Live, work, be passionate

While eating my morning toast (with saskatoon jam!) and tea I ran into what seems to be a perennial conversation on science Twitter. Specifically: how much time should a student put into their research and related studies and how much into the rest of their lives? This is a good question, and there are at least as many answers are there are practitioners, so the best I can do is present my own answer as it relates to my life and, thus to some large extent, what I hope for my own students.

My situation as a graduate student was quite simple compared to some students, although I also expect fairly typical of many. I was single and also childless. I was living a substantial distance from my known support group of family and friends with whom I grew up. I had a great supervisor who cared about my life and my progress. I was generally living close to the poverty line (particularly living in the Vancouver area, which even then was not cheap). And I wanted to finish well and in a reasonably timely manner.

I certainly realize that the “single and also childless” part made, and makes, a huge difference. Speaking from that perspective, I fully know that it meant that I had way more time to devote to my studies as there was no one waiting for me back home or relying on me for a portion of income or for emotional or other support. That said, neither was there anyone built into my life who could act as a support – emotional, financial, etc. – when I needed it. And that latter fact amplified the situation of being quite suddenly thrust into a new context where my main contact with family and long-term friends was via the phone, email, or occasional visits back home when I could scrape up the money for a plane ticket.

There were a number of times in my graduate studies where I felt discouraged and alone. Science is like that; those times never really end for any of us. But even though I have somewhat introverted tendencies, I also knew that I would need support in my new home. Building a network of friends both at my university and beyond was vital. I cannot overemphasize how important those people were to me at the time, and remain to me today a decade-and-a-half later. I can’t imagine having made it through graduate school, with my passion and general sanity intact, without my network. I am forever grateful to them.

I’m also extremely grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor. He knew how to push me when I needed a push, but he also was cognizant of when I needed a break or a pep talk. He set a good example by being at school at a reasonable time in the morning and going home to his family around dinner hour most days. He took holidays with his wife during the summer. When field season came along he often worked longer hours when needed and expected the same from us, but those long days were not the year-round norm. He understood life and let me live it.

The cycle that he presented to me (and I assume other students in his lab from my observations of my “sisters and brothers”) was one that I attempt to emulate to this day in my work-life-passion balance. He loved what he did and worked hard at it when it was time to do so, but he also put a boundary around that work for other aspects of his life. In the same way I loved my studies then, as I do now, and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone with focus and care when it was time to work on my research, coursework, TA-ing, or thesis writing. And, with each of those, after I had accomplished what felt like a good solid chunk in a given day, I knew that I could step away for time alone or with friends.

Science is, I believe, best done in that slow and somewhat plodding way. Last-minute bursts often are disastrous because they do not give the burst-worker the time to contemplate and consolidate during and after each step.

My Ph.D. studies had a circannual rhythm that influenced a varied circadian rhythm. My year began just before Douglas-fir beetles began flying near to Lytton, BC, sometime around mid-April. This was followed up by moving those traps to capture spruce beetles and then western balsam bark beetles elsewhere in the province in May and June. Then the traps went to Princeton, BC, to capture mountain pine beetles from mid-July to about mid-August. And I ended the field season trapping pine engravers, usually in or near those mountain pine beetle stands, until about mid- to late-September. During that April-to-September period my life was consumed with my field work. I know that I missed out on a lot of the summer fun activities around Vancouver that many of my friends took part in. But I also saw some beautiful parts of the province and had many memorable days in the field enjoying the warmth and smell of a sunny summer forest. I still can close my eyes and put myself back into some of my field sites in mid-August form.

Once the traps were all back safely stored for the year, I began to sort trap catches. That, as anyone who does it knows, is no small task. I worked with five species of bark beetles and conducted two to five replicated (12 to 15 replicates of usually five or more treatments) experiments with each of them each year. This meant sorting through hundreds of trap catches under a microscope each “off season” with the goal of collecting and analyzing all of those data before field season began again the next spring. Sorting trap catches, as anyone who has done it knows, is not something done in a flurry of a last-minute overnighter. It is a contemplative process that requires a consistent effort over weeks and months. It is perhaps this practice in my sub-field of science that has helped to influence my overall life work patterns of slow-but-steady. Or perhaps my personality influenced my choice of sub-field. Or perhaps there’s a useful feedback between the two. I’m not sure how that works, but it does.

During the contemplative work of sorting, my mind would also wander to my upcoming plans. And my network of graduate student friends and my supervisor were there to talk about my ideas so that by about January of the following year I was able to start the process of planning field sites, ordering pheromone baits, fixing traps, and generally planning out the next year of field work. In April the process started again. During this entire yearly cycle my circadian rhythms would shift from necessarily rather long days in the field in the spring and summer to what one might consider an approximately normal eight-hour day in the autumn and winter. There is, after all, only so much time that a pair of eyes can stare into a microscope on a daily basis, both physiologically and mentally. I tried to do my best (with varying success) to listen what my body and mind were telling me.

Overall there was an ebb and flow to to my graduate studies, because of the field work, that I know from later experience can get lost if the research is all lab all the time. But is it possible to recognize, and perhaps amplify, the more subtle ebb and flow of purely lab-based research? Perhaps some of the circannual rhythmic aspects disappear, but certainly the circadian aspects can remain. Moving into the role of a PI over the past decade I certainly know that there are circannual rhythms and that those influence my daily rhythms across the year.

Ultimately this whole discussion really points to one undeniable fact:

Graduate school really doesn’t start with graduate school. And a career in science doesn’t begin they day that you walk into your first job post-graduation.

Unlike professional school (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) or a number of undergraduate degrees (education, nursing, engineering, etc.), there is no likely predefined path awaiting a student at the end of graduate school. When (or if) you do land a job related to your field of study it will likely be reasonably well-compensated, but certainly not at the level of some of the professions mentioned in the previous sentence. In other words, the pay will be fine, but a large part of your “pay” also relates to the fact that you are doing something that you love. So you need to love it. You need to be passionate about it.

But you can’t start graduate school expecting to fall in love with science. You need to love it before you do it, and that means figuring out if you love it before you enroll. As an undergraduate I worked in a lab for a few years in a rather unrelated field to what I do today. I ended my degree by taking a field-based course to see what that was like. I attended as many departmental seminars at my undergraduate institution that I could fit into my study and exam schedule. By the time that I got to the stage of looking for a graduate school I had a reasonable idea of topics that I might like to study, and I knew that this was something that I was passionate about.

This gets me to my final point about how to balance time as a student (and, I would argue, as a PI). In the discussion on Twitter I tweeted that:

I stand by that statement. If you are not heading into STEM graduate school with a passion for science – instead merely merely “doing” graduate school as the next seemingly required step in life – your studies (or job) will be a disappointment even if you finish the task and cross the stage. But if during the course of your studies (or job) the passion is lost due to the pressure of a poor work-life balance, then the outcome is sure to be similarly disappointing.

My hope for students in my lab, and for myself, is that we enter our work with passion and we leave it to the next step with enhanced passion. I know that along the way there are dark periods. I have experienced them both during graduate school (ask me about the second year of my Ph.D. sometime) and during my subsequent career (the UNBC faculty strike last year was one such moment, and there have been others). I am thankful that during those times I have had a network of family, friends, and other social helps that have seen me through. As a PI I work to do my level best to help students to maintain their passion, to celebrate their success, and to be understanding and to provide help as possible during their dark times. (As a professor I hope for the similar treatment from my administration for my students and for me, although I suppose that’s a topic for another blog post some day.)

I am certainly thankful for the excitement of discovery that this career has given me, despite the more difficult times. Those moments of discovery, made by ourselves or others, should be why we ultimately headed down this path to research, teaching, and service to society in the first place. It is what continues to drive my passion and, I hope, yours.

Of dictionaries, buttercups, and time

Perhaps it’s because I live in a small city that is variegated with forests and that is surrounded for hundreds or thousands of kilometers in each direction with wilderness.

Perhaps it’s because my own kids are fortunate enough – in this increasingly technology-cloistered time – to be able to spend large chunks of time outdoors, often with minimal adult supervision.

Perhaps it’s because I work at an institution whose founding vision was towards the natural world around us; and with immediate colleagues who all spend a great deal of their research time in the outdoors.

Perhaps it’s because I work in a field where my closest research colleagues nearby and abroad conduct much of their work in forests, fens, and farmyards.

Perhaps it’s because many of the scientists who have influenced me most – past and present – approach their craft with a view to nature in its full and complex glory.

Just look at my personal Twitter community and you will find entomologists, ecologists, zoologists, botanists, microbiologists, paleontologists, archeologists, geologists, astronomers… and the list goes on. These are all people who – while much of their work is necessarily indoors – cannot answer the questions that they ask of nature without also spending time in nature. And these are a partially representative sample of the people who have influenced me.

So I think that I am often a bit blind to the reality of much of the world where increasing detachment from nature is commonplace. A world where, to quote T.S. Eliot, we are all becoming more and more “distracted from distraction by distraction.” It’s pretty easy, but not excusable, in my situation to forget that the larger culture beyond my family, colleagues, and vocation is changing in ways that bode longterm ill.

This – perhaps subconsciously willful or wishful or wistful? – blindness on my part hit home a month or two ago when I bumped into this article by Robert MacFarlane in which he describes and eloquently comments on the removal of a variety of “nature” words from the Oxford Junior Dictionary. Some of those words are:

…acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow.

New words have taken their place – words that are corporate-economic, screen-driven, and solitary-making.

(As an aside, I deeply shudder that “committee” is among those replacement words. Please, let children grow up without that abomination infesting them until they’re at least in high school.)

The reality, of course, is that removal of a few words by a dictionary is not the cause of the problem, it is merely a symptom. Dictionaries change over time, and they change in a way that reflects the culture in which they exist. If new words emerge and come into common usage, they may show up in a dictionary. If words become unused, they may disappear from the pages or at least be marked as archaic. So what do the recent changes to the Oxford Junior Dictionary mean? I think it’s fair to say that it means that school-aged children – the target audience of this dictionary – aren’t holding buttercups under chins. They aren’t catching amphibians. They aren’t listening to birds. They aren’t playing games among tangles of willows. They are, instead, being influenced toward corporatized indoor loneliness instead of towards a corporate outdoor solitude.

This is is not just happening to the younger generation. If each of us were honest with ourselves, I expect that many – most? all? – of us would also see a shift in our own behavior in fairly recent years. This shift is happening at a time when the conservation crisis is more dire than ever. I don’t imagine that the co-occurrence of detachment and mounting environmental crisis is merely a coincidence. A detached and consumer-driven culture is by definition concerned with distracted consuming, not mindful conserving. How could rampant consumerism, then, ever contribute to conservation of the uncommodifiable natural world? Why should we expect a commercialized, buy-and-dispose attitude to instill exuberant appreciation of nature in its citizens, young and old?

As my former Ph.D. supervisor often says (I’m paraphrasing here, and he may be quoting someone else, but I’m not aware of who that would be):

Nature always answers your question, but you need to know what your question is or you will misinterpret the answer.

My worry is that most of the people who we rub shoulders with each day are less and less equipped to even recognize that nature is speaking to us, let alone to know how to ask the correct questions. So I, along with others, interpret the unfortunate nature-stripping of the Oxford Junior Dictionary as a bellwether and a challenge. The challenge for those of us who are concerned with conservation is to step beyond our small communities, which are not representative of the rest of society, and to incrementally bring a conservation mindset to our own family, friends, and neighbors.

Our shifting culture is a reality, and it would be magical thinking to insist that things are going to change anytime soon, or ever. A few in our concerned community have larger megaphones than others, and we need to encourage and help them to get the word out. But nothing beats the influence that each of us has on our immediate community, and it is there where most of us can work effectively.


Persuasiveness ∝ (Closeness of a trusted relationship)(Efficacy of the message)

then either factor in the equation can work in our favor.

We should each do our best with efficacy, of course. But we can also take comfort in the fact that however effective our message is, its impact is going to be multiplied by by our relationships. In other words, don’t worry about how loud your megaphone is. Whispering to a close friend still has more impact than shouting in a crowded room of near-strangers.


Time spent in relationship is a factor in the development of close trust in a relationship.

Practice is a factor in increasing the efficacy of a message, and time is a factor in practice.

So one can argue that time is a factor in persuasiveness. If that is the case, then it behooves us to dispense with looking for insta-fixes and instead buck the culture of the here-and-now for approaches in which we take time deeply into consideration.

Conservation basic training

I’m always a good several months behind in reading my National Geographic subscription. Recently I was working my way through the August 2014 issue and got to a fantastic article (I can’t remember very many National Geographic articles that aren’t fantastic) about Franz Josef Land – an isolated archipelago in Russia’s region of the Arctic Circle.

I enjoyed the entire article, of course. But a particular quote that caught me quite off guard and has caused me to ruminate for the past few days. Digesting that glossy cellulose can be difficult for gut microbes. Here’s what I read:

(National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Enric Sala) was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, teaching grad students about food webs and marine conservation but dissatisfied with his contribution to the world. “I saw myself as refining the obituary of nature, with increased precision,” he tells me during a conversation aboard the Polaris. His distress at the continuing trends of ecosystem degradation and species loss, in marine as well as terrestrial realms, led him out of academia. “I wanted to try to fix the problem,” he says. So in 2005 he assembled a SWAT team of scientists, including experts on marine microbes, algae, invertebrates, and fish, and sailed for the northern Line Islands, a remote cluster of coral outcrops in the Pacific about a thousand nautical miles south of Hawaii.

Oftentimes there is a disconnect somewhere between what a person thinks, what they say, what a journalist thinks they said, what an editor decides, and what ends up being printed on paper. I’ve experienced that, as has anyone who has been interviewed by the media for just about anything. So I’ll give Dr. Sala the benefit of the doubt here, but will comment on the way that this has been presented by National Geographic.

The implication in this clip of text, intentional or not, is that the job of teaching biology and natural history is task that does not have important conservation implications. I beg to differ.

In fact, I would argue that teaching is at least as important as data collection. Yes, there are the more obvious conservation roles that are more easily noticed than a professor in front of a lecture hall or guiding a group in the field or the lab. These include conservation officers, engaged politicians, park rangers, environment/agriculture/forestry/parks ministry employees, thoughtful farmers and foresters, academic/industry/government scientists, environmental consultants, NGO employees, public health nurses and physicians, and National Geographic Explorers-in-Residence. Those individuals are analogous to the soldiers fighting the battle on the front lines. But, as with any army, those front line soldiers would not do well if they were just dumped in front of the enemy with a loaded rifle and a “good luck.”

Winning battles, and ultimately winning a war, requires that soldiers be trained. Trained to operate independently. Trained to work in teams. Trained to understand the terrain. Trained to work with the equipment. Trained to get results. Academic teaching done correctly and enthusiastically – and with a focus on natural history and conservation – is a vital part of the basic training that conservation professions require in order for efficacy. Dr. Sala is undoubtedly the engaged conservationist and excellent scientist that he is in some very large part due to that basic training in an academic setting.

Beyond that, those of us who collect and synthesize data have not done our jobs completely if we do not also bring those results and their implications to a wider scientific and lay public. By participating in this National Geographic feature (indeed, by working for National Geographic) Dr. Sala has simply exchanged his teaching role from a classroom to the pages of a magazine. When we conduct research and then present it at a conference, in a scientific paper, in a classroom or field course, in a textbook, in a magazine, or on a radio or television program, we are teaching. Teaching, in whatever context, goes hand-in-hand with the scientific endeavor. I am taught when I read a colleague’s paper, even if I am reading her paper decades after she wrote it. She wrote it to teach me and others about phenomena that she had observed. When I take what I have learned from her study into the classroom and present it well, my students, I would hope, are better off for it and are better prepared as engaged conservationists as they prepare to work to protect habitats, species, ecosystems, and societies.

There is no doubt that the work of conservation in the face of massive, global anthropogenic influence is a vital and growing concern. Looking at the data, it sure seems that we are too often losing important battles. Dr. Sala is correct to be concerned about being caught up in “…refining the obituary of nature…” But the best way to stop writing that obituary is to bring the wonder and amazement and necessity of our natural world into the metaphorical “classroom” by bringing relevant research results (our own and those of others) to students. This is one of the best ways to create authentic, engaged, and active young conservationists who will fill traditional conservation roles or who will be conservation vocationists and ambassadors in whatever profession they ultimately choose.

Teaching is the hard and often unnoticed basic training work of conservation. And that’s why I choose to do it.

Email paralysis?

Science can not operate in a vacuum for very long, and substantial scientific progress is only possible when communication between scientists is efficient and effective. This has always been the case – scientists have always communicated in person at conferences and across distances through letters. Recently, of course, the rate of information exchange has increased exponentially compared to our Victorian-era forebears. Years from now when our chapter of scientific history is written, I am positive that historians will attribute the current rate of scientific advance to exceptional communication technologies.

Email, of course, will play no small part in that explanation. Email has changed a great deal since the days of ELM and PINE when fewer people were using it and getting a message in our inbox was sometimes even a novelty. Today inboxes overflow and explode with messages ranging from annoying spam, to trivial updates and newsletters, to urgent messages that need rapid attention. Email is a great technology, but like any technology it’s a double-edged sword. You need to control it, or it will control you.

Over the years I have fought to avoid being controlled by email and I think that I have generally won that battle. I am by no means successful all the time, and what follows is no email panacea. But I thought that I’d share a few of my methods that ensure that lines of communication flow well through my office while keeping me from pulling my hair out and declaring email bankruptcy.

Consolidate – Remember when you had one email address and that was enough? These days many of us have several email addresses ranging from professional to personal to addresses associated with some of our professional or other tasks (e.g. if you’re a journal editor, you may have a journal-specific email address). I have found that by sending all of my email to one location – I use Gmail for this – I reduce time flipping between accounts and I catch important emails sent to my secondary accounts more rapidly.

Control the pace of the game – Email is like tennis or – for Canadians – like hockey. You need to take control of the game and keep it moving at a pace that suits you. If you find that you are being overwhelmed with a torrent of emails, you need to slow the game down. Three tricks that I use (and should use more often) when I start to feel buried are: (1) only looking at my email at set times in the day; (2) using a tool like Inbox Pause that keep you from seeing email until you want to see it; and (3) not necessarily replying immediately to a message if I think that by doing so it will just result in a volley of back-and-forths.

Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list – This is always a major temptation. But in the end it just makes for a huge list of messages and tasks lost in the shuffle. Instead, have an actual to-do list in a notebook on your desk (and then archive the email), or use a system like Baydin’s Boomerang that sends messages away and then returns them when you need to act on them.

Filter – If you get update emails from your organization, or newsletters from various entities, they can quickly clog of your inbox. They are generally not the sort of thing that you need to read immediately. So use your email program to apply a filter to them and get them out of your inbox, and then take a look at that folder every now and then as you see fit.

Destroy spam – Most universities and other organizations catch some spam on the way in. However, their nets are not always stringent enough for me. Gmail is great for ditching spam, catching all sorts of excess stuff. If you find you are getting too much spam in your inbox, talk to the IT folks at your organization and/or look for efficient spam filters that can be added on to your current system.

Unsubscribe – Speaking of filtering and spam, are all of those newsletters and other subscriptions coming into your inbox really necessary? How many of them to you actually read? How many of them did you really consent to in the first place? I have personally gone on major unsubscribe binges in the past, but ultimately things just begin to pile up again. Recently I have found a service called Unroll.Me that will capture mass emails and give you the options of keeping them coming to your inbox, unsubscribing, or putting them into a daily digest. This tool has, over the past few months, helped me to unsubscribe or “roll up” over 450 newsletters (etc.). Who knew that I had that much coming into my inbox? And I suspect that I’m pretty typical.

As scientists and educators we need to communicate with each other, with our students, and with many people and organizations. But the irony is that our tools can lead to a communicative paralysis that brings everything to a grinding halt. As I alluded to above, my suggestions are  no means a road map to utopia. But doing this has helped me to reduce my general email anxiety and has let me get tasks done when they need to be done. My hope is that some of these ideas might help you to continue to develop your own system and to allow for efficient and effective communication.

#sciencespark? Or #sciencefuel?

Recently my twitter feed has had a number of #sciencespark tweets roll through it – tweets in which people describe the moment(s) in which their love for science first clicked.

Frankly, I have had trouble identifying my own #sciencespark because as far back as I can remember, I’ve always had a fascination for nature. Perhaps one tweet of the many among that hashtag that I can identify most with is this:



…because, with some variation, that’s a reasonable summary of story as well.

Many of my childhood summer days were spent outside literally and metaphorically turning over rocks to see what was underneath, or trying out the latest gadget that I had cobbled together from Dr. Zed’s instructions in Owl Magazine. At one point I even attempted (unsuccessful) mark-and-recapture experiments with grasshoppers that I caught. Besides the fact that the overall population of grasshoppers during a typical Alberta summer likely overwhelmed my meagre releases, I’m sure that the black permanent felt marker that I used to color their forewings didn’t do my research – or the grasshoppers – any favors either.

I also kept more animals in the house than you can likely imagine. These included mice, rats, hamsters, gerbils, budgies, a cockatiel, canaries, a dove, cats at various times, tropical fish, goldfish, and even a very short stint with Mexican jumping beans. Usually my family’s house was home to several of these species at once. Of course I bred many of these creatures – or, rather, they just did they will do left to their own devices – resulting in lines of cages in our hallway. Gerbils produce a lot of babies when left unchecked, as it turns out.

Mom, if you’re reading this – and really, who else reads this blog anyhow? – thanks for putting up with that!

Throughout my young life there were so many so-called #sciencesparks that I’d be hard-pressed to name only one that sent me along this trajectory. So I think I’d prefer to call this process #sciencefuel, because a spark implies the lighting of something that is not on fire. Fuel implies the maintenance of an existing flame.

My family was one that encouraged curiosity and investigation. Like I said, my mom put up with rodent cage wood shavings all over the floor. My dad would encourage my science fair work and would help me to find materials for my various other projects. They aided and abetted one of my major hobbies – fly fishing – that also required natural history knowledge in the forms of entomology and limnology. And our family spent a lot of time outside in general – on my uncle’s farm; helping (or getting in the way of) my dad with his beekeeping hobby; or camping in some pretty amazing places like the redwood forests of California, Death Valley, Jasper, or the west coast of Vancouver Island.

These activities, and many others, represented ongoing additions of fuel to the innate fire if inquiry that I believe most kids naturally have in them. In other words, I suspect that for most people it takes more than a single moment to drive a passion for anything, including science. In the case of science it takes engaged adults, encouragement and opportunity to read widely, permission to just explore and make a mess, and good resources (e.g. books, magazines, museums, national parks, community programs, etc.). Kids who are provided with this #sciencefuel on a steady and continual basis will develop into inquisitive and broad-minded adults.

Of course, even with regularly dropping another log into the innate fire, not every kid is going to specifically become a scientist. But every kid who grows up in this atmosphere will become someone who is capable of – and who enjoys – making an honest inquiry into the things that truly interest them and into phenomena that they are tuned to observe around them. Ultimately, these are the kind of people that our world needs more of, particularly as we face myriad growing challenges.

So if you have children of your own, or know children, or have opportunities to take your science or other passion to children, make the most of it. Add some #sciencefuel to the fire.

I’m not Grandpa Simpson (although I may sound that way)

Pretty much every morning I check the Google News page, and I generally scroll pretty quickly to the science headlines. Today one of the big headlines was about a fascinating new PLOS ONE study that shows quite conclusively that insects from several orders detect and respond to changes in barometric pressure. Such behavioral reactions in insects make sense as pressure changes usually indicate important changes in the weather that could jeopardize an insect’s reproductive success.

My antennae (no pun intended) immediately popped up because my hazy memory seemed to recall something like this being studied in bark beetles quite some time back. A quick search brought up this 1978 paper. I then went back to the PLOS ONE paper, and thankfully found the authors had cited the older paper in their final reference. The 1978 paper itself cites several other studies dating as far back to 1955 that hint at this kind of phenomenon. My bet is that this general phenomenon was observed prior to 1955, and further digging would take us quite a distance into the past.

The new result is extremely cool, of course. Hopefully it goes some way to reviving an old idea for some new and fruitful study. I don’t fault the study authors for the general tone of the 24 hour news cycle hype that seems to suggest that this is a brand new idea. The media are like that, and once a story gets into the hands of a journalist it can take on a life of its own no matter how careful the interviewed scientist was to state the full case. I suspect that most reporters rarely closely read reference sections.

That said, this little episode started me thinking a bit – with help from a few of my Twitter friends – about how we do science and how much, or how little, we pay attention to the past. Interestingly Chris Buddle at McGill University wrote a very prescient blog post just today that provides a perfect example of what I’m talking about. Specifically, there are certain aspects of the way that science is currently done that cause us to rush forward into the future without paying enough attention to the past.

I can think of three reasons for this, and perhaps you can think of others:

1. The tyranny of high-speed novelty – This comes in at least two flavors, but they’re both mixed into the same underlying ice cream. First, science news, like other news, comes to us from all directions. University communications offices and journal PR departments are eager to capitalize on this for what amounts to free advertising. Although scientists who read these interesting accounts know that science, in general, moves at a modest pace at best, there is likely a subconscious tweak that says “hey, you need to move faster, everyone else is.”

Second, university tenure and promotion committees and granting agencies require ongoing productivity. This makes sense, of course. But the main measure of productivity is the peer reviewed paper. This means that there are likely many papers that escape into the wild from the lab or field before their results are fully mature. Contrast this to, for instance, Charles Darwin who spent years studying barnacles to the point where he wrote in a letter:

I am at work on the second vol. of the Cirripedia, of which creatures I am wonderfully tired: I hate a Barnacle as no man ever did before, not even a Sailor in a slow-sailing ship. My first vol. is out: the only part worth looking at is on the sexes of Ibla & Scalpellum; I hope by next summer to have done with my tedious work.

This type of longterm commitment to a study still happens today, but often in special circumstances. Besides the fact that getting funding for Darwin-style barnacle research these days would be woefully difficult, proposing to conduct such a long study with no predetermined timeline or outcome would sink any proposal.

So there are career pressures on one side that push scientists into grant-cycle-length (or shorter) studies, and there is the constant barrage of news stories and CSI-like shows on the other other side that give the impression to the public that science moves at a furious pace. Both together add up to at least some degree of myopia across the board.

2. Referencing software – In this case I’m talking about products like EndNote and RefWorks and others that are very useful, but also potentially damaging in the development of a good vision of the past. To this day I still do all of my reference work in papers that I write or edit without these tools. I have tried various software solutions in the past, but I have found that they tend to distance me from the literature and dull my ability to remember what has been done before.

When I physically type in a reference, or even copy-and-patse a citation from a previous paper and revise to fit the journal standard, it forces me to think about that paper and the foundation on which it was built. This often leads me down a reference rabbit trail that can, on occasion, help me to contemplate the topic in a deeper manner. If, on the other hand, I simply input “(Smith et al. 1997)” and the software does the rest, my brain just carries on with what it’s doing and doesn’t necessarily make any new connections. The writing process should inherently be a learning process, and by letting software do parts of the work for us, I fear that one part of that process is going by the wayside.

3. Online access – At this point I’m going to start to sound a bit like this guy, so please just roll your eyes for a moment and then hear me out. First, note that I think that the fact that much of the scientific literature in the world is now online is a great thing. Even better is the fact that a lot of it is either open access or is heading that way.

Now here’s the part where I will start to sound old. When I started my Ph.D. in 1995, the internet as we know it today had just barely gotten off of the ground. Prior to that I had been using things like GOPHER, ELM, and PINE… many of you probably have no clue what I’m even talking about here. The long and short of it was that virtually all scholarly outputs were on paper in the library. When I was researching a subject, I would go to the library, use an index based on a mainframe (or even extensive tomes of the paper version of Biological Abstracts), and then get a rolling cart that I’d push around the library. My cart and I would head through the stacks, picking up volumes along the way. Then I’d go to the central photocopying area to copy the articles that I wanted to read. Later, back at my desk or lab bench I’d read the articles and circle any references that I needed in order to delve back further into the literature. Then I’d make my way back to the library and restart the process. Chasing references was a process that took time and allowed for thought.

Today I fire up my web browser, point it at Google Scholar, do a few quick searches, and then I’m off to the races. If, while I’m reading a paper, I see a reference that interests me, there’s usually a hyperlink there to take me right to that paper. Within minutes my virtual desktop can be full of PDFs, enough to keep me busy reading for weeks. Reference chasing now takes no time at all.

The problem with the old process was that it was painfully slow and labor intensive. The problem with the new process is that those silicon brains are so fast that they don’t allow time for our human brains to stop to really think. In 1998, when I was standing by the photocopier, I was also mulling over the papers that were dropping into the copier tray. The process forced the time to think on me because I really couldn’t go anywhere else while the copier was doing its job or while I was wandering through the stacks. In 2013 the process should provide me with more time to think because it is a lot faster. But that extra time does not necessarily get filled with contemplation unless I make it so. And there are many pressures – and temptations – that all of us face that can easily reduce that technologically found time into lost time in no time.

It should also be noted that while there used to be a “demographic” gap in the papers that were online, most journals have now archived almost their entire collection (e.g., a shameless plug for a fine journal here). This is to our benefit, if we take advantage of it.


So what can be done about this? There is not much that we can immediately do about media, administration, granting agency, or public expectations and perception because these are all an ingrained part of the current culture. Cultural shifts take time.

The challenge to scientists, then, is to work to change that culture, one researcher and one act at a time. I am not blaming referencing software or online journals. Far from it. Both are vital parts of the process in our era, and both bring benefits that were hardly imagined a couple of decades ago. But with this technology comes a responsibility to ensure that we are doing things like undertaking longterm studies; reading deeply into the literature; spending time contemplating instead of getting caught up in a Red Queen scenario; making sure that both our students and ourselves understand and explore the deep foundations of current breakthroughs; and doing our level best to get it across to the media that our results are only possible because of work that has been done by others.

We owe it to our students, to the public, to our scientific “ancestors,” to our current colleagues, and to ourselves.

First week… and beyond

The quiet halls of a university summer have metamorphosed – suddenly, as they always do – into the exciting clamor of the first week of classes. It is great to see so many students back for another year of learning. And, of course, it’s great to welcome new students to our campus for what will be, for many of them, their first university experience.

So, in the spirit of welcoming new students (and old) to the excitement of university education, here are a few tips that might be useful in the year (and years) ahead. Please feel free to add other ideas in the comments section below.

  • It may sound cliche, but you are about to embark on what will likely be some of the most amazing years of your life… if you choose to make them so. You will be in daily contact with professors who love (“obsession” is likely not even a strong enough word in most cases) their subject matter. These people will show you things about the world around you that are, simply put, mind-blowing. Take full advantage of their expertise and excitement about the subject matter.
  • Take classes on topics that you appreciate. And learn to appreciate the classes that you may not think that you will find particularly appealing at the outset. As per the “mind-blowing” statement above, even the seemingly driest material reveals astounding details when examined closely. Take the time and make the effort to see, hear, touch, and taste the subject matter and you will understand what I mean.
  • There are two main ways to get a good mark in a class. One is to work hard, communicate with your professors and TAs, and turn in high quality work on time. The second one is to do all of those things while also appreciating and deeply exploring what you’re learning. The second way is more fulfilling and will likely get you a better mark than the first way. Follow the second way.
  • No class is included in your degree progression or the university calendar “just because.” Classes are all there for a reason and their inclusion has been carefully considered. Hopefully the professor articulates that reason. If he or she does not, ask.
  • Look for linkages between courses that you are taking, even courses that seem completely dissimilar. Again, feel free to ask your professor how he or she sees their course linking to other topics that interest you. And listen to the professor during class time. Chances are she will highlight some of those linkages for you.
  • At this point it’s probably best to reiterate a developing theme in these points: talk to your professors. Ask relevant questions about the course material. They won’t know every answer. Who does? But they should be able to point you in the right direction to determine the answer yourself. Most professors hear from most of their students in the day before the exam and in the week after an exam is handed back. That’s fair, of course. But it gets tedious. On the other hand, thinking about interesting questions and having discussions with interested students never gets tedious. These discussions are a valuable part of university life, if you choose to make them so.
  • Not all questions are answerable. And not all answerable questions are answered. And not all answers are correct. Those edges of our knowledge are where things get fun. Find those edges and explore them.
  • Budget, both your time and your money. Specifically in terms of time, you can’t do everything, even though there are so many cool things to do. Prioritize.
  • Find things to do, clubs to join, causes to support. As per the point above, budget your time, but don’t neglect these things. They are potentially as much part of your learning experience here as are your classes, labs, and tutorials.
  • Buy the text used. Even if the text has gone to a new edition, the old edition is probably good enough. (Disclaimer: check with your professor first in terms of editions, but that rule should hold at least 90% of the time.)
  • Or, buy the electronic “rental” version of the text if one is available. You may think that you’ll consult the textbook later on in life, but you probably won’t. And if you find that you do need it, there will be plenty of extremely cheap used copies available shortly. See “budget your money,” above.
  • Don’t ask “is this going to be on the exam?” because it likely will be. Especially if you ask. Rather, ask for further clarification on topics that seem highly complex.
  • Find a support group. While the first week of classes after a relaxing summer is generally full of positive energy, things can seem much different in the dark days of exam-ridden and hard-frozen February. You will need the support – and you will need to provide support as well – of family, friends, and like-minded individuals at those times. Use your early days to develop that network. And continue to cultivate that network as you progress in your degree.
  • Campuses have specific resources (offices, personnel, etc.) to help you address issues that you are having. Don’t suffer alone if you are having a problem with a course, a person, your personal life, or whatever. Help is available.
  • Call home. Frequently.
  • Take care of your whole self… mind, body, and spirit. Don’t neglect one or the other.
  • Talk to your academic advisor(s) on a regular basis to ensure that you are on the right path toward graduation.
  • Find electives that you’ll enjoy and learn from, not just ones that all of your friends are taking because the course has a reputation for an “easy A.” Branch out from your major to unexpected areas, and then look for linkages to what you’ve already learned. This is your best chance in life to do this. Take full advantage of it.
  • Talk in class. I don’t mean “whisper to your neighbor.” Rather, ask relevant questions and participate in class discussions and activities.
  • While university grads typically find good jobs (unemployment rates for university grads are generally significantly lower than for non-grads), it’s hard to predict today what the job market will be like in four years. It’s also hard to predict what you will find at university that will excite you. By all means, go into your degree with a plan for a road ahead. But be aware that the map may change, or you may take a new route, as the world changes and as you discover new things.

Again, welcome to university. Learn, interact, have fun, and prepare to be amazed at what you’re going to discover.

(Addendum: I just noticed that @CMBuddle has also posted a really great list of 12 tips for undergraduate students.)


About a week ago, I fired up Twitter in the evening to see what sort of interesting links my various contacts had posted during the day. As you would expect, due to my professional interests, I follow a fair number of academics ranging from undergraduates to graduate students to postdocs to professors. Many of them are scientists, and so I am usually able to find some good science reading in the evening as I wind down my day.

That evening was different, however, as I encountered a stream of #overlyhonestsyllabi-tagged tweets (mostly retweets, actually) in my feed.

I’m not going to analyze the phenomenon too deeply here, as others (e.g. here and here) have already done that very well. Rather, I’d like to sketch out my thoughts that evening, now that I’ve had a few days to let things percolate in my brain.

At first I was slightly amused. Some of the tweets were, indeed, funny in a ironic sort of way that tickled my Gen-X funny bone. But as I scrolled through the growing hashtag stream, I stopped feeling amused and began to understand that #overlyhonestsyllabi was becoming more of a “crasstag”  Or maybe even a bashtag. I began to feel more and more uneasy with each new tweet that appeared.

Then, burning through the hashfog, came this statement that suddenly crystalized my thoughts:

That was precisely it. Precisely.

It is vital to remember that the students in our classes are – in the vast majority – there because they appreciate the subject matter and want to learn more about it. Yes, there are always the minority that are only there for the grade, or because their parents made them, or…

Of course there are countless little stories – some humorous, some horrific – that accrue over the long semesters and long careers of teaching. But those stories represent the m-i-n-o-r-i-t-y of students. Given the fact that, these days, very few people are going to accumulate vast fame or immense fortune with a B.Sc. in biology (or most any other university degree), the fact is that most students are taking biology (or some other subject) because they have a burgeoning love for the subject matter.

Do you remember when you were at that same stage of life and were fascinated by the ants in your parents’ lawn, or by how a jet engine worked, or by Steinbeck’s genius? Do you remember that that was why you pursued the degree(s) that you did? Hopefully that fascination is still there and has grown and blossomed. And if it has (I won’t discuss what needs to happen if it hasn’t), then it is our job to cultivate that exact same seedling of fascination in our students.

I fully understand that most of the tweeters that evening were just having a bit of fun. But, unfortunately, it did not come across that way to the entire audience, as exemplified by the tweet above and a number of others that I read that evening as well.

Instead of careful cultivation it was, unfortunately, salting the fields.

So, here is my suggestion. As students return to classes and to the crisp-blue-sky promise of a new autumn semester, why not subvert the overall cynicism of #overlyhonestsyllabi to instead welcome them back to studying the subjects that they and you love so much.

I’ll start.


Also, please don’t get me wrong. As I said above, I am sure that most #overlyhonestsyllabi tweeters were just trying to have a bit of fun.

And, of course, there were some gems that I noticed here and there in the hashtag stream. For instance: