Month: March 2016

Double standards, miscarriage, and “slow professors”

A sarcastic and bang-on take on the situations and double-guessing that women face when speaking on academic panels.

An excellent piece on an experience faced by many women that no one talks about. The taboo of speaking about miscarriage. The analysis from a feminist perspective was particularly thought provoking.

Stop the ride! I want to get off! How the “slow professor” movement is gaining speed…



The Top 10 Things I Learned in Graduate School

1. How to “Manage Up”.

Graduate school involves working with a supervisor/advisor and a large number of other researchers (e.g. fellow grad students, committee members, research technicians, etc.). In order to complete your research, you need to secure the help of all of these people and frankly you will not be their top priority. There is a skill in getting people to do what you need them to do without being demanding, rude, or ungrateful.

2. Strive for Good Enough.

Perfection is the enemy of getting things done. Aim to do your best, but understand that sometimes your research products and outcomes will not be perfect. It is better to have a strong finished thesis than an unfinished perfect thesis.

3. You need a strong support network.

This includes people who will support you both personally and professionally. They are rooting for your success and want you to finish your degree. They will celebrate your successes and will help lift you up when things are not going your way. Do not take these people for granted.

4. Leaving graduate school is not failure.

Graduate school isn’t for everyone, and if it isn’t for you, then is it better to realize that early on and make a change. It is not worth staying in a situation that is making you miserable for an academic degree. Leaving academia does not make you a traitor.

5. A few hours in the library/reading the literature can save you months in the lab.

Don’t reinvent the wheel. Science moves forward on the results of the people who have come before you. Heed their wisdom.

6. Be observant.

This goes for experiments in the lab as well as watching the people in your department. If something seems unusual or strange it is often an excellent opportunity to make a new discovery about the world or yourself.

7. Don’t accept paradigms and rules blindly.

It is good to think for yourself and challenge the status quo. If you would like to one day be an independent thinker and come up with your own ideas, you will need to get comfortable with getting outside of your comfort zone.

8. Science is not the only important aspect of your life.

Work on constructing an identity that does not include being a scientist. You will thank yourself later and it will make you a much more resilient and happier person. It is important to have friends, family, hobbies, sports, etc. that you enjoy.

9. Ask for help when you need it.

There is no shame in asking for help. Spend some time on your own trying to come up with a logical solution to your problems and if you are still stuck then get some assistance.

10. Have multiple mentors.

Asking for and receiving advice is not one stop shopping. It’s better to have multiple people that you can approach and rely on in order to get different perspectives.


DoctorAl Digest 18

For those looking to better inform themselves about gender bias in academe, here is an excellent resource of recent studies in the primary literature.

Some views on the biggest problems facing gender equality in STEM from several scientists in ecology and evolution.

A disturbing article on classroom sexual harassment and the fact that it can start before students enter university or college.

A tongue in cheek “field test for identifying appropriate sexual partners in academia”, but it makes several excellent points, especially the last four paragraphs.

The process of evolution is amazing and nature always finds a way…bacteria capable of metabolizing polyethylene terephthalate (a common type of plastic).

And finally, the perils of academic fashion sense.



Book Review-The Martian by Andy Weir

My husband read this book last year and was raving about it, but I didn’t get around to reading it until this week. The book is excellent and very engaging! It tells the tale of an astronaut stranded on Mars when his crewmates leave him behind after an accident because they believe him to be dead. The writing style is very different in that it changes between the first and third person throughout the novel. During portions of the book narrated by the astronaut Mark it is written in the first person as a personal log, but for scenes involving NASA headquarters on Earth or the other astronauts it is written in the third person.

Two things that I really liked about the book is that it manages to make science interesting and I think that this would be the case even if I wasn’t a biologist. I love fiction books that make science accessible for everyone. The second thing that makes this a great book is that there were several points when I laughed out loud while reading it!

This book is a great read and I hope that the author will write more books in the future.


DoctorAl Digest 17

Some great pieces from around the Internet this week!

As scientists we often don’t think about data management until it’s too late and we end up losing data due to a computer crash or catastrophe! Don’t let this happen to you! Excellent advice from Melanie Nelson over at the Beyond Managing Blog on data management.

An honest and frank appraisal of the challenges faced by working moms. Funny and heartbreaking at the same time. (Not for the squeamish!)

An excellent piece by Hope Jahren that needs to be read by all scientists. Lots of people have been talking about it on Twitter and blogs this week.

The excuse that all male panels at conferences “just happen” has been busted by a mathematical analysis.



Lab Freezer Organization

My freezers at home are fairly well organized. The one in my fridge is pretty full, but we have a good sense of what is in there. The chest freezer in the basement is very well organized after we did a purge last year and decided to organize by main ingredient. We can tell quickly when we are running out of something and need to buy more.

I’m in the process of doing the same for my lab freezers. We have a -20°C chest freezer in the lab that we use for storing various biological samples. I recently purchased 2 additional vertical racks and a bunch of 2 inch tall freezer boxes since the samples from my students’ projects have massively increased in the 5 years that I’ve been working here. These boxes work great for samples that fit in 1.5-2 mL tubes, but aren’t so super for biochemicals that I need to store at this temperature. I’m currently experimenting with various plastic containers in order to find a system that works for us.

We currently store our more sensitive/long-term storage samples in a rack in a shared -80°C freezer. A fellow faculty member has been very kind in letting us squat in the freezer for the past 5 years. Last week I was able to purchase a freezer of my own (oh, happy day!) and am proactively planning how we will store our samples. Our current set up is a rack that holds 16 2 inch boxes which has worked well for samples, but isn’t so great for several molecular biology kits that we regularly use. I’m happy to be getting our own freezer as I’ve been dismayed by the storage behaviours of other researchers who share the freezer. Pro tip: unlabelled baggies are not an effective storage tool! I’m also quite territorial when it comes to my freezer rack. I’ve been really angry when others have taken my boxes out of my rack and replaced them with their own boxes. Not cool!!

We will also be switching over to a labelling system that actually uses freezer safe labels. Previously we had been writing on our tubes with extra-fine Sharpie markers, but this is difficult. I’ve recently purchased various labels from GA International and I’ve been impressed with the quality and performance so far. The colour dots in particular will save us lots of time when locating DNA vs. RNA vs. protein samples in our storage boxes.

A logical freezer organization system will save you valuable time. I think that we’ve all had that experience where we got lazy or sloppy and are then cursing ourselves later when we can’t find that important sample in the freezer. It can sometimes take hours, days, or weeks to generate a biological sample depending on your experiments. It makes sense to store the sample so that it maintains integrity and you know where to find it when you need it.

What approaches have other PIs taken to storing your biological samples in freezers?


Figuring out what to do with the rest of your life

Having options is generally a good thing, but there can be such a thing as overload. Students today are presented with a myriad of choices that they have to make each year that will have a direct impact on where they end up in their lives and careers. That’s a lot of pressure to deal with in addition to any pressure being applied by family to ensure that you are making good choices.

When I was doing my undergraduate degree many years ago, I knew many students who were doing their degrees because they thought that it was what they were supposed to do, because their parents had told them they should/must be a doctor, or because they really didn’t know what to do with their lives and this seemed like a good default. Living your life in default mode is not really living your life.

We often tell students that they should work or study in a field that they are passionate about, but passion alone will not put food on the table or a roof over your head. The opposite is to do something that provides a steady stream of income, but I’ve seen that option lead to burnout and depression. I’d suggest that the healthiest option is a compromise; attempt to find employment that you enjoy and find interesting and that provides enough financial compensation for you to live comfortably. The other way to look at this is to avoid doing things that you hate. Completing an undergraduate degree is a useful way to figure out tasks and subjects that you hate and in the future you can do your best to avoid these as much as possible. You will probably never get through life completely avoiding things that you hate, but you can certainly design your life to minimize it.

Each situation is obviously different, but life is too short to be unhappy or to allow someone else to make your choices for you. When you are young you have lots of time available to try new experiences and see how they make you feel. There really is no rush to get on with the rest of your life, but it is better to make conscious choices about your future than to ride the tides of apathy.