Month: August 2015

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book

This book is a fascinating exploration of habits and how one uses them for change and potentially improvement of our lives. There are some pretty interesting insights on offer here in terms of what the author calls “the four tendencies” that could be used to describe how a person deals with outer expectations (those in the environment) and inner expectations (the ones we have for ourselves). This part of the book was really interesting to me as I had no trouble identifying my tendency and the tendencies of some of the people I work and live with. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of managing my lab trainees and my approach to interpersonal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’m not sure I buy into the idea completely, but it’s a different way of thinking about personality and motivation than anything that I’ve come across before. She also talks a fair bit about “distinctions” which are personal preferences that are hardwired by biology or previous experience (e.g. early risers vs. night owls).

She offers some strategies on how you might try to form and maintain a particular habit. These including monitoring (e.g. using a Fitbit or the app MyFitnessPal to form health habits), scheduling (i.e. setting aside a particular time for a habit), accountability (e.g. telling someone about your habit goals). She talks about getting started, dealing with set-backs or “falling off the wagon”, being struck by “lightning bolts” that cause you to start or give up a habit (e.g. quitting drinking if you find out you’re pregnant), and abstaining vs. moderation in the formation of habits. She describes the various ways that we sabotage ourselves with regards to habits by making things too convenient or inconvenient and failing to set safeguards and distractions from temptation. The section on creating loopholes that allow us to make excuses was especially amusing and insightful. She argues that rewards are not particularly effective because setting a finish line might not yield the positive outcome we expect and that small little treats might be better (this reminded me of training a dog). One of the neatest strategies is pairing where you pair something you don’t like to do with something that you do. A great example was forcing yourself to exercise on the treadmill by pairing it with watching a favourite show or listening to a podcast. The constant theme throughout the book was that each person is different and that what works for one person won’t work for someone else.

This book will be interesting to someone looking to start positive habits or stop negative habits. This might be particularly relevant now for academics as September is just around the corner and heralds in a new beginning.

Funding graduate student travel to conferences

This blog post was prompted by a disturbing post over at Tenure, She Wrote by a graduate student talking about the lack of funding for conferences. I am happy to say that my experiences of conferences as a graduate student were not like the experience that this student is describing, but I was horrified by the situation detailed in the blog post.

I’m now a PI and my goals with regards to graduate student travel funds are to be as transparent and fair with my graduate students as I can be. It is what I would like a supervisor to do for me if I was still a graduate student. Since starting my position 5 years ago, I have had an unwritten policy on this topic, but this student’s post made me realize that I should be more explicit in my policy and perhaps write it down so that there is less chance of a miscommunication with one of my students.

My goal for each of my graduate students is to send them to 1 conference per year of their program. Most of my students complete their program in 2 years, so this usually means two conferences. Usually the first conference is local and therefore lower cost and they usually present on work in progress at this meeting. These are smaller meetings where I am able to help them network and the attendees are friendly. The second meeting involves the presentation of the full story of their thesis work and I try to ensure that this is either a national meeting or an international one. This is my philosophy on meetings. I allow my students to present work in progress or partial stories at the first meeting and I know many PIs who don’t do this; I feel that the experience is worth it for the students even if the work doesn’t yet represent a full story. I tell my graduate students several times during the year that my goal is to send them to one conference per year. If students wish to attend more conferences, then we discuss their reasons for attendance and negotiate my financial contributions based on grant funds available.

I also have a very explicit conversation with my graduate students near the beginning of their program about how the costs of the conference will be handled. I pay for all travel, accommodation, meals, posters, and registration costs. If I can charge the cost directly to my grant (usually using an institutional credit card) I do so. If the cost gets charged upon arrival at the conference I either charge it in person upon arrival, issue the student a travel advance, or if the student is comfortable with it they charge it on their own credit card and get reimbursed. Fortunately our institution is fairly speedy with reimbursements, so students do not have to pay interest on the amount or carry the balance for more than two weeks after our return from the conference. I let the students tell me what they are comfortable with and I don’t judge. I let them know that if funds are tight, we will come up with a solution that works for both of us and that they should not place themselves in financial hardship to attend a conference. If the student wishes to pair travel to a particular location with a vacation and stay for a bit before or after the conference, then I still pay for the return trip, but during those extra days they are responsible for their accommodations and food and I explain that clearly before we make any travel bookings. I also ask my students to apply for all available travel grants that they qualify for to help support their attendance, but these funds do not make or break the trip.

As a graduate student I often had to share rooms with other students. At times this was fine and I expected it and at other times it was awkward (e.g. when I was pumping milk while still breast feeding). I initially ask students if they are comfortable sharing a room or a suite of rooms with other students. Residence and hotel options differ quite a bit and I ask my students to explore all options and let me know their preferences. I have had students who preferred their own room with a washroom, students who share a room and washroom with one other student, students who share a suite with other students (they have their own room, but share 1-2 washrooms with others), students who have their own room and share a communal washroom on the floor, etc. I respect the requests of my students and I assume that they have logical reasons for any limitations that they place on housing arrangements. I do not share accommodations with my students as I am not comfortable with that arrangement.

Affording all graduate students with the opportunity to participate in conferences is one of the commitments that I make to each student that I accept into my laboratory. Whether or not they can financially afford it should not dictate whether they can attend. I consider this philosophy one of the privileges and responsibilities of mentoring graduate students.

How do other people handle conference costs for their graduate students? Any horror stories that you’d like to share?

Classroom use of Twitter

I’ve been on Twitter since December 2012 and am still learning how to use this platform in a useful way. After attending the Western Conference on Science Education in July, I’ve been thinking about how I might be able to integrate Twitter into my courses. In the past few weeks I’ve been investigating how other professors use Twitter as either a teaching tool, or how they build it into class assignments and course credit. I’ve listed a few uses that I’m mulling over below.

1) Several professors run a Twitter back channel during their lectures. This allows students the opportunity to ask questions in real time and is especially great for shy students who may not feel comfortable speaking in front of a large audience. One example of a person who did this fairly early is Monica Rankin.

2) A Twitter feed can be used to remind students of upcoming tests and assignments. Our internal course management system already does this, but using Twitter is another quick and easy way to issue class updates.

3) Collaborative event watching. One professor teaching film studies had students live Tweet as they watched the movie Blade Runner.

4) Creating a course hashtag and asking students to post links to news stories relevant to course material.

There are many other great uses suggested for bringing Twitter into the classroom. Two sites that summarize ideas can be found here and here.

I probably won’t do anything too wild this upcoming term, but perhaps I’ll ask the students in one of my courses to dip their toes into Twitter.

Feel free to share any comments, ideas, and success stories in the comments.

Bat poop and spiny lips

The first cool story came out a few weeks ago. In my 4th year undergraduate course “Environmental Stress Biology of Plants” I teach a few lectures on low nitrogen environments and the various ways that plants have adapted to get around this problem. In one of these lectures I cover the many neat types of carnivorous plants that eat animals as a way to obtain nutrients. A few years back I stumbled across a neat photo of a bat hanging around inside of a pitcher plant. This was a great example of a symbiotic relationship; presumably the bat gets a safe place to camp out during the day and the plant obtains nitrogen in the form of bat guano (feces). Biology is so awesome! The story gets even more interesting with the publication of a research paper a few weeks ago that figured out how the bat locates these potential nesting spots. It turns out that the shape of the plant’s opening takes advantage of the bat’s echolocation abilities and tells the bat exactly where to go in order to safely sleep in the plant.

The original article can be found here.

The second story is about frogs which are my favourite animals. While many frogs are poisonous (they produce toxins, but lack a delivery mechanism), this is the first description of frogs that are venomous (they produce toxins, and have a delivery mechanism). Two species of frogs were recently discovered in Brazil that have bony spines on their skull that pass through poison glands and there are some stunning photographs in the article. One of the authors had the unfortunate luck to experience the effectiveness of the toxin first hand while collecting a frog and experienced 5 hours of intense pain. The authors note rather dryly that this defense mechanism would be even more effective if delivered into the mouth of an attacking predator.

The original article can be found here.

Both of these articles likely had their genesis in a scientist noticing something really weird during field work. I always emphasize to my students that one of the best skills that a scientist can develop is a keen sense of observation.