The power of coffee … a comfy sofa and a bit of a chinwag

When I was an undergraduate I walked into the coffee area of our zoology building and was informed that “some of the most important papers on animal behavior were written here”.  It was a somewhat ugly coffee area in an ugly concrete building, with vinyl covered plywood tables and bright orange upholstered bucket chairs that looked like they had escaped from Austin Power’s 1960s love pad. The coffee wasn’t even good, in fact the zoologists were highly envious of the botany department who had a tea trolley with excellent tea and chocolate covered cookies, but I digress… The coffee area was the place to be as that was where everyone in the department congregated, talked about what they were reading or working on, and most importantly, brain-stormed ideas.  Sure there was a certain amount of procrastination going on, with faculty avoiding having to go back to grading, hiding from sheets of data that had to be entered onto excel spread sheets, or balking at yet another hundred samples to analyze back in the labs. But the collegiality that there was in that coffee area: with undergrads chatting to the “silverbacks” of the zoology faculty, sharing their innovative ideas, and getting mentoring advice in return; or scientists from different disciplines advising on different or new techniques to colleagues that had encountered a brick wall in their research progress; was quite frankly more valuable than many lectures, and worth the price of a disgusting cup of instant coffee. Our department was not alone. At the famous big science facility CERN, home of the large hadron collider, there are whiteboards in the lunchrooms because when the scientists there get together they can’t but help brainstorm ideas, and this is encouraged as some of these lunch time collaborations have yielded important scientific fruit.

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that conferences are a necessity for the growth of an academic. They give you a chance to share your ideas with other academics to receive support, or possibly criticism, so that you can strengthen and refine your analysis and your interpretation of your data. They are important events to find out the methods and results of peers in your field, information that could be incorporated into your own studies. Informal places where you can get advice, share ideas and develop research and writing partnerships. Rare is the conference where I don’t come home with a note book full of contacts to email, studies to cite and methods to try out. You can travel around the world to find a venue to discuss and debate with your peers. But isn’t it ironic that there are often few of such places within a university?

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Scientific Stockholm Syndrome

In response to unprofessional behavior by another scientist, a marine science colleague recently stated that they were so used to bad behavior in their area of research that they just accepted it as normal, and that they basically had “Stockholm syndrome”. Sadly this all too common, that unprofessional behavior in some fields and areas is so common (whether it be academic bullying and hazing, plagiarizing and stealing ideas and data, or sexism and harassment see The Dark Side of Academia) that it becomes the accepted norm. This is particularly prevalent in fields that are small and insular.

stockholm

Stockholm, despite its associated syndrome, is really quite lovely

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Are you suffering from FOBLAB?

Warning: The following blog post contains some language that is NSWF. 

You are sat at a table of professionals within your field and they are discussing a topic you are very experienced with.  The group keeps mentioning common beginner errors that you could easily correct, but you don’t.  You sit quietly and sip your coffee.

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What kind of scientist do you want to – and should you – be?

Last month, I had the great privilege of attending the 100th Ecological Society of America meeting. This meant there were many opportunities to reflect upon the last century of ecological science and think about what worked, what didn’t, and where we go from here. As with many of the sciences, this involved a lot of hypothesizing about what a future successful scientific career will look like. Almost unanimously agreed upon was the fact that the rigid and one-track paths of the past are crumbling around us as we speak. Ecology also has much to teach the world, in an age of trying to deal with global issues of climate change, food security, and ecosystem service conservation.

In one of these sessions, a number of the speakers pointed to a book written about 1990’s scientific practice by Donald Stokes called Pasteur’s Quadrant. While an old reference now, the speakers encouraged us that we haven’t truly taken the message to heart yet, and that the type of inward gaze on scientific culture is exactly what we need today. In short, Stokes classified scientists into four types, depending on whether their mission was to advance understanding of the universe, help solve real-life issues, both, or neither. He then aligned some well-known scientists with each category.pasteur_quadrant

 

In the ecological world and the talks at ESA, the lower right quadrant was occupied by natural historians – people with deep local knowledge but without much practical use. Each person who presented the quadrants included a different natural historian, which made the general point: no one remembers people who work in this quadrant, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not important or that folks in other quadrants don’t rely on their work regularly.

More generally, the conversation of who goes where brings up an overlay of professional rewards. People who win Nobel prizes, or MacArthur awards in ecology, almost all fit in the Bohr quadrant. People remembered popularly by members of the public over centuries  almost all fit in the Edison quadrant. However, potentially the most impactful (if unappreciated) work falls within Pasteur’s quadrant, where it can meet the needs of both scientific and public audiences. Stokes went on to say that more people should be trained and rewarded for use-inspired research.

In the coming century of ecology, and all science, we are tasked with advancing our knowledge of the universe while also contributing to some very large global issues. Pasteur and others like him are living proof that achieving both goals simultaneously is possible. Not everyone can be Pasteur, as we rely on workers in all four quadrants to put together a complete scientific profile. But we could help out future generations by redefining one kind of success as use-inspired theory building. By cutting down the basic/applied divide and admitting that doing applied work does not make you a lesser scientist. And remember to give credit to your natural historians.

Graduate minions vs masterminds

The other day I overheard an academic tell an upcoming graduate student that they should pick a PhD project by finding an advisor who already had a project set up and who had funding and that they should do research where the funding was rather than where their interests lay. This was so totally contrary to my PhD experience it left me reeling.

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Is peer-review best left to academic journals?

If you have ever dealt with scientific data, you’ve probably encountered one of the shadier sides of science: academic publishing. While they’ve stood, in some cases, for centuries, as the official record of scientific advancement safeguarded under the watchful eye of peers, modern journals live in a modern world. Millions of words have already been spilled on the subject, so that’s not what this article is about. Instead, I’m left asking whether academic publishing is the only means of getting the stamp of peer-review these days?

The reasons leading me to ask this question are many, but primarily through working in a management arena lately. One example, in particular, highlighted many of the disconnects between the need for verified scientific data and the incentives of journals. This moment was at a Chesapeake Bay Program Sustainable Fisheries Goal Implementation Team meeting (for those of you not in the Chesapeake region, that’s a consortium of regional fisheries managers), where a room full of decision-makers needed a verified stock assessment of blue crabs to move forward with their management planning. Peer-review is the time-tested, well-understood, and arguably easiest means of verifying data. Read More

A poster to remember

Today I was at an undergraduate research event with our best and brightest presenting their research via posters – great science, but often dreadful posters.

Posters can be a great medium for getting your science over to an audience. They have the benefit that if you can draw people into your poster you can have a lot more intimate face to face discussion with your peers. But first you have to draw them in…

Increasingly poster sessions in conference are becoming large sprawling events, and your poster is going to have to compete for attention with hundreds if not thousands of other posters, with your audience having little time to browse, they may be distracted by friends and colleagues, they may be tired as poster sessions are often at the end of a long day of presentations, and possibly (probably) slightly to moderately drunk. Here are some simple tips for making a good poster that has impact.

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