Month: February 2015

Making word processing easier

When I was in Grade 8 my parents bought our first computer. It was a Tandy 1000 and it was awesome. My brother and I logged countless hours playing computer games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest published by Sierra . We stayed away from Leisure Suit Larry because it was wildly inappropriate for kids. We also had a dot matrix printer hooked up to the computer that could be used with a very basic word processor and I used it a few times to do school assignments.

One skill that has proved very useful to me in my job as a scientist is the ability to type. I learned how to type in Grade 10 by taking a class for an entire semester. It is probably the most boring class that I have ever taken in my life, but it’s a skill that I use every day and it saves me tonnes of time. I learned to type on an electric typewriter and was pretty accurate and speedy; I rarely used the correction paper that we had to buy for class. I’m pretty sure that they don’t teaching typing in grade or high school anymore, perhaps assuming that kids these days use their computers so much that they pick up typing on their own. However, my own children who are 12 and 8 type using two fingers and appear mystified by the QWERTY keyboard. A few weeks ago there was a discussion on several blogs about whether scientists still left two spaces after periods at the end of sentences when they typed. It took me a while to break that particular habit since that is how I first learned to type sentences.

Since entering my undergraduate degree I’ve used several iterations of Microsoft Word as my word processing program. I was thrown quite a bit by the 2010 update and have recently switched over to the 2013 version. I’ve often wondered how other scientists do their word processing, since I know that some of my colleagues prefer to use LaTeX . Over the years I’ve picked up several tips and tricks for using Word, but I consider my skills to be merely adequate and I know that I don’t use the program to its full capacity or usefulness. I figure that improving my MS Word skills would be a good investment as it could serve to save me lots of time and improve my efficiency at doing certain aspects of my job. With that in mind I took out the book “Office 2013 (the missing manual)” from my local public library. I’ve only read up to page 83, but it’s been illuminating to say the least!

Some highlights so far:

1) I’ve known for years that lots of other people regularly use keyboard shortcuts. I often use Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + P to paste, and Ctrl + A to select an entire document. This book explained shortcuts for bolding and italicizing text that should have been obvious to me before now; I’d been using my mouse and clicking on buttons to accomplish the same thing which is pretty clunky and often interrupted my flow of writing.

2) The start pane in Word 2013 was a bit disorienting at first. I’ve learned how to pin documents to the top of the list of recently used documents that will save me the time that I previously spent pulling them up from whatever folder I’d previously saved them in.

3) I recently switched to a dual monitor set-up in my office which was pretty amazing. Finally figuring out how to split the screen or show documents side by side has been mind-blowing and frankly is something that I should have figured out years ago.

4) I used to select text by highlighting it with my mouse and clicking and dragging the cursor. Evidently you can select words, paragraphs, or sections with a couple clicks of the mouse. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.

This book has been amazing so far and I look forward to the other gems of knowledge that I’ll pick up from it. It’s also been a very effective ego check and has served to highlight the fact that spending a bit of time figuring out how to really use a piece of software is time well spent.

What tricks have you picked up in the word processing programs that you use in your day to day work as a scientist? Feel free to share in the comments!

Dressing for Success in Science as a Woman

When I was a little girl I apparently wore dresses; there are pictures in the photo album to prove it. As I got older I ditched the dresses and it was mostly about comfort. I hate nylon pantyhose and tights passionately and in the late 70’s/early 80’s the fashion rules of the day dictated that bare legs with dresses or skirts were a fashion faux pas. Maybe it’s because I’ve only worn cheap versions of these monstrosities, but the itching and pulling is enough to drive me insane. Once in the lab I cut up a pair of pantyhose to serve as a makeshift filtration device; it was immensely satisfying! From that point on I was firmly in the pants camp. Pants are also considerably warmer and you don’t need to worry about accidently flashing people when you wear them (take note Britney Spears ). You can easily run wild throughout the neighbourhood catching crayfish, tadpoles, and avoiding snapping turtles while wearing pants. The only time that I wear a dress or a skirt these days are at weddings or fancy dinners. From this perspective wearing pants was a personal choice. Since starting my scientific career it’s also been a practical and necessary one.

When I first started working in a lab, it didn’t make sense to wear skirts or dresses (or shorts for that matter) from a health and safety perspective. All of the labs that I’ve worked in have required the use of personal protective gear including a lab coat. That lab coat is there to protect you, but it can only do so much. If you have bare legs exposed underneath your lab coat due to wearing a dress, skirt, or shorts you are placing yourself at risk. Don’t think that it can happen to you? I have a co-worker who used to think that way until she accidentally spilled phenol on herself in the lab. Many of the experiments that I do are messy and it doesn’t make financial sense to destroy “nice” clothes if it can be avoided. The same goes for shoes. We aren’t allowed to wear open toed shoes or sandals in the lab for the same reason. When running around doing experiments I’ll go with a pair of sneakers or loafers every time. This is also a keen survival strategy for when the zombie apocalypse occurs and making a speedy get-away will be important. That being said, I’m sure that Dr. Isis will hold her own regardless of what fabulous shoes she happens to be wearing that day!

In addition to the practical reasons that inform my clothing choices, there are larger societal and cultural factors that influence my professional wardrobe. I was reminded about this topic by today’s post on Tenure, She Wrote. And here we get to the sticky point; the double standard when it comes to how female and male scientists dress for work and how they are perceived based on what they are wearing. It’s a tricky tight rope to walk and for me personally takes up way too much of my mental energy most mornings as I decide what to wear to work. Judging by previous blog posts on the topic, I’m not alone. A quick Google search on the topic turned up a pretty amusing article from 1998 on the ScienceCareers website about a graduate student looking for a professional outfit. More recently the topic has been covered by a super post by My Laser Boyfriend  which outlines some great fashion options that are realistic and tasteful. Neurotic Physiology also had a good post about the double standards of dress for men and women and how to deal with long hair in the lab. The Singular Scientist discusses how female scientists are portrayed on TV and in film  and on difficult conversations that she’s had to have with trainees about inappropriate clothing choices. A more academic analysis of this double standard can be found in this Tenure, She Wrote post.

It would be great to live in a world where your fashion choices didn’t influence what people think about your competence or abilities as a scientist, but as some of the posts above can attest, we do not live in that world. At each stage of my career I have made a conscious effort to dress more professionally based on the adage to “dress for the job you want” and I feel that so far it has served me well. I’m at the point in my career where I’m feeling comfortable and secure enough in my position that I can start to make some bolder fashion choices. Up until now my professional clothing choices have been very conservative. This past year I made the revolutionary decision to add scarves into my outfit rotations! With that in mind, here are some links to websites that I’ve found useful for getting some ideas about what components are useful to have in a professional wardrobe:

1) Corporette

2) Capitol Hill Style

3) Franish

4) Does my bum look 40 in this?

Some people may think that having an interest in fashion, dressing stylishly, and being a successful female scientist are mutually exclusive. They are not. I count as role models several strong women who are excellent scientists as well as very snazzy dressers. There may be hope for me yet…

Jill of All Trades and Master of None?

I have a confession to make. I am a scientific wanderer. I haven’t wandered as much as Darwin, both in terms of his areas of interest and his physical journeys, but I am easily distracted by new and shiny ideas.

My undergraduate and M.Sc. thesis projects were spent looking at the phosphate-starvation response in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae and the influence of the commercial fungicide phosphite on those responses. I learned sterile technique, how to grow yeast strains and supplement media, how to do enzyme assays and kinetics, and gained a general understanding of 31P NMR. I did all of this in a plant biochemistry and metabolism lab and was the odd person who worked on yeast.

For my Ph.D., I moved to a plant physiology lab where I learned molecular biology, how to transform tobacco plants using Agrobacterium, how to grow diatoms and cyanobacteria, mitochondrial isolation techniques, SDS-PAGE, Western blotting, and a smattering of bioinformatics. Mid-way through my degree I switched gears a bit and started working with oysters. I gained a huge appreciation for the theory of serial endosymbiosis and the diversity of life forms on the planet. I studied the alternative oxidase of mitochondria, but also did some work on the plastoquinol terminal oxidase of chloroplasts.

My post-doc took place in an animal comparative physiology and biochemistry lab where I continued to practice my skills in molecular biology, bioinformatics, mitochondrial isolations, and picked up a better understanding of respirometry. I mostly studied oysters, but also worked with tissues from wide variety of other animals including nematodes, sea urchins, lamprey, hagfish, scallops and also worked on non-flowering plants including pines, spruces, ginko, etc. I also developed a heterologous yeast expression system at the end of my post-doc. I continued to work on AOX and PTOX, but in a new set of organisms.

Since starting my faculty appointment, my students and I have worked with yeast, moss, bacteria, tobacco, and a copepod. I continue to use a variety of techniques in the lab and am contemplating using CRISPR in the near future. Most of the time I think that having such a varied background has been a huge advantage to my career and for the science that I do. I attend both animal and plant science conferences and am thinking about adding bacterial meetings to the mix. Every once and a while my imposter syndrome gets the better of me and I envy my colleagues who work on a single model organism, pursue a very focused set of research questions, or use tried and tested techniques. My diversity of interests makes it difficult to write focused grant applications, but it allows me to qualify for a wider range of funding opportunities. I sometimes feel that I’m lurching around in the dark, but this approach has allowed me to make some significant contributions to my research field.

Are you a Jill or Jack of all trades? Or a master or mistress of a particular type of science?

Weird Science

James O’Hanlon has a cool post up right now on his website about the strange things that scientists do for science. It made me think about some of the weird things that I’ve done in the course of doing some of my research projects.

The first funny experience comes from when I was doing my Ph.D. I had discovered the enzyme that I work on, alternative oxidase (AOX), in animals for the first time using bioinformatics. I wanted to do some wet lab experiments in order to confirm that AOX was actually present in the DNA of an animal and that it was transcribed. At that time, I had AOX sequences from three animals: the sea squirt Ciona intestinalis, the nematode Meliodogyne hapla, and the Pacific oyster Crassostrea gigas. The sea squirt is an invasive species on the east coast of Canada, so getting my hands on tissue would have been tricky. The nematode is very tiny and a plant parasite, so that would have been a difficult sample to obtain. Pacific oysters are commonly eaten by people and I figured that would be the way to go. I called a wholesale seafood supplier to confirm the availability of Pacific oysters and drove about 1 hour to go and pick some up. When I arrived there were no Pacific oysters in the store front, so the owner had to take me into the warehouse to get them. It was pretty intimidating as this involved walking through several large pieces of plastic sheeting that separated the store front from the warehouse. I felt like I was in an episode of the X-files or a murder mystery and that I was being led to my doom. We got to the bin that was housing the oysters and the owner asked me how many I wanted. I figured that 24 oysters would get the job done. He started putting the oysters into thick plastic bags and we started chatting. Was I running a restaurant? Nope. (I guess that it’s unusual for individuals to buy 24 oysters at a time). Was I having a large dinner party? Nope. Well, what was I going to do with these oysters then? I said that I was a scientific researcher and that’s when things got weird. The guy completely panicked and started going on and on about how the oysters were safe to eat and were o.k. for human consumption. It turns out that he thought that I was a government scientist who was doing an unannounced, random inspection for the Canadian Food Inspection Agency! In retrospect it’s a hilarious story, but at the time I paid for my oysters and ran! The project was awesome by the way.

The second funny story is from my time during my post-doc. The university where I was working had a great arboretum (collection of trees) and I’d obtained permission to take leaf samples for a project that I was working on regarding the taxonomic distribution of AOX in non-flowering plants. When I went out to sample I used an ice bucket, lots of little tubes, scissors, etc. It would certainly look weird to anyone walking by. A few times I had curious people come up and ask me what I was doing and I enjoyed talking to them about my science. It was a great and unexpected opportunity to do some public outreach.

Head on over to James’ blog or follow the #strangethingsforscience hashtag to hear about some great science adventures!

Visiting a potential lab for graduate school

In the past several months I’ve had undergraduate students asking me about the process of applying to graduate school and how to select a research supervisor. I recently posted on how to initially approach a researcher that you are interested in working with. Once you have narrowed the field to 2-3 labs that you are interested in, the next step is to visit those labs in order to really get a feel for the place. In some cases this will be very difficult or impossible due to geography and cost. This post will focus on locations that you can actually visit. You want to visit the campus, department, and lab because you will be spending several years of your life there and you want to make sure that it will be a positive experience. As a researcher I insist that students interested doing graduate school in my lab come for a visit before I make a commitment to take on a graduate student. It allows each party to see what makes the other party tick and whether the personalities and professional skills of each person will be a good fit. Here is what I do when a potential graduate student contacts me.

  • As I mentioned in my previous post the initial contact by the student generates a first impression. If the initial contact is effective, then I will be interested in learning more about the student and potentially pursuing the opportunity.
  • I verify that I have the research funds and time available to effectively mentor a student during an M.Sc. (2 years) or a Ph.D. (4 years). If the timing isn’t right then I tell the student right away and don’t string them along. I only take people into my group if I know that I have funding available for the entire time period of their degree. This is a very conservative approach, but I don’t think that it is right or fair to admit a student into a graduate program knowing that you can only pay for the first year of their stipend; I personally feel that is unethical.
  • I ask the student to send me an email that contains a curriculum vitae or resume, an unofficial copy of all of their transcripts, a one page statement of their research interests and why they are interested in working in my lab, and a short scientific writing sample. This sounds like a lot, but if a student is really interested in my research program, then I feel that this is a reasonable request. What do I do with this information? The CV/resume gives me a broad overview of who the student is and what they’ve been up to academically and in other parts of their lives over the past few years. What kind of degrees do they have? Have they ever been employed? Have they worked during the summers or held down a part-time job while in school? Do they volunteer or have any interesting hobbies? This document gives me lots of valuable information. The transcripts let me know what courses the student has taken and what their strengths and weaknesses are. I expect students to have a minimum B+ average overall and I want to see an improvement in grades over time. Grades are important, but I have found that they sometimes don’t predict how a student will perform in the lab environment. It is very important to me that an applicant have some research experience either as a lab volunteer or in the form of a fourth year undergraduate thesis project. The one page statement lets me know what area of research the student finds exciting and why they are interested in working with me specifically. If this statement is generic then I will not continue with the application. The writing sample lets me know how a student collects, synthesizes, and analyzes information and how effectively they are able to communicate scientific ideas in written format. If the writing sample is of poor quality then I don’t continue with the application.
  • If the student’s materials look solid then I arrange an appointment for a phone call or video chat and let the student know that this is the first step of the interview process for the position. I have a list of interview questions that I ask all potential students and I pay very close attention to their answers. If the student is very general in their answers, clearly hasn’t done their homework on me or my lab, or if I get a sense that we will not work well together, then I end the process here.
  • If the phone chat goes well then I invite the student to come for a visit to the lab. I devote a full day to this visit and put together an itinerary for the student and send it to them in advance. The student meets with me one on one when they arrive for about 1 hour. During this meeting I discuss the research goals of the lab and describe my expectations for graduate students and my management style. I then I take them on a campus tour. I take the student out for lunch on campus and I use that time to try to get to know the student better on a personal and professional level. After lunch I show the student around the department and the lab. I then make arrangements for the student to meet with my current undergraduate and graduate students without me being there so that they can have an open and honest conversation about the laboratory and my supervisory style. I meet again with the student at the end of the day in order to give them the opportunity to ask any questions. At this time, I tell the student that I will be taking the next few days to think about our interactions and that I will let them know within a week whether I am interested in having them join the lab. I use this time to think about my impressions of the candidate during the visit and I also ask for feedback from my students since they will have to work with this person in the future.
  • I send the student an email thanking them for visiting and letting them know whether I would like them to join the lab or whether I will not be pursuing their candidacy further. At this point I leave the ball in the student’s court and ask them to let me know if they are interested in applying to our graduate program by a date that makes sense given our departmental application deadlines.

Over the years I have identified behaviours during the above process that I think are red flags and signal that a fit between a student and a supervisor will be a bad one.

  • First impressions matter. If a professor takes forever to get back to you or doesn’t seem that interested in working with you that is a good prediction of how things are going to go if you join the lab. If a student is not very responsive, communicative, or decisive that is a red flag to me as a supervisor.
  • If a potential supervisor won’t be transparent about funding, expectations, or the research project that is a deal breaker in my book.
  • I only accept students into my lab who have gone through the above process. I do not accept students who directly apply to our graduate programs without having contacted me first.
  • If the supervisor doesn’t want you to come for a visit or refuses to meet with you at a meeting you will both be attending that is a bad sign. It may mean they have something that they are trying to hide.
  • If during the visit, the supervisor won’t let you meet with current students or insists upon being present at that discussion it may indicate the current students are unhappy or that the supervisor is a rigid control freak. Neither situation is good.
  • I take the input from my students very seriously. If you are professional with me, but act rudely to my students you will not be joining my group.

You should do a lot of thinking about where you want to go to graduate school and who you want to study with. You will be making a 2-4 year commitment and you want to end up in a healthy, supportive environment where your needs and goals can be met. Your supervisor is looking to have a project completed efficiently and safely and wants an opportunity to mentor a future scientist. Do your due diligence and make sure that you know what you are getting into when setting up this professional relationship. Your future career and happiness likely depend on it.

What it’s really like to be a pregnant grad student

Meg over at Dynamic Ecology has a great post up about “Sciencing during the first trimester”. First of all let me say that I love the term “sciencing”; it’s awesome! It’s a pretty hot topic as seen from the comments and I think it’s because there isn’t an obvious forum in which to discuss these topics and based on my experiences pregnant graduate students are a rare breed. I wanted to share my story in light of Meg’s post and the comments that it has generated.

I have two children; my son is 12 and my daughter is almost 8. I became pregnant with my son a year and a half into my Ph.D. program on purpose. I say on purpose because one of the more shocking things that happened to me during my first pregnancy as a graduate student was the number of people who seemed to think that it was an accidental pregnancy. The idea that a graduate student would choose to become pregnant during graduate school was pretty racy back then I guess; hopefully this is starting to change. I found out in February 2012 that I was pregnant and it is easily one of the most amazing and terrifying moments of my life. My first trimester was not very fun. Every morning like clockwork I was dry heaving at 7:30 a.m. and I had fairly constant nausea during the day. Eating small meals very frequently is excellent advice. During this time I was performing tissue dissections on oysters for my research project. The combination of the smell of oyster guts and pregnancy nausea was epic!

My husband and I decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester due to concerns about miscarriage. After I passed the three month mark I needed to decide who else needed to know and when I needed to disclose that I was pregnant. I decided to tell my supervisor just after the first trimester as a courtesy so that we could plan for my parental leave to minimize my absence from the lab. I worried and stressed about having that conversation for weeks. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your supervisor and how you think that they’ll react to your news. All of us have heard stories about horrible PIs who eject pregnant graduate students and post-docs from their labs or who write them off once they become pregnant. Fortunately, although my supervisor was very surprised by my announcement, he was very supportive throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. I was very fortunate to have in my department a graduate student who had recently had a child and a faculty member who was pregnant at the same time that I was. These women offered great advice and support during a time that was pretty alienating. At that time, nothing screamed “other” in academic science like a huge, swollen, pregnancy belly. I heard through the grapevine that other faculty members felt sorry for my PI as they viewed my pregnancy as evidence that I wasn’t serious about science. I expect that many members of the academy still think that way, even if they don’t verbalize it. Being pregnant as a graduate student was good from the perspective that I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule and that youth was on my side. I look at my fellow female faculty members who are pregnant or new mothers in awe as I cannot imagine doing this at my current age while just starting out on the tenure track. I worked in the lab throughout my pregnancy and continued to work with biohazards, chemicals, and radiation during this time. I took the usual safety precautions and wore a radiation counter ring on my hand during this period of time. Once the nausea went away during the second trimester, the biggest challenges were feeling tired, heartburn, carrying around an extra 40 pounds, and the swelling of various body parts. I went into labour 2 hours after TAing a lab and it took my son a few days to make an appearance. Having him is by far the most mentally and physically challenging thing that I have ever done. This helps to put grant writing, manuscript writing, and conference presentations into perspective.

The first trimester of my second pregnancy was rougher than the first. I came home from the lab early one afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well and the nausea hit like a tidal wave. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening throwing up very violently. By the time it was done the force of my puking had ruptured several blood vessels in one eye. It was not a good look and there was no way that I could hide it. When I went back into work the next day I told all of my lab mates and my supervisor that I was pregnant. My second pregnancy forced me to disclose my condition much earlier than I wanted to and I ended up taking Diclectin until part way through my second trimester in an attempt to control the vomiting and nausea. The rest of my symptoms were similar to my first pregnancy and there was some comfort in knowing what to expect the second time around. I went into labour 2 weeks after defending my Ph.D. thesis and my daughter arrived in 4 hours start to finish.

Being pregnant as a graduate student taught me many things. Below I’ve listed the ones that are most important.

  • Know and accept your limitations. You can’t do it all and that’s o.k. Do your best. Great days, good days, bad days, and awful days will all average out. Work, sleep, and eat. You are growing a whole new person inside of you; that SDS-PAGE gel will wait.
  • Know your rights and the social supports and programs available to you. Be your own advocate and find allies. Ask for help when you need it; this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Being organized is great and it’s excellent to plan ahead, but you have to roll with the punches. Expect the unexpected. Your best laid plans will go up in flames, so it’s useful to have a Plan B, Plan C, and…you get the idea.
  • Mind the gap. Pregnancy will impact your productivity and so will raising small children. I managed to publish while pregnant and again soon after returning from maternity leave, so there is no gap in my CV.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and your baby. You will feel guilty. Lock your guilt in a closet and throw away the key.