Archive for May, 2014


(it’s a mere cat)

Have you ever had this feeling, that everyone in the lab is much better than you, and that they just haven’t yet realised how inadequate you are? That they perhaps are sincere when they seem to appraise you, but truly, that’s because they don’t know. Because you are better suited than anyone else to evaluate your own intelligence, skills and qualities, and frankly, you know that you understand less and know less than almost anyone here. And you dread the day they find out you’re a fraud, while feeling guilty to have so much undeserved trust put in you. Have you?

Be reassured, it’s not only you. It’s not even only undergrads. I’ve had this feeling (and sometimes still have). Many of us established scientists have. Even some great scientists have, I’m told. In fact, it’s so common, it even has a name:

The Impostor Syndrome.

It’s quite natural, and it can be fought. And it’s important to fight it, as a lack of confidence can be very detrimental for your carrier. A nice compilation of posts on the topic is here.

So stop feeling guilty, stop feeling stupid, ignorant and unskilled, start building confidence on any little achievement you can. It may take a very, very long while to one day suspect that, if everyone is convinced you are not that bad, and that you do seem to succeed, then maybe you’re not that much of an impostor after all (or at least you’re not the only one). Meanwhile, focus on your real, proven limitations and work on them.

Now, I write this assuming that you are very bright and skilled – all my readers are of course – but perhaps you are actually an exception, and a true impostor. You probably are better suited to know…



It may come as a surprise to some, but it is completely by coincidence that I ended up working a few years in a row with several very pretty female students. And three to five pretty women together seldom go unnoticed, whether in a lab or in a conference. So after a few years, some had apparently decided that it might not have been entirely accidental.

Funnily enough, I’ve also had a few quite handsome male students during these years, but I’ve never had a single remark about that (apart from the women in my group, who where always rather quick to notice that).

Of course, I could have been offended by the insinuation that I select my students on criteria as irrelevant as beauty or charisma. You can imagine that it wouldn’t be a wise choice to succeed in research anyway. But if I was irritated, it was for my students. Because it implied that they were not here for their intellectual capacities and research skills, but because they had pretty smiles. And if they are going to be judged during their entire professional life by their peers (that’s how it works folks, there’s no job under as much peer scrutiny and criticism as researchers), it’s not fair that people start to think they are less competent and got their position because of their looks.

This shows two things. First, there are still strong biases in science, despite what we would all wish. We still do not treat men and women equally. Physical appearance is more easily noticed in a female student than in a male student. Second, we tend to think that very pretty women a priori can’t be brilliant as well. Look deeply into yourself, and you’ll see that even you can be victim to these preconceptions. That may seem a frivolous topic, but in this era of ultra competitiveness for research positions, imagine when an entire jury doesn’t even wait for you to start your presentation before cataloging you as “can’t be that bright” just because you’re stunning.

The message of this post is for professors, juries, referees and all other colleagues in position to provide assessments to be extra careful not to judge too quickly a pretty female student as possibly less intelligent or able than any other student. I know that may be paradoxical, but that happens often. For female students I have two specific messages. First, if you are really pretty, know it won’t be neutral on your carrier; it may come handy to be agreeable, but realize that people will have as many preconceptions about your mind or personality as they will, unfortunately, with ugly people. Second, it you are really, really pretty, then contact me, I may have a job for you…


Carl Sagan said once (well, perhaps he said it twice, but the second times it’s clearly less impressive):

   “In science it often happens that scientists say, “You know that’s a really good argument; my position is mistaken,” and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn’t happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion.

Well, I have nothing against politics and religion, but that’s quite true. Wait, I do have something against politics and religion. They are supposed to do the good for people (and actually some really do) but for most of their professionals, they are manipulative hypocrites.

Any way, yeah for Carl Sagan, and yeah for scientists, who can admit they are wrong – and sometime that they have been wrong for a long time – without blushing. Actually, that even feels quite good, to realise that you were wrong and that you have been set right. It feels like you have learned something, and made progress. And that you are wise enough to recognize your mistakes and mature enough to admit them and to move forward.

Am I right or am I right?


Recent studies have highlighted that Antarctica Glaciers are collapsing unstoppably, adding over 3 meters to sea-level rise (e.g., here and here). A short post then, because, damn, water is rising fast and I must hurry. We’ve all heard a lot about climate change, how it will make things much hotter and how critters will migrate north (and south in the Southern hemisphere). We’ve heard much less about a dramatic secondary effect : sea level rise. And that’s surprising, because it is a certain consequence of climate change, and because it is a very concrete threat for both society and biodiversity.

Our group studied the likely effects of  sea level rise on islands all over the world. And the result is pretty appalling: between 10,000 and 20,000 islands could be totally wiped out of the Earth by the end of the century. Many, many more will be significantly reduced by permanent immersion of a large proportion of their surface. The studies are here and here. Or read this if you want a shorter text.

Of course, the species living there will be at risk of disappearing, unless they can fly (which is rarely the case on islands) and unless they start growing fins. And to make things worst, even on spared islands they can’t move to follow their favourite climate, because their habitat is surrounded by water. So even with dry feet, things will get hot for them. Evolving on that paradisiac island suddenly doesn’t seem such a good idea, hey critter?






I know you like controversial topics, you little rascals, so here is one just for you. How familiar should you be with your supervisor (or with your student if you are a supervisor)? Very good question, I’m glad I asked.

A PhD Thesis is a heavy commitment with (at least) another person during a very significant proportion of your life. It is a journey into enthusiasm, elation, revelations, pride and joy but also into doubt, disappointments, discouragement, stress and exhaustion. It is a journey made of choices and it is built on trust. And it is a journey with a working partner. Neither the students nor the supervisors want to enter lightly into such a journey, with a working partner on whom one cannot depend fully, but also one you don’t like. However, you can like your supervisor/student without befriending him/her. So, should you keep strict neutral, professional relationships, or can you share beers and personal conversation about your brother or your favourite TV shows?

Opinions are not unanimous on this. Many colleagues keep their distances with their students. Many other treat them like a mix between good pals and offspring. I did not bond with my supervisor. Which does not mean that I didn’t like her or respect her. She was nice and she did good, but we seldom ate together or for that matter shared any social event. Same with my two postdoc supervisors. But I tend to bond with my students and postdocs.

I don’t think bonding with any of them has been a problem for either them or me, but it is true that it can be sometimes problematic when the time comes to say “no” or “work harder” or “this is crap”. And I’m sure my students find it hard sometimes for their own reasons. Of course, I can recognise students that would be uncomfortable with this, and I adapt. It takes two to bond. But otherwise, I always found that bonding had made it easier to overcome the unavoidable stressing times, to avoid or forget the resentment, and to enjoy more fully the happy times. In the long run, I think that to bond is globally better for me. And I’d be happy to hear your personal experience on this.

bondsAnyway, whether of not to bond with your student/supervisor is not really a choice, and this post is not about what you should choose to do, because it’s difficult to change the way people interact naturally. So this post is more about whether or not you should fight a natural tendency to bond at work, if you have one. If that’s the way you function better, and the other one seems to be that way too, just don’t feel guilty not to be entirely “professional”. Academia is a special world when it comes to hierarchical interactions. Just do what’s best for the working relationship. But hey, I only said bonding, easy tiger!

Do you have what it takes to do research? Not just the insane passion, the flawless motivation, the mind-numbing hard-working endurance, the monomaniac nerdiness and all the other hard-to-find qualities related to the amount of effort needed to achieve something in this ultra-competitive world. No, I’m talking about intellectual capacities. Do you have them up to a sufficient level? Do you? And do you think I will give you ways of knowing? No, that was just a mean trick to get you to read this post.

I don’t really know what it takes to be a good researcher. Clearly, one has to be intelligent, but that would need to define intelligence and all the definitions I agree with exceed by far the domain of research. Plus, I know a few very good researchers whose intelligence I would not bet my life on… So yes, clearly you have to be able to grasp complex concepts and link dots even when connexions are not obvious. But there are other things; over the years, I have come to think that there are two ways of doing good research, and that most researchers are positioned along a gradient linking two broad qualities: rigour and creativity.

My personal experience convinced me that most of the best researchers out there are one of these two types. There are those that I call the Rigorous, the very quantitative types, juggling with equations and five-syllable words that I can’t even remember for this post. And there are those of the Creative type, who have very original ideas and twist studies in innovative ways you always wish you had the idea first.

Of course, I’m not saying that creative researchers have no quantitative skills or that rigorous researchers have no ideas. But in general, some are better at digging deeper and faster while some other will contribute more to science by going wider and in new directions. And both are needed, obviously.

All this to say that – in answer to a question over my blog – it doesn’t really matter if you think you are not creative enough, especially at the early stage of your carrier. Creativity is not something that will be obvious at the very beginning, and it is anyway not compulsory for doing good research, or even to regularly come out with new findings.

 2Scientists At which extreme would you put Walter Bishop?

Yet, with this metaphor, moving towards one extreme of this gradient pushes you away from the other one, and you can’t really have the right set of mind to think outside the box if you are overly methodical and thorough, and vice versa. So are you close to an extreme? Which one, more Rigorous? More Creative? Or rather, well balanced between the two?

But of course, I know in ecology some geniuses who mysteriously marry the two qualities to make the most elegant, exciting studies. And those make this post totally meaningless, thank you very much.

Work -  Life - Balance

We hear a lot about job burnout these days. I don’t know whether we had a more strategic approach to work in the old days, but that does seem to be an emerging disease. Burnout is a long-term exhaustion associated to a decreased motivation for work. Some jobs are more likely to trigger burnout. Some even after the very first day of work. Try telesales operator or stun gun tester for example. But, over the years, works like researchers (in the broad sense) are likely to make you insidiously accumulate fatigue and stress to make you burn out all your energy. Being passionate with your job, when it is a tiring and stressing one, can lead to burnout without you realising. Worst, in the extremely competitive world in which students are now pushed, a PhD Thesis can become synonymous to a marathon race at the pace of a sprint.

It is important to maintain a carefully managed equilibrium between personal life and work. It is essential not to get swallowed into the vortex of ever-more work, because it’s a never-ending story. There’s always going to be more work to do and at the end, the work doesn’t get tired, you do.

And what happens when you’re too tired anyways? You’re not efficient, you’re slow, you’re less creative and less rigorous, in a word, you suck. Ok, that’s two words. In a word, yousuck. So you get tired for nothing, bad strategy. In that case, have a break, go running, gaming, clubbing or whatever it is you do to unwind. And you’ll see that when you’re really rested, body and mind, you’ll work better the next day and you’ll like it better. Same goes for the long term. Don’t forget to take long breaks, disconnect, go on vacation. Even when you have a huge deadline and you feel you can’t even stop to pee for two weeks, sometimes taking just one day off is going to boost you for the rest of the days and you’ll achieve much more than if you hadn’t stopped.

And don’t forget to have a life. Balanced people are not only better at work, they are also nicer in general.

I’ll give you a final example. Now you’re procrastinating and surfing on the Internet, browsing over pointless blogs and such. You’ve been going that for some time. Now restore the balance, and GO DO SOME WORK!

Should students ask questions in seminars? The answer is so obvious that, if you are a student you shouldn’t even be reading this. Go away! Well, let’s pretend that you knew the answer and wanted to read because I likely was going to explain why you should. Oh really? Well, you should know the answer to that one too: because seminars are not articles, they are with a speaker, who speaks, so that you can ask questions and, unlike an article, the speaker will answer. Cool no? Ok, that’s not what you meant, I get it. You meant: but WHY AREN’T students asking questions in seminars?

Good question! There are many reasons why scientists in general, not only students mind you, don’t ask questions after a talk, however inspiring it was. One is that you may judge your questions too uninteresting for the audience. One can be that you think this will be seen as a show off move and are afraid to be seen as challenging the speaker; another one is that you are too shy to express yourself in public. All these are understandable but should be fought against.

Another set of reason is far less okay. If you never ask questions because (a) you are afraid to show that you didn’t understand something or (b) however hard you think, you never ever come up with a single question, then you should be worried. You shouldn’t be afraid that you misunderstood something because chances are that most of the audience missed the same thing (most likely because the speaker was unclear), and they possibly missed other things as well. And if you misunderstood something – which is fine by the way – you shouldn’t stay that way; just ask. If it’s rather because you don’t have enough critical thinking to come up with questions then you should exercise yourself, as critical thinking is the crux of the researcher. That and the test tube, but many disciplines do without test tubes.

Now I have heard of a proposition to keep the students after the talk, so that they can discuss more freely with the speaker once the senior scientists have asked their questions and left. I’m not too sure this is a good idea, but this is perhaps an idea worth thinking about.

Asking questions in seminars and congresses arguably is as important as reviewing manuscripts for journals. It is an exercise and a formative task. It helps develop critical thinking and formulate ideas, concepts and interrogations. It also helps fight the insecurity feeling that most of us have felt in these conditions and that have neither sense nor utility.

Any question?



Ah my friends, astrophysics. Even if it lacks the complexity of ecology, it is still a cool science. Kinda. In fact, the cosmos has several similarities with Nature (and with my ex), in particular, they are impressively beautiful and implacably deadly.

Did you know that there are hundreds of billion stars in our galaxy alone? And that there are hundreds of billion galaxies in the observable universe? Vertiginous. That reminds me of Fermi’s “where is everybody?”. Anyway, the point of this post was to point out to a very nice collection of photos put online by NASA, here.

So next times you science policy deciders vote for big budgets for physicists, look what they do at work. They take pretty picture. We can do that too!