Thursday, October 29, 2009

Time management for grad students and researchers

As researchers, we all have incredible demands on our time. These demands can quickly snowball, leaving us feeling like things are out of control. This lack of control over your priorities and responsibilities can lead to anxiety and depression and perhaps to dropping out of graduate school. Getting control and developing good time management skills can go a long way towards preserving your sanity and making grad school and a career in academic research enjoyable. All it really takes is planning, and knowing the things to plan for. The critical priorities that every student and/or researcher must plan, includes:
  • Writing/outlining research questions
  • Taking courses
  • Teaching
  • Appointments with supervisor and committee
  • Design/set-up experiments/studies
  • Data collection
  • Analyzing data
  • Writing papers/chapters/articles
  • Rewriting papers/chapters/articles
  • Meetings/presentations
  • Finding a publisher/lay out/submitting manuscripts
  • Administrative duties
  • Holidays
  • The unexpected!
All these things tugging at you all at once can make it difficult to start any single thing -because you feel the anxiety about not starting other things. Here are seven strategies for controlling your time and priorities, and helping you to cope with time stress.

1 - Live by the calendar, die by the calendar. Basically, schedule everything. With freely available calendars like Google's or Sunbird there is no reason to not adopt a calendar. Web-based calendars, mean you can be anywhere, on any computer and still have access. Be sure to share the calendar with lab mates and professors, so they know when you are booked. Schedule everything from meetings, to large slots of time dedicated to time-intensive things like reviewing a manuscript or data analyses.

2- Gimme a break! Working for four straight hours without a break will cause you to be less productive, than four hours with a 5 minute break every 40-60 minutes. Don't be afraid to get up from your desk in between tasks to reset your brain. You could also call or chat with someone, make a coffee, watch a Daily Show clip, update your Facebook status, etc. Don't feel guilty about the 5 minute solitaire game (only about the 2 hour ones).

3- Leave. Have a secret work spot. It could the back corner of a library, a coffee shop, home, or some special place. The point is to have a productive site where you are not tempted to do nonproductive things when you need to be focusing on a task. Leave your e-mail behind if possible and do not let colleagues know where you are. Make it your time.

4- Delegate. You do not need to do everything yourself. If you are collaborating, don't be afraid to ask collaborators to do something. If you are at a big university, search for undergrad volunteers to help out. If you are really swamped, ask a friend to help out with an experiment.

5- Write it down or lose it. I write down everything, and I do it for two reasons. First, I will forget it if it is not written down in front of me (which saves me anxiety about forgetting things). Secondly, these notes become defacto to-do lists which saves me time from having to think about what to do next. If I have ten minutes before a meeting and my list has me e-mailing someone, then I get the reward of ticking something off the list.

6- Enough is enough. Remember, it will never be perfect. Likely, the 13th draft of paper is not appreciably better than the 12th. Plus, reviewers will ALWAYS recommend revisions and you will never win a literary award for it. So if you pour your soul into a manuscript and take 2 years to write it, likely you'll be devastated when you are asked for major revisions. The important thing is getting it submitted and learning when enough is enough can go a long way toward freeing up valuable time.

7- Have fun. Likely, you got into research because you love science. If your work is tedious and boring, find some fun research to offset it. If you have to choose between two projects, and one seems like it will be personally more enjoyable, go for that one. Don't be afraid to shelve a unrewarding project for one that is fun and exciting. Most importantly, reward your self! When you submit a paper, take the rest of the afternoon off. When you finish an intense summer of field work, go to the beach for four days. Tell your close colleagues when you get a paper accepted or an award -you are not bragging, and they will always say 'congrats' or 'awesome', which feels nice. Whatever works as a reward, use it.

Remember, at the end of the day what matters is getting papers out and being a good collaborator/student/mentor/human being. Control of priorities and successful time management will make it a lot easier to get those papers out and be a relaxed, good person to be around.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Conscientious conservation?

A colleague once said at a bar that she didn't believe in "conservation genetics". I'm not quite sure which aspect she was disputing, but one certain conflict is between gearing research toward conservation, while watching chemicals and consumables go into the waste stream. Most of the reactions in my lab are done using pipet tips and tubes made of virgin polypropylene. Nobody wants to recycle this stuff - even though 99% of the chemicals we use are fairly meek reagents like ethanol, water, nucleotides, and barnacle DNA, there's just no way to guarantee the waste stream coming from a building that does molecular research (e.g. you'd probably balk if that plastic got melted down and used for toys). Researchers have enough problems with reactions going wrong to also worry about whether their supplies are contaminated with the products of reactions past. Still, we have to constantly consider how we can minimize waste in the lab.

Lab Waste from Eva Amsen on Vimeo.

As a marine biologist, I'm also very conscious where all this plastic eventually ends up. I'm entertaining ideas for tip and tube recycling, though it is barely worth the effort for a single lab to do so: my lab probably consumes about 10kg of virgin polypropylene a year, into the trash. Super bummer. But that recycling effort could be balanced out if I just got my entire lab (including me) to stop drinking so much soda! Better would be to find institutional solutions, and we're a long way off on that.

Of course a lab is more than plastic. There are chemicals - which we've chosen to avoid some of the nastier ones, like ethidium bromide (using Ames-tested GelRed instead), isotopes (fluorescent-labeled primers), but still must use a little bit of polyacrylamide and a few other things in very small quantities that you wouldn't want to put in a smoothie. There are heating and cooling costs, which we can't do a lot about in our grumpy 1980's-era building at the University of Georgia (we'll assume that under budget constraints physical plant is doing what they can in that regard, though we did install some motion sensors on lights in the auxiliary rooms).

And then, there are all the gizmos. For the holidays I got a fun gift: a Kill-A-Watt. As procrastination during grant writing, I decided not only to check the energy consumption of things at home, but things in the lab. I don't know whether I believe paying to balance carbon emissions works (though at $3/month, I do it anyway), but it is interesting to know what the footprint of a lab like mine is. To make a long story short, it's mostly about the computers. Each computer in my lab used around 5kWh/day - up to $150 in annual energy bills, and actually the only things that compete with computers are my big chromatography fridge and my ultracold freezers (the -80° will use around 6000kWh/year!). Anyway, by unplugging some things that weren't being effectively used - one of the refrigerators, some water baths, an incubator, 2 of the computers - and ensuring that the rest were using the most appropriate power-saving settings - I cut the kWh consumption of my lab (only counting plug-in stuff) by over 10%.

The question is, how does this energy usage affect the science? One could argue that my research program hasn't expanded to fill the resources I had available, or that I can only cut back to the detriment of productivity. Only time will tell! We may have to devise a metric for productivity per kWh - but right now if I calculate my Hirsch index per kWh, it is not the thrilling kind of number I want to run to the administration with. I better get back to work.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Fall colors redux

For those of us in temperate deciduous regions, now is the time of landscapes splashed in red, orange and gold. Here is a link to a post I wrote back in March about the evolutionary meaning of autumn colors. It seemed appropriate to dig it up.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Adaptation and dispersal = (mal)adapted

ResearchBlogging.orgEver since Darwin, we often think of organisms as being in a constant battle against other organisms and local environments. Thus natural selection and the resulting arms race results in organisms highly adapted to local conditions and against local antagonists. At the same time, and especially driven by theoretical advances in the 1990's, researchers began to ask how dispersal -that is, the flow of genetic material from elsewhere, can disrupt local adaptation. On the one hand it may provide genetic variation allowing for novel solutions to new difficulties. On the other hand, dispersal may reduce the prevalence of fitness-increasing genes within local populations.

In a simple but elegant experiment, Jill Anderson and Monica Geber performed a reciprocal transplant experiment, moving Elliott's Blueberry plants between two habitats. One population was from highland, dryer habitats and the other from moist lowlands. They further evaluated performance in greenhouse conditions. Their results, published in Evolution, show that these two populations have not specialized to local conditions. Rather, due to asymmetric gene transfer, lowland individuals actually performed better when planted in highlands than compared to their home habitat. Further, in the greenhouse trials, lowland species did not perform better under higher moisture conditions. While genetic or physiological constraints may also limit adaptation, Anderson and Geber present a fairly convincing case that gene flow is the culprit.

These results reveal that populations may actually be relatively mal-adapted to local conditions, which has numerous consequences. For example, we need to be cognizant of adaptations to particular conditions when selecting populations for use in habitat restoration and when trying to predict response to altered climatic or land-use conditions. Importantly what does this mean for multi-species coexistence? Dispersal seems to limit the ability to adapt, and thus, better use local resources or maximize fitness, making for a better competitor. At the same time, dispersal can offset high death rates, allowing for the persistence of a population that would otherwise go extinct. Understanding how these two consequences of dispersal shape populations and communities is an interesting question, and work like Anderson and Geber's provides a foundation for future studies.


Evolution DOI: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2009.00825.x

Mycorrhizal Networks: Socialists, capitalists or superorganisms?

ResearchBlogging.orgMycorrhizal networks – fungal mycelium that colonize and connect roots of one or more plant species – are a very intriguing type of fungal-plant association. There is evidence of substantial facilitation between plant individuals via these fungal networks. This can have drastic implications for our understanding of nature, given that the common perception is that other mechanisms, like competition, herbivory or dispersal, are the main drivers of plant community associations. This may be far from reality if the existence of “socialist” networks is widespread (e.g. the ability to connect and profit from a network may be more important than competitive abilities). In the last issue of the Journal of Ecology ( that has a very interesting special feature on facilitation in plant communities), Marcel Van der Heijden and Tom Horton conducted a review of the topic. They found a general positive effect of mycorrhizal networks on seedlings and large plants (i.e. plants tend to grow better if they are associated with a network). However, the reviewers also found some networks can have a neutral or even a negative effect on plants. The plant responses were highly variable depending on other variables including fungal species, nutrients availability, and plant identity. The positive effect of some fungal networks on seedlings growing nearby adult trees of its same species is somehow opposite to the predictions of the Janzen-Connell hypothesis. We need further studies to understand the overall importance of mycorrhizal networks in relation to other better understood mechanisms.

van der Heijden, M., & Horton, T. (2009). Socialism in soil? The importance of mycorrhizal fungal networks for facilitation in natural ecosystems Journal of Ecology, 97 (6), 1139-1150 DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01570.x

Saturday, October 17, 2009

The making of an open era

With the availability of open access (OA) journals, academics now have a choice to make when deciding where to send their manuscripts. The idealistic version of OA journals represents a 'win-win' for researchers. The researchers publishing their work ensure the widest possible audience and research has shown a citation advantage for OA papers. The other side of the 'win-win' scenario is that researchers, no matter where they are, or how rich their institution, get immediate access to high-caliber research papers.

However, not all researchers have completely embraced OA journals. There are two commonly articulated concerns. The first is that many OA journals are not indexed, in most notably Thomson Reuters Web of Knowledge, meaning that a paper will not show up in topic searches, nor will citations be tracked. I for one do not like the idea of a company determining which journals deserve inclusion, thus affecting our choice of journals to submit to.

The second concern is that some OA journals are expensive to publish in. This is especially true for the more prestigious OA journals. Even though such OA journals often provide cash-strapped authors the ability to request a cost deferment, the perception is that you generally need to allocate significant funds for publishing in OA journals. While this cost may be justifiable to an author for inclusion in a journal like PLoS Biology, because of the level of readership and visibility. However, there are other, new, profit-driven journals, which see the OA model as a good business model, with little overhead and the opportunity to charge $1000-2000 per article.

I think that, with the rise of Google Scholar, and tools to assess impact factors (e.g., Publish or Perish), assessing difference sources for articles is available. The second concern is a little more serious, and a broad-scale solution is not readily apparent.

Number of Open Access journals

Regardless, OA journals have proliferated in the past decade. Using the directory of biology OA journals, I show above that the majority of OA journals have appeared after 2000. Some of these have not been successful having faltered after a few volumes, such as the World Wide Web Journal of Biology which published nine volumes with the last in 2004. I am fairly confident that not all these journals could possibly be successful, but I hope that enough are. By having real OA options, especially higher-profile journals, research and academia benefit as a whole.

Which journals become higher profile and viewed as an attractive place to submit a paper is a complex process depending on a strong and dedicated editorial staff and emergent property of the articles submitted. I hope that researchers out there really consider OA journals as a venue for some of their papers and become part of the 'win-win' equation.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Nobel prize and the grandeur view of life

As news of the latest Nobel prizes in physics and medicine were announced, science became a central story for many news outlets. Numerous stories and interviews were held about the discoveries that earned the laureates their just rewards. I’ve heard interviews with medicine winners, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider (2/3 of the prize, the other being Jack Szostak), about their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, and with Willard Boyle (for physics) on inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit (i.e., digital recording of light). The media play up the applications to humanity. Telomeres and telomerase offer a deeper understanding of cancer and potential treatments. The digital recording of light gave us digital cameras (among a plethora of other technologies).

However, in the interviews with these great scientists, there was a common thread in what they said. They reiterated the need to support basic science and that the pursuit of curiosity-driven science is a worthy and valuable enterprise. I found the fact that they found it necessary to reiterate this to be interesting and something that interviewers thought worthy of reiterating themselves. I know that news stories need to relate to a person’s everyday experience, but, I think, basic science offers something more. To quote Darwin “There is grandeur in this view of life”. That is, while the products of science have surely improved our quality of live, science has given us something deeper and more meaningful. Basic curiosity-driven research has changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. We now look up at the stars and have a pretty good idea of what they are. We know what causes thunder and lightening. We understand why our pet cat looks kinda of like a lion and gorillas like people. We no longer look to superstition and myth to explain these aspects of nature. To me, this is the fundamental contribution of science to humanity, and I wish this were as celebrated as technological advances. Though being able to take 2 gigabytes of photos and movies when my daughter is doing something cute is pretty cool too, I guess.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Blog your way to North Carolina!

(sorry for reiterating what you may have already seen)

Science in a web-base universe now has the potential to link vast numbers of researchers together and be communicated to the global citizenry. Exploring the power of the web in science is the fourth annual Science
Online 2010 conference, which will be held from Jan. 14-17 in the Research Triangle Park, NC. The conference is free, but of course you still must pay for travel and housing. Unless of course you've written an outstanding evolution blog post! NESCENT, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, is offering two $750 awards for the best evolution blog post about an evolutionary-oriented paper published in 2009.

For more details see the Deep-Sea News post. Be sure to tell your blogger friends!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Exotic plants integrate into plant-pollinator networks

ResearchBlogging.orgAt almost any spot on the globe, there are species present that are not native to that locale, having been transported by human activities. Whether and how exotic species impact communities is a multifaceted problem that requires understanding the multitude of direct and indirect species interactions that occur. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, Montserrat Vila and colleagues asked if exotic plants where integrated into plant-pollinator networks, and whether this integration had any observable impacts on these networks. This is an important question, as most ecological theory predicts that plant-pollinator networks are actually quite resilient to perturbations since most associations tend to be between generalists as opposed to the more susceptible specialists.

They studied invaded plant communities across Europe, observing pollinator visits to flowers in multiple 50 x 50 m plots. They calculated connectance as the number of interactions standardized by network size. They showed that exotics fully integrated into plant-pollinator networks. Exotic species accounted for 42% of all pollinator visits and 24% of all network connections -a testament to the overall abundance of exotics in many communities. However, these exotics did not affect overall changes in network connectedness, revealing that these networks are quite robust to invasions.

That said, researchers must now ask if this is true in networks that do contain high numbers of specialists (e.g., orchids) or if the relative few specialists in generalist-dominated systems are more susceptible to changes from exotics.

Vila, M., Bartomeus, I., Dietzsch, A., Petanidou, T., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Stout, J., & Tscheulin, T. (2009). Invasive plant integration into native plant-pollinator networks across Europe Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1674), 3887-3893 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1076

Friday, October 2, 2009

How to keep up on your favorite journals

Researchers live busy lives. Either you are spending your waking hours writing grant proposals, running experiments, analyzing data, writing papers, preparing lectures, supervising students, attending committee meetings, and not to mention taking care of your personal life. Often the activity that slips to the bottom of this list is keeping up on the current literature. How should one go about maximizing their ability to efficiently peruse recent publications. I think the best approach is to use journals RSS feeds (otherwise known as Really Simple Syndication). RSS is a web format that allows publishers to syndicate the abstracts of papers as they are published online.

The simplest way to do this is to make sure you have a Google account and use their Google reader. If you go to a journal's website you click on either of these symbols:

You'll be sent to their RSS feed page and at the top is a subscription option and you can select Google to subscribe using:

When you click on 'Subscribe Now', it prompts you to select the Google homepage or reader -I use reader, but that just depends on your preference. You can subscribe to as many Journals as you want, and I think that all the major ones have RSS set up. Then to keep up on recently published papers, you simply go to your Google reader and scroll through the journals you have RSS subscriptions. Or if you check it more often, the reader keeps a list of the most recent items from all your subscriptions. No more getting e-mail alerts and no more going to a bunch of different journal pages.

By the way, you can also subscribe to this blog in the same way (see 'subscribe to' links on side panel).