Send in a title the minute you agree to give a talk!

All the talks at the Dictyostelium meeting had titles well in advance

There are lists of talks for the semester on our department web page. There are compiled lists for the university, weekly blasts, summer lists, and more. All too often most of these talks have an author listed with the talk title as TBD, to be determined. If we don’t know the author, it could be about gating channels in neurons, fire ecology, or fish development. Even for talks generally targeted at ecology and evolution folks, there is a huge spread.

The titles would not matter so much if we simply went to all the talks no matter what they are about. I tend to do that for our Thursday Evolution, Ecology, and Population Biology (EEPB) talks, but less so for the other series. Titles help!

I think the reason people hesitate on turning in the title is that they have not decided which of their wonderful stories they will share with us. They are anxious to please and want the title to be perfect. Please stop. Just give us a title that covers the general area of study. It doesn’t have to be different from your other titles. It doesn’t even have to have a close match to the subject you ultimately choose. But it will give us an idea as to what we will hear. It is a bonus if it is fun, of course.

And if you are the person inviting rather than the person talking, insist on a title. If your speaker does not give one, make one up. If you have invited the person, you have a general idea of what they do. Once they see your invented title, they may simply like it and use it, or it will inspire them to give a better title. And the rest of us will have a clue.

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Why vacations matter for work excellence

Everyone says that vacations refresh. But what do they mean by that? Are vacations just good for the person and the spirit or do they actually improve work? Here, I’ll discuss one point for the latter. It may even apply to those stressful vacations where keeping the family fed and happy seems like more work than non-vacation days.


This is the point where I should vacation rather broadly as anything that gets you into a strongly different mindset for a week or more, though this could be flexible. Another essential feature of a vacation is you don’t keep up with everything flowing in on your email, though you may not necessarily shut it off entirely.  So a vacation could be a trip somewhere, camping, or even a scientific meeting if it is a real break from the normal obligations.

So the last week Dave and I spent at the American Ornithological Society counts as a vacation, though we went to most of the talks and learned a lot. I did check email, but couldn’t figure it out at first, then was in the field, so little got dealt with until today, the day we travel home.

What I found on going through several hundred emails, Facebook posts, and Twitter news was a sudden clarity as to what was important to me. Against this metric I accepted and rejected tasks with an alacrity that I had lost. The longer time you go without a vacation, the more you lose the ability to see what is and is not important to you. It is like a ship encrusting with barnacles and moving ever more slowly. A long time without vacations and you might feel you have no time for even the important things because you are less good at sorting out the unimportant.

Right now I relish a certain clarity and hope I get a lot done before it fades away. I say yes to a lot of tasks, but will also say no to those that are not in my profile. After all, only I know how much is asked of me. Only I know what commitments I can make and what I must reject. With this extra focus, I hope to do the things that are important.

Posted in Creativity, efficiency, Travel, Uncategorized, Vacations | 1 Comment

Who is your lab aya?


Alicia Hubert, lab aya

Last Monday I met with Alicia Hubert, our lab technician before she moves on to a fulfilling job in sustainability. I wanted to understand in more detail exactly what she did for us. I knew she did research, running bacteria through Biolog plates to understand their carbon usage, or pulling clones out of the freezer and letting them grow. I knew she did a lot of teaching of newcomers to the group. I knew she helped others when their own projects became unmanageable. I knew she ordered supplies. I knew she checked the safety equipment, changed the Millipore filters and reminded us when we were due for online training. I knew she updated our web page. But somehow I felt I had not fully understood the essence of her contribution. Now I do a bit more.

She was our lab aya. If you look up aya, you will find a definition like governess. But it has the sound of a word a very young child would use for someone who cares for them. What I mean when I say Alicia was our lab aya is that she is the one who cared for the whole lab, not just her projects or specific role. She is the one who walked through the whole lab at the beginning and end of the day and looked to see if anything was amiss. She looked at the freezers to see if they maintained their temperature. She looked at the benches to see if someone had become sloppy. She looked at the balances and the gel-pouring area. She noticed things. She unlocked and locked doors. She helped everyone be their best.

These simple tasks may not seem like a lot. They probably took less than an hour a day on most days. Often she would see nothing out of place on her trips through the lab. But when she did, it was quickly remedied.

Debbie Brock, master lab aya

How are we going to replace her? For now, I think we will rotate ayas, having everyone take a month long turn at the daily walk throughs and other tasks. This will help make everyone care more about the whole. And we are lucky for we also have a master aya, Debbie Brock, who will make sure this as everything else, goes freely.

Do you have an aya? Maybe its time you embraced this idea to keep your lab running well.

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Have you uploaded research images to Wikimedia yet?

Social stages of Dictyostelium discoideum, the social amoeba. Photo by Tyler Larsen, CC BY SA 4.0

How often to you get asked for images on your research? Did you have a photograph you took get copyrighted by a journal so you can no longer use it? Is there an easy fix to make your life easier and to get your publicity for your work?

Devilishly handsome Tyler Larsen, CC BY SA 4.0

Yes! Upload your images to Wikimedia! Then whenever anyone asks, you can point them to your images. It is really easy.

First, you go to Then you click “create account” in the upper right corner. Or you might already have an account to log into. Then you click “upload file” in the left hand menu. And you upload the file, making sure to mark “this is my own work” at the place it is an option. Give your file an appropriate title that helps make it easy to find. Make it easier to find by putting it in a good category. Put a link to the page on your own home page.

That’s it! Tyler did this for photos he took here. So if you need a photo of Tyler, or any of his excellent Dictyostelium photos, you have them, right along with permission to use them!

Posted in Photographs, Presentations and seminars, Public Communication | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Wikipedia is worth writing for and teaching with

Moid and Wumi did some great Wikipedia writing!

A guest blog post I wrote on teaching with Wikipedia just cam out. Check it out!

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Remember the rules on allowable questions for job candidates!

The best colleagues and friends!

Here in biology at Wash U, we interview for open faculty positions every year, usually. Now is the time we are doing this. It is really fun to meet these candidates, hear about their science, hear about what it is like where they come from, and explore common friends. These interviews last a couple days, or more if flights get cancelled. There are a lot of chances to talk together.

But this is not just talking with a friend. This is an interview. We are deciding which of our delightful candidates will be our colleague for life, or at least for the foreseeable future. The same rules apply to this situation which mixes formal and informal as applies in a very short interview.

There are things we cannot ask. My university has a handy list that we can refer to and they are generally the same everywhere. At the top of the list is we cannot ask about what prefix a woman prefers because this can reveal marital status, a forbidden question. For professors, this isn’t a problem, since they are all “Dr.,” I imagine. The list goes on to residence. We can’t ask if they live with someone for the same reason of revealing family information.

We cannot ask their age, race, or gender. We cannot ask their religion, citizenship, or national origin.

We cannot ask about family status of any kind, marital, child, child care, plans for future children. Not allowed.

We cannot ask for military service records, or type of discharge. We cannot ask the nationality, racial, or religious affiliation of any school attended. We cannot even ask how they learned a foreign language they speak.

We cannot ask for arrest or juvenile records, though we can ask about convictions. We cannot ask for references from clergy or any person that might reveal family or race and such. We apparently cannot ask if they have ever held an office.

We cannot ask for a photograph, whether they will work on religious holidays, anything about their physical make up. No questions on disability, though we can ask if they can perform the job. Basically, we can’t ask anything about things other than the job at hand.

But we can charm them with good news of how great Wash U is. We can tell them about the art museum, the City Museum, and the zoo. We can exude collegiality and have a great time.

Posted in Interviewing, Jobs, New assistant professor | Leave a comment

Active learning in research perspectives and science communication

Science is a lot more than measuring and testing ideas. It is a rich social endeavor with its own language, its own standards, its own ethics, and its own literature. Undergraduates miss out if they do not learn this. But they must also learn to communicate more broadly.

We attempt to help students learn both their own field and how to communicate it with a course that meets one evening a week, which we call Research Perspectives. Last semester was mixed models in R. This semester it is science communication. We will do a lot of different activities. Some people wonder what to do in class besides lecturing, so here I’ll share a few things we do, week by week.

Today, the first class, we read a paper recommended by mBio for effective writing. It is called Important Science – It’s all about the spin. This is by Arturo Casadevall and Ferric Fang. Even though it is only 3 pages long, it is unrealistic to have students just sit in class and read it. We did something else. We took the 4 points of the paper and assigned each to a pair of students. They were to read those few paragraphs, discuss them with their partner, then present that bit to the group for discussion.

It worked well. The first pair took on S, or size. It is the size of the potential audience and makes the important point that your study should be framed to interest the largest possible audience. The second pair took on P or practicality. They decided that what this really meant was importance of the findings. What good does it do to have a huge audience if you don’t have anything cool to tell them? The third group took on I or integration. This one is about the crucial point that science builds on what went before. Any new results must be put in context. Students need to read the literature and convey that in their writing. Finally, there is N, or new, which the final pair of students worked on. The piece is mixed on this one, first arguing against all the people that claim newness for their work. But it does have to be true that the work should be new at some level.

If from this little exercise the students really absorb the importance of interesting a broad audience with your work, making its importance clear, setting it in the frame of what went before, and identifying its advances, then they will have learned a lot. I think this level of learning does not come from a single activity. But consistent exposure combined with writing will ultimately make these students better scientists, I hope.

This one hour class followed a familiar formula. I or the TA say something for maybe 5 or 10 minutes. Then the students work independently for 7 or so minutes, then discuss with their partner, then present to the group. This gives them group speaking experience in a really low pressure way. I really liked the way they naturally had both partners speak. Katie and I could give opinions and perspective on each point after they and others spoke in ways I hope were more effective than if we had just lectured it. Now wait to see what next week holds!

Posted in class, Science writing for the public, Teaching, Uncategorized, Writing, Your lab group | 2 Comments