Category: Book Reviews

Book Review: What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Like many people, I watched the results rolling in on U.S. election night in 2016 in disbelief. The major question that I had that night was what happened? This book starts to put together some answers to this question and it will be interesting to see a few decades out what historians will say about this particular election and time in U.S. politics.

I was really impressed by this book and its author. She is an intelligent and hard-working woman who has been the best-qualified person ever to run for the office of president. I was constantly amazed by her restraint in this book. It would have been much easier and satisfying for her to let loose a wave of vitriol at the Republican party, the media, and Donald Trump. She also accepts responsibility for some campaign missteps that contributed to her defeat. She is a class act.

The book is a fascinating look into her personal and professional history and I can only assume that many Americans that read it will be disappointed that this woman is not their current president. There was a bit too much focus on policy for my liking, but at least this was a candidate with a plan for her time in the White House. Her and her campaign team expected that this electron would be an uphill battle for a variety of reasons, but nothing could have prepared them for the constantly shifting ground during the election and the roles that racism, misogyny, Russia, and the media would play in the outcome. Given the circumstances, her resilience is to be applauded.

Working women will find much here that resonates with them. Here is a woman who has faced everything that professional women have ever faced in the workplace, but had to do it on a national stage and while subject to double standards and ridiculous scrutiny. This is the reason that her loss to Donald Trump felt so personal. I hypothesize that it was a very large contributing factor to the #MeToo movement last year.

The book is well written, but I found it a difficult read because it brought forth strong emotions in me as I turned the pages; namely unbridged rage and sadness. She gave it her best shot, it’s now up to others to pick up the torch and cross the finish line (or more realistically, to break the glass ceiling).

 

Advertisements

Book Review: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters by Richard Rumelt

I ended up reading this book based on the recommendation of the author of this blog. I often find that she has excellent book recommendations that are somewhat unusual, but quite useful when applied to my work.

Often we think of strategy as something employed by warmongers and generals, but an easy way to think of strategy is predetermining what you want to accomplish and developing an effective plan and the actions/steps needed to successfully complete it. That sounds pretty much like every science project/experiment, course, and service obligation that I’ve ever taken on. I figured that this could be a useful book.

The most memorable part of this book are the awesome case studies that the author uses to illustrate his points. I learned a huge amount about the rise of Silicon Valley in California and many old-school U.S. companies. When successful, these companies started out as flexible, innovative, and agile, and later got weighed down by bureaucracy and rigidity. There are some really neat stories included in this book that I found wonderfully entertaining; they were so engrossing that I shared many of them with my husband who probably got really sick of them after a time. In today’s climate of commercializing higher education, it was interesting to read the author’s scathing view of mission and vision statements; he considers them a waste of time as they don’t contain concrete steps for how to achieve their bullet points and therefore can’t be considered a strategy.

I haven’t taken any business courses, but the case studies used in this book and the walk-throughs are very interesting. I think that most scientists would find a few useful gems here that can be applied to how they approach their work.

 

Book Review: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Hope Jahren’s book has been on my “to read” list since it came out. Many of her blog posts have really resonated with me as a woman in science. Several high profile reviews have been very positive and so I placed it on reserve at my local library.

Overall, I liked the book. It’s mostly a biography that covers the lives of Hope, and her partner in lab crime, Bill. The biographical bits are interspersed with quick vignettes that talk about major aspects of plant biology in a very relatable way. Readers who are not biologists will come away having gained some knowledge about how scientists think and operate and that is a good thing. I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, disliked the middle of the book, and thought that the reflections in the latter half of the book were poignant. I was especially touched by her descriptions of her experiences as a woman in science, her mental illness, and motherhood.

One major thing that I didn’t like about this book is that I found myself being very judgemental about several incidents described its pages. This likely says more about me as a reader, than it does about the author. One area that is treated very cavalierly in the book is lab and field safety. She describes a glass explosion incident in the lab and two car crashes (one very severe) that all involved trainees in an off-hand manner that I found disturbing and appalling. This may be how she has chosen to deal with what are traumatic events, but it leaves the reader feeling that scientists operate as cowboys who are answerable to no one. She also describes a few hazing rituals that she’s used on trainees in her laboratory to separate the wheat from the chaff which rubbed me the wrong way. A lot of time is spent referring to her obsessive and excessive hours spent in the lab. My personal feeling is that maintaining those kind of hours is unsustainable and unsafe and just serves to reinforce the masochistic aspects of science.

She peels back some of the mystery of what it means to be a scientist, warts and all, and perhaps that is what made me so uncomfortable with the middle of the book. She pulls no punches and this is a very honest book based on her experiences as a scientist. Many observations in the book made me laugh out loud, and some stories made me tear up. Books should make you feel and think and in this the author has succeeded.

I recommend reading this book to scientists and non-scientists alike. I think that it has something for everyone.

 

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.

 

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.

 

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.

Book Review: I Know How She Does It, Laura Vanderkam, 2015

I’m a regular reader of Laura’s blog and have read several of her other books and was therefore looking forward to reading her newest book I Know How She Does It .

The book is essentially an analysis of time logs of successful women and a discussion of successful strategies for living a fulfilling life. Time tracking is a very effective way of seeing where your time goes; during the day you record what you did with your time in 30 minute blocks. Laura defined successful women as those who earned over $100,000/year and had at least one child under 18 living at home with them. The book is therefore ideally geared towards women in this particular situation, but several of the insights are applicable to everyone. We are definitely talking about first-world problems here.

The target audience for this book is women like me who are driven in their careers and who also have a family life. Many of us want “to have it all” and are frustrated by the old scripts that tell us that “you can’t have your cake and eat it too”, that you can be a good mother or a good employee, but not both, or that you should maintain strict separation between home and work life if you want to succeed. These narratives aren’t helpful and perhaps aren’t really true. They also induce a lot of guilt in women that doesn’t seem to be a hang-up that men have.

One of the take away messages from reading Laura’s book that I liked was that instead of talking about work-life balance or work-life blend, Laura is using the metaphor of a mosaic for how you spend your time. I really like this way of thinking about time because it allows you to see that fitting in the pieces of your life is like solving a puzzle, but it is a puzzle that is flexible and allows you to come up with your own final image and way of fitting the tiles of your life together. I think that these ideas of flexibility and autonomy are really key realizations to take away from this book. Many women I think get stuck in a false narrative that work happens from 9-5 p.m. and that the rest of your life has to be squeezed into the margins. This really isn’t sustainable or realistic, especially if you are a knowledge worker. She also spends some time debunking the myth that going part-time or “leaning out” always relieves these pressures.

Another thing that was fascinating about the book was that you get to see how other successful women are spending their time. Looking at other women’s time logs is rather voyeuristic, but can lead to the generation of new ideas or strategies to try out in your own life. I also like Laura’s approach to thinking about time on the scale of 168 hours (1 week) as opposed to getting bogged down in the daily crunch. While particular days may be work heavy, others are full of time spent with family; if we were only to look at things on a daily basis we would have a very skewed view of reality. We live in a society that brags about overwork and sees it as a badge of honour, but the average hours worked per week by the women in Laura’s sample was 35.

In Chapter 3 Laura discusses some strategies that successful women use in order to live full lives. These include split shifts, telecommuting, planning based on weeks not days, and retooling weekends. While these are ideas that have been bandied about before, Laura provides examples of how real women use each of these strategies effectively to make their lives easier.

Chapter 4 is focused on strategies that can be used to consciously design a better work life. These include obvious things like planning ahead, focusing on real work with maximal payoffs rather than merely keeping active with “busy work”, surrounding yourself with good people, and building in slack to your schedule. Laura also recognizes that some workplaces are still suck in the mentality that if a worker is burning the midnight oil then they must be a loyal, committed, hard worker. In my experience this often means that the worker doesn’t manage their time or projects effectively and has been slacking off during some of their work hours by using social media, web surfing, or playing MineSweeper. She makes the argument to be “strategically seen” at work given these preconceived notions of what it means to be a hard worker (i.e. face time is all important).

In Chapter 5, Laura offers some tips on the home front, with a focus on parenting and encouragement to re-examine mornings, evenings, family meals, and to take time to play and really be present when you are spending time with your kids. The section on outsourcing was incredibly funny to read. Several women in the study had hired housekeeping services, but then would frantically pre-clean before the cleaning crew arrived. She also makes the important point that child-care is not one size fits all and that what works for your co-workers may not work for your situation.

Often the thing that falls by the wayside during this work/life two step is self-care. Encouragingly, Laura found that during the course of a week, most women were getting enough sleep and were pretty good about exercising. Sometimes finding “extra” time is all about really examining how you are currently spending your 168 hours per week. Blinding browsing Pinterest or checking email represents “found time” that you could get back if you became more conscious of these automatic habits that have no real payoff.

Chapter 9 is all about mastering the tiles of the mosaic and offers recommendations like learning to better estimate how long things will actually take you to do, using travel time, multitasking when possible, taking advantage of unexpected free time, and taking a step back every once and a while to look at the whole picture.

There is a lot of creativity on display here in the tips and tricks that have been gleaned from other women’s schedules and there are a lot of practical things for you to try in your own work/family/personal life. I especially liked Laura’s focus on flexibility, breaking outdated rules and ways of thinking about work and home life, and the metaphor of the mosaic. The book will be most useful and will speak to working moms with children at home, but is a valuable read for anyone looking to fit all of the pieces of their life together in a format that makes them happy and fulfilled.

Book Review: What Works for Women at Work, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey, 2014

Being a scientist is tough, but being a scientist who is female is tougher than being a scientist who is male. I know this because it has been my personal experience. I have had negative experiences during my training and work in my chosen profession that are shared by my female colleagues, but not one of these episodes have been shared by my male colleagues. I am therefore forced to conclude that most of these negative experiences are a direct result of my gender.

Equality and affirmative action have made some gains in the past decades and I am especially grateful. Without the work of these tireless pioneers I would not be a university professor. Sexism and misogyny have not gone away though; instead they have become subtle and in some ways more nefarious. Women experiencing sexism today risk “death by a thousand cuts”. One event by itself is survivable, but a lifetime of these smaller insults takes its toll. After a while you start to question whether it’s all in your head. I am being too sensitive? Pick your battles carefully. Don’t rock the boat. I’m sure he didn’t mean to come across that way, he’s a nice guy. Sexism and misogyny are clearly still a problem in science and academia. Two recent examples include the fiasco with the Ask Alice advice column at Science Careers and the illuminating interview of an academic couple in the journal Science .

What Works for Women at Work helps to articulate the subtle biases that women experience in their professional lives and is particularly relevant to scientists as a large portion of the interview data was collected from female researchers. The book focuses on four patterns that the authors identified in their data that represent challenges for women in their professional lives due to cultural and societal biases around gender. They are:

1) Prove-It-Again! I’ve already shown you that I’m a competent individual, but because I’m a women I need to prove my competence over and over and over again. If I’m meeting you for the first time you will make (often incorrect) assumptions about my competence just because I’m a woman.

2) The Tightrope. Women should behave a certain way. If I don’t act a certain way and I’m a woman then I’m trouble. Act too feminine; well you must be an idiot, so you’ll have to Prove-It-Again! Act too masculine and you are abrasive, aggressive, don’t play well with others, are difficult to work with, and lack social skills.

3) The Maternal Wall. If I don’t have kids then something must be wrong with me. Once I do have kids then I’m not serious about my career and somehow using my uterus has made me into an idiot and not fully committed to my work. If I chose to have kids then I should be at home mothering them 24/7 and therefore should “lean out” or give up my spot to someone who is fully committed to their career.

4) The Tug of War. Traditionally academia was a man’s game and was based on a monastic model of education. Do I try to play the game like the guys do? Do I do the opposite so that I can maintain my femininity? Can I attempt to change how the game is played? How are other women playing the game? Is there space for only one token woman in the game? Women often disagree with how other women are navigating this landscape; these disagreements are characterized as “cat-fights” and used to bolster the idea that women are irrational and emotional creatures.

That’s quite the stacked deck…certainly not a level playing field.

The strength of this book is that it clearly defines these biases and provides concrete examples of the behaviours that are the result of these biases that negatively impact professional women. The most valuable part of this book is that it goes one step further and provides strategies for combatting each of these biases. The authors are especially savvy since they recognize that one strategy will not work for everyone and they therefore offer multiple options that could be used alone or in conjunction through the course of a career. The strategies are realistic and take into account that you are playing a rigged game where you will likely be unable to change the rules of the game.

Part V of the book addresses the additional challenge of Double Jeopardy faced by women of colour who have to combat biases based not only on their gender, but also on their race. As a white woman this section of the book revealed my ignorance on the experiences of people of colour in academia. I need to do better.

The two final chapters of the book deal with the difficult decision of how to recognize a toxic environment and how to decide if it is worth staying, or whether the best career move is to leave. The final part of the book summarizes the book’s take home messages as 20 quick paragraphs.

I wish that this book had been available to read when I was just starting out my career in academia. It would have saved me many sleepless nights as a graduate student and post-doc, especially after I had my kids. I wouldn’t have felt so isolated and might have had better coping strategies than righteous anger. I’ll be recommending this book as a read to my trainees in an attempt to combat the “old boys network” culture that still pervades many aspects of academia. If you are a male academic wanting to be a real ally to your female colleagues, but don’t know where to start, reading this book would be a great first step. Perhaps the best analogy (especially if you are a gamer) for how “others” experience life can be found on John Scalzi’s website.

Book Review: Getting Things Done, David Allen, 2015 Edition

I first stumbled across an earlier version of this book while looking for ways to become more productive and efficient in my personal and professional lives. I have always been a Type A personality and a compulsive list maker which had served me well during my early education and undergrad degree. Once I transitioned to graduate school and a post-doc the number of projects that I had on the go simultaneously got to be a bit overwhelming. My primary frustration is that I would make awesome lists of things to do, and I would get a lot of the things on these lists completed. But at the end of everyday there would be several tasks that would keep getting punted onto the list for the next day. For some tasks that I frankly didn’t want to do, the shunting of particular tasks from one day to the next could go on for weeks. This was incredibly frustrating, but I couldn’t readily identify what wasn’t working.

When I read the first edition of David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” it was an epiphany! The book really spoke to me and was directly responsible for improving my productivity several fold by implementing his methodology. What is described in the book isn’t rocket science and is in fact quite simple, but the way that it is laid out communicates the ideas very effectively. The other thing that I liked about the approach in the book is that you don’t have to do everything all at once and you can ease into this way of doing things. There are several tips throughout the book that will save you huge amounts of time if implemented. I’ve probably read the first edition of David’s book 3 or 4 times and I always pick up something new to try when I do.

I was therefore excited to check out the revised 2015 edition of this book given how helpful it has been to me in the past. A lot of the material is not new, but has been updated for today’s world. For example, in the original book personal organizing devices like the Palm Pilot were big sellers and email was just starting to transition from being cool and new to overwhelming. Although David doesn’t make explicit recommendations about personal tech (e.g. iPad, Blackberry, vs. Android platforms and apps), he does spend some time talking about organization and workflow in our electronic era which is helpful. There is also a new chapter on Cognitive Science which is interesting and backs up why David’s approach is so helpful for many people.

David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” is by far the most useful and practical productivity book that I have ever read and was life changing for me. If you have not read the book and are interested in trying out his methodology I would recommend purchasing the 2015 edition. You’ll be very glad that you did!

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

One of the more challenging aspects of my first year as a tenure-track faculty member was teaching a university level course for the first time. I had previously served as a teaching assistant in several labs and had done a few guest lectures prior to starting my faculty job, but I had never prepared, designed, and delivered a full semester course before. It was a terrifying prospect!

Since that time I’ve learned a lot from the experience of teaching multiple classes, but I’m always on the look-out for resources that could improve my teaching effectiveness and enjoyment of interacting with my students. I just finished reading the 14th edition of McKeachie’s Teaching Tips .

The book is divided into several major parts: Getting Started, Basic Skills for Facilitating Student Learning, Understanding Students, Adding to Your Repertoire of Skills and Strategies for Facilitating Active Learning, Skills for Use in Other Teaching Situations, Teaching for Higher-Level Goals, and Lifelong Learning as a Teacher. I liked this book because it does talk a bit about theory, but also offers tangible examples and exercises that you can try in your course preparation, in the classroom, during testing and evaluation, and in the future. This book offers a fairly robust coverage of most of the challenges that I’ve run into as a university teacher and suggests ways that these issues can be avoided in the first place and realistic solutions that can be applied when necessary. It’s very practical and has led me to think quite a bit about the structure of my courses and the assignments that I’ve been using to evaluate student learning. I’ve picked up several ideas that I might implement moving forward and found myself nodding in agreement several times while reading the book.

I think that it would be a great resource for new teachers in a university setting and is also a worthwhile read for experienced teachers. A bit of thinking and planning before launching a course is time well spent and this book is full of multiple gems of advice and knowledge for university teachers.