The Sabbatical

I started my first sabbatical in July. It began with an international conference in Italy and then a three week research collaboration and visit to a colleague’s lab in Spain. It was a wonderful start to this academic year. I am discovering that a sabbatical allows one to be reflective rather than reactive. I am using the time to think, plan, discover, recharge, and appreciate aspects of this job that I have tended to take for granted.

My hiatus from the blog this summer was due to my travelling schedule in July and August and a September that saw me settling into a new routine afforded by my sabbatical. I hope to post more regularly in the upcoming weeks as I reintroduce blogging into my schedule.


Jedi Mind Tricks for Staying Physically Active as a Faculty Member in Science

I started this job in July 2010 and one thing that has surprised me is the amount of time that I spend sitting at my desk in front of my computer. This was a big change from my days as a graduate student and post-doc when my days were comprised of more time standing in the lab, attending courses and seminars, and walking around the campus and buildings for various reasons. Recent research has clearly demonstrated that living a sedentary lifestyle is bad for you , so I made the conscious decision to be more active on a daily basis. This has been challenging for me since I have never considered myself to be an active person and due to the fact that I’m an introvert, fitness classes and team sports are a special kind of Hell.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 1: Pair a reward with working out.

We have been members at our local YMCA for quite some time. Last fall we realized that we were not getting much value out of our membership since we weren’t regularly going to the gym. After brainstorming for a bit, my husband came up with the great idea to pair going to the gym with a financial incentive. We each have $75/month of fun money available based on our household budget. This is money that each person can spend on whatever they want without having to justify it or explain it to the other person. Starting in January, we linked the earning of that money to working out in 30 minute increments. We each have to work out at least 3 times per week (=~$15) or we leave that money on the table. The maximum per month that we can earn is $75, so this averages 4 x 30 minutes each week. So far this has been working great and has forced me to use the gym or go on mid-day walks on a consistent basis. The reward doesn’t has to be huge; just something that will motivate you enough to get to the gym or be active. I also like to listen to podcasts, watch the Jays game, or TV shows on Netflix, and can sometimes use those as bonus rewards while I’m working out.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 2: Collect data and gamify your workout.

I’m a scientist and I like data. Recently my husband upgraded his Fitbit Flex to a Charge HR. This meant that I got the older Flex. After using it consistently for several months I upgraded to a Charge HR this weekend. Being able to track my steps has been very motivating for me. I’m in a group with several friends and we compete each week (on a rolling time scale) to see who has the most steps which is extra incentive to be active. I used to wear a watch all of the time anyways (never got used to using my phone to look at the time), so this device serves as a watch with added benefits.

Jedi Mind Trick Number 3: Gamify your workout.

There are lots of apps out there that help to make workouts more interesting. I’ve always liked games where you start from nothing and build an empire (e.g. Age of Empires , Civilization and I’ve used a few apps that track your workout progress. The first one that I tried was Zombies, Run! This game is structured around missions and as you run you collect items that help you fortify your settlement in order to survive the Zombie apocalypse. Sometimes the zombies find you while you are out on a mission and if you don’t run fast enough they eat your brains! The second app that I’ve really enjoyed is Couch to 5K. This one builds up your running endurance over the course of several weeks. By March I was able to run for 20 minutes straight without getting runner’s cramp or a stitch in my side, so I consider that a success!

Feel free to share any tips or tricks in the comments below that have worked for you to keep active as a faculty member.


On Being a Mid-Career Scientist

Last summer I was awarded tenure and it felt amazing. It was one of the proudest and most significant moments in my life thus far. After the warm and fuzzy feeling wears off though, I was left wondering “what’s next”? I’m still struggling a bit with it, and from what I’ve read on the internet, I’m not alone. It’s a bit weird to have such a major milestone out of the way and it causes you to look ahead in order to figure out the next big goal. I suppose the obvious one for this year was to get my NSERC grant renewal (which thankfully did happen). The next major milestone on the horizon would be applying for Full Professor in about 6 years.

I also think that it’s incredibly funny that I can consider myself to be in the middle of my career. Most days I still feel like I’m learning the job and just doing my best. There is a certain level of competency, but I don’t feel a strong sense of mastery in many of the skills that I use in my day to day work. I still struggle with teaching, mentoring my students, doing my research, and contributing to service at my institution. I had always assumed that this feeling would go away with time, or that things would get easier, but so far it hasn’t. I also find it vastly amusing that my friends who aren’t in science are considered experienced and mature in their respective fields since they’ve been in the workforce since their early twenties. So have I, but most of that time for me was spent as a trainee and perhaps that’s why it feels different.

I think the key from this point on will be to celebrate the smaller goals and milestones such as manuscripts submitted, students graduated, conferences attended, courses taught, etc. I’ve also found it helpful to keep a running list of my daily successes in a journal so that I can see what I’ve accomplished and take pride in it. I think as academics we don’t do this enough; we finish a goal and then immediately move on to the next thing. Spending some time reflecting and planning is important I think. I’m aiming to use some of my sabbatical time to figure some of this out.


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.


Tardigrades, writing research papers, and the dark side of Astronomy

Some interesting pieces from around the web:

Some ideas on putting together a research paper from Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega. This isn’t directed particularly towards scientists, but there are some great ideas!

A neat piece of writing that reflects on the dangers of contamination in genomics work and the importance of rigour. The subject matter is tardigrades which makes the story even more interesting!

A depressing article from the Globe and Mail highlighting the gaps in policy at Canadian universities with regards to dealing with harassment complaints.

Yet another article highlighting the problem of sexual harassment in astronomy. I predict that it won’t be long until other disciplines start to clean house.

What happens when you complain about sexual harassment as a graduate student.



Using Games in the Classroom

At the beginning of April I went to an excellent workshop facilitated by Dr. Scott Nicholson called “Games Beyond Screens in the Classroom”. Scott is the director of the Brantford Games Network game lab and teaches and chairs the program in the Bachelor of Fine and Applied Arts in Game Design and Development. The program has been wildly successful and they are looking to hire another faculty member who focuses on digital game design and project management.

Scott took us through several games during the course of the workshop and each had elements that I could easily see incorporating into my classrooms. He made the important point that after you run a game you always have to debrief. There is no point in running an activity without exploring how it made you feel, what was experienced, how it relates to your world, how you could see incorporating it into your space, and learning from the experiences of other people. Failing to debrief after a game is a very common error.

The other take-home from the workshop is that games do not have to be fun and they do not have to be fair. You are perfectly within your rights to manipulate the game in order to achieve the learning outcomes that you’d like for your students. This was a bit of a surprise for me, but having seen it in action at the workshop, I can see how it would work.

This past Monday I shared what I had learned at the workshop with some colleagues who are members of our SCAFFOLD (Student-Centred Active Flexible Face-to-Face Online Learning Discussions) community of practice. At our next meeting in May we’ll be discussing how to bring fun into our classrooms.

Do you run any games in your classrooms in order to facilitate learning? What has worked and what has been a disaster?


Giving students some control over their own learning

There was an interesting column written by Jim Lang over at the Chronicle Vitae website this week. Any column that starts with a photo of Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones is alright in my book! The content of his post “Small Changes in Teaching: Giving Them a Say”  is part of a series that Dr. Lang has been writing over the past several weeks.

In his post he explains the two ways that students often approach their learning. Some students are oriented towards performance and want to excel on activities that result in a good grade (e.g. tests, assignments, etc.). Other students are mastery-oriented learners and enjoy learning for learning’s sake. I would prefer to have mastery-oriented learners in my courses.

One way to do this is to give your students choices and allow them some control over their own learning process. I tried this as an experiment in my course during the Fall 2015 term, but this was before I’d read Jim’s column obviously. I was looking to give my students options in terms of how they would be evaluated in the course in the hopes that it would lead to better engagement in class and with the material. It was my hope that students would self-select the evaluation method that would make them more comfortable and that this would be reflected in the course grades.

For this particular class I offered two evaluation options. All students had to complete one term test, five 10 minute in-class essays, and a protist trading card during the first two months of the term. During the second half of the term, students could either take a second term test (Option #1) or they completed a group case study presentation and two take home essays (Option #2). I think that this option allowed my students the ability to play to their strengths and perhaps avoid their weaknesses. Out of a class of 60 students, 36 chose Option #1 and 24 chose Option #2. Based on the written feedback that I obtained on course evaluations the students really appreciated having a say in the criteria used to evaluate them in the course. I consider this experiment a success and will likely use it again.

After reading Jim’s post I think that I could take this approach a step further and he gives some excellent examples worth thinking about.


April Showers…

There’s a saying here in Canada that April showers bring May flowers. The academic year ebbs and flows in predictable cycles from one year to the next. I’ve been a professor for almost 6 years now, but despite this fact, April always sneaks up on me. I always assume that April will be a quieter month since I’ve finished with my in-class teaching, but each year April is very busy and my calendar fills up with a plethora of appointments, committee meetings, seminars, and workshops. You’d think that after 5 years of April doing this sneak attack I’d wise up, but so far it hasn’t happened. It’s like the mud puddle in the Robert Munsch book…just waiting for me to come outside so that it can mess up my carefully laid plans.

April’s one redeeming quality is the start of Blue Jays baseball.

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.