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 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.

Continue reading “Exploring Careers Outside of Academia”

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.


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.


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.


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 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.


Organizing outreach events in the biological sciences

By Sheela Turbek

A basic understanding of biological processes is necessary for informed decision-making on societal issues such as public health, food security, and conservation. However, despite scientific consensus on many biological topics, including the validity of evolutionary theory, the benefits of vaccination, and the contributions of human behavior to climate change, these ideas continue to be subject to widespread debate by the general public. The United States is particularly culpable of low levels of scientific literacy. A 2015 poll by the Pew Center, for example, revealed that only 62% of U.S. adults believe that humans and other living beings have evolved through time. A mere 33% of the surveyed adults conceded that these beings evolved as a result of natural processes. One must look no further than the results of this poll to recognize the major disconnect that often exists between scientific consensus and public opinions regarding scientific topics.

As graduate students in the biological sciences, we have a responsibility to close this gap between scientific consensus and public understanding by learning how to effectively communicate our findings in a manner that is accessible to the general public. Organizing outreach events is a great way to practice science communication skills and break down common misconceptions about biological ideas and the scientific process. These events can range from one-time activities that require a low level of commitment (e.g., organizing a public lecture on a scientific topic or visiting a school to discuss careers in the biological sciences) to lasting partnerships with local organizations in order to enhance scientific literacy.

Below are several ideas for outreach activities that would be feasible to organize as graduate students. However, feel free to get creative! The possible ways in which to engage the general public in scientific research are endless.

  • Partner with a local museum to organize a monthly or annual event aimed at increasing public understanding of biological concepts such as evolutionary theory
  • Organize a public lecture that targets non-traditional audiences or coordinate with an established program that connects scientists with the public in informal settings such as coffee shops, restaurants, and bars (e.g., Science Cafés and Pint of Science)
  • Organize a nature walk that introduces participants to the natural history of local flora and fauna
  • Incorporate a citizen science component into your research. Check out this website for a cool project that leverages citizen science to study the abundance and diversity of native bees and wasps in Colorado
  • Participate in 30-60 minute Q&A sessions about the life of a scientist with classrooms around the world through Skype a Scientist
  • Organize an interactive event for undergraduate students (particularly non-science majors) at your university to enhance public understanding of evolutionary principles
  • Work with local middle and high school teachers to develop science curriculum through the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Teachers (RET) program
  • Hold a training workshop for public middle and high school teachers that provides innovative ways to teach topics such as climate change or evolutionary theory in the classroom

Depending on the type of outreach event that you are interested in planning, you may require financial support. Several funding sources exist to promote educational outreach activities in ecology and evolutionary biology:

In addition, some universities offer internal funding for outreach initiatives aimed at making research more accessible to the general public and strengthening relationships with the community.

In the post-truth era in which we arguably now live, it is more important then ever to convince the public that our research matters and that continued support for the biological sciences is a worthwhile endeavor. Organizing outreach events to increase scientific literacy and share recent scientific findings with the broader community will not only heighten public awareness of the importance of ongoing research, potentially improving our ability to secure funding in the future, but also increase diversity in the biological sciences by making science more accessible to audiences that have traditionally been excluded from the scientific process. Finally, participating in outreach initiatives will allow you to practice communicating the impact and relevance of your work clearly and concisely to diverse audiences, thereby making you a more effective writer, educator, and scientist.


How to get a Postdoc: It’s never too early to start thinking about it.

By Abigail Pastore

Assuming you intend to incorporate research in your future career, you will probably need to get a postdoc position.  Most academic positions expect job candidates to have at least a year as a postdoc to provide evidence of their skills as a researcher beyond their dissertation.  Possible career paths facilitated by a postdoc include professor positions at R1 institutions, small liberal arts colleges (SLACs), primarily undergraduate institutions (PUIs), and conducting research for government, non-profit or industry jobs.  

Regardless of your career plans, there are a few different strategies that an individual can mix and match to find the postdoc position that is correct for them.

A continuum of certainty

Graduating students generally fall on a continuum of how certain they are about what they want to research at the next step.  Some individuals know exactly what questions they want to address and how, and just need to find the support to do the work.  Other students may feel that a wider range of research topics would be acceptable. Depending on where a student falls on this continuum could dictate the path leading to their ideal job.

Here I outline three strategies for finding postdocs depending on the student’s degree of certainty regarding research topics.  These strategies are not mutually exclusive and can be mixed and matched.

On one side on the continuum: ‘I know exactly what project I want to do next.’

If this is the case, then write up that proposal ASAP.  Seriously, go write a rough draft right now.  There are several grants that you could apply for to take funding into your own hands, and the sooner you start preparing these grant applications the better.  Plus, it never hurts to clarify your ideas with the process of writing!  The added benefit of writing your proposal now is that it will be easier to talk to EVERYONE you meet about it.  This will help you get lots of feedback and aid in networking to find someone who might sponsor your research.  If you already have someone in mind to work with on the project, email them right away and talk to them about prospects of working together.  Send them a decent draft of your research proposal to show them how you are committed.

On the other side of the continuum: ‘I would be happy working on any number of different projects.’

If you’d be happy working on many different projects and are a bit crunched for time, getting on relevant listservs will give you an idea of what jobs are available.  Popular listservs are ECOLOG and EVOLDIR.  They are fun to watch in and of themselves, but you may want to filter emails using the word ‘postdoc’ so you don’t go nuts from getting hundreds of additional emails a week.  As you see job ads go by, make a spreadsheet that helps you keep due dates and application requirements straight.  Start early and apply for as many jobs as you can stomach.  The advantage of starting before you are ready for a job is that the first version of your applications will not be the best, so work out those bugs before its crunch time. And who knows, the perfect job may be willing to wait for you.

Anywhere in the middle of the continuum: ‘I’m not totally certain what I want to research, but I’ve narrowed it down.’

If you have some project ideas or favorite faculty members in mind, you can go ahead and start contacting people about opportunities they might have.  Make a list of the people you’d like to work with and email them to ask if they are interested in having a postdoc.  Ask if you can write a proposal together.  Start very early if this is the route you want to take because you will need a bit of luck for things to work out.

Mix and match these three strategies to suit your individual needs.  Common factors: (1) Start early. (2) Talk to lots of people.  To that end, be visible in the community, give talks at conferences, participate in national societies, and take other opportunities that arise.  When you talk to as many people as possible it will help refine your ideas, and improve your odds in this numbers game.  Talk to other graduate students and postdocs- it’ll put you in touch with other labs, and postdocs often become faculty members with big startup salaries from which they could hire you as a postdoc.  Finally, be productive so that people trust that you will help them be productive.

General tips for applications and interviews:  Always be genuine and honest about your interests and abilities-you want a job that fits you well.  If you go somewhere under false pretenses, everyone loses.  Emphasize what you can bring to the table, not what you are hoping to gain.  Do your homework- show researchers that you know their work and are interested in them specifically.  Once you get that interview, remember: you need to find out if this is the right job for you!  You are not begging for a job, you are looking for the glass slipper that fits. Talk to all the people in the lab you are interested in to find out about the lab culture and what it is like to work with their PI.  Also ask lots of questions to determine if these are the people you want to be spending your work day with.  You will get a job you want, it might just take time (and publications).  Most importantly on this journey: don’t panic!

Also check out some more blogs on the subject!


Have you got additional advice for prospective postdocs? Questions not addressed here? Job search horror stories?  SHARE THEM IN THE COMMENTS BELOW☺

Bioinformatics skills – How to get them and not get scared

by: Samridhi Chaturvedi
If you are working in the field of Ecology and Evolution, it is important to build a skills toolbox which can come in handy to visualize, analyze and work through your data. These skills are a set of standard practices that you could start developing which make your work easy and smooth. Here are some skills which can constitute your toolbox:

1) Learn a language



If you are dealing with big data (ecology or evolution), you will eventually have to develop programming skills to help you manipulate, visualize and analyze your data. This can be quite overwhelming if you do not have prior programming experience. To start developing these skills, you generally have to learn a programming language. I feel there are several languages which are being used in the field at present and each of them have their pros and cons. There is Perl, which is older and is great when working with regular expressions (read more about regular expressions here). There is Python which is newer and is more intuitive. Then there is C/C++ which are compiling languages and using them involves a steeper learning curve. C/C++ are used extensively for theoretical/mathematical modelling and also for developing packages. These are all important skills to build but it is important to recognize that you can spend a lot of time learning and implementing these languages.

I say choose one language between perl and python to start learning the ropes of programming. There are some really helpful interactive learning spaces for both these languages.

Here are the ones I have found helpful:

  • Jupyter ( This is an IDE and interactive website which helps you practice Python interactively.
  • Learn perl ( This is my goto online IDE for learning and testing my perl code.
  • Regex ( If you are working on genomic data and use Regular Expressions in scripts to detect specific sample IDs, lines etc to modify your data or calculate number of mapped and unmapped reads in fasta files (just an example), this tool really helps you learn how to write regular expressions for your data. What more, you can actually paste a piece of your text and write a regex to detect specific matches.

The other language widely used for statistical analysis and data visualization is R (free) or MATLAB (paid). I use R extensively so here are my pointers for learning R:

The more you practice the more you learn. The earlier you can start learning R, the better!! This will save you a lot of time in dealing with your data. There are many different only resources for getting started in R, but here is one basic one:

Even after working with R for a long time now, I still find myself Googling for specific commands and options. Here are the three most trustworthy sites which always have an answer to my questions:

These websites also have defined sections which walk you through simple R commands. For example, the sections on plots tell you how to make different kinds of plots, how to modify them and customize them to your data.

Beyond all of these resources, a simple google search can always help you and StackOverflow always has some amazing solutions to problems. It was only in my second year that I realized a PhD in Evolutionary Genomics requires some kick-ass googling skills!


2) Choose your favorite script editor/text editor


While you learn programming, it is ideal to select a script/text editor and to fall in love with it! I say this because switching between various script editors can be confusing and time consuming.Script/text editors help you edit your code and keep everything organized. Here are some of my suggestions:

  • VIM/VI ( If you are a programming nerd and like to work on a Terminal, this might be a good choice. However, recognize that it requires some time to learn vim and it is not unusual to find yourself trapped in the editor and even wonder how to exit the editor! Having said that, once you get a hang of it, you really can do a lot with just one editor.
  • Gedit. This comes preinstalled with linux/ubuntu systems and is very very easy to learn. Probably the simplest text editor to start working with and to use everyday.
  • EMACS ( Similar to VIM and requires some learning but again really powerful.
  • ATOM/SUBLIME?NOTEPAD++ = Editors which are more user friendly and are almost like MS Word.

All these are great tools, but you can choose one which works best with your work environment. I personally use VIM because I work on a TERMINAL and usually work on a remote computer cluster.


3) Managing data – scripts, sequences


When it comes to managing your data and mostly your analyses, I find it useful to keep detailed notes for my workflow for every project I am working on. I use my lab’s google notes website to do this but you can use alternative notes taking tools to do this (Endnote, Google Drive). The main things which each project page consists of are : a) my folder and file details where I literally write out each folder and details of each of the file in the folder. It is also good to keep a “readme” file in the folder to help you remember what each file in the folder is about, b) I write out step by step notes of each analysis and describe the scripts I used for analysis. If there are some specific options used through command line tools, I describe each of these options, and c) A list of analyses I hope to do for the project in the future.

Believe me, you can forget your data locations within a week/month if you step away from the computer. I store all my scripts remotely on the institution computer clusters. Another way to archive important scripts which will be reused or modified in the future, is to submit them to GitHub ( This is also a good way to make your scripts public if you think this will help a broader audience in your field.

4) Latex



I learnt about LaTex after starting my PhD and I cannot emphasize the importance of the tool enough. It is very, very helpful in organizing your text (read manuscripts), saves time adjusting sizes of images and tables by clicking multiple times and definitely is cleaner. LaTex basically gives you the power to design and manipulate your text the way you like it and have the control on it. This can be amazing and definitely saves you a ton of time adjusting page limits. I highly recommend learning to use LaTex. I even reuse most of my manuscript outlines and then I have to make minimal adjustments for different texts.

You can basically use any of the editors above to write LaTex documents (this is also a language).  But there are several desktop versions for Linux, Mac, Windows which are user friendly and help you visualize your PDFs from the source Tex document. The best of them all is Overleaf ( This is like Google Doc but for LaTex. It is online, autosaves and has many, many templates for various journals and for various documents (CV, Thesis etc.). In addition, it is easy to collaborate on overleaf as many people can work and edit the document at the same time. You can also see the PDF in real time which changes as you write you LaTex code (Super cool!!).


5) Important resources


Beyond these tips, here are some important resources and articles which helped me learn these skills better:


“Zen Ecology” and the Origin of Scientific Ideas

by: Nick Waser and Mary Price [;]

Professors of Biology Emeritus, University of California Riverside, Adjunct Professors, University of Arizona, Senior Investigators, Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory


Recent evidence from cognitive science validates an older perception that creative thinking in humans involves two distinct processes—one that generates a sudden, intuitive insight, followed by a second process of deliberate rational analysis that error-checks and develops the insight. As Scheffer et al. (2015) point out (see also Scheffer 2014), modern science stresses the second approach at the expense of the first.  We are trained in a “scientific method” that is wonderfully efficient for evaluating alternative hypotheses against empirical evidence, but we receive virtually no training in how to generate novel ideas.  Scheffer and colleagues argue that taking time off from focused work to let the mind wander aimlessly is essential to the creative process both in science and in the arts (and when done in a natural setting seems to contribute as well to overall mental and physical health; see e.g., Fleischner 2017). But how many of us are encouraged to take time off for walks or daydreams, and how many conferences schedule unstructured free time?

In 2012 we had the good luck to help teach a field course for the Tropical Biology Association (TBA; at the Amani Reserve in the Usambara Mountains of northern Tanzania.  Our co-teacher was the late Brian Moss, a retired lake ecologist from the University of Liverpool (see Jeppesen and Johnes 2016 for a lovely summary of his life’s work).  Our course brought together beginning graduate students from European and African countries.  The intent was to build connections and capacity and confidence for the students, beyond an introduction to local natural history, and this was done during a month of living together in Spartan facilities embedded in nature.

During the first week of the course Brian Moss led a “Zen Ecology” exercise.  “Zen” refers here to what Zen Buddhists call Zazen—a practice of seated meditation that is intended to lead to insight into the nature of existence.  After a brief discussion with each small group of students, Brian asked them to leave behind digital cameras and cell phones and to wander individually into the forest, armed only with notebook and pencil.  They were encouraged to engage directly with nature through their senses rather than through a device, and with no preconceptions about what they might encounter. When something caught their attention—a pattern of insect damage on a leaf, for instance—they were to observe quietly, then sketch what they saw, using words and arrows to clarify as they wished.  In essence, this is meditative, open-minded observation of the natural world. Brian talks more of this approach in an essay in the International Society of Limnology newsletter (see, without using the term “Zen Ecology” (but he did use the term with the TBA students.)

For many students the experience was transformative:  they had never before gone into nature without a goal or preconceived idea, and had never thought to use sketching as a way to see more completely.  And when they returned and shared what they had drawn and experienced with the other students, all sorts of ideas and questions emerged spontaneously and intuitively. These at first tended to be vague, but as students talked among themselves (gently guided by Brian) questions emerged more fully developed.  Some student research projects later in the course came from the Zen Ecology exercise.

Zen Ecology was a revelation for us as well.  We had struggled over decades to find a way to help students master the entire scientific process, from generating questions to devising and testing hypotheses, and had long thought that starting with unplanned observation and curiosity was key.  For years we tried the “fifty questions” exercise we had learned in Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS) field courses.  In this exercise, participants go into nature and return with questions to share with the group.  We had found, to our disappointment, that students often felt pressure to produce “clever” or “cutting edge” questions, and as a result to filter the thoughts that came into their heads rather than going into the experience with an open mind and heart.

We have found Zen Ecology less threatening than “fifty questions” for helping us attend to nature directly and completely, without barriers. For many people this exercise—contact with nature without the filter of devices or goals—truly seems to get at a wellspring of creativity.  What do we all want, if it is not access to such a wellspring, a source of ideas that can be winnowed and refined into novel and interesting research questions?

You may recoil at the idea of drawing insect damage on a leaf, or drawing anything at all.  You are no artist!  Grit your teeth and remember this:  the drawing is not intended as “art”.  It is a private record that helps you solidify and remember what you experience; think of it as a visual diary or journal. Consider that sketching was an essential tool for recording impressions in the days before photography, and that naturalists in those days surely had the same distribution of “artistic talent” (and lack thereof) that we all now have.  Most of all, recognize that sketching as a means of gaining “ownership” of an observation of nature has no substitute in electronic imaging, no matter how sophisticated that imaging is.

Since 2012 we have tried out versions of Zen Ecology with high school classes, undergraduate research interns, graduate classes, even groups of senior citizens (that moniker would include the two of us!).  We encourage you whenever possible to try your own version.  Try it for yourselves, and in your teaching and mentoring.  Please share with each other (and with us) what works and doesn’t!



Fleischner, T. L. (Ed.). (2017). Nature Love Medicine: Essays on Wildness and Wellness.  Torrey House Press, Salt Lake City.

Jeppesen, E. and P. J. Johnes (2016). Obituary: Brian Moss (1943–2016).  Hydrobiologia 778: 1–7. DOI 10.1007/s10750-016-2882-8.

Scheffer, M., J. Bascompte, T. K. Bjordam, S. R. Carpenter, L. B. Clarke, C. Folke, P. Marquet, N. Mazzeo, M. Meerhoff, O. Sala, and F. R. Westley. 2015. Dual thinking for scientists. Ecology and Society 20(2): 3.

Scheffer, M. (2014).The forgotten half of scientific thinking. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111, 6119.

Congressional Visits Day: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love policy


By Abigail Pastore

On April 26th, 2017 scientists from around the nation traveled to Washington, DC to meet with over 70 offices of US representatives to discuss the future of biological research in the United States.  This event was coordinated by American Institute of Biological Science and Biological Ecological Science Coalition.  I was honored to attend this event to represent the American Society of Naturalists.

During my two days in DC, I learned a lot about science policy and how capital hill works.  Below I describe what I learned during my experience.  On Day 1, I heard from many scientists who have worked in policy positions in DC, I learned how science funding works and I was trained on how to talk to politicians about science. On Day 2, we had congressional meetings!


As much as we sometimes ignore it, policy and science and inextricably linked.  To start with, most science is funded by government agencies like, NSF, NOAA, and NIH.   Subsequently we have a duty to disseminate our work to the population that is funding this research.  Ultimately, civilians who understand and value science will elect representatives who care about science as well.  Those politicians have the power to make the budgets that fund NSF and other organizations.  And ultimately management of our natural lands and wildlife comes from policy, not directly from scientists.  So scientists have a vested interested in being involved in all of these steps, not just the science part.


Policy careers

Many of the participants at the congressional visit day spoke about their individual journeys that merged science and policy.  In fact there are many avenues and careers paths for scientists that include policy. For example, AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellows facilitates scientists’ interactions with government organization as consultants, there are internships at the White House in the Office Science and Technology Policy, and NOAA’s Knauss Fellowship is for those interested in marine policy.  There are also several state level policy fellowships.  Furthermore, ESA has a policy section, where you can find the Ecologists Guidebook to Policy among other things.  Or check out ESEP, a science policy engagement coalition.  Most policy jobs involve a lot of communicating and translating science for a broader audience.

Public Engagement

Getting involved in science policy goes hand-in-hand with communicating to the public about science, and the benefits of science research for society.  For tips, check out Frontiers’ issue on public engagement.  Additionally, check out AAAS’s workshops for communicating science.  Ultimately, the most meaningful change happens at the local level, engaging with representatives in your home state puts a face and a story to these issues that is influential for politicians when they are making decisions about policy.

How the National Budget gets Made

Congress is the body of government that makes expenditures.  The president must make a budget request which must be approved by congress.  Every fiscal year, the president puts forth a budget which congress must approve.  Once congress gets the budget, it undergoes congressional hearings and budget resolutions.  Then an appropriations bill is drafted which would authorize the government to spend money.  This bill must be approved by the house and the senate before it is resolved in conferences, then signed by the president into law.  So ultimately representatives in the house and the senate are very influential in how the government spends money.


Science funding makes up about 1% of the national budget.  And funding is expected to decrease due to sequestration and the new administration.

Preparing ‘the ask’

The goal of the congressional visit day was to advocate for science funding.  We went into each meeting asking for $8 billion for the National Science Foundation for fiscal year 2018.  We each prepared our own personal stories about how the NSF has affected us and the states we live in.  When preparing our stories we were charged to make three points that were, specific, memorable and demonstrative.  


Visiting Congress

I personally visited with 7 congressional offices from Florida, Maine and New Hampshire with a few other scientists.  In general, we met with congressional assistants that took notes in the meetings so they could report back to our representatives.  Everyone was very friendly, respectful and engaged.  I told my story about how NSF funding has allowed me to get training in cutting edge technologies to study bacterial communities which have broad applications for plants in an agricultural setting.  Others with me told stories of invasive species, wetland restoration and marine lab outreach programs.

I learned that congressional aids really love talking about invasive species.  I was impressed with all the positive feedback and support these offices expressed.  Even Marco Rubio’s office offered that Senator Rubio is in favor of research and development.  Ultimately we all have the power to make these kinds of connections in our home states.  Office visits are said to be the most influential visits for politicians.  It’s important to remember that these politicians are our representatives and it is their job to listen to us.  At the end of the day, we don’t know the balance of things to consider in the minds of politicians so our best chance is to lend support and tell compelling stories where we can.



ASN takes on the March for Science: The society that organizes together, stays together

Authors:  Emlyn Resetarits, Sheela Turbek, Shengpei Wang and Abigail Pastore

Note: The views in this article represent those of the ASN graduate council. 

How to get involved in DC?

You can get organized with other ASN, SSE and SSB members by filling out the survey here.

Looking for a ride?  Hotel sharing?  Want to organize a meet-up with other ecologists and evolutionary biologists?  Get organized in this Google Sheet!


Why Get Involved?

On April 22, 2017, thousands of advocates of scientific research will take to the streets in Washington D.C. and around the world through the March for Science to demand government support for the open exchange of scientific ideas. Many of the participants will be scientists themselves, who are concerned with the new administration’s steps to censor the scientific community and deny scientific findings on the basis of personal convictions.

The March for Science and its sister marches around the country have an inclusive mission – to bring together a diverse, non partisan group of people united by their respect for science as a tool for understanding the world around us and their desire to defend scientific integrity. The march seeks to humanize science by showcasing the diverse body of people dedicated to scientific research, encourage open communication between scientists and the public, and advocate for diversity and inclusion in scientific fields. However, above all, the march will be calling for evidence-based legislation that serves the public good.

Since assuming power, the new administration has threatened to roll back numerous environmental regulations originally put in place as a result of scientific findings regarding human and environmental health. The president’s persistent denial of climate change despite scientific consensus has raised fears that the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and overturn or weaken legislation enforced by the Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon emissions. Given the current administration’s ties to the oil and gas industries, many worry that public lands could be sold to private interests and the Endangered Species Act could go under fire, opening up protected habitat to energy development.

Also at stake is the ability of scientists’ to freely carry out research and publicly communicate their findings. In January, for example, a regulation was passed requiring that scientific studies from the EPA undergo political review prior to publication. The federal government froze all agency grants and contracts and imposed a gag rule against EPA employees, prohibiting them from posting on social media and communicating with reporters. The immigration restrictions reinstated by the president last month have additionally hindered scientific progress by jeopardizing international collaborations and leaving many scientists uncertain about whether to attend scientific conferences and conduct international fieldwork.

Historically, scientists have avoided getting involved in political advocacy in order to prevent science from being mischaracterized as a partisan issue. However, with the future of scientific research and evidenced-based policy so uncertain, the scientific community arguably cannot afford to remain silent. The March for Science this April will provide an opportunity for scientists to take a stand and demand continued support for publicly funded, openly communicated research.


How to get involved locally?

Getting involved in science policy can feel overwhelming.  How does one even begin to have an influence on such an old and established system?  The first step is to start at home!  Getting your friends and colleagues organized can be tremendously helpful to not only hold yourself accountable, but also by amplifying your voice and actions through your peer group.  Additionally, there are lots of groups that are already organized, finding them in your community means you don’t have to start from scratch.  Finally, contacting your representatives is the cornerstone of our democracy, your congresswomen and men, and senators were elected to represent the will of the people, so let them know what you want!  Find out who your local representatives are and email, call, or meet them in person. Getting on their email list will keep you updated, especially on when and where they can meet with the public. Most congresswomen and men, and senators have town hall style meetings locally that are open to the public, and these are one of the best places to express your concerns.

Creating a political action peer group.  – With so many important issues on the table, it’s challenging for any one individual to be informed and active on every issue.  Getting your friends together to meet, vent and divvy up the work is a great way to manage things.  Luckily technology is readily available to help you organize such an endeavor.  Google groups and google docs help facilitate organizing without the need for excessive emailing.  Use google sheets to outline the issues and have your friends sign up for the issues they want to follow closely and inform the group about.  Have a “weekly actions” to do list or find one online that you can share or divvy up with your friends.  Finally have a weekly/biweekly meeting with your friends in a comfortable space (perhaps with relaxing beverages) where you can vent, share and learn with each other.

Satellite Marches for Science: One easy way to get involved now is to attend the March for Science. Even if you can’t make it to DC, you can still make an impact and contribute to the cause by attending one of the satellite marches that’s close to you. Official information is available at . If there’s no local march planned for your city yet, hosting a satellite march is an even better way to get involved!


How to get involved digitally?

The power of the media is ever more prominent in our lives now, both personally and professionally, so is making your voices heard through digital platforms. Share your messages on your favorite social media, be it blogpost, twitter, facebook, or instagram. You can either create your own content or simply share contents from the community. In addition, contacting mainstream media allows you to reach an even greater audience, for example, the New York Times has a survey on the March for Science. Social media also allows us to infiltrate into circles with different opinions, by tagging them or commenting on their posts. This can alleviate information bias for us as well as people with different opinions. Regardless of the method, get involved is the best we can do.

In addition to getting involved with the March for Science specifically, sharing the spirit of science should be a persistent goal. We are in an age when facts don’t speak for themselves a lot of times. It’s increasingly a scientist’s job to communicate his/her scientific findings, and to advocate for the actions supported by current evidence. Even though connecting and persuading people with different opinions is hard, we need to persevere with the stakes so high. Using simple language and having a clear message is essential to communicate science to non-experts. And be open to different opinions. However, being open to alternative interpretations doesn’t mean that we should keep quiet about blatantly unsupported claims. Everyone has the freedom to express his/her opinions, regardless of accuracy, but we also have the right to, and should stand up when facts and evidence are being ignored or denied.


Call for Blog Contribution

Do you like our past blogs? Do you have something you want to share? Please contact us at

This space is designed to provide a platform for students of biology to share their experience, advise, and resources. We aim to keep our blogs relevant to graduate students, but we are a pretty diverse bunch. So if you think your voices should be heard, please let us know.


Believing Science

by Shengpei Wang Feb 2017

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the American Society of Naturalists.

Section 1. Should we think before believing?

A simple sentence caught my attention today. “We believe […] that a unified ecology must start from individual-based ecology.” 1 It read naturally to me at first, but something seemed amiss: Is it legitimate for scientists to say we believe?

Since the earliest forms of civilization, we have pondered questions such as “How do we gain knowledge?” and “What do we believe?” Given the recent social and cultural climate, questions such as these should concern us now more than ever. In my opinion, science is the only reliable way of obtaining knowledge. Not everyone agrees, however.

Historically, knowledge had been derived from the views of leading political and religious authorities, but in time, theories and observations overtook the role as the primary source of scientific knowledge around the seventeenth century. This change was pioneered by early scientists such as Galileo, whose scientific discoveries not only laid the foundations to modern astronomy and physics, but more importantly, challenged the authoritarian view of knowledge. I don’t think any of us question the importance of observable facts, but many people in the US still question whether we can believe science. Can we truly believe patterns inferred from observations made by the scientific community? And can we truly understand what is not directly observed or even observable?

Scientific statements arise from logical deductions and inductions. Deductive reasoning generates definitive conclusions that are true as long all the premises are true. But scientific premises usually need to be tested or are derived from inductive reasoning. Induction, however, does not necessarily ‘test’ a premise but provides multiple lines of evidence of support. I regard the inductive approach as the source of open-mindedness that characterizes science, but to others it seems to be their source of doubts. If we truly believe in science and believe its findings, shouldn’t we know what makes scientific knowledge justified? And hopefully, we can persuade others to trust our logical conclusions if we are explicit about our reasons.

Section 2: What I have learned about epistemology.

Knowledge is generally accepted as justified beliefs, but there is no consensus of what makes knowledge justified. There is even skepticism about whether knowledge is possible at all.2 Although I will omit arguments of skepticism for practical reasons, I argue that we should judge scientific claims critically. Science seeks truth, but it does not possess it. Rather, science approximates truth.

Modern science is characterized by falsifiable claims, which can be demonstrated to be wrong if appropriate evidence is discovered. However, falsification is not the totality of scientific pursuit, because it does not generate new hypotheses by itself. This was also why I stumbled over the claim of we believe earlier. This claim is not an easily falsifiable claim, at least not with observations currently available. But is it not scientific? Other philosophical theories disagree that science should be solely characterized by falsification. For example, Imre Lakatos emphasized the development of theory through scientific programs, where existing principles guide new theories.3 By this token, claiming that we believe a novel prediction in light of existing theories and evidence is justified. Additionally, other approaches even allow for the quantification of levels of confidence based on existing knowledge, such as using conditional probabilities developed by Thomas Bayes. Despite the differences of these different philosophical theories, science is based upon the assumption of Uniformity of Nature, i.e. invariance of natural laws.4 This is necessary because we cannot possibly test a hypothesis in every possibly instance, and must generalize from limited observations.

Scientific methods discussed above ensure that scientific claims can be judged heuristically and beyond the specific context where observations are made; however, the claims are not objective in the sense that there is always subjective involvement. Even observations themselves are intrinsically influenced by our subjective experience, because all truth claims are states of minds.3 For example, an entomologist and a mycologist would notice very different types of organisms if they went on a nature hike together, and they would learn very different things regarding the local habitat. Furthermore, even if we were to start with the same observations, how we interpret our observations depends on both our existing knowledge and our expectations. This is also why some great findings, such as Mendel’s genetic theory, only gained prominence until rediscovered by scientist with very different mindsets. After all, science is not merely a collection of facts (observations), but a systematic synthesis of generalized claims. It results from our interaction with the natural world. We are part of both the process and the outcome.

I want to make a point here: I think the human aspect of science should be cherished rather than avoided. Even though scientific arguments are almost always influenced by subjective judgments, why shouldn’t I believe a premise if it is based upon all available evidence and the best judgment possible. The value of science for me is that it generates justified beliefs. I can believe a scientific claim if all existing evidence supports it, while maintaining an openness to change in light of new evidence. Additionally, just as there is no single view of the value of nature, the pursuit of knowledge can take on different meanings for different people. This is liberating rather than constraining, because it opens up opportunities for each person to define why and how nature or knowledge matters to them. Knowledge can be valuable to us in different but intimate ways. We can believe what we know.

Section 3: Resources

I hope I have incited some interest in you to learn about epistemology if you haven’t already. I have been inspired greatly by the book “What is this thing called Science?” by A. F. Charmers. It is a great read and very easy to follow. If you don’t want to read a whole book, the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy” is a reputable online resource open to the public. And there are always more journal articles waiting for discovery and many more exciting reads. Scientific findings are leading many philosophical developments, including evolutionary epistemology, neuroethics, and neuroesthetics.


  1. Grimm, Volker, Daniel Ayllón, and Steven F. Railsback. “Next-Generation Individual-Based Models Integrate Biodiversity and Ecosystems: Yes We Can, and Yes We Must.” Ecosystems (2016): 1-8.
  1. Steup, Matthias, “Epistemology”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2016 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <;.
  1. Chalmers, Alan F. What is this thing called science?. Hackett Publishing, 2013.
  1. Gould, Stephen Jay. “Is uniformitarianism necessary?.” American Journal of Science 263, no. 3 (1965): 223-228.