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Posts Tagged ‘science story’

It has been almost three months since my last post here, and things have fallen quiet on our sister blog Anatomy to You, too. I thought it was time for an update, which is mostly a summary of stuff we’ve been doing on my team, but also featuring some interesting images if you stick around. The relative silence here has partly been due to me giving myself some nice holiday time w/family in L.A., then having surgery to fix my right shoulder, then recovering from that and some complications (still underway, but the fact that I am doing this post is itself evidence of recovery).

Stomach-Churning Rating: 4/10; semi-gruesome x-rays of me and hippo bits at the end, but just bones really.

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

X-ray of my right shoulder from frontal view, unlabelled

Labelled x-ray

Labelled x-ray

So my priorities shifted to those things and to what work priorities most badly needed my limited energy and time. I’ve also felt that, especially since my health has had its two-year rough patch, this blog has been quieter and less interactive than it used to be, but that is the nature of things and maybe part of a broader trend in blogs, too. My creative juices in terms of social media just haven’t been at their ~2011-2014 levels but much is out of my control, and I am hopeful that time will reverse that trend. Enough about all this. I want to talk about science for the rest of this post.

My team, and collaborators as well, have published six recent studies that are very relevant to this blog’s theme- how about we run through them quickly? OK then.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Pataky, T.C., Day, M., Hensman, M.C., Hensman, S., Hutchinson, J.R., Clemente, C.J. 2016. Foot pressure distributions during walking in African elephants (Loxodonta africana). Royal Society Open Science 3: 160203.

Our Australian collaborators got five African elephants together in Limpopo, South Africa and walked them over pressure-measuring mats, mimicking our 2012 study of Asian elephants. While sample sizes were too limited to say much statistically, in qualitatively descriptive terms we didn’t find striking differences between the two species’ foot pressure patterns. I particularly like how the centre of pressure of each foot (i.e. abstracting all regional pressures down to one mean point over time) followed essentially the same pattern in our African and Asian elephants, with a variable heelstrike concentration that then moved forward throughout the step, and finally moved toward the outer (3rd-5th; especially 3rd) toes as the foot pushed off the ground, as below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

African elephant foot COP traces vs. time in red; Asian elephant in orange-yellow. Left and right forefeet above; hindfeet below.

Gradually, this work is moving the field toward better ability to use similar techniques to compare elephant foot mechanics among species, individuals, or over time– especially with the potential of using this method (popular in human clinical gait labs) to monitor foot (and broader musculoskeletal) health in elephants. I am hopeful that a difference can be made, and the basic science we’ve done to date will be a foundation for that.

  1. Panagiotopoulou, O., Rankin, J.W., Gatesy, S.M., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. A preliminary case study of the effect of shoe-wearing on the biomechanics of a horse’s foot. PeerJ 4: e2164.

Finally, about six years after we collected some very challenging experimental data in our lab, we’ve published our first study on them. It’s a methodological study of one horse, not something one can hang any hats on statistically, but we threw the “kitchen sink” of biomechanics at that horse (harmlessly!) by combining standard in vivo forceplate analysis with “XROMM” (scientific rotoscopy with biplanar fluoroscopy or “x-ray video”) to conduct dynamic analysis of forefoot joint motions and forces (with and without horseshoes on the horse), and then to use these data as input values for finite element analysis (FEA) of estimated skeletal stresses and strains. This method sets the stage for some even more ambitious comparative studies that we’re finishing up now. And it is not in short supply of cool biomechanical, anatomical images so here ya go:

fig5-vonmises

Above: The toe bones (phalanges) of our horse’s forefoot in dorsal (cranial/front) view, from our FEA results, with hot colours showing higher relative stresses- in this case, hinting (but not demonstrating statistically) that wearing horseshoes might increase stresses in some regions on the feet. But more convincingly, showing that we have a scientific workflow set up to do these kinds of biomechanical calculations from experiments to computer models and simulations, which was not trivial.

And a cool XROMM video of our horse’s foot motions:

  1. Bates, K.T., Mannion, P.D., Falkingham, P.L., Brusatte, S.L., Hutchinson, J.R., Otero, A., Sellers, W.I., Sullivan, C., Stevens, K.A., Allen, V. 2016. Temporal and phylogenetic evolution of the sauropod dinosaur body plan. Royal Society Open Science 3: 150636.

I had the good fortune of joining a big international team of sauropod experts to look at how the shapes and sizes of body segments in sauropods evolved and how those influenced the position of the body’s centre of mass, similar to what we did earlier with theropod dinosaurs. My role was minor but I enjoyed the study (despite a rough ride with some early reviews) and the final product is one cool paper in my opinion. Here’s an example:

fig6a-bates-sauropod-com-evol

The (embiggenable-by-clicking) plot shows that early dinosaurs shifted their centre of mass (COM) backwards (maybe related to becoming bipedal?) and then sauropods shifted the COM forwards again (i.e. toward their forelimbs and heads) throughout much of their evolution. This was related to quadrupedalism and giant size as well as to evolving a longer neck; which makes sense (and I’m glad the data broadly supported it). But it is also a reminder that not all sauropods moved in the same ways- the change of COM would have required changes in how they moved. There was also plenty of methodological nuance here to cover all the uncertainties but for that, see the 17 page paper and 86 pages of supplementary material…

  1. Randau, M., Goswami, A., Hutchinson, J.R., Cuff, A.R., Pierce, S.E. 2016. Cryptic complexity in felid vertebral evolution: shape differentiation and allometry of the axial skeleton. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 178:183-202.

Back in 2011, Stephanie Pierce, Jenny Clack and I tried some simple linear morphometrics (shape analysis) to see how pinniped (seal, walrus, etc) mammals changed their vertebral morphology with size and regionally across their backbones. Now in this new study, with “Team Cat” assembled, PhD student Marcela Randau collected her own big dataset for felid (cat) backbones and applied some even fancier techniques to see how cat spines change their shape and size. We found that overall the vertebrae tended to get relatively more robust in larger cats, helping to resist gravity and other forces, and that cats with different ecologies across the arboreal-to-terrestrial spectrum also changed their (lumbar) vertebral shape differently. Now Marcela’s work is diving even deeper into these issues; stay tuned…

fig2-randau-measurements

Example measurements taken on felid vertebrae, from the neck (A-F) to the lumbar region (G-J), using a cheetah skeleton.

  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Hutchinson, J.R., Wells, D.J. 2016. Musculoskeletal geometry, muscle architecture and functional specialisations of the mouse hindlimb. PLOS One 11(4): e0147669.

RVC PhD student James Charles measured the heck out of some normal mice, dissecting their hindlimb muscle anatomy, and using microCT scans produced some gorgeous images of that anatomy too. In the process, he also quantified how each muscle is differently specialized for the ability to produce large forces, rapid contractions or fine control. Those data were essential for the next study, where we got more computational!

mouse-mimics

  1. Charles, J.P., Cappellari, O., Spence, A.J., Wells, D.J., Hutchinson, J.R. 2016. Muscle moment arms and sensitivity analysis of a mouse hindlimb musculoskeletal model. Journal of Anatomy 229:514–535.

James wrangled together a lovely musculoskeletal model of our representative mouse subject’s hindlimb in the SIMM software that my team uses for these kinds of biomechanical analyses. As we normally do as a first step, we used the model to estimate things that are hard to measure directly, such as the leverages (moment arms) of each individual muscle and how those change with limb posture (which can produce variable gearing of muscles around joints). James has his PhD viva (defense) next week so good luck James!

mouse-simm

The horse and mouse papers are exemplars of what my team now does routinely. For about 15 years now, I’ve been building my team toward doing these kinds of fusion of data from anatomy, experimental biomechanics, musculoskeletal and other models, and simulation (i.e. estimating unmeasurable parameters by telling a model to execute a behaviour with a given set of criteria to try to perform well). Big thanks go to collaborator Jeff Rankin for helping us move that along lately. Our ostrich study from earlier this year shows the best example we’ve done yet with this, but there’s plenty more to come.

I am incredibly excited that, now that my team has the tools and expertise built up to do what I’ve long wanted to do, we can finally deliver the goods on the aspirations I had back when I was a postdoc, and which we have put enormous effort into pushing forward since then. In addition to new analyses of horses and mice and other animals, we’ll be trying to push the envelope more with how well we can apply similar methods to extinct animals, which brings new challenges– and evolutionary questions that get me very, very fired up.

Here we are, then; time has brought some changes to my life and work and it will continue to as we pass this juncture. I suspect I’ll look back on 2016 and see it as transformative, but it hasn’t been an easy year either, to say the least. “Draining” is the word that leaps to mind right now—but also “Focused” applies, because I had to try to be that, and sometimes succeeded. I’ve certainly benefited a lot at work from having some talented staff, students and other collaborators cranking out cool papers with me.

I still have time to do other things, too. Once in a while, a cool critter manifests in The Freezers. Check out a hippo foot from a CT scan! It’s not my best scan ever (noisy data) but it shows the anatomy fairly well, and some odd pathologies such as tiny floating lumps of mineralized soft tissue here and there. Lots to puzzle over.

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I still have my original photocopy, from my grad school days circa 1996, of the 1983 Ted Garland classic paper “The relation between maximal running speed and body mass in terrestrial mammals”, festooned with my comments and highlighter pen marks and other scribblings. That paper remains the backbone of many research questions I am interested in today, and I often think about its underlying concepts. Here’s the key scatterplot from that paper, which I could almost replot by hand from memory, it is so full of implications (and can be clicked to embiggen it, perhaps even speedily depending on your internet connection):

Garland 1983- max speed

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; data and their ramifications; offal-free.

The major points (IMO there are less exciting ones about which theoretical scaling model the data best fit) of the paper are: (1) the fastest-running mammals are neither the smallest nor largest, but those around ~100 kg body mass; (2) if you fit a linear equation to the data (see above; hashed line), it seems like speed increases with body mass linearly (with no limit to that increase, within the body mass range of the data), but if you analyze individual groups of mammals they either don’t change speed significantly with size or they get slower– refer back to point #1 and the polynomial regression that is shown in the figure above (curved line). That’s the biological-question-driven science at the core of the paper (with some methods-y questions at their foundation; e.g. should we use a linear or polynomial regression to fit the data? The latter fits best, and gives a different answer from the former, so it matters.).

But what also fascinates me is the question of data. As the author, who taught me Evolution as an undergrad at U Wisconsin (this had a big impact on me), fully admits in the paper, the ~3-page table of data “necessarily sacrifices some accuracy for completeness”. This paper is about a big question, how mammal speed changes with size, and so its big question explicitly allows for some slop in the data (I will return to this issue of slop later). But given that very few of the data points have very accurate measurements for speed, or for body mass for that matter, how much can we trust an x-y plot of those data, no matter what method is used? Oh there is so much opportunity here for geeky pedantry and niggling scrutiny of data points, true, but hold on…

Plenty of follow-up papers have mused over that latter question, and spin-off ones. Here are some of their plots, re-analyzing the same or very similar data in different contexts. A look at how these papers examine these data and related questions/methods leads into some avenues of science that fascinate me:

Garland 1988- max perf

Garland and Baudinette (link to pdf here) checked whether placental (i.e. most; including us) mammals could run/hop faster than marsupial (pouched; e.g. kangaroos) mammals. Their results said “not really”, as the plot intimates. Scatter in the data, especially between 0.01-10 kg, confounds the issue- there’s a lot of specialization going on (notably, animals that are very slow for their size, e.g. sloths). But marsupials are not, as had been suggested before, inferior to placentals in some basic way such as running ability.

GarlandJanis1993-Fig5

Above, Garland and Janis 1993 (link to pdf here) examined how the ratio of metatarsal (“sole bones” of the lower end of the leg/foot) vs. femur (thigh bone) length relate to speed, with evolutionary relationships taken into account. The methods (“independent contrasts” and its conceptual kin; I won’t delve into that morass more here!) did not exist for looking at phylogeny’s effects on the results in Garland’s 1983 paper. Yet “cursoriality” (relative elongation of the lower limb) had been thought to relate to running speed for over 80 years at that time, so that was what they tested: how much does limb-elongation correlate in a positive way with maximal running speed? They found that the answer was “sort of”, but that other things like home range size, energetics, ecology, etc. might explain as much/more, so caveat emptor. And by looking at the plot above, it’s evident that there’s a lot of specialization (scatter, along the x and/or y axes– check out the giraffe/Giraffa and cheetah/Acinonyx outliers, for example). While ungulates seemed to have a better relationship of speed and limb dimensions, their predatory carnivoran relatives did not.Christiansen 2002- max speed

Christiansen was one of two studies in 2002 that looked back on those Garland 1983 data in a new way, and like the 1993 study with Janis considered these data in light of limb lengths too.  The plot above delved into how running speed changes with lengths of forelimb bones, again finding appreciable curvilinearity (indirectly supporting the non-linear scaling idea– even at large sizes, relatively longer-legged mammals aren’t faster). The plot on the right side (b) measured the relative length of the olecranon process; the “funny bone” that acts as a lever for support of the elbow joint against gravity. Again, even mammals that have stouter elbow-supporting processes aren’t faster; there’s a “happy medium” of elbow-osity for optimizing running speed (and huge scatter in the data!). Ultimately, this analysis concluded that it wasn’t speed that animal anatomy seemed to be optimizing overall, especially as size increased, but rather energetic cost, although there was a lot of variation in the data and accounting for phylogeny only muddled things up more (as it tends to do).

diaz2002

Iriarte-Diaz was the other 2002 study to tackle the speed-vs-size issue. It focused primarily on whether mammal speeds showed “differential” (i.e. non-linear) scaling with size, as per the polynomial regression in Garland’s 1983 study. It showed that smaller mammals seemed to either get slightly slower with increasing size or else not change maximal speed (depending on detailed methods/data stuff that don’t matter here), whereas bigger mammals exhibited very strong declines of speed with size past a threshold (optimal) body mass.

So, repeated analyses of Garland’s 1983 data (and modifications of those data) at least uphold the fundamental conclusion that big land mammals cannot move quickly, in an absolute sense (meters/sec or kph or mph) — and much more so in a relative sense (e.g. body lengths/second or other normalized metrics). We might then ask why, and my research scrutinizes this issue in terms of the fundamental mechanisms of movement biomechanics and anatomy that might help to explain why, but for brevity I won’t go there in this post. I want to wander elsewhere.

I want to wander back to those data used in the above (and other) studies. All of the studies discuss the quality of the data and bemoan the lack of quality. I’d agree with them that it’s hard to imagine most of the data being consistently off in a biased way that would fundamentally alter their conclusions. But I still worry. We should worry about the data points for the extreme animals- the fastest, slowest, largest and smallest. We should worry about subjectively removing “outliers” such as hippos or cheetahs, as they do change some of the results.

I worry about elephants, for example: my work has shown that they can “run” about 7 meters/second or ~25 kph; not the 35 kph used as data for African elephants (from speedometer-y anecdotal estimates)– ~1.4 times the speed we’ve been able to measure for both species. See this old “blog post” (sort of) for more information on the tortuous history of characterizing elephant speeds and gaits. And are a white rhino and hippo able to run at this same 25 kph speed as the original data in the 1983 study state, or faster/slower? No one has really nicely measured this so we can’t be sure, but I can imagine it being off by a similar 40% or so. On the other hand, if the bigger animals in the dataset are slower than the original data, that actually strengthens the conclusion that bigger animals are slower, so who cares that much, in the grand scheme of things?

We could worry about plenty of other maximal speed data points, and the “average” adult body masses assumed (although I doubt those would change the results as much as the speed errors). Maybe another question is, in doing such broad-scale analyses should we only include data points that have maximal precision (e.g. elephants, horses, cheetahs, greyhounds, humans and a few others)? We’d maybe be able to do a study of 20 or so species. I doubt it would show much that is different if we did, although I expect that sample size and noise would begin to dampen out the signal. See below.

However, a double standard begins to become evident here. In modern biomechanics (and probably the rest of biology/science), there’s a strong emphasis on data quality and technologically precise measurement. Garland’s 1983 study might be hard to get past peer review today (or maybe not). We agonize over single-species studies trying hard to measure animals’ maximal speeds (a very hard thing to be sure of in terms of motivation, but not intractable unless one takes an almost antiscientific/overly cynical view that animals could always be holding back some critical reserve unless they run for their lives– is that reserve 1%, 10% or 100%? Probably closer to the middle, in good studies). We measure multiple animals and many trials, in field and/or lab conditions, with documented video footage at high resolution and frame rate, with GPS tracking or other tools to maximize precision. We take pride in these high standards today. That’s what makes scientists wriggle uncomfortably when we look back at the data in those older maximal speed papers and ponder how few data points are verified, documented, precise and essentially trustworthy.

So should broad studies be working by the same standards as narrow studies? (I’m far, far, far from the first scientist to think about this but it’s interesting for me at least to think about it in this case and others) There is potential tension here between empiricists who want precise data and theoreticians who want to tackle those Big Questions, and that’s a pattern one can see throughout much of science. I sit on the fence myself, doing both approaches. I can think of plenty of similar examples, in “big data” palaeobiology, morphometrics, genomics, physics and so on. Some of those fields have nice databases with quality control over the data; they’ve maybe solved this problem to a large degree. This tiny area of mammalian maximal speeds hasn’t solved it, but how urgent is the need to?

On the flip side, even if the data points have some error of 10-20% or even 40% that error will probably be largely random, not biased toward assuming that bigger or smaller animals are slower than they truly are, or medium-sized animals faster. We still have the reliable cheetah data point (and racehorses, and greyhounds) showing >100 kph (and 70 kph) speeds for ~100 (and ~40, 400ish) kg animals, so there is evidence for a peak of maximal speed (the cheetah outlier, and one might also throw in pronghorn antelope or others that are pretty damn fast but not yet well measured) at medium body size. I expect there would be incremental overall progress if we did improve the data quality, and that would still be nice (comforting!) but it would be a tough, tough slog. Indeed, my team is doing its share of that, already tackling the data point for giraffes this year (stay tuned!). The potential gains are still there, especially for understanding the unique biology of individual species– that noise in the data (or specialization, if you prefer) is interesting!!! We need that kind of work, partly because the big questions, sexy as they are, still depend on having data quality as a foundation, and old questions still need revisiting from time to time as data quality is improved by those in the trenches of gathering it.

My team’s journal club has gone over the Garland paper lately and we’re hitting the others later this summer, but I wanted to throw these thoughts out there on this blog now to see if they generated any fun discussion, or they might introduce others to the science of maximal speeds and what we do/don’t know. One thing we don’t know much about is what kinds of patterns non-mammalian groups exhibit today. Chris Clemente did some great work on this with lizards, finding a pattern similar to the mammal one. I’ve struggled in my work to move toward trying to address similar questions for extinct groups, but there the data quality presents a challenge I find exciting rather than depressing, although I still have to shrug when I see limb lengths or proportions being used as a proxy for speed. We can do better.

So I’d love to hear your thoughts on any of the points here. Maybe some of the old-timers have stories from ye olden days when Garland’s work was originally published; I’d love to hear those, or other points/questions/favourite papers.

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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.

=====

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’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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Why

I had a nice chat today (OK, a while ago, when I first started writing this post) with a researcher who wanted to know why I blogged and how I balanced my science communication work with my research activities. In talking with her, I realized that there was a way to explain my views that I hadn’t thought of before and then I realized that this might make a blog post that other people would care to read. So here it is.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10. Just vomiting out words.

I’ll take a historical perspective to answering why I bother doing what I do, and how I came to do it.  As an evolutionary biologist, and as a teacher and communicator, I find that this kind of narrative works for me and for others, in deepening comprehension of why things are the way they are. In my pre-college and college years, I loved to read and write, and I liked science. A professor as a father, a mother who encouraged scholarship and a family that liked to go experience nature together helped. I eventually got competent at writing and maintained that ability (even musing about whether I might become a Hollywood screenwriter– bullet dodged?), whilst figuring out that some sort of biology might be right for my career. Off to college I went.

Amidst the beer-fuelled haze of undergrad life at the U Wisconsin, I fell in love with the science writings of Stephen Jay Gould and some others, which today would be blog posts. A course in the history of science and a lot of courses in biology shaped my interests, and to cut that story short, off to grad school I went in 1995. I’d discovered the internet (on my dad’s iMac) while recovering from some major health problems, and liked it. I learned to love it during my PhD work, participating in a lot of arguing on the Dinosaur email listserver and other kinds of online writing.

In particular, I fell in with the crew of grad students writing pages for the UCMP website— the original online virtual museum. These pages, intended as “virtual exhibits”, were more or less blog posts, or wikipedia-esque entries, or whatever you want to call them in modern parlance. They were reviews of and commentaries on current knowledge on various topics in biology/palaeontology. I now realize that even back then I was an avid science communicator, especially online. I now realize that this hasn’t truly changed in 20 years, except how I do that online communication.

I lacked the self-confidence (or experience) to do much science communication in person, preferring to take the time to slowly write posts/pages online while in hermitage in the museum basement’s computer lab or at our lab’s office computer. Oral presentations utterly terrified me (sometimes to the point of paralysis) until late in grad school once I’d had some practice doing them at seminars and conferences, then I started to love talking about science in person to larger groups (teaching undergrads helped build this love, too). My work began to attract the attention of the media, especially in 2001-2003 during my postdoc at Stanford once my T. rex and elephant biomechanics research got published, and that attention helped train me (through some great mentors’ help) to be better at reaching and engaging with the public via the media.

By 2003 I was a faculty member and my science communication activity continued, even expanding as I became more well-known. Yet my online “scicomm” presence was by this point reduced essentially to only my personal RVC webpages (with several stories about my research that were akin to blog posts) and occasional journalists’ stories about my research. I focused on being a “typical” scientist. That worked for me; I was happy with it.

Finally, in ~2010 I started to catch the online science communication bug again, inspired by bloggers and science writers (and scientists) like Darren Naish (Tetrapod Zoology) and informal chats with colleagues who were experimenting with the newer forms of communication, which were far more engaging than prior forms like the static, non-interactive webpages I’d worked on at the UCMP. And so here I am; see the “Welcome” tab for how this blog originated.

Why then do I continue with this and how to I find whatever balance exists between scicomm and research? First off, I don’t like to think too much about categorizing what I’m doing. It’s all science (writ large) to me, whether I am doing computer analysis or dissections or writing papers or training people or writing blog posts or tweeting. There is a “zero-sum game” that people obsess about in balancing scicomm “versus” research. Yes, it’s true: there are just 24 hours in a day, and to be a successful scientist one must spend some of those hours, on average, on research. Wow. But as long as the research is moving forward at a pace I’m happy with, I don’t care if it took me an average of 6.5 or 8 hours/day to get my part done, or how that time precisely was spent. I don’t think I ever have cared. I don’t do hours-accounting to ensure that I am clocking in and out the “correct” number of hours. I hate that shit and it’s why I didn’t go into a job where I must clock in and out. Lack of freedom suffocates me, and I think that the zero-sum mentality suffocates science.

Similarly, I don’t feel that some vital opportunity is lost by spending time on scicomm rather than research data. I’m sure that, over the years, I’ve “lost” a paper or two that I could have written instead of doing some blogging or other scicomm, but I have enjoyed the latter and others have too, so I feel that it has been more than worth whatever “cost” there has been. If some scientists feel that essentially all they should be doing in science/life is publishing peer-reviewed papers, that’s their opinion but it is not mine. But — I don’t consider that my blog posts are equivalent to peer-reviewed papers by any means, either. I list my blog on my CV as one line, not all of my blog posts like I do for my papers. It is far harder to publish a scientific paper than to write a blog post; there is no equivalency, at present.

Yet on the flip side, blogging is valuable and fills a gap that scientific papers cannot. Once I became a Professor in 2011, I felt even more liberated than when I got tenure. I felt that it was time for me to try new things and take risks, that this was what being a professor was partly about. So I looked around at opportunities and, reflecting on my experiences with documentaries like “Inside Nature’s Giants” and various conversations I’d had in person and on social media (mainly Twitter), I tried blogging. I saw opportunities to engage a broader audience in discussions about anatomy, and I wanted an outlet in which to be creative as a writer and scientist, so blogging fit me. In a blog like this, I can be human, I can talk about myself or others in a personal, less detached and dry way, I can make very speculative statements, I don’t have to reference everything or obsessively avoid any sloppiness, I can be casual, I can be longwinded (like this post), whatever — I can do what the fuck I please, including say “fuck”. I can write posts on anything I want and it doesn’t have to be a novel contribution nor do I have to “sell” it in ways that I might with papers. Try those things in a peer-reviewed publication. Research papers are straight-jacketed by rules because that constrained format has worked for them over the past two centuries. It works for transmitting carefully-checked results that assemble a body of increasingly-trusted knowledge.

I like the release that blogging gives me, to be intellectual in a more creative, explorative, personal, conversational way. This freedom is healthy and rewarding for me, I’ve found, giving me a satisfaction that I can’t get from just grinding away at papers, by engaging with the broader, (potentially) global public rather than just a few specialists — or just a few local people at public science events. Let’s face it, a lot of our peer-reviewed publications don’t matter much; they won’t get cited much and might eventually get forgotten, and even those few specialists that do care about them might not care that much. What matters to me is how I feel about how I am spending my life. I do passionately love discovering new things in my research but science doesn’t start and end there for me. Much like with social media, I’ve benefited from things (some unexpected) like new collaborations, meeting scientists/journalists/science-enthusiasts who become new friends, invitations to do new things like give seminars or take part in bigger media (documentaries, major websites, etc.), being seen as an expert by a broader audience, a stronger and more diverse CV (including positive comments on reviews for funding/other applications), improved writing/communication skills and more. Hence it would be false to say that I lose something by not spending all my time on conventional science. I gain other things from blogging and other scicomm that have their merits, and in the end only one thing matters: does it feel worth it to me? Yes. Do I think that everyone must/should do the same? No. To each their own, but more scientists should consider broadening their scicomm horizons, giving the potential benefits more thought in the weighing of all the priorities that they must juggle. Some people aren’t ready to add scicomm to their repertoire. Some just aren’t suited to it at all. That’s fine. It’s part of the diversity of science. Not everyone can be part of the same conversations and experiences.

To me (like so many in scicomm), whether it is papers or blog posts, it’s all about conversations. These formats of conversations have the same intent: to share and discuss. Indeed, they have much in common, formatting and rules aside. That’s why I like in-person interactions, or seminars and conferences, or social media, or other forms of conversation, too. Each has its pros and cons, and except for social media scientists have been doing them for centuries. One could consider social media/blogging to have been around for 20+ years depending on how one defines it. I’ve realized that I’ve been engaging in conversations over the internet in analogous ways for those decades, and that blogging is not that new for me after all. I see myself as taking a break from the UCMP webpage-writing in by 2001 to returning to public online scicomm in 2010-11, with Facebook acting as a midwife for that transition. Posting science stuff on Facebook to a few hundred friends (ten of whom might show signs of caring) just wasn’t enough for me by ~2011. Since then, I’ve found that the diversity of the world that I can engage with in all these conversations expands my horizons and teaches me new things about science (e.g. other fields I don’t know much about) and about people (e.g. other scientists/science-enthusiasts/journalists I hadn’t met), or even changes the way I look at my own research (e.g. major trends in open access, open data, etc.). This is another major benefit that I wouldn’t get from isolation in an ivory tower. All of these things are echo chambers, whether one is in isolation in the research field of evolutionary biomechanics or the larger area of scicomm that this blog explores, or scicomm on Twitter, or whatever. Mindfulness of that reality can help prevent one’s mind from becoming too full of those echoes and losing sight of the broader world, and I try to be mindful.

I’ve discovered that I like to share, that this is a big part of my personality. I had suppressed some of that side of myself in the early 2000s, developing trust issues that I see in many other scientists today. I imagined things like: if I share, what if someone criticizes me, or I say something wrong and get embarrassed, or someone steals my data/ideas, or someone doesn’t like how I seem to be spending my time, or something else goes wrong. These imagined risks came from stories I’d heard about naughty colleagues and other people, and things I’d experienced myself, some of which were very unpleasant (e.g. colleagues trying to use me, or taking my data or ideas; or people just being jerks). I focused on the negative aspects of sharing but didn’t thoughtfully weigh them against the positive. I now see what I had missed, although things worked out well for me anyway and I don’t deeply have regrets about what I didn’t do prior to 2010-11. I was more selfish, true, and that was strategic selfishness (focus on my research career) as well as irrational selfishness (avoid things that scared me as risky), and there are other things about me back then that I don’t like (e.g. more competitive, less helpful/collegial; which tends to come with secretiveness/lack of sharing) but I don’t beat myself up about them. I could have been much worse, and what matters now is the choices I make now, which I think about much more carefully than I did back then, with the benefit of wisdom gained through successes, failures and mistakes.

Similarly, I don’t like to harangue myself about whether I am doing “work” or “life” stuff. I’m not a fan of this dichotomy. It is an unfair attitude to force upon oneself, in my opinion. “Work vs. life” is set up to impose self-flagellation for doing the wrong thing at the wrong time. I believe in work-life integration, just as I believe in research-scicomm integration in science. I do what I need and want to do when it feels right to do those things. The ultimate goals are what matter most; I want a good life in all facets, including making the lives of those around me good, too. I seek happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction, and do what feels like it will best bring me those things at any moment, depending on how I feel. Sometimes I have energy inside that feels best directed toward writing a blog post. Sometimes I’m more excited about a paper. Or a movie, or a cuddle with cats, or whatever. Generally my #1 job priority (as a senior mentor to numerous people) is to help my team get its work done and published (see my prior posts on managing teams), and whatever other time remains when I feel like working is spent on other things, like my own research or scicomm or whatever. I try to avoid guilt-bludgeoning myself about whether I am working or “living” at 06:00 or 10:45 or on Sunday or Wednesday. But I do bother myself about ensuring I have time with my family and friends, which brings many flavours of happiness and enjoyment and satisfaction that science cannot. I don’t believe in working that much on weekends (but I do dabble sometimes, and I don’t overly guilt-trip myself if I do) and I do want to take time off after 5pm most nights with family, and I do need 7-8 hours of sleep or I’m extra grumpy and low on my science-fu levels. I’m happy with my work-life integration, and it seems to be playing out OK as long as I manage my stress levels and physical fitness.

In summary, to me blogging is part of the balance that I try to seek in life, and that balance is deeply personal, ever-changing, and enjoyable to me. There will never be a right answer to the question of what balance is “right” for any one person, but there is a threshold of contentment that can be reached in seeking that balance, and if one reaches that, then that’s good. There will be people that try to tell you that the balance you seek is wrong, and some of them will be worth listening to but others are best ignored or told to piss off. That doesn’t mean that you won’t have to convince people that your balance is “right” for you, whether it is your family or your peers or grant funding committees. I’m fortunate that experiences in terms of people criticizing my time spent blogging have been minimal for me (I know this is not true for plenty of others!), yet I feel well-prepared to defend my blogging interests if I’d have to.

But concurrently there is a question of trust: shouldn’t those parties evaluating your life-balance be accountable for trusting you to make your own decisions, and questioning whether the standards-of-balance they hold as ideal should apply to you or not? This will always be a source of some tension with some people—and maybe it should be, but it has to be, because we are not all the same people living the same life. Maybe it’s easier “just” to focus on cranking out data and papers and not doing much else in science, much like it might be (or seem) easier “just” to blog 100% of one’s time. Maybe there’s jealousy or insecurity or fear of change that wells up in those that do find a certain, seemingly simple, set of priorities to be the right balance for them in their life, but don’t like to see others seeking a different kind of balance. Keeping more balls in the air in juggling life’s balance ramps up the complexity and that can be more difficult to control; more unstable, even. All of these questions of priorities, trust and balance arise from our humanity and our diversity and present us with frequent choices about how to handle them. I’d like to end this post on a more positive note by suggesting that we celebrate these questions, and by doing so that we celebrate our diversity and humanity and become part of the dynamic kaleidoscope of science and the real world. Maybe we should worry less about judging how others balance their lives; lives whose details we probably know little about; and push ourselves to learn something from our fellow scientists and science enthusiasts by seeking to understand how they’ve arrived at the point in life that they’re at, and seeking to build edifices of trust that there are many ways to contribute to science. We might learn new things that could inspire us to change our own priorities, much as I did in my life journey that led to this blog’s inception. There is a lot of common ground to roam in discussions about balance in the lives of those passionate about science. Curiosity and trust are key components of that ground’s bedrock, like they are of science’s. Discovery and sharing are other parts, in which research and scicomm play important, interactive roles.

I’m curious to hear what others think of things I’ve raised in this post about why I’ve struck the current balance I’ve made in my life (particularly regarding blogging but similarly extensible to social media), and how that relates to the many ways that others can find balance, which might lead to more harmony between research and scicomm in science. Kumbaya?

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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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