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Posts Tagged ‘in all seriousness’

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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I hadn’t been feeling very well for several weeks and then last night it happened. This post is a description of what it’s like to be an epileptic, written simply to document my experience. My goal here is to do that, almost in a dispassionate scientific way, and if it helps others going through similar experiences — feedback I often receive from such posts — that’s wonderful. My post is not a call for sympathy or help, although those are understandable and kind responses, and it’s not a complaint either. It just is, because what I am is what it is.

I’ve realized that my blog has become about not just documenting how amazing, freakish and immensely fallible that anatomy can be in other species, but also about my own experiences with my anatomy (and physiology) failing, as per these two prior posts about my shoulder and brain (more links therein). Sharing these experiences gives me strength and clarity, even if some of that emerges from partly detaching myself from the emotional nature of the experience and trying to look at it from outside of myself. I can be a private person, so feeling like I can discuss something uncomfortable and vulnerable makes me feel like I am growing, much as I innately resist that.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; no fun events described, but no images either.

I’ve had enough experience now as an epileptic that I look back on my seizures with disappointment (“Oh damn, not again.”) but also familiarity (“OK that happened; I know how things will go now.”). They are terrifying at the time, especially for my family, and my disorientation when emerging from unconsciousness with strangers around and with a gap in my memory is nightmarish.

I was watching a documentary about the Jutland battle in WWI while my daughter was put to bed. Then… I woke up, maybe 20 minutes later, unsure what was going on. There were two “first responders” (emergency non-paramedics) present, one of whom I eventually recognized from my prior emergency experiences in recent months, trying to talk to me with my wife. I was impressed to later hear that they’d come within 5 minutes of being called; not bad for life in a small English town. I came to realize that my right shoulder hurt again (from violent spasms), reducing it to almost a one-degree-of-freedom joint (mostly able to move fore and aft; almost zero pronation/supination without intense pain), reminscent of Ichthyostega‘s. I was surrounded by tissues wet with blood from my lip, where I’d again bitten myself during my fit. I could sense my racing heartbeat and fluctuating temperature, other hallmarks of my pre- and post-seizure symptoms. My vision was blurry, with my eyes usually becoming dilated during a seizure.

But the predominant feeling that takes an uncomfortably long time to pass is the “post-ictal state“, a mind clouded by confusion, slowly becoming aware that my neurons are misfiring but are beginning to sort themselves out. I sometimes irrationally want to just go back to sleep and not talk, and need some rational insistence from carers that we can’t do that right now. It is this vacillation between consciousness and unconsciousness, in a grey area in between, that I find most disturbing, as I cannot completely trust my own mind, disbelieving what is happening (“Is this real?”), and sometimes I lapse back into seizure(s) again. This is a powerful example of the frightfulness of uncertainty. As a scientist, so reliant on my mind, it is horrifying to feel like it is out of control. It also conjures up memories of observing my mother’s mind declining with Alzheimer’s syndrome, and those are vastly painful.

As I became able to put words together semi-coherently, and as the medics poked and prodded me to do tests on my symptoms (I had a cannula in my left arm’s blood vessel by now), discussion turned to whether to take me to the hospital once the paramedics arrived with the ambulance. In the past, there was no question of the need for a trip to Accident & Emergency (A&E in the UK; same as the ER in the USA).

Yet now, with almost 2 years of experiences behind me, I (and my carers) have come to know my better seizures from my worst ones. And given that A&E normally involves >4 hours of lying around in a noisy room, constantly disturbed by checkups or screaming patients, it is far from restful and rest is what I tend to need most. After an hour of vigilance, my symptoms faded and I became more able to answer queries, even to talk over options. We agreed that I could stay home, try to rest, and go to A&E if I had another seizure.

I am glad to say that I got a full night of rest and I feel a lot better today. That I am able to think clearly enough to write this post gives me reassurance. After past seizures, I’d often be unable to do much except take naps and gawk slack-jawed at the TV screen, with my vision still blurred (one eye even seemed to change shape post-seizure once, and I began seeing things in the corner of my field of view that are not truly there). So the bright side of this post is, maybe my medications are working better now, and maybe we will get this epilepsy under control, but I keep saying that every 2-3 months and then being proven wrong by another seizure, so a lot of uncertainty looms.

Nonetheless, seizures involve a “refractory period” that makes further seizures less likely for some time period, so odds are good that I can feel more secure while I recover from this event, which usually takes two weeks or so to get my brain feeling closer to “normal”. Even so, my mind remains clouded by these post-ictal feelings, weighting me down with fatigue that is the most chronic challenge I struggle against now as an epileptic. It leaves me unable to do as much as I once could, with a backlog of work growing behind me like never before. This is the “diminishing” that I lamented before; it is not just old age.

That’s what one experience was like for me, and I’m glad that it was far from the worst “neural storms” I’ve suffered. I hope that readers find it interesting. Now that my battle is over for now, I’ll take some time to find out how that Jutland battle turned out.

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I’m now asked all the time how I’m holding up in light of recent changes in my life, and I have a hard time answering that question, as I am still not sure – except that I am still here, more or less. Over the past year I’ve grown to embrace the notion, reinforced very strongly by my own frequent experiences, that I am disabled (in the medical/legal sense). I’ve had a harder time embracing the idea that I am now part of a minority group (I have strongly accepted that I am a senior, white, male scientist in the upper-middle class; which conflicts with “minority” in every way). Categorization aside, one conclusion I’ve been grappling with is the strong sense that I have been diminished. I can’t think as clearly, my memories are fading and my body is increasingly decrepit in physical and physiological ways that are becoming obvious to me. And yet I struggle to explain these feelings to people. So here I am, writing a blog post that is partly about what it’s like to feel that my personal “glory days” as a human scientist have passed. It’s not very uplifting stuff although there is a surprise of sorts at the end.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; a medical imaging scan of my disintegrating body, and a cartoon of surgery.

Before I go into my sob story, I should reinforce that there’s not just doom and gloom here. There is a heady, very complex mix of feelings. I’ve still got a great family (save the demise of all of my close relatives from my parental generation and before) and friends. Much of the time I’m still able to smile and have some fun. I’m not a Syrian refugee clinging to life in a tent while the world turns its back on me, or an Indonesian orangutan aloft in a tree watching the forest burn around it while the palm oil plantations spring up in the distance. All is relative. I know my life best and that’s what I blog about, so here is that infinitesimal perspective on life.

At work, I am buoyed by a fantastic team of scientists; some of the best I’ve ever worked with. They churn away at the science while I try to lead them. We’re doing some very hard science lately; some of the most challenging work I’ve been involved in. And my declined health hasn’t helped me to lead them, so sometimes they’ve had to rely on each other for spans of time. It’s not the best analogy but I often feel like we are in the open sea and I am swimming in front of our boat full of precious science, navigating while I barely keep my head above water and they struggle with the oars and their own exhaustion. In real life, it’s seeing their smiling faces and the wonderful science they show me on a regular basis that helps me keep afloat, personally.

Indeed, one take-home message of this post is that, while feel myself diminish, struggling with normal ageing and major new health problems, I see those I mentor grow and I get a vicarious thrill and pride from it. This is something that I know many research scientists experience to varying degrees, and often in conjunction with the too-often-metaphorized(?) experience of parenting and having the joy of seeing one’s offspring mature while one feels old age encroaching. As many research managers witness, I see my team’s collective research expand and build new levels of coolness in our little domain, I get wiser by reflecting on the successes and failures, and one could say I enjoy some credit from my team’s work by navigating our general course of research while they do the daily technical work and I help mentor them through their careers.

But first, a content cat.

But first, a content cat.

At the same time, as my collaborations and range of projects broaden, following my increasingly integrative interests, I see my relative expertise decreasing. It seems a long way now from my postdoc years, just over a decade ago, when I could run most or all of the software and hardware I needed to do the science. I am increasingly uncomfortable with that. However, I still learn new skills and knowledge so I am far from static as a scientist, and I am pushing myself more and more to learn more, wrestling with my age/health-imposed difficulties in learning. Furthermore, as a human being I feel far more aware of the world and the broader issues at stake than ever before (thanks in part to social media, I should add; but also thanks to my curiosity about life beyond my research). Improving my mind is still a goal of mine. The “diminishing” label I apply here is not that fair perhaps, but it’s how I feel about myself and I am sure there is some truth to it. It is the foe I grapple with.

So I get bemused reactions when I’m asked how it’s going and I respond, somewhat glumly, that I’m “hanging in there”. Many know I’m having health problems and tell me they are inspired by how I’ve held up and how well my (team’s) research and science communication and other work seems to be going, from the outside. Indeed, we’re cranking out more papers and surprising amounts of funding (see below) than ever before, so on paper it does look very good. It helps a little to hear those comments of how impressed some friends and colleagues are, but I don’t feel very impressed with myself. I feel lucky to have a great team of scientists and to have a great job in an insanely good laboratory environment, because otherwise things would be very different for me. I’m starkly aware of my privilege and feel vastly fortunate for having it.

My personal experience in work/life doesn’t reflect the joy of “success” that might seem to spring forth from my CV or the image that the outside world might get of me. I’m seesawing back and forth between those intermittent joys (and other happiness that comes from life away from work!) and a sense of hopelessness. I see the grim state of humanity and the broader world, and I look within and see my own decrepitude advancing, and I feel sad. It’s not a clinically manic-depressive seesaw but I can see some similarities when I apply my scientific detachment skills and look at myself from a quasi-objective perspective. I’m not the naïve, “everything is excellent” optimistic grad student I was—I just see flickers of that person these days. Sometimes I like to see him.

Much of the torques applied to the seesaw come from my oscillating health status- I alternate between good and bad days, with hints of a broader weekly rhythm that my physicians and I are still trying to grasp. Those oscillations determine everything for me: I can be bursting with energy and make strong inroads on my “to do” list, or I can be utterly drained and unable to do much more than stare vacantly or maybe fire off some emails to make incremental progress on work. I tend to be lingering somewhere in the middle, with far less vitality on average than I had two or so years ago. I look back on those past years and feel like I am looking up at the peak of my life and career. Time will tell if that’s “true” in some way or not.

Regardless, over the past 18 months there have been huge “valleys” from when I end up in hospital after major epileptic attacks, with a couple of weeks of recovery afterwards. Overall, my capacity to do what I used to be able to do has been halved. At best, I feel like I can operate at maybe 90% of my peak capacity and that never lasts long. Some of this is the inevitable decline that comes with entering one’s mid-forties, but some is a new step-change that has hit me over the past 18+ months since I became an epileptic suffering from tonic-clonic (“grand mal”) seizures every 2-3 months. Why is this suddenly happening and why haven’t the doctors resolved it yet? Well, the short answers are that my brain had damage (I told that story here) that can lead to epilepsy later in life, and that medicine still isn’t perfect. Epilepsy that cannot be entirely suppressed by existing medication is still common. We’re still experimenting with medications for me but it’s too soon to tell if we’ve found a solution, and we might never.

I heard some wise words a while ago that “we’re more content to blame ourselves than to accept that some things are beyond our control” and I’ve taken that to heart. Life is scary and short and it’s true that a lot is out of our control, especially the end of life. In reflection, I’ve been tempted to look back on choices I made in life and try to blame myself for what damage that has wrought on me (or others), but in terms of health I question that assumption. I may just be the victim of bad luck (genes, etc), but some people find bad luck too hard to accept, implying an indifferent universe rather than free will leading to misfortune/fortune. I’m not out of hope but I’ve accepted that the current state of my life might be just how it will be, and that’s been a hard lesson, but one I’ve learned again and again with my many chronic health problems over 20+ years. I don’t blame myself (much) for all that. More than ever, I appreciate the other wise words that “everyone is fighting a struggle you know nothing about”. I might look to an external observer like I’m kicking ass, but I feel anything but that kind of triumphant, fist-pumping jubilation.

I feel lucky to still be here, and eager to keep it that way, but I am so, so tired. Intellectually, physically, emotionally, it’s like a vampire has been paying me regular visits. And so I have to sigh, more than I used to, when confronted with bullshit like excessive paperwork or petty politics or something else I wish I didn’t have to endure, deeply feeling life slipping past as I do endure it, but that’s life for you. And at work, as a senior research manager, that’s often my job to endure it, in ways I’d never experienced as a junior researcher. I just have to cope with being pummelled by waves of difficulties and not grow weaker if I can avoid it. Coupled with life’s other burdens, the diminishing scientist faces a different beast of challenges and can often feel very alone. It’s a strange new place I’ve found myself in, far more complex than the worries I had as a postdoc, with harder choices to make and vast grey areas to traverse.

Nonetheless, as welfare science likes to term it, it’s entirely “a life worth living”. I have to pick my battles more than I used to, and I’ve had to learn to take more time to get exercise, rest, and avoid the stresses (or even unpleasant people) that can cause my health to take rapid downward spirals. I’m more fragile in many ways, such as having to stop doing karate because my shoulders have weakened. Here’s some interesting anatomy for you from a recent MRI scan of my right shoulder:

My left shoulder in top cross-sectional view, with the missing parts of my humeral head crudely outlined in red. There's more amiss here, too.

My left shoulder in top cross-sectional view, with the missing parts of my humeral head crudely outlined in red. There’s more amiss here, too.

My seizures cause my shoulder flexors to spasm, raising my arms up and crushing my humerus against my glenoid cavity of my scapula and causing occasional dislocations that abrade the humerus against the rim of the glenoid. The result, after numerous seizures, has been the wearing away of the articular cartilage of my shoulder and then the crumbling of the bony head of my humerus. Thus, once my NHS surgeon is ready to in coming months, I am due to have my coracoid process of my scapula cut off and moved, with its attached muscles and ligaments, to be screwed into the front of my glenoid cavity, bracing my humeral head more tightly against the glenoid and thereby resisting future dislocations. Luckily that operation can be done with several small incisions and endoscopy; invasive as the surgery is; thus recovery time won’t be so long.

Latarjet surgery (view of right shoulder joint [glenoid] from front): coracoid process moved posteroventrally. More details (w/videos) here.

Latarjet surgery (view of right shoulder joint [glenoid] from front): coracoid process moved posteroventrally. More details (w/videos) here.

It amuses me that all of this intense surgery looming on the horizon doesn’t worry me. I just want it done. I’ve been through a comparable surgery with my left shoulder, involving screwing my greater tuberosity back onto my humerus, so I know what recovery is like, and now that shoulder is doing fine. All that aside, my physical integrity has declined and I feel it every day. I may never return to my karate classes and earn that black belt I was seeking as a life-goal, but time will tell. I am trying to do what I can to remain as strong as I can for as long as I can.

A year from now all of my major funding and most or all of my research team were due to finish or be finishing. Over the past year, I was thinking forward to this eventuality and truly looking forward to having a smaller, quieter team, with less pressures on me. Many of those pressures are self-imposed because I am still ambitious and love doing science. I can still feel that youthful passion welling up inside me sometimes, so strong that I imagine it to be a tidal wave that could consume the world. It fuels my drive to try to do more, better science, but is dampened now by the problems I’ve lamented above, but it’s still there. So that passion and drive led me to, on a whim, resubmit an EU grant that was rejected a couple of years ago. I didn’t take it super seriously and so writing the grant didn’t stress me out. But a week after submitting it, I was back in hospital anyway, in bad shape. Over the following nine months, I grew to hope that the grant wasn’t awarded and expected that it wouldn’t (given <20% funding rate especially as a young Advanced Investigator in that ERC funding programme; https://goo.gl/Ps0Rhd if you want to know what that means). A big part of me still wanted to have that smaller team and less (or no) funding. I’d even contemplated leaving academia. I dream sometimes of retiring early to a quiet life with my family or wandering off into some jungle for a foolish adventure, but neither is realistic.

Yet a few weeks ago, the email from the EU came with an answer. I got the grant: 2.5 million Euros for 5 years of research on dinosaur evolution and biomechanics. More about that later. The funding details are still in negotiation but I now am on course to be advertising (in ~August) 4 new jobs to work with me for up to 5 years on this project, beginning in October. My reaction has puzzled those colleagues I’ve told about the grant, although I have kept that news quiet (until now) while I finish the paperwork for the grant award. I feel mixed about getting a large grant at this time in my life. It’s a helluva lot of work and five years seems a very, very long time to me, and to focus on one major theme—and to study dinosaurs.

I had also looked forward to moving away from dinosaur research—but, like Al says in the video above, their siren call can drag us back to the Mesozoic era with questions that entice us and with spectacular fossils that are a riot of fun to study. In this case, we’re going to be looking back on the “locomotor superiority” hypothesis that has been bounced around for >40 years as a possible explanation for why dinosaurs flourished whereas other archosaurs (except crocodylomorphs) didn’t, and how much bipedality relates to that, in terms of various behaviours and motions. Can these questions even be answered? We shall see.

Yes, boo hoo! Poor me, getting a coveted grant and all that! I am not surprised if that is hard for others to understand, and I still am figuring out how I feel about it all. Professionally, this is a wonderful thing; no question. Personally, it’s pressure I didn’t need to put my disabled, diminished self through. Irony and conundrum aside, I want to do it and I should try. Regardless, off I go, with a new-team-to-come and my research focus dominated by one main project, the largest grant I’ve ever managed (by a long shot!). It’s interesting times for me ahead. Life has come full circle, returning me back to science-ing the dinosaurs/archosaurs I’d focused on in my PhD work. But I am not the same person, and so it will be a very different experience. Somehow I have to balance this challenging project with the struggles in my life in general, and that will test me in diverse ways. I’m sure there will be many surprises in my work and personal life during the next five years, and I’ll be sharing them here on this blog when I can.

I’ve tried to express my own journey through the big ups and downs I’ve seen over two years. Maybe it will help others who are quietly, or noisily, struggling. I’m curious to hear from others that have experienced feelings of themselves declining as their careers/lives (in science/elsewhere) move along in some direction.

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Goodbye Pedro (?/?/2014-23/4/2016). We had too little time together. What we shared was so lovely. Parting has been terrible sorrow.

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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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Maybe it’s uncool to talk about heroes in science these days, because everyone is poised on others’ shoulders, but “Neill” (Robert McNeill) Alexander is undeniably a hero to many researchers in biomechanics and other strands of biology. Our lab probably wouldn’t exist without his pervasive influence- he has personally inspired many researchers to dive into biomechanics, and he has raised the profile of this field and championed its importance and principles like no other one individual. Often it feels like we’re just refining answers to questions he already answered. His influence extends not only to comparative biomechanics and not only around his UK home, but also –via his many, many books on biology, anatomy and related areas, in addition to his research, editorial work and public engagement with science– to much of the life sciences worldwide.

What does a kneecap (patella) do? Alexander and Dimery 1985, they knew. My team is still trying to figure that out!

What does a kneecap (patella) do? Alexander and Dimery 1985, they knew. 30 years later, my team is still trying to figure that out!

Sure, one could (and with great humility I’m sure Alexander would) mention others like Galileo and Marey and Muybridge and Fenn and Gray and Manter who came before him and did have a profound impact on the field. Alexander can, regardless, easily be mentioned in the same breath as luminaries of muscle physiology such as AV Hill and even Andrew + Julian Huxley. But I think many would agree that Alexander, despite coming later to the field, had a singular impact on this young field of comparative biomechanics. That impact began in the 1970s, when Dick Taylor and colleagues in comparative physiology were also exploding onto the scene with work at the Concord Field Station at Harvard University, and together biomechanics research there, in the UK, elsewhere in Europe and the world truly hit its stride, with momentum continuing today. I’m trying to think of some women who played a major role in the early history of biomechanics but it was characteristically a woefully male-dominated field. That balance has shifted from the 1970s to today, and my generation would cite luminaries such as Mimi Koehl as key influences. There are many female or non-white-male biomechanics researchers today that are stars in the field, so there seems to have been progress in diversifying this discipline’s population.

Hence, honouring Alexander’s impact on science, today our college gave Neill an honorary doctorate of science (DSc). Last year, I also helped organize a symposium at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology’s conference in Berlin that honoured his impact specifically on palaeontology, too- compare his book “The Dynamics of Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Giants” to current work and you’ll see what fuelled much of that ongoing work, and how far/not far we’ve come since ~1989. Even 10 years later, his “Principles of Animal Locomotion“, with Biewener’s “Animal Locomotion“, remains one of the best books about our field (locomotion-wise; Vogel’s Comparative Biomechanics more broadly) , and his educational CD “How Animals Move“, if you can get it and make it work on your computer, is uniquely wonderful, with games and videos and tutorials that still would hold up well as compelling introductions to animal biomechanics. Indeed, I’ve counted at least 20 books penned by Alexander, including “Bones: The Unity of Form and Function” (under-appreciated, with gorgeous photos of skeletal morphology!).

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

And then there are the papers. I have no idea how many papers Neill has written –again and again I come across papers of his that I’ve never seen before. I tried to find out from the Leeds website how many papers he has, but they’re equally dumbfounded. I did manage to count 38 publications in Nature, starting in 1963 with “Frontal Foramina and Tripodes of the Characin Crenuchus,” and 6 in Science. So I think we can be safe in assuming that he has written everything that could be written in biomechanics, and we’re just playing catchup to his unique genius.

Seriously though, Alexander has some awesome publications stemming back over 50 years. I’m a big fan of his early work on land animals, such as with Calow in 1973 on “A mechanical analysis of a hind leg of a frog” and his paper “The mechanics of jumping by a dog” in 1974, which did groundbreaking integrations of quantitative anatomy and biomechanics. These papers kickstarted what today is the study of muscle architecture, which our lab (including my team) has published extensively on, for example. They also pioneered the integration of these anatomical data with simple theoretical models of locomotor mechanics, likewise enabling many researchers like me to ride on Alexander’s coattails. Indeed, while biomechanics often tends to veer into the abstract “assume a spherical horse”, away from anatomy and real organisms, Alexander managed to keep a focus on how anatomy and behaviour are related in whole animals, via biomechanics. As an anatomist as well as a biomechanist, I applaud that.

How do muscles work around joints? Alexander and Dimery 1985 figured out some of the key principles.

How do muscles work around joints? Alexander and Dimery 1985 figured out some of the key principles.

Alexander has researched areas as diverse as how fish swim, how dinosaurs ran, how elastic mechanisms make animal movement more efficient, how to model the form and function of animals (see his book “Optima for Animals” for optimization approaches he disseminated, typifying his elegant style of making complex maths seem simple and simple maths impressively powerful) and how animals walk and run, often as sole author. In these and other areas he has codified fundamental principles that help us understand how much in common many species have due to inescapable biomechanical constraints such as gravity, and how these principles can inspire robotic design or improvements in human/animal care such as prosthetics. Neill has also been a passionate science communicator, advising numerous documentaries on television.

~1990s Alexander, with model dinosaurs used to estimate mass and centre of mass.

~1990s Alexander, with model dinosaurs used to estimate mass and centre of mass.

Alexander’s “Dynamics of Dinosaurs” book, one of my favourites in my whole collection, is remarkably accessible in its communication of complex quantitative methods and data, which arguably has enhanced its impact on palaeontologists. Alexander’s other influences on palaeobiology include highly regarded reviews of jaw/feeding mechanics in fossil vertebrates (influencing the future application of finite element analysis to palaeontology), considerations of digestion and other aspects of metabolism, analysis of vertebral joint mechanics, and much more.  Additionally, he conducted pioneering analyses of allometric (size-related) scaling patterns in extant (and extinct; e.g. the moa) animals that continue to be cited today as valuable datasets with influential conclusions, by a wide array of studies including palaeontology—arguably, he helped compel palaeontologists to contribute more new data on extant animals via studies like these.

Neill Alexander did his MSc and PhD at Cambridge, followed by a DSc at the University of Wales, a Lecturer post at Bangor University and finally settling at the University of Leeds in 1969, where he remained until his retirement in 1999, although he maintains a Visiting Professorship there. I had the great pleasure of visiting him at his home in Leeds in 2014; a memory I will treasure forever, as I had the chance to chat 1-on-1 with him for some hours. He has been Secretary of the Zoological Society of London throughout most of the 1990s, President of the Society for Experimental Biology and International Society of Vertebrate Morphologists, long championing the fertile association of biomechanics with zoology, evolutionary biology and anatomy. More recently, he was a main editor of Proceedings of the Royal Society B for six years.

Many people I’ve spoken to about Neill before have stories of how he asked a single simple question at their talk, poster or peer review stage of publication, and how much that excited them to have attracted his sincere interest in their research. They tend to also speak of how that question cut to the core of their research and gave them a facepalm moment where they thought “why didn’t I think of that?”, but how he also asked that question in a nice way that didn’t disembowel them. I think that those recalling such experiences with Neill would agree that he is a professorial Professor: a model of senior mentorship in terms of how he can advise colleagues in a supportive, constructive and warmly authoritative, scholarly way. For a fairly recent example of his uniquely introspective and concise, see the little treasure “Hopes and Fears for Biomechanics”, a ~2005 lecture you can find here. I really like the “Fears” part. I share those fears- and maybe embody them at times…

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

Perhaps I have gushed enough, but I could go on! Professor RMcNeill Alexander, to summarise the prodigious extent of his research, is to biomechanics as Darwin is to biology as a whole. One could make a strong case for him being one of the most influential modern biologists. He is recognised for this by his status as a Fellow of the Royal Society (since 1987), and a CBE award, among many other accolades, accreditations and awards. And, if you’ve met him, you know that he is a gentle, humble, naturally curious and enthusiastic chap who instils a feeling of awe nonetheless, and still loves to talk about science and keeps abreast of developments in the field. And as the RVC is honouring Neill today, it is timely for me to honour him in this blog post. There can never be another giant in biomechanics like Alexander, and we should be thankful for the broad scientific shoulders upon which we are now, as a field, poised.

I hope others will chime in with comments below to share their own stories.

 

 

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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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