Holding a whole species in your hand

FromDavid Sischo on facebook (with accompanying photo):

“Have you ever held an entire species in your hand? Its hard to describe how this makes one feel. Exhilarated, filled with deep sadness at the state of the world, terrified that these beings are in our care, but also relieved that we intervened before this species met oblivion. Around a year ago the last six Achatinella fulgens, an endangered tree snail species once common in the gulches and ridges surrounding Honolulu, were brought to our DLNR captive rearing facility. This is after the habitat this last population occupied slumped down the mountain leaving all of the trees knocked down. From six we now have 22! It feels as though we are trying to start a fire that was left unattended and only a tiny ember remains. I guess we’ll just keep fanning the flame.” #racingextinction #extinction #hawaii #oahu #honolulu #conservation#kahuli #nature #wildlife #inourhands #fantheflame



Working deeply towards a more balanced life in academia

Sara Wilbur is a second-year master’s student studying hibernation physiology at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In her previous life, she toured the country as a violinist with a folk orchestra called Patchy Sanders. Sara recently returned to her hometown of Fairbanks to be with family and to unlock the mysteries of telomere dynamics in arctic ground squirrels. She also enjoys delicious beer, knitting, and skijoring with her husky mutt.


Deep Work by Cal Newport was introduced to me by Dr. Kevin Winker, curator of birds at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Museum of the North. I took a course from him in spring 2017 called Advanced Explorations in Genomics. In our last class of the semester, Kevin recommended the book to us nine graduate students and I followed his suggestion. The central message of the book is that focused, undistracted effort devoted to mastering difficult concepts efficiently produces work of true quality and value. In it, Newport discusses the social media time sink, busyness as a mask for true productivity, and how the ability to work deeply is a valuable skill in today’s economy.

I felt so inspired by Deep Work that I interviewed Kevin late July 2017 to discuss Newport’s ideas. Kevin is a kind, thoughtful person who provides an invigorating balance of support and challenge in conversation; talking with him was a pleasure. I left our chat feeling inspired to continue honing my focused working habits.

Sara Wilbur: Can you paraphrase Cal Newport’s definition of deep work? 

Kevin Winker: Scheduled periods of intense focus on a topic of interest. [Newport] is certainly not the first to recognize the importance of regular scheduling of intense focus to achieve a refined product when tackling complex mental tasks.

SW: If he’s not the first to describe this sort of work, why now write an entire book about it? 

KW: With increased electronic access to things like social media, computers, Google, etc., our lives and our attention spans have become much more fractured and there is a cost to be paid for that. We are constantly distracted and we are always interested in the next shiny object that passes by. Those environmental effects and that fracturing cause us to lose the ability to focus intensely on a single topic. And our brains love to be distracted, they love instant gratification, and that is something that has to be fought against to enhance quantity and quality of product.

SW: On your note that we’re predisposed to distraction, what I think, and what Newport describes, is that society actually encourages distraction via the importance placed on social media, instant email responses, etc. 

KW: Absolutely. You have to have the ability to control your immersion in it. It is difficult to control how much time you spend with those distracting things. Twitter is a fantastic tool for science and for social aspects. However, there is only so much time in a day, and how, in our business, are you going to be successful in producing the product that brings that success? Rigorously holding back those distractions becomes a critical skill. And it’s really hard.

SW: Newport has a section detailing how you can fit deep work into your life no matter what your schedule, lifestyle, or career. He thinks that no matter what your obligations are there is a way to regularly fit in periods of deep work.

KW: Yes. Schedule your time and follow through. It can be tough, especially with so many distractions. One of my career’s most important papers took nearly ten years to complete because it was an incredibly complicated problem. Simply beating my head against for years wasn’t necessarily solving it. That’s a nice thing I like about multitasking projects. Having Task “A” percolating in your brain when you switch to Task “B” can be quite helpful because it’s just sitting there, stewing, and sometimes new insights can just pop into your head.

SW: Yes. Newport is a big advocate for focusing singularly on a project. However, some complex problems get solved in your unconscious. You can pop it in back there and trust that your unconscious is going to work on it even after you’ve shifted your conscious focus to another project.

One thing I really like about the book is that Newport convinces us that deep work produces work of value.

KW: Yes, and quality of work is higher. You can still produce things of value in a fractured existence. I tend to reserve things like making tables and figures for times when my brain isn’t at its best. You can also create product of quality in a more fractured existence, but not product of complex quality.

Speaking of a more fractured existence, email is potentially a bottomless sink of potentially important and unimportant communication. I try to look at it just a few times a day.

SW: That can be hard to do. You have to turn off all the little dings that let you know when something new comes in.

KW: Never use them. Never use those. Ever! The first thing you do when you pick up a new piece of software is figure out how to prevent it from badgering you.

SW: I think email is a perfect example of what Newport calls “busyness as a proxy for productivity.” I could be sending high-quality, well-written emails all day. I would be making progress in terms of my communication with colleagues, but I wouldn’t be making progress with the nuts and bolts of my research.

KW: Right. Critical to recognize that.

I’m still learning how to be more productive, and how to be a better writer. I remember sitting down, talking with Terry Chapin [Professor Emeritus, University of Alaska Fairbanks], and I said, Terry, how are you so productive? He said, well, I keep a list. I said, gee, I keep a list too! [Pulls list out of pocket]. And I said, but how do you get so many papers done? And Terry said, I always keep something of mine at the top.

And that emphasized the fact that we can be so accommodating to others that we bump our own priorities in favor of satisfying someone else’s request. Terry’s key words there are that your projects have just as much priority as anyone else’s. Since then, I’ve been unembarrassed about my priorities being equal to anyone else’s.

SW: I was recently listening to a podcast interview with Newport and he said he doesn’t let his mood affect how he works. He doesn’t let how he’s feeling compromise his preplanned work schedule. I was curious what you thought about that, and to what level this is realistic and how one can find a healthy work-life balance.

KW: I agree with him. Deep work and productivity of the kind we’ve been talking about require a very strong commitment. That time you’ve set for yourself to work on things of high priority is so precious and you can’t bump it around. Didn’t he talk about training yourself to do this kind of work?

SW: Yes, he calls it deliberate practice, [where] you’re consistently, every day, training your mind to avoid distractions and to become comfortable with boredom.

KW: I love that. I’ve become a big fan of boredom. What I do when I am in a boring situation is bring out the series of questions in my mind that I’ve been waiting to work through and use that time to solve complex problems. I now look forward to boring times!

When you schedule that time that you know is precious, and that you know enriches your life and your life’s success, and you enjoy spending it, yeah, maybe it doesn’t give you the instant gratification that Twitter and Facebook and the internet would give you, but you know it gives you long-term gratification. So, buckle up and do it. Part of that discipline, that deliberate practice, part of making that work is doing it every day. Even with one hour every day, you can move a mountain with a teaspoon. You just have to go at that thing every day, with your teaspoon. You’ll feel so good with your progress and with the amount of material you can move.

My interview with Kevin was engaging and insightful. Our discussion further convinced me that to produce work of real value, I need to dedicate regular periods of intense, focused work on tasks that will advance meaningful progress. However, I left the conversation still curious about how effective work leads to fulfillment that seeps into your non-working life. Since starting my masters in 2016, I’ve been an advocate for working smarter, rather than harder. Some part of me knew that it was possible to make progress while still having a happy life outside of the lab. However, I felt surrounded by supervisors and peers who practice unsustainable work habits. How could I be sure that it was acceptable to allow myself consistent free time in the evenings and on weekends?

I found my answer in Deep Work. Newport advocates focused, intelligent work in the office. He suggests laying your work to rest at a reasonable hour and picking it up the next morning with a fresh, relaxed mind. Interestingly, however, Kevin does not seem to heed this bit of Newport’s philosophy. I asked him if deep work constrained between 9 am and 5 pm improved his overall quality of life, and he neatly sidestepped my question before moving on to another subject. Although he values smart work while on the job, he works very long hours, works at home, and works on the weekends. Perhaps his immense time investment in his work is fulfilling in and of itself. For me, I prefer and seek a balance, and found support for this personal conviction in Deep Work.

I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children  

In an exceptional piece over at Scientific American, Rebecca Calisi talks about the difficulty of not only being a woman in the science work place, but of being a mother.

I have pulled out some of the interesting passages below, but you really should stop what you’re doing and go read the whole piece.


“I never used to notice these things. Of course, I was keenly aware of various other challenges women faced in the workplace, having both seen and experienced sexual harassment and gender bias on many occasions. I was also aware of the gut-wrenching statistics that revealed how having a baby negatively impacts career advancement for women. In an attempt to combat and overcome such things, I took a proactive approach: I attended women-in-science meetings and workshops, served on multiple committees to address women-in-science issues and participated in various outreach programs to support girls in science.

But I didn’t really understand how unjust the academic system was for career advancement for women until I had children.

From the moment we enter the beginning stages of starting a family, many of us are forced to do battle with various health issues, including nausea, nerve and lower back pain, dehydration, anemia and flat-out exhaustion. In the U.S., however, we are met with little to no prepartum assistance in the workplace. The time afforded to us for maternity leave, paid or unpaid, is hugely insufficient, and the severe lack of postpartum medical care for mothers in our country is unconscionable. Despite a mountain of research findings emphasizing the importance of maternal physical and mental health for both mother and child, our policies to support women during this time—or lack thereof—are illogical and shortsighted.

Concerning my own experiences, I could talk about how the only medical care I received postpartum involved a quick physical checkup, followed by a mental health questionnaire that alerted my doctor to my level of “baby blues.” But this only led to recommendations like, “try to get some more sleep,” “don’t forget to drink lots of water” and “maybe try talking to a therapist?”

I could tell you about how women who deign to pursue a career and have a family are often sentenced to the expectations that we must work as if family did not exist—and parent as if work did not exist.

Being a woman, a scientist and now a mother in a system created for and by white men with stay-at-home partners obviously has its problems. Many of us are either pushed out or decide to set sail for smoother waters. Sometimes when I hear exclamations of “we need to inspire more women to pursue the sciences!” I think: We’re here! We want to do science! But how can we when, to advance, we’re forced to run at double the speed of our male colleagues on a career track clouded by bias and covered in LEGOs?

Sometimes people ask me why I bother to stay in a career so hostile to women. I remind them the culture is changing, more quickly in some places than others. I also remind them it is not just science or academia in general that harbors this sex-biased hostility. My friends in law, business and entertainment have horrified me with unjust tales from their workplaces. And yet many of us stay the course, determined to both overcome and overturn obstacles in our paths to pursue our goals and passions. We do so by standing on the shoulders of fierce women who came before us, our forward momentum toward a destination made visible by their efforts, a hand hopefully extended behind us to pull up those even less privileged.

That’s when it occurred to me. The conference organizers wanted to support the needs of their nursing attendees—or at minimum avoid negative attention. They just didn’t know how. I got to work on listing all of the ways conferences could make their events more family-friendly, especially for working mothers, and why this benefits everyone.

Realizing my suggestions were born out of my own experiences and viewpoints, I called upon the power of diversity to help solve this childcare-conference conundrum. I organized a working group of 45 fellow mothers-in-science, composed of postdocs, assistant and tenured professors, scientists working in industry, National Academy of Science members, science journal editors, and an MD. In addition, approximately a forth of us were members of underrepresented groups in science in the U.S.. I uploaded my manuscript draft to a shared cloud drive and witnessed edits, suggestions, and revisions pour in from my co-authors in real time.”



Crocheted and Ebroided Bacteria

Elin Thomas creates petri dishes filled with mold, but she’s not using any week-old peanut butter sandwiches. The fiber artist builds her science experiments using a felted wool base, and then carefully crafts individual growths using crochet and embroidery techniques. Most of her creations are set in authentic 8cm borosilicate glass petri dishes, although she also makes free-form brooches and other accessories in a similar style.

How cool is that! Read about it here.


Most Embarrassing Field Work Fails

I think it’s important to talk about failure. To talk about struggle. To make it clear that none of this is easy, and your struggle is shared by others. No one is perfect, we’re all here to help.

Which is why field work fails are HILARIOUS.

Check out an excellently illustrated list here, or check out a few select ones below. scientist-blunders-fieldwork-fail-jim-jourdane-4-59ad079b5fdc3__700scientist-blunders-fieldwork-fail-jim-jourdane-15-59ad07b75668d__700scientist-blunders-fieldwork-fail-jim-jourdane-17-59ad07baf1981__700

Being the non-academic boss lady

Dawn is one of the smartest, most dynamic, most interesting scientists I have ever had the pleasure of interacting with. Her decision to move into a non-academic setting started me thinking about making the shift myself. In summary: she’s been a role model and a good friend for a long time. When I approached her about writing a post for this series, she was happy to provide some thoughts on her experience.


I have become the person my academic friends send their students to when they make noises about leaving the academia. I even have a piece out for Versatile PhD that delves into why I left; how I modified my resume and cover letters; and advice I’d give to those heading into non-academic positions. While my experience is captivating and illuminating, it is a singular event and no one should (have to) approach leaving academia by the seat of their pants the way I did. In fact, one of my biggest professional pet peeves now that I am entrenched outside of academia, is how non-academic job prospects are considered an afterthought. Or worse, when people think, “If my academic thing doesn’t work out, I’ll just get a job in industry,” but don’t consider what other skills they might want or need to develop to thrive in a career outside of academia. It is the anthesis of science, leaving something so important to chance rather than trying to control or at least be aware of all the variables!

I for one would have taken communicating my research more seriously and committed to doing it with intention and impact by enrolling in a marketing course and attending workshops on social media engagement, writing blog posts, and understanding google analytics. My first job out of academia was the Director of Conservation Education and Research at the Huyck Preserve and Biological Research station a 2,000 acre preserve in upstate New York. During my tenure I was not only responsible for connecting research activities to conservation and education programs, but I was also tasked with expanding the school field trip program to more school districts and growing the recreation program. I certainly figured out how to create and implement a marketing and communication plan for both programs, ultimately reaching five school districts and over 600 students with a research-based invasive species monitoring program and doubling guided hike attendance, but those skills were acquired while I was also figuring out how to write a curriculum suitable for K-12 students and pursing collaborations with local university students and professors to provide expert led guided hikes.

Did I mention at the same time I was also developing a high school research course from scratch and managing a research grant program? Because that’s where I could have used a finance or accounting course, helpful for when you are managing your own grants, an entire granting program, and for when you’re trying to determine the appropriate tuition to cover program expenses. Also handy for when you go head to head with the Board of Directors over the annual budget after getting promoted to Executive Director 2.5 years later. Speaking of boards, I would highly recommend a course on meeting facilitation. Robert’s Rule’s only scratches the surface and really doesn’t apply to entering a strategic planning process with a regional network of colleges/universities, non-profit preserves, and government agencies intent on informing regional sustainable management practices. I can also say that someone with facilitation skills makes working groups infinitely more productive placing you at the top of the list for research collaborations.

Oh, and before I forget, start talking to someone now about achieving work-life balance. I would like to directly challenge the wholesale statement that leaving academia leads to a life of leisure. It depends on the job, culture of the organization, and your personality. For example, non-profits, because they operate on charitable gifts, may not be staffed at capacity leading to a few people wearing many, many hats (case in point: Director of Conservation Education and Research, that kids, is three jobs in one!). I erroneously thought when I left academia that a majority of non-academic positions were 9-5 and then proceeded to work 50-60 hour weeks (80-90 Memorial through Labor Day) for five years because I loved what I was doing and there was no one else to do it. I wouldn’t have changed it for the world (well maybe a little) but it also wasn’t sustainable. I would have seriously benefited from a training on managing work-life balance so that I could have set boundaries for myself and my employers.

I know I am one data point and it’s easy for me to offer a list of courses and trainings now that I am done with school (although I frequently contemplate going back to school for my MBA) but my opinions are also colored by my newest position as the director of a postdoctoral fellowship program, NatureNet Science Fellows, and internal science professional development for scientists at The Nature Conservancy. I talk to a lot of people about what science professional development should look like within and outside of the Conservancy. If you must prioritize, science communication, specifically the ability to speak or write about your own research and identify appropriate outlets for outreach, ranks high on the list along with skills in project management, including budgeting and managing a team. After that, it really would behoove you to consider, “If I left academia, what job would I take and what skills would I need to succeed?”



Scuba Flies

In California’s Mono Lake—whose alkaline waters are deadly to most insects—these diving flies don’t just survive; they thrive.

To survive in this harsh environment, the flies perform a feat that Mark Twain described with great fascination in 1872. “You can hold them under water as long as you please—they do not mind it—they are only proud of it,” he wrote in a passage of his book Roughing It. “When you let them go, they pop up to the surface as dry as a patent office report.”

This is the best description ever, and makes me want to go into taxonomy.

Read more about these aberrations here!