01 July 2014

The value of a few kind words in academia and science.

At the last Evolution poster session, I came across a first year graduate student whose short research grant I recalled reviewing last spring for a professional society. Like all students (dare I say all scientists?), her writing was a bit rough around the edges, but I could tell she was doing interesting, important research. I paused as she walked another conference attendee through the theory and figures on her poster. It was a delight to hear her explanation of the work she'd accomplished; she was animated, enthusiastic, and clearly invested in the science she was highlighting. Afterwards, I introduced myself and told her I'd enjoyed reading her proposal. Her face lit up and she told me a bit more about future research directions.

I often reflect on the tension in academia (especially science) between being objective researchers but also effective mentors and peers. Science demands we interpret evidence without bias, which requires a cold, detached mindset. However, science is also an intensely personal, and therefore subjective, enterprise (myself and other #ScienceFAIL storytellers highlighted some of these topics). I was lucky to have a graduate advisor who helped me stay optimistic about my research and career trajectory. After leaving his lab and communicating with other early-career scientists, however, I've started to realize how rare that type of support can be.

Let's be honest. The job market sucks. Funding is abysmally competitive. Student evaluations of our teaching can be brutal. There's the cliche about reviewer #3 being a total meanie. We're trained to be skeptical, and that sometimes translates into an unfortunate type of cynicism that permeates our work. The result? The suicide prevention hotline is listed as a "Useful link" on the notorious Ecology Jobs Wiki, and if the comments on the rant page are any indication, there are folks who actually need it.

Don't get me wrong--the evolutionary biology and bioinformatics folks with whom I work are fantastic, happy, awesome people. It just doesn't seem to occur to most of us to offer personal, meaningful words of support. I took the advice of another early-career scientist and started to compile bits of encouraging correspondence to bolster myself in times of self-doubt. I'm shocked at how discouraged some of my peers feel at times. Often, these are people I deeply respect and even view as quite successful. As I've started to transition to my next career stage, I find myself in the position of being able to offer small bits of encouragement to other scientists, too.

The upshot is that not everyone needs this type of encouragement. However, I suspect a few kind words can make a huge difference in improving diversity in science. Women and minorities of any sort (racial, ethnic, sexuality, etc) are already fighting an uphill battle against implicit (and even explicit) bias. It's worth a few moments of my time every once in awhile to help ameliorate those effects.

27 June 2014

Con drop and lessons learned from Evolution/iEvoBio 2014

I'm in the midst of processing the aftermath of seven very full days of scientific conference. After almost twelve hours of sleep, I'm feeling a bit of a science hangover.  It occurs to me that this post-conference experience is not unprecedented or unfamiliar. Con drop is pretty well documented by other attendees of a variety of conferences and conventions (look here and here for a few examples), and is generally related to the let-down accompanying the return to real life following submersion in a large group of like-minded people. I don't recall seeing much discussion about post-science con drop, but it makes sense. Especially this year: I was on my home turf, seeing lots of folks I already knew and meeting lots of new people, all of us exuberant on the fumes of scientific progress. In the days following Evolution, I found myself relieved at the relaxation of my scheduled obligations but simultaneously bereft. As I slowly return to "real life," I decided to note a few of the big take-home lessons from Evolution 2014 and iEvoBio. A few other folks have written similar posts (I particularly like Rob's lessons and Jeremy Yoder's tweet synopsis).

First, my time limit for conference science-ing is six hours. I do a passable job of stifling my introverted nature for a time, but it means I need to pace myself. If I do a full morning of talks and lunch meeting, I'll have to take a break mid-afternoon and spend some time along. I'm really glad I have a tangible, quantifiable amount of time that seems to be consistently manageable for me…makes planning easier next time!

Second, I participated in two informal lunch-time gatherings: one tweet-up and one LGBTQ meeting. We tried two different models for these. For the first, we met at the registration desk and wandered elsewhere to find lunch. For the second, we had a lunchtime venue planned. Neither seemed satisfactory, as finding a place for 15+ people to eat is difficult, regardless of the amount of planning involved. I'm thinking about better ways to achieve future meetings, such as contacting conference organizers to have a room assigned. I don't know if I want to manage a formal discussion like the one I attended for AWIS at Evolution, but I like the idea of providing a venue to facilitate interactions between groups of likeminded people.

Of course, there are plenty of other things I'd like to break down in more detail, but fomenting ideas about these main topics seems sufficient navel-gazing for now.

20 June 2014

Decreasing conference awkwardness.

If we're very honest with ourselves, we'll likely agree that academics, particularly scientists, are quite an awkward bunch. Put a few thousand of us together in an unfamiliar environment, and we spend lots of time searching for people we know (or need to know) amidst a sea of quasi-familiar faces, trying to promote our science, while simultaneously attempting to keep track of our laptops, phones, conference programs, bags, etc.

I've been thinking about ways to alleviate the unpleasantness while maximizing the fun. It's kind of ironic for me to give advice like this, given my own tendency towards awkward, but if it works for me…?

  1. Don't be afraid to take a look at someone's name tag/affiliation, and even to let them know you're doing so. At a conference with hundreds/thousands of people, it's normal to need a moment to recognize everyone! There are even some folks with face blindness or who otherwise struggle to place faces in the absence of names. There will be a few folks who will act like jerks because you don't know them, but you don't really want to be their friend anyway, eh?
  2. Addendum to #1: Don't let your name tag hang on your stomach. Tie a knot in the string holding it so it's closer to your face. This is especially important for short people (so tall folks don't have to bend over) and women (because boobs).
  3. Second addendum to #1: Add your twitter username to your name tag. Some conferences (like ScienceOnline) do this for you. You might be surprised how many folks recognize you for your twitter handle (for me, @k8hert) but not necessarily your name (Kate Hertweck).
  4. Extension of #3: Make it easier for folks to talk to you about your poster or talk. My first (title) and last (acknowledgement) slides of my talks include my twitter handle, Google+, blog address, and Slideshare address. I decided recently to include my twitter handle in a footer at the bottom of every slide (with my name, affiliation, and short title), in case people want to tweet mid-talk. Post your talk or poster online (like at Slideshare) and tell the audience…way easier than expecting someone to take notes instead of listening, or printing off small copies of a poster.
  5. I depend on my resealable travel coffee mug, because I'm really good at accidentally spilling things but like having water/coffee with me (someone already knocked over a cup of water in front of me yesterday in the morning sessions). Evolution this year told us ahead of time we're all getting water bottles, which helps you plan when packing!
  6. I also adore my external rechargeable cell phone battery. I like tweeting at meetings and can also take notes on my phone, and this gadget sure beats trying to find an available outlet. I've been seeing them at big-box stores for $10.
  7. Of course, here's my obligatory note that I'd be quite lost without twitter. There's no better way to find people, events or information. I know some folks who use it as their conference notes.
For a few more of my favorite conference tips, see my post from last year. Anybody else have ideas?

Some folks from Twitter had great ideas:

That reminded me of another of my tricks: I keep business cards face-out behind my name tag. I always forget to give them out, and it helps to have a few handy.

18 June 2014

Planning for Evolution 2014

Now that I've spent some serious time going through the Evolution 2014 program and trying to plan my daily schedule, I find I'm completely exhausted and ready for a mental break. I'm not even sure why I bothered putting together a list of fun bars in downtown Raleigh, since I can't imagine any of us being awake long enough to partake of any area establishments.

Top items on my agenda for this meeting include:

  1. Phylogenomics Symposium and Software School (Thursday and Friday), because learning new analytical methods is FUN!
  2. Chairing a session on Life History Evolution (Saturday morning, 8:15-10, Rm 303), during which my talk will take place (Jumping genes and life history: De novo transposable element insertions respond to selection for accelerated and delayed development times, 9:30 am). I'll have my slides up on Slideshare that morning.
  3. I'm mentoring two students as a part of the Undergraduate Diversity program (co-sponsored by NESCent).
  4. A few short meetings of various levels of formality, including one discussing implicit bias, another for LGBTQ folks, and some from the NSF.
  5. NESCent's Evolution Film Festival!
  6. Attending the usual set of poster sessions, keynote addresses, lightning talks, receptions, etc.
  7. iEvoBio, to round out my informatics geekery.
I realized today that I've committed myself to seven straight days of evolution thinking and learning. That's A LOT of brain juice. I'm going to be focusing a lot on remembering my list of ways to strategize and manage these huge, marathon-style conferences. I've tried to communicate to my partner the amount of time and energy attending these conferences requires. The conversation went something like this: 
Me: I'll be busy doing conference stuff from Thursday to Wednesday.
Him: OK! Want me to make you breakfast and plan dinners?
Me: Um, I have events scheduled from eight to ten most days. I can grab food for myself, but thank you.
Him: Ten…at night
When he said it like that, I started to wonder if it was a little crazy, too. Ah, professional meetings….

11 June 2014

Want someplace to go at Evolution 2014 after regularly scheduled events? Check out my map of downtown Raleigh!

After attending a few large professional conferences, you start to realize that some of the best ideas happen after the scheduled events of the meeting, when folks head off to restaurants and bars to socialize into the wee hours of the morning. I also know how challenging it can be to find someplace suitable when you're just a visitor in a city. The Evolution 2014 website does a great job of highlighting  local restaurants for during the day, but I thought it would be nice to have a reference for late-night socializing (which may or may not include drinking some of the wonderful local beer North Carolina has to offer).

Luckily, I've lived in the RDU area long enough to be able to recommend a few places. I compiled these locations in a handy google map (color-coded red), including the location of the conference center (black), conference housing (yellow), and NESCent/area universities (for reference, in green). I put a screenshot below, but click on the link and you can select each marker for the website (hours, events, etc) as well as a way to estimate distance from wherever you are. I included a variety of establishments: bars with good food, dive bars, LGBTQ-friendly places, and even a basement whiskey bar. If you know the area and want someplace added, drop me a note! Finally, and I hope this is obvious: this resource is in no way endorsed by the conference or NESCent…it's just my attempt to help make your trip a little more fun and relaxing.

Downtown Raleigh after hours

29 May 2014

Rebranding scientists: rock stars and princesses

Given my recent (and successful!) job search, I've thought a lot over the last several months about how I'm perceived as a scientist. My musings generally relate to how I explain my own expertise to my peers, both within subfields and to a broader set of academics. There was a certain amount of image revamping involved in my switch from plant systematics as a graduate student to more comparative genomics as a postdoc, and I spent a little time researching methods for effective professional rebranding. For example, I've found it valuable to think about how a professional bioinformaticist spends their time, and made sure I took classes, talked to people, and got a GitHub account. These things are useful as professional development, but also necessary to include on a CV and in other resources, to show that I know what I'm talking about.

While traveling recently, I came across a rather large advertisement in an airport which represents a much more dramatic attempt at rebranding the professional image of scientists. The Geoffrey Beene Rock Stars of Science program has been around a few years, and is aimed at promoting cancer research by bringing together scientists and rock stars. I don't know much more about it than that. Perhaps it was my lack of sleep or travel weariness, but it struck me as a rather comical attempt to merge the high-profile, devil-may-care attitude of the rock world with the meticulous, potentially life-changing realm of cancer research. I was left wondering about the main goal of this attempted merger. More importantly, I pondered what journal I could convince to publish my glam-rock album cover in their next issue.

The effect of this ad struck home when I started to think about larger patterns of how these professions individually are perceived by the public. The union of popular music with philanthropy is not new, and neither is an attempt to show scientists are more diverse than just balding, aging white men who wear lab coats and eyeglasses. I've had a number of articles kicking around my "To Write" list for awhile which address the phenomenon of Princess Scientists, or the representation of scientists who are also beauty queens, cheerleaders, and otherwise covered in lipstick and glitter. Given my choice of Princess Tradescantia as a blog title, the resulting debate is one I've followed with reluctant albeit vested interest. The opinions range from vehemently opposing the princess/scientist mashup to a more thoughtful piece by Stephanie Schuttler, one of my friends from graduate school. She contends that using conventionally feminine imagery to attract girls to science isn't necessarily a bad thing. I concur. To me, the only requirement for being a scientist is for someone to actually think about science. The main point is to eliminate additional expectations while simultaneously allowing for other identities, be it rock star, princess, or whatever your imagination desires.

At the end of the day, I still tend to prefer representations of scientists which encourage the full diversity of outside interests. A good example is This Is What A Scientist Looks Like. It's been awhile since the last update, but it's nice to look through and see scientists pursuing myriad activities, from painting to acting. Encouraging this type of plurality is especially important because of the intersectionality between this type of identity inclusion with acceptance of social, gender, sexuality, and racial minorities.

My identity includes scientist. It also includes fiber artist (knitter/spinner/etc), queer, and science fiction aficionado, among many other recurrent interests. Sometimes that includes princess, and that's OK. I couldn't find a picture of myself in full princess regalia, so please settle for this paltry offering of my wearing a silly hat. It has a little bit of shimmer, so hopefully that will suffice.

28 May 2014

Even among big trees, I stare at the ground.

I flew out to California a few weeks back to meet my sister and mom for a road trip up to Reno for my brother's graduation. First off, congrats to Dr. Thomas J. Hertweck for completing his PhD in English (Literature and Environment) from the University of Nevada, Reno! I was pleased to be able to meet some of the other fantastic folks in his department, and am hoping to be able to collaborate on some Hertweck & Hertweck publications in the future. Although Tom professes to be "traditional" and eschews official obligations to social media, I know he still frequently lurks the interwebs…so good job, big bro.

Sequoia sempervirens, or redwood trees
While out west, I convinced my family to traipse around a few parks so I could fit in a little botanizing. The highlight was Calaveras Big Tree State Park. You're probably not surprised that there were some pretty big trees. There is only one species of sequoia (a commonly used name in the vernacular), which belongs to the genus Sequoia, and is also known as coastal redwood or just redwood. Redwoods belong to the sequoia subfamily of the cypress family. There are lots of other species of cypress, but redwoods are the only sequoias…other related species are long extinct.
Glad to get the tree taxonomy off my chest! Turns out this trip was a good way to torment educate my family about botany.

Come to find out, even when I'm walking in a forest with some of the tallest trees around, I still tend to look down. Sometimes it's because a downward gaze lets you appreciate the size of these trees. 
Mostly, though, I'm looking nearer towards the ground because I get distracted by flowers. Sometimes they're pretty similar to the plants I see back east. I've placed some tentative species names with the pictures below, but it's really half-assed botanizing at best (hey, I was on vacation).

Dicentra formosa, Pacific bleeding heart. Bleeding hearts are found all over the place, but this local species had nice pink flowers (I'm a sucker for them)
Trillium chloropetalum, giant wakerobin (indeed, it was quite large, the size of a dinner plate!)

Smilacina stellata, false Solomon's seal (widespread, the same one I see on the east coast!)

I'll admit it…I really don't care about identifying trees from Rosaceae.

Corallorhiza striata, an orchid (!)
And sometimes I come across really cool saprophytic plants! Saprophtyes are plants which obtain their nutrients from dead and decaying material on a forest floor. Here's a pretty nice explanation of them (with more gratuitous plant pics) from a carnivorous plant website (because weird plants gotta stick together, ya know?). These types of plants are particularly near and dear to my heart because I talk about them in a manuscript I'm currently revising for publication. Really cool evolutionary stuff!

Sarcodes sanguinea, snow plant, a saprophyte from the heath/blueberry family

I'm not gonna lie. I always feel pretty special when I see a saprophytic plant in the wild, and I think it's mostly just because they're so weird. Not green? Not a problem! Still a plant. I'm sure I'll wax philosophical about these and other topics again in the near future.