To stay or to go: making the decision

In revisiting my academia to industry series, I’ve decided to write down some of the advice I’ve given in response to questions from those in academia since starting my job in industry. The scariest part of leaving academia was the venturing into the unknown. I’m going to write down things I wish I had known before starting this adventure, and you’re welcome to come along.

The first step on the journey from one career path to another is making the decision to go. Sometimes this happens organically. I have a friend whose postdoc advisor left her faculty position to help found a biotech startup, and my friend followed her from the University to the real world. Another friend who met someone at an academic conference and was offered a position in industry. These transitions happened seamlessly.

For me, it was a monumental decision that took me over a year to make, and another year to implement.

It started with an inkling, “I’m not sure I want to keep doing this.” I had started the career path towards the ivory tower with some basic understandings: I would never be wealthy, my choice of living locations would be limited, and I would work hard all the time. But I also saw some benefits in academia: I could pursue questions that I am interested in indefinitely. I could approach interesting ideas, and spend time collecting and analyzing data. I could hang out with people who are as passionate about biology as I am, indefinitely. And for a really long time that was enough. That was worth the sacrifices.

Until, gradually, it wasn’t.

When asked why I left, I have two answers: 1) death by 1000 cuts. I wanted to be able to pay off student loans, and live comfortably. I wanted to be able to work normal hours, with normal expectations of the jobs. I was really tired of being “required” to do things for which I was not being paid. And I wanted to be able to keep asking questions, and answering them with data, without having to constantly write grants begging for money. Finally, I wanted to stop worrying how we’re going to fund the lab, and paying for research out of pocket.  (I’m still paying off the costs of some of the experiments from my PhD).

And the second answer: 2) I was walking around London and realized I wanted a different life than the one I have. Hear me out. I have always been a big city girl, but through my academic career I kept moving from one small college town to another. I did my undergraduate, Masters, PhD and postdoc in relatively small cities and rural towns. I had to – I went where the job was. Where the research was. I don’t regret any of these decisions, but I was walking around one of my favorite cities in the world and I knew I wanted to be able to choose to live here. And that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. That was the final cut. I still love biology, and this summer especially, I miss the field work. But I needed a life, in addition to a job. And I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to have that in the Ivory Tower, where working more hours and for more efforts than you will ever be paid is glorified and promoted.

But I also realized in that moment that I wasn’t going to just drop everything and leave (it’s not my style). So I started planning, finished up projects, did another full field season, and prepared. I’ll write about my preparation next week, but the decision to leave came gradually and then all at once. And it’s the first step to figuring out what’s next.

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The view from our field van/home during my last field season. No regrets, about then or now.

 

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The Best April Fool’s Joke

I am rarely aware of what the date is. Along with struggling to remember which is “right” and “left” this is one of my most basic flaws.

So I’m almost never aware when it’s April Fool’s Day, and when I read the tweet from Richard Lenski:

I was fooled. I’ll admit it. But then I read the post, and realized, while hilarious, he was kidding.

See follow up post for confirmation. 30-years, 70,000 generations and we’re just scratching the surface.

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The promiscuous process driving antibiotic resistance

“While overuse of antibiotics has been fingered as the driver of resistance to these drugs, the contribution of bacterial sex plays an underappreciated role, one that could bedevil efforts to fight antimicrobial resistance.”

Want to hear more about this sexy and interesting outcome of bacteria doing it*?

Read more here!

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*I’m pretty sure that’s how the song goes:

Birds do it.

Bees do it.

Bacteria do it and it drives the evolution of resistance.

Pretty sure.

 

Raccoons Pass Famous Intelligence Test—By Upending It

Fun fact: one test of intelligence is based on Aesop’s Fable. It measures if animals can discern cause and effect by displacing water to access food. It’s based on the story in which a thirst crow can’t drink from a pitcher at a low level of water. By dropping in stones, the bird raises the water level and is able to drink (Related: “Watch Clever Birds Solve a Challenge From Aesop’s Fables.”)

In a new study,  researchers presented put raccoons to the test. Eight captive raccoons were presented with a cylinder containing a floating marshmallow that was too low to grab. Next, they showed the raccoons how dropping stones in the water would raise the marshmallow.

Two of the eight raccoons successfully repeated the behavior, dropping the stones to get the marshmallow. A third took matters into her own hands: She climbed onto the cylinder and rocked it until it tipped over, giving her access to the sweet treat.

Want to know more? Read about these pesky bandits here!

 

A raccoon reaches into a cylinder to get marshmallows during a recent experiment.
PHOTOGRAPH BY LAUREN STANTON

What are the biggest puzzles in ecology?

Evolutionary biology is full of puzzles, most of which have the form “Evolution by natural selection should produce X but yet we see Y. How come?” Examples include the surprisingly high frequency of sterile males, individuals that help unrelated individuals reproduce, and senescence. Resolving the puzzle usually involves figuring out why trait or behavior X actually is adaptive despite appearances to the contrary, as with individuals that help non-relatives reproduce.

What are the biggest puzzles in ecology? Does ecology have as many puzzles as evolutionary biology? And if not, does that indicate a failing of ecology?

Here’s a classic ecological puzzle: Hairston, Smith, and Slobodkin’s question, why is the world green? That is, why is the world covered with plants, given that there are lots of herbivores around that you’d think would eat all the plants?

Interested? Read more about the puzzles in Ecology and which ones are global and which ones are local, here!

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The ‘Mother’s Curse’ in Canada

The idea for the mother’s curse goes like this. Most human genes are on chromosomes, but a tiny number are in mitochondria, little power factories in human cells that for reasons of evolutionary history have their own loops of DNA. Sperm do not pass on any mitochondria, but eggs do. Therefore, all sons and daughters inherit their mitochondrial DNA from their mother (great mother’s day present idea: sequence yourmitochondria, make into cool figure, give it to your mom thanking her for the DNA). If a harmful mutation in mitochondrial DNA ends up in a woman, she will be less evolutionarily “fit” and thus less able to pass it along. But if the mutation ends up in a man, nothing happens. He never passes along mitochondrial DNA anyway.

However, this hasn’t been tested all that often in humans. Until a perfect system arose. You see,  the first King’s Daughters—or filles du roi—arrived in New France in 1663, and 800 more would follow over the next decade. They were poor and usually of common birth, but their passage and dowry were indeed paid by King Louis XIV for the purpose of empire building: These women were to marry male colonists and have many children, thus strengthening France’s hold on North America. And so they did.

One of these is Leber’s hereditary optic neuropathy, which causes vision loss, usually in young men. Recently, geneticists using French Canadian genealogy have reexamined the effects of Leber’s and found a striking pattern of inheritance: It seems to show a long-theorized but never-seen-in-humans pattern called the “mother’s curse.”

Want to know more? Read about it here.

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