22 October 2014

When a computational biologist yearns for the field/lab/greenhouse.

A darling little rose bush.
I'm a sucker for cute little plants on sale at the grocery store. I saw these delightful miniature rose bushes when I first started shopping, and waffled for the next 15 minutes as I circulated the store about whether to take one home with me. I ultimately relented, because I decided that it was a small price to pay to feel more connected to my new home city (Tyler has a thing for roses, including a pretty nice rose garden!).

My compulsion to surround myself with plants started during my undergraduate education after taking plant taxonomy and beginning to work in a molecular systematics of plants lab. I enjoyed working in the field, but realized during graduate school I was more suited to computational work. After three years as a NESCent postdoc, during which my work was exclusively computer-based, I found myself yearning to physically get my hands on some live organisms (hence the compulsive purchases of houseplants).

Happy Commelinaceae in the greenhouse.
The problem is that I've been hired as the resident bioinformatics/genomics person, which brings with it certain expectations about how I spend my time (mostly, analyzing data that other people collect). As a scientist, though, I think it's important to still maintain a connection to my study organisms. My plants a source of inspiration and wonder, as well as a resource for future research questions, and I'm loathe to permanently pigeonhole myself as a "computer person." How do I balance these opposing expectations?

My research mindset right now is one of nearly infinite possibility. I want (and need) to be productive as a scientist, but it's up to my discretion exactly how to make that happen. I work at a small, regional university, which means I may need to be creative (financially and with other resources) about how to set up research projects for my students in the future. I have some of my Commelinaceae living collection growing quite happily in the greenhouse here in town, and access to growth chambers on campus if I want to do hybridization or selection experiments.  Even though I don't have immediate research plans for my plant and DNA collections, I'll keep them as long as I can to keep my options open.

From a teaching perspective, I'm really excited about designing courses which capitalize on either computers or live organisms. I've already written about the bioinformatics course I'll be teaching next semester, and I'm considering offering a class on plants of Texas (taxonomy and systematics). I helped teach plant systematics as a graduate student, and find myself really excited at the prospect of getting back into the business of instructing students about the local flora.

Ultimately, I know trying to balance these opposing forces are making my life at least a little harder. It's more work to figure out effective pedagogy for classes based in the field and on computers. Oddly enough, my educational and work experience has set me up for precisely these tasks (see references to my experiences above), and there are quite a few other academics who successfully split responsibilities between different projects. What's the main reason that I remain committed to being a jack-of-(plant and computer)-trades? It makes me happy, of course.

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