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, http://www.tinyurl.com/nickbos. His advice made me discover I can also personalize with Bitly. You can now find my pubs here: http://bit.ly/JStrassmann, or my favorite collaborator here: http://bit.ly/DQueller.

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: http://bit.ly/1GCyPQF

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

Are women allowed to joke?

Is it true that a good measure of how well you know a foreign language is that you get the humor? If so, I failed German a decade or so ago when the Lufthansa agent in Frankfort very dryly told me that all seats in coach were taken because my connecting flight had gotten in so late, so I would only be able to fly across the Atlantic if I accepted business class. He said it in such a negative tone, I looked at him in disbelief and switched to English. Then he started laughing and I got it.

Another humor moment that stands out was at a chair’s meeting at Rice many years ago. I guess it had been a long meeting, or this would not have happened. I don’t remember the specifics, but we chairs, math, physics, chemistry, geology, etc., normally a rather dour group, devolved into a kind of humorous double speak. Bonding was increasing and we were on the verge of solving the problem that had led to the humor escalation. Unfortunately the dean did not get it and thought we were all fighting with each other, so  dismissed the meeting early. Giggles were heard in the hall afterwards to the confusion of our well-meaning dean.n1026872938_30199725_7354598

Humor of all kinds has been prized in my family, perhaps from my father’s roots as a half-jew in Nazi Berlin, or just perhaps because of the famous humor of Berliners. Humor takes different forms. My husband is the master of the perfect pun. Sarcasm and dry humor can confuse those not used to it, but can make the intolerable survivable. It would not surprise me if humor were an under-class thing, but I am not a social scientist.

There was a time when feminists were said not to have a sense of humor. This always baffled me. If the jokes made women the butt, of course they would not find them funny, but not to have a sense of humor at all? It sure didn’t match my experience. But maybe in humor as in so many things the rules are different for women.

Richard D. Alexander, my mentor from the University of Michigan, has studied all things human from an evolutionary perspective. Part of his work might relate to women and humor. In 1986 he wrote a thoughtful piece on humor, ostracism, and indirect reciprocity, reprinted with an excellent companion piece by Stan Braude in the Summers and Crespi volume that reprints many of Dick’s works on humans. Dick’s goal with his piece is to develop a set of hypotheses for the advantage of humor. The main idea is that humor is a form of ostracism to those that do not get the joke, or to oneself as a kind of false modesty. It is a way of increasing the bonds within groups at the expense of those outside. He also comes up with a taxonomy of humor from shaggy dog stories to puns.

Stan Braude in his introductory piece begins with a joke which most of us will not get at first, beginning “So two orthopterists walk into a bar…”. He moves on to say how tedious and counterproductive it is to explain jokes, summarized Dick’s views on ostracism, then talked about some really interesting ideas on humor and scenario building skills focusing on increasing ability to anticipate surprise. He ties this to music and art appreciation and development. Youngsters might only get simple melodies with easy surprises. As we listen to more and more music and learn to pick out ever more complex themes, our capacity for surprise becomes much more nuanced. If the same goes for humor, then the most advanced forms would be so dry as to be often missed, but very valuable for connoisseurs making their way through this complex world.

Have I tread too far into this realm? Why just yesterday my youngest son on the phone commented that he was missing my jokes that day. The one I remember was pretending I thought LOL means lots of love.

Humor is what lets a liberal survive Texas and makes Molly Ivins our patron saint. But humor is not so apparent in the nice corridors of my Missouri department. So maybe that is why I got into so much trouble for a joke misunderstood late last year.

That unpleasant event has me rethinking humor, women, power, and regionalism. It makes me understand better those who conform religiously. The rules are different for women, really different for powerful women. Ignore them at your peril. No one expects you to joke, so you better not do it, even with people you thought were your friends, I’m sad to report.

Posted in Life in a biology department, Managing an academic career, Politics, Social interactions | Tagged , , , , , | 4 Comments

Why gifts from students are problematic

A recently graduated student regularly brought our group delicious and sticky baklava that she made when she went home. We looked forward to it, shared it, and tried to resist eating too many of the flaky, nutty layered treats. Other students give chocolate, or little trinkets, often from another country, typically after a letter of recommendation is submitted.

Most treasured for me are personal notes about how my class or mentorship helped them take the next step, or proved meaningful at a difficult time, or simply are thanks for being a teacher they valued. There is no ethical problem with these notes, but what about tangible gifts? Is there a limit? What should it be?IMG_4762

I’m inclined to feel uncomfortable with any gift of more than token value. What might that be? The federal government sets the limit for employees receiving gifts from outside at $20. Alabama limits school children’s gifts to teachers to $25 or less. This makes sense to me. A colleague simply announces to her class that no gifts will be accepted. Any that come in anyway are donated.

So what is the problem? Why do I feel uncomfortable with gifts? Certainly no one can influence my letter of recommendation in this way, but might a bigger gift give the appearance of influence? Is it really true gifts can’t influence? Of course they can. I think there is a problem even when the gifts  come after all official contact is over. If gifts are part of the culture, it makes it that much harder for students with fewer resources. To me gifts muddy the relationship of mentorship and teaching.

Maybe you see it differently, but I think the best gift is the heartfelt note. Inexpensive food to share is also all right. Anything more should be donated, or gently refused.

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PNAS is now tracking Online Impact. How do you fare?

The Cozzarelli Prize was just awarded to some excellent researchers who published last year in PNAS. The first was on the timeline for the Permian mass extinction. I turned to that paper and saw at the bottom of the page a very interesting graphic on the paper’s impact online. I wish I could copy it here, but can’t, so you’ll have to go to the paper itself. It is a kind of colored braid that shows the paper was picked up by 20 news outlets, 5 blogs, 55 tweets, 8 Facebook pages, 1Reddit, 31 on Mendeley, and 1 on CiteULike. In other places they list things like downloads.

What to do with this information? The responses I hear in discussions fall into two camps. Older people tend not to care at all. Younger people are obsessed with this and worry about how to get their work more attention. The answer should be the same for both scientific communities. Do your best work and publish it carefully and clearly. Don’t salami science each little bit. Wait until you have a full story, then tell it clearly and in context.

A bit of salesmanship is fine, but be sure you have a product worth selling. Educate yourself by looking at how papers you read do on these metrics. What soared? What slumped? Was it the science, the context, or the communication?

Posted in Public Communication, Publishing your work | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment