Tag: deep thoughts

The Scientific Persona Mask

I’ve been a practicing scientist since 1997. That’s the year that I started an undergraduate thesis project. My knowledge of what scientists did up until then was based on the portrayal of scientists in media, film, television, and books. That picture of what a scientist is was very homogeneous. These portrayals weren’t anything like me and that made me uncomfortable. It made me feel like an outsider and an imposter. Everyone has a strong desire to fit in and I was no different. My initial impression is that science was a serious business and that there isn’t much room for levity.

Through most of my academic career I’ve kept my intimate thoughts and ideas close to my chest, often out of fear that they were weird, stupid, or incorrect. What I have learned over the years is that what the scientific enterprise really needs is diversity. I think that the only way to get this diversity is to actively invite and recruit “others” into science. When we increase the diversity of people doing science then we increase the diversity of ideas, approaches, and ways of thinking about science and I think that this will do a lot for the advancement of science.

Several thoughtful posts by other bloggers have started to lift the veil on how different people do science. These posts have also served to highlight that it is people doing science and that we aren’t robots and that emotions have a rightful place in the scientific realm. Most of the scientists that I know have a wide range of talents that often are not directly related to doing their science. These can range from athletics (e.g. biking, hiking, swimming, etc.), hobbies (e.g. playing a musical instrument), or a passionate interest in something (e.g. star gazing, stamp collecting, etc.). I’m constantly surprised by the hidden depths of other scientists, but I really shouldn’t be. People are people after all.

I think that perhaps instead of working so hard to fit in, I should start letting other scientists see the other facets of this particular scientist. Perhaps someone else has a liking for scruffy-looking nerf herders, productivity tips, do-it-yourself manicures, and Settlers of Catan. I’m ready to take off my scientific persona mask and be a real person. Care to join me?

The Importance of Self-Care in Academia

There have been some excellent posts in the blogosphere recently that deal with aspects of physical and mental self-care including this excellent piece on Tenure She Wrote . This point was driven home for me during the holidays because I got sick with the flu bug from Hell. It started with chills and then a fever. Then the cough set in and I pulled some muscles due to the frequency and intensity of the coughing. And to top it all off was the violent expulsion of bodily fluids for several days that make that scene in The Exorcist look like a cake walk. It is the sickest I have been in a long time. I lost 10 pounds over 7 days that I couldn’t afford to lose. I think it was my body’s way of telling me to smarten up. I don’t think that it’s a coincidence that my body got sick as soon as the stresses of the semester were over.

It’s served as a wake-up call by telling me that I need to make some big life changes. I need to really start using that YMCA membership. Unfortunately when things get really busy, physical exercise is one of the first things to go. This is a bad choice since it’s the physical exercise that helps me deal with stress and keeps me energized. I’m also spending way too much of my life sitting in my office and several recent studies have determined that it will take years off my life. I need to remember to take frequent breaks and go for some walks.

As academics we are busy people. There was a very funny piece about the busyness competition in academia a few days ago on the New Faculty blog that cracked me up. Like the author, I’ve decided to stop participating in that particular competition; it isn’t one I’d like to win. There are a lot of competing demands on our time and if you couple that with perfectionist tendencies it’s a recipe for disaster. Since starting on the tenure track 4.5 years ago it feels like I’ve been running on a treadmill where the speed is set a bit too fast. It’s felt like I’m always playing a game of catch up. Recently I have come to the stunning realization that I will never catch up. I’m not the only one who feels this way; the sensation is articulated very well in this piece on the Chronicle’s Vitae site by someone more experienced than I. I’ve decided that instead of the quick sprint that I’ve been doing, a more effective strategy would be to pace myself for a marathon. I think that it’s about realizing my limitations and accepting them and being kinder to myself. I’m stepping off the treadmill and I’m going to start doing things my way at a pace that is manageable and sustainable. I’d like to model a more realistic way of doing science for my students; I think that is a worthy goal.

Being sick also served to remind me of the many great things in my life that I take for granted. I live in a safe and comfortable home. I am fortunate to live in a democratic country with robust social and health support systems. I have a great and funny family who are there for me when I need them. I have a fantastic job with excellent colleagues and students. I have a great deal of self-agency and autonomy. I am relatively healthy and have a lot of personal privilege. Perspective is everything.

Gestating in STEM: Blending family with a tenure-track academic career

This past weekend I attended a scientific conference. As usually happens at these events, I had an opportunity to catch up with long-term friends and to make new acquaintances. Often when I’m speaking with young women in STEM the subject of having kids comes up in conversation. I take every one of these conversations as an opportunity to dismantle the myth that a tenure-track academic career is incompatible with having a family. I speak from experience.
For as long as I can remember I have loved biology. Biology makes sense to me intuitively and now permeates how I see the world. I conducted early scientific experiments in the creeks of small towns in Ontario where I grew up. It’s where I learned that crayfish will scoot backwards in order to evade capture. I was devastated when I accidentally killed tadpoles by feeding them bread. I got exceptionally good at catching frogs. I learned what skunk cabbage smelled like and was amazed that a plant can melt snow.
I entered my undergraduate degree in Sciences fully believing that I wanted to be a doctor. Most of my first year grades quickly disabused me of that notion, but biology made sense to me. I completed a fourth year research project and was hooked. I briefly toyed with the idea of becoming a lawyer after my undergrad, but decided that doing biology made me happy and I went on to complete a M.Sc. degree.
The M.Sc. degree was challenging academically, but was also challenging personally. I’d met my partner in the first year of my undergrad and we ended up having a long-distance relationship for 3 years while I completed my B.Sc. (Honours) and M.Sc. degrees. During one of our weekends together he proposed and I said yes. When it came time to do a Ph.D. degree we made a deal; I would do the Ph.D. in the city where he was kicking off his career and when it came time for the post-doc, he’d pick up and move where I needed to go. Life is about compromise, but it’s also about picking the right partner.
The Ph.D. was exceptionally rewarding and challenging at the same time. I made some amazing scientific discoveries and triumphed over some systemic hurdles. I got married and we made the conscious decision to start our family the next year. The statistics will tell you that it was a dumb move, but I wasn’t about to let graduate studies in science dictate my reproductive choices. It was an unconventional choice at the time and I had several people ask me if the pregnancy was planned; the implication being that only an idiot would become pregnant in grad school on purpose. The hardest part of the Ph.D. was the lack of support from public programs after the birth of my son. I took 9 months off from my program and it took me 6 years to complete my degree, but I finished it. I defended my dissertation 3 weeks before my daughter was born.
My post-doc was a great experience and by now I was an old pro at juggling science and family. Compared to many other jobs academia affords a great deal of flexibility in terms of how you spend your time. Life and career can never fully be separated and there will be many times that you have to improvise and come up with creative solutions to problems. I’ve found that having children early in my academic career was an excellent choice for me. I have a great deal of respect for colleagues who are just starting their families while on the tenure-track.
The aim of this post is to serve as encouragement to young women who are starting out in STEM. The statistics show us that the odds are stacked against you, especially if you choose to marry a partner and if you choose to have children and want an academic career. I am here to tell you that it can be done; don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.
Here are some pearls of wisdom that I have picked up along the way:

1) If you choose to have a partner, make sure that they are a true partner in every sense of the word. If you both have careers, expect that one person’s career will take precedence during different stages of your life, however, you should not always be the one making career sacrifices. Your partner needs to fully support you in your career and needs to do their fair share of domestic chores and organization. If you have children with a partner, this person should be willing and able to care for your children (e.g. change diapers, clean up puke, play, feed, and clothe them) and not just “babysit” them.

2) If you decide to have a child or children, it is much easier to do this with a network of supportive people. Whether this is a partner, extended family, or friends there will be many times where you will need assistance. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Toss the myth of the Superwoman out the window. Life will never be perfect; let it go.

3) Availability of good child-care will make or break you. Whether this is provided by your partner, family, friends, an in-home daycare, or a daycare centre, if you are worried about the quality of care that your children are getting you will be unable to be productive at work. This may come at a steep financial cost, but it is worth every penny.

4) Be prepared for people to judge your personal and professional choices. Listen politely to their opinions, let it roll off your back, and move on. Everyone’s life is different and we are all dealing with challenges of our own, many of which are not visible to others. Your colleagues may not have children, but may be dealing with elder care issues, disability, chronic illness, etc.

5) Pay it forward. Share your wisdom with those who are coming up the Ivory Tower behind you. Give them a leg up when you can. Kindness is vastly underrated.

Time Management for Scientists

Over the years I’ve come to realize that science is an extremely creative enterprise. I am of the mind that I can be at my most creative when I have the time to think deeply about scientific questions and how I might approach answering those using various experimental approaches. I would argue that having time to think and plan is required to be a successful scientist.
With that in mind I’m always on the prowl for effective time management and productivity techniques. Below I list some tips and tricks that I’ve picked up over the years that might prove helpful to others.

1) Plan ahead. I can’t count the number of times that this mentality has saved my bacon over the years. I once heard that 3 hours in the library can save you 3 months in the lab and I absolutely believe it. I try to do some planning at higher levels (1-4 year time scale), medium levels (per term), and low levels (weekly and daily). I’ve found it useful to have weekly goals for what I want to accomplish and to plan which day I want to tackle particular tasks. I use Friday afternoons as my planning time as campus is quiet and I can reflect on the past week and then have a look at what’s on my plate for next week. Before I leave for the day I try to have 3-5 goals that I’m aiming to accomplish the following day.

2) Bundle tasks. As scientists we have to simultaneously complete multiple projects pertaining to research, teaching, service, and administration which have a tendency to fragment our days and have massive negative effects on our productivity. I’ve found that a good strategy is to group like tasks together and to complete them all in one go. For example, this term I was teaching Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays and was therefore in a teaching mind-set on those days. As a consequence I made a conscious choice to offer office hours and to book my one-on-one update appointments with my lab trainees on those days. I also used those days to mark assignments and tests and to prepare for upcoming lectures and assignments. This left Tuesdays and Thursdays wide open for research focused tasks.

3) Wrestle email to the ground. Email is a time suck and it will take over your life and destroy your productivity if you let it. Humans see something new and shiny and are immediately drawn to it and forget what they were previously focused on. Your goal should be to only check email 2-3 times a day and to respond to messages during those times. Close your email program and turn off your notifications and get on with your tasks. Don’t leave emails sitting in your inbox as reminders to do something. Convert the contents of that email into a task that you can do and aim to get your inbox to zero. Easier said than done I know, but it works.

How I Use my iPad as an Academic Scientist

I received my first iPad as a Christmas present several years ago from my partner. Prior to that I had purchased an iPod and that was the first Apple device that I owned. I still use a PC laptop as my primary computing device at work, but I have integrated my iPad into my daily work flow. I am now on my second iPad (a first generation iPad Air). I thought that it might be interesting to other academics if I described how I use my iPad at work. Below I describe three of the apps that I use every day and how they have led to increases in my productivity as a scientist.

Week Cal

I used to use a paper calendar and was frustrated when appointments changed or got cancelled and entering repeating appointments was a pain. During the transition to an electronic calendar I maintained a paper and an electronic calendar for a few months because I was paranoid that the iCloud would eat my data. This never happened and I love the convenience of using an electronic calendar. I find that I prefer the Week Cal display and set-up compared to the Apple Calendar App. I found having an electronic calendar extremely useful when I was recently preparing my tenure file; it was easy to go back in time and look at the past 3 years of my life. I only use my calendar for appointments (i.e. I physically have to be somewhere at a certain time and place).


Academics are busy people and we have to keep a lot of balls up in the air at the same time. I am a typical type-A personality and prior to having my iPad I kept a notebook with a master to-do list and notes on each of the many projects that I had on the go. It was all there, but it wasn’t very organized or efficient. As a compulsive list maker I was looking for a program that was flexible and could deal with the complexities of my varied projects. Several years ago I read the book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen and it was a life changer. OmniFocus has had a similar positive impact on my productivity. The Omni company has recently released version 2 of the app for iPad. The program is very expensive for an app, but it has been worth every penny for me. The program also has a steep learning curve, but once you figure it out it is awesome!


The Clock app comes as a default app on the iPad and I use it in a few ways. When I’m doing a task for the first time, but I know that it’s a repeating task that I’ll need to do again in the future, I use the Stopwatch feature to determine how long it takes me to complete the task. I now know that it takes me about 15 minutes to reconcile my monthly research account spending on my corporate credit card. That’s useful information because I now know that I can get this task done in one of those awkward 15 minute chunks of time that pop up in my schedule.
I also use this app to avoid procrastinating on a task that I don’t feel like doing or to work on a project in short bursts. I like to break overwhelming projects into smaller pieces. I can usually do any task for 30 minutes even if I don’t really want to do it. I promise myself that I only have to work on that task for 30 minutes and then I’ll stop. This works like a charm; I’ve made progress, but the evil task from Hell hasn’t stolen my entire day. Working in these shorter periods of time of intense focus and taking quick breaks in between is called the Pomodoro technique.

These three apps in combination keep me on track, organized, and focused during my work days and have helped me to increase my productivity.

How are you using apps on your iPad in your work as an academic? Feel free to comment below.

Dismantling the Stereotype of the “Crazy” Scientist

What comes to people’s minds when you say the word scientist? Chances are most people picture a middle-aged white man toiling away in a dark, mysterious laboratory. He’s likely wearing a lab coat (either pristine white or covered in who knows what) and has crazy hair in need of a good brushing. This is the image of the scientist most often portrayed in film and TV. The socially awkward misfit who is rude and abrasive to everyone he meets and clueless about the real world around him. He’s often up to no good and has no moral compass. If this is what most people really believe about scientists then it is no wonder that scientific progress is under attack in the US and Canada.

I have two kids who like to play with LEGO. I was therefore happy to hear that LEGO would soon be putting out a new series called “Research Institute” that features female scientists. I can only hope that this will serve to counteract the “Crazy Scientist” that appeared in the Series 4 set of minifigs that hits on all of the stereotypical characteristics that I just described above.

I was again reminded of this stereotype this morning when looking at my Twitter feed. It turns out that a Greek yogurt company Chobani has been putting messages under the lids of its products. One read “Nature got us to 100 calories, not scientists.” Understandably many scientists saw this as a direct attack on themselves and on science and mobilized an effective campaign to get rid of the offensive slogan. The company would do well to remember that many scientists are involved in the making of their product, whether they are engineers working to improve efficiency of the production line, biologists working to improve the texture, flavour, and development of the yogurt, or chemists involved in synthesizing the plastic containers that it’s packaged in.

Guess what? Scientists are people too. We have friends and family. We have hobbies. We have morals and beliefs. The person sitting next to you on the bus is a scientist. The person voting in the same poll as you is a scientist. The person coaching your child in little league baseball is a scientist. When I teach and train students in my laboratory I am showing them that the stereotype is incorrect. I specifically address and dismantle it in one of my courses.

I think science is awesome, but then again I am a scientist. I see the beauty and wonder of science all around me every day, and I appreciate that science allows me to live a healthy life by providing me access to clean water, sturdy shelter, nutritious food, and effective health care. What can we do as scientists to halt the disturbing trend of vilifying science and scientists that is in full swing in our neighbour to the south and is starting the sweep north into Canada? Perhaps the place to start is to deconstruct the stereotype of what it means to be a scientist.

This is your brain…This is your brain on Biology…

One public service announcement that I remember vividly from my childhood was an anti-drug TV spot. It starts out showing an egg and the announcer ominously says “This is your brain”. The camera then pans over to a skillet; the egg gets cracked, and then comes the classic line “This is your brain on drugs”. My friends and I used to mock that PSA endlessly because of its frying egg metaphor.

Over the years I have come to the realization that my brain is on “Biology”. The amount of time that I’ve spent in school studying and practicing Biology has permanently rewired how I think about and view the world. Most of the time, I am very happy about this effect. Training to be a biologist has allowed me to learn to think logically, troubleshoot, and generate solutions to complex problems. I think that it’s also allowed me to become a better communicator and serves as an excellent creative outlet. I am a scientist and that means that I experience the world through that lens. I like to think that it makes me the life of the party on nature walks; my family would likely disagree. After a careful inspection of the tenth bracket fungus they are ready to move on while I ponder the wonders of carotenoid biosynthesis that might result in that amazing orange colour. I accept that I am a nerd and fully embrace it.

I have also effectively transmitted “Biology brain” to my children. A few years ago we were eating dinner and talking about dinosaurs. I asked my son what colour he thought that dinosaur skin would have been. This was before the amazing work had been done using fossils to look at melanosomes (pigment containing organelles) in order to extrapolate skin and feather colours. He thought about it for a moment and then answered “Brown and green”. I asked him why he thought that dinosaurs would be brown and green. He answered, “Because they needed to use camouflage to avoid being eaten”. I thought that was an awesome answer that made a lot of sense coming from a six year old.

In the past few weeks I’ve attended workshops with colleagues from a wide range of other departments on campus. I am always surprised and delighted to discover the different ways that each of us looks at the world. I think that regularly experiencing these different viewpoints is one of the big perks of being in academia.