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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

1970s Alexander, with a sauropod leg.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

My visit with RMcNeill Alexander in 2014.

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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If you’ve been working in science for long enough, perhaps not very long at all, you’ve heard about (or witnessed) scientists in your field who get listed as co-authors on papers for political reasons alone. They may be an uninvolved but domineering professor or a fellow co-worker, a friend, a political ally, an overly protective museum curator, or just a jerk of any stripe. I read this article recently and felt it was symptomatic of the harm that bad supervisors (or other collaborators) do to science, including damage to the general reputation of professors and other mentors. There are cultural differences not only between countries (e.g. more authoritative, hierarchical cultures probably tolerate behaviour like this more) but also within institutions because of individual variation and local culture, tradition or other precedent. But this kind of honorary co-authorship turns my stomach—it is co-authorship bloat and a blight upon science. Honorary co-authorship should offend any reasonable scientist who actually works, at any level of the scientific hierarchy. So here’s my rant about it. Marshmallows and popcorn are welcomed if you want to watch my raving, but I hope this post stimulates discussion. A brief version of this did do that on my personal Facebook account, which motivated me to finish this public post.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 but it may provoke indigestion if you’ve been a victim of co-author bloat.

At its root, honorary co-authorship (HONCO) shows disdain for others’ efforts in research. “I get something for nothing, unlike others.” It persists because of deference to pressures from politics (I need to add this co-author or they’ll cause me trouble), other social dynamics (this person is my buddy; here’s a freebie for them), careerism (oneself/ally/student needs to be on this paper to boost their CV and move up in their career; or else), or even laziness (a minimal publishable unit mentality- e.g. any minor excuse for being a co-author is enough). All of these reasons for tolerating it, and apathy about the status quo, keep the fires of HONCO burning. My feeling from my past 20 years of experience in academia is that, as science is getting increasingly complex and requiring more collaborators and co-authors, the fire is raging to a point where it is visibly charring the integrity of science too often to just keep quiet about it and hope it doesn’t cause much damage.

There’s a flip side to HONCO, too– it’s not that, as some might take the article above to imply, we all need to boot senior authors off of papers. Senior authors, like other collaborators, have a reason for existing that encompasses — but is not limited to — boosting the careers of those they mentor. We scientists all want the satisfaction of doing science, even if the nature of our involvement in research evolves (and varies widely). Part of that satisfaction comes from publishing papers as the coup de grace to each project, and it’s a privilege that should be open to being earned by anyone qualified. Indeed, if adding HONCOs to papers is fraud, then removing worthy contributors from papers can be seen as a similar kind of fraud (unless a result of mutually agreed I’ll-help-you-for-nothing generosity). The broader point is, authors should deserve to be authors, and non-authors should not deserve to be authors.

On that latter issue, I think back to my grad school days and how my mentors Kevin Padian, Rodger Kram, Bob Full and others often gave me valuable input on my early papers (~1998-2002) but never earned co-authorship on them (exception: mentor Steve Gatesy’s vital role in our 2000 “abductors, adductors” paper). And frankly I feel a little bad now about that. Some of those mentors might have deserved co-authorship, but even when asked they declined, and just appeared in the Acknowledgements. It was the culture in my department at Berkeley, like many other USA grad schools at the time and perhaps now, that PhD students often did not put their supervisors on their papers and thus published single-author work. I see that less often today — but still varying among fields; e.g. in biomechanics, less single-authorship globally; in palaeontology and morphology, more single-authored work, but perhaps reducing overall. That is my off-the-cuff impression from the past >10 years.

I was shocked to see less (or often no) single-authored papers by lab colleagues once I moved to the UK to take up my present post– the prevalence of supervisors as senior authors on papers was starkly evident. On reflection, I now think that many of those multi-authored papers deserved to be such. It was not solo work and involved some significant steering, with key ideas originating from supervisors and thus constituting valid intellectual input. Yet I wondered then if it was a good thing or not, especially after hearing student complaints like waiting six months for comments from their supervisor on a manuscript. But this gets into a grey area that is best considered on a paper-by-paper basis, following clear criteria for authorship and contributions, and it involves difficulties inherent to some supervisor-supervisee relationships that I will not cover here. Much as supervisors need to manage their team, their team needs to manage them. ‘Nuff said.

Many institutions and journals have clear criteria for co-authorship, and publications have “author contributions” sections that are intended to make it clear who did what for a given paper – and thus whose responsibility any problems might be, too. HONCOs take credit without responsibility or merit, and are blatant fraud. I say it’s time we stand up to this disease. The criteria and contributions aspects of paper are part of the immune system of science that is there to help defend against academic misconduct. We need to work together to give that system a fighting chance.

There are huge grey areas in what criteria are enough for co-authorship. I have to wrestle with this for almost every paper I’m involved in– I am always thinking about whether I truly deserve to be listed on a paper, or whether others do. I’ve been training myself to think, and talk, about co-authorship criteria early in the process of research— that’s essential in avoiding bad blood later on down the line when it’s time to write up the work, when it’s possibly too late for others to earn co-authorship. This is a critical process that is best handled explicitly and in writing, especially in larger collaborations. What will the topic of any future paper(s) be and who will be involved as co-authors, or not? It’s a good agenda item for research meetings.

There are also grey areas in author contributions. How much editing of a paper is enough for co-authorship justification? Certainly not just spellchecking or adding comments saying “Great point!”, although both can be a bit helpful. Is funding a study a criterion? Sometimes– how much and how directly/indirectly did the funding help? Is providing data enough? Sometimes. In these days of open data, it seems like the data-provision criterion, part of the very hull that science floats upon, is weakening as a justification for co-authorship. It is becoming increasingly common to cite others’ papers for data, provide little new data oneself, and churn out papers without those data-papers’ authors involved. And that’s a good thing, to a degree. It’s nicer to invite published-data-providers on board a paper as collaborators, and they can often provide insight into the nature (and limitations or faults!) of the data. But adding co-authors can easily slide down the slippery slope of hooray-everyone’s-a-co-author (e.g. genetics papers with 1000+ co-authors, anyone?). I wrote up explicit co-authorship criteria here (Figshare login needed; 2nd pdf in the list) and here (Academia.edu login needed) if you’re curious how I handle it, but standards vary. Dr. William Pérez recently shared a good example of criteria with me; linked here.

In palaeontology and other specimen-based sciences, we get into some rough terrain — who collected the fossil (i.e. was on that field season and truly helped), identified it, prepared and curated it, published on it, or otherwise has “authority” over it, and which of them if any deserve co-authorship? I go to palaeontology conferences every year and listen over coffee/beers to colleagues complain about how their latest paper had such-and-such (and their students, pals, etc.) added onto the paper as HONCOs. Some museums or other institutions even have policies like this, requiring external users to add internal co-authors as a strong-arm tactic. An egregious past example: a CT-scanning facility I used once, and never again, even had the guff to call their mandatory joint-authorship policy for usage “non-collaborative access”… luckily we signed no such policy, and so we got our data, paid a reasonable fee for it, and had no HONCOs. Every time I hear about HONCOs, I wonder “How long can this kind of injustice last?” Yet there’s also the reality that finding and digging up a good field site or specimen(s); or analogous processes in science; takes a lot of time and effort and you don’t want others prematurely jumping your claim, which can be intellectual property theft, a different kind of misconduct. And there is good cause for sensitivity about non-Western countries that might not have the resources and training of staff to earn co-authorship as easily; flexibility might be necessary to avoid imperialist pillaging of their science with minimal benefit to their home country.

Yet there’s hope for minimizing HONCO infections. A wise person once said (slightly altered) “I’d rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” Problems can have solutions, even though cultural change tends to be agonizingly slow. But it can be slower still, or retrograde, if met with apathy. What can we do about HONCOs? Can we beat the bloat? What have I done myself before and what would I do differently now? I’ll take an inward look here.

Tolerating HONCOs isn’t a solution. I looked back on my experiences with >70 co-authored papers and technical book chapters since 1998. Luckily there are few instances where I’d even need to contemplate if a co-author was a HONCO. Most scientists I’ve worked with have clearly pulled their weight on papers or understood why they’re not co-authors on a given paper. More about that below. In those few instances of possible HONCOs, about five papers from several years ago, some colleagues provided research material/data but never commented on the manuscripts or other aspects of the work. I was disgruntled but tolerated it. It was a borderline grey area and I was a young academic who needed allies, and the data/specimens were important. Since then, I’ve curtailed collaborations with those people. To be fair, there were some papers where I didn’t do a ton (but did satisfy basic criteria for co-authorship, especially commenting on manuscripts) and I got buried in Middle-Authorland, and that’s fine with me; it wasn’t HONCO hell I was in. There were a few papers where I played a minor role and it wasn’t clear what other co-authors were contributing, but I was comfortable giving them the benefit of the doubt.

One anti-HONCO solution was on a more recent paper that involved a person who I had heard was a vector of HONCO infection. I stated early on in an email that only one person from their group could be a co-author on the resulting paper, and they could choose who it was and that person would be expected to contribute something beyond basic data. They wrote back agreeing to it and (magnanimously) putting a junior student forward for it, who did help, although they never substantially commented on the manuscript so I was a little disappointed. But in the grand scheme of things, this strategy worked in beating the HONCO bloat. I may have cost myself some political points that may stifle future collaborations with that senior person, but I feel satisfied that I did the right thing under the constraints, and damn the consequences. Containment of HONCO has its attendant risks of course. HONCO-rejects might get honked off. Maybe one has to pick their battles and concede ground sometimes, but how much do the ethics of such concessions weigh?

Another solution I used recently involved my own input on a paper. I was asked to join a “meta-analysis” paper as a co-author but the main work had already been done for it, and conclusions largely reached. I read the draft and saw places where I could help in a meaningful way, so with trepidation I agreed to help and did. But during the review process it became clear that (1) there was too much overlap between this paper and others by the same lead author, which made me uncomfortable; and (2) sections that I had contributed to didn’t really meld well with the main thrust of the paper and so were removed. As a consequence, I felt like a reluctant HONCO and asked to be removed from the paper as a co-author, even though I’d helped write sections of the main text that remained in the paper (but this was more stylistic in my view than deeply intellectual). I ended up in the Acknowledgements and relieved about it. I am comfortable removing myself from papers in which I don’t get a sense of satisfaction that I did something meriting co-author status. But it’s easier for more senior researchers like me to do that, compared to the quandary that sink-or-swim early-career researchers may face.

More broadly in academia, a key matter at stake is the CVs of researchers, especially junior ones, which these days require more and more papers (even minimal publishable units) to be competitive for jobs, awards and funding. Adding HONCOs to papers does strengthen individuals’ CVs, but in a parasitic way from the dilution of co-author contributions. And it’s just unethical, full stop. One solution: It’s thus up to senior people to lead from the front, showing that they don’t accept HONCOs themselves and encouraging more junior researchers to do the same when they can—or even questioning the contributions that potential new staff/students made to past papers, if their CV seems bloated (but such questions probe dangerous territory!). Junior people, however, still need to make a judgement call on how they’ll handle HONCOs with themselves or others. There is the issue of reputation to think about; complicity in the HONCO pandemic at any career level might be looked upon unfavourably by others, and scientists can be as gossipy as any humans, so bad ethics can bite you back.

I try to revisit co-authorship and the criteria involved throughout a project, especially as we begin the writing-up stage, to reduce risks of HONCOs or other maladies. An important aspect of collaboration is to ensure that people that might deserve co-authorship get an early chance to earn it, or else are told that they won’t be on board and why. Then they are not asked for further input unless it is needed, which might shift the balance and put them back on the co-author list. Critically, co-authorship is negotiable and should be a negotiation. One should not take it personally if not on a paper, but should treat others fairly and stay open-minded about co-authorship whenever possible. This has to be balanced against the risk of co-authorship bloat. Sure, so-and-so might add a little to a paper, but each co-author added complicates the project, probably slows it down, and diminishes the credit given to each other co-author. So a line must be drawn at some point. Maybe some co-authors and their contributions are best saved for a future paper, for example. This is a decision that the first, corresponding and senior author(s) should agree on, in consultation with others. But I also feel that undergraduate students and technicians often are the first to get the heave-ho from co-author considerations, which I’ve been trying to avoid lately when I can, as they deserve as much as anyone to have their co-author criteria scrutinized.

The Acknowledgements section of a paper is there for a reason, and it’s nice to show up there when you’ve truly helped a paper out whether as quasi-collaborative colleague, friendly draft-commenter, editor, reviewer or in other capacities. It is a far cry from being a co-author but it also typically implies that those people acknowledged are not to blame if something is wrong with the paper. I see Acknowledgements as “free space” that should be packed with thank-you’s to everyone one can think of that clearly assisted in some way. No one lists Acknowledged status on their CVs or gets other concrete benefits from them normally, but it is good social graces to use it generously. HONCOs’ proper home, at best, is there in the Acknowledgements, safely quarantined.

The Author Contributions section of a paper is something to take very seriously these days. I used to fill it out without much thought, but I’ve now gotten in the habit of scrutinizing it (where feasible) with every paper I’m involved in. Did author X really contribute to data analysis or writing the paper? Did all authors truly check and approve the final manuscript? “No” answers there are worrying. It is good research practice nowadays to put careful detail into this section of every paper, and even to openly discuss it among all authors so everyone agrees. Editors and reviewers should also pay heed to it, and readers of papers might find it increasingly interesting to peruse that section. Why should we care about author contribution lists in papers? Well, sure, it’s interesting to know who did what, that’s the main reason! It can reveal what skills an individual has or lacks, or their true input on the project vs. what the co-author order implies.

But there’s a deeper value to Author Contributions lists that is part of the academic immune system against HONCOs and other fraud. Anyone contributing to a particular part of a paper should be able to prove their contribution if challenged. For example, if a problem was suspected in a section of a paper, any authors listed as contributing to that section would be the first points of contact to check with about that possible problem. In a formal academic misconduct investigation, those contributing authors would need to walk through their contributions and defend (or correct) their work. It would be unpleasant to be asked how one contributed to such work if one didn’t do it, or to find out that someone listed you as contributing when you didn’t, and wouldn’t have accepted it if you had known. Attention to detail can pay off in any part of a research publication.

Ultimately, beating the blight of HONCO bloat will need teamwork from real co-authors, at every career level. Too often these academic dilemmas are broken down into “junior vs. senior” researcher false dichotomies. Yes, there’s a power structure and status quo that we need to be mindful of. Co-authorships, however, require collaboration and thus communication and co-operation.

It’s a long haul before we might see real progress; the fight against HONCOs must proceed paper-by-paper. There are worse problems that science faces, too, but my feeling is that HONCOs have gone far enough and it’s time to push back, and to earn the credit we claim as scientific authors. Honorary co-authorship is a dishonourable practice that is very different from other “honorary” kudos like honorary professorships or awards. Complex and collaborative science can mean longer co-author lists, absolutely, but it doesn’t mean handing out freebies to chums, students needing a boost, or erstwhile allies. It means more care is needed in designing and writing up research. And it also means that science is progressing; a progress we should all feel proud of in the end.

Do you have abhorrent HONCO chronicles of your own (anonymized please; no lynch mobs here!) or from public record? Or ideas for handling HONCO hazards? Please share and discuss.

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Like many people, I’ve sprung for a personal genomics service lately, in my case “23 and me“. There are deeper reasons for doing it, such as finding out anything more about the genetic basis of my health problems and getting my child advance warning if there’s evidence of heritable risks, but curiosity was a big part of the decision. And hey, as a palaeontology fan I want to know how much Neanderthal is in me, because that’s just cool how sexy our two species were together. Well, here’s what I found out! Part of my obligatory “What’s In John’s [X]” series…

Stomach-Churning Rating: 0/10 unless you hate genes, but that’s pretty futile if you do.

First off, let’s explore my evolutionary history within Homo sapiens:

ancestry

 

For the benefit of those that don’t want to screen-squint or click to emzoomen, I’m 99.9% European ancestry in terms of modern populations’ genomic similarity. I’m mostly Northern European, with around 3% Southern and <1% Eastern. The <0.1% West African and Native American ancestries (on my chromosomes 6 and 10, I discerned) are just a smidgen, but I’m still happy to hear of them. I like being a mutt, even if mostly (~69%) a British-Irish and French-German mutt. I expected to find a bit more Scandinavian vestiges in my genome than the 0.7%, based on what little I know of my genealogy, but the 25.5% “broadly Northern European” could cover that.

Like maternal haplogroups? Welcome to my clan, D2 (no relation to D-12…):

haplogroupD2

D2’s like to stalk Mammuthus columbi and run from Smilodon fatalis or terror-birds.

Paternal haplogroups (from my freezer-burned, shrivelled little Y chromosome) are fun, too! Especially R1a1a; it’s the hip haplogroup to hang with:

haplogroupR1a1aWe R1a1a’s enjoy the rich flavour of a Megaloceros giganteus.

All that slaughtering of megafauna and perusing phylogenies was tiring. How about we sing the song of my genome?

Well, modern people are boring, even the migratory ass-kicking Ice Age ones. What going on inside me, and outside of Homo sapien? Check it out:

Neanderthal_and_proud

Chest-thumping caveman dance ensues! This was the result that got me the most excited. I’m worthy of wearing this shirt! 95th percentile, W00T!

3.1%NeanderthalYEAH

(then I found out my wife has more Neanderthal, and I was deflated… no fair! LOLZ.)

So anyway, I’m not just a bland European (not that any human’s ancestry is likely “bland” anyhow). Sweet! The ancestry results alone were interesting enough to make me feel like I got my £125 worth.

How about genetic markers for funky traits?

traits

OK, no booze-flushing reaction or lactose issues, I knew that; bitter or asparagus tastes and smells, sure I knew that; blonde and blue-eyed: check; earwax: eew but kinda neat; sprinty muscles, that makes a lot of sense (I love to sprint; not so much endurance running)… baldness: thanks. Thanks a lot, ancestors! Nice try, curly-haired ur-Hutchinsons, but your coiffured efforts were for naught in my case.

Norovirus: OK I’ll try to avoid youse guys. Duly noted. I’m not a fan of vomiting, despite what my college friends might tell you if asked.

Caffeine “fast metabolizer”– hell yes! No doubt about that. I can take about 1 shot of Espresso in the morning and then I’m done; I’ve become extremely sensitive to caffeine. But the good news for that gene marker is that my alleles “didn’t increase subjects’ heart attack risk” with moderate caffeine intake, and indeed some coffee might even be prophylactic. I don’t intend to test that, though. My days of quaffing a pot of coffee before fraternity parties are long gone.

Overall, the traits stuff was intriguing but held no real surprises. “Subjects averaged 0.3 – 0.7 centimeters shorter than typical height” for one genetic marker is a good example, considering my altitudinally-enhanced morphology, of how genes aren’t necessarily simple determinants of fate.

With trepidation, I turn to genomic markers of my health tendencies:

genetics

Not much going on there. But wait… Looking closer…

Alz

D’oh. But not a big surprise; my mother died of Alzheimer’s so it was at least 50/50 for me. And still not a fate set in stone amino acids, but I’m more motivated now to live it up in my youth! There’s genetic destiny, genetic tendency, and then personal choice. I’ll do what I can with the latter.

Gene products can determine how we react to different chemicals, and I take my share, so I was keen to see what 23andme dug up. It was fascinating:

health

Without boring you with my prescription list, I’m sensitive to several hugely important drugs I take or have taken before. My GP doctor was keen to know this! I feel like this was worth the cost of the genome service to know all these caveats about my metabolism of pharmaceuticals.

So, that’s what I’ve found by rummaging around my genome. I’ve also used the ancestry tools in 23andme to find names of some 4th/5th cousins (who also did the 23andme genome service) around the eastern USA, which is where a lot of my ancestors settled in the 18th-19th centuries, I recall being told.

I don’t feel very worried about abuse of my genomic data by corporations, or other privacy issues related to this. Maybe I should. I feel like having my genome data in my possession, and likely insights 23andme or other services will give me using it in the future, are worth the risks.

If you’ve used a personal genome service of any kind and want to share your tales, go for it in the Comments!

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I am reposting a blog post that I co-authored with Anne Osterrieder in 2012. I’ve always liked this post and been proud that we did it. A colleague brought it up to me yesterday, and I was sad to hear that the blog had been killed by hackers, with the original post lost, but Anne and I reconstructed it and I’ve decided to put it up on my blog, as I still feel strongly about its main points and Anne concurred.

Stomach-Churning Rating: 1/10; just words and ideas.

This blog is about freezer-promotion.

This blog is about freezer-promotion.

Here we present two views on public engagement (PE) or public relations (PR) and the thorny issue of “self promotion” in scientific research, from two scientists who might on the surface seem to be as different as scientists can be in regards to PE/PR. Yet we hope to convey the common ground that lies between these “extremes” and use it to explore, and spark discussion in, what self-promotion is and when it is a good vs. bad thing for scientists. Similar points came up in another blog post at around the same time, linked here.

Professor John R. Hutchinson (here, simply John will do!) does research on dinosaurs and elephants and other “celebrity species” (well, some of them anyway; some others aren’t so sexy but he doesn’t care). Thus getting PE/PR is often all too easy. It is often said that “dinosaur” (or fossil) is among the “holy trinity” of media story subjects; space and health being two others. That status lubricates the gears of a science PE/PR machine. Sometimes, even, the problem is keeping a lid on the “sexy” research until it is “thoroughly cooked” and ready for PE/PR, rather than releasing it prematurely. A flip side to this issue is that this easy success with PE/PR means that almost everyone is doing it, albeit with varying aplomb. So it takes some extra effort to achieve relative excellence at PE/PR in John’s line of research, but he’s not complaining. In contrast, many (indeed, most!) scientists might not have it so easy getting PE/PR and hence need to actively engage in it to draw audiences in. However, when they are successful at PE/PR it might be easier for them to then stand out from the crowd.

Dr. Anne Osterrieder (again, let’s stick with Anne for short) is a Research and Science Communication Fellow, doing research on plant cells – – hello? Hello?! Are you still there? Nine out of ten people will react to this revelation with the question: ‘Why do you work on plants? Plants are boring, they don’t really do anything, do they?’ Most plant scientists agree that the apathy or even contempt displayed towards our poor plants stems from a lack of proper engagement, starting with the way plants are taught in schools. As such plant scientists need to make a conscious effort to engage the public with current plant research and highly topical issues such as food security or plant pathology. Cells have a higher ‘fascination potential’, as the huge success of BBC’s ‘The Hidden Life of the Cell’ showed. Communicating current cell biology becomes more challenging however the deeper we go.

 

With those introductions done, let’s see what our two scientists think about self-promotion and PE/PR:

BBC

You might have spotted John and collaborator James Proffitt on the BBC or in the New Yorker lately, engaging in penguin-promotion.

John:

While self-promotion among scientific researchers could be a slippery slope that leads to a spiral of egomaniacal aggrandizements and delusions of grandeur, how justifiable is this seemingly common perception? In extreme instances, namely the stereotyped – but perhaps relatively rare– “media whore” or “press hound” committing the faux pas of science-by-press-release, perhaps it is. But more commonly among scientists it may just be healthy behaviour. Almost every scientist probably does research because it brings them profound joy and satisfaction, indulging their curiosity. Is it selfish to share that positive, personal message? By turning the issue around like this, one might instead wonder, what’s the problem? Put it all out there, fly your science banner high! Screw the cynics.

But as in much of life, there probably is a happy medium of moderation: a middle ground, because both selfish and generous reasons might underlie “self promotion”. Such reasons can and probably do coexist not only in perfectly non-pathological, but highly PE/PR-committed, researchers, but perhaps even in most scientists. The problem is, self-promotion has taken on bad connotations to some, or even many, scientists. It can frequently be seen couched as “shameless self-promotion” when a person promotes their science, as if to apologize for the promotion and commit it in one fell swoop. Why apologize? Just do it?! If you’re having fun with it, someone else probably will too, and that’s reason enough.

And a second issue is what kind of self-promotion is being performed– is it about the individual and their self-perceived, self-appointed glory? Or is it about the science, even in a detached third person view? Or is not even self-promotion, but team-promotion, if we consider that so many scientists these days are vital parts of a team, not lone wolves? Such a distinction of self “vs.” science is too artificial a dichotomy because scientists, as human beings, tend to feel personally enmeshed in their research. Without it, they would lack the drive to do it, even though every good supervisor is “supposed” to warn us to stay objective as researchers. And the subtext behind that “stay objective” is to stay impersonal; i.e. detached, inhuman, drained of character, passive voice and all that. Boring! But there is still some merit in considering both (and other?) sides of the matter, because it is not unreasonable to predict that the first kind of promotion (selfish; aggrandizing) is more dangerous than the second (generous; celebratory), because it is the ego taking the stage rather than the science. At the same time, we need both sides: the human, fallible, witty, emotive ego and the dry, objective, methodical, taciturn science. Without the former; warts and all; science could be too frigid to be fun.

Many researchers probably find it healthy to reflect on how much self-promotion is too much, whatever the reasons (and to some degree the reasons may not matter!). But it is not just the promoters who deserve introspection about their own practice. Those perceiving others’ “self-promotion”, especially in a negative light, could benefit from scrutiny of their own perceptions. What makes them presume that the motivation behind self-promotion is a malignant one, or not? And is the reasoning behind their judgement as sound as they’d apply to other scientific judgements they make on a daily basis– what behaviour are they reading into and how?

Alternatively, why worry about it? Isn’t a good scientist one who celebrates good science, yours, your team’s, or someone else’s? Again, this comes back to how much self-promotion is too much, but from an external perspective. Researchers are likely to judge others’ promotional activities by their own standards, not those of the promoter. They may be making value judgements with no objective basis, or (with colleagues that are not well known to the individual, all too common on the internet) no empirical evidence to go by except a brief press release, blog post, tweet or news article. Indeed, a case could be made that there is no objective basis to such a value judgement, by definition. Semantics and slippery slopes toward postmodernism aside, perhaps there is even no point to judging others’ self-promotions– and why does one wish to judge? An inward look at our own motivations for judging others’ can be salutary.

A major point here is: it is easy to conflate or confuse selfish promotion and unselfish sharing-the-joy-of-science, and to a degree it does not matter. This is because inevitably it is what is presented that matters: the content, not so much as the intent, in addition to the feedback one gets from engaging the public with research. That content-with-feedback is what almost everyone outside of academia says we should be doing—who are we to argue? Maybe we should try harder to put self esteem and other internal issues aside, and enjoy good science promotion for what it is, not what we might fear it could be. Whether a scientist is a lone wolf or team wolf, there’s no big bad wolf’s huffing and puffing to fear from good self-promotion of science. Let’s focus on building a strong house of science, brick by brick; one that lasts, and one that people hear of and care about.

Anne’s great Vacuole Song; plant organnelle-promotion!

Anne:

Whenever I write something about science communication, I feel like I am treading on an extra-slippery slope. Science communication, outreach, public engagement, PR and promotion all can have very different meanings depending on who you talk to. When I was a full-time researcher, I’d never even have thought about that they could mean different things. To me they all were synonyms of ‘Hey, let’s tell the world how amazing our research and science is!’ Since I became involved in science communication, I have realised that promoting our research isn’t necessarily the same as engaging non-expert audiences. While promotion certainly has its place and benefits (for example institutions highlighting their groups’ research achievements in external newsletter and online), real engagement is not so much broadcasting but two-way communication. I would like to point to an excellent article by Steve Cross, Head of Public Engagement at University College London in a recent issue of British Science Association magazine ‘People & Science’.  Steve writes: ‘I don’t tell members of the public that ‘science is fun’ or that ‘science has the answers’. I don’t even treat science as one great big unified thing. Instead I help researchers to share what they do. The message is less ‘We’re great!’ and more ‘Here’s what we’re doing. What do you think?’

Participating in this dialogue-centred way of public engagement means however that, invariably, our specific research project will be the centre of attention. Most likely our person would be as well, since science isn’t (yet) carried out by autonomously working nano-robots. I would be very surprised if our audience saw such activities as self-promotion. I predict that they’d rather appreciate researchers ‘stepping out of the tower’ into the public and interact with non-experts. Would our peers see it as self-promotion? Probably not. What if we promoted our activities beforehand on Twitter and other online or offline channels? What if we wrote a summary of the event and reflections on it afterwards? What if we posted links to our content at different times during the day to make sure that different audiences saw it? What if we had several projects running in parallel and did this for all of them? The problem becomes apparent now and I am certain that at this point some peers would drop cynic remarks about ‘self-promotion’ or ‘attention whores’.

So, self-promotion is frowned upon. But if you think about it, our wole current academic system is based on self-promotion. When we submit a manuscript, we need to state in the cover letter why our research is novel and interesting. Even though scientific conferences are supposed to be about disseminating scientific results and initiate collaborations, they also serve the purpose of self-promotion. I don’t recall many talks with mainly negative, confusing or boring results (except maybe if a well established principal investigator was talking about their newest project and asking for feedback). Most early-career scientists would rather not submit an abstract if they haven’t got good data and wait until they can show nice results. Fact is, conferences are a big job interview for PhD students and post-docs. What about grants? Each proposal has dedicated sections for promoting yourself, your research group and your institute to increase your chances of getting a grant. Early-career researchers quickly have to learn how to write these bits, as otherwise they quickly will be at a disadvantage compared to those who can sell themselves well. I believe that there is a certain double standard around the issue of self-promotion in academia. On the one hand researchers accept it as a necessity to climb up the career ladder. On the other hand they might sneer at peers who put all of their Nature and Science references on slides in their talk. ‘What a complete showoff!’

If I follow someone on Twitter whose work I admire, say science writer Ed Yong or blogger Prof. Athene Donald, or who does cool research I am interested in, I want to read everything they publish. I appreciate them linking to their articles and papers, repeatedly, since I am bound to miss it otherwise. I loved seeing John’s BBC clip of rhino foot pressure experiments because I wanted to learn more about his research – and I loved seeing him talk about it in ‘real life’ rather than only reading his words! But if someone at my professional level, who I am competing with for fellowships or grants, was constantly posting links to their achievements, I would probably be less tolerable of them. I’d roll my eyes and think “show-off”! But I admit honestly that this would be based on a less-than-noble notions: envy, feeling threatened and insecurity about my own achievements being sufficient to succeed.

When I talked about Twitter and enhancing your online profile at our departmental Away Day someone said: “Our generation has been brought up as being humble, as not showing off, as not shouting out our achievements. So where is the border between self-promotion and being a complete d***?”  I don’t think that this is a generational thing, as many senior academics have no difficulties promoting themselves. At that time I bounced the question back to the audience and asked: ‘What do the younger ones think?’ There was silence and one PhD student said: ‘I think it’s OK. You have to do it – who else would do it otherwise?’ I suspect that being willing and able to sell yourself might be a personality rather than an age thing and that the line between ‘selling yourself’ and ‘showing off’ subjectively lies in the eye of the beholder. Whatever you think, times have changed and academic positions are getting scarce. Maybe we need another motto next to ‘publish or perish’ – ‘self-promote or perish?’ Having a decent publication record won’t guarantee a research job anymore, as the competition is fierce. ‘Getting your name out there’, enhancing your profile, building a network and being engaged however will make you stand out of the crowd – as long as your self-promotion activities build upon solid achievements and not on hot air. In that case, you might deserve eye-rolling.

Self-promotion is often frowned upon in academic circles. Generally it seems to be all right to promote ‘science’ or a whole field. Numerous times I have seen blogging scientists state – defend themselves! – that in many years of writing they never blogged about their own paper. But why not? If we follow the two-way model of public engagement described above, it would be perfectly fine to write a non-expert summary about one’s latest publication and say: ‘This is what I just published, and the story behind it. What do you think?’ Similarly, the benefit of open access papers embedded in a social media site structure is that it allows discussions with non-experts. This will work significantly quicker and efficient if the authors alert and direct potential audiences to their paper through as many communication channels as possible- an act that again can be seen as self-promotion. Is our academic culture with its subtle or open contempt of self-promotion maybe inadvertently hindering effective engagement?

What do you think? Chime in on the poll below.

If the poll does not show up above in your browser, click the link here to go directly to it (new window):

http://poll.fm/57siz

Conclusion:

Some context, first. As we finished this post together, Anne and John reflected on what got us working on it, back in August 2012:

Anne: “You wrote that you had these thoughts on self-promotion after you returned from the [British] Science Festival. Was there a specific incident that raised these thoughts, or just general thinking?

John: “I often think about what I tweet and the amount of it, and whether “me-tweeting” is such a bad thing as some on Twitter say it is. I was me-tweeting a bunch of responses to my BSF talk and I thought I should, much as I do the same when people post stories about my research papers etc. But in particular this BSF event, which was heavy PE, got me thinking on the train ride home about why some people would (cynically, in my view) see that as PR and shameful self-promotion.”

While the two views we presented above are from different backgrounds and perspectives and such, our thoughts reveal many elements common to both. Perhaps these commonalities apply to most scientists, but, but… There is a hulking science-gorilla in the room: cultural similarities and differences. We cannot neglect the HUGE issue of Western scientific culture that John and Anne and others have in common! In other cultures, self-promotion might be seen very differently; indeed in UK it seems to sneered at more than in the USA, as Brits tend to be less comfortable tooting their own horn (easy, now!). Some other cultures might have no problem with it at all. Others might find it abominable. However, how culture factors into self-promotion and PE/PR perceptions is a huge kettle of fish that we’re not quite ready to tackle, so we will turn that over for discussion in the comments here! How does your culture, whether very local (department?) or very broad (country/ethnicity) factor into this?

Or, if you prefer, please contribute your thoughts on how you handle or perceive the self-promotion vs. science-promotion (false) dichotomy as a scientist, science communicator and/or layperson? How do you determine what is a tolerable level of promotion?

P.T. Barnum said: “Without promotion something terrible happens… Nothing!

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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I’ll let the poll (prior post) run for a while but as it winds down I wanted to explain why I posted it:

In the past, I’ve often run into scientists who, when defending their published or other research, respond something like this:

“Yeah those data (or methods) might be wrong but the conclusions are right regardless, so don’t worry.”

And I’ve said things like that before. However, I’ve since realized that this is a dangerous attitude, and in many contexts it is wrong.

If the data are guesses, as in the example I gave, then we might worry about them and want to improve them. The “data are guesses” context that I set the prior post in comes from Garland’s 1983 paper on the maximal speeds of mammals– you can download a pdf here if this link works (or Google it). Basically the analysis shows that, as mammals get bigger, they don’t speed up as a simple linear analysis might show you. Rather, at a moderate size of around 50-100kg body mass or so, they hit a plateau of maximal speed, then bigger mammals tend to move more slowly. However, all but a few of the data points in that paper are guesses, many coming from old literature. The elephant data points are excessively fast in the case of African elephants, and on a little blog-ish webpage from the early 2000s we chronicled the history of these data– it’s a fun read, I think. The most important, influential data plot from that paper by Garland is below, and I love it– this plot says a lot:

Garland1983

I’ve worried about the accuracy of those data points for a long time, especially as analyses keep re-using them– e.g. this paper, this one, and this one, by different authors. I’ve talked to several people about this paper over the past 20 years or so. The general feeling has been in agreement with Scientist 1 in the poll, or the quote above– it’s hard to imagine how the main conclusions of the paper would truly be wrong, despite the unavoidable flaws in the data. I’d agree with that statement still: I love that Garland paper after many years and many reads. It is a paper that is strongly related to hypotheses that my own research seeks out to test. I’ve also tried to fill in some real empirical data on maximal speeds for mammals (mainly elephants; others have been less attainable), to improve data that could be put into or compared with such an analysis. But it is very hard to get good data on even near-maximal speeds for most non-domesticated, non-trained species. So the situation seems to be tolerable. Not ideal, but tolerable. Since 1983, science seems to be moving slowly toward better understanding of the real-life patterns that the Garland paper first inferred, and that is good.

But…

My poll wasn’t really about that Garland paper. I could defend that paper- it makes the best of a tough situation, and it has stimulated a lot of research (197 citations according to Google; seems low actually, considering the influence I feel the paper has had).

I decided to do the poll because thinking about the Garland paper’s “(educated) guesses as data” led me to think of another context in which someone might say “Yeah those data might be wrong but the conclusions are right regardless, so don’t worry.” They might say it to defend their own work, such as to deflect concerns that the paper might be based on flawed data or methods that should be formally corrected. I’ve heard people say this a lot about their own work, and sometimes it might be defensible. But I think we should think harder about why we would say such things, and if we are justified in doing so.

We may not just be making the best of a tough situation in our own research. Yes, indeed, science is normally wrong to some degree. A more disconcerting situation is that our wrongs may be mistakes that others will proliferate in the future. Part of the reasoning for being strict stewards of our own data is this: It’s our responsibility as scientists to protect the integrity of the scientific record, particularly of our own published research because we may know that best. We’re not funded (by whatever source, unless we’re independently wealthy) just to further our own careers, although that’s important too, as we’re not robots. We’re funded to generate useful knowledge (including data) that others can use, for the benefit of the society/institution that funds us. All the more reason to share our critical data as we publish papers, but I won’t go off on that important tangent right now.

In the context described in the latter paragraph and the overly simplistic poll, I’d tend to favour data over conclusions, especially if forced to answer the question as phrased. The poll reveals that, like me, most (~58%) respondents also would tend to favour data over conclusions (yes, biased audience, perhaps- social media users might tend to be more savvy about data issues in science today? Small sample size, sure,  that too!). Whereas very few (~10%) would favour conclusions, in the context of the poll. The many excellent comments on the poll post reveal the trickier nuances behind the poll’s overly simplistic question, and why many (~32%) did not favour one answer over the other.

If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you may be familiar with a post in which I ruminated over my own responsibilities and conundrums we face in work-life balance, personal happiness, and our desires to protect ourselves or judge/shame others. And if you’ve closely followed me on Twitter or Facebook, you may have noticed we corrected a paper recently and retracted another. So I’ve stuck by my guns lately, as I long have, to correct my team’s work when I’m aware of problems. But along the way I’ve learned a lot, too, about myself, science, collaboration, humanity, how to improve research practice or scrutiny, and the pain of errors vs. the satisfaction of doing the right thing. I’ve had some excellent advice from senior management at the RVC along the way, which I am thankful for.

I’ve been realizing I should minimize my own usage of the phrase “The science may be flawed but the conclusions are right.” That can be a more-or-less valid defence, as in the case of the classic Garland paper. But it can also be a mask (unintentional or not) that hides fear that past science might have real problems (or even just minor ones that nonetheless deserve fixing) that could distract one away from the pressing issues of current science. Science doesn’t appreciate the “pay no attention to the person behind the curtain” defence, however. And we owe it to future science to tidy up past messes, ensuring the soundness of science’s data.

We’re used to moving forward in science, not backward. Indeed, the idea of moving backward, undoing one’s own efforts, can be terrifying to a scientist– especially an early career researcher, who may feel they have more at risk. But it is at the very core of science’s ethos to undo itself, to fix itself, and then to move on forward again.

I hope that this blog post inspires other scientists to think about their own research and how they balance the priorities of keeping their research chugging along but also looking backwards and reassessing it as they proceed. It should become less common to say “Yeah those data might be wrong but the conclusions are right regardless, so don’t worry.” Or it might more common to politely question such a response in others. As I wrote before, there often are no simple, one-size-fits-all answers for how to best do science. Yet that means we should be wary of letting our own simple answers slip out, lest they blind us or others.

Maybe this is all bloody obvious or tedious to blog readers but I found it interesting to think about, so I’m sharing it. I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.

Coming soon: more Mystery Anatomy, and a Richard Owen post I’ve long intended to do.

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A short post that guest-tweeting at the  Biotweeps account on Twitter got me thinking about– featuring a poll.

Imagine this: two scientists (colleagues, if you’re a scientist) are arguing thusly. Say it’s an argument about a classic paper in which much of the data subjected to detailed statistical analyses are quantitative guesses, not hard measurements. This could be in any field of science.

Scientist 1: “Conclusions are what matter most in science. If the data are guesses, but still roughly right, we shouldn’t worry much. The conclusions will still be sound regardless. That’s the high priority, because science advances by ideas gleaned from conclusions, inspiring other scientists.”

Scientist 2: “Data are what matter most in science. If the data are guesses, or flawed in some other way, this is a big problem and scientists must fix it. That’s the high priority, because science advances by data that lead to conclusions, or to more science.”

Who’s right? Have your say in this anonymous poll (please vote first before viewing results!):

link: http://poll.fm/4xf5e

[Wordpress is not showing the poll on all browsers so you may have to click the link]

And if you have more to say and don’t mind being non-anonymous, say more in the Comments- can you convince others of your answer? Or figure out what you think by ruminating in the comments?

I’m genuinely curious what people think. I have my own opinion, which has changed a lot over the past year. And I think it is a very important question scientists should think about, and discuss. I’m not just interested in scientists’ views though; anyone science-interested should join in.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

Adorable baby Cuban crocodile.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ominous onlooker.

Ominous onlooker.

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

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

Another subject awaits science.

Another subject awaits science.

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

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

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

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

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

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

The ill-fated forceplate and experimental area.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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