability to get things done. They are all women. We have for the first time in this country a cabinet with a 50:50 sex ratio that is truly reflective of the Canadian population.

Today, I am very proud to be Canadian.

An excellent start Mr. Trudeau!

Doctor Al Digest 10

A wonderful essay on the emotional labour performed by many women in the academy by Margeaux Feldman.

Lecturing is getting a bad rap these days. Some great thoughts by Stephen Heard on the expectations that we should have of our students if we are using lectures in the classroom.

Jeremy Fox has an interesting post up at the Dynamic Ecology blog about the best movies about scientists . I’ve blogged in the past about my impressions of the portrayal of scientists in popular culture here and here.

A great post by Terry at Small Pond Science about the conditions at his institution and how they constrain the type of laboratory that he can run.

An insightful post from Acclamatrix on anger over at Tenure, She Wrote.

Why tracking your time as an academic is useful: Review of the app ATracker


There is a healthy amount of evidence starting to build up that indicates that tracking how you spend your time, analyzing those data, and making well informed changes can lead to large gains in productivity. I first heard about time tracking through the work of Laura Vanderkam and I’m starting to see it pop up quite frequently in my Twitter feed. I’m all about increasing my productivity and effectiveness, so I decided to give it a go.

The first couple of times that I tried time tracking I lasted a day. The problem was that finding a system for the time tracking was difficult and turned out to be clunky and onerous. I initially tried doing it using a small notebook, which had the advantage of being portable, but that didn’t work out because it took too much time to put in an entry and I stopped doing it. Next, I tried an Excel spreadsheet blocked into 30 minute increments, but that didn’t work because it took a lot of time to fill out and it wasn’t portable. It was clear that I needed an easy to use and portable solution. Shortly thereafter, @Acclimatrix had posted about tracking her time on Twitter and I Tweeted her back asking what she was using to track her time. She was using an app called ATracker.

A quick search of the Apple app store pulled it up. If you want to try it out, there is a free version that allows you to play around with the app to determine if it will work for you. That’s what I ended up doing and I very quickly upgraded to the Pro version for ~$6 Canadian.

Most days at work I feel fairly productive, but I do have those days where I wonder where my time went. This app is a solution to that problem. How long am I taking to prep for class or mark those essays? Am I meeting my research writing goals? Spending enough time mentoring my trainees? I can now also identify how much time I am spending on time vampires (I’m looking at you email, Twitter, and web surfing!) I’m a scientist and I love data and now I have data that I can analyze to make informed changes to my schedule and time use.

So, what has the app done for me? Is it worth tracking your time? My answer is a resounding yes! Here are a few examples.

This semester I am teaching two undergraduate courses. I made the conscious decision that I would only deal with teaching related activities on the same days that I lecture (Mon., Wed., and Fri.). I did this in an attempt to bundle like tasks together to be efficient. Since I’ve been using the program for 2 ½ weeks, I can go back in my history and look at the data for 8 teaching days and see how I spent my time. I’ve colour coded my teaching tasks as green, so I can quickly see that many of the tasks on these days are teaching related which is great. I can also look at my Tuesdays and Thursdays to see if teaching tasks have crept into those days. I was able to quickly see that some marking, mentoring, and administrative tasks associated with teaching snuck into a few Tuesdays and Thursdays. I can then determine if this is something that I need to address and come up with a plan to avoid it from happening again.

A second example pertains to research writing. My major research grant is up for renewal this fall and I’ve designated Tuesdays and Thursdays to do this work. Time tracking has allowed me to see that I am effectively focused and on task in the mornings, but that this tapers off in the afternoons. This is likely because I am running out of the brainpower and energy needed to complete this highly intellectual project. Things that might take me 30 minutes to complete in the morning take much longer to finish if I attempt to do them in the afternoon. I think that this is valuable information about my personal work flow and I’ve now decided to schedule tasks that require a great deal of mental “heavy-lifting” for my morning hours and to leave less mentally challenging tasks for the afternoon.

The ATracker app is very easy to use and intuitive. I’d tried a few other time tracking apps prior to this one and it is the winner hands-down in my opinion.

In the top left corner of the app is a filing drawer icon and if you touch it you go to the screen where you can enter your categories. The free version allows you only a few categories and one of the reasons that I upgraded to Pro is that you can create as many catergories for tracking your time as you would like. I initially started with the categories Teaching, Research, and Service, but quickly realized that those were too simplistic for my situation, so I broke these down into activities that I do frequently. My categories include: lab work, grant writing, student advising, teaching marking, service activities, teaching preparation, email, Twitter, finances, seminars, etc.; you get the idea. You can colour code each category, so as I mentioned above I’ve colour coded all of my teaching categories various shades of green and this allows me to get a good snap shot of the activities I’ve performed on any given day.

You have two options for tracking your time. You can either tap on a particular activity and a timer starts counting up; when you finish that activity you tap it again and the timer stops and the tracking of your time appears on the small daily calendar on the right side of the display. Your second option is to tap the pen and paper icon at the top of the display and that takes you to a page where to can enter an activity using start and end times. This is a great option if you forget to start tracking your time when you start an activity.

The default display is set to today, but you can tap the History icon on the bottom of the screen to look at the time tracking data for any previous date. Another cool feature is the Report. If you tap this icon on the bottom of the display it takes you to a screen where you get a pie chart or bar graph that displays how you spend your time. The charts can be generated for a single day, for 7 days, for 30 days, or you can specify your own time range. This is really useful because it tells you how you really spend your time and can call your attention to problem areas where you are wasting time or spending too much time that you might want to address moving forward.

I’ve already seen the value in time tracking and encourage others to try it. I find that this particular app works for me and I’m very happy with my purchase.

DoctorAl Digest 8

I was lucky enough to be at Game 5 of the Jays-Rangers series last week. The game was exciting and it was bizarre. There was a point in the 7th inning when I left my seats because it wasn’t an appropriate place for my 8 year old to be hanging out. I haven’t seen anything that bananas in a long time.

This post is a hilarious take on how it all went down, including the infamous Bautista bat flip. h/t @kyrajns

A great piece on multitasking written by Tim Harford. h/t to Meg over at Dynamic Ecology.

The challenges of deciding what to wear as a female academic. I love the title!

Nobody wins microaggression Bingo (Tenure, She Wrote).

Stinky seeds dupe dung beetles (Science News).

Very happy that we have a new majority party and PM in Canada. All of my science colleagues are walking around a bit lighter this morning.

The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.