Tag: book review

DoctorAl Digest 5

As a person with a hearing impairment this article talking about exploring the positive effects of having a hearing disability was very interesting. I strongly agree with the finding that having a hearing impairment leads to increased empathy for others as this has been my personal experience as I outlined in a previous blog post.

Based on Jeremy’s book review over at the Dynamic Ecology blog I`ve put this book on reserve at our university library. I’ve always been interested in how movies hire and use scientific consultants.

Ed Yong asks a question important to Moms everywhere. Foetal cells hide out in Mum`s body, but what do they do?

A weird article about giant fruit contests and using DNA to ensure that the winner is confirmed as belonging to a particular variety of tomato.

A very cool story of how parasitized bees may self-medicate with nectar.

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Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

Better Than Before book

This book is a fascinating exploration of habits and how one uses them for change and potentially improvement of our lives. There are some pretty interesting insights on offer here in terms of what the author calls “the four tendencies” that could be used to describe how a person deals with outer expectations (those in the environment) and inner expectations (the ones we have for ourselves). This part of the book was really interesting to me as I had no trouble identifying my tendency and the tendencies of some of the people I work and live with. This has given me a lot to think about in terms of managing my lab trainees and my approach to interpersonal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. I’m not sure I buy into the idea completely, but it’s a different way of thinking about personality and motivation than anything that I’ve come across before. She also talks a fair bit about “distinctions” which are personal preferences that are hardwired by biology or previous experience (e.g. early risers vs. night owls).

She offers some strategies on how you might try to form and maintain a particular habit. These including monitoring (e.g. using a Fitbit or the app MyFitnessPal to form health habits), scheduling (i.e. setting aside a particular time for a habit), accountability (e.g. telling someone about your habit goals). She talks about getting started, dealing with set-backs or “falling off the wagon”, being struck by “lightning bolts” that cause you to start or give up a habit (e.g. quitting drinking if you find out you’re pregnant), and abstaining vs. moderation in the formation of habits. She describes the various ways that we sabotage ourselves with regards to habits by making things too convenient or inconvenient and failing to set safeguards and distractions from temptation. The section on creating loopholes that allow us to make excuses was especially amusing and insightful. She argues that rewards are not particularly effective because setting a finish line might not yield the positive outcome we expect and that small little treats might be better (this reminded me of training a dog). One of the neatest strategies is pairing where you pair something you don’t like to do with something that you do. A great example was forcing yourself to exercise on the treadmill by pairing it with watching a favourite show or listening to a podcast. The constant theme throughout the book was that each person is different and that what works for one person won’t work for someone else.

This book will be interesting to someone looking to start positive habits or stop negative habits. This might be particularly relevant now for academics as September is just around the corner and heralds in a new beginning.

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: McKeachie’s Teaching Tips 14th Edition

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

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

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

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

80’s Geeks Rejoice: Book Review of “Ready Player One”

What kind of world does the future hold? In the book “Ready Player One” by Ernest Cline it is a dystopian one with a twist. While the real world crumbles around global society, most people lose themselves in a massive multiplayer on-line simulation called the OASIS. The software and hardware involved in OASIS makes World of Warcraft look like child’s play. The OASIS has become reality for most people and is therefore a place where fortunes can be made and lost.

The plot of the novel revolves around a contest implemented by one of the founders of the OASIS when he dies. He’s embedded an “egg” prize within the code of the game and whoever completes a series of quests and puzzles and retrieves the egg inherits his estate which is worth billions. The hunt is on and we follow the adventures of the protagonist Wade and his friends in a race to the finish line.

I enjoyed reading this book because it had good pacing and was entertaining. A great deal of its entertainment value is due to the fact that I grew up during the 80’s. The number of pop culture references in this book for this time period is huge and I caught myself laughing out loud several times while reading the story. The story starts out rather lighthearted, but it quickly becomes quite dark given the fortune that is at stake. I also liked the overarching theme of the book which really made me think quite a bit about what influences how different people feel about what is reality and what isn’t. The world of the OASIS is so immersive that reality becomes a bit blurred for many of the characters in the novel.

My only complaint about the book is that the ending wrapped up a bit quickly for my liking, but this allows the author the option of revisiting the world that he has created in future novels. The movie rights for the book have been acquired and I think that with today’s technology it could make a very engaging film. The novel is a quick and simple read, but I still find myself thinking about many of the concepts and ideas that it introduces which I think is the mark of a great book.

If you are a geek and came of age in the 1980’s you’ll get a real kick out of this novel, but I think that its message will resonate with a wide variety of readers.

Making word processing easier

When I was in Grade 8 my parents bought our first computer. It was a Tandy 1000 and it was awesome. My brother and I logged countless hours playing computer games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest published by Sierra . We stayed away from Leisure Suit Larry because it was wildly inappropriate for kids. We also had a dot matrix printer hooked up to the computer that could be used with a very basic word processor and I used it a few times to do school assignments.

One skill that has proved very useful to me in my job as a scientist is the ability to type. I learned how to type in Grade 10 by taking a class for an entire semester. It is probably the most boring class that I have ever taken in my life, but it’s a skill that I use every day and it saves me tonnes of time. I learned to type on an electric typewriter and was pretty accurate and speedy; I rarely used the correction paper that we had to buy for class. I’m pretty sure that they don’t teaching typing in grade or high school anymore, perhaps assuming that kids these days use their computers so much that they pick up typing on their own. However, my own children who are 12 and 8 type using two fingers and appear mystified by the QWERTY keyboard. A few weeks ago there was a discussion on several blogs about whether scientists still left two spaces after periods at the end of sentences when they typed. It took me a while to break that particular habit since that is how I first learned to type sentences.

Since entering my undergraduate degree I’ve used several iterations of Microsoft Word as my word processing program. I was thrown quite a bit by the 2010 update and have recently switched over to the 2013 version. I’ve often wondered how other scientists do their word processing, since I know that some of my colleagues prefer to use LaTeX . Over the years I’ve picked up several tips and tricks for using Word, but I consider my skills to be merely adequate and I know that I don’t use the program to its full capacity or usefulness. I figure that improving my MS Word skills would be a good investment as it could serve to save me lots of time and improve my efficiency at doing certain aspects of my job. With that in mind I took out the book “Office 2013 (the missing manual)” from my local public library. I’ve only read up to page 83, but it’s been illuminating to say the least!

Some highlights so far:

1) I’ve known for years that lots of other people regularly use keyboard shortcuts. I often use Ctrl + C to copy, Ctrl + P to paste, and Ctrl + A to select an entire document. This book explained shortcuts for bolding and italicizing text that should have been obvious to me before now; I’d been using my mouse and clicking on buttons to accomplish the same thing which is pretty clunky and often interrupted my flow of writing.

2) The start pane in Word 2013 was a bit disorienting at first. I’ve learned how to pin documents to the top of the list of recently used documents that will save me the time that I previously spent pulling them up from whatever folder I’d previously saved them in.

3) I recently switched to a dual monitor set-up in my office which was pretty amazing. Finally figuring out how to split the screen or show documents side by side has been mind-blowing and frankly is something that I should have figured out years ago.

4) I used to select text by highlighting it with my mouse and clicking and dragging the cursor. Evidently you can select words, paragraphs, or sections with a couple clicks of the mouse. Who knew? I certainly didn’t.

This book has been amazing so far and I look forward to the other gems of knowledge that I’ll pick up from it. It’s also been a very effective ego check and has served to highlight the fact that spending a bit of time figuring out how to really use a piece of software is time well spent.

What tricks have you picked up in the word processing programs that you use in your day to day work as a scientist? Feel free to share in the comments!

Book Review- Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists

The hardest part of being a research academic is not the lab work. By far the most challenging part of this job is maintaining effective interpersonal relationships. This holds true whether we are talking about relationships with colleagues or with trainees. When I started my own lab I realized that I hadn’t had any formal training on how to manage scientists and that I’d better get up to speed as quickly as possible if I wanted my research group to be successful and thrive. One book that I found incredibly helpful was Lab Dynamics: Management Skills for Scientists by Carl M. Cohen and Suzanne L. Cohen published by Cold Spring Harbour Laboratory Press. I have the first edition of this book as a paper copy and the second edition of this book in electronic format.

The book starts by asking readers to do some self-assessment in order to identify their own personality type and to identify personal blind spots that you might therefore have in your interactions with other personalities. This is accomplished through several exercises and requires taking some time for personal reflection. They make a strong argument for why you need to manage yourself first before you attempt to start managing others. There is an excellent chapter on negotiation with great “real-world” examples that serve to effectively illustrate the main points.

I’ve often heard it said that managing scientists is like trying to herd cats.  Most laboratory research these days is done in teams; gone are the days of the lone wolf scientist. As such, it’s important to master the skills involved in effectively running a lab group composed of scientists with different personalities and motivations. The problems that I experienced or saw while a graduate student and post-doc were almost always due to interpersonal conflicts.  Often the strategy of many scientists is to ignore the problem and hope that it goes away. This book contains an excellent chapter on addressing these issues head on in order to avoid escalations and lost time and effort on projects. The book also contains great chapters on managing up (i.e. how to manage your boss) and managing sideways (i.e. interacting with peers). There is a very eye-opening chapter on the various types of dysfunction that can be found in academia based on how the reward system is set up and how to become a better mentor and how to survive as a trainee under these conditions. A great chapter is present in the book that describes the transition to industry for those looking to leave the ivory tower. The final chapter encourages readers to shape their workplaces for the better using the techniques learned in the book in order to improve the culture of academia for everyone. The second edition contains an additional chapter on leading team meetings and a new section on how to deal with difficult people.

I think that any scientist could learn a great deal from reading this book. I have referenced it several times since starting on the tenure-track when I’ve run into a sticky interpersonal situation or when I need a refresher on a particular aspect of mentoring. I believe that it would also be incredibly useful for graduate students and post-docs who are navigating academia.

Book Review: Promotion and Tenure Confidential by David D. Perlmutter

As a newer faculty member, the goal of earning tenure is a big and omnipresent one. I’ve approached this goal by doing my best to be strategic about where to invest my time and energy. In order to do this effectively I’ve sought advice from colleagues, administrators, websites, blogs, and books. One book that I recently finished reading is “Promotion and Tenure Confidential” by David D. Perlmutter. While the book was published in 2010, which is now four years ago, I believe that what Dr. Perlmutter conveys in the book will stand the test of time very well. This is because he chooses to focus on what he calls the 3P’s: “the people, the politics, and the personal conundrums”. Regardless of how the academy changes in the future, the 3P’s will always hold heavy sway in tenure decisions. His writing style is engaging and honest and he uses humour quite effectively throughout the book. I was also amused to discover that several pseudonyms used in the book reveal him to be a “Game of Thrones” fan.

He takes a chronological approach to the tenure track by starting with the doctorate and concluding with the awarding (or denial) of tenure, but much of the advice offered in each section of the book will be applicable regardless of the career stage of the reader. In contrast to other books that I’ve read that only warn of potential problems on the tenure track, in his book Dr. Perlmutter identifies the problem, offers several ways that it could be addressed, and then goes on to describe the likely outcomes of different scenarios. It is this compare and contrast approach to solutions to problems and the admission that “one size does not fit all” that makes this book useful. The scenarios described are realistic and the advice offered is extremely practical.

I’d recommend this book to later stage Ph.D. students who are preparing to defend their thesis and are thinking about going on the job market, post-docs who are preparing academic job applications, and tenure-track faculty members who are just starting out or who are in the process of preparing their applications for tenure.