Archive for the ‘Schizophrenic wavering’ Category

When I was a PhD student, a researcher that I admired once told me that half the research in labs is done in corridors and coffee rooms. Of course he didn’t mean that the dire restrictions of lab and office spaces faced by academia nowadays force half of us to install their benches or computers there. Even in France. What he meant was that in academia the social aspect is very important, and that social gatherings, such as coffee breaks, are not to be neglected because they are not just breaks from work and coffee loading. They are more than that. They are crucial because that’s where scientists chat. They of course sometimes chat about mundane topics, such as whether Schrödinger’s cat is male or female or both, or why 42 and not 43, or 41. But they most of the time talk about their work. Yes, most of us are in the latest stage of nerdiness and can’t be saved anymore.

And chatting about studies is really important for two things. Well, three, because it also gives you information about what the guy on the desk next to you is spending his days on (beside Facebook), which can be interesting, if not utterly fascinating (sometimes). But regarding your own research progress it’s important because it forces you to synthesize and to structure your thoughts about your work (the whole of it, or a more specific problem). This effort alone can benefit you a lot. Sometimes it will help you to get unstuck or to spot a weak link in your reasoning; sometimes it will just help you see more clearly your problem and go forward more easily. The second reason is that you can get feedback that can in many times be useful, be it from someone close to your topic or on the contrary rather remote.

With this in mind, we have set up three types of regular meetings in our group (in addition to the boring ones). The first one is the SemiBeer. We’ve talk about it here. But in a nutshell, it’s a Journal Club with two twists: 1/ we treat unconventional papers, such as funny ones, articles about controversies or papers about carrier and 2/ we drink beer (or other stuff, with peanuts and crackers, what we call apéro in France, a key cultural tradition that every other country on Earth should copy).

The second type of socio-scientific meeting is the Teameeting. That’s where we discuss problems encountered by a team member. We just gather around a table with a computer and sheets of paper and someone presents where (s)he’s stuck in her/his topic and others try to give suggestions. A brainstorming session set up at teatime, so with homemade cookies and similar goodies, hence the super pun I’m so proud of: Tea-meeting / Team-eating. Oh God, am I good when it comes to food…

The last type of meetings that we have is the Breakfast Club. As you may have guessed (I hope for you), this one is in the morning, very very early (9 am) and we discuss about carrier. Students ask a question, such as how to best find a supervisor for a PhD or how to balance work and personal life, and the postdocs and PIs give them their famed wisdom. And we eat croissants and other morning delights with tea and coffee and good ambiance.

So if I count well, we’ve been very serious scientifically, because we’ve covered breakfast, tea time and apéro. And of course everyday we all have lunch together at the canteen of the university. Now I just need to do something about Elevenses, and we’d be one step closer to the Hobbits.

LabFoodYes, that’s my lab and yes I told them not to eat while doing experiments

 

ElephanNY

When I was young – yes, that was indeed last century – I made a paper with two American scientists that I had never met. I one them I met years after, on the other side of the world (for me), in New Zealand. The guy is quite fascinating for a number of reasons, one of which being that he has wild ideas, the type that divides the world into those that will call him a genius and those that will loath him, ever after. That’s Josh Donlan. A few years back, he published a paper in Nature that created some waves in the normally well-behaving community of conservation biologists, about assisted colonization: rewilding North America.

The idea is that the Pleistocene is not so far away, in eco-evolutionary times, and that a few thousands years ago, the great mammalian megafauna was still roaming the plains where Clint Eastwood rode yesterday. So in terms of ecology, there are a bunch of key ecological processes that are not performed by these beasts anymore. Also, there exist large animals in the world now that could somehow replace their extinct ancestors: elephants, camels, lions, horses, giant tortoises… Wait, it gets even better: many of these species are currently endangered in their native areas, so translocating them into North America could also alleviate some of the threats they face in Africa and Asia, such as poaching. Just think about some critically endangered Equidae, like the Przewalski’s horse. Or like the wild Asian ass. I’d put you an image of this magnificent animal, but I seem to have problem with my browser; it behaves strangely.

Brilliant idea, but… There are a number of problems as well. Let’s put aside the fact that it is very costly, long and probably logistically nightmarish to obtain a large population of a large mammal from another continent. Remains two drawbacks as big as that mega-fauna. First, there are important conflicts with humans and some of these animals, in particular elephants and lions. Human-animal conflicts are so problematic that entire sessions are devoted to them in conservation meetings. Second, putting species where they don’t belong ecologically often leads to biological invasions, something that can be very nasty. Ask the Australians about the half-million feral horses and twice that many camels that roam in their backyard.

So on one hand, we have a superb solution to save some endangered species with a really bleak future, and in the meantime restore the ecological functioning of the great plains of late (while providing some amazing sights that will undoubtedly increase the ecotourism value of the Giant Sequoia National Park); and on the other one, we have a potentially evil danger of novel human-animal conflicts doubled with uncontrollable alien invasive species. A perfect debate menu for our Semibière meetings (see the previous post on that).

So, what about you, my friend. You’d be against, or for it?

 

 

One very important aspect of a good lab it its internal scientific activity. Students and staff benefit much from a dynamic scientific environment. Regular meetings where science is presented and discussed is something that will develop your communications skills, your ability to synthesize, to get a critical view of approaches and topics and simply will increase your scientific culture. It can be of various forms, Lab Meetings, where the last progresses or projects of group members are reviewed and discussed, Journal Clubs, where some papers in the literature are presented and criticized, Conference Reports, where one lucky bastard summarises to the others the amazing talks he/she went to at that last congress in Hawaii (because only the teacher’s pet got to be sent there), or any other form of scientific interaction in groups (acid battles in the chem lab don’t count).

In our lab, we don’t do Conference Reports, because we usually travel in herds – I’m too shy to get to conferences alone – but we do the other types. We have the Ant Club, where we present some interesting papers in Myrmecology (in general on invasive species or community ecology). We have Team Meetings, where we discuss the projects of Master students, the past work of newly arrived postdocs or the latest findings of other group members (plus loads of administrative crap). And we have the Sémibière, which is the subject of this post. Yeah, I know, my introductions are awfully long. That’s just to show you what you should not do.

The Sémibière is a regular meeting held especially for the benefit of students (although we all enjoy it). We had realised that students were especially shy went it comes to expressing opinions in front of the others, mostly because they were convinced that their opinion was crap – or that they didn’t even have one. They were also rather un-motivated by technical papers, like on modelling or stats or such. So we decided to do a different format. First, we remove the “naire” part of the word “séminaire” (French for seminar) and replaced it by “bière” (beer in French). The journal club is held with beers and nibbles, because we know that will attract students as surely as vinegar attracts flies (does it really?). Simple but efficient. When the weather is good, we do it outside – we have an awesome campus and I installed picnic tables for this very purpose.

The other change was to treat only papers of two specific types. The first one is funny papers. Papers that have a real set of scientific features that make their discussion beneficial – approach, structure, methods, presentation, etc – but on a funny topic. We discussed the population dynamics of the Loch Ness monster, the demonstration of Murphy’s Law (when you drop your toast, it always lands on the buttered face), a Capture-Mark-Recapture model of tea spoons disappearing from lab coffee rooms, the Ring Effect (males are supposedly more attractive if they have a wedding ring – a type of honest signal showing that they have been picked up, so are probably higher quality mates), etc.

The second type of papers we discuss in the Sémibière is controversial papers. For example, should we re-wild North America, by introducing the long extinct elephants, lions and giant turtles, or this that an ecological blasphemy? The best-ever-genius-idea or the most dangerous stupidity? We don’t provide the answer, because probably there isn’t a single/simple one, but we present the arguments and confront our various points of view. Controversy helps anyone to have an opinion, or to say why they can’t decide. There, I’ll make a specific post category for these controversy themes, so I can present some difficult scientific controversies and prevent you to sleep forever over these unresolvable existential issues. Mouahahaha!

Sémibière Outside - 13