Tag: scientist

The Disabled Scientist: Thriving in Academia with a Hearing Impairment

hearing aids

By writing this post I am outing myself as a disabled scientist. This will likely come as surprise to many of my colleagues and trainees as I haven’t disclosed my disability to many people at work. I have a hidden disability and as such have had the luxury of letting people know about my disability or not sharing this information. This ability to be selective in my disclosure choices is not one that persons with visible disabilities have. I have also not had to live with my disability for very long. I was diagnosed with my hearing impairment in February 2012 and have therefore only been aware of it for about 4 years. I am choosing to share my story now in order to show other early career scientists that it is possible to survive and thrive with a disability in academia. It can also serve as a reminder to everyone that disabilities can develop at every life stage and quite unexpectedly.

I first suspected that something was wrong with my hearing in the Fall of 2011. I was having consistent difficulty hearing my husband, especially if he was speaking to me around a corner or with his face turned away from me. At first we joked about my selective spousal hearing, but as time went on it became more apparent that something wasn’t right. My husband would often talk about everyday sounds (e.g. barking dogs, machine noises, thunder and rain) and how annoying they were, but I wasn’t hearing the same things that he was. I was also finding that I would have to ask students to repeat points that they were making in class because I would miss some things the first time around. In February 2012 I booked an appointment with my doctor who recommended that I see an audiologist for a hearing test.

Getting a hearing test done is a pretty surreal experience. You go into a sound proof booth, wear headphones and sensors and listen to tones and spoken words in order to assess the range of frequencies and syllables that you can hear. There were parts of the exam that were eerily silent and that signalled to me that there was something definitely wrong with my hearing. I have an impairment in the low frequency range which is very uncommon. Most people exhibit a loss of high frequencies and this typically happens as people age. As such, I’m a pretty unusual client for the clinic given that I have atypical hearing loss and I’m younger than most clients by several decades. The clinic was able to program some loaner hearing aids for me to try out the same afternoon as my exam as a first step towards treating my disability.

The first afternoon with hearing aids was pretty shocking. It was only at that point that I realized what I had been missing due to my disability and that the problem had probably been going on for quite some time. When I turned on my van to drive home, I heard a really strange sound. It turned out to be the seat belt warning bell and it sounded completely different than before. Dinner that night with my family turned out to be very challenging. The settings on the aids weren’t quite right and everyone sounded like they were screaming. It was pretty clear by that first evening that the hearing aids were extremely helpful and necessary.

Having a disability is financially challenging. The best hearing aids for my situation cost $5,000 (they are pictured beside this post). The government covered $1,000 of this cost and my employer’s health plan paid for $500. That left us on the hook for $3,500 which was a huge dent in our budget that year. I felt a bit guilty for needing the hearing aids, which was ridiculous. The other on-going cost is hearing aid batteries. I wear my units for 16 hours per day and need to replace the batteries every 5-7 days. It’s made me realize the true cost of assistive devices and the inadequate coverage by government and employer healthcare plans. After a request from me our union attempted to negotiate for better coverage in our last round of collective bargaining but was unsuccessful.

My disability largely presents challenges in the teaching and service realms of my job. I have difficulty hearing voices in the low frequency range, so “low-talkers”, male students, and quiet speakers of both sexes can have voices that are challenging for me to make out. This sometimes makes discussions and question/answer sessions in class difficult. I’ve gotten comfortable with asking students to repeat themselves or speak up when I need it. I may go so far this year to disclose my disability to my students and to ask for their assistance by requesting that they speak loudly and clearly for everyone in the classroom. I have also experienced some difficulties in faculty meetings, especially with some of my “low-talker” colleagues or friends who have learned English as a second or third language. At conferences, presentations in large rooms without microphones can be difficult and social events at the pub are my own personal version of Hell. Thus far I haven’t asked for any accessibility accommodations at work, but I have asked conference organizers to make sure that speakers use microphones and to think about background noise levels at social events. This summer I had a heating vent leak in the ceiling of my office that was making a hissing noise. Amplified by my hearing aids, the sound was distracting and irritating until fixed.

Assistance on campus is a bit confusing. Accessibility services are mostly focused on students and our equity office recently underwent restructuring. This has meant that knowing where to go for information and help is not always obvious. With the recent passing and implementation of the most recent version of The Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act lots of positive change is happening on campus and in the community. I will admit to being woefully ignorant of accessibility issues prior to becoming disabled. I am still struggling to integrate my identity as a person with a disability with my other identities of being a scientist, female, mother, and partner. These multiple identities are really interesting and I’m still navigating the landscape.

Thus far I only disclosed my disability to two people at work. One is a friend and the other was a colleague that I was co-teaching with who I felt should know how my disability might impact my performance in the classroom. This blog post essentially lets the cat out of the bag with respect to my socially savvy colleagues. The timing of the post is not co-incidental; I waited until I had tenure before writing and publishing it. I fully expect that my colleagues will be supportive and understanding, but the fear associated with the stigma that still surround many disabilities certainly factored into my decision to delay disclosing my condition.

If we are fortunate to live long lives, all of us will have to stare disability in the face. My disability has made me a stronger and more compassionate person. I’m a bit chagrined that it took becoming disabled to recognize the struggles and everyday realities faced by many people around the world. If you are looking for a way to make a positive impact, there are some great resources on universal course design that you can implement in your syllabi, classrooms, and assignments. Accessibility accommodations don’t just help those with disabilities; they help everyone.

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.

Blogs that I read

One of the great advantages to using social media (e.g. blogging, Twitter) is the wonderful people that you can meet and the impressive knowledge that you can acquire in a short period of time. Before I began blogging I lurked for a long time on-line in order to examine the landscape and get a feel for how bloggers go about blogging and how scientists were using Twitter. I’m still learning, but for those of you who are new to the on-line world, or are looking for new blogs to read I thought that I’d share links to the blogs that I read regularly. I list them below in no particular order.

  1. Apple Pie and the Universe

I’ve been reading this blog for several years. The writer is a female astrophysicist who is balancing a professional career with family. She has recently gone back to school to become a teacher and has a strong interest in public science outreach.

  1. Ask a Manager

Alison Green dispenses straight shooting advice on how to manage people. I’ve found her blog very helpful for providing perspective on my role as a professor managing my lab and a group of trainees. The scenarios presented here are sometimes shocking, but the advice is solid.

  1. Beyond Managing

Melanie recently left a job in the information technology sector and has become an entrepreneur. She often posts insightful pieces on productivity, managing people, and women in science.

  1. Dynamic Ecology

I am not an ecologist, but I enjoy most of the posts on this site by Brian, Meg, and Jeremy.

  1. Eat, Read, Science.

Betty posts great summaries of recent, cool science papers! Always an interesting read.

  1. Female Science Professor

This blog was recently referred to as the “gateway” science blog for many women in science that led them into the blogosphere or encouraged them to start blogging themselves.

  1. The Simple Dollar

Trent provides simple ideas for how to manage your money and live a frugal lifestyle without turning into a humourless hermit.

  1. Get a Life Ph.D.

Tanya provides useful advice and perspective for graduate students and those starting out on the tenure track.

  1. Small Pond Science

Terry et al. talk about what it’s like to do research at a smaller, teaching focussed institution. The “Recommended Reads” posts are awesome!

  1. Tenure, She Wrote

A fairly new blog that covers a wide array of topics in frank and honest voices from multiple contributors.

  1. Isis the Scientist

This was one of the first blogs that I read that really spoke to me as a woman in science. Dr. Isis tells it like it is, but offers effective strategies for real world scenarios.

What blogs do you like to read as a scientist? Leave links 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!

Describing Social Media Activities in Promotion Packages

This past summer I spent a great deal of time in July and August putting together my tenure package. My view of tenure packages are that they are very individualized documents and this made it challenging to put the document together. It was also very rewarding when I completed the process and was a great opportunity for self-reflection. Recently, both Terry McGlynn and Jeremy Fox have discussed how they have handled their blogging activities in promotion packages. When I was putting my tenure package together it was clear that biologists who study ecology and/or evolution seem to be much more social media savvy compared to biochemists and physiologists. I found little advice on including social media activities in tenure packages and what I did find was posted by scholars in social sciences and humanities. I thought that I’d offer my perspective as an early career scientist who decided to include my social media activities in my tenure package.

At my institution we are evaluated for tenure on the basis of scholarship, teaching, and service. I have been blogging and using Twitter for about 1 year and I wanted to capture these activities somewhere in my tenure package. I consider the attitudes of my colleagues and my institution to be progressive and felt that those who would be evaluating my tenure package would be amenable to hearing about how I was using social media as a scientist.

In November 2013 I attended a workshop that directly addressed the role that social media could play in increasing your scientific profile. At that time I had a Linkedin page and had a ResearchGate profile. I was making an effort to keep my lab webpage up to date. We have a Knowledge Mobilization Officer at my university and she convinced me that I should step up my game. My first step was to open a Twitter account. I had resisted doing this as I wasn’t sure what kind of value it would offer. In the past year I have found Twitter to be useful in the following ways:
1) It has helped me find other female early career researchers and allies online and has made me feel part of a broader community.
2) It has provided advice and guidance on how to navigate the tenure-track.
3) It has given me some great ideas for teaching and active learning exercises to try in the classroom.
4) It has made me more aware of the challenges facing various “outsiders” in science and the role that I can play in challenging and ending inequities.
5) It has allowed me to increase my blog readership.

For several months I had also been toying around with the idea of blogging about being a research scientist. I had already decided that I wasn’t going to blog directly about my specific research field, but that I had a lot that I wanted to say about the actual process of doing scientific research and the “unwritten rules” or “Hidden Curriculum” of being a biologist. My focus would be on transferrable skills and to look at science through the eyes of a female early researcher on the tenure-track.

In my tenure package I made an argument that part of my scholarship was devoted to issues involving women in science and the professionalization of scientists. In addition to my social media activities, I’ve also been offering workshops on these topics as a post-doc and faculty member at my institutions and national conferences. While it is not my primary research focus, it is very much a large part of my scholarly identity and that is the case that I presented in my tenure package. The workshops and presentations at scholarly conferences served as quantifiable data that I could use to support my argument. I also used altmetrics such as the number of blog and Twitter posts, number of page views, visitors from various countries, number of retweets of my tweets, etc. as data to support my impact through my blogging activities. I also included hard copies of each of my blog posts in my tenure package.

I have been blogging for 1 year and have really enjoyed it so far. I have been approached by several graduate students, post-docs, and faculty who have told me that they read my blog and find it useful or interesting. That is very satisfying to hear and demonstrates that I have something valuable to add to the scientific enterprise and online conversations.

Are you unintentionally writing biased reference letters for your female trainees?

While it can be argued that acts of outright sexism have decreased in the academy, acts of underground, unconscious, and unintentional sexist behaviour are rampant. We unfortunately have plenty of examples covered in the popular media of such behaviour that we can point to in the past several months alone.

A few years ago I heard about a study that indicated that male and female researchers exhibited unconscious negative bias when writing reference letters for female trainees. At the time I was concerned because I had just come back from a 9 month maternity leave after my son was born. Years later, I took a second maternity leave after the birth of my daughter. Was it possible that my reference letter writers, in an effort to be helpful, could actually be harming my chances of succeeding in academia?

A few days ago Natalie Samson wrote a great article for University Affairs that brought this issue back into my consciousness. In that article she confirmed that the Canada Research Chairs program is now including explicit guidance to letter writers on how to ensure that unconscious bias does not enter into their reference letters written for female nominees. Natalie Samson outlines quite effectively why the program has decided that these guidelines are necessary for letter writers.

Let’s take a look at some of the CRC recommendations for letter writers. There are two sub- sections in the “Guidelines and Best Practices for Reference Letter Writers” section that are pertinent. One is entitled “Best Practices” and the other is called “Limiting Unconscious Bias”. Several are really interesting.
For example, letter writers are warned against being “unduly personal” and to avoid using the applicant’s first name. Most of the letters that I write are for undergraduate students and in my introductory paragraphs I list the student’s full name (e.g. Ms. Jane Doe or Mr. John Doe) and then refer to them as Jane or John throughout the rest of my letter. I have yet to write a reference letter for a post-doc or colleague and in that case I think that I’ll now refer to them as Dr. Doe given this advice.

Another example that I would hope would be painfully obvious to everyone is to comment only on information that is relevant to the position and to “not include information related to ethnicity, age, hobbies, marital status, religion, etc.” The fact that this is included in the guidelines indicates that some letter writers have done this in the past.

The third great piece of advice is to avoid “revealing personal information about the nominee”. This is a fine line to walk and you need to consider carefully whether introducing particular pieces of information will actually be relevant or helpful for the candidate. The example that the guidelines give is mentioning “circumstances where health issues or family responsibilities have led to career interruptions.” Is it appropriate to mention your graduate student’s maternity/parental leave? Are you mentioning Jane’s maternity leave in the context of impacting her productivity? Would you also mention the fact that John being a new father impacted his productivity? Is it your place to disclose your student’s cancer treatment, a disability, elder care issues? I would argue that you should explicitly talk about those issues with your trainee prior to writing the letter and ask them how they would prefer that you handle it. I would argue that this would be the only context where talking about a student’s personal life is potentially relevant enough to include in your letter and that you should do so only after asking their permission.

What do we do as letter writers that is a disservice to our female trainees? According to the CRC Guidelines page, the letters we write for women are more likely to:
• be shorter in length and incomplete;
• include gendered terms (e.g., woman, lady, mother, wife);
• include fewer ‘standout’ adjectives (e.g., excellent, outstanding etc.);
• include ‘doubt raisers’ (negative language, hedges, unexplained comments, faint praise and irrelevancies);
• focus on interpersonal attributes versus research skills/achievements (e.g., kindness, compassionate etc.); and
• include personal information that was not relevant to the position.

Three effective ways to prevent this are to:
• Avoid using stereotypical adjectives when describing character and skills, especially when providing a letter for a woman (e.g., avoid words like nice, kind, agreeable, sympathetic, compassionate, selfless, giving, caring, warm, nurturing, maternal, etc.).
• Consider using ‘stand-out’ adjectives for both men and women, where appropriate (e.g., superb, excellent, outstanding, confident, successful, ambitious, knowledgeable, intellectual etc.).
• Consider whether your letter unintentionally includes gaps, or doubt-raising, negative or unexplained statements (e.g., ‘might make an excellent leader’ versus ‘is an established leader’).

These are great recommendations and should be required reading for any faculty members who are writing reference letters for their students and trainees. They have made me rethink several practices that I use in crafting my reference letters and have identified some things that I need to stop doing.

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.

The Hidden Curriculum: Sexist Shirts have no place in Science (or anywhere else for that matter)

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the hidden curriculum in university science departments. This is the idea that what and how we teach our students imparts information in addition to the content that we are delivering.
My parents both completed high school and then directly entered the workforce. I was the first person in my immediate family to go to university. As an undergraduate student I spent a significant amount of time working out the expectations that faculty members had and how that translated into the marks that I earned in my courses. When I started doing a fourth year research thesis in the lab I discovered that I had a new bunch of expectations that I first had to figure out before I could even dream about meeting or exceeding them. I am not talking here about learning content or scientific concepts; I am talking about uncovering the unvoiced and not obvious rules of how to be a successful scientist. This professionalization process is fraught with challenge and danger for many of us. In some cases it is because our very presence in the academy challenges what was formerly the status quo. We will therefore find it difficult to plug in to a network of people who can help us to navigate what are to us uncharted waters. I often found it difficult to know what questions I should even be asking, let alone how to go about finding the answers. As educators it is well worth asking ourselves not only what content we are delivering, but whether we are intentionally or unintentionally delivering other messages as well.

As a topical example, a cool topic in today’s news is the Rosetta mission which represents a significant scientific achievement. This represents the first time that a probe has been landed on a comet. A series of YouTube videos are available on the topic. One of these is produced by Nature. It’s an exciting news story and is certainly cause for celebration as it’s been 10 years in the making. The money shot in the video pertaining to the hidden curriculum starts at 1 minute 24 seconds. This is when the interviewer starts talking to Matt Taylor who is a Rosetta Project Scientist. At first it’s kind of cool because Matt is showing off his awesome tattoo of the landing module and Rosetta. That’s pretty awesome because that tells me that scientists are just like anybody else and we can have tattoos and be successful and gainfully employed. Unfortunately, his shirt sends another message. I can’t listen to his content (what I’m guessing he’s trying to teach me) because I’m too blindsided by the other message he’s delivering. His sexist attire that is objectifying women tells me that I wouldn’t be welcomed as a member of his team or that I wouldn’t be taken seriously or respected.

I don’t need a Rosetta stone to translate that message, it’s coming through loud and clear.