ECR Spotlight Series: Samreen Siddiqui

In an effort to showcase and amplify the voices of early career researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior, we are sharing their stories, in their own words.

Dr. Samreen Siddiqui

Post-doctoral Scholar, Oregon State University

Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?

I got my undergraduate from GBPUAT, Pantnagar, India, and landed in the UK for my first MS degree in Aquatic Ecosystem Management. From there I spent a few years working professionally.  Since a 1 year taught MS was not acceptable to enter into a PhD, I needed to redo a MS in biology with focus on ecotoxicology from Valdosta State University, GA. From there I met my PhD advisor at a SETAC Conference and joined Texas A&M University–Corpus Christi (TAMUCC) for my terminal degree. I graduated with my son last summer and am now working as a postdoctoral scholar at Oregon State University.

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ECR Spotlight Series: Juliano Morimoto

In an effort to showcase and amplify the voices of early career researchers in ecology, evolution, and behavior, we are sharing their stories, in their own words.

Juliano Morimoto, DPhil (Oxon.) FLS FRES FRSA

Research Fellow, University of Aberdeen

Can you give us the rundown on your ECR journey thus far, from what type of undergraduate institution you went to, to your current position?

I started my journey in my home country, Brazil. After completing my basic education in public schools (which in Latin America, are of ever-declining quality), I was miraculously admitted to a public University in 2009, at the age 17, thanks to the social quota system. That was when I started my academic journey in my BSc in Biological Sciences at the Federal University of Paraná. During my first year, I was discriminated in the University and in the society in two ways: by being Latino mixed race and by having benefited from the social quota. In fact, I was denied student housing simply because I came from a low-middle income class family and a few of my classmates told me I did not deserve to be at the University. In addition to this, during my first years of University, I faced several adversities (both financial and emotional) which were difficult to overcome. For example, one of the professors in the course admitted (at the end of the semester) that she “tried to humiliate me in front of the class to prove I wasn’t worth to be there, and did everything she could to give me low grades”. But in 2010, I met my first ‘angel’ – Prof Elaine Benelli – who took me under her wings, mentored me, and gave me not only an undergraduate stipend (which helped with living), but also connected me to her international collaborators in the field of Structural Biology. Despite not speaking English well (in fact, I did not speak at all English until the age of 15), Prof Benelli encouraged me to apply for an international undergraduate scholarship in 2012, to visit my second angel: Dr Silvia Onesti in Trieste. Dr Onesti hosted me and gave me the opportunity to complete my monography in her group (equivalent to an Honours thesis) at the Synchrotron in Trieste, Italy. That was my first international trip – an international trip I never thought it would be possible for me. 

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ASN GC statement on anti-Black racism

The ASN GC affirms that Black Lives Matter and that anti-Black racism has no place in our community. We encourage all ASN members to read the society’s statement condemning anti-Black racism here. The statement includes a list of actions that we can take, as well as resources.

Importantly, the statement also includes a place to share any ideas you may have about how the society can work to reduce racism and its effects within the scientific community. We are strongly committed to backing up our words with actions, and the society is currently discussing concrete plans for future programs and initiatives.

Please reach out if you would like to be involved in these efforts, or if you have ideas about what we can do as a community. We are also here to listen to anyone who is suffering or struggling in the aftermath of the horrifying recent events. You can reach ASN through the link above, and us on the grad council at ASNgrads ‘at’ gmail.com, or on twitter @asngrads.

Conflict resolution—a hard “soft” skill

We all experience conflicts in our professional and personal lives, and a lot of conflicts can be challenging to resolve for many reasons. Maybe there’s a power imbalance if you have a conflict with your advisor, or maybe there’s scientific and emotional tension if you are having trouble navigating the shared lab workspace. Also, if you are a people pleaser like me, you might be a conflict avoider, but often it can be healthy and productive to work to resolve a conflict. I’m going to outline a technique that you can try, suggest how to prepare for a conflict resolution conversation, and provide ideas for additional resources.

Ready to resolve some conflicts? Here we go!

A technique you can try: Here is one framework that you can use to facilitate having a conversation about a conflict and developing a plan for resolving that conflict. This framework has several steps, but following the whole progression will help to both set up the conversation in the best light and then help to make sure that things change as a result of the conversation. In addition to talking through feelings and experiences, developing a concrete plan is a critical piece of resolving a conflict. I learned about this method from a leadership development course for life scientists that I took at Cornell University. I highly recommend looking for similar opportunities on your campus (more on that below).

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5 Ways to Get your Fieldwork Fix

Kelsey Lyberger (PhD student, UC Davis)

Maybe you are deep in the analysis and writing phase of your dissertation or maybe you do theoretical work. Whatever the reason, I often find myself itching to get outside. Here are some of the ways I get my fieldwork fix.

  1. Small-grant Funding: If you are looking to start up a new field study there are lots of small pots of money you can apply for. For example, many field stations and reserves have graduate student funding opportunities aimed to increase use. Other places to look are societies, such as ASN also offer student research grants, and university or department specific grants. I got my feet wet—literally—by starting up a long-term survey at a pond at one of the UC nature reserves, when they funded my proposal to look at genetic diversity in Daphnia. Now I have the excuse (obligation?) to drive out once a month to sample.
  2. Educational Outreach Programs: My favorite K-12 outreach program (and I’ve participated in a bunch over the years) is the KiDS program, which is run at a low-income, minority-serving elementary school next to one of my study sites. The students first run their own 9-week experiment growing plants in serpentine and loamy soils. The curriculum was created by a past graduate student and aligns with 5th grade learning standards. On the last day of the program, we take them on a full-day field trip to a natural reserve 20-min down the road to see those serpentine soils! Kids spend the day outside participating in activities led by ecology PhD students, many of whom get to talk about the research experiments they’re doing at that very reserve.
  3. TA a field course: This requires some taxon specific knowledge, but maybe less than you would think if you’re enthusiastic about learning more about that group. If you’re on the fence, it might be worth talking to the professor who teaches the class. This job often comes with the responsibility of handling logistics of field trip planning but is definitely worth it when you get to teach outside.
  4. Follow empirical friends: Ask fellow graduate students if they could use a hand. But be prepared for less than ideal conditions. Some of my favorite memories are from doing this because unlike normal people who go out in nature when it’s nice outside, ecologists go out when it’s dark, buggy, and rainy. I’ve identified algae in the intertidal at 4am, I’ve caught honeybees on busy street corners, and I’ve measured plants during a storm. I have also been on the receiving end of this, where grad student friends hiked up mountains to help me and I can’t thank them enough.
  5. No reason needed: Keeping work and play separate can be a good thing. Sometimes doing “real” fieldwork can get stressful. Remembering to record a million details, needing that one last observation or collection to get equal sample sizes, keeping things alive or cold to bring back to lab …the list goes on. It’s easy to start to attach those anxious feelings to the environment. So, every once in a while, I take the time to be outside just for the fun of it and remind myself that one of the reasons I entered into a PhD in evolution and ecology is because of the inherent joy the natural world brings me.

Choosing Our Words Carefully: Challenges in communicating science

Emma Lehmberg, PhD student
Rosenthal Lab, Texas A&M University

Currently, I am engaged in a truly arcane, largely benign dispute with my PhD advisor. 

In phylogenetics, sometimes you’ll see the phrase “true tree” written – this is the tree that represents the relationships as they have existed in nature. They are not hypotheses but the ideal truth of how these organisms have evolved. 

To my advisor, a true tree is undiscoverable because we cannot observe – or indirectly observe through precise modelling – the evolution of each taxon in a tree.  We can only ever estimate the relationships. I, on the other hand, believe that this tree is a possibility, that each phylogeny that is published with additional data is a step towards what these relationships truly are.

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Enhancing Figures: ggplot2 to Adobe Illustrator

Simon Tye, PhD student
Siepielski Lab, University of Arkansas

Introduction

Many graduate students use the open-source programming language R to compile, examine, and visualize data. For visualizations, online resources (e.g., R Cookbook) and major R packages (e.g., ggplot2, lattice, leaflet, plotly) are often the first steps taken. While these packages allow users to create a wide variety of captivating figures, it may be cumbersome to write code that performs the required task within a specific package’s framework.

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Electronic Lab Notebooks: Hope or Hype?

The lab notebook has long been hallowed as the fundamental unit of scientific research. From the cuneiform tablets to meticulous scrolls, written records of scientific discoveries have played a key role in human innovation. Because of this importance, before I switched to an electronic lab notebook, I would often wake up in a cold sweat, dreaming that fire, flood, or calamity had befallen the lab overnight and all of my treasured data and lab notebook had been forever lost. But in the wonderful age of cloud computing and digital documents, my fears are assuaged. In case of emergency, my trusty electronic lab notebook has my back.

What is an electronic lab notebook?

An electronic lab notebook is a complete and semi-digital set of documents that are stored on a device and often also in the cloud. Entries could be entirely stored in an app (either made for lab notebooks or a generic note-taking app) or exported in a generic file format (i.e. .pdf) and stored in your normal file system (i.e. Finder/Documents). These files, whether in an app or in your own filing system, are typically backed up in the cloud. This increases security (in case of loss/destruction/theft of your device) and also allows you to access your entries from other devices (such as at home or on the go from your phone). I will go into detail about how I manage each of these aspects in this blog post.

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Exploring Careers Outside of Academia

by Shengpei Wang

Determining which career you want to pursue can be a daunting task. In addition to loving research, part of my motivation for getting a PhD was to kick that decision down the road a bit. However, I need to find the path that’s right for me eventually, and it’s better to start early. Whether you have interests in staying in or leaving academia, I want to urge you to start to consider your future and take action, now.

There are many career options after getting a PhD. The most traditional route is to pursue a tenure track position at a R1 University. However, the supply of qualified PhDs greatly outnumbers available tenure track positions, especially in Biology. Just think about how many students your lab will train throughout your advisors’ career, that number minus one is the oversupply your lab produces (see this blog https://lucklab.ucdavis.edu/blog/2018/7/4/job-market for more involved calculations). Most of us will develop careers other than becoming a tenure track faculty. Within academia, there are roles such as non-tenured teaching positions, university administrators, student services, lab managers, staff scientists, etc. There are even more opportunities outside of academia, including non-academic research scientists, medical science liaison, science writers, management consultants, etc. I am not trying to persuade you to stay or to leave academia but to point out that only a very small number of us will reach the goal that most of us set out to achieve. Making a career choice may not be easy, but you will be better off if you start early.

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Work smarter, not harder: Resources for time management in graduate school

by Callie Chappell 

I’m a little obsessed with work efficiency. I track all of my time (details below), take notes on an iPad, and have a calendar that most people would shudder at. Throughout my life, people know me as the person to help “get s**t done.” However, I have a dirty secret: most of the time, I keep a 40-hour work week. And I don’t just keep a 40-hour work week, but I also regularly take long weekends, go on vacation, and spend a little too much time cleaning my apartment…I mean procrastinating.

This obsession with work efficiency was motivated by a sly comment I overheard while in high school. Working the check-in table at parent-teacher conferences, I overheard a classmate’s mother point at me and whisper, “that Callie, she’s a hard worker, but she’s not very smart.” Although it took some time for my self-confidence to recover, it motivated me to show her—and the world—that I could work harder and smarter.

In this post, I want to share some of the resources I use to maximize my work efficiency and I’d love to hear your strategies as well.

Calendars:

As an undergraduate, I used a Passion Planner to outline my time management for each day. I loved the Passion Planner because I could visually block off my time and included a wide range of times. Additionally, Passion Planner includes a variety of personal and professional goal-setting tools, both over the long and short-term. Although I no longer use the Passion Planner (I switched to a completely digital system) I still utilize these goal-setting strategies and I know several graduate students who love using the Passion Planner.

Other similar products include the Bullet Journal and the hipster’s (do people even talk about hipsters anymore?) favorite, the Moleskine.

Now, I keep several digital calendars for different topics (lab, the official lab calendar, university events, social events, coordinating with undergraduates I supervise, classes, etc.) and since they are mixed Google calendars and Outlook calendars (for some reason, Stanford no longer uses Gmail, much to my extreme displeasure), I sync them all through iCal. I also send scheduled to-do items from Todoist into their own separate calendars, but I will talk more about Todoist below.

Project Management:

As graduate students, we balance several projects at once. Most projects have many moving parts, collaborators, and perhaps also undergraduate research assistants. Because I often have a bazillion things on my plate, it’s useful for me to break each project into chunks, assign myself a soft deadline for each chunk, and also outsource those chunks to collaborators and other researchers. Luckily, some companies have thought much more about efficient management than most researchers, and I took a leaf out of the business school book when designing my project management strategy.

I use a combination of Trello and Todoist. Both are digital apps that can be organized by projects and integrate due dates and check lists. Most importantly, they can be shared with collaborators that can edit checklists and projects in real time.

I use Trello to organize projects. Each research project (dissertation chapter/paper) gets its own “Board” in Trello, which I can share with other Trello users to collaborate on. Below is an example I was working on for a summer, primarily in collaboration with two exemplary undergraduate researchers in the lab. As you can see here, for each board, I can create “Cards” for each component in the project. In each card, I can include check-lists, due dates (with calendar integration), attach documents, and do many other functions (see below). I move cards that I’m working on into “working” and “done” piles. This project management strategy is also useful for working on a team and especially with working with undergraduates. I can track which components of projects undergraduates are working on in Trello as they move cards from “to-do”, to “working” and “done” piles, as well as individual items on the checklists. This is especially useful to help undergrads work autonomously. I also ask undergraduates to upload scanned copies of their lab notebook pages to corresponding Trello cards to keep up-to-date on their experiments, even if I don’t see them in the lab.

Trello 1.png

Figure 1: This is what the desktop Trello interface looks like on Mac (personal information redacted). The web interface looks similar. As you can see, we have various “cards” (each labelled with the notebook, project, and experiment number) in “stacks” of “to-do”, “doing”, “done”, and “no longer doing”. Each of the 5 members working on this project had access to edit this board and we communicate with Slack (which Trello interfaces with). Additionally, Trello syncs with our team calendar, which also helps use coordinate lab work and stay on the same page with due dates. Trello also apparently syncs with GitHub and BitBucket (the Atlassian GitHub equivalent – Trello is an Atlassian product), although we’re not currently using this feature.

Trello 2

Figure 2: Within each card, we can include a summary of each experiment, a to-do list for the experiment, and attach files such as lab notebook pages, analysis, and figures. We use a shared Google Drive as the repository for all files, but Trello is a nice central area to refer to the status and key findings for each experiment. Personal information has been redacted.

As a compliment to Trello, I also use Todoist, which is a mega to-do list app (as the name implies). I don’t know about you, but I find the satisfaction of checking an item off a to-do list one of life’s great pleasures. In Todoist (see below), you can make multiple to-do lists for different tasks (some of my categories include various projects I’m working on, lab deadlines, class deadlines, re-occurring meetings, etc.) and each task is assigned a deadline, so it only shows up on my daily to-do list on the day it is relevant. Todoist also syncs with Google Calendar and iCal, so my to-do list items show up on my calendar as well, so I can plan around big (and small) deadlines that aren’t a calendar event. Todoist also lets you rank the urgency of various tasks, lets you tag tasks into categories, and tracks your accomplishments over time, in case you are interested and make weekly charts of what you’ve completed. Not that I do that…Also, you can share to-do lists with collaborators and assign different tasks to different collaborators.

Todoist

Figure 3: This is what the Todoist interface looks like on Mac (personal information redacted). As you can see, you can create various projects, and within each project, assign various tasks with due dates. For any given day, you can see which tasks are assigned for that day and which project they belong to. 

Time Management:

As graduate students, we often have more work than hours in the day. For me, the constant pressure to always be doing more has been challenging to combat, and at some points, mentally debilitating. I’ve tried to address this by tracking my time and letting myself feel okay about stopping work at 40 hours. A wise former graduate student told me this trick, and I’ve found it helps me stay focused when working and feel okay about not working. Of course, sometimes I work much more than 40 hours and other times, take time off.

However, I keep track of my hours using toggl, an old-fashioned timer for the 21st century. You can create “projects” and track the time spent on various tasks on the desktop or web interface, as well as their sleek app (see below). Toggl also generates weekly, monthly, yearly, (or any time you want) reports of your work, as well as the tasks you’ve worked on and how much time you spent. You can also use toggl to track billable hours, if you’ve got a side hustle. I use their weekly and monthly report feature to reflect on how I am spending my time and make adjustments.

Toggl

Figure 4: This is what the toggl desktop interface (right) and toggl online summary report looks like. As you can see, you can assign each task to a project, as well as a tag (for experiments, I used tags for each individual experiment number that corresponds to my lab notebook so I know how long each experiment takes me). Online, I can track how much I worked per day, as well as what tasks I spent my time on. This is what my last week looked like.

However, despite capping my obligatory work week at 40 focused hours, I don’t want to compromise what I’m able to accomplish. One helpful tool for time management, especially when working on heavy focus tasks like reading or writing, is the Pomodoro technique. Our lab has weekly/bi-weekly 2-hour writing sessions where we use this method. Essentially, you work really hard for a set amount of time (such as 25 minutes), followed by a short break (such as 5 minutes). These sessions are timed and seem to help us feel more productive and focused.

Finally, I think it’s important to note when you are working. Everyone is productive at different times, and it’s important to be aware of when you are most productive, creative, or hungry and plan your time around your natural rhythms. For example, I am very good about analytical tasks that require a lot of focus in the mornings, intellectually useless in the afternoons (optimal for mechanical tasks!), and very creative at night. Therefore, I reserve the mornings for reading papers and working on analysis, doing lab work in the afternoon, and writing in the evening.

Goal setting:

Knowing how you’re spending your time is much less important than feeling empowered about what you’re spending your time doing. I attended a great workshop earlier this year at the infamous Stanford d.school addressing vision and goal setting in scientific research. I got two main things out of that workshop about goal setting. First, goals can be ambitious, but must be broken down into actionable chunks. Second, goals must be prioritized by importance and urgency. One way to do that is to use an Eisenhower Matrix: take all goals for a set amount of time (i.e. a week, and break down each item into importance and urgency items in order to decide what to tackle immediately, what to tackle later, and what to delegate. I make yearly, monthly, and weekly goals with this method and revisit the goals at the end of each period, as well as compare my goal list with how I spent my time with the toggl reports. The Passion Planner has great built-in tools for goal setting as well, which was why I loved using mine for so long. One feature I especially appreciated was making space for personal, as well as professional, goals each week.

Electronic Lab Notebooks:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I used an electronic lab notebook (ELN). Although this is a topic for another blog post, I do want to briefly mention that I have found using an electronic lab notebook very helpful to replicate experiments, keep data organized, and collaborate. I use Microsoft OneNote (totally free!) on an iPad with an Apple Pencil and keep both sterile by putting the iPad into a gallon freezer bag and the Apple Pencil in a Ziplock sandwich bag, spraying both down with ethanol. Yes, the Apple Pencil works fine through two plastic bags. Another free (for academics) electronic lab notebook system many like is Benchling. Although not widely adopted by ecologists, Benchling is well organized and has great support for molecular biology.

Even if you choose not to use any of these free apps, I hope this blog post was helpful in terms of thinking about productivity and project management. Even though I’m not a Facebook, Google, or Apple employee, going to school in the heart of Silicon Valley has encouraged me to embrace the campy-ness of innovation in my lab and life.