Category: Networking

Hellish Poster Sessions

We recently had a small poster session for our fourth year undergraduate thesis students. The event caused me to reflect on why I often hate poster sessions at academic conferences. I often don’t like these events for a variety of reasons and it doesn’t really matter if I’m presenting a poster, or whether I’m looking at or evaluating posters.

Here’s my list of poster session pet peeves in no particular order:

1) Lack of space to manoeuver. Poster boards are big and awkward. Leave enough space to walk up and down the rows of posters. These spaces are often tight and cramped. This is irritating to deal with as an able-bodied person and these events are often not physically accessible for anyone who has mobility issues or uses assistive devices. Not cool!

2) Poor poster locations. I always feel bad for the person who ends up with a poster display next to the washroom, right beside the bar, next to the food table, or in the dark corner in an out of the way spot. Even worse are posters that are spread across multiple floors in a convention centre. If I need a compass or GPS to find your poster that is a problem.

3) Placement of food and beverages. Put these in a place that makes sense and a bit of distance away from the posters. These are high traffic areas that massively impede flow and cause major disruptions to getting around.

4) Overwhelming acoustics. Poster sessions are loud because people like to talk, catch up, and share ideas. Having poster sessions in rooms where the sound bounces around and is amplified sucks. As someone who wears hearing aids, this is a special kind of purgatory.

5) No plan for when presenters should be at their posters. Sometimes presenters are never at their posters, but this can mostly be avoided by giving presenters time slots that they should be physically at their poster in order to interact with others.

6) The conference creeper who behaves inappropriately at poster sessions. Have a code of conduct in place so that there is a mechanism for receiving complaints of harassing or threatening behaviour and so that they can be reported and dealt with effectively. Check in with your trainees during the session to make sure that they are having a positive experience.


Service to Professional Societies

I have recently finished a fair amount of service to two professional scientific societies and wanted to write a post about what I have found valuable and challenging about these experiences.

I did my first stint of professional society service as a post-doctoral fellow and represented both students and post-docs on the executive of that society. I was a valuable experience and similar in many ways to the various student governments and committees that I’d been a part of in graduate school. It was a fantastic opportunity to network and be involved in selecting the professional development opportunities offered to our early career members.

For the next several years and continuing up to most recently, I’ve served as a judge for various student presentation, poster, and best paper awards. This has allowed me to gain an understanding of what constitutes a great research story and how it can be communicated effectively. I’ve learned a huge amount doing these activities that I now use in my own work and that I pass along to my own lab students.

This was followed by several opportunities to serve as a session chair and the chairperson of several committees in these organizations. This has gained me a subset of very specific organizational skills and allowed me to work with some wonderful colleagues. This work was also very fulfilling as it allowed for the opportunity to overhaul several outdated policies and procedures that we hampering equity, inclusivity, and diversity efforts of the organizations.

I’ve also had the opportunity to contribute to the organization of two scientific conferences which led to the development of a whole host of new professional skills. In hindsight, conferences are a huge amount of work and I would recommend that you wait until you are more than 2 years into your tenure-track job before you take on the task of organizing one!

Most recently, I served on a society’s executive council for three years and this last year I served as the chair for a major section of one of the scientific societies. It was very rewarding, but was more work than I was anticipating, and I’ve therefore made the conscious choice to step back from scientific society service for a few years in order to give myself a break and to allow for alternative perspectives to have a voice.

My take-home messages are:

1) Take the initiative. Sometimes you will be approached to participate, but your contribution will be very welcome if you volunteer through self-nomination.

2) Start small and get your feet wet with some reasonable commitments before diving into duties that are more challenging.

3) Do service that is personally and professionally meaningful for you. I especially liked assignments where I had a fair degree of autonomy and flexibility where I could make a meaningful and long lasting impact on the society.

4) If the timing isn’t right, you should decline opportunities without guilt and take breaks as needed.

5) If you recognize the potential to contribute in others, plant a seed by suggesting that their skills would be valuable and encourage them to get involved.


Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.


Doctor Al Digest #24

The #reviewforscience Twitter hashtag has been cracking me up this week. Highlights include gluing trackers on bees, using a body massager to attract spiders, nooses for lizard collection, and the winner: using nail polish for killing bot fly maggots prior to extracting them from your own body.

Looks like the #MeToo movement has caught up with Canadian politics and they’re clearing house (the House of Commons that is!)

Tooting my own horn a bit…myself and several other bloggers were interviewed by the Nature piece “Why science blogging still matters”

A very elegant and thorough study by Chrétien et al. that suggests that the mitochondria in human cell lines operate at ~50°C when at maximal capacity  and a thoughtful critique by Dr. Nick Lane . I suspect that some paradigms are about to be destroyed in the near future in mitochondrial and thermal biology.

Enjoying the Successes of Colleagues

My impression is that a lot of scientists approach doing and funding science as a zero sum game. I suppose that it’s easy to get stuck in this mindset when resources are limited and as grant success percentages reach the single digits. I’ve always felt that this was an unfortunate way to go through your career and life. In recent years I’ve chosen to celebrate the success of my colleagues; I look at their success as a boon to our field of study, department, and institution. These successes also take many forms. While it is perhaps easier to see the success inherent in securing a grant, receiving a teaching award, or an honourary membership from a society or scientific body, due to the fact that they are measurable, I also think it’s important to celebrate other successes such as being a good mentor, an effective supervisor, a wonderful departmental chair, or a key contributor on a committee. Science is a hard taskmaster full of rejection and disappointments. It is well worth our time to celebrate the wins before we put our collective noses back to the grindstone. Take the time to congratulate your colleagues on their achievements; there are more than enough kind words to go around.


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.


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.

What can bystanders do about sexual harassment in science?

I’ve been enjoying the new podpast “Not Just Scientists by Terry McGlynn over at Small Pond Science and his colleague H.K. Episode 3 called “Under Pressure” was particularly interesting as it featured a discussion that centred around what male scientists could do if they realized a female scientist was being sexually harassed. The episode was really honest, with Terry and H.K. expressing dismay about not really knowing how to appropriately respond to these kinds of situations. As someone who has experienced sexual harassment and knows many other female scientists who have as well, I’d like to offer a list of what I personally would have found helpful before, during, and after I had been the victim of sexual harassment. I am not an expert on this topic and strongly encourage you to educate yourself by contacting your local sexual assault support centres for additional advice and resources.

Before- Prevention

1. I think that it’s really important to have explicit policies in place about acceptable behaviour in our workplaces, field sites, laboratories, teaching environments, and conferences. I realize that policy can only go so far, but it’s a solid start. There also have to be consequences with teeth. For example, if someone is sexually harassing female trainees, then that person at a minimum should no longer have access to any trainees for their research program. I believe that sexual harassment is a zero tolerance offense.

2. Take a hard look at the climate for women in your department, faculty, institutions, and scientific societies. The climate that you are experiencing may be very different from that experienced by your colleagues. Ask your female colleagues what their experiences have been and be prepared to listen. Believe what they are telling you is true even if you don’t like what you hear or if it hasn’t been your experience.

3. If policies don’t currently exist or your climate is chilly then advocate for improvements that will address the concerns of your female colleagues as effectively as possible. You may need to step up and advocate due to power differentials being at play (i.e. your female colleagues may feel unable to do this due to career stage and/or cultural and social constructs and stereotypes).

4. If you run a research group, model appropriate professional behaviour and make it clear what behaviours are unprofessional and unacceptable. Talk about these topics in your group lab meetings. The SAFE paper published last year is an excellent starting point for these discussions.

During-Witnessing an Episode of Sexual Harassment or Assault

1. If you witness one of these acts then you need to call out the perpetrator and explicitly let them know that the behaviour is unacceptable. If it is safe to intervene, then please do so. I can’t count the number of times that someone has said something inappropriate to me while others stood by awkwardly. Everyone knew that something awful had just happened, but stood there in stunned disbelief. The moment passed and things continued on as if everything was normal. Please do not make excuses for the behaviour of the harasser. It is not o.k. to say “he’s just socially awkward”, “he didn’t mean anything by it”, or “don’t be so sensitive”.

2. After the immediate threat has passed, communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. In some cases they will want to do nothing, sometimes they will want to report using a policy, and other times they may want to report to the police. You need to respect and support their choice. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

3. Write down how you experienced the event. Put down as much detail as possible; date, location, time, situation, who else was present, what was said or happened, etc. You may never need these notes, but if you do you’ll be glad that you have them.

After-Someone discloses to you that they have experienced sexual harassment or assault

1. It has taken a lot of courage for this person to disclose to you. Communicate to the victim that what happened was wrong, that it was not their fault, and that you are willing to support them in however they would like to move forward. Depending on the law in your jurisdiction you may be a mandatory reporter of cases that involve your students. It is helpful to know the professional supports available on your campus or environment and appropriate to assist the victim in connecting with these resources.

2. Be proactive about removing people from potentially harmful situations, or even better take steps to ensure that harmful situations cannot arise. Terry talked in the podcast about warning female colleagues about predatory scientists and actively preventing the harasser from accessing potential victims.

Much has been said recently about the “culture of silence” with regards to this topic in science especially with the recent situation at Berkeley.

Women in Astronomy blog

The San Francisco Chronicle


Please think about active steps that you can take to remove this “culture of silence” from your academic field, societies, and institutions.


The Ultimate Guide to Being a Gracious (Non-creeper) Conference Attendee

An important post went up yesterday over at the Tenure, She Wrote blog on the topic of microaggressions towards female scientists at conferences. If you’ve never heard of microaggressions before, a quick overview is available at Wikipedia. These behaviours create a toxic atmosphere, a chilly climate, and drive women and other minorities away in droves. It’s often a long pattern of experiences caused by many different individuals and that is what makes it so hard to call out. The examples provided in the above blog post were very blatant, but no one stepped forward to stop it; not the organizers and not the moderators. In fact, the two women who were the targets of the behaviours banded together in an attempt to support each other through the ordeal. We shouldn’t expect the victims of the behaviours to change them.

Below are a few thoughts that I’ve had over the years of both organizing and attending many conferences over a span of 20 years.

1) Organizing a conference is a lot of work. Be appreciative of the efforts of your hosts. Not everything will be perfect, but most things will not make or break a conference. If you have organizational or safety concerns, bring those to the attention of your hosts in a firm and polite way. Don’t wait until the end of the conference, because at that point the problem often can’t be effectively addressed.

2) Encourage the conferences that you attend to have an official policy on civil, professional, and non-harassing behaviour. The past several years have seen massive exposé stories on a large number of conferences that had systemic problems involving harassing behaviour that might have been avoided had such policies been in place. If you are a big-wig in the community, an effective way to encourage conferences to implement a policy is described by John Scalzi. A recent survey of conferences in the area of Artificial Life done informally in June is interesting in that it shows how few conferences have a policy. Do the conferences that you attend have such a policy? Can you advocate for one?

3) One of the great things about conferences is catching up with friends and seeing what’s new in their professional and personal lives. Thanks for asking about my partner and my kids and how they are doing, I’m happy to share updates and news about my life. I do not however appreciate inquiries about who is looking after my kids so that I can attend the conference (I guess I’m a bad mother and/or a crappy scientist who doesn’t take her work seriously), implied judgements about my spouse’s ability to care for our children (he does not babysit his own children by the way, he PARENTS them!). These lines of questioning make me feel like an outsider who doesn’t belong. When four people ask me this in quick succession it’s demoralizing.

4) Be aware of personal space boundaries. Unless we are besties don’t hug me, don’t greet me with the kisses on both cheeks, don’t rub my back, arms, or shoulders, and sure as hell don’t pull or tweak my hair.

5) Be aware of power dynamics. Use your powers for good, not evil. To believe that the undergraduate who is new to the field has the same influence or power as a senior PI is absurd. Advocate and speak up for those who need it. Be an ally. Actions speak louder than words.

6) You are a professional. Act like one! I have a long memory; what you said or did reflects poorly on you, your department, your colleagues, your institution, and our professional society, especially if you’ve been getting away with it for a while. Don’t use a professional setting as your dating and/or hook-up pool. Hitting on or flirting with students at the poster session is inappropriate. Propositioning post-docs for sex at the conference banquet is harassment. These are not misunderstandings; they are predatory behaviour.

7) Help others network. Remember what it was like to attend your first conference? Introduce people to each other and be kind to everyone. You never know when collaborations and great ideas could spring to life!

8) Take the opportunity to educate others about some of the above issues. Most people will be receptive and invested in making the conference better for all attendees.

Planning a Sabbatical

Due to the number of years that I’ve been at my job, I’m eligible for my first sabbatical opportunity next year. I’m planning to go on sabbatical from July 2016 to June 2017. At my institution this means that the application for the sabbatical is due November 1. My application needs to propose scholarly activities, the potential benefits to myself and the university, and the likely outcome of these activities.

I’ve been thinking for several months about what I’d like to achieve using the sabbatical and this has been more difficult than I anticipated. I’ve had several conversations with colleagues at my university and other institutions and have received conflicting advice. I suppose that’s to be expected as one size doesn’t fit all. My partner and I had several conversations about the limitations that we would impose on the sabbatical due to our particular family needs and situation. The two senior women that I spoke to indicated that although they had taken the full year abroad at a different institution with their families, neither would do it again. The stress of managing the logistics of schools, daycare, visas, housing arrangements, etc. made the mental cost of going elsewhere too high. It’s perhaps telling that the one resource that I found that dealt with the nuts and bolts of planning for a sabbatical (a book) was written by the spouse of the academic partner. Evidently she was the one responsible for co-ordinating all of the non-academic aspects of the experience. In my opinion that is an unacceptable burden and expectation to place on your partner.

My plans are shaping up slowly, but I have encouraging news from a friend in Spain and I’m hoping to go there for 2 months next summer with my family while my kids are out of school. The rest of the year I’m planning to attend several conferences that I normally can’t go to due to my teaching schedule. I’m also brainstorming about smaller research trips (2 weeks or so) with collaborators who are within driving distance of my institution (I am very conveniently located geographically). Several of the people I spoke with warned me about flakey collaborators and sabbatical projects that went nowhere.

I’m actively looking for advice from other scientists who have planned and taken a sabbatical. How did you come up with a plan? How did you work around any personal and professional constraints that you had? Did you go for a full year, do mini-trips, or stay at home? If you had the chance to go back in time what would you do differently and what would you do again?