Month: January 2016

Having Difficult Conversations

I would guess that 99% of the interpersonal issues that cause problems in laboratory environments are due to communication issues. The vast majority of these problems are due to the fact that many people in this world are conflict averse or avoidant and therefore refuse to deal with issues when they first arise. This allows the issue to escalate, expand, and lead to general dysfunction between people. It often starts small, but over time can turn into a huge deal.

I have found that the best way to avoid interpersonal issues is clear communication. This takes a lot of work and a great deal of self-awareness. Other people cannot read your mind in order to know that constantly borrowing your transformation solutions in the lab and using them up until they’re gone is driving you bananas. They may not realize that playing country music in the lab is making you want to take a hit out on Jason Aldean. They have no idea that hogging the centrifuge at all hours of the day is leading to resentment. These are the types of irritations that I experienced as a graduate student and a post-doc. All were resolved by a frank conversation about what was bothering me (and I framed it as my problem) and talking with the other person to come up with a solution together to address it. People made their own transformation solutions and stopped using mine, I accepted that country music was going to be played often in the lab and I brought in my own MP3 player and headphones to listen to my own music, and a booking sheet was developed for the centrifuge. When you have these conversations early, they aren’t a big deal.

As a PI, some of the conversations that I have to have with trainees and colleagues are more challenging and the stakes are often higher. Most commonly I have to talk to students about their research progress, writing, and professional development and offer constructive feedback. This is part of my job as an advisor and mentor and sometimes I have to deal with a performance problem. Doing this effectively and humanely is a skill that takes time to develop, but you do your students no favours by dancing around performance problems and not addressing them. Sometimes trainees do not have the skills or awareness to address interpersonal issues that they are having in the lab and it is my job to help them to do that; not to look the other way and allow resentment to fester and hope that the problem will go away. It is my job as a PI to manage my laboratory trainees and staff. I wasn’t trained as a manager, so of course this is going to be difficult at first. Difficult conversations are never pleasant, but with preparation they can go well and be productive and useful. I find it helpful to make a list of issues that I’d like to address and a bullet list of points that I want to communicate during the conversation. The other important skill to develop is the ability to listen to what the other person is saying. You may not have all of the information about a situation, or you might be working using false assumptions. I find that being tactful, professional, and honest goes a long way towards making these conversations go more smoothly.

In my job as a professor, here are a few examples of difficult conversations that I’ve had to have:

1) Informing a group of students that I was notifying the chair of my department and my dean that I suspected them of academic dishonesty. I also had to interview several students in that class in order to collect evidence and facts to support my initial suspicion. I was correct and then had to have 3 separate conversations with 3 of these students to outline the process and consequences.

2) Informing a graduate student that their progress in our M.Sc. program was insufficient. This involved transitioning the student out of our program after an honest assessment of their academic capabilities.

3) Informing a faculty colleague that their graduate student was constantly interrupting female faculty during committee meetings and asking whether they would like to communicate this as a problem to their student, or whether they wanted me to have that chat with the student instead.

I take notes during these conversations for my own records and I encourage the other person to do the same. I sometimes will also send a follow-up email to the person to document my understanding of what was discussed and agreed upon in the meeting if I suspect that my view point will be forgotten or disregarded. Depending on the nature of the difficult conversation, it may be helpful to have an impartial witness present if you suspect that the chat might turn volatile or abusive. It is also worth thinking about your personal safety if you think that the other party might respond inappropriately. It is usually appropriate to keep your office door open during these conversations in case you need to get assistance from another staff or faculty member.

I still dread having difficult conversations, but I have learned that they are necessary and most effective if done as soon as a problem is identified. Dealing with problems as soon as they arise greatly decreases the cumulative stress that the problem will cause you and frees up your mental energy for more useful pursuits.

Parasites in Science

Steps being taken to save U.S. salamanders from a chytrid fungal disease.

Female economists should think hard before co-authoring papers according to new research. Evidently you don’t get full credit if your co-author is male.

Caltech dealing with a professor who was sexually harassing female students.

Also the hashtag #astroSH is trending now; female physicists telling their stories of sexual harassment.


How to Deal with Professional Disappointment in Science

Science is a profession of rejection. My history is a wasteland of rejected manuscripts, unwanted grant applications, and failed experiments. This is completely normal. What matters here is not necessarily the outcome (e.g. failure), but how the outcome is communicated to you and how you choose to deal with that information.
I am tired of hearing the mantra to “grow a thick skin”. That advice is crappy and is probably a result of the myth that science is supposed to be an unemotional and uncreative undertaking. Professional disappointments received now as an Associate Professor are just as unpleasant as they were when I was an undergraduate student; age and experience don’t make these events hurt less. What has changed is that my ways of coping productively have greatly improved.
Here are some strategies that I use to deal with professional disappointments:
1) You are not your science.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to avoid taking a professional rejection personally. For many of us, our scientific identity is wrapped up in and intertwined with our personal identity. We are after all a scientist and we study [insert your topic of research here]. It is very hard to tease apart our professional identity from our sense of self. I make the argument that it is healthy and useful to have as many other identities as possible in order to buffer yourself from the feelings that a professional rejection will engender. For example, in addition to being a scientist, I am also a parent, a spouse, a softball player, a reader of books, a polymer clay artist, a science fiction fan, a blogger, a Blue Jays’ fan, etc. When you have multiple identities, you feel less threatened by a rejection of an aspect of your professional work.
2) Educate yourself about imposter syndrome.
When I get a professional rejection, the first thing that I do is blame myself. This is not helpful and is destructive and paralyzing. I’ve found it helpful to education myself about the phenomenon of imposter syndrome. I also have an ego file where I store all of the great feedback that I’ve received on my research, teaching, and service which helps to combat these feelings of being a fraud.
3) Take a deep breath and walk away for a while. File away the rejection for 2-3 days and let your emotions stabilize. Then come back to things and do a post-mortem. What could you do better next time? Is it worth trying again, or is your time better spent moving on to other goals and endeavours? Rejection feels awful in the moment, but there are many things that we learn from failure. It is also worth remembering that you cannot fail if you don’t throw your hat in the ring or try for things. Science is probably 95% failure and 5% success; set your expectations accordingly.
4) Have more than one project/goal on the go at the same time. If one thing isn’t going well, chances are something else will pan out. It is easier to accept rejection if you have recently had a success.
5) Sometimes it’s not about you, it’s about them. There are many things in life beyond your control. Sometimes Reviewer #3 is a clueless idiot and nothing that you can say will change their mind. Let it go…
Let’s say that you are on the other end of one of these interactions. What if you have to deliver a rejection?
1) Be tactful and kind. It doesn’t cost you anything to be compassionate and polite.
2) Try to provide constructive feedback so that future disappointments can be lessened or avoided entirely.
3) Rip the band-aid off. Don’t leave people hanging once a decision has been made. The person may have other choices available to them if you impart the news in a timely fashion.
Professional disappointments are many in science and I’ve found that they don’t get easier over time. What strategies do others use to deal with rejection as a scientist?

Book Review: Art of of Being a Scientist, Roel Snieder and Ken Larner

The Art of Being a Scientist

As I’ve mentioned before, I think that one of the hardest and most important aspects of being a faculty member is the mentoring of students who are completing research projects in my lab. I’m therefore always on the look-out for resources that can teach me new things about this realm of my job. I recently read “The Art of Being a Scientist: A Guide for Graduate Students and their Mentors” and it’s a bit different than most of the previous books that I’ve read on mentoring.

The thing that I really liked about this book is that it spends a lot of time thinking about science in a philosophical way and that the authors reinforce an idea that I strongly agree with: that science is a very creative enterprise and an art form. They also spend a lot of time talking about approaches to doing science and the many different ways that you can “do” science. This appreciation of diversity in performing and practicing science was refreshing and it was great to see it so clearly articulated. Chapter 7 of the book is also great as it dives into the many ways that doing science can go wrong or in unexpected directions and is called “Turning challenges into opportunities” which I thought was an excellent title. Chapter 8 is a very strong and broad treatment of the ethics of research. Later chapters of the book are more typical subjects addressed in other resources that I’ve read previously.

The book is written broadly in order to offer advice to all scientists, so as a biologist there are limitations on the advice that writers from another discipline can offer. There also could have been stronger chapters on the effects of being “other” in science (e.g. female, disabled, a visible minority, etc.) and the intersectionality of these issues. Overall this is an excellent resource and is one that I will likely purchase for my own bookshelf of resources that I refer to regularly and lend to my students.


Midichlorians, agar, and manuscript titles

In light of the recent release of “The Force Awakens”, I enjoyed this neat blog post by Dr. Cameron Webb just before the holidays: Could a mosquito bite make you a Jedi?

We use quite a bit of agar in my lab to make DNA gels. I also like chocolate milk, largely due the texture provided by carrageenan. Both of these products come from algae and Morocco has started to limit the amount of algae that can be harvested on its shores. Some labs are starting to stockpile agar before the price goes up. An interesting blog post over at Nature.

A super blog post that talks about and provides examples of the types of titles that you could give your scientific manuscript. Some great ideas here over at The Thesis Whisperer blog!