Category: Working as a Professor

Product Review: Instant Pot

Yes, I am in fact reviewing a kitchen appliance. I am moved to do so because of how amazing said appliance is. I am not even the primary user of this particular appliance.

My partner and I have owned a couple of slow cookers in the 18 years that we’ve lived together. Our first one was a very basic model. We upgraded a few years ago to a version that had various programmable features including a time delay and different heat settings. My partner is the one who does the bulk of the dinner cooking at our house and we generally use the slow cooker several times every two weeks, especially on days that are hectic with kids’ activities when we don’t have the time to prepare and cook a meal in the late afternoon. That’s the beauty of slow cookers; you can set them up in the morning with your meal and forget about them until you are ready to eat dinner. We also use a steamer that we bought some time ago to do vegetables with many of our dinners. We save time and money (by avoiding fast food purchases); what’s not to like?

For Christmas this year, we received an Instant Pot. Prior to this I had never heard of these things, but we got excited just reading the outside of the box. We cracked it open the next day and have used it many times during the past 5 weeks. What’s great about it is that it is a steamer, slow cooker, and a pressure cooker, all in one! It’s designed really well and the instructions for use are clear. It’s also easy to clean because the pot can go on the top shelf of the dishwasher. (Cleaning our old slow cooker was the bane of my existence every time we used it…curse you ceramic pot!). I’ve never had a pressure cooker, mostly because they are terrifying and I always thought that they might explode if the lid wasn’t put on just right!

So far we have used the Instant Pot to make boiled eggs (perfectly done, no more guessing if they are soft or hard), mashed potatoes (you can keep them warm until just before you serve them; no more cold potatoes!), beef roast with potatoes and carrots (done this twice and both times the kids raved about how good it was), beef stroganoff, and broccoli cheddar soup. We’ll be able to replace two different appliances with a single one. I am impressed!

This appliance has achieved cult status and many resources are available on the internet, so there is no lack of recipes available to try out. It is a huge time saver and can really help with the dinner rush as the preparation time can take place in the morning and is often only 10 minutes or so. It’s really useful if you have multiple kids with multiple activities and if you and your partner have to divide and conquer and therefore must eat at different times.

We haven’t come close to exhausting the possibilities of what the appliance can do, but so far we have been really impressed!

 

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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.

Why 2017 was so hard for many of us

I’m still processing all of the revelations and feelings associated with #MeToo and the tipping point of the Harvey Weinstein exposure. It was like a dam broke in society and in me. It brought up a lot of memories that had been locked up tight that I choose to think of infrequently. I think it’s now safe to say that if you ask any women or female presenting person if they’ve experienced sexual harassment or assault the answer is going to be yes. In the past that response would have been oftentimes followed up with a disclaimer that it wasn’t that bad, but the fact that it happened at all says everything.

2017 was validating. When these things are happening to you it’s hard not to think that they only happen to you or that you are somehow bringing it on yourself through how you look or act. I refuse to think this anymore. That’s been liberating. I’m not going to accept excuses from other people to justify the poor way that someone’s behaving. I’m done with “he didn’t mean anything by it”, “that’s just the way he is”, “he’s just socially awkward”. I’m now firm in my belief that if he’s treating me that way, it won’t be the first time he’s done it, and he knows exactly what he’s doing. I’ll react accordingly.

The processing of all of this has been emotionally draining, but ultimately it’s been helpful. I was angry for most of 2017 about a lot of it, most especially that it seemed to be such a revelation for most men. Women weren’t especially shocked by the most egregious of behaviours in the same way as men. Given what’s happened to us and our sisters not much shocks us anymore. The fact that it took a movement and millions of voices in order to be heard was heartbreaking and rage inducing.

The sexually harassing and assaulting men who have been exposed are just the tip of the iceberg. We are no where near to cleaning house. Predators still lurk. Systems and policies are still in place that protect perpetrators and silence victims. It’s always been about power. Some men are worried that they may have behaved inappropriately. That worry that they feel is but a fraction of what women have had to bear for years.

I move into 2018 hopeful. There is power in speaking our stories. Power in solidarity. Power in ally ship. I think of all the amazing women I know and how fantastic and accomplished they are. I hope that the emotional burden, time, and energy that has gone into navigating dangerous shores has been lessened. I’m impressed with what we have all managed to do with anchors holding us down. I look forward to seeing what will come with self-assurance and freedom to be our full selves without fear of retaliation or shame.

 

Attendance at University Events

This blog post is a vent about people who don’t show up for events for which they have registered. This is easily one of my biggest pet peeves in both my personal and professional lives. I think that I find it especially irritating due to the fact that I grew up in an era when cell phones didn’t exist. I long for a return to a time that when you made plans your word was worth something. You couldn’t easily back out at the last minute because “something came up” or because you got a better offer for some other activity that you’d rather do. If we made plans to go to a movie on a particular date and time, then you’d better show up unless you had an emergency. There was a respect for people’s time and co-ordination efforts. Perhaps this makes me overly rigid and I need to learn to go with the flow.

I was reminded of this particular irritation yesterday because I attended our university’s Teaching and Learning Day. I attend this event most years and I always find it useful and insightful. This year I ran a one-hour workshop for educators to swap course assessments or active learning activities. I was fortunate to have enough participants (8) that the workshop could run. Unfortunately, I know of several colleagues that only had 3-5 participants for their sessions which made facilitation challenging. I was shocked to find out over lunch that 80 people had registered for the event, but easily half of them did not show up. This resulted in low attendance at several sessions and a huge amount of left over food (that ended up feeding random students, so it didn’t go to waste) due to the no-shows.

When I make a commitment to attend a university event I show up. It’s not hard, it’s respectful, and demonstrates that I have integrity. This is doubly true for events that require registration; anyone who has organized a conference knows the importance of having an accurate head count. Failing to show up for something that you’ve registered for is thoughtless and rude; you’re an adult-do better. It’s called time management.

 

Lady of the Flies: Attempting to ID the infestation in my office

A couple of weeks ago I started noticing a large number of flies in my campus office. They are a mild nuisance as they get trapped between my blinds and windows and the buzzing noise is distracting. The large number of fly corpses is also gross, but I’m a biologist, so I’m taking it in stride.

Due to the fact that I’m a nerd, I’ve been attempting to solve the mystery of where these flies are coming from and what type of fly is in my office. I was quickly able to rule out the blowfly, which means that my fear of a rotting animal in my ceiling is likely unfounded. So it’s a toss up between the common house fly and the cluster fly. Based on the fact that the flies are pretty sluggish and have golden hairs on the thorax my best guest is that they are cluster flies.

Cluster flies feed on earthworms as maggots and move into buildings when it comes time to hibernate. I’m guessing that because September was so warm, it’s only recently that the flies have started to move into my building and invade my office. I’m guessing I’ll see a second wave when they all wake up in the spring.

 

Podcasts I’m Currently Listening To

I’ve been listening to podcasts for several years now. I listen to them while I run with my Couch to 5K app going in the background. The ones that are in my current rotation are:

The Productive Woman

Laura McClellan is a real estate lawyer with several grown children who talks about productivity for professional women. I always get a few tips or gems from most episodes of this show.

Organize 365 Podcast

Lisa is a professional organizer who shares here tracks for killing clutter and organizing your home and work life. Each episode focuses on a particular issue; there are some that I skip because they are not relevant to me at this life stage, but the ones that I have listened to are quite useful and are a great place to get new ideas.

The Productivity Show

This podcast is hosted by the Asian Efficiency website and dives very deep into exploring productivity. I’ve applied several things that I’ve learned here to my working life as a professor that have saved me time and have improved my ability to get things done.

Hannah and Matt Know It All

Han and Matt do a weekly round-up of questions answered by online and newspaper advice columnists. The questions are bananas, and just when you think you’ve heard it all…a question that you can’t believe is real gets addressed. This podcast is tough talking, realistic, socially aware, and compassionate. It is also vastly entertaining.

My Favorite Murder

This podcast is hosted by two comedians who each take turns giving rundowns of true life murders. It’s fascinating, very dark, and often creepy. The hosts employ gallows humour frequently and go down rabbit holes and tangents that sometimes go on a bit too long, but it’s very entertaining and I’ve laughed out loud several times while listening.

 

Common Problems Experienced during Graduate Student Theses and Defenses

By this point in my career, I’ve been on both sides of this scenario; I’ve written and defended 3 theses (undergraduate, M.Sc., and Ph.D.) and I’ve evaluated a number of theses and presentations from my own students and those from other labs. Here’s my 2 cents on common problems that I’ve experienced, or have heard about from others. I’m focusing on issues that can occur after the thesis has been written and submitted to the committee members up to and including the oral defense of the thesis.

Challenges for the Student

  1. Figures in the thesis aren’t as good or robust as those used in the presentation.

I’ve been in several defenses where many concepts that were challenging to figure out while reading the written thesis have been cleared up by the inclusion of additional figures in the presentation. It would be great if students just included these additional figures from the get-go as this would really improve the experience of the reader.

2. Figure and Table captions are not sufficient.

I always recommend to students that figures and tables should be able to stand on their own without any help from the written text of the thesis. This can be achieved by including an appropriate level of detail in your captions that explains what the reader is seeing as well as making any jargon and acronyms clear.

3. Interpreting questions or concerns as a personal attack.

It is very hard not to take concerns or questions about your writing, data, or presentation personally. While you should definitely not be a doormat, you should be respectful and thoughtful when receiving the feedback and opinions of your committee members.

4. Lack of knowledge on the basic theories, techniques, or information of your field.

Often committee members will ask what we see as very basic questions about your project and your field of study. If you mention something in your thesis or presentation, expect to answer questions about that content. Be sure that your focus has not narrowed so much that you neglect to explore and understand the theory or basic tenets of your research area. For example, if you are showing images of Western blots, I will likely ask you to explain the theory of how this technique works. It looks very bad if you can’t explain technique that is in your thesis.

5. Absent or inappropriate use of statistical analyses.

I’m not a statistical wizard, but even my Spidey senses start tingling when I can’t understand why you’ve chosen particular approaches, whether they are appropriate, and what they are telling you about your data.

Challenges for Examiners

  1. This is not the time to retaliate for a slight that occurred in 1999 from another faculty member on the committee.

Focus on the student’s work and accomplishments and let it go. Stop being so petty and giving professionals a bad reputation.

2. Come prepared and be on time.

Respect the time and efforts of the student and other committee members. Come with useful and insightful questions and suggestions.

3. Clearly communicate the student’s strengths and accomplishments that impressed you.

Be kind and sincere in your praise. A thesis degree is a tough slog and we don’t compliment our students enough and should celebrate their successes.

4. It isn’t about you.

Check your ego at the door. We all know that you are smart. You don’t need to convince us of this by your preambles to a question, your expositions on a particular theory, and your recently published work. Keep the focus on the student where it belongs.

What other insights can others offer about the thesis and defense experience? Leave your answer in the comments!

Doctor Al Digest #21

The Ig Nobel awards are always amusing, but they do make you think. You can go here for a list of the winners that were announced yesterday. I too have always wondered whether cats could be both a solid and a liquid.

A great post over at the blog Conditionally Accepted on Recognizing Emotional Labor in Academe

A powerful art exhibit reinforces the offensiveness and irrelevance of wondering what sexual assault survivors were wearing when they were assaulted. Trigger warning for sexual assault descriptions.

 

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.

 

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?