Do this before you say yes to anything

You just got asked to do something new. It might be to join an on-campus committee, or to talk at a fancy university. It might be a one-off request to review a paper, write a letter of recommendation, or serve on a National Science Foundation panel. How do you decide whether to say yes?

Your first response might be to say why yes, I would love to do that. Thank you so much for thinking of me and making me feel that I’m part of this great process of making science and scientists better in the nation and the world. Surely I can fit your very valid request into my day.  And you say yes, and yes, and yes again.

And then you wonder where your time went. You try to count the hours you spend in a day thinking about ideas and find that it is not hours but minutes. Your exercise schedule diminishes. You no longer enjoy chopping the first onion of the evening for dinner. You turn back to the computer after the kids are in bed, or even before.

Do not let this happen to you! Reserve time for research and your family above all else. And of course there will be the commitments of teaching. So how do you find a balance? I have two recommendations.

The first is to stop seeing your life as an empty field onto which you can paint new blooms. See your life instead as a packed prairie where every plant has fought to get there. If you add something, you must take something away. Make yourself name it. Have a chart if that helps. And no, deciding you will magically work harder or more efficiently is not an answer. Are you going to take away sleep? Not a good idea.

It is true you will gradually become more efficient and be able to do more than before. I spent a week writing the first tenure recommendation for someone decades ago. Now I can do it in 3 hours, sometimes less. But this doesn’t happen just because you suddenly got asked to do something new.

Many new things are well worth doing. Serving on an NSF panel early in your career can be insightful. I remember a time when I wondered why I was not on the editorial board of any journal and so was very glad when I was finally asked. I also remember the first time I was asked to give a talk at another university. But as your career advances these and all the rest start piling in. It all glitters, but don’t pick it all up. So how do you decide?

A mentor can be a friend and peer. Me and my college roommate, Nancy Scheer

My second main piece of advice is that you cannot decide alone. You should have a mentor, or even a small committee of mentors that can help. They will know all your other obligations. You can talk it through with them. They can help you see what is in your best interest, help you see how to balance giving back to the community, local and international, with continuing your own career. After all, whoever asked you to do something has no idea what else you have to do, or what your life looks like right now. I once asked the late Ilke Hanski to handle a manuscript for PNAS and he wrote me back that he was busy helping his lab group before dying and could not do it. I still feel bad that I even took enough of his time to get that answer. But your mentor will know. Listen to her because she will listen to you and help you decide.

A couple of mentors might be better because they will have different perspectives. So, as your career grows remember that your day is already full. Some things are still worth adding as others are subtracted. The trick is to figure out what. I am still grateful to my mentors for helping me find balance and forgiving me for saying no, and also for saying yes.


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Sculpting your undergraduate years: avoiding the biggest mistake

The biggest mistake you are going to make as an undergraduate is doing too much. You will take too many classes, choose too many majors, join too many clubs, get to know too many acquaintances, and generally treat your education as an all-you-can-eat buffet rather than as an elegant dining experience. How can you fix this?


Do not treat your undergraduate education as an all-you-can-eat buffet

First, understand the point of an undergraduate education. Simply put, it is to get to know yourself and in so doing to acquire the skills and knowledge towards a meaningful life, one that benefits yourself because you have found a way to contribute to others. When I say get to know yourself, I mean learn to reject the things that are not going to work towards your goals. Now is the time to learn you excel by specializing. Combine that specialization with passion and you will thrive. It can’t happen if you try to do everything.

But what if you want to try everything? What if you don’t know what you are interested in and need to try a lot before knowing? That can be fine maybe for the first year or two. Go to lots of clubs. Join different groups that are striving to make a difference to peers by tutoring or to the community in many ways. Take a scattering of courses to see what you like. Why not?

And why not keep going with too many activities, too many majors, too many credits per semester, and too little sleep? Isn’t that what college is all about? Isn’t that the way to have fun and learn in the process?

The problem is twofold. If you do not prune your activities and courses. Listen to your heart and mind and learn what you love so you will choose the best future path. You have a long life ahead of you at graduation. The other problem is you will be judged by your undergraduate years and an all-you-can-eat approach can hinder you next best steps.

You will be judged at graduation, or before. Your future employers will judge your undergraduate record. You will or will not get into the graduate or professional programs you choose according to your undergraduate performance. To succeed you need to carefully curate your resumé. On it are at most four categories that matter. The first is what classes you took and how you did in them.

First, take as few classes as possible for your single major and get high grades. Remember to choose classes according to requirements. Also, pick good professors over interesting sounding topics. A poor professor can make any topic boring. How to get those high grades comes from few classes and good study habits, a topic for another chapter.

Second, do research in a laboratory. This lets you excel in something academic outside of the classroom. If you are a science major (including social science and engineering of course), it is easy to get into a research lab, work hard, and learn that way. If not science, there are still opportunities for research projects. Talk to your professors. This experience is best done for multiple years. Unless it is a poor fit, stick to one lab.

Third, find a way to help others. It can be in the community with outreach projects in public schools, at a museum, or something similar. It can be on campus also, either tutoring other students, becoming  resident associate or whatever your college or university has. It could be related to your major, related to gardening or the environment, but it must be clear that it is a helping activity. It is also best to find one activity and stick to it.

Fourth, there is room for another activity outside the classroom for most students. It could be music, drama, or art. It could be a club of some kind. It should be just for fun, but focus here too is good. There may be five or twenty tempting clubs. Pick one, or try a few your first year and then choose. I feel pretty strongly that if it is an exclusive club, it should only be exclusive based on the nature of the activity. If music, on ability to play the trumpet, for example. Stay away from exclusive clubs, sororities, fraternities, and the like. They can taint.

So, that is it. Choose your undergrad activities as if you were ordering at an elegant restaurant, not a cheap buffet. Limit and focus and you will have good grades, a great letter of recommendation from your research advisor, indications that you care about others, and can have fun. Restraint in these ways is the main thing separating successful happy, well-rested students from the rest and these are the ones with great options afterwards. Oh, and don’t forget to make friends. A few really good friends are the most important. Be there for them and they will be there for you, if they are well-chosen friends. The restraint this approach calls for is also one of the hardest but most rewarding things you will do.

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Do not fix the English when you review a manuscript for a journal

My daughter who does not need me to copy edit!

How easy it is to go into edit mode when you read a manuscript. After all, once you fix the English, the science is easier to understand. But then you might start wanting to move paragraphs around and get sucked into the whole structure of the piece.

Don’t do it! Do not succumb to this temptation. All you need to do is to write one sentence. “The English in this piece needs work.” Do not do that work yourself. If the English is so poor you cannot follow the argument, then reject the paper for this reason and do not do anything further.

The truth is, you do not have the time! You are not being paid to be a copy editor. The more ambitious and self-knowing people in your field will have learned this lesson a long time ago. You need to be doing all the other things a busy scientist does: teaching, reading new studies in your field, crafting your own papers and grants, and of course doing the actual research.

You may feel sorry for these poor authors who are trying so hard and just don’t have your advantage of English as a native or well-learned language. This is not your job. They can easily hire people to fix their English. It is the least of the expenditures involved in doing and sharing science.

As with so many other altruistic tasks, this is a pitfall that women more than men fall into. So just remember, if the English is so poor it gets in the way of understanding the paper, reject it and mention this reason. Reviewing should not become onerous because of language.

The only papers I edit for English are those headed to publication from my group or with me as an author. And by the way, I love English. I love language and Grammar. After all, who else just listened to Benjamin Dreyer’s marvelous Dreyer’s English: an utterly correct guide to clarity and style? reviewed by the New Yorker here.

Posted in Helping others, Managing an academic career, Writing | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Why you need a one day writing retreat

Our retreat leader, Susan Flowers

Have you found a way to avoid the tasks that snow you under and get your important but not urgent work done? It is something that I struggle with daily. I am kind to myself and understand that some days the needs of others must take over. I must teach. I must attend journal club. I must advise students and mentor colleagues. I must write those letters of recommendation. And this is besides the daily pleasures of eating, walking the dog, socializing, and of course sleeping. So where does the time come from for what I would like to think is my real work, my long-standing contribution to humanity?

One option is the one-day writing retreat, such as the one I am at now at Tyson Research Center. The director, Dr. Kim Medley, is great at generating a sense of community in a way that increases everyone’s productivity and writing retreats is one of her ideas. They happen once a month in the Learning Living Center where tables are arrayed so we each look over a stream and the forests beyond, now turning red and brown as autumn gets serious. Our leader, Susan Flowers, has put the rules on the board. We write from 9 to 4 with a break for lunch (bring your own) and woodland walks at 10:30 and 2:00. Tyson provides snacks, coffee, and blankets if we want them.

The real rules Susan has titled: You know this! and indeed we do. Silence your phone.Do not open your email software. Make a detailed checklist to feel productive and put it on the board for public accountability.

My view for the day

Somehow it works. We are a small group today, but from three different St. Louis institutions, the Botanical Society of America, St. Louis University, and Washington University in St. Louis, represented by people from Tyson, Biology, and Anthropology. I might be alone in my office, but there is something about having neighbors working away that keeps me on task. I suppose it is what draws some to coffee shops.

Tomorrow life will continue, but maybe some of the peace that comes from writing silently in the company of others will stay and keep me on task.

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We have an opening for a postdoc!

Below is the official text! We look forward to hiring someone amazing who wants to join a happy and supportive group.

Postdoctoral position on amoeba social evolution and/or amoeba–bacteria symbiosis
This position is for research in the Queller-Strassmann group. We focus on the evolution of interactions, especially in the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. This has become a model system for the evolution of cooperation and conflict and the transition to multicellularity. We are also working on its symbiotic bacterial partners sometimes confer a farming advantage but also impose costs.
The position is in the biology department at Washington University in St. Louis and is available immediately but the starting date is negotiable.
David Queller and Joan Strassmann lead a friendly and interactive team of highly motivated, creative, and smart investigators. We are interested in your success and in a collaborative and productive approach to research and mentoring. We are seeking energetic postdocs with strong backgrounds some combination of evolutionary biology, social behavior, microbial evolution, genomics, or in methodologies appropriate to the system. We are also open to great ideas from you within the general area of social evolution using the microbial organisms we study We are committed to diversity and to the career success of our team members. Check out our website, ( for more information on our lab, or Strassmann’s blog (
If you are interested in joining our group, please send an email to Joan Strassmann ( with a single file including CV, statement of research interests, and the names, phone numbers, and email addresses of three references. Women and underrepresented minorities are particularly encouraged to apply. We will begin reviewing applications by 20 August 2019 and will continue to accept them until the position is filled. Postdocs may start immediately but date is negotiable.

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Science at your local farmer’s market!

Did you ever think about sharing your science at your local farmer’s market? This is a special venue because it is outdoors; people attending the farmer’s market are not necessarily the same ones that seek out science at the zoo, the museum, or the university, so you might surprise someone. Also, you are probably the only science booth there.

I got the idea that this would be a fun thing to do from the science booth at the Urbana Illinois farmer’s market. They have one there every week, with different groups participating. I thought I could do that and chose a farmer’s market nearby, in Ferguson Missouri, about ten minutes up the road from us.

They were most welcoming, particularly the market organizer, Marveena Miller. They gave us a tent, a table, and chairs. We decided to bring something to the market the first Saturday of every month. Each time there would be a theme, a game of some sort, and some scientific stuff, flowers, microscopes, Petri plates, things to look at.

The first visit was July 7th, a gorgeous summer day. We brought the challenge of skin bacteria. Where on your skin are the most bacteria? Are there more on men or women, on old people or young? We made sure to have replicates for  each category, following good scientific practice. We had plates to look at, but we also had laminated photographs of plates that people could categorize as to body part, or type of person, then turn over to see if they were right.

After all, we knew that most people will spend a maximum of 5 minutes at our booth. It worked really well. People were surprised at how few bacteria are inside our mouths, or on our hands. Men and women did not differ. Some stayed to look at real plates through the microscope. Hundreds of people came.

After July, we did three more markets, covering pollination and other topics. One time was pretty much rained out. That activity we can repeat next summer. But overall, we plan to have three years worth of topics before we repeat. We also hope others in St. Louis come to present scientific activities on the other Saturdays of the month. One is plenty for us!

So consider whether your local farmer’s market could use some freshly grown science! It is easy, fun, and so rewarding for all.

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Women and Wikipedia

Scientists considering a hike, not their Wikipedia pages.

Perhaps you have seen that Nobel Laureate in chemistry, Donna Strickland did not have a Wikipedia page until just now. She was deemed by the moderator not to be worthy back in March 2018. See the discussion on the Wikipedia talk page, or in any number of publications. It has been fixed, but does a woman have to get a Nobel prize before the overly strict moderators value them?

I wrote about this before, here. In that post you can see that a scientist named Debra Brock was denied a Wikipedia page though all kinds of athletes were approved, even if they are limited to those with the last name Brock.

Other female scientists whose Wikipedia pages I have been involved in creating have either been taken down or challenged. What do people mean by notability? I think being a professor or active scientist should be enough. Shouldn’t we be more concerned about accuracy and completeness? Is having a Wikipedia page at all such a big honor?

So I had to look at my own page. It is almost nothing. There was more once but someone stripped it all away. Since no one close to one or oneself can work on these pages, it is easier to lose than gain information.

I know there are people that have as projects to write Wikipedia pages for women. I did at one time, but got discouraged that so many were taken down. I did not want to subject my students to that level of discouragement. Higher ups at Wikipedia said they were powerless to fix this.

Maybe now with the extreme nature of this particular woman being told she gets a Nobel prize, but not a Wikipedia page, maybe now the trolls that take women down on Wikipedia will hesitate. I am not optimistic, though.

Posted in Awards and prizes, Gender bias, Wikipedia | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments