Month: June 2014

Transferrable Skills

I generally think that graduate students under sell their skill sets to employers. Many graduate students think only of technical skills when they are putting together their CVs or resumes and it’s a real shame. They are failing to capture many great skills that they have developed during the course of their graduate degree and are not effective in highlighting these skills in job applications. Many researchers are competent in running gel electrophoresis protocols, but not as many have competencies in project management or leadership. It is these “soft skills” that will make one applicant stand out from the crowd.

I also think that many principle investigators (PIs) don’t realize that transferrable skills are absolutely required by students in this economy in order to get a job. It is no longer enough to be technically competent; employers are looking for what additional value a researcher can bring to the job. I’ve always been dismayed by hearing stories from students about how their supervisor discourages them from attending professional development workshops. I think that this “chained to the bench” attitude has no place in science.

It is for this very reason that I encourage my graduate students to participate in professional development workshops, go to conferences and meetings, collaborate with other scientists, and take part in student government or organizations. These are opportunities that I took advantage of as a graduate student and post-doctoral fellow and they have served me well over the years. Frankly, these experiences (and the skills that I acquired participating in them) have provided me with an edge over the competition at every transition that I’ve faced in my research career.

Let’s talk about some tangible examples using the case study below. This is a case study that I’ve made up, but many graduate students would be doing these activities during the course of their degree.

Janet has just completed her thesis based M.Sc. degree in the laboratory of Dr. Jones. Her thesis involved the identification and cloning of a gene involved in the biosynthesis of digestive enzymes in mouse saliva. She also characterized the enzymatic activity of the protein encoded by the gene. During the course of her project, Janet was assigned two undergraduate summer research assistants by Dr. Jones to assist her with data collection. Janet’s research has led to the publication of 2 peer-reviewed research articles and 3 conference presentations. While in graduate school Janet was employed as a Teaching Assistant for a 3rd year undergraduate biochemistry course laboratory.

Here is a list of the obvious soft skills that Janet has acquired during her degree:

i) Ability to plan, execute, and finish a multi-year project

ii) Ability to supervise and manage staff

iii) Scientific writing skills

iv) Ability to present information in oral/written format

v) Networking skills

vi) classroom management

v) Ability to evaluate the performance of others

vi) Ability to work effectively with a supervisor

 

Some other skills that Janet might have gained along the way:

i) Teaching skills

ii) Ability to manage a research budget

iii) Ability to receive and use constructive feedback/criticism

iv) Ability to work as an individual and part of a team

v) Troubleshooting and problem solving skills

vi) Ability to adapt to new challenges quickly

You can see that the potential soft skills that could be developed by Janet during the course of her degree are diverse and that I have not included any of Janet’s technical skills (e.g. molecular biology skills, enzymatic characterization techniques, etc.) in this list. Obviously when you are putting together your CV or resume as a student you only want to list soft skills that you believe are relevant and that are your strengths. You also want to think about tailoring your application package to the specific job for which you are applying. When you think about your soft skills in addition to your technical skills, a larger range of job opportunities become available. Casting a wide net in terms of identifying potential employment prospects is a smart move these days.

Book Review- Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists

The hardest part of being a research academic is not the lab work. By far the most challenging part of this job is maintaining effective interpersonal relationships. This holds true whether we are talking about relationships with colleagues or with trainees. When I started my own lab I realized that I hadn’t had any formal training on how to manage scientists and that I’d better get up to speed as quickly as possible if I wanted my research group to be successful and thrive. One book that I found incredibly helpful was Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen published by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press. I have the first edition of this book as a paper copy and the second edition of this book in electronic format.

The book starts by asking readers to do some self-assessment in order to identify their own personality type and to identify personal blind spots that you might therefore have in your interactions with other personalities. This is accomplished through several exercises and requires taking some time for personal reflection. They make a strong argument for why you need to manage yourself first before you attempt to start managing others. There is an excellent chapter on negotiation with great “real-world” examples that serve to effectively illustrate the main points.

I’ve often heard it said that managing scientists is like trying to herd cats.  Most laboratory research these days is done in teams; gone are the days of the lone wolf scientist. As such, it’s important to master the skills involved in effectively running a lab group composed of scientists with different personalities and motivations. The problems that I experienced or saw while a graduate student and post-doc were almost always due to interpersonal conflicts.  Often the strategy of many scientists is to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. This book contains an excellent chapter on addressing these issues head on in order to avoid escalations and lost time and effort on projects. The book also contains great chapters on managing up (i.e. how to manage your boss) and managing sideways (i.e. interacting with peers). There is a very eye-opening chapter on the various types of dysfunction that can be found in academia based on how the reward system is set up and how to become a better mentor and how to survive as a trainee under these conditions. A great chapter is present in the book that describes the transition to industry for those looking to leave the ivory tower. The final chapter encourages readers to shape their workplaces for the better using the techniques learned in the book in order to improve the culture of academia for everyone. The second edition contains an additional chapter on leading team meetings and a new section on how to deal with difficult people.

I think that any scientist could learn a great deal from reading this book. I have referenced it several times since starting on the tenure-track when I’ve run into a sticky interpersonal situation or when I need a refresher on a particular aspect of mentoring. I believe that it would also be incredibly useful for graduate students and post-docs who are navigating academia.

Dismantling the Stereotype of the “Crazy” Scientist

What comes to people’s minds when you say the word scientist? Chances are most people picture a middle-aged white man toiling away in a dark, mysterious laboratory. He’s likely wearing a lab coat (either pristine white or covered in who knows what) and has crazy hair in need of a good brushing. This is the image of the scientist most often portrayed in film and TV. The socially awkward misfit who is rude and abrasive to everyone he meets and clueless about the real world around him. He’s often up to no good and has no moral compass. If this is what most people really believe about scientists then it is no wonder that scientific progress is under attack in the US and Canada.

I have two kids who like to play with LEGO. I was therefore happy to hear that LEGO would soon be putting out a new series called “Research Institute” that features female scientists. I can only hope that this will serve to counteract the “Crazy Scientist” that appeared in the Series 4 set of minifigs that hits on all of the stereotypical characteristics that I just described above.

I was again reminded of this stereotype this morning when looking at my Twitter feed. It turns out that a Greek yogurt company Chobani has been putting messages under the lids of its products. One read “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists.” Understandably many scientists saw this as a direct attack on themselves and on science and mobilized an effective campaign to get rid of the offensive slogan. The company would do well to remember that many scientists are involved in the making of their product, whether they are engineers working to improve efficiency of the production line, biologists working to improve the texture, flavour, and development of the yogurt, or chemists involved in synthesizing the plastic containers that it’s packaged in.

Guess what? Scientists are people too. We have friends and family. We have hobbies. We have morals and beliefs. The person sitting next to you on the bus is a scientist. The person voting in the same poll as you is a scientist. The person coaching your child in little league baseball is a scientist. When I teach and train students in my laboratory I am showing them that the stereotype is incorrect. I specifically address and dismantle it in one of my courses.

I think science is awesome, but then again I am a scientist. I see the beauty and wonder of science all around me every day, and I appreciate that science allows me to live a healthy life by providing me access to clean water, sturdy shelter, nutritious food, and effective health care. What can we do as scientists to halt the disturbing trend of vilifying science and scientists that is in full swing in our neighbour to the south and is starting the sweep north into Canada? Perhaps the place to start is to deconstruct the stereotype of what it means to be a scientist.

McDonald Lab: Applicants wanted for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program

The McDonald lab is seeking applicants for the Banting Postdoctoral Fellowships program for Fall 2014. The award is valued at $70,000 per year (taxable) for two years (non-renewable). Further details about the program and eligibility requirements can be found at: http://banting.fellowships-bourses.gc.ca/home-accueil-eng.html

Our lab focuses on the electron transport systems of photosynthesis and respiration. Our particular interest is alternative proteins involved in putting electrons into or taking electrons out of these systems. Current research projects focus on the alternative oxidase, plastoquinol terminal oxidase, and alternative NAD(P)H dehydrogenases of bacteria, fungi, plants, and animals. We use various techniques to study the molecular, regulatory, and functional properties of these enzymes. Trainees receive training in bioinformatics, molecular biology, protein biochemistry, and respirometry. We strive to do excellent science and have fun while doing it! I take a strong interest in my trainees’ professional development and encourage them to maintain a positive work-life balance. Further information about the McDonald lab can be found at: http://www.wlu.ca/homepage.php?grp_id=12358&ct_id=2893&f_id=4.

Wilfrid Laurier University is a growing institution in Waterloo, Ontario. The city of Waterloo is a thriving community and technology hub centrally situated in southwestern Ontario with access to other large metropolitan areas including Guelph, London, Hamilton, and Toronto. The Biology department is a tight-knit community and offers many opportunities for collaborations and research support. Research at Laurier is question driven and uses a variety of techniques and approaches to answer hypotheses through investigation at multiple levels of biology (e.g. molecular, cellular, physiological, ecological, evolutionary). Our trainees leave with a solid biological background, the ability to use critical thinking to address important challenges and issues, and are prepared to succeed in a variety of career paths.

An application package consisting of a CV, all postsecondary education transcripts (can be unofficial versions), a one-page description of career aspirations and rationale for your desire to pursue a postdoctoral research experience at WLU with me (highlighting the benefits expected with respect to fulfilling career aspirations), and a 3-4 page research proposal must be sent to Dr. McDonald at amcdonald@wlu.ca by midnight on July 18, 2014.

The successful candidate will be expected to put together a complete application for the internal competition at Wilfrid Laurier University and submit it by August 22, 2014. Further details are available at: http://www.wlu.ca/page.php?grp_id=36&p=24457.  Applicants will be notified of the pre-selection results by September 3, 2014.  Successful applicants will be asked to submit their final application by September 24, 2014.

The Power of the Label maker

One characteristic that is very valuable to have as a tenure-track academic is excellent organizational skills. This job makes multiple demands on your time and is a real juggling act; keeping all of those balls up in the air at the same time is tricky business. I have found that it is very worth my while to discover and invest in tools that help me to maintain order in the face of chaos.

One tool that I have found to be indispensable is the label maker. I kid you not! Label makers have come a long way since the models of my youth. I remember vividly using archaic models with the alphabet dial on the top that worked by punching letter imprints into hard plastic. Very clunky- but strangely satisfying.

The current brand that I use is by Dymo and is their middle of the range model. I like it because you can purchase a wide variety of tape types (e.g. paper, plastic, etc.), and colours. I find the base model to be a bit clunky and the top of the line model has bells and whistles that I don’t need. Refill tapes are widely available and reasonably priced.

My colleagues seem puzzled by my love for the label maker and I’ve been the subject of gentle mocking for this proclivity. However, if you read any good productivity book or guide you will see that the label maker features prominently as a must have tool. On a day to day basis I use my label maker to label file folders. Although the bulk of my work occurs electronically, I still require paper file folders to keep track of invoices, budgets, project plans, notes from student meetings, teaching materials, grant applications, etc. A label maker allows me to label these files cleanly and professionally and makes them easy to find and identify in my filing cabinets. The label maker has also come in handy in the lab. When I first moved into the lab and organized it I labelled all the drawers with content labels. This helps me to remember where all of the gel electrophoresis equipment is stored, but has also helped to familiarize my students to the lab and has trained them to properly put away equipment. This saves time and money. If you don’t already have one, invest in a label maker; you’ll be glad that you did.