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Posts Tagged ‘humility & humiliation’

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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This is a follow-up post to my earlier one and also weaves into my post on “success” (with a little overlap). I am sharing my thoughts on this topic of research management, because I try to always keep myself learning about doing and managing research, and this blog serves as a set of notes as I learn; so why not share them too? I tried editing the old post but it clearly was too much to add so I started a new post. It’s easy to just coast along and not reflect on what one is doing, caught up in the steady stream of science that needs to get done. Mistakes and mis-judgements can snowball if one doesn’t reflect. So here are my personal reflections, freshly thawed for your consideration, on how I approach doing research and growing older as I do it, adapting to life’s changes along the way.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10, just words and ideas.

I realized that a theme in these rant-y posts on my blog is to Know Yourself, and, in the case of mentoring a team, Know Your Team. That knowledge is a reward from the struggles and challenges of seeking whatever one calls success. I critique some traits or practices here that I’ve seen in myself (and/or others), and perhaps managed to change. And I seek to change my environment by building a strong team (which I feel I have right now!) and by finding the best ways to work with them (which I am always learning about!). I also realized a word to describe a large part of what I seek and that is joy. The joy of discovery in the study of nature; the joy from the satisfaction of a job well done; the joy of seeing team members succeed in their careers and broader lives. I want to know that multifarious joy; the ripening of fulfilment.

We’re all busy in one way or another. Talking about being busy can just come across as (very) boring or self-absorbed or insecure. Talk about what you’re doing instead of how much you’re juggling. That’s more interesting. Avoid the Cult of Busy. I try to. It’s any easy complaint to default with in a conversation, so it takes some alertness… which keeps you busy. 🙂  I remember Undergrad-Me sighing wistfully to my advisor Dianna Padilla “I’m SO busy!” and her looking at me like I was an idiot. In that moment I realized that I was far from the only (or most) busy person in that conversation. Whether she was truly thinking that I was naïve, my imaginary version of her reaction is right. It was a foolish, presumptuously arrogant thing for me to declare. There surely are more interesting things to talk about than implied comparisons of the magnitudes of each other’s busy-ness. And so I move on…

Don’t count hours spent on work. That just leads to guilt of too much/too little time spent vs. how much was accomplished. Count successes. A paper/grant submitted is indeed a success, and acceptance/funding of it is another. A handy rule in science is that everything takes so much more time than you think it does that even trying to predict how long it will take is often foolish and maybe even time that could be better spent on doing something that progresses your work/life further.

Becoming older can slow you down and make you risk-averse, so you have to actively fight these tendencies. Ageing as a researcher needn’t always mandate becoming slower or less adventurous. But life will change, inevitably. One has to become more efficient at handling its demands as life goes on, and force oneself to try new things for the sake of the novelty, to think outside the box and avoid slipping into dogma or routine. We don’t want to be that stereotype of the doddering old professor, set in their ways, who stands in the way of change. The Old Guard is the villain of history. Lately I’ve been examining my own biases and challenging them, potentially re-defining myself as a scientist. I hope to report back on that topic.

The tone of life can darken as one becomes a senior researcher and “grows up”, accumulating grim experiences of reality. Some of my stories on this blog have illustrated that. In an attempt to distract me from that gloaming on the horizon, I try to do things at work that keep it FUN for me. This quest for fun applies well to my interactions with people, which dominate my work so much– I am seemingly always in meetings, less often in isolation at my desk. The nicer those meetings are, the happier I am. So I try to minimize exposure to people or interactions that are unpleasant, saving my energy for the battles that really matter. This can come across as dismissive or curt but in the end one has little choice sometimes. These days, nothing to me is more negatively emotive than sitting in an unproductive meeting and feeling my life slipping away as the clock ticks. I cherish my time. I don’t give it away wantonly to time-vampires and joy-vandals. They get kicked to the kerb– no room (or time) for them on this science-train. Choo choo!

Moreover, the No Asshole Rule is a great principle to try to follow at work. Don’t hire/support the hiring of people that you can’t stand socially, even if they are shit-hot researchers with a hugely promising career trajectory. Have a candidly private moment with someone who knows them well and get the inside scoop on what they’re like to work with. Try to get to know people you work with and collaborate more with people that you like to work with. Build a team of team-players (but not yes-men and yes-women; a good team challenges you to know them and yourself; so there must be some tension!). That can help you do better science because you enjoy doing it more, and you prioritize it more because of that, and you have more energy because of all that. Hence your life gets better as a result. I prefer that to a constant struggle in tense, competitive collaborations. One of the highest compliments I ever got was when someone described me to their friend as a “bon vivant”. I felt like they’d discovered who I was, and they’d helped me to discover it myself.

I wondered while writing this, would I hire 2003-Me, from when I was interviewing for my current job 12 years ago? I suppose so, but I’d give myself a stern scolding on day one at the job. “Chill the fuck out,” I’d say. “Focus on doing the good science and finding the other kinds of joy in life.” I like the more mellowed-out, introspective, focused, compassionate 2015-Me, and I think 2003-Me would agree with that assessment.

There is a false dichotomy in a common narrative about research mentoring that I am coming to recognize: a tension between the fortunes of early career researchers and senior research managers. The dichotomy holds that once one is senior enough, ambition wanes and success is complete and one’s job is to support early career researchers to gain success (as recompense for their efforts in pushing forward the research team’s day-to-day science), and to step back out of the limelight.

The reality, I think, is that all these things are linked: early career researchers succeed in part because their mentors are successful (i.e. the pedigree concept; good scientists arise in part from a good mentoring environment), and research-active mentors need to keep seeking funding to support their teams, which means they need to keep showing evidence of their own success. Hence it never ends. One could even argue that senior researchers need to keep authoring papers and getting grants and awards and other kinds of satisfaction and joy in science that maintain reputations, and thus their responsibility to themselves and their team to keep pushing their research forward may not decrease or even may intensify. Here, a “team” ethos rather than an “us vs. them” mentality seems more beneficial to all—we’re in this together. Science is hard. We are all ambitious and want to achieve things to feel happy about. I don’t think the “it never ends” perspective is gloomy, either—if the false dichotomy were true, once one hit that plateau of success as a senior researcher, ambition and joy and personal growth would die. Now that’s gloomy. Nor does the underlying pressure mandate that researchers can’t have a “life outside of work”. I’ve discussed that enough in other posts.

Trust can be a big issue in managing research. If people act like they don’t trust you, it may be a sign that they’ve been traumatized by violated trust before. Be sensitive to that; gently inquire? And get multiple sides of the story from others if you can… gingerly. But it also might be a warning sign that they don’t deserve trust themselves. Trust goes both ways. Value trust, perhaps above all else. It is so much more pleasant than the lack thereof. Reputation regarding trustworthiness is a currency that a research manager should keep careful track of in themselves and others. Trust is the watchdog of joy.

Say “No” more often to invitations to collaborate as your research team grows. “Success breeds success” they say, and you’ll get more invitations to collaborate because you are viewed as successful — and/or nice. But everyone has their limits. If you say “Yes” too much, you’ll get overloaded and your stock as a researcher will drop– you’ll get a reputation for being overcommitted and unreliable. Your “Yes” should be able to prove its value. I try to only say “Yes” to work that grabs me because it is great, do-able science and with fun people that I enjoy collaborating with. This urge to say “No” must be balanced with the need to take risks and try new directions. “Yes” or “No” can be easy comfort zones to settle into. A “Yes” can be a longterm-noncommittal answer that avoids the conflict that a “No” might bring, even if the “No” is the more responsible answer. This is harder than it seems, but important.

An example: Saying “No” applies well to conference invitations/opportunities, too. I love going to scientific conferences, and it’s still easy enough to find funding to do it. Travel is a huge perk of academic research! But I try to stick to a rule of attending two major conferences/year. I used to aim for just one per year but I always broke that rule so I amended it. Two is sane. It is easy to go to four or more annual conferences, in most fields, but each one takes at least a week of your time; maybe even a month if you are preparing and presenting and de-jetlagging and catching up. Beware the trap of the wandering, unproductive, perennial conference-attendee if doing science is what brings you joy.

This reminds me of my post on “saying no to media over-coverage“– and the trap of the popularizer who claims to still be an active researcher, too. There is a zero-sum game at play; 35 or 50 hour work week notwithstanding. Maybe someday I’d want to go the route of the popularizer, but I’m enjoying doing science and discovering new things far too much. It is a matter of personal preference, of course, how much science communication one does vs. how much actual science.

The denouement of this post is about how research teams rise and fall. I’m now often thinking ahead to ~2016, when almost all of my research team of ~10 people is due to finish their contracts. If funding patterns don’t change — and I do have applications in the works but who knows if they will pan out — I may “just” have two or so people on my team in a year from now. I could push myself to apply like mad for grants, but I thought about it and decided that I’ll let the fates decide based on a few key grant submissions early in the year. There was too little time and too much potential stress at risk. If the funding gods smile upon me and I maintain a large-ish team, that’s great too, but I would also truly enjoy having a smaller, more focused team to work with. I said “No” to pushing myself to apply for All The Grants. I’ll always have diverse external collaborations (thanks to saying “Yes” enough), but I don’t define my own success as having a large research group (that would be a very precarious definition to live by!). I’m curious to see what fortune delivers.

Becoming comfortable with the uncertainty of science and life is something I’m finding interesting and enjoy talking about. It’s not all a good thing, to have that sense of comfort (“whatever happens, happens, and I’m OK with that”). I don’t want my ambition to dwindle, although it’s still far healthier than I am. There is no denying that it is a fortunate privilege to feel fine about possibly not drowning in grant funds. It just is what it is; a serenity that I welcome even if it is only temporary. There’s a lot of science left to be written about, and a smaller team should mean more time to do that writing.

Will I even be writing this blog a year from now? I hope so, but who knows. Blogs rise and fall, too. This one, like me, has seen its changes. And if I am not still writing it, it might resurface in the future anyway. What matters is that I still derive joy from blogging, and I only give in to my internal pressure to write something when the mood and inspiration seize me. I hope someone finds these words useful.

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For about 3 years now I’ve used the #WIJF (i.e. acronym for What’s In John’s Freezer) hashtag to organize my social media efforts on this blog. Over that time I became aware that “wijf” in Dutch can be taken as a derogatory term for women. And indeed, these days I do see people tweeting derogatory things with the #wijf hashtag, along with other, tamer uses like mine. I’ve come to the decision, albeit gradually and with much internal debate, to stop using that hashtag so I can avoid association with the sexist Dutch word. This post is about why, and what’s next.

Stomach-Churning Rating: Debatable, but 0/10 by the standard of the usual gory things on this blog; no images.

I don’t speak Dutch, but 25 million or so people do. This is a blog about morphological science, and the Dutch have had (and continue to have) a disproportionately strong influence on that field. I’m not claiming to be perfect when it comes to feminist issues, but I listen and I try and I care. My undergraduate tutelage in science was almost exclusively driven by female scientists– I never thought about that before but it’s true; at least 5 different major faculty influences at the University of Wisconsin! I work at a university where ~85% of the students are female (common today in vet schools). My research team has featured 9 out of 16 female postgraduate staff and students since 2004, and a lot of my collaborators and friends are scientists or science afficionados who happen to be female. I have good reason to care, and social media has helped to raise my awareness of important matters within and outside of science that I do care a lot about.

So, while I tend to hate to abandon words (or hashtags), preferring to fight for alternative meanings (e.g. the word “design” in evolutionary biology), and I am a stubborn git, the #WIJF hashtag and acronym are different, I’ve decided, and it’s time to use something else. Admittedly, #WIJF hasn’t been that important to this blog as hashtag or acronym– mainly just I use it, and any “brand name recognition” or other things surely arise more from the full name of the blog. So abandoning #WIJF is an inconvenience but not devastating to my blog. I see this move as (1) taking control of a situation where the benefits of staying with the hashtag/acronym are minimal and the harms, while of debatable magnitude, outweigh those minimal benefits in my view, and (2) demonstrating that I don’t tolerate or want to be associated with sexism or other discrimination. And I hope that this move might inspire others to reflect similarly on their own behaviour. Morphology, like any science, is for everyone, and this blog is meant to be a friendly place.

But a thing that has held me back, even though it is admittedly trivial in the grand scheme of things, is what hashtag/acronym to use henceforth? I turn that over to you, Freezerinos. I have no good ideas and so I am crowdsourcing. I need something short (not #Whatsinjohnsfreezer, probably– too long), something associated with the title of the blog, but also something dissimilar to the naughty word “wijf” and thus inoffensive… ideally inoffensive in the ~7000 languages of the world (!?!?). That might not leave many options! What should be in John’s blog’s hashtag?

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How do I manage my team of 10+ researchers without losing my mind <ahem> or otherwise having things fall apart? I’m often asked this, as I was today (10 December; I ruminated before posting this as I worried it was too boring). Whether those undesirable things have truly not transpired is perhaps debatable, but I’m still here and so is my team and their funding, so I take that as a good sign overall. But I usually give a lame answer to that question of how I do it all, like “I have no secrets, I just do it.” Which is superficially true, but…

Today was that time of year at the RVC when I conduct appraisals of the performance and development of my research staff, which is a procedure I once found horridly awkward and overly bureaucratic. But now that it focuses more on being helpful by learning from past missteps and plotting future steps in a (ideally) realistic fashion than on box-ticking or intimidation, I find the appraisals useful. The appraisals are useful at least for documenting progress and ensuring that teammates continue to develop their careers, not just crank out data and papers. By dissecting the year’s events, one comes to understand what happened, and what needs to happen in the next year.

The whole process crystalizes my own thoughts, by the end of a day of ~1 hour chats, on things like where there needs to be different coordination of team members in the coming year, or where I need to give more guidance, or where potential problems might arise. It especially helps us to sort out a timeline for the year… which inevitably still seems to go pear-shaped due to unexpected challenges, but we adapt and I think I am getting better myself at guessing how long research steps might take (pick an initial date that seems reasonable, move it back, then move it further back, then keep an eye on it).

Anyway, today the appraisals reminded me that I don’t have a good story for how I manage my team other than by doing these appraisals, which as an annual event are far from sufficient management but have become necessary. And so here I am with a post that goes through my approaches. Maybe you will find it useful or it will stimulate discussion. There are myriad styles of management. I am outlining here what facets of my style I can think of. There are parallels between this post and my earlier one on “success”, but I’ve tried to eliminate overlap.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but no photos, long-read, bullet points AND top 10 list. A different kind of gore.

Successfully managing a large (for my field) research team leaves one with fewer choices than in a smaller team– in the latter case, you can be almost anywhere on the spectrum of hands-off vs. hands-on management and things may still go fine (or not). In the case of a large (and interdisciplinary) team, there’s no possibility to be heavily hands-on, especially with so many external collaborations piled on top of it all. So a balance has to be struck somewhere. As a result, inevitably I am forced into a managerial role where, over the years, I’ve become less directly in touch with the core methods we use, in terms of many nitty-gritty details. I’ve had to adapt to being comfortable with (1) emphasizing a big picture view that keeps the concepts at the forefront, (2) taking the constraints (e.g. time, technology and methods, which I do still therefore have to keep tabs on) into account in planning, (3) cultivating a level of trust in each team member that they will do a good job (also see “loyalty” below), and (4) maintaining the right level of overall expertise within the group (including external collaborators) that enables us to get research done to our standard. To do these things, I’ve had to learn to do these other things, which happen to form a top 10 list but are in no order:

  1. Communicate regularly– I’m an obsessive, well-organized emailer, in particular. E-mail is how I manage most of my collaborations within and outside my team, and how I keep track of much of the details. (Indeed, collaborators that aren’t so consistent with email are difficult for me) We do regular weekly team meetings in which we go around the table and review what we’re up to, and I do in-person chats or G+/Skype sessions fairly frequently to keep the ball rolling and everyone in synch. I now keep a notebook, or “memory cane” as I call it, to document meetings and to-do lists. Old school, but it works for me whereas my mental notebook started not to at times.
  2. Treat each person individually- everyone responds best to different management styles, so within my range of capabilities I vary my approach from more to less hands-off, or gentler vs. firmer. If people can handle robust criticism, or even if they can’t but they need to hear it, I can modulate to deliver that, or try to avoid crushing them. While I have high expectations of myself and those I work with, I also know that I have to be flexible because everyone is different.
  3. Value loyalty AND autonomy– Loyalty and trust matter hugely to me as a manager/collaborator. I believe in paying people back (e.g. expending a lot of effort in helping them move their career forward) for their dedicated work on my team, but also keeping in mind that I may need to make “sacrifices” (e.g. give them time off for side-projects I’m not involved in) to help them develop their career. I seek to avoid the extremes: fawningly helpless yes-men (rare, actually) or ~100% selfish what’s-in-it-for-me’s (not as rare but uncommon). Any good outcome can benefit a research manager even if they’re not a part of it, but also on a big team it’s about more than what benefits the 1st author or the senior author, but everyone, which is a tricky balance to attain.
  4. Prioritize endlessly– for me this means trying to keep myself from being the rate-limiting step in research. And I try to say “no” to new priorities if they don’t seem right for me. Sometimes it means getting little things done first to clear my desk (and mind) for bigger tasks; sometimes it means focusing on big tasks to the exclusion of smaller ones. Often it depends on my whims and energy level, but I try to keep those from harming others’ research. I make prioritized to-do lists and revisit them regularly.
  5. Allow chaos and failure/imperfection– This is the hardest for me. My mind does not work like a stereotypical accountant’s- I like a bit of disorder, as my seemingly messy office attests to. Oddly within that disorder, I find order, as my brain is still usually good at keeping things organized. I do like a certain level of involvement in research, and I get nervous when I feel that sliding down toward “uninvolved”– loss of control in research can be scary. Some degree of detachment, stepping aside and allowing for time to pass and people to self-organize or come ask for help to avoid disaster (or celebrate success), is necessary, though, because I cannot be everywhere at once and nothing can be perfect. And of course, I myself fail sometimes, but with alertness comes recognition and learning. Furthermore, too much control is micromanagement, which hurts morale, and “disorder” allows the flexibility that can bring serendipitous results (or disaster). And speaking of disaster, one has to be mentally prepared for it, and able to take a deep breath and react in the right way when it comes. Which leads to…
  6. Think brutally clearly – Despite all the swirling chaos of a large research team and many other responsibilities of an academic and father and all that, I have taught myself a skill that I point to as a vital one. I can stop what I’m doing and focus very intensely on a problem when I need to. If it’s within my expertise to solve it, by clearing my head (past experience with kendo, yoga and karate has helped me to do this), I usually can do it if I enter this intensely logical, calm, objective quasi-zen-state. I set my emotions aside (especially if it is a stressful situation) and figure out what’s possible, what’s impossible, and what needs to be done, and find what I think is the best course of action quite quickly, then act on that decisively (but without dogmatic inflexibility). In such moments, I find myself thinking “What is the right thing to do here?” and I almost instinctively know when I can see that right thing. At that moment I get a charge of adrenaline to act upon it, which helps me to move on quickly. From little but hard decisions to major crises, this ability serves me very well in my whole life. I maintain a duality between that singleminded focus and juggling/anarchy, often able to quickly switch between those modes as I need to.
  7. Work hardest when I work best (e.g. good sleep and caffeination level, mornings)- and let myself slack off when I’m not in prime working condition. I shrug aside guilt if I am “slacking”– I can’t do everything and some things must fall by the wayside if I can’t realistically resolve them in whatever state of mind I’m in. The slacking helps me recharge and refresh– by playing a quick video game or checking social media or cranking up some classic Iron Maiden/modern Menzingers, I can return to my work with new gusto, or even inspiration, because…
  8. Spend a lot of time thinking while I “slack off”, in little bursts (e.g. while checking Twitter). I let my brain process things that are going on, let go of them when I’m not getting anywhere with them, and return to them later. This is harder than it sounds as I still stubbornly or anxiously get stuck on things if they are stressing me out or exciting me a lot. But I am progressively improving at this staccato-thinking skill.
  9. Points 7+8 relate to my view that there is no “work-life balance” for me—it is all my life, and there’s still a lot of time to enjoy the non-work parts, but it’s all a blend that lets me be who I am. I don’t draw lines in the sand. Those just tend to make one feel bad, one way or another.
  10. Be human– try to avoid acting like a distant, emotionless robotic manager and cultivate more of a family-like team. Being labelled with the word “boss” can turn my stomach. “Mentor” and “collaborator” are more like what I aim for. Being open about my own flaws, failures, and life helps.

Long post, yeah! 1 hour on a train commute lets the thoughts flow. I hope that if you made it this far you found it interesting.

What do you do if you manage a team, what works for you or what stories do you have of research management? Celebrations and post-mortems are equally welcome.

 

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Even nine years later, I still keep thinking back to a day, early in my career as an academic faculty member based in England, that traumatized me. Today I’m going to share my story of that day. I feel ready to share it.

Stomach-Churning Rating: hmm that’s a tough call, but I’ll say 1/10 because it’s just photos of live crocs and such.

This day was part of a research trip that lasted a couple of weeks, and it was in Florida, not England, and little of that trip went well at first. It transpired almost exactly 9 years ago today; around 20 August 2005. I took two 2nd/3rd year undergraduate students and our lab technician with me to Florida, meeting up with Dr. Kent Vliet, an experienced crocodile specialist, to study the biomechanics of crocodile locomotion, a subject I’ve been slowwwwwwly working on since my PhD days (see recent related blog post here). We were funded by an internal grant from my university that was supposed to be seed money to get data to lay groundwork for a future large UK research grant.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

Cuban crocodile adult relaxing in a nearby enclosure. Pound-for-pound, a scary croc, but these acted like puppies with their trainers.

I’m interested in why only some crocodylian species, of some sizes and age classes, will do certain kinds of gaits, especially mammal-like gaits such as bounding and galloping. This strongly hints at some kind of size-related biomechanical mechanism that dissuades or prevents larger crocs from getting all jiggy with it. And at large size, with few potential predators to worry about and a largely aquatic ambush predator’s ecology, why would they need to? Crocodiles should undergo major biomechanical changes in tune with their ecological shifts as they grow up. I want to know how the anatomy of crocodiles relates to these changes, and what mechanism underlies their reduction of athletic abilities like bounding. That’s the scientific motivation for working with animals that can detach limbs from your body. (The crocodiles we worked with initially on this trip were small (about 1 meter long) and not very dangerous, but they still would have done some damage if they’d chosen to bite us, and I’ve worked with a few really nasty crocs before.)

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

Me putting motion capture markers onto an uncooperative young Siamese crocodile.

We worked at Gatorland (near Orlando) with some wonderfully trained crocodiles that would even sit in your lap or under your chair, and listened to vocal commands. The cuteness didn’t wear off, but our patience soon did. First, the force platform we’d borrowed (from mentor Rodger Kram’s lab; a ~$10,000 piece of useful gear) and its digital data acquisition system wouldn’t work to let us collect our data. That was very frustrating and even a very helpful local LabView software representative couldn’t solve all our problems. But at least we were able to start trying to collect data after four painstaking days of debugging while curious crocodiles and busy animal handlers waited around for us to get our act together. The stress level of our group was already mounting, and we had limited time plus plenty of real-life bugs (the bitey, itchy kind; including fire ants) and relentless heat to motivate us to get the research done.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Then the wonderfully trained crocodiles, as crocodiles will sometimes do, decided that they did not feel like doing more than a slow belly crawl over our force platform, at best. This was not a big surprise and so we patiently tried coaxing them for a couple of sweltering August days. We were working in their caged paddock, which contained a sloping grassy area, a small wooden roofed area, and then at the bottom of the slope was the crocodiles’ pond, where they sat and chilled out when they weren’t being called upon to strut their stuff for science. We didn’t get anything very useful from them, and then the weather forecast started looking ugly.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

Hybrid Siamese crocodile in its pond in our enclosure, waiting to be studied.

We’d been watching reports of a tropical storm developing off the southeastern coast of Florida, and crossing our fingers that it would miss us. But it didn’t.

When the storm hit, we were hoping to weather the edge of the storm while we packed up, because we decided we’d done our best but our time had run out and we should move to our next site, the Alligator Farm and Zoological Park in St Augustine, where I’d worked a lot before with other Crocodylia. But the storm caught us off guard, too soon, and too violently.

To give some context to the situation, for the previous several days the local croc handlers had told us stories of how lightning routinely struck this area during storms, and was particularly prone to hitting the fences on the park perimeter, which we were close to. There was a blasted old tree nearby that vultures hung out in, and they related how that blasting had been done by lightning. One trainer had been hit twice by (luckily glancing) blows from lightning hitting the fences and such.

Ominous onlooker.

Ominous onlooker.

The storm came with pounding rain and a lot of lightning, much of it clearly striking nearby- with almost no delay between flashes and thunder, and visible sky-to-ground bolts. We debated taking our forceplate out of the ground near the crocodile pond, because sensitive electrical equipment and rain don’t go well together, but this would take precious time. The forceplate was covered with a tarp to keep the rain off. I decided that, in the interest of safety, we needed to all seek shelter and let the forceplate be.

I’ll never forget the memory of leaving that crocodile enclosure and seeing a terrible sight. The crocodile pond had swiftly flooded and engulfed our forceplate. This flooding also released all the (small) crocodiles which were now happily wandering their enclosure where we’d been sitting and working before.

Another subject awaits science.

Another subject awaits science.

At that point I figured there was no going back. Lightning + deepening floodwater + electrical equipment + crocodiles = not good, so I wagered my team’s safety against our loaned equipment’s, favouring the former.

We sprinted for cars and keepers’ huts, and got split up in the rain and commotion. As the rain calmed down, I ventured out to find the rest of the team. It turned out that amidst the havoc, our intrepid lab technician had marshalled people to go fetch the forceplate out from the flooded paddock, storm notwithstanding. We quickly set to drying it out, and during some tense time over the next day we did several rounds of testing its electronics to see if it would still work. Nope, it was dead. And we still had over a week of time left to do research, but without our most useful device. (A forceplate tells you how hard animals are pushing against the ground, and with other data such as those from our motion analysis cameras, how their limbs and joints function to support them)

We went on to St Augustine and got some decent data using just our cameras, for a wide variety of crocodiles, so the trip wasn’t a total loss. I got trapped by remnants of the storm while in Washington, DC and had to sleep on chairs in Dulles Airport overnight, but I got home, totally wrecked and frazzled from the experience.

That poorly-timed storm was part of a series of powerful storms that would produce Hurricane Katrina several days later, after we’d all left Florida. So we had it relatively easy.

I’m still shaken by the experience- as a tall person who grew up in an area with a lot of dangerous storms, I was already uneasy about lightning, feeling like I had a target on my back. But running from the lightning in that storm, after all the warnings we’d had about its bad history in this area, and how shockingly close the lightning was, leaves me almost phobic about lightning strikes. I’m in awe of lightning and enjoy thunderstorms, which I’ve seen few of since I left Wisconsin in 1995, but I now hate getting caught out in them.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

Moreover, the damage to the forceplate- which we managed to pay to repair and return to my colleague, and the failure of the Gatorland experiments, truly mortified me. I felt horrible and still feel ashamed. I don’t think I could have handled the situation much differently. It was just a shitty situation. That, and I wanted to show our undergrads a good time with research, yet what they ended up seeing was a debacle. I still have the emails I sent back to my research dean to describe what happened in the event, and they bring back the pain and stress now that I re-read them. But then… there’s a special stupid part to this story.

I tried to lighten the mood one night shortly after the storm by taking the team out to dinner, having a few drinks and then getting up to sing karaoke in front of the restaurant. I sang one of my favourite J Geil’s Band tunes– I have a nostalgic weakness for them- the song “Centerfold“. I not only didn’t sing it well (my heart was not in it and my body was shattered), and tried lamely to get the crowd involved (I think no one clapped or sang along), but also in retrospect it was a bad choice of song to be singing with two female undergrads there– I hadn’t thought about the song’s meanings when I chose to sing it, I just enjoyed it as a fun, goofy song that brought me back to innocent days of my youth in the early 1980’s. But it is not an innocent song.

So ironically, today what I feel the most embarrassed about, thinking about that whole trip and the failed experiment, is that karaoke performance. It was incredibly graceless and ill-timed and I don’t think anyone enjoyed it. I needed to unwind; the stress was crushing me; but oh… it was so damn awkward. I think I wanted to show to the team “I’m OK, I can still sing joyfully and have a good time even though we had a disastrous experiment and maybe nearly got electrified or bitten by submerged crocodiles or what-not, so you can relax too; we can move on and enjoy the rest of the trip” but in reality I proved to myself, at least, that I was not OK. And I’m still not OK about that experience. It still makes me cringe. Haunted, it took me many years to feel comfortable singing karaoke again.

It should have been a fun trip. I love working with crocodiles, but Florida is a treacherous place for field work (and many other things). I can’t say I grew stronger from this experience. There is no silver lining. It sucked, and I continually revisit it in my memory trying to find a lesson beyond “choose better times and better songs to sing karaoke with” or “stay away from floods, electricity and deadly beasts.”

So that wins, out of several good options, as the worst day(s) of my career that I can recall. I’ve had worse days in my life, but for uncomfortable science escapades this edges out some other contenders. Whenever I leave the lab to do research, I think of this experience and hope that I don’t see anything worse. It could have been much worse field work.

(Epilogue: the grants we’ve tried to fund for this crocodile gait project all got shot down, so it has lingered and we’ve done research on it gradually since, when we find time and students… And one of the students on this trip went on to do well in research and is finishing a PhD in the Structure & Motion Lab now, so we didn’t entirely scare them off science!)

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Vulnerability, Strength and Success

I’ve been doing a series of career guidance sessions with my research team, and this past week we talked about how to structure a successful career path as a scientist. As part of that, I gave my thoughts on how to maximize chances of that “success” (traditional definition; getting a decent permanent job as a researcher, and doing a good job at it); without knowingly being a jerk or insincere. This process led me to re-inspect my own career for insights — not that I’ve been on perfect behaviour, but I do routinely reflect on choices I make.

I asked myself, “What does success mean to me?” to see what my answer was today. That led to me writing up this story of my career path, as an example of the twists and turns that can happen in the life of a scientist. I originally intended to share this story just with my team, but then I decided to turn into a full-on blog post, in my ongoing personal quest to open up and share my thoughts and experiences with others. For those who have read my advice to PhD students, there are some commonalities, but plenty of this is new.

Where my last post was partly about publicly exposing vulnerabilities in other scientists, this one is about privately finding one’s own vulnerabilities along with the strengths, and sharing them publicly. The story is about me, but the key points are more about how “success” can evolve in science (N=1 plus anecdotal observations of others).

 

Growing Up in Grad School

As an undergraduate student, I was clueless about my career until I applied to graduate school a second time. The first time I tried applying, I didn’t even know how to really go about it, or what I wanted to do beyond some sort of biology. Yet to my credit I was curious, creative, a swift learner with a great memory for science, and broadly educated in biology and other fields (thanks, parents and past teachers!). I read and watched “Jurassic Park” and lots of Stephen Jay Gould and Darwin or palaeontology books, and I just tried to actively learn all I could, reading compulsively. I even resolved to quit non-science reading for a few years, and stuck to that. I realized that a research career combining evolution and biomechanics was of interest to me, involving vertebrates and maybe fossils.

I got into grad school in 1995 and had a great project to study how dinosaurs moved, but I felt inadequate compared to my peers. So I dedicated myself even harder to reading and learning. I didn’t pass my first orals (qualifying exam; appraisal/defense) but that helped me to refocus even more resolutely on deep learning, especially to fill gaps in my knowledge of biomechanics methods that I’d later use. During this time I also learned website design and HTML code (mid-90s; early WWW!), working with several others on Berkeley’s UCMP website in my free time. I intensively networked with colleagues via email lists (the long-lived Dinosaur listproc) and at a lot of conferences, trying to figure out how science worked and how to go about my project. That was a powerful initial formative period.

It was a gruelling struggle and I’d had serious health problems (a narrow escape from cancer) around the same time, too. I frequently, throughout the 1990’s, doubted if I could make it in the field. I looked around me and could not see how I could become successful in what I wanted to do (marry biomechanics and evolutionary biology in stronger ways). I was so scared, so uncertain of my own work, that I didn’t know what to do—I had a project but had no clue how to really implement it. So two years passed in semi-paralysis, with little concrete science to show for it, and I gave a lot of *bad* internal seminars in Berkeley’s Friday biomechanics group. However, those bad seminars helped me to become a better speaker. I had a terrible fear of public speaking; on top of having little data, this experience was brutal for me. But I used it as practice, bent to the task of bettering myself.

A change in my career trajectory happened as my research slowly took root. I wrote some book chapters for a dinosaur encyclopedia in 1997, a simple paper describing a little dinosaur in 1998, then another paper on taxonomy published in 1999. [For those wanting to find out what any of these papers I mention are, they are on my Publications page, often with pdfs] These papers at least showed I could finish a research task; when I was younger I’d had some bad habits of not finishing work I started.

I visited a lot of museums and hung out with people there, socializing while learning about diverse fossils and their evolutionary anatomy, implementing what I’d learned from my own dissections and literature studies of living animals. This led to a poster (actually two big posters stacked atop each other; plotting the evolution of the reptilian pelvis and muscles) at a palaeontology meeting (SVP). This poster turned a few heads and I suppose convinced some that I knew something about bone and soft tissue anatomy.

Then in 1998, I did a 4-month visiting scholarship at Brown University with Steve Gatesy that had a big impact on my career: Steve helped me consolidate ideas about how anatomy related to function in dinosaurs, and how to interpret data from living animals (I did my first gait experiments, with guineafowl, which went sort of OK), and I loved Brown University’s EEB department environment. For once, I felt like a grown-up, as people started to listen to what I had to say. In retrospect, I was still just a kid in many other ways. I didn’t really achieve a lot of what Steve asked me to do; I was unfocused, but changing steadily.

In 1999, I gave a talk at SVP that was well received, based on that research with Gatesy, and then I gave it again at SICB. I had a few prominent scientists encouraging me to apply for faculty jobs (e.g., Beth Brainerd was very supportive)– this gave me a new charge of excitement and confidence. I finally began to feel like a real expert in my little area of science. That talk became our 2000 “Abductors, adductors…” paper in Paleobiology, which I still love for its integrative nature and broad, bold (but incompletely answered) questions. Yet when a respected professor at Berkeley told me before my University of Chicago faculty job interview “You act like a deer in the headlights too often,” I knew I had a long journey of self-improvement left. And a lot of that improvement just came with time– and plenty of mistakes.

Momentum continued to build for my career in 2000 as I took my anatomical work into more biomechanical directions and passed my orals. I gave an SVP Romer Prize (best student talk) presentation on my new T. rex biomechanical modelling work, and I won! I felt truly appreciated, not just as an expert but as an emerging young leader in my research area. I’ll never forget the standing ovation at the award announcement in Mexico City—seeing people I saw as famous and amazing get up and cheer for me was such a rush! Then I published two lengthy anatomical papers in Zool J Linn Soc in 2001, which still are my most cited works — even more than some of my subsequent Nature papers.

 

Evolution: Postdoc to Faculty

Also in 2001, I was awarded a NSF postdoc at Stanford to do exactly what I’d long wanted to do: build detailed biomechanical models of dinosaurs, using the anatomical work I’d done before. That was it: I saw evidence that I had “made it”. But that took about six years; toward the end of my PhD; to truly feel this way most of the time, and in some ways this feeling led to youthful overconfidence and brashness that I had to later try to shed. I feel fortunate that the rest of my career went more smoothly. I doubt I could have endured another six years of struggling as I did during my PhD. But it wasn’t easy, either. During my postdoc I had to force my brain to think like a mechanical engineer’s and that was a difficult mental struggle.

The year 2002 became a wild ride for me.

First, my T. rex “not a fast runner” paper got published in Nature, and I was thrown into the limelight of the news media for two weeks or so. Luckily I was ready for the onslaught — one of my mentors, Bob Full, warned me, “This will be huge. Prepare!” I handled it well and I learned a lot about science communication in the process.

Shortly after that publication, just before my wedding’s bachelor party, I developed terrible leg blood clots and had to cancel my party—but I recovered in time for the wedding, which was a fantastic event on a California clifftop. I enjoyed a good life and seemed healthy again. I kept working hard, I got my second paper accepted at Nature on bouncy-running elephants, and then…

Then I had a stroke, just before that Nature paper got published.

Everything came crashing to a halt and I had to think about what it all meant—these were gigantic life-and-death questions to face at age 31! Luckily, I recovered without much deficit at all, and I regained my momentum with renewed stubborn dedication and grit, although my recover took many months, and took its toll on my psyche. I’ve told this story before in this post about my brain.

I started seeing therapists to talk about my struggles, which was a mixed blessing: I became more aware of my personality flaws, but also more aware of how many of those flaws wouldn’t change. I’m still not sure if that was a good thing but it taught me a lot of humility, which I still revisit today. I also learned to find humour and wonder in the dark times, which colours even this blog.

In winter of 2003 I went to a biomechanics symposium in Calgary, invited by British colleague Alan Wilson. Later that spring, Alan encouraged me to apply for an RVC faculty job (“you’ll at least get an interview and a free trip to London”), which I said no to (vet school and England move didn’t seem right to me), but later changed my mind after thinking it over.

I got the RVC job offer the day before my actual job talk (luckily colleague David Polly warned me that things like this happened fast in the UK, unlike the months of negotiation in the USA!). I made the move in November 2003 and the rest was hard work, despite plenty of mistakes and lessons learned, that paid off a lot career-wise. If I hadn’t taken that job I’d have been unemployed, and I had postdoc fellowships and faculty job applications that got rejected in 2002-2003, so I was no stranger to rejection. It all could have gone so differently…

But it wasn’t a smooth odyssey either—there were family and financial struggles, and I was thousands of miles away while my mother succumbed to Alzheimer’s and my father swiftly fell victim to cancer, and I never was 100% healthy and strong after my troubles in 2002. Even in the late 2000’s, I felt inadequate and once confided to a colleague something like “I still feel like a postdoc here. I’m a faculty member and I don’t feel like I’ve succeeded.”

Since then, I’ve achieved some security that has at last washed that feeling away. That was a gradual process,  but I think the key moment I realized that “I’ll be OK now”  was in 2010 when I got the call, while on holiday in Wales (at the time touring Caernarfon Castle), informing me that my promotion to full Professor was being approved. It was an anticlimactic moment because that promotion process took 1 year, but it still felt great. It felt like success. I’ll never earn the “best scientist ever” award, so I am content. I don’t feel I have something big left to prove to myself in my career, so I can focus on other things now. It “only” took 15 or so years…

 

Ten Lessons Learned

When I look back on this experience and try to glean general lessons, my thoughts are:

1)     Socializing matters so much for a scientific career. “Networking” isn’t a smarmy or supercilious approach, either; in fact, that insincerity can backfire and really hurt one’s reputation. I made a lot of friends early on — some of my best friends today are scientist colleagues. Many of these have turned into collaborators. Making friends in science is a win-win situation. Interacting with fellow scientists is one of the things I have always enjoyed most about science. Never has it been clearer to me how important the human element of science is. Diplomacy is a skill I never expected to use much in science, but I learned it through a lot of experience, and now I treasure it.

2)     Developing a thicker skin is essential, but being vulnerable helps, too. Acting impervious just makes you seem inhuman and isolates you. Struggling is natural and helped me endure the tough times that came along with the good times, often in sharp transition. Science is freaking hard as a career. Even with all the hard work, nothing is guaranteed. Whether you’re weathering peer review critiques, politics, or health or other “life problems”, you need strength, whether it comes from inside you or from those around you. Embrace that you won’t be perfect but strive to do your best despite that. Regret failures briefly (be real with yourself), learn from them and then move on.

3)     Reading the literature can be extremely valuable. So many of my ideas came from obsessive reading in diverse fields, and tying together diverse ideas or finding overlooked/unsolved questions and new ways to investigate them. I can’t understand why some scientists intentionally don’t try to read the literature (and encourage their students to follow this practice!), even though it is inevitable to fall behind the literature; you will always miss relevant stuff. I think it can only help to try to keep up that scholarly habit, and it is our debt to past scientists as well as our expectation of future ones—otherwise why publish?

4)     I wish I learned even more skills when I was younger. It is so hard to find time and energy now to learn new approaches. This inevitably leads to a researcher becoming steadily less of a master of research methods and data to more of a manager of research. So I am thankful for having the wisdom accumulated via trial and error experiences to keep me relevant and useful to my awesome team. That sharing of wisdom and experience is becoming more and more enjoyable to me now.

5)     Did I “succeed” via hard work or coincidence? Well, both—and more! I wouldn’t have gotten here without the hard work, but I look back and I see a lot of chance events that seemed innocent at the time, but some turned out to be deeply formative. Some decisions I made look good in retrospect, but they could have turned out badly, and I made some bad decisions, too; those are easy to overlook given that the net result has been progress. Nothing came easily, overall. And I had a lot of help from mentors, too; Kevin Padian and Scott Delp in particular. Even today, I would not say that my career is easy, by any stretch. I still can find it very draining, but it’s so fun, too!

6)     Take care of yourself. I’ve learned the hard way that the saying “At least you have your health” is profoundly wise. I try to find plenty of time now to stop, breathe and observe my life, reflecting on the adventures I’ve had so far. The feelings evoked by this are rich and complex.

7)     If I could go back, I’d change a lot of decisions I made. We all would. But I’m glad I’ve lived the life I’ve lived so far. At last, after almost 20 years of a career in science, I feel mostly comfortable in my own skin, more able to act rather than be frozen in the headlights of adversity. I know who I am and what I cannot be, and things I need to work on about myself. In some ways I feel more free than I’ve felt since childhood, because the success (as I’ve defined it in my life) has given me that freedom to try new things and take new risks, and I feel fortunate for that. I think I finally understand the phrase “academic freedom” and why it (and tenure) are so valuable in science today, because I have a good amount of academic freedom. I still try to fight my own limits and push myself to improve my world—the freedom I have allows this.

8)     When I revisit the question of “what does success mean to me?” today I find that the answer is to be able to laugh, half-darkly, at myself—at my faults, my strengths, and the profound and the idiotic experiences of my life. I’ve found ways to both take my life seriously and to laugh at myself adrift in it. To see these crisply and then to embrace the whole as “this is me, I can deal with that” brings me a fresh and satisfying feeling.

9)     Share your struggles —  and successes — with those you trust. It helps. But even just a few years ago, the thought of sharing my career’s story online would have scared me.

10)     As scientists we hope for success in our careers to give us some immortality of sorts. What immortality we win is but echoes of our real lives and selves. So I seek to inject some laughter into those echoes while revelling in the amazing moments that make up almost every day. I think it’s funny that I became a scientist and it worked out OK, and I’m grateful to the many that helped; no scientist succeeds on their own.

A major aspect of a traditional career in science is to test the hypothesis that you can succeed in a career as a scientist, which is a voyage of self-discovery, uncovering personal vulnerabilities and strengths. I feel that I am transitioning into whatever the next part of my science career will be; in part, to play a psychopomp role for others taking that voyage.

That’s my story so far. Thanks for sticking with it until the end. Please share your thoughts below.

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