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.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

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 commons.wikimedia.org. 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! https://wikiedu.org/blog/2018/02/22/secrets-of-teaching-with-wikipedia/

Posted in Teaching, Wikipedia | Leave a comment

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 | 1 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

You want to do research but how do you begin?

Dare I say every undergraduate should find a research home on campus? After all, don’t you want to learn at a deeper level how all the knowledge you learn in your classes is discovered? Don’t you want to go from watching the performance to participating? Can this be true for english, economics, and history majors just as it is for biology majors? I think so, but here will stick to what I know, biology. A research home will give your courses perspective. It will give you a friend on the faculty who can give you insight you would not otherwise have. It will provide a new group of friends among the other students in the lab.

So, how and when do you find a research lab to join? I’ll use the Frequently Asked Questions format, but first you might want to check what others have to say. I teach in a certain kind of institution and so what I say may not be broadly applicable, so best to check several different perspectives. Chelsea Prather has a great piece full of links to places you might go to search for summer experiences. Here is another with  lots of tips.

When should you join a research lab? Don’t wait until your senior year! If I had to pick an ideal time to begin research, I would say it is in the middle of your first year. You have one semester mastered and are wondering if there is something more. But don’t despair if you are past that stage since many begin in their sophomore or junior years. Even if you are a senior, if this is something you want to do, go for it.

How should I pick a lab? 1. Subject matter. As a first year, how can you even know what you might ultimately be interested in? Even later on, this might be hard. As much as possible consider your interests both in the kinds of techniques you want to use and the kinds of questions you want to ask. If you want to do field work and not be in a lab, choose accordingly, though a lot of field work is seasonal. Read the web pages of faculty taking students. Your university or college might have an office of undergraduate research. Ask them for help. You might use Scholarbridge or something similar.

How should I pick a lab? 2. Lab structure and philosophy. It is really important that the lab you join involve undergraduates in all aspects of research. You should not just collect data for another person. You should be taught how to analyze the data, how to ask questions, and how to read the relevant literature. Ultimately, you should give a research poster and you might even publish your research, though this latter point varies a lot among fields. From the mentor’s perspective, training an undergrad can be costly so there is a temptation to train them on one technique and leave them there. The best outcome is a balance that leaves the bench mentor, usually a grad student, postdoc, or more senior undergrad, rewarded while exposing the new undergrad to all aspects of research. We have a philosophy document, here. We also have a one credit course to help with the research experience. We do fun things like this at the beginning. So ask your friends about their research labs. Study the web pages. Find a place that values undergrads.

How should I pick a lab? 3. Credit or pay? Many research groups do not pay undergraduates except during the summer, or if they do pay them it is only to wash dishes and the like. I deplore this situation for it makes it so hard for students that need to work also do research. It is great if you do not need to be paid, but if you do, there are labs that will pay during the year at most universities, particularly if you make your case clear. If that is not possible, getting credit for research can mean you take fewer classes. Get the specifics up front.

How should I pick a lab? 4. Summer research. I highly recommend summer research. It is likely to be paid. It can be much more intensive since you have all your time to devote to it. If you do it on campus, you can continue the work during the academic year. But there are also advantages to going to field stations, or other places that offer different summer opportunities. Remember to seek out these opportunities and apply early.

How much time should I expect to do research per week? During the academic year, it is best to be able to do research 8 to 15 hours a week. Fewer than 8 and it is just hard to get anything done. You should also plan to go to lab meetings, and to attend departmental seminars in your research area. Take fewer credits and this will be feasible. You only need one major.

How can I get accepted by a research lab? Once you have picked a lab, or at least narrowed it down to a few, then is the time to contact the head of the lab. This will usually be the professor. This professor will have two basic considerations. They want to take on  a student that is respectful of the group in all ways. This means being punctual, letting your bench or field mentor know if you can’t make it, answering emails, all that stuff that makes you a responsible adult. It also means treating the equipment carefully, and letting us know if you break something. I hope you are a good person and all this is a given. The second thing we want to know is that you will love or grow to love what we study, and that we are a great mutual fit. Why do we care about grades and stuff like that? It is because decent grades indicate you are respectful of yourself and your classes. You go to class, you do the work, you exhibit the behaviors that will make you a good lab citizen. We don’t mind if you are a genius, but we don’t expect it.

Our wonderful undergrads!

What should I do on the first contact? Contact the professor by email. The email should tell who you are and why you are contacting this professor. You should talk about some of the projects that the professor published on recently, or that show up on the web page, and indicate that you read them and are interested. You should send the professor your Resume or Curriculum Vita, and an unofficial version of your transcript. If you have any friends already working in the lab, mention them. You should ask for a meeting.

What should I do at the interview? You should listen to the professor. You should come with a list of questions, maybe 3 on the research, one on lab policies (what are they), one on how you can succeed in this group. Ask questions if the person says things you don’t understand. Act interested. Personally, if I interview you, you are likely to have the position. I find it very hard to judge undergrads. The biggest way they fail is by not having enough time for research.

How should I follow up the interview? Write the professor an email thanking them for the interview. Ask any additional questions that occurred to you. And remember, professionally we communicate by email, not texts.

What next? If you get the position, great. If you don’t move on to the next person. I don’t think it is a good idea to have multiple people in play at once, so you deserve a timely answer.

Go for it!

Posted in Recommendations, Research, Uncategorized, Undergraduates | Leave a comment