What does it mean to “do science”?

This is a guest post by PhD student Shaun Turney. I fully endorse it. It’s awesome.

As a scientist, when I’m brushing my teeth, I’m doing science.

This thought occurred to me yesterday as I was trying to reason myself out of a bout of imposter syndrome.

I was thinking: I don’t work hard enough to be a good scientist. I haven’t even done any science all day. I helped a francophone colleague with grammar, I read some stories on Eureka Alert, and I wrote up a field work budget. And that’s just some of the more useful sounding stuff: I also spent a fair amount of time playing basketball with a boy I mentor, cooking dinner, staring into space, telling my partner about my imposter syndrome issue, and reading a science fiction book. I looked through zero microscopes, wrote zero papers, and made zero hypotheses.

I convinced my brain to stop bullying me by distracting it with a question: What does it mean to “do science”?

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It's part of doing science.

Shaun Turney, vacuuming the Tundra. It’s part of doing science.

It would help to know first what exactly “science” is, but philosophers are nowhere near resolving that debate. Science is often defined as a set of processes or tools, the most notable of which being the scientific method. Science is also the body of knowledge produced by that set of processes. These definitions seem pretty solid until you prod them a little: which tools and processes count as scientific? Which knowledge counts as being part of Science? What is “knowledge”, for that matter!

So “Doing science” could be roughly and problematically defined as carrying out scientific processes, like the scientific method, to add to science’s body of knowledge.

But tell me: Is wiping down the counters after your experiment part of running an experiment? Does arguing over beers about whose study organism can jump the highest count as a scientific debate? Can writing a blog post about your research count as writing a paper?

I think times are a-changing enough that many scientists, especially early-career scientists, would feel comfortable with including some instances of lab “house-keeping”, socializing (ie, networking), and social media-ing as part of doing science. Here’s a more radical proposition: taking care of yourself is also part of doing science.

Here’s a strange-but-true thought: If you’re a scientist, your body is a piece of scientific equipment. Your mind is an even more important piece of scientific equipment. If maintaining scientific equipment is a part of doing science, then equally so is maintaining your mind and body. This fuzzy line between doing science and not-doing science is especially evident in field work. In the field, ensuring that your traps don’t get holes and the soles of your feet don’t get holes are equally important parts of the scientific process.

We wear gloves when working with hazardous chemicals, and we consider this part of our scientific protocol. I brush my teeth before engaging in scientific debate so I don’t repel anyone with my breath, and this is part of my scientific protocol. We read papers and sketch down ideas to encourage our minds to come up with interesting hypotheses, and we consider this part of the scientific process. I play with children and read science fiction to encourage my mind to come up with interesting hypotheses, and this is part of my scientific process.

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How to become an Arachnologist

So you want to be an Arachnologist?

You just need to immerse yourself in the world of eight-legs: read, watch, connect, share & study.

I recently did an interview with a high school student from Indiana, who wanted to be an Arachnologist. This is not a common occurrence, in terms of a high school student expressing interest in this field of study, and because there are actually relatively few Arachnologists out there to act as role models!

I Tweeted about the interview, and a few people were quite intrigued by this, and asked me how they could train to be an arachnologist: a question worthy of a blog post! So, here are some thoughts and ideas, separating into three categories: elementary school, high school and finally, students entering college or University.

The younger years:

Kids like bugs. Children are naturally fascinated by arachnids: often not exhibiting as much fear as adults. They are curious, keen observers, and sponges for neat factoids about spiders and their relatives. At this age, responsibility for fostering arachnophiles really falls upon parents and teachers. Within the classroom, teachers should be encouraged to take kids outside, think about doing units/projects about natural history, and see about getting special activities into the classroom that focus on ‘biodiversity’. To me, it matters less that these activities are about spiders (or insects), but that they are celebrations of the natural world. It’s about keeping kids keen on the natural world continually engaged and interested in the natural world.

Parents can do a lot outside of the home – connecting with local naturalist clubs could help connect youngsters with some mentors and experts. Getting kids out to “Bug shows” is also a great idea – these are sometimes done through local museums, colleges or community centres. I always like to scroll through photos from these kinds of events: you can really see the enthusiasm on kids’ faces! Birthday parties could also be an opportunity to bring in biologists instead of clowns or princesses. A few quick web searches will reveal a suite of amazing workshops out there.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

Bug shows: keeping kids exciting about arthropods. Photo by Sean McCann.

The teenage years:

I currently have two teenagers in my house, and this is a very interesting age: an age where habits get set, interests develop, and passions for hobbies either solidify or disappear. In the classroom setting this is where some students can really get turned on to science and biology, and for those keen on natural history, most students find the curriculum doesn’t satisfy as they are looking for a lot more. The high school student who interviewed me is a good example: she wanted to take courses more related to insects and spiders but such courses just don’t exist at high school – if lucky, they may just show up as part of the biology unit.

For those teenagers wanting to become arachnologists, some work is required. It may be possible to connect with local naturalists, or perhaps the nearest museum or college/University. These places may help facilitate the interests, and may even allow opportunities to have volunteers work with an insect of arachnid collection. Getting into an actual lab or research museum could be a positive life-changing experience for a teenager, but certainly isn’t an opportunity available to everyone.

I think during the teenage years the Internet and social media are invaluable tools. Heaps of information is available thought organizations such as the American Arachnological Society, or the International Society of Arachnology. Facebook groups or Twitter can also be a great way to connect with other Arachnologists: I personally use Twitter all the time to discuss spiders with colleagues from around the world, and these networks can also help spread the news about exciting discoveries in Arachnology.

Unfortunately it is rather difficult to recommend specific “spider courses” for teenagers wanting to become arachnologists. Instead, becoming an arachnologist at this age is really about learning what you can, wherever you can, and trying to connect with other arachnologists. For those wanting more academic pursuits, the best advice I can give to aspiring arachnologists is to become a good naturalist: observe, record, and be fascinated about the natural world. Good things will always come from this! In school, take the sciences and maths, especially biology, and when it’s time to head to College or University, think about selecting one that offers some courses in entomology.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things... Photo by Sean McCann.

Arachnologists get to study these cool things… Photo by Sean McCann.

Off to college!

There are virtually no Arachnology programs at colleges or Universities, and instead college student should look to the sister discipline of Entomology. Many (most?) Universities offer some introductory entomology courses, and in these courses it may be possible to get some exposure to Arachnology. The instructors of these course can probably help point to other resources or local people with additional expertise or interest in arachnids.

When seeking an undergrad program, I do advise aspiring arachnologists to take a strong Biology or Zoology Major: this will give a great grounding and foundation and be perfect for a springboard to graduate school. It’s certainly worth considering selecting a University that has an entomology program, or at least a Department or solid offerings of insect-themed courses, and has some arthropod-themed research happening.

If time and money permits, there are some “spider courses” out there and perhaps it’s worth taking one of those (although I have never taken one, I have heard they can be quite worthwhile). At the very least, do LOTS of reading, including books like The Biology of Spiders and field guides like Rich Bradley’s (for North America), and stay active on social media.

Becoming an arachnologist is about finding good mentors: these people may or may not be arachnologists, but their encouragement and support is so important and can change lives. This was certainly the case for me, and an entomologist at University of Guelph helped facilitate my interests in Arachnids and gave me a desk to work at, and offered plenty of encouragement. My independent undergraduate research project about spiders set me on a path to becoming an arachnologist.

It’s a bit of a shame, and a bit of a mystery that Arachnology just doesn’t show up on the radar for very much of K-12 nor does it show up in undergraduate programs: becoming an arachnologist with a deeper level of training really happens at graduate school, so for those who are really passionate about arachnids may need to take a long view and plan on moving on to a Master’s degree. This certainly doesn’t mean you can’t be an arachnologist in other ways! (Some great Arachnologists I know don’t have advanced degrees). However, the more advanced training can help formalize and structure the learning process.

Meet Catherine! She's an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders... Photo by Sean McCann

Meet Catherine! She’s an Arachnologist, and is searching for spiders… Photo by Sean McCann

How do you know you are an Arachnologist?

This is a great question, and a difficult one to answer! There certainly isn’t a certificate or plaque that you get once you become trained as an Arachnologist. As you accumulate knowledge you will also realize that there is so much we don’t know about Arachnids. New species are described all the time, and we continually hear amazing stories about their natural history. Expertise is all relative, and once some expertise is acquired, the limits of our knowledge become exposed.

You don’t need to publish in scientific journals or do experiments on spiders to become an Arachnologist. You do have to learn some biology and arachnid natural history, and do your best to share what your know with others. Bottom line: once you have acquired enough knowledge about Arachnids, and people start looking to you for advice and answers to their own questions about our eight-legged friends, you can probably call yourself an Arachnologist.

So, to sum it up: to become an Arachnologist you need to read, watch, connect, share & study.

But..

Are there jobs for Arachnologists? That’s a topic for another post…

 

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

Robb Bennett: a most exceptionally wonderful person (and Arachnologist). Photo by Sean McCann.

 

 

An ode to graduate students

Last week I saw two of my graduate students successfully defend their PhDs. This is wonderful and exciting, and I am delighted that they are both moving on to post-doctoral research positions in other places. I am also saddened by their departures: seeing good students leave the lab creates a vacuum. This has caused me to reflect about the effect graduate students have on their supervisors:

I write, teach, research.

I see classrooms, computers, forests and fields.

I use keyboards, iPads, PowerPoint, and pipettes.

I publish or perish.

LOIs, RFPs, IFs, and h-factors.

Grants, emails, to-do lists and budgets.

Learning?

Always.

Literature and libraries can start the process,

But books and blogs barely break the silence.

It’s the tangible human that makes the difference.

My colleagues, my friends:

You are the Academy.

Do you have the answers?

How to avoid wandering alone in ivory towers?

How to slow the withering on tenured vines?

How to grasp frail tendrils of discovery?

How to find that perfect chorus of voices, words, arguments and insights?

Search again.

Find hope and optimism in our laboratories.

Open the door to the greatest discovery of all:

It’s their keen intellect, smiles, kind words or questions.

It’s crafted by their company.

Caffeine-fuelled conversations critique, criticize, challenge.

(Coffee is never bitter with graduate students)

Embracing curiosity, creativity and collaboration.

Wrangling words together: perform, propose, predict.

Execute, explain, engage.

Fieldwork, funding, fellowship.

Null hypothesis, clear objectives, conceptual frameworks.

Significance and broader impact,

Contributions to knowledge.

Contributions for humanity.

I hope I did enough; I wish for more.

Fleeting moments are now warm memories:

Catching spiders on the tundra, or caterpillars in the canopy.

Thank you, students: you teach me.

We move beyond metrics and money.

We write, we study, we learn.

We discover.

We grow.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Crystal Ernst successfully defended her PhD on 23 Feb.

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27

Dorothy Maguire (middle) successfully defended her PhD on 27 Feb. Elena Bennett was Dorothy’s co-supervisor.

What is the motivation for pursuing graduate school?

Last week an interesting hashtag was floating around twitter:  #whyididaphd.  It was great to see reflections on this topic, and during our most recent lab meeting, I asked my students why they were pursuing advanced research-based degrees, and here are some of their responses:

  • Graduate school allows an opportunity for freedom to do the things you find interesting, every day.
  • Doing research means you can follow your interests and curiosity.
  • Doing a MSc is a perfect transition between an undergraduate degree and whatever might come next!
  • Doing research is an opportunity to work independently, and this is important to me.
  • Research is about gaining knowledge and learning on  your own. It’s like the best kind of drug: you can get hooked and it’s good for you, and it never ends.
  • Graduate school develops my network of collaborators, and I need this as I enter the work force.
  • I want to do things that are relevant, and are my ‘own’. Research allows this.
  • Doing an advanced degree was an important career stage, because I need it in order to do what I really want to do into the future (i.e., academic position).

These reflections were insightful, and showed that the students had wonderful motivations for pursing advanced degrees in a research-based laboratory. I agree that doing a MSc or PhD is perfect for people who are curiosity-driven, and who appreciate the independent nature of the work.

I had two responses to #whyididaphd. The first one certainly reflects my thinking now:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.12.23 PM

The second response is a little more honest, and reflects my thinking at the time I decided to continue with research, about 20 years ago:

Screen Shot 2014-10-08 at 1.13.21 PM

Is it wrong to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because there’s nothing better to do”, or “because I don’t have another plan and I like University”?  We had a heated debate about this, and the lab was divided. One argument is that it’s a total waste of time, energy, money and resources to pursue a MSc or PhD “just because”. Sure it’s nice to stay in a University after the undergrad degree is done, but why pursue it unless you know you need that advanced degree!  Have a plan, have a career goal, and if a MSc or PhD is part of that plan, pursue graduate school.

In contrast, if you don’t have a plan, or a specific career in mind, perhaps graduate school is the *perfect* place to develop your research skills in an exciting, and familiar environment. Graduate school is a perfect transition to many, many careers, so if there is nothing else on your horizons, keep on trucking along at a University! If you are a curious person, and independent thinker, it’s an ideal learning environment.

I suspect many people fall somewhere in the middle (I think that was the case for me).  I always felt I might eventually like a career at a University, and since I seemed to like research, and be good at it, pursuing graduate school was a natural progression. So, even if the motivations for doing graduate school aren’t always based on a clear career path, those motivations can still be more than enough to give it a try.

I’ll finish by expanding that last point: “give it a try” does not mean “stick with it even when it’s not working”.  It’s important to know when to quit if grad school is not for you. It’s an awfully difficult and frustrating process if it’s not going well. Give it a try if it floats your boat, or it’s what you need. However, also know when to quit.

 

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Why emails must be well-written and error-free – UPDATE

UPDATE: some people have noticed that *this* post contained some errors (Gulp. Oops. Sorry). We all make mistakes, and there is always room for some errors. So, I would like to propose that we stick by the argument that we “strive for” error-free emails! (and blog posts).

———

dear prof can u help me with a Q about the crs work…. Its really important and would be gr8 if u could let me know when i could come by and see u in your office”

I get emails like this all the time. Most often, emails sent with shorthand, all in small-caps, without punctuation come from undergraduate students. Sometimes they are from graduate students, and very occasionally, from colleagues.  Quite often, emails from prospective graduate students are riddled with errors and make no sense. This is not the way to make a positive first impression.

Rite gud emails pls

Email remains the last vestige of anything reassembling ‘official correspondence’ between a writer and a reader. As such, any ‘first contact’ over email, or whenever you are not sure of the relationship with the receiver*, you must proofread and strive for clear, error-free emails. It matters. Here’s why, from my perspective as an Academic:

 1) Triage: I’m overwhelmed with emails. Every one of my colleagues is overwhelmed with emails. Triage is often based on a series of quick decisions, and if an prospective student can’t string together a sentence, that email will likely be deleted**. If a student asks questions about course content, I guarantee that the well crafted email will get a response faster than the one that was sent without being proofread. Well-written emails are seldom ignored or deleted quickly.

2) Don’t risk it: Being polite, formal and clear in your writing will not hurt your chances of a positive interaction with someone. Being too casual and sloppy can hurt your chances of a positive interaction. It’s not a chance worth taking.

3) You get what you give: A well written, clear and error-free email will raise the bar. It tells me the sender is serious, and I will respond with the same level of seriousness.  Quality gets you quality, and you will not be taken as seriously if you do not take the time to think about what you are going to write, draft it, proofread, think about it, edit, and then send it.

4) Know your audience: most Academics are somewhat “old school”. We hang on to things from the past. We like books and remember the days of hard-copy newsletters, fax machines and the sound of the dial-up modem. When writing to people of that ilk, take the time to craft an email like it’s an old-fashioned letter, sent with a stamp.  I guarantee it will get noticed.

End of rant.

* email communication can quickly slide into the informal/casual and shorthand provided you have an established relationship between the sender and the reader. If there is a certain amount of familiarity, I see nothing wrong with quick and sometimes sloppy short-hand.

** writing problems are sometimes because of language (i.e., writing in something other than your first language). From my experience, it’s usually quite easy to separate a language issue from sloppiness or carelessness. If you are writing to someone in a language you are less familiar with, I suggest being clear about this. Tell your reader that you are writing in a second (or third language), be honest and genuine, but do pay careful attention so that your email is not sloppy.

(oh, and by the way, here’s a post about common writing errors!)

Ten tips when asking for a letter of recommendation

Academics get asked to write a lot of letters of recommendations, and we are pleased to do this!  Letters of recommendations can be really, really important when students are applying to grad school, or applying for scholarships.  Strong letters can make a big difference, and that means it’s essential that students approach this with seriousness, maturity and professionalism.

When asking for a letter of recommendation, here are ten things to do, more or less in chronological order:

1) Plan ahead: Ask for letters well ahead of the deadline!  Never, never assume your Professor will have the time or inclination to write a strong letter if the deadline is two days away.  Give lots of advance warning (at least several weeks).

2) Ask nicely.  Approach your Professor (in person, if possible; with a telephone call, or over email), explain what you are applying for (and why), and ask whether s/he might be willing to write you a letter of support.

3) Ask what kind of letter you might get!  You need to know whether it’ll be a strong letter, or one that is perhaps less in-depth.   In many cases, if I’ve only met a student in one class, and only have a grade to base a letter on, then I won’t be able to write a strong letter.  You deserve to know this, and it may affect whether or not you should ask someone else.  Don’t worry – most Academics are able to be honest (and nice) about what kind of letter they might be able to write.  You must find out, early on, so that your chances of success are as high as possible.

4) rite gud.  In all correspondence with the person who is writing a letter for you, ensure there are no grammatical or spelling errors.  Be professional, respect credentials (e.g., don’t start with  Hey prof Dude….), and make sure what you write is readable.  Avoid common writing mistakes.  This makes a big difference.  Sloppy writing, poor grammar and spelling mistakes make me think less of a candidate and will affect the strength of a letter.

5) Include ALL the relevant details, in one well-composed e-mail:

a) What you are applying for (in appropriate detail – don’t just say “I’m applying to do a Master’s in Biology”)

b) When you don’t know your Prof. all that well, remind them who you are: it is helpful to state what course(s) you might have taken with the Professor, in what context, how you did in the class, and anything else to help those old minds recall who you are!.  You may think that your instructors remember you well, but this is not always the case (we see hundreds of students each year, and we are all getting older…),

c) Provide a ‘statement of interest’ to give some context to why you are applying for a particular position or scholarship,

d) Provide an informal transcript, or at least your GPA so your Prof doesn’t have to ask for this later, and possibly your CV.

e) Provide the deadline for the letter! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to email  a student to ask them what the deadline is.  It’s annoying having to deal with email overload, especially when it is avoidable.

f) If there are PDF fillable forms, or web-links for the reference, make sure to include these!

g) if the Professor is going to get an e-mail from an Institution to which you are applying, make it clear that they should expect this.

 6) Follow-up! If you haven’t heard anything within a week of when you sent your one e-mail, stop by the Prof.’s office, or give a phone call, to make sure that s/he received the details.

 7) Make it easy: Always make the process of writing a letter of recommendation as easy as possible.  In many cases PDF fillable forms have parts that are to be filled out the by candidate ahead of time – do this!  For hard copies, make sure to fill in parts that you are supposed to, and always include a stamped envelope with the address written out.  It’s YOUR job to ensure the letter gets sent by the Professor, and you don’t want their Department to have to pay for postage!  If you are required to pick up the letter and send it in as an entire application package, provide two envelopes – one for their confidential letter, and another that they can slip the official envelope into – arrange a system by which you can pick up the letter.

8) Send a reminder... A few days before the deadline, send ONE reminder e-mail – politely remind your Professor that the deadline is approaching.  For me, this is absolutely critical!  I am usually aware of the need to write a letter for a student (it’ll be in my ‘to-do’ list), but that little reminder will stir me into action.

9) Say ‘Thank you’ – It is classy and professional to say thanks to whoever writes letters of recommendation for you.  If your application ends up being successful, or you get that scholarship, you can even send a post-card, or a short thank-you letter (yes, in the mail!) – that leaves a very positive and lasting impression (and you never know when you will need another letter…). As a minimum, send a short ‘thank you’ email.

 10) um, sorry, I don’t actually have a tenth tip.  Except, perhaps, be sure to follow the nine that are written above! (maybe you have a tenth?)

…I hope this helps!

Students: you will get a better letter if you follow the tips. 

WANTED: graduate students

Interested in arthropod ecology?

Interested in graduate school?

I’m seeking at least two graduate students.  One, at the MSc level, on a project related to pollinator diversity within an agroecology context.  This is a Quebec-based project, and bilingualism would be required. The second, at the PhD level, will be about Arctic arthropod biodiversity with a particular focus on temporal changes in community structure. The Arctic project will involve a combination of field and laboratory work, and will in part deal with historical specimens. Both projects will require a student with interests in both taxonomy and ecology.  In other words, significant time at a microscope as well as time doing quantitative ecology.  Start dates are negotiable, but there is potential for field work to commence in May/June 2013.  Required skills include excellent communication skills, ability to work in a large, dynamic laboratory, passion for arthropod ecology, and abilities/interest in quantitative ecology.  Experience in Entomology and/or Arachnology would be an asset.

Please do your homework:  read my blog, and do research about my research; try to assess if you think you’ll be a good fit within my laboratory group.

Interested candidates should e-mail me with a brief (<200 words) statement of interest, a brief (<200 words) statement that outlines relevant experience and skills, and a brief sentence or two about your expectations in the context of graduate school at McGill University.  Please submit these to me before the end of January 2013.