Posts Tagged ‘in all seriousness’

Today the official news came out that represents a highlight of my scientific career. After seven years of intense internal and external review and scrutiny, I’ve been elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society (of the United Kingdom) (“‘FRS” title), the oldest scientific society in the world; since 1660 C.E. “For British scientists, a fellowship to the Royal Society is the equivalent of a lifetime achievement Oscar.” It has included eminent scientists from Newton and Darwin to Boyle, Faraday, Einstein, Turing, Hodgkin, Peter and Rosemary Grant, Tickle, and personal scientific hero Alexander. And… Elon Musk. The Royal Society’s broad announcement is here, and the RVC’s press release about me [pending] is here.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10; no anatomy, or even images, here.

I got the initial e-mail message (then a formal letter) from the Council back on 22 March 2023, and when I opened it I screamed repeatedly in joy and surprise, for about an hour. I barely could breathe. I could not believe it, even though this process had been going on for so long. I’d trained myself not to expect it, as I knew it was incredibly selective. It was a spectacular feeling that I’ll treasure forever. And it came at a very dark time, when I was full of doubts about myself and my future, with old feelings of ‘imposter syndrome’ resurfacing against a backdrop of terrible health problems plaguing me more intensely for about 2 years. It has tremendously uplifted my mood. It has been weird to hold back any sharing of the news for almost 2 months.

I’ve openly written here at great length about my troubles with becoming disabled, and then my strategies for managing a complex team, handling the issue of blame, how I enjoy and reflect on success while remaining vulnerable, a typical day in my working life, condemnation of game-playing in paper co-authorship, and more such introspection. This post is a positive one that focusses on what I am grateful for (mainly, who I am grateful to) that has enabled me to get to this point, where I have the privilege of an award that means a lot to me.

First and foremost, the most important thing is that I thank my family. Most immediately, I would never have had this privileged position without the constant, loving support of my wife before and during raising our daughter (who gave me new delights of fatherhood). We’ve shared some great times. I learned a lot about life and myself. I wasn’t alone; I had someone wonderful to trust and confide in. I can’t put into words how much this helped me, day after day through over 25 years now. And I can’t mention this without mentioning the terrible burden we experienced when my epilepsy struck in 2014, and since then. There were depths of despair that my wife helped me through. I’ve never spoken or written about this particular thing before, but around 2016, when I was having a terrible time getting the right drug to stave off my clonic-tonic “grand mal” seizures, one drug gave me side effects amplifying thoughts and urges to commit suicide to escape the suffering. It was an indescribably scary feeling, and fortunately we switched drugs and now seem to have found a combination that at least temporarily is working for me. That’s but one example. I share it also because suicide is a huge issue that impacts so many others, and I hope my example might be a light of hope, however small it might be. More generally, I have needed a lot of help from my wife, and I got it. Thank you, so much.

My parents gave me a middle-class upbringing that was quick to praise intellectual ability and academic success; my sisters and I all flourished in different ways. I benefitted from excellent resources and experiences with the natural world, from reading library books to visiting museums and exploring the great outdoors near home and during travels; often to my grandparents’ homes in Ohio and Florida, with different nature to investigate. I received a solid education and went to a good university where my intellectual life flowered. I didn’t always excel, and sometimes truly disappointed (cough that ‘D’ in one semester of chemistry, cough), but that was on me. I had fun, too. Too much fun.

Second, I had influential academic mentors. In undergraduate education and research at the University of Wisconsin, from Wendell Burkholder in agricultural entomology, to my own dad’s lab (as a Professor in microbial genetics, to Dianna Padilla’s lab in molluscan marine ecology, to Dana Geary’s and Klaus Westphal’s expertise in (again, mainly invertebrate) palaeontology; and all of their teams. Grad school at the University of California in Berkeley (Integrative Biology department) was marvelous. It transformed the life of my mind and my career. My supervisory committee Kevin Padian, Rodger Kram, Bob Full and Tony Keaveny (and other faculty such as Marvalee Wake, David Lindberg and Bill Clemens) gave me so, so much support and constructive criticism. I struggled for 3 of my 6 PhD years and they got me to my feet. Finally then, I realised what my career trajectory and goals were; I wanted to weave together evolutionary biology/palaeontology (with a morphological foundation) and biomechanics more strongly into the emerging discipline of evolutionary biomechanics. That epiphany has guided my whole career and identity as a scientist. It was a challenging journey but my mentors got me through it, and I had great external role models/mentors; Steve Gatesy at Brown University most prominently amongst them. Next, I was massively fortunate to get an NSF Bioinformatics postdoc to learn more biomechanics and cutting-edge biomedical engineering methods (musculoskeletal modelling and simulation) with Scott Delp at Stanford. This opened up the academic path that I’d dreamed of, giving me the vital technical foundation that I still use today. All of the teams of these people, and fellow graduate students/postdocs, were a fantastic peer group, even more role models, and educators for me.

Third, I’ve had an enormous panoply of collaborators in my own team and externally. I’ve had the opportunity to mentor and work with about 24 postdocs/fellows, 12 technicians and an administrator, 14 Masters students, 12 main and 26 co-supervised PhD students, and lots of undergraduate research projects. I tried to do good for them, too, but I had my share of failures, mistakes and mis-judgements. There has never been a one-way flow of benefits from me to them. I have always prospered from these experiences, crucially by learning new things (e.g., skills; knowledge; understanding of interpersonal relationships) from this interdisciplinary group. I’ve not just benefitted from publishing papers with them, although I love doing that. The same goes for the countless collaborators I’ve had outside of my team. I don’t know how to begin acknowledging all of these wonderful people, but my publications and grants are concrete evidence of their help.

Finally, the RVC has had my back for almost 20 years now. They believed in me enough to give me a job straight out of my first, 2-year postdoc. The aid I got goes from our amazing Structure & Motion Lab (led by Alan Wilson, FRS), which welcomed me into the ‘ground floor’ to help begin building it in 2003 and raising it to global prominence in our fields, to other faculty that became friends and inspirations, to upper management that created a near-perfect environment for me. I always was told to just do good work, in whatever form. They set me free to decide what was best and to just do it, and they gave me (and the rest of us in the SMLab) tremendous, world-class resources (space, funding, infrastructure and more) enabling it. I’d never have had the success I had in getting grant funding without all of this. And I know this kind of situation is a rare privilege. I can’t say I suffered from any biases or other major obstacles that held me back. It was all up to me in the end, to take advantage of what was available. “Onward and upward” was the saying I heard, and what happened.

There’s much more to thank, such as the friends and colleagues, the helpers I never may have fully been aware of, the medical care I got since I first became chronically ill in the mid-1990s (and via NHS since then), and then there’s money, and other concrete support that came from family. I lost my parents in early 2011. They passed on an inheritance that has helped us to prevent lean times. I’m not a financial whiz, and without this money the stress would have been so much harder to bear. Man, do I ever wish my parents were here today. My sisters took care of my parents during their illnesses, and I was in the UK unable to really help. That made a big difference.

But I can’t end without thanking who first nominated me for this Fellowship. I feel very emotional about this. It dredges up profound feelings and memories of good and bad times. Jenny Clack, FRS, came to the RVC to give a college seminar sometime around 2015(?), during our second NERC grant on early tetrapod locomotion. That was another collaboration that gave my career a big boost, and I’ve had a lot of fun with it. I drove Jenny back home after the seminar, and she was in contemplation at one point, carefully asking me something like “What do you think your effect on the field has been?” I came up with an OK answer; I think she might have been satisfied. Not long thereafter, she nominated me for the Fellowship. I didn’t understand the process, but gradually learned and got some guidance through the years. But Jenny died from cancer in 2020, just as the Covid-19 pandemic was about to truly kick off. This occurred during a year that was awful beyond my capacity to express, in innumerable ways; breaking my heart, my mind and my body; from which I’ve not recovered. Losing her deeply wounded me. She was a great friend and mentor. I have enormous respect for her, and I miss her. I wouldn’t have received this award now without her faith in me. Mike Benton kept the ball rolling with the nomination process after she passed, and I thank him too. Whoever else; Fellows or external reviewers; that gave me the thumbs-up during this process, wow, thank you too.

No one pulls themselves up by their bootstraps or is self-made. That’s a stupid myth that serves the privileged.

Now it’s all up to me. I see this moment in my career as a challenge to me. What do I do with this new privilege? Yes, it’s a highlight of my CV and all that, and I can bask in this honour for a while. I will enjoy that. It will be really fun to see what it is like being a Fellow and rubbing elbows with the others in this august academy. Quite a few Fellows have been disabled people, which is a meaningful fact to me, and for which I wrote about in a Fellow nomination section “As a disabled person, Hutchinson has made himself visible to the community as a potential role model and inspiration (see CV), and a major new goal of his career is to maximize the societal benefits from this opportunity.” I’ve thrown down the gauntlet to myself on that. This blog has been a place I’ve done that since 2012; it taught me to do so. Before then, my health troubles had been a more private issue. I’m still thankful that I am, as I’ve mused here before, “not dead yet“. If anyone is seeking to talk with a disabled scientist, either on a smaller scale or publicly, please reach out to me.

What comes next will be exciting new pages for my career and life, and I look forward to that. Blogs haven’t been the same since 2016, but I’ll keep using this one to document my journey, as I like it. Thank you again to the people above, and the many deserving folks that I have not explicitly thanked. This blog has given me the chance to share the joy and pain of life as a scientist, and I am pleased to share this one. I’ll keep sharing.

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Stomach-Churning Rating: 5/10; links show some of my health problems, and discuss them in not-always-so-uplifting detail.

I’ve spent almost 10 years now blogging about my health problems, and it has been nearly 20 years since I had a stroke that changed my life and kickstarted a slow landslide of health issues and declining mental capacity. I have fully integrated being a disabled person into my personal identity. There’s hardly a day that goes by in which I don’t think about how I am struggling with my chronic health problems, and the lack of control involved in them. On the brighter side, I’ve taken up the challenge to wave the flag for this identity. I want to do more; to help others, maybe as a role model or beacon of hope or inspiration (you can move on after disaster, while learning from it), and to show that we’re not all alone even though our problems are unique. I am looking for new ways to reach out to the world and do more good with the badness I’ve endured. I’ve done recent interviews and invited talks on disability and science careers/life, which have been a good start. And another intent is to use this summary to direct others to hear my story, more efficiently disseminating it.

I’ve also thought a lot about what it means to be invisibly disabled and thus minoritised, and as a senior white male of no small privilege. How do those two things balance in determining where I fit into the multidimensional space of equality, diversity, equity and inclusiveness? I haven’t had an epiphany to provide an answer, but things certainly have changed for me. The John of 10 years ago is very different from the one of today. Being visible about being invisible helps me, and can benefit others.

This post is an ongoing summary of my experiences, and a retrospective (in chronological order):

What’s In John’s Brain?– 16 December, 2012: The post that started it all, on the 10th anniversary “Not Dead Yet Day” of my stroke.

The Anatomy of One Career in Science– 26 May, 2014: On success, while dealing with health problems. Little did I know…

Shouldering the Burden of Uncertainty– 9 November, 2014: I feel that this is my finest moment in blogging and being up-front with my problems. And vulnerable. It was a very, very hard time in my life that changed everything. But I am proud that I wrote this. Marvel MCU, I am still available.

Life as a Diminishing Scientist– 22 April, 2016: In which I discuss my acceptance that I am disabled, and what that means for my life.

Epilepsy Epilogue– 1 June, 2016: What it’s like “getting used to” epilepsy.

Year 9.5 of John’s Freezer: Postmortem of a Year That Warped Time– 5 October, 2021: Trapped in my own frail body while trapped at home during the pandemic. It broke me.

Year 10.5 of John’s Freezer: WTF?– 20 August, 2022: Resurgence of health problems during the continued challenges of the pandemic. Another very hard year. But not all bad.

There will be more writings to come! Hopefully with a turn for the better.

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2021-2022: “over and over again & again” sums it up. I do love this band I “discovered” in 2021 though. Finding new music has been a joy for me through these tough recent years.

The pandemic goes on; my life goes on; but it has been another rough 1+ years. I have hardly done any hands-on anatomy as I’m hardly on campus at all, and my team’s work has mostly shifted into digital modelling for now (more about that below; it is not a bad thing though). My main news for 2021-2022 falls into the categories of Life Stuff, and Work Stuff to summarise here. “WTF” sums it up as it has been a… strange time; very challenging at a personal level, due to the Life Stuff.

Stomach-Churning Rating: stuff is weird, but nothing truly stomach-churning is here

Life Stuff: It’s been about the same as 2020-2021; summarised here. Thankfully, no major grief from losing people/pets close to me, this time. But my heath has been really awful instead — my epilepsy returned in May 2021, much to our surprise, after 2 years of remission. I suspect dehydration was a cause, as I later found out that I’d been chronically dehydrated, which came as a shock. I’ve since learned to step up my hydration routine, and I feel better. Right now I’m >5 months seizure-free, after a very hard time of monthly seizures for ~5 months in a row, including a scary one after a flight from Phoenix-London, in which I woke up in a toilet stall at Heathrow baggage claim, very disoriented and alone, eerily with no one in that large men’s loo area. My taxi driver was wondering why I was so late… I am glad I didn’t fall and hurt myself with no one around. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen again. But on top of that, I’ve been fighting a longstanding chronic illness (details are not necessary) at the same time, and that got very bad in April 2022, sending me to hospital with severe internal infection; very life-threatening, painful and frightening. Again, right now I feel that I’m in recovery, and grateful for some good (overall) care from the NHS. Owing to these health problems though, plus the pandemic and financial challenges, I’ve not been travelling and don’t foresee much of that for my near future. Which also means not enough real holiday; “staycations” in my house just aren’t enough, as I’ve been here for ~2.5 years. I’m starting to do more fun things, finally, again, and that led to this blog post (first one in almost one year). I feel I have some energy to do things that I enjoy again.

Walking tinamou bird XROMM animation

Work Stuff: Mostly that has been pretty good, with a caveat. The DAWNDINOS project still dominated my work life, much to my pleasure. Indeed, just this week I tied the final ribbon on that, formally, with submission of my final grant report to the EU/ERC. The grant ended on March 31, 2022 and I was VERY, VERY sad to have to bid farewell to my team, who I hugely enjoyed working with for those 5.5 years. Now comes the caveat to “work is good”, which is that suddenly I have no funding (feast-to-famine) and “just” one PhD student (Vittorio LaBarbera; reinforcement learning simulations of locomotion); MRes student Georgia Wells just finished; and a Research Fellow (Dr. Masaya Iijima). It looks like I’ll be doing more undergrad research projects than postgrad for awhile, but we’ll see. The grant funding lottery can be hard to predict. Regardless, there’s a lot of fun science going on! With DAWNDINOS, since last summary we’ve cranked out a bunch of cool papers on archosaur locomotor biomechanics — find them here. #25-31 are the newer ones I haven’t blogged about anywhere yet; #25, 28 and 30 are blogged about by Dr. Ashleigh Wiseman here; and #30 (which is, in part, a summary of DAWNDINOS to date) got SICB conference coverage here.

Muscle-bound Euparkeria hindlimbs from our DAWNDINOS paper #28; picture by Oliver Demuth.

DAWNDINOS paper #26 with DAWNDINOS postdoc Dr. Delyle Polet was a serendipitous one inspired by him giving a seminar to our lab when he first came to the UK, and it struck me that his method for using biomechanical simulations with the “Murphy number” (related to pitch moment of inertia; MOI) to test how animals move would work really well with a long-bodied, hefty Triassic pseudosuchian (= large pitch MOI) such as Batrachotomus, whose results we could compare with known fossil trackways of similar archosaurs (e.g., Isocheirotherium). We found evidence for it using at least two running gaits, which was pretty surprising.

Walking/running Batrachotomus 2D simulation, matching tracks (blue+red).

And just this week we published another “spin-off” paper (also see van Beesel primate shoulder-modelling studies #17,#29) adapting our 3D digital modelling methods to another taxon. This one came out of left field for me (I’d never expected I’d work on sharks!) but actually fits very well with my research interests in giant animals, biomechanics and palaeontology. We reconstructed the giant shark Otodus megalodon from the best fossils available (including a Belgian vertebral column somewhat neglected since the 1860s), finding that it was ~16m long and >60,000 kg; but this is not the largest it could get, as a vertebra ~50% larger is known! This paper got a LOT of nice press attention, and the video below is perhaps the best science communication release I’ve been involved with (all kudos go to Catalina Pimiento and the animation team she commissioned). Very importantly, the key data are free to use.

Explanatory video by @cookedillustra, Ian Cooke-Tapia

LATE ADDITIONS: But it wasn’t all #DAWNDINOS-related research! I was very pleased to have Dr. Chris Basu’s PhD work with me on giraffid locomotor biomechanics published in PNAS. We showed, with experiments and computer simulations, that Giraffa has unusually low overall leverage (“effective mechanical advantage”; EMA) for its forelimbs during walking (and presumably all gaits/speeds); and even its cousin Okapia does, to a degree; and the extinct giant giraffid Sivatherium too. This is because of its long limbs, which one might look at and call it “cursorial adaptation” but our analysis reveals the tradeoffs of that; as limb length goes up, EMA goes down, and that negatively impacts athletic abilities. All the more reason to be wary of simplistic length-speed conclusions from extinct animals (calling T. rex!). This, with the similar paper on elephant EMA we published in 2010, is one of my papers I’m proudest of; even though neither (curiously) got much (if any) media/other attention. So it goes.

Above: OpenSim simulation of left forelimb of Giraffa during walking; in ~real-time, representing one ground-contact (stance) phase. Green arrow = ground-reaction force (GRF); red lines = major muscle lines of actions (the simulation activated/deactivated them, producing forces to counter the GRF). EMA is the ratio of the muscles’ leverage vs. GRF leverage around joints; it is ~0.3 in a giraffe vs. ~1.0 in a horse. EMA tends to be larger in larger mammals, up to horse-sized, then it gets weird in really big animals.

We also scienced the hell out of salamanders. Four papers, all involving Fire salamanders Salamandra salamandra! Three stemmed from my past PhD student Eva Herbst’s work: one explaining a new method to measure joint mobility; another applying that to walking salamanders in vivo and ex vivo; and the third comparing similar data to the Permian ‘giant’ salamander-relative Eryops, showing that its hip and knee joints were about as mobile as a Fire salamander’s. The fourth paper used video analyses of Fire salamanders in a theoretical model and simulation (with other animals) to demonstrate how multi-legged locomotion is controlled. It’s great to have these studies (partly from my old NERC grant on tetrapod locomotor evolution) out after ?5+ years; now Fire salamanders are among the salamanders whose locomotion we understand best. And we have more data still…

Above: Hindlimb configurations in S. salamandra (A) from rotoscoping of in vivo walking, during (B) mid-swing, (C) toe-on,(D) mid-stance, and (E) just before toe-off. These limb configurations were recreated in E. megacephalus (F) with three different knee spacing options: (G–J) tight knee spacing; (K–N) intermediate knee spacing; and (O–R) larger knee spacing, based on the amount of knee spacing present in the rotoscoped salamander at the null pose. S. salamandra configurations in (B–E) were scaled to E. megacephalus knee B.

Oh and I did some science consulting! “Prehistoric Planet” rocked the casbah; glad to see it out ~3 years after I began offering some critiques on the animations. I hope one scene I commented on eventually sees the light of day, as it wasn’t in the final programme. Similarly, “Dinosaurs: The Final Day” did well, and I gave the same kind of input. My experiences with these shows have inspired me to blog someday about how to become, and do, science consulting for documentaries, so watch for that. I may work in some commentary on what it means to be an invisible minority in that context, as I have thoughts.

Blink and you’ll miss me waving my arms about how Carnotaurus might have waved its arms!

There’s a lot of fun science to come, and that keeps me going. We’ve finished initial biomechanical models of 13 extinct archosaurs for DAWNDINOS, and those will become papers on modelling and simulating locomotor function, ultimately testing how performance differed between Pseudosuchia and Dinosauriformes/Dinosauria; and how locomotion evolved (e.g., bipedalism). Some examples in progress are below; these don’t show the muscles or external dimensions reconstructed. Stay tuned in 2022 and beyond for all that! Beyond this, time will tell what I’ll be doing, but DAWNDINOS is going to keep me very busy for plenty of years, and that is good fun for me.

Top image: top to bottom = Postosuchus (pseudosuchian), Heterodontosaurus (ornithischian dinosaur), Riojasuchus (pseudosuchian), Silesaurus (dinosauriform); Bottom image: Gracilisuchus (pseudosuchian), Lago/Marasuchus (dinosauriform), Coelophysis (theropod dinosaur). These are from ongoing studies with DAWNDINOS team members and collaborators around the world. All use 3D scans of the actual fossil material of one main specimen, wherever possible.

See you in 2023!?

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I’ve been reluctant to write this post as it meant confronting dark times that I continue to be immersed in with the rest of the world. When I last wrote an “annual” summary, it was exactly when I was leaving my office for “just a few weeks or months” of remote working away from the COVID-19 pandemic. Cue ironic laughter.

Stomach-Churning Rating: unclassifiable due to COVID-19 insanity

In terms of my normal blog-summarizing activities, my job here is easy: in >18 months I’ve managed 3 posts: 1 by a guest, on stylophoran echinoderms; and 2 about papers (dino leg muscle leverage; and predictive simulations using such) related to the DAWNDINOS project my team has been focusing on for 5 years now. But normal is dead and gone.

What I should write about is what the experience since March 2020 has been like for me. I can try, briefly. Much I am not willing to delve into publicly. I struggled, and suffered; not so directly but indirectly, and from personal issues unrelated to the pandemic, too. I didn’t deal well with the isolation, the boredom and profound ennui, the mass confusion, the under-exercise and over-snacking, the repetition, the anxiety, the uncertainty, the excessive screen time (Netflix! Zoom!), the retooling of teaching for “blended learning” online, the sometimes overly risk-averse bureaucracy that spiralled out of control, the horrifically ugly selfish underbelly of society laid so bare along with smirking racism and other forms of xenophobia (see: Brexit), the endless bad news, the fury I felt at government officials and other (cov)idiots, the feeling of being trapped in my home office and my body; and trapped in a world with political/social machinery that can feel hopelessly broken. I thrive off the novelty and excitement of travel, and without it I withered. These things wore me down to a numb husk and I’m not much better, but am trying to build my energy back so I can pick some battles to make improvements. On top of that, there were tragedies in my life (deaths of two beloved cats; one fairly swiftly from cancer at a young age, one very slowly from old age and related disease), and other awful personal things. I didn’t lose anyone close to me to COVID-19, but I knew lots of people who got infected. Especially in summer 2020 and winter 2020-21, it felt like the punches just kept coming. There’s no way I can describe it all adequately; neither in person nor on this blog. It seems like a lot of people feel that way, but each in our own private way.

I lost a friend in 2020: Prof. Jenny Clack FRS. I’ve not been able to really come to grips with that, even though there was fair warning. Processing grief is on a slow timetable. We had some great times ~2009-2020 working on fossil tetrapods together. I miss her big smiles and our talks about the latest fossil tetrapod news whenever I visited Cambridge. It is hard for me to write more than that right now; I am so drained by the past >18 months. We’ve been served a buffet of flavours of loss to lament.

from this obituary in Nature

There’s hope on the horizon, I think, so I cling to that. And we got two new kittens at home, who are simply a joy, and we’ve been clinging to each other. Many cuddles.

It feels very strange, and privileged, to say that work (even though stuck at home) has been a happier thing for me amidst it all. Even that hasn’t been easy, but it has sometimes been a welcome refuge or distraction. I’ve been able to do some real “hands-on” (computer-based) research for long periods, gained skills, and it felt great to be a “real scientist”; not just a manager of scientists; in that regard. I learned a lot about my team’s DAWNDINOS project… and how I’d do it all so differently if I could begin again. At least I have these lessons going forwards. A 5-year, sole-PI, £2.1M project will teach you much about project management. It was so far beyond anything I’d ever tried before. I’m proud of what we’ve achieved now, such as the paper linked above and what’s coming up as the project sadly draws to a close at the end of March 2022. I feel like we’ll be justified to thumb our noses at a few armchair critics, snide naysayers, and cynics, or at least feel personally satisfied even though we’ll never satisfy everyone with our project’s outcomes vs. what certainly were ambitious goals and risks. And I have plans to move on while keeping one foot firmly planted on the foundation we’ve built…

Other than that, I’ve barely touched a work-related freezer since March 2020 and have done no research-related dissections; only digital form and function for me, I’m afraid. That’s OK though. We are slowly migrating back to a bit of in-person working now, and there are some brief dissections and other hands-on work needed as undergrad/Masters research projects begin. I look forward to that.

I was interviewed for two articles about life in science that are meaningful to me: this one on disability pride month, and this one on “advice to my younger self“. Check them out if you haven’t yet?

And that’s all I can say for >18 months in which time has been such a slow grind, warped by the pandemic and the rest of my world.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I had the privilege and pleasure of serving for the past 2 years as Chair of the Division of Vertebrate Morphology at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology, and that service just ended. So I had the showerthought to briefly post about the broader messages from that experience, with the hope that other scientists might benefit. But first, a little backstory.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10

I’d only done some minor service before this, in scientific societies. At the time I ran for Chair-Elect 5 years ago, I felt it was time to try something new; to give back to science, as one should do. And so I did. It was a challenging and thus rewarding experience of learning the ropes- the Chair position is fairly open-ended to allow one to contribute what new things and leadership one envisions and can manage. In a short 2 years I felt I gained just enough momentum that I could have run the role more smoothly if I’d had a 3rd year, but that’s hindsight. The details don’t matter here but they lead to the messages of this post.

wink-wink musical interlude 1

First, the simple message that service, like the Holy Ghost, is the oft-forgotten third component of the trinity of professional science/academia; teaching and research being the other two (and science communication, to me, bridging all of these). As one moves along in one’s career, service tends to become increasingly expected—and the wisdom accumulated aids its conduct.

Second, service should be done because:

  • It’s the right thing to do
  • You learn things about your professional society, discipline, colleagues, leadership and self (skills and limits)
  • It’s not necessarily just boring bureaucracy (more about that below)
  • It will aid your career (CV, promotion, connections, future service, etc.) and you can aid others along the way

I think a common misconception is that service is boring. Yes, hearing the minutes of prior meetings read to you, or a long screed about minutia of health-and-safety, can be boring at times. But pay attention and find things that interest you and new vistas can open. This depends on the position one serves in and how it fits you. In my case, I found it a fun challenge to run meetings (i.e. try to follow the standard protocol of devising an agenda, checking minutes, etc.; standard bureaucracy) – especially the key activity of raising and voting on issues to consider taking the division in new directions. That allowed some creativity and made for energetic discussions on issues that mattered.

Another contrast to “boring” is resolving crises that arise (in my case, quite a few arose that felt serious to me). Yes, they’re stressful, but they also teach you things about how to handle crises, and you learn about your own ability to do so; and how others interface with that dynamic process. As I tend to emphasize on this blog, doing science is HUGELY about human interactions and foibles, and in service, as everywhere, such things are especially prominent and complex.

wink-wink musical interlude 2

Service comes in many forms. Students and postdocs can and should take part—many societies such as SICB tend to allow or encourage early career researcher participation. At a minimum, scientists should vote on elections (participation tends to be low among student/postdoc members) and attend their societies’ business or other meetings to see how the machine of a professional society works inside. It may even learn to serendipitous outcomes! And lessons learned will serve you well in many forms of future career.

One can do many other forms of service. Minimally in research, one is expected to participate in peer review; and that experience can lead to editor roles at journals, which I’ve found very interesting. Certainly in academic and other departments, there are numerous committee and other roles analogous to those in professional societies that are opportunities to serve.

I’ve surely left out other important lessons learned from serving. I’m still processing my experiences, reflecting and thinking forward. Now I’ve moved on to new service at SICB as Chair of the Student-Postdoc Affairs Committee, so there’s lots more for me to learn and share in that role.

What have you learned from serving? Do you have questions about service in science? Please chime in below.

More links of interest:

DVM-DCB Twitter feed

DVM Facebook page (members+affiliates)

SPDAC Facebook page (anyone!)

SPDAC Twitter feed

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

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

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

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

Nectar of the gods!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1800-2100 Quality non-work time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I blame the 80s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’ve been through a lot together.

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A personal story here for Darwin Day 2018. I knew about as much about Charles Robert Darwin as any typical science-interested student when I was growing up. But eventually I had the good fortune of taking a history of science class at the University of Wisconsin as an undergrad, and it inspired me with the story of Darwin as a human being, not just some clever scientist with a long argument that changed the world.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 unless you have Darwin’s gut-wrenching problems.

I devoured Desmond & Moore’s amazing biography of Darwin “the tormented evolutionist”, which was the transformative event for me. At the time I was experiencing the beginnings of some health problems that didn’t seem that far from problems Darwin suffered for much of his life, and then, as I read more about his life, I saw more features of this man that brought him vividly to life. I still think about those traits and how some parallel my life in certain ways (not that I am in any way a giant of science like him!!). And so this blog post was born, thusly:

I’m writing this post early on Darwin Day and entirely from memory, rather than doing my usual research into the post while I go; to keep the post more personal and less academic (e.g. just quick Wikipedia links below). I feel connected to Darwin’s life experience because, like him, I wandered about as a student, unsure about my direction in life and causing my parents some consternation early on. He tried medical school (Edinburgh; too bloody) and theology (Cambridge; faith just was not his thing) but found hunting for beetles on the heaths more exciting. In high school I played with ideas such as Hollywood screen-writing (too risky), radio DJ (I had no skills) and truant or criminal (I hung out with some shady characters even though I still had some morals; despite transgressions and convictions).

I then took a standardized “what is your best career fit?” test in biology class which conclusively told me that biology was best for me as a career; and that rang true. I’d always loved nature and so that was the idea I had when I went to undergrad. I signed up for the wrong college (Agriculture & Life Sciences, not Letters & Science; confusing divisions!) at the UW. I got some early research experience in that first college: I tried my hand at raising colonies of Indian mealmoths (Plodia interpunctella; I can still identify them!) and their parasitoid wasps. At that same agricultural lab I got to do my own experiments in a basement wind tunnel over my summer holiday, in which I released those pesky moths to fly down the tunnel toward various kinds of pheromone-based lures, finding that one kind seemed to work best. But I didn’t like that and frankly found agricultural science boring, for me. We didn’t connect, nor did some other lab experiences I had. But I grew from them and still value them (and respect the science and people involved) very much.

I took Evolution and also Functional Morphology courses, didn’t do great (I was young for the classes), and then finally took that history class—boom! Aha, scientists can be human! Not just hypothesis-robots! Darwin was a man of great privilege, having his estate and wealth handed down from his funky grandpa Erasmus and stern father Robert. But, in addition to his meanderings that eventually forced him (via his father’s impatient urgings) to become the Beagle’s naturalist for a five year voyage, he suffered in quite human ways throughout much of his life. The greater trials commenced during that voyage, with still-mysterious health problems and the fractious relationship with eccentric Captain Fitzroy. They continued with his marriage to cousin Emma Wedgwood (yes, of that pottery-famed lineage) in which they lost four of ten children at young ages (most critically, beloved Annie at 10 years old) and in which they struggled with Darwin’s diminishing faith and Emma’s stalwart beliefs.

Finally, Darwin struggled famously with his “big book” for >20 years, afraid of its impact and its reception, and of its need to have a watertight, evidence-based argument from many perspectives, with his hand forced by Alfred Russel Wallace’s converging ideas. Along the way, with his health and family problems, he had to contend with his mentors’ and peers’ reactions to his ideas—although one could call the acceptance of much of his main arguments to be a “happy ending” (the post-mortem eclipse of Darwinism, and its eventual resurrection + syntheses, aside). These trials that Darwin faced as a human are all relatable, and the more one learns about him the more complex, flawed, emotional and yes, tormented he becomes. He can be both a hero and a tragic figure or a cautionary tale.

When I get the chance, I like to teach students about this human side of Darwin. It is a way into the heart of the science, to show a person’s journey along with the wonder of discovery, and how such a journey is not necessarily a simple or even joyful one. I can feel the many facets of Darwin in my own life—the intensely curious, peripatetic, enthusiastic young man who loved experiencing nature in all its raw forms, the chronically suffering disabled person who sometimes could not enjoy the work or other aspects of life that he treasured, the family man who loved time at home, the explorer who treasured roaming the local heath or far-flung foreign terrain, the meticulous scientist who exhaustively gathered tiny bits of data in isolated studies to slowly build toward grander ideas, and much more.

But Darwin is a different human, too. We live in such different times, when there the world of science is far larger but the world feels far smaller, more interconnected. Naturalists today are not simply landed noblemen who can play with science in their luxurious spare time, nor do they work alone at their pursuits. Anyone can be a scientist, and a career scientist can, if they are fortunate and skilled enough, assemble their own laboratory in which they lead a team to tackle their big questions that captivate them. The individual questions in science tend to be smaller (more incremental and specialized) today, yet can overall (across career(s)) be bigger because we can tackle -and have tackled- some of the bigger ones; Darwin’s big questions being among the giant ideas we are now poised upon.

It’s not all about science, though. Darwin’s story, which I think about so often, reminds me of how we all struggle in our lives and amidst the joy of discovery in everyday life there can be considerable suffering and regret. It is a bittersweet story; an ever-so-human story. And today is a good day to reflect on that, and to celebrate life while we lament what has been lost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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