How can you go wrong with a gap year?

There are no years off from life, but maybe a break in a relentless path to a career is a good idea. It depends on what you want to get out of it. You might have been away from home too long and want to go back and watch your younger siblings shine in high school athletics. You might have a family member that needs a little care from you. You might want to learn your family recipes more carefully. There are lots of good reasons for going home for a year before continuing your education in graduate school, med school, or some other professional program.

On the other hand, you might want to stay at your university and finish up a research project, or be sure a community endeavor you started as a student flourishes. You might have very close friends that did not graduate yet that you want more time with. Some students stay in the city where they graduated for another year or two.

Visiting Ecuador after a gap year there.

Perhaps most exciting is the plan that takes you out of your country to explore another system. You might want to go live in Ecuador or Brazil or Kazakhstan, though you are likely to be limited to 3 month tourist visas unless you plan carefully.

More and more students are taking a year off before college, after college and before grad school or professional school. I think it should be a time for reflection, time for yourself and time to make a difference. It might allow you to focus on that important task of getting to know yourself better. It could be a period where you change your mind about your career path. We have so many options these days and different ones suit different people.

Whatever you do in your gap year, it is an important time to push your boundaries by learning something you are new to, a language, how to use a camera professionally, how to tutor needy students, or any of the myriad possibilities out there. Give yourself to something that matters, climate change, immigration, health care for the needy, education of many kinds. Find out what works for you. There are lots of sites with information for temporary positions. Texas A & M runs an excellent site for environmental positions. Browse the internet and you will find others, like this one. Some students spend several years helping out on field projects.

How can you go wrong with a gap year? I would say it is by doing something nearly exactly like what you think you might want to do for a career but without the pressure, without the advancement, and without the discovery. If you take such a position at the end of the year you may not have grown. You may not know yourself any better. You may just be in a predictable rut.

This may not be fair, but one example that seems to be a poor use of a gap year for someone thinking of medical school is to be a medical scribe. From what I have heard from students who do this in hopes of increasing their chances of getting into medical school, it is neither educational nor adventurous and may only show you the boring side of being a physician. It might even be a kind of exploitation of a bright young person. Why not instead go somewhere where you can help more, perhaps a health clinic in another country, or somewhere you can use your language skills to help people?

We don’t get gap years in life, though we do get sabbaticals in many jobs. So think hard about what you want to achieve. Keep a journal. If you want to learn family recipes or stories, write them down. If you care for a family member, learn their past. Have fun! But also remember there is nothing wrong with plunging right into the next step. I did, though none of my children did.

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Advising undergraduates: encourage them to get to know themselves

What do you really want to get out of a professor that does not know you at all but does know the curriculum, in my case, for the biology major and various specialties therein? Of course you want to be sure you are fulfilling the requirements. But that is technical and easy. We professors have so much more to offer. After all, we have figured out how to shine at a career we love. What I want for my students is for them to find a career they love. And that can only be done by slowing down and getting to know oneself, by paying attention to when spirits flag and when they soar.

I cajole my students to get to know themselves. I urge them to stop letting others make their decisions for them. So many want two majors and a minor if possible, so they have no freedom to choose left. Do they think there are points from heaven that an extra major confers? What if they took the plainest possible major and left the most possible room to explore? Many of them imagine they will take the decade of 80-hour weeks becoming a physician requires, postponing long into life the need to get to know themselves. But even for those headed to med school, an English major or a biology major and the requirements of med school leave plenty of room to explore.

An undergraduate being informally advised by a faculty member

Siri tells me that my university has an acceptance rate of 14% which means it is hard to get into. The students I see are therefore used to pleasing others, to doing well in classes, filling their schedules with extracurricular activities, and often putting themselves second in order to achieve. I suppose there is nothing wrong with this, but at some point students need to decide what they really want to do with their lives.

The well-lived life is one that makes a difference to others, to the environment, and to oneself. There are thousands of paths to doing that, paths our ancestors did not have as they struggled to wrench calories out of the soil or forest. So what one’s own path should be is not necessarily obvious. And it will not become any clearer by letting others decide what classes you should take. Of course classes are only one way to discover meaning, but it is the one that an advisor focuses on.

So what do I do? I give them a sheet that shows where they stand on progress towards the major. I look at what they plan to take. And then I ask them a few questions. I start with the famous Terry Gross question, the open-ended “Tell me about yourself.” It always surprises the students to hear that question and some struggle to answer. That question might lead to follow-up conversations.

I encourage them to have only one major unless their free choice accidentally results in another major. I encourage them to explore across the curriculum. I explicitly tell them that besides a major and doing well enough to take the next step that they want to take, their main job in college is to get to know themselves and until they do that everything else will be hard. They will not know how to make decisions. It is a job no one else can do for them.

I ask if they are in a research lab and a lot of them are. If they are not, I encourage even second year students to find a research home. I look at their schedule to see if they have blocks of time suitable for research. I tell them how to communicate with a possible research advisor. I encourage them if the lab is a good fit to stay in the same lab for years, choosing depth over breadth in the research experience. It is one of the best things a university has to offer..

Another way I encourage students to explore is with language. If they have a heritage language, I encourage them to study it, get to know it better, get to know the literature and more. If they are headed towards medicine, I encourage them to learn Spanish. The other top languages in the US besides English according to Siri are French, Chinese, Tagalog, and Vietnamese, but they trail Spanish. Yet so many of these young and bright students have already decided language is not for them, or it is too late. The ones most likely to be taking a language are students who already know two languages well.

So I don’t have much of an opinion as to whether you should take physics or organic chemistry this year, but I do know you have a lot of work to do understanding the person behind your eyes.

Posted in Advising undergraduates, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Did you join Mastodon yet?

I recently joined <a href="http://<a rel="me" href="">MastodonMastodon and there is this thing called verification and this is me doing it.

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Is there a book you want to write?

Writing a book is overwhelming to contemplate and enormously satisfying to complete. How did I find the time? First, it was a book I have been wanting to write for more than 20 years, so the time it took was a pleasure, mostly. I decided that I was writing a book as a side project and that my students should always come first.

I use a productivity app sometimes. On it I put the book for an hour a day. Every day. Some days I missed, but one hour felt like an appropriate goal if I did it every day. Some days, especially towards the rushed end, I did many more hours. I decided to put it there for every day because it is a side project, something fun I do, like cooking, or yoga, or hiking, so I did not feel guilty if I worked on the weekends.

Writing a book is really many different tasks, from reading about the subject matter to interviewing people to actually writing. And then there is editing. Even in a field you know well, there will be things you don’t know and want to learn.

The goal of my book is to bring the joy and the science of birds to all. I hope I achieved it. I chose birds and not the microbes, wasps, or bees I have actually worked on because I thought I could reach more people this way and still get across the same things, the love of nature, of being outside, and of learning about the natural world. More people dream of birds than dream of wasps, though I dream of both.

Here is more about my book in case you want to pre-order it!

Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard

A one-of-a-kind guide to birding locally that encourages readers to slow down and notice the spectacular birds all around them.

A Great Egret in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri

Many birders travel far and wide to popular birding destinations to catch sight of rare or “exotic” birds. In Slow Birding, evolutionary biologist Joan E. Strassmann introduces readers to the joys of birding right where they are.
In this inspiring guide to the art of slow birding, Strassmann tells colorful stories of the most common birds to be found in the United States—birds we often see but might not have considered deeply before. For example, northern cardinals thrive in the city, where they are free from predators. White brows on a male white-throated sparrow indicate that he is likely to be a philanderer. This essential guide to the fascinating world of common, everyday birds features:

  • detailed portraits of individual bird species and the scientists who have discovered and observed them
  • advice and guidance on what to look for when slow birding, so that you can uncover clues to the reasons behind specific bird behaviors
  • bird-focused activities that will open your eyes more to the fascinating world of birds

Slow Birding is the perfect guide for the birder looking to appreciate the beauty of the birds right in their own backyard, observing keenly how their behaviors change from day to day and season to season.



Barnes & Noble:


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What I learned from reading my book aloud

There is a difference between written and spoken language that is hard to define. I think there is less of a difference in English than in some languages, but it still exists. To make your writing clear, I think that the closer you can come to spoken English with your written English the better. Your writing will sound fresher, more engaging. It will be clearer, easier to follow. It will be more fun to read. You will use fewer extra words.

To understand this, it helps to read aloud regularly.

Paul making sure I don’t rustle or fidget audibly

Have you ever read aloud for an extended period? I have. As my father was fading and I was far away, isolated in the early days of Covid-19, I would read to him over Facetime or Zoom. I read him his own book, The Strassmanns: Science, Politics, and migration in turbulent times, 1798-1993. I read some adventure stories, first in English and later in his native German. I read the young adult book, Der Schatz auf Pagensand by Uwe Timm aloud. He seemed to enjoy it.

Last week I did a very different kind of reading aloud. I recorded my own forthcoming book for audio. It is called Slow Birding: The Art and Science of Enjoying the Birds in Your Own Backyard. This should have been easy, but it was not. I had to get it just right. I had both a sound engineer and a producer in my headphones, telling me when I had rustled, or when I had misspoken and so needed to repeat a sentence. I was armed with a throat-soothing tepid tea, water, and a mouth spray. I stood before a music stand with the text on an iPad and a big microphone backed by a foamy black box. I remembered to keep my chin up to sound less raspy.

Why should reading my own book be so hard? I guess it was hard because it mattered that I get it right. I wanted to read with expression, but found I could not keep that up. Instead I just tried to read the sentences as they were written, with appropriate cadence. That cadence was hard, particularly with long sentences. Where is the emphasis of the sentence? How do I balance the content and rhythm of the meaning? I read quickly and generally get sentences easily. But I want my writing to be accessible to everyone, including non-native speakers of English who may struggle with complex sentences. I wished my sentences were shorter. This is just a bit ironic, because it is advice I give my own students frequently.

My English teacher in high school had an opinion on sentence length. Burton A. Melnick at the International School of Geneva, Switzerland, said that we should write short sentences whenever possible. Short sentences were the best for simple thoughts. But then he told us we would be writing long sentences because we would have complex things to say. However, long sentences themselves do not make a simple idea complex. This worried me. In my heart I know I am a short sentence kind of thinker. I like to shake out an idea so that it can be told in a series of short, understandable sentences. Such a piece would be easy to read aloud.

I haven’t thought of Mr. Melnick, as we knew him, for a long time. But it turns out he has a Google Scholar page if you look for Burton A. Melnick, He also wrote a novel, available on Amazon. I bought it. He was an impressive teacher who did not talk down to high school seniors. It was whispered that he was ABD (all but dissertation) at Harvard. I see from a search he had a AB degree in 1962 from Harvard, so it might be true. I could tell you more of my time in English class in Geneva, but that is not so relevant here.

I was happy with my book I am relieved to report. But with the next one, I will think of how it will sound read aloud and make sure my sentences are not too long. I will think about how carefully I have laid out the arguments. I will treasure effective transitions. And I will hope to make it fun.

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Retraction with honor

On July 2, 2022, we retracted a paper we published last year in Evolution The reason I wanted to write this post is to explain what happened and how we dealt with it and thereby to help normalize honest retractions which should probably be more common. I’ll give a little detail on the experiment and then focus on the human side.

The experiment was an exciting one. We took several clones of the social amoeba we study, Dictyostelium discoideum, cured them of the bacteria that they carried symbiotically, and then let them proliferate through many generations isolated from their bacteria. We also took those same bacteria and let them proliferate on their own for many generations. If you evolve to make your partner worse when reintroduced, you would originally have been adapted to cooperate with them. And if you evolve to harm your partner less when reintroduced, you would originally have been adapted to exploit them. We feel it is a new approach using lab evolution to understand what originally happened in the wild.

We got a clear experimental response and published the paper. It was only later when we decided to sequence the lines to see what changed that we discovered the problem. Sequences from lines that should have been Paraburkholderia. hayleyella turned out to match P. agricolaris. There had been cross contamination. This was not a rare event but impacted all the P. hayleyella lines. By the time we did the final experiment mixing host and bacteria, all the bacterial lines were predominantly P. agricolaris. This might be an almost predictable problem because P. hayleyella has a very slow growth rate away from its Dictyostelium host and also has other signs of being well on its way to being an obligate symbiont. P. agricolaris, by contrast, grows fine on its own so a tiny amount of contamination could overwhelm P. hayleyella.

Here are some reflections from the very honest and brave graduate student who discovered the problem and shared it with us.

Retraction has a stigma about it.   We’ve developed science with self-correcting mechanisms that are robust to misconception.  Part of that means being honest about our errors. When I discovered the contamination, I could have quietly moved on and likely nobody would have ever known.  Some selfish, anxious part of me wanted to do that.  But I believe in the importance of intellectual honesty and owning my mistakes and never seriously flirted with the idea of burying them. 

That is not to say it was easy.  First, discovering the problem was a gradual process, in part because it did not even occur to me that something I had spent so much of my time and self-esteem on could have gone so awry.  Early clues that something was wrong troubled me but were easy to explain away as some lesser error, particularly because the sequencing analyses that ultimately revealed the contamination were new to me.  The first few results that did not turn out as I expected I assumed were because I had made some mistake in my code, had failed to set some needed argument, or failed to understand one of the multitude of assumptions inherent to doing bioinformatics.  Each would send me off on some tangent trying to understand some new aspect of the program I was using. 

Eventually, though, the simpler, uglier explanation occurred to me:  I had messed up.  I had messed up bigtime.  Not with a few lines of code that could be fixed with some careful Google research.  I had messed up the experiment itself, many months and dollars ago.  Once that possibility had occurred to me all of my recent weird results made sense, and it was easy to confirm the worst. We would have to retract the paper. 

Naturally I felt like a failure.  I knew that I had done the research in good faith, and I believed that the ideas behind it had genuine merit, but I could not shake the idea that I had let down people who had invested in me. I’ve had to deliver the news to laymen and scientists alike – professors, post docs, fellow grad students, family members, the editors of the journal where we published the contaminated results.  The response has been uniformly supportive. Nobody (but me) has scolded me for poor technique or for wasting time or money.  Instead people have made excuses for me (“was it because of COVID?” was a popular one.)    Nonetheless, the feeling that I had sinned was a hard one to dispel.

Here is the silver lining:  I learned something, which is what science is about. I learned that the stigma I perceived was predominantly coming from my own ego.  I learned how kind people could be about an honest mistake.  I did the right thing, and none of the awful consequences I imagined following came to pass.  I insisted on eating at least some crow (No, it wasn’t because of COVID), but in the end what really matters is the science and getting it as right as possible.   Avoid mistakes with careful science.  Correct them with honesty and humility.  Have some faith that your fellow scientists will understand.  And then get back to the lab. 

What is the moral of the story? Do your best. Think hard about all the ways you can verify that your experiment does what you think it does. When problems are discovered after publication, retract the paper and do the experiment over if it is a good one. Treasure and support students that show their honesty and conviction when they point out their own mistakes. There should be no shame in an honest retraction, though there will always be regret.

Dictyostelium discoideum
Posted in Publishing your work | 30 Comments

Ten steps to optimizing learning at large conferences

Active conference attendance can make all the difference in how much you learn at a large meeting with a blizzard of overlapping sessions, posters, and eating venues. A few steps before, during and after can help you get the most out of a large in-person meeting. These comments are all about attending the meeting and not about giving your own best poster or talk.

Great to see Erika Noll again and is that Bruce Lyon behind her?
  1. Have a goal for the meeting. This goal will help guide you as you choose what talks to go to and which posters to study. It is simply not possible to hear everything so having an aim for the meeting will help you choose for learning rather than simply going to talks by friends or randomly choosing interesting sounding sessions. Once my goal was to understand phylogenetic methods. Another time it was genomics. Another time it was bird tracking devices. A goal will help you learn something you did not know before more effectively. My goals are usually somewhat distant from my closest interests so I might also go to talks closest to my own.
  2. Don’t change session rooms too often. It is tempting to plan out a schedule that gets you to all the talks that most fit your goal wherever they are, but switching rooms is very disrupting. I try to hear at least two talks in a room before switching, though this is a rule I often break. Just remember that switching is disruptive for your train of thought..
  3. Take notes on paper. I find that my mind wanders less if I take notes. I do it in a bound Leuchtturm notebook, 21 x 15 cm size, usually in pencil. From the four-day American Ornithological Society – Birds Caribbean meeting I just attended I have 91 pages of notes. I take care to write down the name of the speaker and the subject and general notes. I also copy down references that represent further reading opportunities on the topic. I also take notes at posters.
  4. Go to the posters. I love poster sessions because they can be brief advertisements for really interesting topics, faster to look through than talks are to sit through. Many of the posters I go to do not have their presenters there, so I’m free to browse and move on. At a poster, look at the presenter while she is talking, not at the poster. A poster is a chance to tell a story, so it seems obvious to me to look at the speaker and only at the poster when she points my gaze to something specific. Listening to the story is often more clear than the poster. I also like to ask questions and to find out something about the presenter. That is not only interesting but it also helps me remember the work.
  5. Find someone new for dinner or lunch. It is easy to have meals with whomever you came with, but that is not the way to learn the most. Having a meal with someone else should not be left to the time milling about after the last talk as people head off for meals. Email or text someone or ask them earlier if they are free today or another day for a meal. Suggest a specific reason you are interested in them. It is easy to feel everyone else knows someone and you are only intruding, but what do you have to lose? You might feel shy to ask a professor to have dinner with you, so ask a grad student or postdoc in their lab. After a couple meals alone I got up my courage to ask someone I did not know well to dinner and had a delightful time with her and another couple of friends, making me wish I had done this from the start. Some people even plan this before the meeting. It is easier if there is a common venue for meals and you can just sit with new people.
  6. Go to the plenaries. There a talks at every meeting that everyone attends. If you are giving one, you will work extra hard on it because it is important. So I always try to get up in time to hear the plenaries even if they do not fit your goals for the meeting.
  7. Participate in a field trip, 5K run, outreach table or other activity. If your meeting has adjacent activities of any kind, sign up for something according to your interests. It is another way to meet people. When I am on a field trip I try to get to know people one at a time, asking what their research is, where they are, what their challenges are. I always learn something and often make a friend.
  8. Each person knows at least three things that will change your life, so discover them. I like to get past the pleasantries and discover what motivates people, what they know and what we have in common. I do this at the breaks, at meals with people, on field trips. It is easiest talking one on one. It might take some probing questions and some openness to discover where the connections are. They could be in research, in parts of the country, in hobbies, anything really. These more personal ties enrich meetings greatly for me.
  9. Do not go to talks all the time. Talks are essential for meetings but so are conversations outside of them. If the talks are far from my own expertise, I learn more from talking to people outside of them. There isn’t enough time for this at breaks, so skip a talk or five if you are in an important conversation, or even just need a break.
  10. After the meeting do your follow up. After a meeting you might email the people with whom you had the best connection, or have questions you would like answered. You might email someone to whom you gave a reference to solidify the connection. Look back over your notes and see what you learned. If there are articles you would like to read, look them up now. Think about what you learned. Read what you need to as a way of bringing together loose threads. This takes time but is important.
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Do not love your writing

Barred Owl in Ruth Park Woods

I paused in the piece I am writing about Ruth Park Woods, a scrap of forest only 23 acres large along a fetid creek and behind small businesses of Olive Boulevard. There was a paragraph I particularly liked but it was not fitting as I developed my ideas. Still I loved the way it sounded so I struggled to fit it in.
And then I remembered. Do not love your writing. Love what you have to say. Love your structure, the flow of words, how you get ideas across. But do not love any particular piece of your writing. It will tie you down, trip up the flow, and keep you from saying what you really mean.

When I was writing my book, Slow Birding, I remember I had a trick for dealing with those pieces I loved that did not quite fit. I created a second document and called it something like “Pieces of Chapter 2.” Then I could move those pieces that didn’t fit there. I did not have to throw them out.

As the story developed, I seldom rescued any of those pieces, but they helped me think about the topic. Throwing them out at that stage would have been too painful.

So, remember not to love your writing. You are in charge and paragraphs that don’t fit will cripple your story if you let them.

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What have you discovered?

In the last two weeks I have nominated more than a dozen of you for a very nice honor. I had to go to your papers, to your web pages and CVs to do this. And I found how productive you all have been. But what I did not find was any results. I don’t just want to know what you have worked on. I want to know what you have discovered. This should be on your web page. It should be in a section at the top of your CV. Tell me what you have discovered! Why is this so hard? Please help us who want to help you!

Dave Queller already has the honor I’m nominating for
Posted in Public Communication, Science writing for the public, Social media, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

An easy productivity tip: don’t stop at a stopping place

You know the feeling. Four ideas are juggling in your brain and you need to get them down on paper. They shift around as you struggle for the best order, put in transitions, and write your paragraphs. After all, you want your reader to experience the material just as you did and this is hard. But at last you are done. Your ideas are pinned down and your brain can relax. You stretch, look at your empty coffee cup and prepare to get up.

Don’t! This stopping place exactly the worst time to take a break. Instead, keep going. See what comes next and write down a couple of sentences, some thoughts, or even just a few notes. After all, you know what will come next since you were just now so enmeshed in what came before. It can be the work of a few moments to get these thoughts down.

Then, when you return to work after your break, you will be able to dig right in without recalibrating. You will see where you are, in the middle of something. The activation energy is not nearly so great as it would be if you had actually stopped at a break in the material.

Another danger of stopping at a stopping place is that you might pick up something else instead of continuing work on this project. You might have teaching to prepare, or take the time for a review or a letter of recommendation. These are worthy tasks, but they should be left for their own time, perhaps late in the day when your own writing on your project is done.

The wisdom of never stopping at a stopping place applies to all projects, big and small. As long as the project is not complete, work a bit into the next section before you stop. Writing a book? Towards the end of it when you might be more involved with editing and publicizing, write a few pages on your next book. Writing the discussion of a paper? Begin the next section before a break.

Whatever you do, make sure that beginning to work again is as easy as possible and that happens when you are still in the middle of an idea, not at its end.

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