How far are you from the cutting edge?

December 29, 2006

from ScienceThis time of the year the media is flooded with end of the year lists and retropectives. Science is not immume from this syndrome. So as you ponder (along with the rest of the self-absorbed world) your place in the universe, its not a bad time to read what others are saying are the Grand Challenges and Great Opportunities in Science.

This serves two purposes. First, if it’s in Science magazine, people are talking about it, and it reflects, to some degree the status quo. Part of being a scholar is knowing what the big ideas are in your field, since those ideas are the lingua franca of science.

Second, when you are selling your work (to journals or granting agencies) its not a bad idea to find linkages to what everybody else is talking about and what the status quo thinks is important.

Now, I know this might sound a tad jaded. Perhaps you are working on wombat tunneling behavior because, by golly, that’s what your passionate about. And that’s cool too. But part of teaching (and writing grants and journal articles is teaching) is creating the desire in you reader to learn more. And it certainly helps if you can relate your work to things everybody else is interested in.

Our work in the Antlab? We are all over bullet points one and two above. 😉

h/t to Matt over at Ontogeny .


The importance of solitude

December 29, 2006

Presentation Zen has another fine post, this time on the subject of solitude in the creative process.  A taste:

Perhaps one reason why many business presentations are so poor is that people today just do not have enough time to step back and really assess what is important and what is not. They often fail to bring anything unique or creative to the presentation, not because they are not smart or creative beings, but because they did not take the time alone to slow down and contemplate the problem.

If you haven’t checked out PZ, do so. Although its written for bidness types, it regularly has cogent discussions on the importance of design and human behavior in putting together presentations. Its well worth a read.

Its Brown Food Web Friday!

December 29, 2006

Now you see the monkey….

Take a look at this lovely picture. What is it? A cloud over a restless ocean? A rodent running through a fog bank?

One of my favorite research systems is the brown food web–the collection of microbes, microbivores, and their predators that take apart dead stuff and in doing so return nutrients to the soil, carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and generally undo what the green food web does and complete the cycle. The brown food web is where much of the planet’s biodiversity exists, and it is is genuinely muy hermoso y elegante.

At the same time, some of my favorite people are museum people. Remember that scene with the death’s head moth from Silence of the Lambs? Absolutely dead on. Perhaps its all the formaldehyde and mothballs, but museum people have a certain perspective. They also have regular brushes with the brown food web when they want to quickly and cleanly turn a large meaty organic thing into a beautiful skeleton. Watch.


Cultivating your 24-hour buddies

December 28, 2006

BuddyHollyOne of the most useful things for an academic is rapid honest criticism. Honest, because having a colleague delude you with praise into sending a manuscript off when its not ready wastes everybody’s time, and
Rapid because, well, we do want to get these manuscripts off our desk and into the arena. This is not to say that every manuscript doesn’t deserve a rest period sometime during its gestation–allowing it to sit in its folder and ferments a bit. But at some point, you’ve got to get that suckka off your desk. But it still needs that one critical read. Who ya gonna call?

Your 24-hour buddies, that’s who. These are the carefully selected cadre of colleagues whose work you enjoy and whose opinion you respect. They don’t have to do exactly what you do–in fact, its better that they have some distance from your research area (better to spot the jargon). These are your go-to guys and gals, when you want quick feedback. 24-hour feedback. What’s in it for them? The same deal: 24-h turnaround on a manuscript. This is a MARs pact: Mutual Assured Reviews.

To make this work smoothly–because we’re all incredibly busy, right;-)?–there are two ground rules:

1) Email one of your 24-hour buddies and ask for the 24-hour treatment. If she responds yes, you send her the manuscript right away.

2) Within 24 h she sends you a short email review. Now this is not an in-depth, nit-picky review. This is a read-it-in-one-sitting-composing-the-email-as-you-go review, in which your 24-h buddy tells you what she thinks the paper is about, the red-flags that caught her eye, and a journal or two where she thinks it would fit.

In short, its your last opportunity for a mid-course correction before you dive into the last-stage of spellcheck, citation check, and formatting for the journal. And it is a rare day in the week when you can’t carve out an hour, by moving things around, when a 24-h buddy comes a callin’.

And did I say that you get it the paper back in 24 hours?

Then, there’s always caffeine…

December 28, 2006

coffeeThen there’s another take on beating procrastination.
Take a swig and let’er rip.

Tasty Research summarizes an interesting study in Psychological Science (PDF) that suggests folks tend to build in their own procrastinating tendencies when setting deadlines. To thine ownself be true, I suppose.

5 ways of breaking the procrastination habit

December 27, 2006

Sinking ShipProcrastination is a one of the most odious behaviors simply because we watch ourselves do it. Like a bad dream, we watch ourselves piddle at something that is at best marginally useful even as something we know is useful (Covey’s Type II tasks) languishes. And the oddest thing is that we tend to procrastinate most about the things most important to us.

In fact, think about the activity that you most procrastinate about. Often times, that is the very thing you most want to do, that you know will help you achieve a major life goal.

How crazy is that?

Everybody procrastinates. But the most productive of the creative types learn to manage it. Here’s how.

Understand the psychology of procrastination.
Procrastination is bound up in some of our most negative emotions.

  1. Perfectionism. Academics want to do well in the eyes of their peers. And making a mistake in a manuscript, or in front of a group of people, especially when it is pointed out by a peer, can be almost physically painful. But if you are productive, no matter how careful you are, mistakes are going to creep into your work. It’s inevitable. Perfectionism is even more pernicious if it creeps into our conceptual work. If we chose projects that are guaranteed with success, we will do very…normal…science.
  2. Anger. If you have an unresolved issue with a prickly colleague or committee member, it feels natural to put off dealing with it. But would you rather get it over with, or feel that regular pang of guilt/remorse?
  3. Frustration. Good science is hard work, and, if you’re doing it right, will frequently lead down dark alleys, some of which are dead ends. If you really loathe being frustrated, perhaps research science isn’t your bag. Remember, almost any truly creative endeavor is like washing that roasting pan that gave you that holiday turkey (hhmmmm…..turkey…….). That pan is going to look a lot worse before it looks better.
  4. Self-loathing. There is a common script among creative people that turns every success into an opportunity to beat yourself up. It’s the “OK, I’ve fooled them this far, but the next project, well, they’ll figure out what a fraud I am.” This must, IMO, be limbically hard-wired so that our ancestors never rested on their laurels, always strived to crank out one….more….offspring. Regardless, it’s out there.

Well, this has gotten a bit morose for the holidays, hasn’t it? Luckily, there is hope for the procrastinator in all of us.

Read the rest of this entry »

Seven steps toward preparing for Field Season 2007

December 26, 2006

Carmen Wong in the latest issue of the Bulletin of the Ecological Society of America has a nice article (pdf) on preparing for your first field season.  The advice is good for us veterans as well.  The big take home, start planning now–a lot of these things take time.

  1.  Apply early for your research permits
  2. Make contacts with the relevant organizations
  3. Understand your sampling scheme
  4. Be safe
  5. Treat your field assistants well
  6. Treat yourself well and remember your loved ones
  7. Prepare for the worst

Getting Things Done–getting started

December 26, 2006

turkeyAhh. I love this time of year. The turkey is digesting and will be a part of breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the next few days. So cooking is not a distraction. Its grazing time.

That week-ish period between Christmas and New Years is also a good time for taking stock and seeing where we’re going, and perhaps making some mid-course corrections. Toward that goal, we’ll be spending some time the next couple of weeks reviewing aspects of Getting Things Done–part philosophy, part lifehacks–toward the goal of increasing your effectiveness and decreasing anxiety. This is targeted at the graduate student in the sciences but the principles apply to almost anybody who is creative, semi-autonomously, for a living. If you want to jump ahead, and already know a fair bit about GTD, the 43 Folders forum is an excellent place to jump in the deep end of the pool of everything lifehackery. We’ll be taking it a bit more slowly.

As we discussed before, there are four basic skills to being an academic.

1) Creativity–the generation of lots of good ideas and then culling them down to the best ones.

2) Scholarship–becoming an expert in your chosen field and maintaining an up-to-date knowledge of your general field.

3) Communication–expressing complex ideas in writing and through presentations (i.e., teaching)

4) Time Management–making continuous progress toward all three while still nurturing your health and personal relationships.

One useful way of thinking about managing our goals is from Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The four quadrats classify our daily tasks by their urgency and their importance to our goals (which presumably include the four goals of improving our creativity, scholarship, communication and time management).

Steven Covey’s Four Quadrats

  • Group I entails crises and deadline driven projects (grades are to be turned in three days after Finals)
  • Group II include your long-term incremental goals (like, for example, becoming more creative, a better scholar, and a better communicator!)
  • Group III are interruptions that you have to deal with (a colleague walks in to chat, your phone rings)
  • Group IV are all the busy work and pleasant time wasters.

Covey’s great insight is that we should maximize our time spent in Quadrat II by 1) eliminating as much as possible Quadrat IV; dealing quickly and deliberately with Quadrat III, and planning (a QII activity) so that we don’t face the urgent deadlines that throw everything out of kilter. Graduate school is all about Quadrat II–building and honing a skill set. How do we find time to do that? We continue tomorrow.

On the size of things–Universe Edition

December 26, 2006

One of the great challenges in communicating science is the problem of orders of magnitude. While it is relatively easy to picture 1:10, or 1:100 (I picture little squares of graph paper), once you get to 1:10,000 there is quite a bit of error. Yet in ecology we are tasked with, for example, understanding how populations of microbes interact with their host to cause disease. When that host is a vertebrate, we are dealing with scales of 1:1,000,000,000,000. The mind boggles.

Powers of Ten

Which is why it is so wonderful to see it done right. The classic in this genre is Philip and Phylis Morrison’s Powers of Ten. In a hundred or so pages, they travel from a view of 10^25 meters (basically empty space) down to 10-15 (one fermi), inside a proton. Biology pretty much spans the innards, from the scale of the biosphere (10^7) to the molecular (10^-9).  Their video is great–it has that 70’s Public television ambience.  Which is not to say its not fantastic.

Here is the Simpson‘s take on it.

Universal View

The latest entry in the “blow our minds and edify our intellects” competition is this Google video on the size of celestial bodies. From little ‘ole Mars up to W. Cephei.

I’d love to see a similar project capturing the diversity of life from prion to Blue whale. Let us know if something like that exists, or if there are other great “scale of science” visuals.


December 22, 2006

Earth from the moon, Apollo 8
Taking a few days off to write and do some yardwork.