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Archive for the ‘RANT’ Category

I’ve written some soul-searching posts here before, but the topic I’ve long held back from addressing is the one that feels most forbidden as a senior-level academic. Today I’ve relented and written on it. Well, anyway I wrote this about 4 months ago and sat on it, and now’s the time. To hell with the forbidden — it is that nature which has been a torment. In academia we hear many stories, and are encouraged to talk openly about, the trials and tribulations of securing a permanent faculty (or similar; e.g. curator) post. I could write about my experience as an early career scientist, which wasn’t easy, but it wouldn’t be as contemporary or as fraught with emotion as this one is. This post is about the next step, one we hear so little about: attempting a mid-career transition between institutions.

I’ve bottled these thoughts up long enough but realized they are a teachable moment that others may benefit from, as I will loop back to at the end. The point of the post is not to seek pity or sympathy, or convey that doom and gloom about academia that pervades the internet, or even to hope for empathy, but to simply state this how it has been for me so far (SPOILER: it’s a story of failure), if one is headed down this path it might help, or at least the tale might be of interest in some other way, even having parallels with some non-academic careers.

Stomach-Churning Rating: me 1010/10; yours will vary

It is probably a good idea, and I don’t know the statistics but I imagine it is common, to move between institutions at least once in a scientist’s career, and not uncommonly twice; thrice enters a bad dimension and four or more times is either pathological or purposefully peripatetic (which might be fun!). Sooner or later one wants a change of pace: one may seek to move up the ladder to a better institution, more salary or other benefits, more desirable geographic location, escape poor working conditions for anything else, and/or other factors. New adventure, mid-life crisis, whatever. At mid-career, the temporal window is closing to find that place you finish your career at, hoping for ultimate stability and satisfaction. The pressure begins mounting, but while the opportunities to transition at assistant professor level are small (with much competition), the opportunities to do so at associate professor, let alone full professor level, approach the nadir. It varies among fields and geographic regions (and how choosy one is), but there may be only 1-2 jobs in one’s field in a year. Competition may be smaller than at junior level, or just hard to even compare, but a qualitatively different factor emerges.

Early career scientists (ECSs) are evaluated in job interviews for faculty-level posts in terms of their potential to grow to become what the institution needs; with evidence of already being on that trajectory important. But it’s less about who you are as how you convince the institution that you can become that dream academic they need most. At a mid-career level, everything is in plain sight. You have a track record. You probably know 1+ people in the institution or they might never give your application a second look. So as a known quantity, the question switches to how the person fits what is needed now and in the immediate future. They are less malleable. They probably won’t do a major pivot to change their research or other direction; that’s hard at a senior level (and an uphill battle to convince committees of). Once the few candidates have been interviewed, it’s probably clear to the search committee who fits their needs. There is less likely to be the “what if?” mystery with the ambiguous future of ECSs that may leave the committee more uncertain. It’s like being handed a puzzle to put together, vs. handed a batch of ingredients to cook freestyle.

Now begins my personal story. It’s maybe the worst-kept secret I have, I realize. And now I’m OK with that. When I came to the RVC, I was told that I’d probably remain for 5-7 years and then move back to the USA, and that was fine — even expected. I thought as much, too, and by the end of that time period I’d been applying for jobs to make that return voyage as prophesized. 10 years later, after almost 16 years, I’m still here. I’ve hit the wall of the mid-career transition and had to come to grips with its harsh reality. With few jobs and slim odds, I worry that I’m near an event horizon. I’m an academic straddling some fields that makes me somewhat of a square peg for many jobs. What am I? Do I fit into conventional labels and needs? This has been my career-long identity struggle — an evolutionary biomechanist is a weird mix. Having a large grant, too (the DAWNDINOS one), could be seen as an impediment as I’m still set on a major research project for 2 more years. Yet who knows… the rest is personal and remains uncertain.

Before I finish I must address the forbidden nature of such concerns. As mid-career academics, we’re enormously privileged. We have a job, perhaps a family, a home, relative stability and security, and so forth. ECSs might give anything for that! But we have our own lives to live, and the existential crisis of time-is-running-out only gets more intense. The prizes of tenure and other success may not come with happiness. We may feel “forbidden” to speak of our experiences not only because of such privilege, but also because of massively complex socio-political interactions that face us when trying to move institutions. I am fortunate that my institution has had my back throughout my process — others would not be so kind. I’ve heard of some universities that will sack their academics if they mention to senior administrators that they are contemplating a move! That’s just evil.

It can cause deep anxiety, uncertainty, political chicanery and other trouble for the news of seeking a mid-career transition to reach the wrong ears at the wrong time — particularly as it tends to be a prolonged, uncertain process. Seeking a job vs. moving with a signed contract are different things! Far, far, far apart on the spectrum of certainty are they. Moreover, the choice to seek to move jobs is a personal and private one. We may not want to become the topics of idle gossip, or even misinformation and undermining. These factors make the journey a lonely and unique one, and it would be a grotesque understatement to say that the personal (e.g. family, health) dynamics involved will compound the stresses. Together these can impact not just life outside of work but performance at and enjoyment of work itself.

The learning opportunity that I most want to share is this: if you’re on this kind of career track, plan to move early and get started early. Apply to jobs sooner (i.e. as an assistant professor) than later (i.e. tenure onwards) even if you’re not sure about wanting to move. Talk to your partner, peers or those that matter most about this; have a trusted, private support network and advice. Get some irons in the fire and see what opportunities arise. Expect that it may take much longer than you thought, so be strategic. Have a plan B, C and D; think about how flexible you can be. And, while you might do well getting interviews and hear nice things about how amazing you are (cold comfort at times), get used to the answer that you just don’t fit what a search committee was looking for. “Fit” is that Swiss army knife of words we use in such situations in academia, to embrace a wide range of reasons we don’t want to (or can’t, for HR/legal concerns) get into at the time for why a job decision is made. A lack of “fit” is a hard word to hear and accept, as we might see it otherwise, but it is the reality and we must accept it. By accepting such realities, perhaps the forbidden will become bearable.

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Pre-Submission Manuscript Scrutiny

This one goes out to the scientists. These days perhaps more than ever we live and die, career-wise, by the publication. Right or wrong as “publish or perish” may be, personally I enjoy writing papers– it hits my creative and intellectual buttons in fun ways. I also like to read and think about ways to write better papers, and am always improving (and making mistakes to learn from). Here are some I’ve come up with over the years, especially relating to the digital era and other aspects of modern science publishing but also to focus on the “forgotten fringes” of preparing a paper for submission to a journal. These are details that I find many authors forget, or do at the last minute, or don’t consult coauthors on, that matter and should be more of a focus. I won’t focus on good writing style or other important aspects of prose, or many things I’ve covered in my “mission statement” or elsewhere. The points I’ll make here are more specifically tactical and technical.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10; the only anatomy here is that of a manuscript submission. Maybe that will excite you too?

So you’ve analysed some cool data and come up with a good story to encapsulate it, you chose a journal that suits it (and your belief system), and you’re closing in on clicking that serotonin-inducing “Submit” button. Did you think of these things yet?

  • Coauthor order: Did you discuss it earlier when doing the work? Oh dear, you should! Assuming you’re doing a multi-authored manuscript, that’s vital, and I’ve been burned by forgetting to do it properly until too late in the game before. It’s best to establish (1) who is doing what in terms of the research (all the way through writing up and submitting), and (2) who thus is where in author order, before having any draft of a manuscript at all. That may change as the research evolves, but it should be an explicit discussion with all involved—including, perhaps, those *not* listed as coauthors (but acknowledged, or even not), if there is reason they might be expecting otherwise. Yes, these days we all win by collaborating and co-author order may not matter for some coauthors, but it does not hurt to discuss it openly whereas it can lead to ill will if skipped. Think about details like: who’s the corresponding author(s)? You can have 2 at many journals, so maybe spread that around. Who’s the senior author? (that tradition may vary in different countries and fields) Again, you can even explicitly list ~2 senior authors (with asterisks by their names). Credit should be given where it is due; that’s all. Which leads very directly to…
  • Author contributions: This is a huge neglected area. And it matters tremendously, not just in terms of the above socio-political issues (or ego) but in terms of responsibility. If something seems wrong with a paper these days, we must turn to the “Author contributions” section to see who needs to explain what happened; although blame can be far from a simple issue. In cases of accusations of scientific error or misconduct that is vital. More positively, this section, thoughtfully considered, spreads credit around and shows potential employers who has the skills that paid the bills on that paper; or on grant/award applications/nominations who was/were the mastermind(s). If the journal oddly doesn’t have such a section online/in the manuscript format guidelines, add it to the end of the MS anyway! In tandem with item #1 above, this should be openly laid out, discussed, and explicitly agreed on before any submission—and the earlier in the process of research, the better. Detail not just who originated the idea, collected and analysed the data, and wrote the paper but the nitty-gritty of every step (“XX did CT scans… XX did segmentation of the scans…”), if space allows. The author contributions should make sense in terms of item #1, too. Minimally the senior author should be involved in conceiving the study (which IS important!) and editing + approving the final text; otherwise they probably should not be an (senior) author at all. Honorary coauthors, well, I’ve said plenty about those here before and they still make me grind my teeth.
  • Data availability/accessibility: If you’re active in science now you must know about the principles of Open Science, and all journals worth their salt are changing rapidly to adjust to evolving perspectives on this issue. You should be thinking about how you’ll share your data while you collect it. This is “Good Research Practice”. Metadata are data too, and should follow with their data. It takes time and that’s annoying perhaps, but think of this: what is someone going to do if they want to use the data from this paper 50 years from now? If it’s not in the Supplementary/Supporting Information online, or in a big database like Figshare/Dryad/OSF/etc, one may have cause to worry that it will vanish within 5 years. We all still see “data are available on request” in papers these days (that was the old way), and I won’t get into that debate here, but the writing is on the wall that the old ways are fading. Hence evolving one’s research practice to make sharing data part of one’s philosophy and publication practice, AND (here’s the clincher) promoting its value in other aspects of science (e.g. CVs, hiring, promotion, awards…) are only going to be looked back upon fondly by future scientists. We do also need top-down leadership for this sea-change to happen; and it will have a big impact when it settles in.
  • Funding: This is massively important. Be sure to ask all coauthors to specify if anyone needs to be thanked for funding the work. Double-check it for your own funders, and thank whomever did directly or indirectly contribute to the research; even if small amounts. (They all like being thanked, regardless of why they are being thanked, if they deserve it) Many funders don’t allow you to credit a paper to the grant (thus showing productivity) unless they are explicitly thanked here or in the Acknowledgements section. And on that note:
  • Acknowledgements: “Thank broadly!” Slow down and brainstorm here: did you get advice, tools or data from colleagues, undergraduate helpers (who didn’t quite make coauthorship—but we should try to help them get there!), or anyone else? Did you amend your reviewed paper to thank reviewers (or pre-print commenters)? Did you thank museums and other institutions (or even websites) that helped with resources? Be creative in this section because hey, it’s nice to see yourself thanked. I think this section is really important as human beings. Extra little tip: get rid of “We would like to thank” here; just “We thank”. No need to ask for permission or waffle with thanks.
  • Paper keywords: Most journals ask for some keywords to include with the paper, often during the submission process (as with item #2 above). So it is easy for the corresponding author to be the only one involved in this, which is not ideal. I try to add keywords to the manuscript draft (between authors and abstract, as usual) in the early editing process, to consider with the rest of the paper. While database searching is sophisticated these days, a good general strategy still is to choose words that aren’t in the title or strongly featured in the abstract. Broader terms, to draw in readers from overlapping research areas or questions, should be used; e.g. I tend to throw in “biomechanics” or “scaling” or “anatomy” and so on. Keywords should not be an afterthought.
  • References/Bibliography: A lot of people writing papers don’t check their references at all (I forget sometimes too)—errors easily creep in here, especially from naughty reference managers that corrupt formatting or even page numbers and years. I try to clear my head/eyes and skim the references in a near-final draft to add italics where needed, double-check journal details, and tidy up other formatting. Some journals do this for you later, but some do not. It’s wise to ensure it’s done as well as you can; messy references can lead one to doubt other aspects of care that went into the science.
  • Reviewers: Editors have a sucky job, to be honest. Finding and chasing down reviewers is not fun, but it is the service that editors provide, often for free. Please help them and, where feasible, recommend ~5 reviewers (include current emails) without conflicts of interest who can evaluate your paper. Do that in the online submission, or in the cover letter if there isn’t a spot for it there. Always do it; don’t leave it open to editors (even though they may not use any of them!). Rarely, you might have cause to ask for an excluded reviewer(s) if they won’t give you a fair shake or you otherwise have evidence to indicate they have a conflict of interest, so note that on submission and maybe justify it directly (without libel!). Excluded reviewer requests are almost always followed. All of these things should be discussed with coauthors well in advance to agree on them. Google-Scholaring around might find some names you forget. And as you build your list, think about selecting (1) non-white male status quo (i.e. not me), (2) early career researchers, and (3) scientists from outside the USA+UK. Think outside the box—maybe someone from slightly outside your field, with complementary expertise, could give a good perspective? Aim for some fair diversity; like item #3 above, this is increasingly becoming Good Practice, and rightly so.
  • Cover letter: As an editor and author, I don’t like them. Maybe I should more, but I think they tend to be overwrought and/or redundant these days. I don’t think the authors, title, journal, abstract (or even bite-sized summary, perhaps), or anything else mentioned elsewhere in the manuscript submission (e.g. recommended reviewers) should be in a cover letter, usually. The goal is brevity. You may not need to do a cover letter at all; check the journal to see if it is mandatory. The best usage is to explain why the paper fits the journal criteria; and perhaps nothing else. That may not be sufficiently clear in the paper itself. Keep in mind that editors reading cover letters are busy and do not want a 2-page screed about how awesome your paper is; but may want help (~1 succinct paragraph; plain English; very different from the Abstract or don’t bother) deciding if it is right for review. But if the cover letter doesn’t seem necessary, skip it. Get co-author input though, if unsure.
  • Pre-prints: Hey, that’s a new thing for us non-physicists! I don’t have a problem with them; some people do. I also haven’t gotten much out of them before, but that might be my fault or bad luck. But who cares what I think? You should think about them. Maybe try submitting your paper with one and trying it out; disseminate it via social media and see what happens? Almost all journals now allow pre-prints to be submitted before/with the manuscript. There may be little to lose in using them, but as I keep repeating, ensure you talk about it with coauthors first.

Those are some things I keep thinking of as I write, edit and review papers. What else? (the focus here is on the “bookends” surrounding the Abstract/Introduction and the Discussion/Conclusions)

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As a person who has transitioned from the “simple life” (haha) of a grad student to postdoc to younger and then more experienced faculty member in academia/science, I constantly ponder how I spend my time. This is more so true lately, thanks to social media keeping me aware of how others spend their time (e.g. conversations about overwork and unrealistic expectations in academia/science), and thanks to my own experiences managing a moderate-to-large-sized group of 5-15ish scientists in the past ~10 years. I’ve had to learn to juggle a lot more than I did before and my life also has changed a lot (family, health, etc), some of which I’ve blogged about here before. Some of that excessive juggling is why there haven’t been so many blog posts here recently!

But today I want to turn the lens on the post’s title topic. What does a “typical” weekday in my life look like, with a focus on the academic/science aspects? There is no such “typical” ideal; every day is very different, but a Platonic abstraction will be heuristic. Let the clock tell the tale…

Stomach-Churning Rating: opinions may vary but I say it’s 0/10 (no gory photos).

0600-0700 I wake up and rush for the 2 big mugs of coffee that get and keep me moving, overcoming some huge side effects from medications I’m on. I feed the cats and check my email whilst having my coffee (and cereal + yoghurt). I deal with several simple messages from USA colleagues, or UK colleagues up late. Emails requiring more mindpower are saved for later. I tweet/retweet a little while skimming social media.

Nectar of the gods!

0730-0900 After shower etc. I begin my commute. 90 mins walk-train-train-walk (if no delays) and I can fit in another 60 mins or so of emails and some higher-functioning work (e.g. writing; editing papers; catching up on literature) on the train if I am feeling up for it. If I’m still too sluggish I listen to a (not-strictly-science but intellectual) podcast; e.g. RadioLab or Invisibilia; or (worst case) some rockin’ music.

0900-1000 Catching up on things in my office, with a few more emails, some organizing, quick chats with people around my office, and my day takes shape as I near my peak level of energy (and busy-ness).

1000-1200 Full steam ahead! I try to schedule my most demanding meetings to give them my full attention, or do my most challenging work if on my own.

1200-1230 John infamously gets hungry every ~5 hours and there is no stalling his need for fuel. Off to the campus restaurant he goes, for a hot meal and a little quiet time away from his office, to think/chat.

1230-1300 I like to leave this time as very flexible “me time”, whether spent on social media or whatever. I just do what suits me, maybe tidying up loose ends with smaller tasks, or just chilling (relatively) in contemplation.

1300-1400 A maybe less demanding meeting or a seminar (or a committee); in the latter case my powerful post-prandial somnolence becomes a battle now (and I don’t do caffeine >0800ish! Too sensitive). But I keep pushing on, and stuff gets done.

1400-1500 Another research-type meeting or data collection session, or writing, to fill some final, very valuable, on-campus time.

1500 Run for the train home, trying to stealthily escape campus without having any impromptu meetings that make me miss my train. My work day is not over but the commute is tiring so 6 hrs on campus and a bit more before and after are plenty!

1515-1645 Train ride and a bit of work where I feel able (50% of the time?).

1700-1800 Some catch-up emails (e.g. USA colleagues are waking up by now) and catch-up with family; juggling a lot. My activities vary a lot here: I may be inspired (even catching a second wind) to get some final work done or I may be totally wiped out and need a break. I listen to what my body tells me and also try to ensure I give myself time for non-work from here on.

1800-2100 Quality non-work time.

2100-2200  A bit of non-science reading before I fall asleep.

2200-0600 I need my 8 hrs sleep or I am a slow(er) grumpy John.

I’ve listed a “typical” day for non-teaching weeks. Currently my teaching load isn’t large by any measure, nor do I have many committee duties, and I am paid by my DAWNDINOS grant to spend 70% of my time (thru 2021) on that one project. So other than my October-November teaching I am mainly doing that 70% DAWNDINOS work, in various forms, plus a 30% that is some kind of science: a HUGE array of collaborations, some still stretching back to circa 2001 and still alive, some social media of course (although less these days than in ~2011-2012’s heyday, you may notice), and a potpourri of “other stuff”.

That “other” category is vast — travel to far-off places is a big time-sink lately, such as with 4 trips to the USA’s west coast in the past 4 months for seminars and conferences (although much of that involved DAWNDINOS presentations too). I am glad it’s all done, much as it was valuable science communication and meetings with friends/colleagues. Emails of sundry sorts fall into that “other” category too: I am not sure how many emails per day I field but I am the type of person that likes to handle a lot via email. Thereby I have a written record (my memory is patchy at times even though it can be excellent) that helps me organize my thoughts and actions. Maybe it’s 50 emails/day? Plus another 50 emails of fake conference/journal spam that seem to take more time deleting than they should (hello, spam filter)? Hosting visitors, talking on the phone/Skype with science writers, and certainly doing journal editorial/peer review duties are other big chunks. And so on; I won’t list it as most of it is normal academic life stuff. (Aside from the occasional elephant post-mortem)

Now, I got into academic life for what I feel are very good reasons, for me. A bit of context: I started working as a newspaper delivery boy at age 12, and continued that until I was maybe 15, then did odd jobs such as washing biochemistry dishes in my dad’s lab or fast food cashier/restaurant busboy & dishwasher until college. Then I kept up some intermittent part-time jobs like selling music CDs at Sam Goody, mixing margaritas as a “blender jockey” at Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant or tending snails at a marine ecology lab (thanks, Dianna Padilla!) until grad school. The point is, my parents had the wisdom to inculcate a work ethic into me, and that was VERY good, although I also got a strong taste of what it was like to work in a typical business, punching the clock in and out each day. And I HATED that clock-punching. It still provokes a deep visceral reaction from me. (Aside: ironically, that generous DAWNDINOS grant requires me to log my daily hours, and I hate that too but it must be done!)

In Sarasota, Florida where we spent winters with grandparents and I gleefully chased Anolis lizards (one blurry one here, I promise!).

To tie the story up, academic life attracted me (and I saw enough from my dad’s life as a professor to know) because it offered an escape from that punch-clock, 9-to-5 Monday-Friday life. The 9-to-5 strict schedule is just not for me, although I have plenty of respect those for whom it is; the world needs all kinds. I need flexibility; I need to be able to do science when Athena’s muse strikes me, not feeling chained to a rigid schedule and suffocating bookkeeping of how time is spent. In reality, in academia/science I feel now that it is impossible for me to realistically quantify how much time I spend on particular things – I may get a good idea while on the toilet, and that counts as science time doesn’t it? I am probably juggling a dozen things at once in my mind and efforts; work/other life/bullshit; at any one time, so partitioning my time is subjective nonsense. I prefer to be judged (when I must be judged) on what I do and its quality, and to be trusted to do this right by some “fair” standard rather than hours. To me, that’s what academia/science should be… (current reality be damned)

I blame the 80s.

That brings me to, how does a weekend look? In grad school I didn’t mind devoting some of my weekends – and plenty of late evenings – to work. Now, especially with a family, I do mind it. Living in Europe has helped me appreciate that quality-of-life mentality as well. It can still be a struggle within me, as I love science and sometimes I just want to do it; it may not matter if it is 6am on a Tuesday, 1pm on a Thursday or 7pm on a Saturday. Often I say “no” and don’t, and that can feel good, but sometimes I let myself enjoy after-hours work, because I live for enjoyment in all its forms in my life. That is a privileged position to be in and I do not forget that privilege. However, I’ve worked since 1989 to get here, so 29+ years of university life has to have been for some non-disposable purpose in my life. I’ve posted before about work-life integration and how I don’t personally recognize a rigid divide between these in my life, but with 24 hours in a day there is a real zero-sum game at play, so I prioritize what I do (or go with the moment).

In non-work mode: Reggie Regent (I’m the lion on the left; not the dog, who was beloved Daisy); high school mascot. A very sweaty one in that suit!

One failure I am working on is to return to fitting in ~2 gym workouts/week into my weekday schedule; that was good when I was doing it a couple of years ago. I have no great excuses for that. Nor would I rely on the “too busy” excuse for anything above — I find the “cult of busy” in academia to be tedious and repugnant (the post linked there is mainly about PhD students but at the faculty academic level such genitalia-sizing-up talk is rife). We all do what we can with our limited time, yet our life-goals are probably not identical, and we probably don’t understand what others do with their time or what constraints they work under.

Dealing with encroaching age and disability has thrown new challenges into my time-budgeting that I am still grappling with. I may want to work (or even need to, beyond the level of overcommitment I’m already in) but sometimes I simply do not have the energy. I don’t give myself guilt and grief for this if I can help it, while I expect that once I do have more energy I’ll devote it appropriately. I respect my limits, much as I confess I still don’t understand them.

As a lifelong learner, I am still learning how to live my life, one day at a time. Everyone lives their life differently. My life now is lived so incredibly differently from how I lived it 20 years ago as a young grad student that I can have a hard time recognizing myself in that scared, scarred, lost, naïve yet still very excited man.

One day that young grad student went into San Francisco, bought a huge teddy bear, and brought it home to cuddle with because he felt so alone. A blues musician on the street saw him carrying that bear and improvised a song mocking him, and he didn’t mind because it was the truth that was captured in that parody, and he was a student of the truth. It was a dark period in that man’s life—a void that was filled with work.

“How, then, can we fail to take the importance of factuality and reality seriously? How can we fail to care about truth? We cannot.”

But now my daughter has inherited that bear and it was worth every dime, every lonely tear, and every hour worked to become the person I am; the only person I can be at this moment, flawed yet ever in flux. Tomorrow will be another day and I will be grateful for those new hours, awake to their prospects and alert to their tribulations.

That was a condensed day in my scientific life and some backstory to it. Thanks for taking your time to read it.

We’ve been through a lot together.

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A thread that has run through my various rants on this blog, usually more implicitly than explicitly, has been blame. Who or what is to blame for something undesirable? Blame is another name for causation (of a negative outcome). As conscious beings we’re drawn to find that causation and attribute it to agents, be they gods/spirits/the universe, governments, corporations, CEOs, supervisors, friends or ourselves. In my mid-forties I’ve become better at watching myself for situations involving blame/causation and pause when entering them, because everyone’s unconscious bias often is to seek very simple scenarios of blame. But, much as we’re trained as scientists to find parsimonious conclusions, Occam’s razor can balance a very complex scenario on its knife-edge when reality is indeed very complex. And the point of this post is to explore how that complexity is often very real, but that needn’t be stifling. That’s probably bloody obvious to everyone but maybe the exploration will be interesting—or at least, for me, cathartic.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10- or blame me. I’m at best an amateur philosopher and psychologist!

I feel that a big part of my job as a responsible human, adult, parent, supervisor, colleague, scientist, etc. is to blame myself when I deserve it. “Responsible” encompasses that ability to attribute blame/causation correctly. I find that blaming myself comes easier now that I’m battle-scarred and wiser for it, and I am more able to watch for excessive self-blame and paralytic pummelling than I was when I was younger. Low self esteem makes it easier to find the simple solution that you’re entirely to blame, or that simply someone else is. Excessive self confidence/power makes it easier to deny personal culpability or hunker down until it blows over. Balance is hardest– and I fail all the time.

I’ve been in many situations, ranging from the more micro-scale (smaller, embarrassing/silly events) to more traumatic (e.g. long-term arguments, correction/retraction of papers), in which I’ve had to consider blame or something like it. Foremost in my mind are my health problems and personal relationships. I’ve explored some of those here before and there are others I’d love to write about publicly but, no.

Yet lately it seems that blame is everywhere; the “blame culture” we hear about. Watch the news and virtually every story is about blame. Blame is a symptom of an angry world. It can be informative (or even a fun game) to think over who/what is not blamed in those stories (a simpler narrative is convenient, or propaganda and/or paranoia). We should be looking inwards at those we don’t want to blame, too.

There are many ways to confront the issue of blame. On one side we can say “don’t sweat the small stuff—and it’s all small stuff”. I hate that shit. “Happy happy joy joy” and all that; Voltaire rotates in his crypt. To me, that attitude also means “existence is meaningless” and “we are utterly powerless and blameless”, which is in contradiction to my experience and philosophy. On another side we can try to micromanage everything around us (small and big stuff), dissecting all the levels of blame in every situation, and we’d go/be insane. A middle ground approach within this spectrum, as usual, is best. Don’t be ashamed of that blame; it’s a thing we can tame.

Purpose and meaning in existence are chosen based on the direction we want our life to go (and how our successors look back on it postmortem). We place blame on those causative agents that push us away from that vector, and credit those that aid us. The more neutral agents are harder to grasp (e.g. the indifference of the universe to our existence). Purpose comes from our consciousness — to me they are the same; although our purpose leaves a legacy that persists after consciousness departs. Consciousness arises gradually from the spectrum of life – a virus is somewhat alive but closer to a rock than we are in terms of its “purpose” (more mechanical, less choices to make), then as evolution added nervous systems and other bits to life, more choices and complexity piled on. Purpose could be said to exist throughout that spectrum, from “instinct” to “choice”, all of which involve some causation — and chance. Vast oversimplification here, yes, but please stay with me. I’m getting there.

To avoid the extreme ends of the blame spectrum, we have to pick our battles and choose what is right or wrong in our world view. Lately I’ve watched smaller-scale events like United’s awful treatment of a passenger (and inability to de-escalate, then terrible PR handling) and huge global events like the resurgence of anti-intellectualism/populism or the clusterf*@$ in Syria, and blame inevitably comes to mind. Those who had more power AND responsibility to amend these situations, like CEOs or politicians, often deserve more blame. But the more complex story is that blame can be spread around these situations, much as they rightly anger us.

On an even smaller scale, close to my own profession and direct experience, I read a story by a PhD supervisor that largely blamed their student for falling silent (“supervisor phobia”) and then having problems with their degree, while the supervisor “was too busy to notice for another six months.” That seemed to exhibit gross irresponsibility for apportionment of blame in a messy situation: the old-fashioned legacy of authoritative, hierarchical scientific culture when people ranging from the university, department, colleagues, supervisor and student were to blame. It’s also a learning opportunity for many of us, to see how a bad situation evolved and think about what could have been done differently—indeed, differently from what one participant judges post hoc.

The red flag of a silent student/staff member could mean many things: the person might be intimidated about poor progress– or they might have self-esteem sharing what is actually good progress, they might be totally inactive (too little training? Hard technical problems stopping them?), or more. The point is that time is vital and acting too late probably will only worsen the problem, adding more blame to the supervisor and upper echelons.

The overall, common-sense approach I’ve cultivated with figuring ways out of hard situations at work and elsewhere is to (1) watch for (potential) problems, (2) think them through – allowing for the conclusion to be that the situation is complex and requires a nuanced approach (e.g. openly accepting one’s own culpability, maybe not yet pointing fingers at others deserving blame), and then (3) take action to try to resolve them. “The system” (e.g. rules and regulations) may be part of the problem but it can also be part of the solution. Although the system’s carrot is far more pleasant to use than the stick, they are there for reasons, to be applied with empathy and patience. Being human, we can run out of those latter two things and their fuel levels need monitoring.

The hope is that, finally, action leads eventually to a better outcome with a lesson mutually learned and, eventually, greater peace of mind as we reconcile our worldview with reality. The distinct possibility, though, is that we can’t fix everything and sometimes we have to try to find contentment in an imperfect world. Some causes are mysterious and we might have to settle for that mystery. Or we can spiral into paranoia and conspiracy theories; all the rage today; which can be simple scenarios of blame or very elaborate ones. These scenarios deserve their own rational inspection for personal biases that lead toward them, and the desire for easy answers.

But we can still blame the fucked up shit, and that can be therapeutic. Even if we hold onto blame, we can forgive it. Maybe this holiday weekend is a good time to forgive someone that is blamed.

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I was greatly inspired by scenes from the global Women’s March this weekend. It was one of the more beautiful things I’ve seen lately in times that otherwise feel very dark. I write this post with some trepidation but fuelled by that inspiration. While it is nominally about women (in science and the world) it applies just about as well to many other parts of American/British, Western and global society; especially to issues of social equality. I am definitely not an expert on this topic; experts probably will see nothing new here. Some would say that means I should be silent. I feel compelled to say something, for many reasons that I feel are valid. However, I have made dumb mistakes or just been ignorant of the issues throughout my life, so I do not claim to be on a pedestal of model behaviour. But this post is not about me or anyone I personally know per se. It is about humanity and what inspires (e.g. yesterday’s marchers) and worries (e.g. a person whose surname begins with a “T”) many people, and what I have gradually learned about human nature. If it helps one person inspect and maybe change their attitudes that would be wonderful, but I may never know if that is the case, which is fine. That, anyway, is my motivation; to support what I feel is important, and to address what the post’s title refers to. Not in a smug, let’s-show-how-politically-correct-we-are way, but in a positive way, endorsing that by opening our minds and hearts we can surprise ourselves with change that improves others’ lives and our own.

Stomach-Churning Rating: reactions will vary. No pictures.

If we abstract (Western) history into a direction over time, the status quo of white (non-poor, heterosexual, religious, etc.) males has changed over recent centuries, but it remains undeniably strong. The 1950s-1960s saw considerable changes and this trend continues. As a very brief generalization, that is cause for hope for humanity. But what worries many people today is that this trend, like any in history, could reverse, and thereby do great harm to many people. This concern is not based simply on idle speculation or propaganda but on clear actions, policies and statements of some world leaders (not just the “T” guy but he is prominent). No one knows what the future holds but people can choose to act or not act; and act in person (most effective) vs. act vocally (better than silence). Yesterday’s protests were peaceful, probably even more so than the inauguration was, and society should breathe a sigh of relief for that. But it doesn’t end there.

I want to get to one of the core issues that has helped me understand – and understanding here is so vital for society to heal the frightening rifts that have developed – why people are upset. This unsettled feeling many of us experience cuts both ways: those on the right-ward side of politics also may feel that their values are threatened. Some of those values are indeed common values, such as economic inequality and concerns about terrorism or war, much as we may differ on how we react to or prioritize them. These common values give me hope. There are few values that apply to 100% of us and that means there will always be people that are unhappy; I’m not an idealist who expects utopia anytime soon. Some values will not endure the “arrow of history”, either permanently or temporarily, and that frightens people for various reasons across the political spectrum. Neo-Nazis, and those that share some beliefs with them even if they consider themselves to be very distinct from fascists, might be emboldened lately, but they have a lot of history and social momentum to contend with.

For those that are unsettled by yesterday’s marches and other recent events, for whatever reason, I ask them to think about this: try putting yourself in the shoes of one of the marchers. Step outside yourself, be curious about what their background is, and practice empathy – what is it like to be, for example, a woman at this point in history? I’m a male so I can’t wholly experience that, but I am curious and I have cultivated some skill in empathy. I want to know what it’s like being different from me. Growing up in a moderately liberal Midwestern family with three females helped me do that (plus now having my own family), and now that I am a senior(ish) leader in my field I have to think about these things on a daily basis. But I’m not perfect, either. I keep learning. I try to listen.

One way that I continually remind myself to practice is to think of “death by a thousand cuts” (good STEM example linked there) – what does it feel like to, throughout one’s life, experience what a member of the non-status quo does? In the case of a woman, what does it feel like to continually be judged based on appearance, to be treated like property, to be told you’re inferior, to be expected to obey men, to statistically have worse pay and career advancement chances, to be dismissed as inexperienced no matter what your qualifications are, and much more; all in ways that qualitatively or quantitatively are not experienced by most men. It would wear me down, and that’s what women and other disadvantaged members of society experience. The situation has improved in some areas but still is far from fair or pleasant or, simply put, far from moral and ethical. Personally, the “thousand cuts” metaphor has helped me to empathize with many people. I reflect on it regularly.

The status quo have it easier (by definition), so hearing such people tell “social justice warriors” to be silent; to endure discrimination or assault; is deeply unsettling to those that have lived their lives suffering the thousand cuts, and to those that care about them. Free speech cuts both ways, too; it may feel hard to be criticized if you get shamed for speaking out against social equality. But do centuries of history of male dominance validate that men, too, have suffered the thousand cuts? No way, man. That’s where major fracture lines in society lie – women and other people don’t get to choose that they are on those lines, and may validly feel that their power to affect what society chooses to do is weaker.

Maybe the marches yesterday inspired, you, too. Maybe this post gets you to examine your own biases? Maybe we all have inclinations that are unconsciously a bit sexist, racist, homophobic and intolerant. And yes, we need to listen to those across the political spectrum, too, and try to find common ground that can improve life for as many people as possible. To bring things back to science and this blog, that common ground needs to have a foundation of facts. Those facts are out there, and in this “post-truth” time we need to work harder to share them and establish them, which does seem to make finding a common ground harder. Nonetheless, I hold on to hopes that we can do that, much as these times often feel very grim, as if we are at a critical juncture in history (e.g. climate change!) and yet society is so fractured it cannot do the right thing.

The world is complex. I’ve over-simplified things here; an “arrow of history” is debatable and probably not inevitable in most cases (maybe better put: there are sustained directions AND repeated cycles in history; most traversing generations). Simple statements often don’t hold true across reality; science shows us that the more we learn, the more complex and nuanced the world looks, and that can be baffling or even scary. Much as we should be suspicious of simple answers like “do not question authority” or “authority is wrong”, we should consider some simple answers as useful points of departure for deeper discussions. One such simple answer is that the women’s marchers did the right thing, showing peaceful but strong solidarity against oppressive stances that threaten them. If you oppose that simple answer, can you view it from their side, though, and understand their argument through curiosity about it and empathy for their lives? Inspect your own answer. Self-doubt is something scientists learn to practice and it is a healthy life-skill too.

Can you dream another person’s dreams? Can you help people wake up from their living nightmare? It needn’t take bravery to do this. It takes honest curiosity and empathy about the world outside your own. This applies to humanity and across nature, too. I’m not brave in posting this; I have it relatively easy. I can embrace that and I can make what might seem like sacrifices, and I can enjoy the outcome; I would love to see others live a better life. Many things have to happen for humanity to draw closer together, but these are among them. Not only could more curiosity and empathy make life better for humanity, but on a personal level those traits are good for mentoring, for teamwork, for being a good colleague, and should be good for anyone you care about.

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Thanksversity

First, a moment of silence for Freezersaurus (2009-2016); Rest In Recycling. This week we close the door on our years of arctic antics together. A new, uncertain relationship is beginning, with our diversity of icy inhabitants hanging in the balance. A future post will provide an update.freezer

Stomach-Churning Rating: 2/10; no photos, but some politics; take it or leave it.

Speaking of diversity, it’s Thanksgiving in my home of the USA and thus a time for reflection. Such reflections this year inevitably turn to current global events, in which “diversity” has come up in many ways, and then back to my own life, and back again. It certainly has been a year for reflection, and – like many others – my current taste for dystopian tales mirrors that reflection.

In (the United States of) America, Thanksgiving is a tradition of (at least implicitly) commemorating the meeting of two cultures (Native and newly-immigrated American/Puritan) and the eventual fusion/phagocytosis of those two diverse cultures into something new; leading to the USA of today and its diverse inhabitants and cultures. We spend time with family and have awkward conversations or cheer on sports teams or take engorgement-induced naps. We eat diverse foods of the harvest time and thank the spirits/divinity/cooks for their bounty. Many Americans, across our cultural diversity, take time to ponder what they are grateful for. I’ve always loved this holiday because of that, and my fond memories of past Thanksgivings.

And so I am drawn to reflection on the giving of thanks, and the significance of diversity, and I choose today to type some words that echo my thoughts.

I am grateful for what diversity we have. My life is enmeshed with that diversity: I study biodiversity and marvel at the diversity of nature, which both bring great joy to my life. I worry about the state of funding for, and reciprocally the appreciation of, the scientific study of nature and the human value placed on biodiversity, and the implications of those for the future of diverse life on Earth, both human and non-human. It is well known that they are all under threat, in diverse ways, from sociopolitical and other factors.

To me, human diversity (cultural, ethnic, other) is part of this natural diversity; it has evolved and will continue to, for as long as it exists. It is not going away. I am grateful for that human diversity. Some parts of it bring me terrible revulsion, and those are the source of much worry, and our own nature is their source, too. But it brings my life great meaning to interact with different people, to learn new things from them, and to share experiences in more positive ways. I am curious about all of these things, and because of that curiosity in 2016 I have learned more about that human diversity than I ever have before. Some of that learning has been about the dark side of humanity, from political and social trends (or glaring exposure of longstanding biases) in the UK and USA and more globally. Yet also some of that learning has been about the virtues of human diversity and realizing how much solidarity I feel (and have long felt) for those who are trapped in disadvantageous positions along the fault lines of confrontations between different components of that diversity. It has brought out some of my best and worst feelings.

Like a snail, this year I feel that I have periodically been moving forward to inspect the greater world, enjoying it for a time, then recoiling once I encounter the xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and selfishness, which make me want to stay inside my shell. Long have I inhabited that shell in 2016. I’m not proud of those feelings and that tenancy in my little partition of this world, but they are what I’ve been able to manage. Today, I am trying to appreciate the broader picture and remind myself of where there is still goodness in the world, and how cycles of diversity can stabilize. We have choices to make about how we control those cycles; we humans are unique in our control of them; and those choices are best poised on the understanding that comes from curiosity. It is there in that diversity that Darwin celebrated; “There is grandeur in this view of life,” and today I am thankful for the grandeur that does still remain around us. I am curious to view what grandeur that diversity presents next. We could all use more of that grandeur.

And thanks for reading this post.

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I was inspired this week, after a stimulating conference, to put into writing what my team stands for. What do we have in common with other scientists, or what makes us different, or what should we all be doing together beyond the actual science itself? I’ve written advice for my team before, but not something like this, and with new staff/students coming soon, I want something ready for them to see what we’re about, and what we need to become more of, too. Not a rant, but a calm codification of our core beliefs. I presented this to my team later in the week for edits and ideas, and felt that it’s now ready for sharing. There’s no reason to keep it private; I personally like what’s here at the moment, and response from my team was positive, too. I am sure opinions will vary, and it’s my team to lead so I might not agree with some, but the fact that I’m posting this means that I expect it’s quite likely that this “mission statement” will improve if commenters pipe up.

No images this time, except for Jerry above. I want the emphasis to be on the thoughts.

Stomach-Churning Rating: wot? No, not that kind of post.

Here we outline my team’s fundamental principles and ethos for our scientific activities, beyond the rules of the RVC and other institutions (e.g. funders) that we adhere to, and basic common sense or morality, or elaborating on and emphasizing those in relation to our work. This is a document that will evolve as we learn from our experiences. We welcome input and discussion. It applies to all of Team Hutch’s staff and students (and Prof. John Hutchinson [JRH], too). The intent is positive: to remind us of our overarching scientific standards, to foster lively debate and to educate ourselves by challenging us to think about what we stand for. The motivation is to communicate the team’s ethos, benefiting from past lessons. The application is flexible, to accommodate the fact that everyone is different, although some of our ethos must be rigid.

While we are unified by research interests, we respect and value other aspects of science including teaching and administrative work. We consider science communication and public engagement to be part of research, too. Our focus is on the evolution of locomotor biomechanics in organisms and, to maintain a strength in this focus, we try to remain within it. However, “side projects” are enthusiastically supported as long as the main research foci of projects (including past work) remain the top priorities and on target.

We aim to conduct high quality research (and other scientific efforts), where possible setting and following gold standards, and acting in a professional leadership role. We are willing to slow our research progress in order to improve the quality of the work, although we also recognize that science is an imperfect human venture. “Minimal publishable units” are not a goal of our research but we fully recognize that early career scientists need to publish in order to move on in many careers.

We are scholars- we care deeply about communicating with each other, our colleagues, and the past and future of science via the literature. We try to keep up with progress in our fields. This is normal practice but we try to do even better than normal. We aim to publish all research we do; otherwise it is wasted effort.

We also treasure openness in science, from publishing our work in open access formats where feasible, to externally sharing open data and methods with the broader community and public, as quickly and comprehensively as possible.

Regular communication within the team and with collaborators is immensely valuable and so we respond promptly to it (sensibly—working or communicating out of normal working hours is not expected!). We participate in regular lab meetings as part of the team culture and communication. In socializing within and outside the team, we respect others, attempting to avoid offense caused by demeaning or other behaviour. Our team members should not be condescended to in discussions or otherwise made to feel stupid- speaking out should be cultivated, not repressed with aggression or egotism.

Quality of writing (and other communication such as oral presentations) in science is something that we aim to maximize, improving our own writing skills and products by pushing ourselves to learn to be better and by constructive critiques of others’ writing.

Ethical practice in all of our work is immensely valued. This includes diversity of people and skills, which broaden our perspectives and help us to transcend disciplinary boundaries that might otherwise blind us to broader insights. We are a team- we support each other in our work and careers, trying to eschew internal competition or territoriality. Mutual benefits from teamwork need to be raised above selfish individualism; focusing on one person’s need for career boosts may reduce others’ prospects.

One of the most treasured ethical principles that we cleave to is integrity. Among the worst scientific crimes that can be committed are fraud, intellectual property theft and plagiarism—no goal justifies those actions. We seek to be our own toughest critics, within reason, to minimize errors or worse outcomes in our science. We promptly correct our published research if we find errors needing amendment.

Ethical sourcing of and handling of data or specimens is important to us. Whether it is favouring publically accessible as opposed to privately held fossil (or other) specimens or cadaveric material that was obtained via traceable sources that maintain legal or optimal standards of animal welfare, we target the “high road” in obtaining material for study. If we conduct in vivo animal research we attempt to transcend the standards of the “three R’s” and set a high example, maximizing animal welfare and benefits from that research—as we are at a veterinary university, we involve vets and other health and welfare specialists in transferring knowledge from our work to improving the lives of animals.

We try to be inclusive in coauthorship of publications (following RVC rules) but especially do not tolerate “honorary coauthors” who contribute little or nothing to research. We value idea production, data collection and provision, analysis, writing and revision as ingredients that earn coauthorship.

[these next two paragraphs still feel too formal/negative to me, but they highlight something important that I’ve learned about; to a degree there must be hierarchy, and I’m the only one that will be in Team Hutch for as long as it lasts, so I have to be the enforcer of its long-term rules. It’s the aspect of this job that I probably enjoy least, but it looms there whether I like it or not.]

As per RVC intellectual property (IP) rules (as well as rules of funders etc.), all IP generated while working at the RVC remains its IP, managed by JRH. Such IP can and should be used by those generating it, and others that would benefit (including those who have since left the lab) but to ensure proper conduct, JRH must approve usage.

JRH is the leader of the team and as manager has final say in decisions, but encourages negotiation and reasonable disagreement to seek mutually acceptable solutions. JRH makes mistakes too and welcomes them being pointed out. JRH seeks to help his team succeed in whatever career goals they have and for long after they depart Team Hutch, but expects solid effort at work in return, and dedication to the principles outlined here.

We are human. We want fun, enjoyable lives including at work, and this pursuit of fun colours all that we do, because science is fun and so are scientists. We want that fun to radiate upon the world and echo through time.

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That’s as it stands right now. What do you think? I am certain that I have left things out, but it’s a start.

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