Can you do an ideas sandbox in 90 minutes?

I’m going to the BEACON: Evolution in Action meeting at Michigan State University next month. They asked me to run a sandbox in 90 minutes, giving me flexibility on the topic.  Below is my plan. Who knows what we can do in this short amount of time? I’ll report back.

You are crazy, mom!

You are crazy, mom!

SANDBOX: Evolution in action. What is the big idea?


Small, diverse groups can initiate seriously creative ideas when stimulated to be adventurous. The purpose of this activity is to activate improbable connections with the goal of exciting innovation. Who knows? Some of these projects begun here might result in new collaborations, papers, projects, or BEACON proposals.

Sandbox for BEACON 16 August 2015, 10:30 – 12:00, 90 Minutes
Facilitators: Joan Strassmann and someone from BEACON that knows the people

Challenge: Pick one neglected topic for a review paper, a collaborative research project, or an outreach activity. Put it together using the questions below as an outline and present it on a poster.

Plan of action:

Introduction (20 minutes):
1. When you first come into the room, grab a pad of Post-it cards. Write down several ideas of projects or ideas that might be fun to pursue, or ideas that puzzle or bother you. Indicate if they are headed towards a review paper, collaborative research project, or outreach.
2. Join your group. We will move people into groups of 4 or 5 people. The BEACON facilitator will assure group diversity.
3. Put your notes onto the poster. Sort them into categories. Add things that occur to you as you sort.
4. Through group discussion, choose one topic to pursue further.

Project (50 minutes): Yikes! Not nearly enough time, so start writing early!
1. Develop and refine your idea. Be sure to follow good group behavior (see below).
2. Prepare your poster presentation.
a. What is the big idea?
b. Why is it a great idea, new, creative, and feasible?
c. How will you execute the project?
d. What are your measures of success?

Poster presentation (20 minutes):
1. Someone from the group will always be at the poster, taking turns while the others circulate and look at and discuss the other posters.

Materials needed: Post-it notes (3×5), markers, poster size pads of paper.

Tips for Effective Group Collaboration
• Disagree with ideas, not with people.
• Do not interrupt when someone is speaking.
• No side conversations.
• Everyone participates, no one dominates, but you can have a scribe.
• No computer distractions (FB, texts, tweets, email etc.).

Perspectives on creativity: Check out the KnowInnovation site and blog or consider reading about and joining the MOOC. These people really know creativity.

Posted in Creativity, Teaching, Workshops | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Do you need to name the scientists in intro biology?

IMG_7081Meghan Duffy on the terrific blog Dynamic Ecology asks whether we can’t just teach the concepts and not worry about the researchers. After all, there are so many things we have figured out in biology that really don’t need to include history lessons to make them real. Won’t it just be confusing to always have to talk about how things were discovered? Don’t we want students to know what is what first? Krebs cycle, photosynthesis, niche theory, kin selection, phylogenetics, can’t we teach these without the names?

Text books often get around this conundrum by having boxes scattered throughout the book with little life stories in them. These fun reads are more about the men and women and how they became scientists with only a tangential connection to the work. Here are the famous people. Look on and wonder!

I think Meghan is probably right if what you want to do is teach the concepts. The ideas form a wonderful web, connecting one thing to another as science progresses in many different laboratories. The web of ideas is only somewhat related to the web of people. And teaching is all about choices. It is about leaving out things that you absolutely know a student should understand because there is so much out there.

It is this point exactly that leads me to why I think it is good to include the names. We can’t teach all the ideas, or all the concepts. We can’t even teach all the really important ones. We are unlikely to even get across the 5 most important ideas if they are big ones. In many respects we are big fat failures. Our only hope is to inspire the students to learn on their own. Our only hope is to so inspire students that they read outside of class, they puzzle, they make their own diagrams connecting ideas. They puzzle when something doesn’t fit. They want to understand and struggle until they do.

How do we do this? Only by making science seem porous, a human endeavor full of conjecture, of testing, of rejecting ideas when new ones come along. It should not be a polished and impenetrable jewel. It should not be the way it so often looks in beginning textbooks.

Some of the tricks to teaching this way are very well known. Have students do projects. Cover less material in more depth. Show not just what we know but how we know it. Teach what we once thought and why we rejected it. Let students follow one person and see their trajectory of thinking. I know this is how I got inspired as an undergraduate at Meghan’s own wonderful university, Michigan. It is also how I found a thesis topic.

So leave out the names if you want to teach the concepts. Put them in if you want to lead the students to confident curiosity about science. Or that is what works for me. Maybe others are different.

Posted in Teaching, The joy of teaching, Undergraduates | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Recipe for studying symbiosis

IMG_7042  IMG_7044 What do scientists who identify first as symbiontologists study? OK, maybe I invented that term, but something brings hundreds of people to meetings where the only thing they have in common is that they study symbiosis. What do sponges, grasses, flies, and amoebae have in common? They all have important, even critical relationships with microbes, whether bacteria, archaea, or fungi. Strangely, the people studying between species mutualisms like pollination seem to go to different meetings. I don’t get the conceptual divide, except that when symbionts are microbes they are smaller and newer, so harder to study.

What are the big questions in this field, if it is a field at all? This is what I’m trying to figure out this summer, from the Gordon Research Conference on Animal Microbe Symbioses in Waterville New Hampshire, and now at the excellent International Symbiosis Society in Lisbon, Portugal.

From my own background as an evolutionary biologist particularly interested in social evolution, I would have thought that people would identify a symbiosis, then ask how they are transmitted, vertically or horizontally, what does the host gain, what does the symbiont gain, how do they try to cheat, getting more out of the interaction than the other wants them to, how the cheating is controlled, and finally how genes and genomes impacting the symbiosis evolve, expecting rapid evolution from the conflict.

It turns out that few people are taking this approach. Instead, a lot of work is much more at the discovery stage. Imagine that every animal, every plant, perhaps even every eukaryote has microbial symbionts. These might be single partners, nestled into cozy crypts made just for them, or they could be thousands of microbial inhabitants of largely unspecialized cavities. So every organism has its cooperators and the first job of researchers is to discover what is what.IMG_7039

I have to digress a bit. How did we miss this for so long? How did we not understand that any physiology, any biochemistry, any evolution occurs only in a sea of microbes and nothing normal, not development, not social behavior, not cell biology, is likely to occur without them? People that study symbiosis certainly haven’t been quiet about it, as this wonderful manifesto shows.

If we want to learn about symbiosis, then, we have to begin at the beginning. Grab your favorite organism. Consider your favorite topic. Ask how microbes might impact it, assuming you grabbed the larger organism first. If you grabbed a microbe, consider what it is exploiting.

Organisms don’t live in vacuums, so you might first need to figure out what is associated and what is not. Soil, water, even aiIMG_7002r can have their microbes. You may swab, sterilize, culture, or sequence. How does either do without the other? Not even possible sometimes. It is the essential first step to any study of symbioses, so we hear about sponges, flies, fungi, scorpions, bird eggs, ticks, and honeybees and that is only part of this afternoon’s talks. It will take a lot of culturing, sequencing, and exploring.

Once you know what is there, you might ask what they do for each other in terms of physiology, small molecules, protection, or development. Or you might try to figure out the permanence of the relationship and how they get passed on. Is it all about a pair of organisms, or can something else do? This is more discovery science, with the best choices pointing towards what is feasible in a given system. It seems like it is too early to do much about looking across systems for commonalities. We can fill out very little of the grid of who associates with whom at this point. One of my favorites, for example, Burkholderia, seems to be everywhere.IMG_7023

There are, of course, systems where a great deal is known like the squid vibrio system. People are forging ahead sequencing genomes, or knocking out candidate genes in a variety of systems. But these are in the minority. For now it seems exciting and important to simply try to figure out what is out there, where they live, and how they maintain the association. In many respects for most organisms we are still in the age of Paul Buchner. If only we could draw as well as he could.

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Why you should use Bitly or TinyURL to shorten web links

What I like about social media is a sense of community, particularly with fellow scientists. I’m moving more to Twitter and from Facebook because there are so many science links in Twitter and it is completely open. I’m currently trying to post links to interesting papers by the speakers at this Gordon Research Conference on Animal Microbe Symbioses because actual reporting of the event is forbidden.

IMG_6773But if I want to post links, they will take too many characters, so I Googled a good way to get shorter links. I didn’t even understand until then that this is a service of other parties, another thing to sign up for. But of course  that makes sense so they don’t make different links to things you pick repeatedly. There are various services, but Bitly came up first, so I signed up. Paste the long URL into their box and they give you a short URL and a button to copy it.

Nick Bos further recommended that you customize the URL. He uses tinyurl, His advice made me discover I can also personalize with Bitly. You can now find my pubs here:, or my favorite collaborator here:

Right now Takema Fukatsu is talking and I can’t tell you what just happened but it was stunning and there was a lot of laughter. A video might have been involved. Check out this paper on how moms keep their kids supplied with symbionts:

And use Bitly.

Posted in Social media | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

What is fair communication from a meeting? GRC?

I’m at a Gordon Research Conference, a new, wonderful one on Animal Microbe Symbioses. This first one was conceived by Nicole Dubilier and Ned Ruby. They wrote the proposal, got the funding, chose the speakers, then held their collective breaths, hoping we would come, signing up for unwieldy posters. And here we are, a roomful of scientists interested in symbiosis of microbes with just about anything, not limited to animals.IMG_6777

What I like to do at a meeting is to have a focus. I choose something that I really want to learn about and choose sessions according to that topic. This is particularly useful at large meetings like Evolution where there are many overlapping meetings. A focus will help you weave your way through the talks. Once I chose phylogenetics and it changed my reseach thereafter. But enough stories. Even at a Gordon Research Conference with a single plenary session, it makes sense to have a goal and a focus. I might write more on my focus here, but briefly my focus here is to see what people who study symbioses find to be important. Are they evolutionary or mechanistic? Are genomes central? What are the best organisms? Already I’ve learned a lot.

IMG_6775 But alas, I can’t tell you about it. I am explicitly, clearly forbidden to tell you about it. They even said they had ways of discovering if we were tweeting or blogging, which sounded odd. After all, don’t we do everything possible to make our tweets and blogs easy to find?

Perhaps this social media naivete is typical of this dinosaur organization that eschews sharing. So why can’t we keep the good of GRC, the long afternoon breaks, the alcohol, the active scientific interchange, but let there be tweeting, let there be blogs? Is what we are doing both so exciting and so easily stolen that sharing would be devastating? Have those of us here become so unhumanly trustworthy that we won’t steal but others might? Who is defending this anachronism? Why can’t each occurrence of each meeting choose their relationship with social media?

Lest you think I am a Polyanna about sharing, I’ll say, I don’t like it when people take photos of posters without permission. Or in talks for that matter, but this may be a convention, since people from some countries do this freely, as if it were normal for them. I would simply set a standard for that at a given meeting.

I even know a couple of stories of people who feel their work was stolen from someone who viewed their poster at a meeting. And there may be fields where there is stealing. I just don’t happen to be in one, as far as I know.

So I am fortunate enough to be at this Gordon Research Conference. Alex Wilson has just given a fabulous introduction to the field of symbiosis. I cannot imagine what might be stolen, but I’m following the rules, not saying anything that is not published, or is not in the easily available program for the meeting. Perhaps by reading one paper, which I will try to tweet, by each speaker, you will get more than I will from the talks. In fairness, you should also read a paper by each poster giver, but that would be so many.

If the trick is to break your routine and spend a few days listening to others, you can do that yourself if you have the will.

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Remember the theory of mind when communicating officially with graduate students

Yesterday I got the following letter from the associate dean of our graduate program, here copied in its entirety:

According to our records, Sewall Wright (or someone else) will begin his 7th year of graduate studies on July 1. Length of time to degree is of great concern to us in the Division of Biology and Biomedical Sciences and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. There is a seven-year limit placed on the time to degree by the Graduate School. this letter is to serve as notification to the time limit rule.


Associate Dean of Graduate Education

This letter was sent to me, but Sewall Wright got a copy, so in a sense it was really to him. What is wrong with this short factual letter? After all, this is the official rule, so why not let people know as their seventh year approaches? The problem is that this is not a supportive letter. It does not think about why a student might be approaching their seventh year. It is as if the writer forgot that what sets us humans apart from other animals is embodied in the theory of mind. With our big brains, we can think about what the recipient of our messages thinks. And the recipient can think about what we thought when the sender sent such a message, and so on.


Budding scientists


Graduate students

So wouldn’t a thoughtful administrator also address the reason behind taking a longer time to Ph.D.? Might not an administrator not want to indicate care about the student, perhaps offering additional advice services, or discussion with the mentor as to exactly where things stand? The deadline sounds rigid and without exceptions, but of course there are always exceptions. What kind of student will realize that? The more confident and experienced students from elite backgrounds will assume they can get an extension for a good reason. The more uncertain students, perhaps first generation college, might just decide that no matter what, they have to meet the deadline, even if it is not in their interest to finish prematurely.

Most graduate students in our program take six years to get their Ph.D. anyway, so seven years is not very exceptional. It might not be what the graduate school wants, but it is current reality. Changing it should be a more general thing and involve faculty, not stern letters to grad students. I have written elsewhere what I think about short Ph.D. programs and also what I think about long Ph.D. programs. Another truth is that students take a long time for many different reasons.

It can be very hard to be a graduate student. There are so many things to balance. There are exams and courses, prelims and candidacy, teaching and mentoring. But most of all you have to figure out a research question that will absorb you for years. Such a question is both important and feasible. It can take years to really get a great question and organism. When you find one you want to spend all your time doing research. But there are always new techniques to be learned, articles to read, and seminars to attend. It might feel like this time could go on forever. But it should end. It should end at a point where your Ph.D. work is written up and submitted because a clock starts ticking when you get your degree. You should be ready to get a job within five years.

A longer Ph.D. might be the result of a difficult project. It might be the result of health problems. It might be the result of taking on too many projects. It is unlikely but always possible that a student may not be working hard enough. It could also be a result of boredom, an indication that maybe this project or life is not for you.

But back to the letter. Why doesn’t it sound kind? Why are there no options in it, or offers of support? Why not look like you care about the student? After all, with a human theory of mind, not only should the letter writer think about the thoughts of the receiving student, but that student will know that the letter writer did that and then think about his thoughts. So the smart student would realize the letter writer understood that the letter would be troubling and was fine with that. Not a good situation for a promising student who has issues that we should help with, not attack.

I’m guessing that the real answer for this particular letter is that the writer just forgot about the student reading it and how he might feel, forgot that we humans have complex minds. I hope in future he and everyone can be more careful and thoughtful because these things may have worse impacts on just the students we most want to see succeed.

Posted in Graduate school, Managing an academic career | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

How to organize a fabulous small meeting

DSC03139 DSC03106 IMG_6193 DSC03151 IMG_6213 DSC03179 DSC03188 DSC03203  DSC03236 IMG_6254 IMG_6251 IMG_6261 IMG_6268When I see a young scientist talking to one of the grizzled leaders of the field at a meeting I have organized, I hope that the new scientist will discover something valuable from her elder. Likewise, I hope the seasoned expert can find a new collaborator. Everyone should remember why they went into this field in the first place. Everyone should discover something new.

The question is how to facilitate learning at a meeting. I think the key is to take people out of their comfort zone and put them in contact with people they have something in common with that they would never have guessed. How do we do this?

First, choose participants carefully. There should be a theme, but it should be cross cutting in some way. Our theme for the small meeting we organized for 21 to 25 May 2015 was organismality, or what does it take to make an organism. (We have a few papers on this topic easily discovered on Google Scholar and we had funding for the meeting from the John Templeton Foundation). We chose people working on diverse systems, including social insects, fungi, marine invertebrates, plant symbioses, genomics, and cancer. We chose ecologists, evolutionary biologists, developmental biologists, genomicists, microbiologists, sociobiologists, and philosophers. We did not pick just the first people that came to mind. We dug deep, spending months researching hundreds of people before settling on a nice mix of disciplines and career stages. We followed some of the creativity principles we learned from KnowInnovation. We particularly tried to balance senior and junior people, with senior defined simply as someone having a tenure track job. We are aware of inadvertent gender bias and consciously avoided it. We missed lots of excellent people because we had only 33 fly in, and another 13 or so from our institution, including everyone from our lab group. You can get a flavor of the meeting from the tweets which Sam Diaz-Muñoz kindly assembled with Storify, here.

David Queller gave a 40 minute talk setting the stage after the first event of the meeting, dinner. Otherwise everyone, senior or junior, gave a 15 minute talk with 5 minutes for questions. Only the 10 people from our own lab group did not give talks. They gave posters as did a number of other people.

DSC03222Besides the talks we had three afternoon sessions of two hours each in small groups. These groups were asked to come up with an important problem in organismality and address it in a ten minute talk on the last day. We hoped some of them would do more, perhaps someday writing something for publication, or finding new collaborators.

We did not let people choose their small groups. Instead we assigned them, carefully assembling a balance of areas and disciplines. Each group had a focus (philosophy, social insects, microbes, etc.), but each group also had people outside the focus. Each group had senior and junior people. Assigning groups mixed people up. It lets them discover something new. It keeps sizes and satisfaction high and removes the agony of choice.

Dave and I circulated among the small groups. It looked fun. They were grappling with questions, arguing, putting things on the whiteboard, then erasing them. It was important that they had a goal to work toward, that 10 minute talk. I heard mostly positive things about the groups. More than one person said they had no idea how much in common they had with another discipline (gender-neutral mismatching plural used on purpose – see Pinker’s The Sense of Style).

This structure meant that we had four hours of talks a day, two hours of discussion, and an hour each day for the posters. Was this a good plan? I like to think so, though perhaps the lunch break could have been longer than 80 minutes.

Some might prefer fewer talks. Indeed, I have been to a number of small meetings with almost no talks. The reason we wanted talks was that it is a very efficient way to discover what people do. Let them tell their stories. Let others be amazed at connections between different disciplines. Sometimes with no talks I have looked people in my group up and just begged them to tell me about their work. I’m not a big fan of talks, but they do work well for discovery. Here are the details of our meeting: OrganismalityProgram.

We had an evening reception outside our own laboratory space, with guided tours of social amoebae. We had another evening reception at our home, walking distance from the venue. Everyone from away stayed on campus at the Knight Center, a wonderful venue. Our visitors commented that it was so much fancier than their own universities, but I pointed out that their own universities probably also had places where the business folks held meetings that were just as nice.

Many people asked me what my goal was for the meeting and was it met. This is a hard question to answer. The first goal is to get people to think about something I think is really important, what is an organism? After all, there are so many that study species, and so few that take on this question. Why? People think they know, but the more we learn about smaller or more different organisms, the harder it is to say. The more we learn about genomes and within genome conflict, the more confused I get. Where does cancer fit? How about symbioses, obligate or not? David Queller and I have proposed a new approach to the question, but we might be wrong. The only way to find out is to consider the question. In their talks and discussions, people did this.

My second goal was to change somebody’s life. How might I achieve this? The most likely path is for a junior person to discover something or someone wonderful for them, a new idea, a system they had not considered, a postdoc or route that would be new. To do this, all I could do is to facilitate conversation and hope it happens. Did it? Too soon to say, but if it did, I hope they let me know!

Posted in Creativity, Mentoring, Posters, Presentations and seminars, Scientific meetings | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment