Using Twitter in science: advice for graduate students

I recently gave a hands-on workshop to graduate students in our department about using Twitter in science. As part of that workshop, I provided some bullet points about this social media tool, and I thought it might be useful to share these perspectives more broadly!

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Twitter can be useful for:

  • Filtering, accessing science stories relevant to your field of study (e.g., EurekAlert!, news media, science writers)
  • Assisting with your career (job ads, getting to know potential colleagues/supervisors)
  • Creating a research network
  • Doing research
  • Forging collaborations
  • Attending conferences virtually
  • Engaging with a broader audience (e.g. Directly or through journalists, media offices, science writers)
  • Social justice, political change, activism
  • Being inspired by great thinkers, innovators, writers, scientists etc
  • Seeng the human side of science
  • Becoming a better writer and science communicator
  • Track the reach of your work (analytics)

When using Twitter as a scientist, here are some things to think about:

  • What you might want to do on Twitter? (Learn? Engage? Have fun? Grow a following? Do research? Promote your work?). Craft your profile and approach based on these objectives (Note: this can change!)
  • If your objectives are about science, find a balance between professional/personal (actually: ALWAYS think about this… And remember that “personal” is seldom completely private with social media tools)
  • Don’t overwhelm your followers with self-promotion
  • When tweeting try to “Be professional, and Be positive” (note: I learned this advice from Adam Taylor who runs #SciStuChat)
  • You don’t have to Tweet to be on Twitter: Watch and learn before jumping in (many months, perhaps!)
  • Curate who you follow carefully (Don’t be afraid to unfollow people)
  • Don’t obsess about growing your own following: this will happen over time
  • Don’t feel you have to read your entire feed: important and interesting content appears multiple times
  • If you per objective is to share content, aim for information-rich tweets (links/photos etc)
  • Use “draft” features – sometimes it’s good to write Tweets without sending them right away.
  • Learn how to use Hashtags effectively (they are, essentially the “magnets” of the Internet)
  • Own up to mistakes / apologize
  • Give credit where it’s due, especially when thinking about sharing photos or art: ask permission before sharing!
  • Curate content! (e.g. “Like” button, or better yet, another program – Pocket, Evernote) – it’s easy to forget about neat things you have seen on Twitter, so it’s important to find ways to save the things you may wish to find later on.

Caveats:

  • Twitter can become a time-waster and great procrastination tool: learn to be careful with your use
  • Often, your community ends up being limited to like-minded people
  • It’s easy to get embroiled in debates and controversy: be careful
  • Trolls can ruin everything; people can be jerks.
  • Twitter is certainly not for everyone

There are heaps of other resources out there, and I do recommend checking out this page on Science Borealis.

Have things to add? Please comment, below!

Pyramids of species richness

This post is written by PhD student Shaun Turney, and highlights a recent publication from the lab.

Two years ago, I was finishing my MSc and considering whether I’d like to do a PhD, and if so, with whom. I met with Chris and we threw around a few ideas for PhD projects. It was when he brought up a certain mystery that my decision to do a PhD in his lab was cemented. The mystery? Chris and his former PhD student Crystal Ernst were puzzled why there seem to be so many carnivores on the Arctic tundra, and relatively few herbivores to feed them.

How could it be possible? Is there a high level of cannibalism? (But then it would be like pulling oneself up by ones bootstraps — how does the energy and biomass enter the carnivore population in the first place?) Are the carnivores really omnivores? Is our methodology for sampling the tundra biota biased towards carnivores? Is the transfer of energy from herbivores to carnivores somehow more efficient (less energy loss) than in other ecosystems? These sorts of questions touch on some fundamental questions in ecology and I was hooked.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra.

It seemed to me the logical first step would be to find out what is a typical predator-prey ratio. In what proportions are the organisms in an ecosystem divided up from plant (lowest trophic level) to top predator (highest trophic level)? The answer to that questions has already been very much explored when it comes to biomass and abundance. Charles Elton explained about 80 years ago that typically the mass and number of organisms form “pyramids”: They decrease with trophic level because energy is lost with each transfer from resource to consumer. But what about diversity? How does the number of species change with trophic level?

I decided to look at the food webs in the data base GlobalWeb to answer this question, and we just published a paper in Oikos on this topic. I found that typically ecosystems form “pyramids of species richness”, just like the pyramid of numbers and pyramid of biomass described by Elton. But some types of ecosystems, notably in terrestrial ecosystems, we can consistently observe a uniform distribution or even an “upside-down pyramid” rather than a pyramid like Elton described. That is, there are consistently cases where there more carnivore species than herbivore species in an ecosystem.

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

An example of aquatic compared to terrestrial food-web structure (from Turney and Buddle)

So evidently, at least when it comes to diversity, the pattern that Chris has observed in the tundra is not so unusual! The next step for me is to try to figure out why. Stay tuned!

Reference:

Turney S and CM Buddle. Pyramids of species richness: the determinants and distribution of species diversity across trophic levels. Oikos. DOI: 10.1111/oik.03404

 

Insect herbivory in fragmented forests: it’s complicated

I’m excited to announce a recent paper to come out of the lab, by former PhD student Dorothy Maguire, and with Dr. Elena Bennett. In this work, we studied the amount of insect herbivory in forest patches in southern Quebec: the patches themselves varied by degree of fragmentation (ie, small versus large patches) and by connectivity (ie, isolated patches, or connected to other forest patches). We studied herbivory on sugar maple trees, both in the understory and canopy, and at the edges of the patches. Our research is framed in the context of “ecosystem services” given that leaf damage by insects is a key ecological process in deciduous forests, and can affect the broader services that forest patches provide, from supporting biodiversity through to aesthetic value. Dorothy’s research was part of a larger project about ecosystem services and management in the Montérégie region of Quebec.

 

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Dorothy Maguire sampling insects in the tree canopy (Photo by Alex Tran)

The work was tremendously demanding, as Dorothy had to select sites, and within each site sample herbivory at multiple locations, including the forest canopy (done with the “single rope technique). Dorothy returned to sites many times over the entire summer to be able to assess trends over time. Herbivory itself was estimated as damage to leaves, so after the field season was completed, thousands of leaves were assessed for damage. The entire process was repeated over two years. Yup: doing a PhD requires a suite of skills in the field and lab, and there is no shortage of mind-numbing work… Dedication is key!

As with most research, we had high hopes that the results would be clear, convincing, and support our initial predictions – we certainly expected that forest fragmentation and isolation in our study landscape would have a strong effect on herbivory – after all, our study forests varied dramatically in size and isolation, and herbivory is a common and important ecological process, and insect herbivores are known (from the literature) to be affected by fragmentation.

 

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The landscape of southern Quebec. Lots of agriculture, some patches of forest.

 

However, as with so much of ecological research, the results were not straightforward! “It’s complicated” become part of the message: patterns in herbivory were not consistent across years, and there were interactions between some of the landscape features and location within each patch. For example, canopies showed lower levels of herbivory compared to the understory, but only in isolated patches, and only in one of the study years! We also found that edges had less herbivory in connected patches, but only in the first year of the study. Herbivory also increased as the season progressed, which certainly makes biological sense.

So yes, it’s complicated. At first glance, the results may appear somewhat underwhelming, and the lack of a strong signal could be viewed as disappointing. However, we see it differently: we see it as more evidence that “context matters” a great deal in ecology. It’s important not to generalize about insect herbivory based on sampling a single season, or in only one part of a forest fragment. The story of insect herbivory in forest fragments can only be told if researchers look up to the canopy and out to the edges; the story is incomplete when viewed over a narrow time window. In the broader context of forest management and ecosystem services, we certainly have evidence to support the notion that herbivory is affected by the configuration of the landscape. But, when thinking about spatial scale and ecosystem processes, careful attention to patterns these processes “within” forest patches is certainly required.

We hope this work will inspire others to think a little differently about insect herbivory in forest fragments. Dorothy’s hard work certainly paid off, and although the story is complicated, it’s also immensely informative and interesting, and sheds light on how big landscapes relate to small insects eating sugar maple leaves.

Reference:

Maguire et al. 2016: Within and among patch variability in patterns of insect herbivory across a fragmented forest landscape. PlosOne DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0150843

 

Tips for managing a research lab

Running a research lab* isn’t easy. I learned this the hard way last fall when I performed rather poorly on my lab safety inspection. At the time it seemed to be a low priority: cleaning up the lab always seemed less important compared to, for example, having a lab meeting. We have since done a major lab clean-up, and we are back on track (phew!), but the experience has made me think about the skills needed to run a lab. Hopefully this is of interest to some of you, especially early career researchers (ECRs), but I would also like experienced researchers to wade with comments and tips. This post will be more about the “nuts and bolts” of running a lab, but perhaps a future post can be about broader philosophies around being the head of a research lab.

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Part of my lab – AFTER cleaning.

Human resources

There are people in a lab. This means, as the head of a lab, you need to pay attention to human resources. This might be practical kind of stuff, like signing expense reports, or making sure students are getting paid when they are supposed to. But there are also many more complex things to think about, such as helping resolve arguments, or helping students through difficulties. You need to learn to listen, you need to navigate social dynamics, and be a good communicator. Make your expectations clear, and be sure that everyone is well aware of their roles and responsibilities. Work on ways to have a productive AND fun lab. Be sensitive to everyone’s different needs, and be open to change – operate on a principle of kindness. You will likely find yourself navigating some tricky situations so be sure to get help when you need it: there may be training available, or perhaps ask your Chair or a colleague about advice on being a good manager of human resources.

Organization

Running a lab is very much about being organized. There has to be a “plan” for all the different supplies, and space for everyone to store their samples, find the ethanol, or grab new Petri dishes. From the start it’s important to think about space needs in the long-term – anticipate how the lab might change in the future, and make sure there is room to grow. People need to feel that they have a “home” in the lab, whether it’s a desk or piece of a lab bench, and this requires careful assessment of space. I personally struggle with sample storage, and seem to squeeze old samples into various drawers, with a promise of getting rid of them (or putting them in long-term storage) after students have published their work. That promise is mostly broken, as it it easier to just store stuff and forget about it. ECRs: avoid this mistake! Stuff accumulates far too quickly. Be sure to label things too, including where to put supplies.

OrganizedLab

Safety and training

Don’t drink from the beakers; broken glass is dangerous. Stay on top of the safety rules at your institution: it’s easy to miss those emails, but as I learned, they are important. Top-down guidance about safety will show the lab members that safety is a priority not an afterthought. Know where to store chemicals, know about the eye wash stations, and make sure the first aid kit is stocked and ready. Know what needs to get stored where, and be ready when there is a call for hazardous waste disposal. Learn about MSDS, and be on top of the chemicals that may be present in your lab. As the head of a lab, you are indeed responsible for making sure your lab members have the appropriate training in the context of lab safety: whether it be WHIMIS, research ethics, or wilderness first aid, get your students signed up, and pay for the training. Don’t shirk this essential responsibility.

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Permits

As the head of a lab, your name will likely be on all the research permits, and depending on your field of study, this can be a very big deal, and complicated. From collecting permits to animal care to biohazards, you need to guide your students through the permit process, from application to final reports. You have to be aware of deadlines, and know the ins and outs of the different requirements, especially when your work might cross jurisdictions. This can take an inordinate amount of time, but it requires the time commitment: lacking a permit can stall an entire research program. It’s essential to be proactive and prepared for permits. I certainly get my students to write the bulk of their own research permits, but a manager of a lab needs to facilitate this process.

Budgets and supplies

Running a lab means making sure there is a budget (i.e., you need a research grant!) to buy light bulbs for the microscope, flagging tape for field work, or medium for the agar plates. You need the money, and you need to know the process. The latter is not trivial: at my University some supplies are best bought using an internal purchasing system. Other places need just a credit card, or perhaps a purchase order. There are so many systems to learn, and each one probably needs a different password. It’s confusing and frustrating, and you have to stay on top of it. I keep a special file with all the details written out, and a hard-copy folder with old invoices – this way I can make sure to but the right sizes of things. Consistency is supplies is rather important!

Troubleshooting

Here are some things that have occurred in my lab over the years: weird smells from the sink. Lack of heat. Leaks from the ceiling. Power failures. Spider escapes**. Failing fridge. Failing freezer.

And the list goes on… Running a lab can be a lot about troubleshooting – you need to figure out who to call for what problem, and find a speedy resolution – otherwise you let down your grad students. Make a list of key people to get to know, from facilities to the local safety officer. Even better, post the list up in the lab, next to the telephone.

 

Ok, so there are certainly more things to know about running a lab, but hopefully the list provided is a start. Here’s the catch: almost everything I learned about running a lab was learned on the job. Despite attending some required workshops at the start of my career, I did not learn any real skills about running a lab. I was not trained to run a lab. Scientists must be taught to manage a lab.

That is a problem because a failure to run a lab properly has significant consequence for a lot of people! My students depend on the supplies that I have to buy, and they need to know what to do if there’s a chemical spill. Thankfully I had some good mentors when I was a grad student, and I managed to figure a lot of things out. However, I do think Universities need to do a better job helping hone the skills needed to run a lab; in many research fields, a successful academic career really depends on having a smooth-running lab, anything that can be done to help prepare ECRs for this would pay off.

In sum, I’m certainly a work in progress. Although I have some skills in research, I know that running a lab can be a real challenge for me, whether it’s forgetting to order supplies or checking the eyewash station weekly. I have learned to delegate a bit, and my grad students help me immensely at maintaining a safe and clean lab environment. I sure hope some of you can learn a bit from my own trials and tribulations… And please educate yourself, plan ahead, and know what it takes to run a lab well before you get the keys.

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Here are some other resources I’ve come across, related to managing a lab: from Genome Web, ASBMB, a post by Matt Welsh, and a Reddit thread on the topic

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**Sometimes we work with live spiders, on various projects. There have been times when they haven’t been where we left them. Oops.

Expectations (of graduate students and supervisors)

I have been running a research laboratory for close to 15 years, and I’m ashamed to say that I have not written down, formally, my expectations* of graduate students and their expectations of me. I regret this, especially since there are amazing resources out there to help with this discussion. I would argue that differing levels of expectation is probably a key source of conflict in research laboratories, and having a solid agreement between graduate students and supervisors is key for success.

Here is some context for my laboratory: I run a mid-sized laboratory (currently with three MSc and three PhD students and two undergraduate Honour’s students), focused on studying arthropod ecology.  As a Professor, my job involves teaching, research and administration. When running my research laboratory, the three tasks overlap – for example, I’m a lab ‘administrator’ in some ways, including ordering supplies, dealing with budgets, working on policies related to laboratory safety. I am also a researcher – perhaps doing research directly**, and certainly helping students with their research, from project design, to field logistics, analyses, and writing and editing manuscripts. I am also a teacher, and supervision involves different kinds of teaching, from leading lab meetings, teaching graduate-level classes, to taking parts in scientific debates, and sharing interesting literature. I assume my graduate students see my ‘roles’ as being varied, and sometimes fuzzy, because they really are! In recent years, my administrative duties at the University have increased, so I’m certainly not in the lab as much as I used to be, which can be tricky for everyone.

After a terrific laboratory meeting about expectations, my students pointed out that a lot of what is written below can be considered more as a philosophy about supervision, graduate school, and running a laboratory. This is quite true, and valid, but I think there are some concrete expectations that emerge from some of the bullet points, and the more vague and intangible expectations are a good starting point to the development of formal agreements with graduate students. With this in mind, I have agreed to work with my students (individually) to develop a “student-specific” document to outline a plan for meetings, communications, timelines, research priorities; that kind of living document will be a way to formalize specific expectations, plans, and contingencies when things don’t go as planned – such a document can give weight to the broader ideas around expectations, and allow for accountability (as that document develops, I’ll be sure to share a draft form on this blog).

For now… let’s get into some of the ideas around my expectations of graduate students, and their expectations of a supervisor.

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A lab environment… should be a team environment!

As a supervisor, my expectations for my graduate students are as follows:

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • Be part of the team: I expect my students to be engaged and active members of the lab. This includes taking part in laboratory meetings, and being responsive to activities in the laboratory. This could include showing up for lab clean-up days, replying to emails related to lab events and activities, and generally working to be an integral and important member of the lab.
  • Be productive: graduate school is a full-time endeavour, but being productive in work does not necessarily mean working unreasonable hours; being productive is about working well. It’s about quality, not quantity. I do not expect my students to be in the lab all the time; if work is progressing well, and students are reading for comprehensive exams, or have other tasks that don’t require them to be physically present, it’s quite fine that students are not in the lab during regular working hours. However, at other times (e.g., when there is a lot of microscope work required), I do expect to see students in the lab on a more regular basis. I do not count hours, but if productively is not where I would like it to be, we will have a discussion about this, and determine ways to see that work is being done well. Related to this, I do hope that my students to have a life outside of graduate school and that ‘work-life-balance’ is happening, and hopefully this helps promote wellbeing.
  • Communicate: I expect my students to communicate with me, on a regular basis. I will discuss the importance of this at the start of the program, and establish a system that works for both of us. Communication includes (most importantly) keeping me in the loop on their project development, but also around issues they are facing, complications with their work, and certainly about their schedules (e.g., if they will be away for extended periods of time). I need to know when things are not going well – otherwise things can go off the rails rather quickly – being proactive on communications is essential.
  • Develop a research project: a core part of graduate school is developing a research project. I expect my students to do this, with me. The project will likely be a mix of my ideas and their ideas, done with knowledge of literature and ideas, from the broader scientific community. I expect PhD students to develop their project with less input from me (as compared to MSc project development)
  • Keep research as a priority: although I’m very keen on science communication, and outreach, and keen to have students that are engaged in many parts of the graduate student experience, at the end of the day, the research is a priority. “Keeping an eye on the ball” is important, as we are all working with limited resources (mostly time and money!), and the reason students are doing a thesis-based MSc or PhD is because there is an interest and passion for the research, and the current path involves this research-intensive stage. It must be the overarching priority.
  • Be organized: I expect students to be organized; successful students students use an agenda, plan ahead, and think ahead. I expect them to come to meetings with the appropriate documents (prepared and forwarded ahead of time) and with questions prepared. Being organized is a key step towards effective time management and that is essential for success in graduate school (and beyond!).
  • Apply for funding when appropriate: I will do my best to find funding for research, but at the same time, I expect my students to be on the lookout for any funding opportunities relevant to their program, whether it’s applying to a fellowship to get them through their final year, or applying for funds to offset costs for attending conferences.
  • Be responsible for the program: I am well aware of many deadlines, and overall program requirements, but it’s also the responsibility of students to know what courses they need to take, and when to take them. Being aware of deadlines is essential for supervisors and students.
  • Finish on time: I expect MSc students to finish in under two years, and PhD students to take around 4 years*** to complete all degree requirements. There may be exceptions to this, but these should be rare, and should be discussed well in advance. My role as academic guide is to help students through the program, and help design projects that are feasible within the time limits mentioned; the students are also responsible for trying to reach these deadlines and communicating when they cannot. I am a very strong believer in avoiding ‘extended’ MSc or PhD programs: it is seldom a good idea.
  • Publish: While I provide opportunities for joint-authorship with my students, I expect my students to publish their main thesis chapters, in suitable peer-reviewed journals. Ideally, (some of?) these publications should be submitted before the student graduates, or at least within a reasonable time frame after graduation. For me, this time frame is certainly within a year of graduating. I expect to be a co-author on papers that originate from a student’s thesis work, provided I have earned that authorship.
  • Be responsible for data: I expect my students to have good data management procedures, and any field books or raw data sheets be copied regularly. I expect data-back up to be happening on a regular basis. I also expect all data files will be submitted to me at the time a student graduates.
  • Collaborate and mentor: I model a collaborative research approach and expect my students to share what they are doing with each other, and work collaboratively whenever possible. I expect my more senior graduate students to mentor more junior members of the lab. I expect my students to seize opportunities to collaborate with other students (provided it complements their own research, and doesn’t distract too much from their own research!)
  • Read: Reading narrowly and broadly will help students become better scientists. I expect my graduate students to be aware of broader happenings in science, as well as the specifics related to their projects.
  • Do #SciComm: Communicating science is a central skill for scientists. I will give students opportunities to go to conferences and I expect my students to present their work at these conferences, and to spend time and energy on developing effective science communication skills. 
  • Be independent: I expect my graduate student to be independent. I’m a busy person, and I’m not in the lab all that much. I travel, teach and have a bazillion meetings to attend. Therefore, my students need to be able to work independently. I will not micro-manage; I will not be a ‘helicopter supervisor’. I’m hands-off, much of the time, although I will be available and accessible as needed.
  • Be creative, take risks, have fun: Graduate school is a wonderful time in a career, and I certainly do my best to create an interesting work environment for my students. I hope this is an environment that will allow for students to feel comfortable being creative and taking risks. Also expect there to be ‘play’ and ‘work’ and that in many cases, the lines between the two will blur.

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Being a supervisor can be like setting out pylons in a construction zone.

Here is what I will try to provide to my graduate students – this is what I perceive to be their expectations of me (note: my current students helped with this section):

  • Celebrate diversity, be respectful, be honest, and be ethical.
  • uphold and transmit the highest professional standards of research and scholarship” (that one comes straight from my University)
  • Be supportive and human: I will develop a working relationship with students that will be based on the philosophy of being a good human! This means being supportive of my students, and to be there when they need me. A supervisor’s role is certainly to give advice (even long after graduation), and be a person they can depend on. I will strive to be compassionate, patient and empathetic. I recognize that everyone has ups and downs, and will have dark days as well as bright times: I will be supportive through all of this, and will work with my students to help them through their program, despite the challenges that will be thrown their way.
  • Be available: related to the previous point, I will be available to my students. I recognize this is a struggle at times, but when a student needs a meeting, I will help make this happen. I will answer emails, and meet face-to-face as necessary. They will know about my schedule, so it’s no surprise if I’m away on vacation, or otherwise unavailable. (as an aside: this is something I have to work on, and increasing face-time with my graduate students will be a priority going forward)
  • Communicate: I will do my best to have open communications with my students, from laboratory happenings, progress on research, troubleshooting, or just basic planning. The communication may be via different types of media (e.g., social media, emails or phone calls) but regardless, I will communicate.
  • Compromise: when discussing this document with my students, we talked about the power imbalance in Academia. It’s important to be honest about this power imbalance, recognize it’s there, and understand the stress it can put on students. Conflict can arise in part because of different priorities of students compared to a supervisor: for example, a supervisor may see a short-term gain by having another publication, whereas a student may need to devote some time to professional development activities, and see that ‘critical’ publication as being less time sensitive. This is further confounded by the power imbalance; therefore, a supervisor needs to be willing to see these differing priorities, in the context of potential power imbalance, and be willing to compromise.
  • Take the feedback: A supervisor has to be willing to be criticized, and be willing and open to comments from students. This becomes especially relevant when there are agreed-upon expectations!
  • Edit: A key role of a supervisor is to read and edit manuscripts, proposals, thesis chapters, etc. I will try to provide timely feedback on written materials. The definition of ‘timely’ is difficult to pin down, but optimally this will be within a 2 week window, provided there is advance notice and planning.
  • Provide funding: I will provide adequate support for research activities, from helping fund research assistants for the summer, to making sure students are not out-of-pocket for airline tickets or field supplies. My job is to make sure research can happen, and a big part of this is funding. We need open communication about funding, from the start, so that my students are supported, financially, in all parts of their work.
  • Help navigate graduate school: a supervisor has to help establish a research project, set-up committee meetings (help fill out the relevant forms), organize comprehensive examinations, sort out potential examiners for a PhD defense, and have good working knowledge about the policies and procedures at the University around graduate school. Although the program is ultimately a student’s responsibility, a supervisor has a key role to play in navigating the program. I will try to be organized on these tasks.
  • Leverage my network: Whenever possible, I will use my own contacts and network to help my students. At times, it may be necessary for students to get in touch with experts outside of their own network, and I will facilitate this as much as possible.
  • Help get jobs: I know my students, care about them, and recognize they will pass through the lab on the way to a career. I have a responsibility to help them with this transition, and as such a supervisor needs to be ready to write letters of reference for students (even at the last minute!), and send interesting job opportunities their way.
  • Troubleshoot: I will be there to help troubleshoot, whether it is issues with a collaborator or fellow graduate student, or laboratory equipment failure. I will make sure most stuff works and model steps to problem solving.
  • Provide a safe laboratory environment: I will provide a safe work environment by following the standards put in place by my University. I will ensure there is adequate training, dissemination of policy, and good practice. I will work with my University and my students to make sure any problems are dealt with in a timely fashion.
  • Space and supplies: I will work to make sure students have the physical space they need in the lab, and the equipment they need, from IT support to insect pins.
  • Send students to conferences: I will send students to conferences, and pay for these (in part****). For MSc students, this may be 1-2 conferences over the course of their degree, and these will likely be national-level conferences relevant to their field of study. For PhD students, this should include at least one international conference, preferably towards the end of their degree.
  • Sign stuff: I will sign stuff for my students, whether it is expense reports, or forms for scholarships.
  • Put out pylons: although I expect my students to be mostly independent researchers, this model does not apply to all students, and problems will occur. When necessary, I will play a more active role in direct supervision, have weekly meetings as necessary, and work in a more ‘hands-on’ manner with students. I like to see a supervisor’s role as one that involves setting up pylons in a construction zone: ideally a student can navigate this zone with just a few pylons, placed here and there, and I will help facilitate a route through the zone with as few pylons as possible. At times, however, more pylons are needed, perhaps placed closer together, and navigating through a graduate program may require more help for some students. Creating a laboratory environment in which it’s safe to take risks, and safe to fail now and then, is also important, so at times, veering into the construction zone is fine, and I may not stop a student, but I will help to find a way out.

I realize this is long-winded, and detailed, but it needs to be. Expectations are drivers of success in graduate school, and essential for good supervisor-student relationships. I encourage other Academics to develop this kind of document, and have this discussion with students, before they come to your lab, when they start, and during the program. It will benefit everyone.

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* To be clear, I certainly have discussions with students about expectations, but talking about it isn’t as good as having it stated more explicitly in written form.

** I don’t “do” all that much direct research anymore; although I try to get out in the field with my students, and certainly edit/write manuscripts, my research is not mostly at arm’s length to my students. I have traded field work for a desk job… 

*** Time for completion for PhD programs are more variable, and they should be. When I state ‘4 years’, it’s much more of a goal than a reality. However, I feel strongly that there are very few reasons why a MSc should take more than 2 years, from start to finish.

**** Funding for conferences will not come out of a student’s own pocket, but I do expect students to apply for relevant travel funds, or for departmental funding, to help offset costs to my research grants.

Monitoring northern biodiversity: picking the right trap for collecting beetles and spiders

Ecological monitoring is an important endeavour as we seek to understand the effects of environmental change on biodiversity. We need to benchmark the status of our fauna, and check-in on that fauna on a regular basis: in this way we can, for example, better understand how climate change might alter our earth systems. That’s kind of important.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

A northern ground beetle, Elaphrus lapponicus. Photo by C. Ernst.

With that backdrop, my lab was involved with a Northern Biodiversity Program a few years ago (a couple of related papers can be found here and here), with a goal of understanding the ecological structure of Arthropods of northern Canada. The project was meant to benchmark where we are now, and one outcome of the work is that we are able to think about a solid framework for ecological monitoring into the future.

A few weeks ago our group published a paper* on how to best monitor ground-dwelling beetles and spiders in northern Canada. The project resulted in over 30,000 beetles and spiders being collected, representing close to 800 species (that’s a LOT of diversity!). My former PhD student Crystal Ernst and MSc student Sarah Loboda looked at the relationship between the different traps we used for collecting these two taxa, to help provide guidelines for future ecological monitoring. For the project, we used both a traditional pitfall trap (essentially a white yogurt container stuck in the ground, with a roof/cover perched above it) and a yellow pan trap (a shallow yellow bowl, also sunk into the ground, but without a cover). Traps were placed in grids, in two different habitats (wet and “more wet”), across 12 sites spanning northern Canada, and in three major biomes (northern boreal, sub-Arctic, and Arctic).

Here’s a video showing pan traps being used in the tundra:

Both of the trap types we used are known to be great at collecting a range of taxa (including beetles and spiders), and since the project was meant to capture a wide array of critters, we used them both. Crystal, Sarah and I were curious whether, in retrospect, both traps were really necessary for beetles and spiders. Practically speaking, it was a lot of work to use multiple traps (and to process the samples afterwards), and we wanted to make recommendations for other researchers looking to monitor beetles and spiders in the north.

The story ends up being a bit complicated… In the high Arctic, if the goal is to best capture the diversity of beetles and spiders, sampling in multiple habitats is more important than using the two trap types. However, the results are different in the northern boreal sites: here, it’s important to have multiple trap types (i.e., the differences among traps were more noticeable) and the differences by habitat were less pronounced. Neither factor (trap type or habitat) was more important than the other when sampling in the subarctic. So, in hindsight, we can be very glad to have used both trap types! It was worth the effort, as characterizing the diversity of beetles and spiders depended on both sampling multiple habitats, and sampling with two trap types. There were enough differences to justify using two trap types, especially when sampling different habitats in different biomes. The interactions between trap types, habitats, and biomes was an unexpected yet important result.

Our results, however, are a little frustrating when thinking about recommendations for future monitoring. Using more than one trap type increases efforts, costs, and time, and these are always limited resources. We therefore recommend that future monitoring in the north, for beetles and spiders, could possibly be done with a trap that’s a mix between the two that we used: a yellow, roof-less pitfall trap. These traps would provide the best of both options: they are deeper than a pan trap (likely a good for collecting some Arthropods), but are yellow and without a cover (other features that are good for capturing many flying insects). These are actually very similar to a design that is already being used with a long-term ecological monitoring program in Greenland. We think they have it right**.

A yellow pitfall trap - the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada's Arctic.

A yellow pitfall trap – the kind used in Greenland, and the one we recommend for future monitoring in Canada’s Arctic.

In sum, this work is really a “methodological” study, which when viewed narrowly may not be that sexy. However, we are optimistic that this work will help guide future ecological monitoring programs in the north. We are faced with increased pressures on our environment, and a pressing need to effectively track these effects on our biodiversity. This requires sound methods that are feasible and provide us with a true picture of faunal diversity and community structure.

It looks to me like we can capture northern beetles and spiders quite efficiently with, um, yellow plastic beer cups. Cheers to that!

Reference

Ernst, C, S. Loboda and CM Buddle. 2015. Capturing Northern Biodiversity: diversity of arctic, subarctic and northern boreal beetles and spiders are affected by trap type and habitat. Insect Conservation and Diversity DOI: 10.1111/icad.12143

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* The paper isn’t open access. One of the goals of this blog post is to share the results of this work even if everyone can’t access the paper directly. If you want a copy of the paper, please let me know and I’ll be happy to send it to you. I’m afraid I can’t publish all of our work in open access journals because I don’t have enough $ to afford high quality OA journals.

** The big caveat here is that a proper quantitative study that compares pan and and pitfall traps to the “yellow roof-less pitfall” traps is required. We believe it will be the best design, but belief does need to be backed up with data. Unfortunately these kind of trap-comparison papers aren’t usually high on the priority list.

Questions from grad students: on stress, being a generalist, and publishing

I was recently invited down to the Arkansas to be a “student-selected” speaker for their entomology Department. Their graduate students decide on someone to invite down to Fayetteville, and the honouree gets to visit that lovely part of the world, meet with grad students and professors in the Department, and give a seminar. It was a fabulous trip, and it was incredibly special to be recognized by graduate students. Thank you!

Quite a lot of my discussions with students ended up focusing on career development, pressures of the tenure-track run, and professional development. The students asked great questions, so great that I thought I would post them here, with some responses. (Surely other people will have better advice than what I have written, and please comment if you are so inclined!)

So many professors I know are always so stressed. How do you avoid burn-out, and why would anyone want to be a prof since it takes a real toll!

Indeed, there are days when the work is stressful, and pressures of the tenure run can be really tough. Grant writing, learning to run a lab, teaching and supervising all happen at the same time. Even after 14 years as a Prof, the stress can remain and still rears its ugly head. The job doesn’t get easier or stress-free over time.

I know this seems somewhat counter-intuitive at first, but for me, the best way to reduce work-related stress is to not work too much. You do not need to work 80 hrs a week to succeed in Academia, and finding balance between work and life is critically important. Even if you *love* everything about your research, take time away from it. Real time. Proper weekends. Find hobbies or activities that take your mind and body to somewhere else, whether it’s playing the ukulele or learning to bake. Making time for exercise is important too. A healthy body really does help with work productivity and lets you get a little distance.

The work will always be there. No matter how hard you try to get ahead on a project, the next task or project will be waiting for you. Nagging you and calling you name… Don’t give in!

This relates very much to the overwhelming urge to be a perfectionist, and do *everything* at an unattainable level. This must be jettisoned. Now. When you start to work a little less, you will actually start an important process of prioritizing and leaning the skill of time management. With less time at work, you will get more efficient with the time you do spend at work!

Why would anyone want to be a stressed-out Prof? Well… It remains a rather amazing job, and if that’s your career goal, go for it! But it doesn’t have to be a career goal, and we need to all do a better job at recognizing and valuing PhD career paths outside of higher education (check this out about “life after Academia“). Regardless, however, leaning how to manage stress and time are a part of the work, whether at a university, research institute, in government, or elsewhere. If you are doing grad work, it’s unlikely you will work in a “stress free” environment in your future.

We have to be so specialized during grad school, yet also need to figure out how to be generalists. How do we make that transition?

This is a great question, and very true! We become experts at the end of a MSc or PhD, and then are suddenly thrust into teaching an intro Biology class, or having to write a collaborative grant on a topic at arm’s length from our own expertise. For those interested in a career in Academia, the job requires people to be specialists and generalists, and that’s not always easy.

However, the transition is easier if you start taking small steps towards being a generalist early on. Often a qualifying (or comprehensive) exam during a PhD gets us thinking in more general terms, as that’s a time we are thinking a lot about how our research fits into a broader conceptual framework, or perhaps we are asked questions outside of our area, as a means for the committee to assess limits of knowledge. After these exams, it’s easy to slip back into our projects with a sigh of relief, and we delve back into become experts. It becomes a nice and cozy comfort zone. However, it’s important to start and keep some habits and continue on the path of being a generalist. Here are some ideas:

  • Spend a bit of time, every day, reading interesting stories at the periphery of your subject areas, whether that means checking out science blogs, listening to podcasts or following interesting people on social media. I do this every morning with a cup of coffee: I have a number of blogs I follow regularly, and I always check out tweets from scientists with an eye for interesting stories (e.g., Malcolm Campbell is a great person to follow). Most of these stories are not related directly to my area of research, but they help me keep up on what is happening in ecology, evolutionary biology, entomology and Arachnology, Heck, these stories sometimes help me rethink my own research, or give me ideas for new avenues of research. It’s a great use of time.
  • Try to attend any seminars offered by guest speakers, whether in your own department, or elsewhere. Often these guests are excellent speakers, and are doing interesting things worth hearing about. It is sometimes tricky to justify getting away from the lab bench, but exposure to different areas of study will help you become more of a generalist.
  • If your department offers a journal club, take part as much as you can, as this will expose you to new literature in other areas of study. The papers you will discuss may end up being great case studies when you first teach that intro ecology class. This will also help you learn methods, techniques and language from other disciplines, which will also help you later in your career, especially when you write collaborative and interdisciplinary grants.

How do we play the “impact factor” game with publications, knowing how flawed that index is! It’s sometimes so hard to know where to try to publish! Help!

Groan. This is a tough one! Despite the known issues with impact factors, some people/search committees still put value on perceived value of journals, and want to see a CV that has publications in “top tier” journals. The push for publishing open access (OA) is sometimes at odds with this, since not all OA journals are indexed in the same way as other journals, and some of the great OA journals coming on stream are not well known to some of the people that may be reviewing your CV.

So, the best advice I can have is to try to diversify your publications as much as you can, showing that you *can* publish in higher “impact” journals, but that you are also well aware of other publications venues, and most of all, that your work is of high quality. You can make a direct case on your CV or cover letter to help explain your logic, and there are excellent reasons why you might choose one journal over another despite a perceived difference in that journal’s impact.

What remains important in publishing as an early-career researcher is that it’s clear to any committee what *your* research is, and how you have made important contributions to your discipline, even if all your papers aren’t in top-tier journals. Any search committee  wants to know you can be a leader in your discipline.

Sometimes it seems “frowned upon” to say you want to work at a more teaching-focused college instead of a big R1 school. Why does this bias exist? 

I think this actually comes from a good place in that supervisors want the very best for their students, and the “best” is often thought of as a select group of R1 (research-intensive) schools. This ends up being pervasive in the culture of higher education, and there becomes an assumption that everyone wants to work in R1 schools but many end up “settling” for a lesser-known University. So, this means that all the profs not at R1 schools done really want to be there, and everyone is looking longingly towards greener pastures. This is, of course, entirely flawed logic because rankings are fundamentally flawed. But, speaking as both a parent and a supervisor, we don’t often think logically about those we care about and are mentoring. However, I firmly believe that it’s generally bad advice to bias any student’s thinking around their career path. An open mind is much, much better.

That being said, it is important to look critically at yourself and figure out what gives you the most joy and happiness. If you love being in the classroom, embrace it! If you can’t stand teaching but are at ease behind a lab bench or writing grants, embrace it! Then, once you have done this self-examination, stick to your guns and have an honest and frank discussion about this with those doing the frowning. Your supervisors and mentors really need to know what you want, in the best-case scenario, because they are a strong ally for you when you are looking for a job, whether it’s giving an informal reference over the phone, or writing a letter of reference.

Now, we all know that academic jobs are not that easy to get, and despite what you may *want* as a perfect job, this should not stop you from applying to any positions that you might be qualified: keep a open mind because you may find yourself in a R1 school, and you might love it (I know this from personal experience: I always saw myself at a smaller college/University yet managed to land a job at one of the big research Universities in Canada, even though I didn’t think I had a chance of landing the job! And, I’m very happy with the job).

Once you do land a job, and you are happy about it, spread the word. Discuss how great it is to be at your University, whether a liberal arts college, Land grant University, or Ivy League. They are all great.

The pillars of the ivory tower remain deeply planted, and despite increased interest in public engagement and outreach, Universities remain slow-moving, old, conservative institutions. Will this ever change? 

Ok, so this is a pretty big question. So big that it will wait for another post since this one is getting a little too long… I will save that for another time.

In sum, interacting with grad students at Arkansas was truly a delight. They were confident, bright, engaged and inquisitive. Spending time with a group of graduate students gives me great hope and optimism, and their insightful questions are an indication of this.