How does research environment shape science and life outside of science?

This is the second in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. See part 1 here.


Jesse Miller collects field data to investigate how soil, habitat connectivity, and fire history influences plant communities in the Ozark Mountains. Image courtesy of Jesse Miller.

All scientists try – or should try – their best to adhere to the scientific method. They pose a curious and contemporarily-relevant question about how something works, usually with a general idea of what they expect to find; they cleverly design a way to go about testing this question; they put in some hard work to carry out an experiment; and they examine the results to see if a preconceived idea about the question makes any sense. Usually it doesn’t, and it’s back to step one. This seemingly ancient cyclical process is the foundation upon which scientists base their life’s work. Traditionally this work took place either out in the natural world or in the laboratory. As we expand our knowledge base in an era of rapid growth in many scientific fields, people are also pushing the boundaries of where science takes place (click here for an interesting example). As scientists are specialists in their subject field, they also become specialists in their research environment. I wondered which aspects of working in different research environments are similar, and which are different? And how does dealing with these common and unique challenges transfer to life outside of science?

To gather some insight, I interviewed a scientist working in each of four research environments: outdoors in the field, and indoors in the laboratory, the office, and the classroom.

See the full story on Entomology Today.

In search of an alternative career at the 25th International Congress of Entomology

Research is what we learn to do in graduate school. For most students, this is a steep learning curve. Some students, like me, eagerly accept the challenge. We spend weekends and nights in the field or at the lab. We lose ourselves in collecting data; running samples, measuring things, compiling the numbers, graphing the results, and searching the literature for insights into what might be driving the patterns in the point scatters, bars, and error bars. Maybe we don’t have a clear direction or plan at first; we just desperately want to be doing science, learning something new about the world around us. Simply being present in the lab felt productive because it was truly an enchanted place; it was the birthplace of discovery. At this stage, and for years after, I pursued research wholeheartedly, following my scientific interests around North America. Other students (maybe the smart ones) recognize right away that research is not for them, and begin to plan accordingly for a career outside of research while still in graduate school (which must be fairly difficult to do in the midst of people who seem to know only about one thing: research). I always thought I would be a professor because graduate school was such a natural, easy fit for me. What I didn’t count on was that I would spend a lot of time waiting in the queue for a tenure-track position. My interests changed during this time, and I found myself in a place I no longer wanted to be, with little knowledge of what one with a research background might do outside of research. Was it too late for me to transition to something else? I had no idea if that was the case, or where to start looking for something else. I began my search in my network, because after all, that is what professional networks are for, right? So, strangely enough, at the largest meeting of Entomologists in history, where research was probably at the forefront of most attendees’ minds, I was in search of something different.

Women from all different career stages come together to chat about science and life at the Women in Entomology breakfast in Orlando, held annually at Entomological Society of America meetings.

I was nervous that this would be a difficult task amongst people inhabiting traditional careers. Regardless, I was motivated by my new interests, with energy enough for leads that might or might not pan out. What this plan consisted of was me asking practically everyone I knew whether they knew anyone or any opportunities in writing, editing, or publishing (some of my newly-identified interests), or someone who had built a career around a place they wanted to live (a growing interest of mine and an unwritten no-no for seekers of traditional research positions). I got some good leads (I hope) and I plan to follow them up. Before the conference I had also connected with colleagues via email and phone conversations, asking questions and following up leads about alternative paths. These exchanges had ranged from mildly useful to extremely helpful. I expected a similar result at the Congress. I was surprised by what I got, and by my reaction to it. Perhaps it was the in-person aspect of a conference that demands an emotional investment in conversation not required with phone calls and emails, or perhaps it was the larger, more random sampling of people I connected with (out of 6500 people, I talked to around 75 or so).

A dichotomy of inspiration and heavy empathy surrounded my thoughts as I progressed through the week in Orlando. From some I heard (and sensed) fear for their uncertain futures, or loss and struggle from jobs not offered. From others I heard clever and interesting solutions to integrate personal and professional happiness into a complete life. Graduate students and postdocs told me about projects they hoped could be finished soon, so they could publish their work and be competitive for fellowships and jobs. The unspoken consensus seemed to be that whatever they had accomplished so far, it wasn’t enough (see more on this here and here). Others told me of jobs they desperately wanted and had fiercely prepared for, but were not offered. Even worse, some of those jobs had been offered to people with fewer accomplishments, less experience, or more limited skill sets. I could relate to this, because it had happened to me more than once. These struggles can leave people in a dark place (see more on this here and here).

I have spent many hours thinking about how to solve this problem. Because it is rooted in policy and the big business of higher education, there is no easy or quick solution. There are simply too many highly-qualified and highly-educated people searching for too few jobs right now (see here, here, and here for more). As an individual, I feel I can best contribute to the solution by listening to others, providing emotional and what little professional support I can for them. I firmly believe in the strength of our scientific community to help one another get through this difficult time in our field. People are resilient (otherwise we would not have survived as a species). What inspires me is learning about the clever ways people successfully circumnavigate obstacles and overcome challenges, both professionally and personally. I’m especially curious about people who continue to do research, but not in a full-time capacity or institutional position. For example, at the conference I heard about a scientist who followed his wife to the location of her dream job; no job was immediately available for him there, so he set up a lab in his house and continued his research independently. The setting was unconventional, yet he successfully obtained funding, and he was able to pursue his personal and professional passions. This is not a story I would have likely heard in graduate school. A dear friend of mine – and a brilliant scientist – shared a lovely outlook on science with me at the Congress. She loves research, but she doesn’t let it dictate her life; she does science when she wants and how she wants. She has made a decision that what’s most important to her is being in the same location as her husband. She selects only projects of great interest to her. She goes on research expeditions with other scientists, and uses her colleagues’ lab equipment and space on occasion. She doesn’t have a formal position or title at an institution (even though her accomplishments make her very deserving of this), prestige which she deems unnecessary compared with happiness in her personal life and freedom to do what science she likes. Clearly, not all decisions to avoid a permanent research position are (or should be) dictated by a person’s partner; those examples were a few I happened across in Orlando.

I recognize that age and career stage likely has a lot to do with what I heard at the conference. Some degree of fear is unavoidable when people are just leaving the safe nest of graduate school, readying themselves to be independent and responsible for their own fate. The limited job market that young people face also has a lot to do with this fear. My experience at the Congress illustrates the importance of community in supporting careers (see my post on how conferences provide emotional support), no matter what their trajectory. A lot of encouragement can be had from hearing about how other people overcome personal and professional challenges. And of course, learning of professional opportunities and following up on them is key. What I’ve learned so far is that a huge energy investment is required to propel yourself into a career transition. I have a feeling the payoff will be worth it. I try to focus on finding what it is I like to do most, finding a way to keep that in my life, while carefully considering the sacrifices I’m willing to make to have the things I want most in life. Below I list some online resources on career transitions and alternatives to academia that I’ve found helpful.

-Science Careers, individual development plan

-The Chronicle of Higher Education, advice

career advice, Inside Higher ED

transition from scientist to science writer

blog about doing science

Young researchers thrive in life after academia

-Most importantly – talk to people in your network about your interests; you might be pleasantly surprised by what you find out!

Update (October 14, 2016): Here’s an inspiring article about a researcher’s alternative path to academia

Update (November 10, 2016): Another interesting article on a science communication alternative to research

Update (November 14, 2016): A great book I discovered on how to plan and negotiate a job search post-PhD: Next Gen PhD: a guide to career paths in science, by Melanie V. Sinche

Interviews from the Women in Entomology Breakfast at the 2016 International Congress of Entomology

The Women in Entomology Breakfast is an annual tradition that began in 1989 at the Entomological Society of America meetings. I asked several women what they liked best about the Breakfast, including long-time organizer Gail Kampmeier and Ento-Allies member Gwen Pearson. Watch the interviews on Entomology Today.

The Breakfast has a fascinating history that began with pink post-it notes in the women’s bathroom. Read Gwen Pearson’s account of it on Entomology Today.

Ash and emerald ash borer: how do trees defend themselves from a deadly beetle?

This is the first in a series where I peek into the lives of scientists. 

Adult emerald ash borer resting on a leaf. Image credit: Justin Whitehill

You have probably heard about a tiny green beetle from Asia that is blazing across North America, leaving millions of ash trees in its wake (see where and how many here ).  The emerald ash borer (EAB) is one of a growing number of invasive species that are able to dominate ecosystems to which they have been introduced by proliferating uncontrollably. This reduces biodiversity and can disrupt normal ecosystem functions. Invasive species can achieve this feat because they lack a shared evolutionary history with existing species in the ecosystems that they invade. EAB is one of, if not the most destructive alien species to invade North American forests to date (Annu Rev Entomol, 59, 13-30 ). EAB kills nearly every ash tree that it encounters, and it is spreading across the continent at an alarmingly rapid rate. The future for ash trees looks bleak.

But scientists are working hard to find a way to help ash trees survive EAB’s onslaught. Justin Whitehill began studying EAB soon after it was discovered in North America. His dissertation was a quest to find out exactly what allows ash species from EAB’s native home to survive beetle attack, and what defensive capabilities are lacking in North American ash species.

I interview Justin on what unfolded as he pursued the answer. Read the full story at Entomology Today.

Down with jargon!

I thought of a fun exercise we can all contribute to. It’s partly inspired by this article (see the section entitled “Inoculating against jargonitis” by Helen Sword), and partly by the multitudes of papers I read and review that are chock-full of indecipherable terms and phrases (often strings of nouns, interestingly) that I have to pause and consider for way too long before I can extract any meaning from them. Jargon bogs down our ability to communicate and instantly loses the attention of the people we are (usually) most trying to get our message across to (see Carl Zimmer’s Index of Banned Words that he uses in his science writing classes here, and Ed Yong’s perspective on scientific jargon). Of course, technical terms do have their place in explaining complex techniques to specialized audiences (see a careful analysis of scientific jargon here). The vast majority of the time, jargon is unnecessary and unwanted.

img_1337I realized when I sat down to write this, that a comprehensive list of commonly used terms and phrases that make me cringe and then go straight to Google didn’t come to mind immediately. So, let’s make that list.

Let’s raise our jargon-spotting awareness. Just thinking about which terms and phrases might be meaningless to others (anyone from our closest colleagues to laypeople who rarely think about science) is a good mental exercise. We may learn to think twice about these overly-technical words next time we are about to use them. And we can have a good laugh at the same time…

So don’t be shy; add your favorite jargon terms or phrases along with a translation in plain English to the comments section, and I’ll add them to the table below. Let’s see how many we can deconstruct!

Jargon term or phrase Plain English
significant statistically meaningful
error term variability
natural enemy parasite or predator
negative feedback inhibitory process
positive feedback self-reinforcing (or encouraging) process
bottom-up regulation food availability controls herbivore numbers
top-down regulation predators control prey numbers
primary insect plant-killing insect
secondary insect Insect that kills stressed plants
susceptible edible
anthropogenic human-caused
utilize use
employ use
demographic rate death and birth rates
normality whether numbers fit a bell-shaped curve
in situ actual location
positive correlation two variables increase together

More on jargon:

This is a humorous translation of some technical phrases commonly used in science and their most probable actual meaning.

-Another good list of scientific jargon plus some translations.

Update (November 8, 2016): A peripherally-related article reports that biologists are starting to write in a less formal style, and this could be good for building a better connection with readers.

Update April 21, 2017: New study on how science is becoming less readable over time

Review of Lab Girl: a story of how and why science and plants excite us, told through a resoundingly human lens

IMG_1293In Lab Girl, Hope Jahren weaves a tale of wonder and passion mixed with struggle. Her story is painful at times; just when it’s about to become a tear-jerker, she softens the tone by shifting to a vivid description of how plants navigate the world. Human problems then seem infinitesimally small in comparison. Jahren’s narrative weaves in and out between her life and the lives of plants, bringing a surreal, almost fairy-tale quality to the story.  Yet, because the scenes and inner-workings of what she relates are heartbreakingly honest, Lab Girl also takes on a raw quality that anyone who is familiar with human struggle will be able to relate to.

The over-arching theme of plants, how they grow, survive, reproduce, and defend themselves parallels Jahren’s own struggles to grow up, prosper in male-centric academia, slog through a difficult pregnancy, and somehow come out the other side, confident in herself and hopeful for what life will unfold for her next.

Lab Girl opens with Jahren as a girl. She spends her free time in her father’s laboratory, a formative starting point that launches the trajectory of her path in life. There she recognizes that doing science will be a necessity, that it will motivate her existence. This kind of fundamental dedication should inspire all of us. From her deeply-rooted passion, Jahren conveys her respect for the scientific process, for the tools and equipment that make new discoveries possible, and for the blood, sweat and tears that drive the work from start to finish. Many scientists would do well to pause a moment to appreciate these things that Jahren so eloquently describes as part of a delicate and methodical dance, a calming rhythm that affords escape from worry through the simplicity of edging towards the goal of finishing a set of measurements.

Jahren’s pursuit of research was not without intense emotional hardship, as she will tell you frankly. She describes how she doesn’t quite fit into society as a traditional woman, but also how she doesn’t quite fit into her own professional world – an awkward feeling that probably more than a few of us can relate to. Early in her career, Jahren manages to create an existence that sounds tedious at best. She stays true to her passion, and eventually succeeds in carving out a more comfortable niche. Her greatest asset in all of this is her technician, Bill.

Jahren and Bill develop a true and lasting partnership that seems rare in the sciences, and in life. Most of us know that it’s impossible to do science alone. These days, collaborations are almost essential because national funding pools have shrunk to alarmingly small puddles (Jahren will give you some details on pages 122-125). Jahren hits on a different aspect of collaborative relationships that isn’t mentioned often, which is steadfast emotional support. A true partner is there to tell you that together you’ll overcome all obstacles: when you lose your way and you’re not sure if you can finish the work, or if you can solve the problem at hand. When a partner is truly by your side, his or her confidence leaks into your full self and you actually do feel that you can accomplish anything through the synergism that you’ve created together.

Bill stays by Jahren’s side through all the ups and downs, a champion of loyalty, even living in his car when there’s no funding for his salary. Jahren is lucky and she knows it. Bill is at the heart of all of her science; it’s hard to imagine it existing without him. There are countless “Bills” out there, people who truly make science happen. Sadly, so many of these people go un-recognized and even un-thanked for their extraordinary efforts. Jahren does all of them a service, by telling her own story and giving Bill a leading role in it.

We are privileged to see the world through Jahren’s eyes. Lab Girl will resonate with any audience, with those who already knew or haven’t yet realized that they were interested in natural science. I eagerly await her next tale.


Update (October 6, 2016): Check out this great interview with Hope on why she wrote the book.