Category: Working as a Professor

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?

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?

DoctorAl Digest 7

This list by John Dupuis is a great summary of why as a scientist I will not be voting Conservative in the upcoming federal election.

An effective piece by Kausik Datta pointing out some authoring issues with ResearchGate and the algorithms used.

A great piece by Leigh Honeywell on making bingo cards to call out cluelessness about the challenges faced by women in tech.

The hottest tool in biotechnology these days is CRISPRs. A great blog post on the ways that phages have evolved to deal with the CRISPRs used as bacterial defense over at Eat, Read, Science.

Project Management for Scientists

project management notesToday’s topic in my group lab meeting is project management. It took me a long time as a scientist to believe that research projects could actually be managed. I think that I felt this way given the uncertain nature of scientific research; you never know if an experiment will actually work and you often can’t predict in which direction the research will go next. I’ve always been an organized person and it turns out that managing a research project isn’t all that different from other projects that you do in your day to day life such as go grocery shopping, clean out the garage, and plant a vegetable garden. Once I started thinking about science in the same way it’s like a light bulb went on.

I don’t recall ever having explicit conversations with my research mentors and supervisors about project management. That may be because I was fairly productive and am a planner by nature, but these are skills that don’t naturally come to everyone and that can be learned and improved over time. As a purely ridiculous example, I explicitly tell students that they should do something else with their time while PCR is running or they are incubating a sample for an hour. I’d like to think that they know this, but I have heard stories from colleagues, of students who will literally sit there for the duration of the incubation thereby wasting precious time that they could have used doing anything else. It’s like the science equivalent of watching paint dry.

Here are some thoughts on how I approach project management in laboratory science:

1) My first step is to define the project clearly and to determine what success looks like. If you skip this step you’ll never know when the project is done, nor will you know if you did it well. You need to identify the full scope of the work, what resources you’ll need (reagents, people, literature, etc.), and the time that you have available to do it in. Thinking about these limitations up front will decrease the amount of frustration that you and others experience later. At the same time, there is room for flexibility, which I will talk about later.

2) My next step is to think about the major milestones that need to be completed in order for the project to be finished. For even the most basic science experiment this will include things like generation of hypotheses and predictions, experimental design, ordering of reagents, allocation of people, doing the experiments, data collection and analyses, data presentation and communication (i.e. making figures, tables, diagrams, etc.), and generating a manuscript, poster, or talk to communicate your findings. That’s a lot of stuff to complete in order to successfully finish your project! One of the major things that I struggle with is maintaining an interest in projects that span several years of work; I often get bored part way through and struggle with staying motivated to finish.

3) Up next is thinking about the flow of tasks and their relationships to one another in your project. I like to think of the major milestones in a project as parts of a puzzle that need to be put together. When I build puzzles, I always start with the edge pieces first, and then work my way in; this means that the connection of some pieces requires the presence of other pieces first. With your project you want to determine whether some of your milestones are interconnected and have to happen sequentially, or whether some of your milestones are independent and could be worked on in parallel at the same time. For example, if you wanted to clone a particular gene in your critter of interest, you would first want to obtain the DNA sequence from a molecular database, you’d then design and order gene specific primers, you’d then perform PCR with your primers, purify your amplified DNA via gel electrophoresis and a gel extraction kit, clone your DNA product into a plasmid, and sequence the plasmid to ensure that the DNA sequence matched the one in the database. These tasks are sequential and one needs to happen before you move on to the next. Other projects have milestones that could be completed at the same time because one doesn’t depend on the completion of the other. This is also the time to identify what could go wrong. Where might your project go off the rails? Can you come up with a back-up plan to get around the problem should it arise? Can you plan ahead to avoid the problem? Can you ask for help?

4) Now you need to break your project milestones into smaller mini-projects that contain a small number of discrete steps. Ideally, you’d aim to complete a few of the small tasks every day and one of the mini-projects each week in the lab. This will help to keep you motivated as you’ll be able to measure your progress on the project and you will build up lots of little wins and that will keep your mental and emotional state positive.

5) The final step is putting together a timeline for completion. I like to set a deadline that I think is realistic, but I usually add several extra weeks and expect that something will go wrong during the course of the project. I then work backwards from that date when planning my time. I schedule in my major project milestones, my mini-projects, and my smaller tasks at a level of detail that I’m comfortable with. Some projects are tricky and it will be difficult to easily identify all of the mini-projects and small tasks up front. Do your best and don’t get off target because that can lead to project creep where the scope of the project balloons out and doesn’t resemble the scope of what you originally set out to do. You need to be flexible because plans can sometimes change mid-project, but head back up to what you defined in Step 1 if you feel that your project is getting out of control. You’ll often find that you reimagined the scope of the project without really thinking things through because you got excited by a neat result or finding. Think extra hard about whether you really want to commit to expanding the scope or redefining the success of your project before you leap in! That being said, there will be times when you need to retool your plans and timeline due to the unpredictability of lab research, but hopefully because you’ve identified the possible trouble spots in advance (Step 3) this will be minimal.

6) Execute your project management plan. Enter specific tasks and mini-projects in your daily and weekly calendar and set deadlines for your project milestones.

Some great resources:

If you need help with bigger project management concepts, Melanie Nelson’s blog Beyond Managing is great!

If you find that scheduling, prioritizing, and keeping up with your to-do list is a challenge, I recommend reading David Allen’s book “Getting Things Done” . It will change your life – I kid you not!

What tips and resources do you give to your trainees in order to help them manage their research projects?