Tag: science lab

Jurassic World’s Portrayal of Women and Scientists

*This post contains some spoilers, do not continue reading if you wish to protect your future movie viewing experience.*

Last weekend my son and I went to see Jurassic World. I enjoyed Jurassic Park when it came out and like science fiction movies in general and was pretty excited to see the film. I’m also a biologist and dinosaurs are cool so I was stoked!

I generally have low expectations for many films as a feminist scientist and many fail to meet the Bechdel test . Female characters are often relegated to the sidelines or only talk about dudes and romantic relationships.

I was therefore happy to see within the first 30 minutes of the film that four female characters were introduced. Judy Greer plays a mom sending her two sons off for a visit to see their aunt who is in charge of the daily operations of Jurassic World. She’s a lawyer and it’s revealed later in the film and she and her husband are contemplating divorce and it seems like they’ve shipped the kids off for a fun adventure while they work out the details of their split. One of the sons, Zach, has a girlfriend who has come to see him off. Aunt Claire is played by Bryce Dallas Howard as a highly driven, emotionally unavailable career woman. When her nephews arrive she foists them off on her assistant Zara played by Katie McGrath. The fourth female character is a technical support worker (Vivian) in the command centre played by Lauren Lapkus. The film passes the Bechdel test because it has greater than two women in it, several of these women talk to each other, and these conversations involve something other than talking about men.

Unfortunately the female character development isn’t stellar throughout the rest of the film and features many tropes such as the frigid, type A, career woman who has no time for family (Claire), the highly emotional mother (Karen), the put upon younger assistant (Zara), the token techie woman (Vivian), and the overly clingly girlfriend who needs constant assurances about the status of her romantic relationship (Zach’s girlfriend).

Some icky things that happen during the film:

  1. Claire’s wardrobe choices. That white suit and pumps are awesome and powerful for the boardroom. For tromping around in the jungle searching for kids and avoiding dinosaurs? Not so much. There’s actually a scene at the top of a waterfall in which Claire modifies the suit that pokes fun at the ridiculousness of the situation.
  2. Zach says a prolonged good-bye to his girlfriend at the start of the film. He then proceeds to stare/ogle other young women at various places around Jurassic World to the point where the younger brother calls him out on it. Creeper alert!
  3. There is a thoroughly creepy sexual harassment incident as the central command of the park is being evacuated. The male technician (Lowery) who has decided to valiantly stay behind to hold down the fort attempts to kiss the female technician (Vivian) as she’s leaving and is firmly rebuffed. Turns out he assumed that she would welcome his advances because she’s never stated that she has a boyfriend. Turns out that she does have a boyfriend, but hasn’t talked about him because she’s a professional and doesn’t talk about that stuff at work. What a stunning concept! This was doubly uncomfortable because the situation garnered huge laughs from the audience.
  4. The assistant Zara dies, but doesn’t do so quickly. Nope, the flying dinosaurs play around with her a bit first up in the air, then play with her in the water and try to drown her, and she finally meets her end when the flying dinosaur that’s gobbled her up is itself eaten by the gigantic, aquatic Mosasaurus dinosaur.

The scientists don’t fare much better. Dr. Henry Wu (played by BD Wong who was also in Jurassic Park) is still working in the lab, still engineering new dinosaurs, and evidently didn’t learn anything from the experiences in the first film. He’s portrayed as having no moral compass and is part of a larger military conspiracy effected by Hoskins (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). He gets to be the evil scientist who is in it for himself and leaves the island on a helicopter with a mysterious briefcase which we assume contains plans and genetic material for a new crop of dinosaurs that we’ll no doubt see in the next film.

Overall the movie is a fun romp and the special effects are amazing. Unfortunately the portrayal of women and scientists in the movie leaves a lot to be desired.

On-line Storage of Lab Protocols

In the labs I’ve been in previously, common lab protocols were stored in a binder in the lab for reference. Usually I’d make a photocopy for my own use as a place to start and as I optimized the protocol for my experiments I’d mark up this copy. Once I had a solid protocol worked out, I’d generate my own copy of the protocol so that it served my purposes. When I started my own lab I wanted to make sure that my students had a binder of protocols that they could refer to for their own experiments. At the same time I wanted to prevent protocol drift (i.e. the inadvertent changing of a protocol over time). I thought about the common protocols that we would use in the lab and generated several binders for these that are stored in the lab. This approach works, but it’s a bit clunky and limited the students to looking at the protocols only while in the lab. I recently decided that it would make sense to generate a central, on-line repository for our lab protocols.

A quick search of the web showed that researchers do this in different ways. Some labs make their own Wiki to hold this information, others use cloud storage or an online protocol repository, and others used a campus intranet or password protected website. I’m currently in the process of evaluating all of the possible options. How does your lab store and manage experimental protocols? I’d love to receive advice and hear about options in the comments below!

Research Budgeting for Scientists

Prior to starting my job as an Assistant Professor, I had never managed a professional budget before. I’d certainly managed my personal finances previously, but I’d never before had total oversight of a research budget and been responsible for figuring out how to spend it effectively and ensure that I wasn’t going over budget. This is one of those myriad of skills that you aren’t always exposed to as a graduate student or post-doc, although I do know some colleagues who managed research budgets before starting their faculty positions.

I’m pretty conservative with money and how I manage my funds is informed primarily by two things: I think that shopping around for the best price is a good idea and I like to know what the current balances of my accounts are so that I don’t ever run a deficit. These two approaches have served me well in the first five years of my position.

In my personal life I do not particularly enjoy shopping as an activity. The most frequent type of shopping that I do is grocery shopping and we have recently started to use the app Flipp in order to compare prices any given week and to price match items across different stores. I have transferred this idea to how I do the shopping of consumables and supplies for my lab. Usually several suppliers will offer the same or a comparable product; let’s use the example of 1.5 mL centrifuge tubes. In my lab I prefer the tubes to be clear, to seal well, and to withstand high centrifugation speeds. Taking these specifications into account, there are many suppliers and manufacturers who can provide me with a tube that will do the job. My next step is to figure out the price per unit and see who offers a good product at a reasonable price. For most items I’m willing to shop around and to try a new product, especially if the price point is cheaper than what I have previously been using. One thing to keep an eye on is whether there are shipping and handling charges in play. Often an item will seem less costly, but when you factor in the shipping costs that is no longer the case. I also have to make sure what customs charges apply if I’m importing an item from Europe or the U.S. since I’m in Canada as those charges can add a lot to the cost of an item.

In order to avoid running a deficit it’s important to plan ahead and estimate your future costs and also to have a really good idea of the current funds that you have available. Some costs are easier to project (e.g. student stipends, larger pieces of equipment) while some are more challenging to estimate (e.g. the price of agarose 3 months in the future). I’ve found that it’s been useful to go with higher than expected estimates in order to build a buffer into budgets.

I choose to run my research budget in this way because the vast majority if my research funding comes from Canadian taxpayers and they have a right to expect me to be responsible when it comes to spending those funds. I also refuse to put myself and my students in the position of running out of funds for their stipends as I feel that it is morally wrong and irresponsible. I won’t take on a student if I can’t pay for my portion of their financial support package.

I’d be interested to hear how other faculty do their financial budgeting for their research grants. Please leave your thoughts or advice in the comments!

What it’s really like to be a pregnant grad student

Meg over at Dynamic Ecology has a great post up about “Sciencing during the first trimester”. First of all let me say that I love the term “sciencing”; it’s awesome! It’s a pretty hot topic as seen from the comments and I think it’s because there isn’t an obvious forum in which to discuss these topics and based on my experiences pregnant graduate students are a rare breed. I wanted to share my story in light of Meg’s post and the comments that it has generated.

I have two children; my son is 12 and my daughter is almost 8. I became pregnant with my son a year and a half into my Ph.D. program on purpose. I say on purpose because one of the more shocking things that happened to me during my first pregnancy as a graduate student was the number of people who seemed to think that it was an accidental pregnancy. The idea that a graduate student would choose to become pregnant during graduate school was pretty racy back then I guess; hopefully this is starting to change. I found out in February 2012 that I was pregnant and it is easily one of the most amazing and terrifying moments of my life. My first trimester was not very fun. Every morning like clockwork I was dry heaving at 7:30 a.m. and I had fairly constant nausea during the day. Eating small meals very frequently is excellent advice. During this time I was performing tissue dissections on oysters for my research project. The combination of the smell of oyster guts and pregnancy nausea was epic!

My husband and I decided not to tell anyone about the pregnancy until after the first trimester due to concerns about miscarriage. After I passed the three month mark I needed to decide who else needed to know and when I needed to disclose that I was pregnant. I decided to tell my supervisor just after the first trimester as a courtesy so that we could plan for my parental leave to minimize my absence from the lab. I worried and stressed about having that conversation for weeks. It doesn’t matter how well you think you know your supervisor and how you think that they’ll react to your news. All of us have heard stories about horrible PIs who eject pregnant graduate students and post-docs from their labs or who write them off once they become pregnant. Fortunately, although my supervisor was very surprised by my announcement, he was very supportive throughout my pregnancy and maternity leave. I was very fortunate to have in my department a graduate student who had recently had a child and a faculty member who was pregnant at the same time that I was. These women offered great advice and support during a time that was pretty alienating. At that time, nothing screamed “other” in academic science like a huge, swollen, pregnancy belly. I heard through the grapevine that other faculty members felt sorry for my PI as they viewed my pregnancy as evidence that I wasn’t serious about science. I expect that many members of the academy still think that way, even if they don’t verbalize it. Being pregnant as a graduate student was good from the perspective that I had a lot of flexibility in my schedule and that youth was on my side. I look at my fellow female faculty members who are pregnant or new mothers in awe as I cannot imagine doing this at my current age while just starting out on the tenure track. I worked in the lab throughout my pregnancy and continued to work with biohazards, chemicals, and radiation during this time. I took the usual safety precautions and wore a radiation counter ring on my hand during this period of time. Once the nausea went away during the second trimester, the biggest challenges were feeling tired, heartburn, carrying around an extra 40 pounds, and the swelling of various body parts. I went into labour 2 hours after TAing a lab and it took my son a few days to make an appearance. Having him is by far the most mentally and physically challenging thing that I have ever done. This helps to put grant writing, manuscript writing, and conference presentations into perspective.

The first trimester of my second pregnancy was rougher than the first. I came home from the lab early one afternoon because I wasn’t feeling well and the nausea hit like a tidal wave. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening throwing up very violently. By the time it was done the force of my puking had ruptured several blood vessels in one eye. It was not a good look and there was no way that I could hide it. When I went back into work the next day I told all of my lab mates and my supervisor that I was pregnant. My second pregnancy forced me to disclose my condition much earlier than I wanted to and I ended up taking Diclectin until part way through my second trimester in an attempt to control the vomiting and nausea. The rest of my symptoms were similar to my first pregnancy and there was some comfort in knowing what to expect the second time around. I went into labour 2 weeks after defending my Ph.D. thesis and my daughter arrived in 4 hours start to finish.

Being pregnant as a graduate student taught me many things. Below I’ve listed the ones that are most important.

  • Know and accept your limitations. You can’t do it all and that’s o.k. Do your best. Great days, good days, bad days, and awful days will all average out. Work, sleep, and eat. You are growing a whole new person inside of you; that SDS-PAGE gel will wait.
  • Know your rights and the social supports and programs available to you. Be your own advocate and find allies. Ask for help when you need it; this is not a sign of weakness.
  • Being organized is great and it’s excellent to plan ahead, but you have to roll with the punches. Expect the unexpected. Your best laid plans will go up in flames, so it’s useful to have a Plan B, Plan C, and…you get the idea.
  • Mind the gap. Pregnancy will impact your productivity and so will raising small children. I managed to publish while pregnant and again soon after returning from maternity leave, so there is no gap in my CV.
  • Enjoy your pregnancy and your baby. You will feel guilty. Lock your guilt in a closet and throw away the key.

Thinking about graduate school: How to narrow down your choices

This time of year many undergrads are starting to think about their plans for next year. For some of them this includes exploring the option of pursuing graduate school in a program that requires the production of a thesis based on research done in a laboratory. Based on my past experiences as a graduate student and my current experiences as a faculty member with a lab, I’d like to offer some advice to undergraduate students on how to identify potential graduate school programs and supervisors. This advice is aimed at students who need to find a supervisor before they apply to a graduate program and is not targeted at students who will be entering a grad program where lab rotations are the norm.

 1) Why do you want to go to graduate school? What goals do you want to accomplish in graduate school? What is the value in a graduate degree? Think long and hard on these questions. You should not go to graduate school as a default option or a back-up plan.

 2) Form a realistic view of what graduate school entails and whether the experience is right for you. One of the best ways to do this is to volunteer or do a fourth year undergraduate research thesis or project in a laboratory. It’s also very helpful to talk to graduate students who are in the graduate program in your home department to get their bounce on what it’s like to be a graduate student. You can also get great advice from faculty members who run labs in your home department.

 3) Think about personal and professional constraints that may limit where you can go to graduate school. Can you handle cold winters in Edmonton, or would you rather live in warm, sunny Florida? Are you looking to gain international experience? Do you need to consider the needs of other family members, your partner, or your children? Can you afford to live on a graduate student stipend in a city with a high cost of living? Do you need to live in a culturally vibrant city, or are you a homebody? Some of these questions will serve to narrow your search for graduate school programs in terms of location and characteristics.

4) What discipline or subject area are you most interested in studying? Is there a particular research question that you are interested in answering? For example, if you want to study sharks there will be many departments that will not have that as an option. What kind of department name sounds like a good fit to you? Sometimes department names are not particularly descriptive or representative of the research being pursued within a department. For example, you can do cancer research in a Department of Medicine, a Department of Health Sciences, or a Department of Life Sciences. Ecology can be studied in Ecology and Evolution departments or Biology departments. How narrow or broad do you want your research experience to be?

 After you’ve answered some of these big picture questions you can start the process of identifying particular degree programs, departments and potential supervisors. I’ll provide some tips on how to do that in my next blog post.

 

The Power of the Label maker

One characteristic that is very valuable to have as a tenure-track academic is excellent organizational skills. This job makes multiple demands on your time and is a real juggling act; keeping all of those balls up in the air at the same time is tricky business. I have found that it is very worth my while to discover and invest in tools that help me to maintain order in the face of chaos.

One tool that I have found to be indispensable is the label maker. I kid you not! Label makers have come a long way since the models of my youth. I remember vividly using archaic models with the alphabet dial on the top that worked by punching letter imprints into hard plastic. Very clunky- but strangely satisfying.

The current brand that I use is by Dymo and is their middle of the range model. I like it because you can purchase a wide variety of tape types (e.g. paper, plastic, etc.), and colours. I find the base model to be a bit clunky and the top of the line model has bells and whistles that I don’t need. Refill tapes are widely available and reasonably priced.

My colleagues seem puzzled by my love for the label maker and I’ve been the subject of gentle mocking for this proclivity. However, if you read any good productivity book or guide you will see that the label maker features prominently as a must have tool. On a day to day basis I use my label maker to label file folders. Although the bulk of my work occurs electronically, I still require paper file folders to keep track of invoices, budgets, project plans, notes from student meetings, teaching materials, grant applications, etc. A label maker allows me to label these files cleanly and professionally and makes them easy to find and identify in my filing cabinets. The label maker has also come in handy in the lab. When I first moved into the lab and organized it I labelled all the drawers with content labels. This helps me to remember where all of the gel electrophoresis equipment is stored, but has also helped to familiarize my students to the lab and has trained them to properly put away equipment. This saves time and money. If you don’t already have one, invest in a label maker; you’ll be glad that you did.

Purchasing Major Pieces of Scientific Equipment for Your Lab

Several times since starting my tenure-track faculty position, I’ve had to purchase major pieces of scientific equipment. I define this as scientific equipment that costs greater than $5,000. For many of my colleagues in the U.S. this would not be a large amount of money, but it represents a significant portion of my yearly research grant, which means that I need to make a good decision about what I’m purchasing.

 

My first step in this process is to brainstorm a list of what I need the equipment to do (e.g. features, attachments, flexibility, etc.) and any physical limitations that have to be taken into account (e.g. Will it fit somewhere in the lab? Does it have particular power requirements?). Taking a few minutes up front to clearly define the minimum requirements that you have for the equipment saves a lot of time later, so don’t skip this step.

 

The next step is to gather information about the type of equipment that you are looking for. I do this by talking to colleagues and getting recommendations, thinking about any previous experiences that I have had with this kind of equipment, and browsing websites and catalogues. Once I’ve collected these data, I put them into a table so that I can compare the different models of equipment offered by different suppliers. Often one model will emerge as the front runner, and sometimes I can effectively rule out a particular piece of equipment by doing this comparison.

 

Only after I’ve identified the models that I’m interested in, do I contact scientific companies to ask for quotations. When I make a quotation request I include: i) the specific model that I’m interested in, ii) any accessories that are necessary for my research, and iii) information on the regular warranty that is offered and the pricing of an extended warranty. I send the requests for quotations out on the same day and time as a way to gage the responsiveness of the sales representatives as this information sometimes factors into my decision making process.

 

Many of my purchasing decisions come down to price, so it’s helpful to be comparing apples to apples instead of apples to oranges. I comparison shop when I buy my weekly groceries; why wouldn’t I do the same thing when it comes to buying scientific equipment?

Advice on Setting up a Laboratory: Where Old Equipment goes to Die

I count myself extremely fortunate that I inherited my lab space from a retiring faculty member. This researcher was extremely generous and left me a great deal of equipment and supplies that literally saved me thousands of dollars in start-up funds. This was in contrast to the horror stories that I heard whispered in the hallways as a grad student and post-doc about retiring professors leaving archaic equipment and garbage behind for unsuspecting new faculty.

After I had a handle on the physical aspects of the lab space, it was time to honestly assess the pieces of scientific equipment, reagents, plastic ware, etc. that were in the lab. This involved using a triage method of sorts and deciding whether items were: i) currently useful to my research program, ii) potentially useful to my research program in the future, or iii) likely not to be of any use to me now or ever.

The easiest group to identify were items in category iii; these were either obviously broken or expired items, items that I would never use, and in some cases unidentified items whose purpose remained a mystery to me. If it was broken or expired it went into the trash or chemical waste for disposal. Mystery items and items that I would never use were put into a pile to be dealt with later. It’s very important to be realistic about what you might use and not to save things for a rainy day. Chances are you’ll never use that piece of weird equipment and it will take up valuable lab space acting as a very effective dust collector.

I gathered up the pieces of equipment that I did not need and placed them on an empty benchtop. I then asked the departmental administrative assistant to send an email to all faculty members and teaching staff indicating that I had free pieces of equipment available on a first-come, first-served basis. My colleagues appreciated free items that were useful to them, and I was happy to clear the stuff out of my lab, so it was a win for everyone. Each year I purge the lab in this manner and get rid of items that are needlessly taking up space.

I had to take some time to assess whether other items fell into category i or ii. If I thought it was something that I would definitely use or that I could envision using in the next 2-3 years then I kept it. If not, it joined the items I would never use pile. I am still using many category i and ii items in the lab today including a PCR machine, light banks, vortexer, etc. Other items I used for the first couple of years that I was here until they ceased to function, or until I could afford to upgrade to a more convenient or efficient model. This included a centrifuge, pH meter, balance, and several sets of pipetmen. When I replaced this equipment, I first offered the old equipment to newer faculty members in an attempt to pay it forward.

It is really worth your time to take inventory before you purchase any items for your new lab. This will reduce the chance of you purchasing redundant equipment and is also cost effective. Doing this kind of inventory also serves to make you very aware of what you have, what you don’t have, and helps you to prioritize future lab purchases.

Advice on Setting up a Laboratory: Physical Space

Training to do science in graduate school and as a post-doc is great for teaching you how to conceptualize and do science, but it’s somewhat terrifying to be hired into a tenure-track position and realize that you now need to set-up your lab. It needs to be a functional space where excellent research can be conducted. Where to start?

It’s helpful to start from the ground up and take a good, hard look at the physical space of the laboratory that you’ve been given. This might be a laboratory of your very own or bench space in a shared, open-concept lab. Hopefully you’ve already been successful in negotiating a decent sized space in an attractive location (i.e. space that is not the size of a closet, actually has some natural light, and isn’t too far from your office).

It sounds very simple, but one of the first things I did in my laboratory was to spend a morning taking dimension measurements of bench tops, alcoves, cubbies, shelving, floor space, doorways, and other surfaces. While this may seem like a lot of time to invest up front, it pays off when you are trying to determine whether that new fridge that you want to order will actually fit in that particular corner of your lab and whether you can get it through the door.

It’s also worth determining whether any of the fixtures in your lab can be moved as this increases the flexibility of space. Are cabinets on casters? Can the height of shelves be modified? Can shelving or cabinets be moved and remounted elsewhere? For example, I relocated a pair of cabinets from one location to another in the lab in order to fit a Laminar flow hood; this had the added plus of giving me more shelf space in an area of the lab where it would be useful. Some fixtures can’t be moved (e.g. safety showers and eye wash stations, sinks, gas lines, electrical outlets, built-in benches, etc.) and will therefore impose some limitations on the space unless you are willing to spend some money to relocate them.

Now that you have a handle on the physical space within the lab, the next step is to take stock of what is in it. If you are getting a lab space that is part of a new building or a recent renovation the space may actually be empty, but many of us have inherited our lab space (and therefore equipment and materials) from a previous occupant.