Posts Tagged ‘Lab meeting’

I’ve heard so many times the saying that curiosity killed the cat. In French we say that quality is a naughty defect (generally to kids, in order to discourage it). That’s utter-bullshit, pardon my English. Curiosity saved men. It’s because we’re curious that we founds ways to compensate our tiny constitution, our ridiculous speed, our feeble health and so on. And it’s because we’re curious that we invented a special job: researcher. People devoted for the sole purpose of satisfying the curiosity of the society, and/or their own.

In return, the very minimum that these researchers can do, it tell the results of their investigations. Otherwise, that’s a bit unfair, no? It’s called staying in the Ivory Tower, the tower where intellectual selfishly do their work, while staying disconnected from the society. We get paid by the society to find stuff, and we don’t tell what we find? Apart from fueling the lunatic nature of conspiracy theorists, who think every researcher in the world participate covertly to global machinations, this is just failing to do the full spectrum of our very responsibility as researchers. Every researcher should do popularization work, be it public conferences, press interviews, books or documentaries or just press release and let the journalists communicate for them. That’s the fair thing to do, and that’s also a very good exercise to be able to explain complicated concepts, and ultimately also to get more people interested in our discipline.

With that in mind, I’ve been popularizing quite a lot, since my very early carrier. I’ve written a piece about my thesis research during my first year of PhD, against the advice not to do so of my supervisor, who thought – like almost everybody else at the time – that popularization was the realm of bad scientists: those who where not sufficiently strong in research to stay with their peers went to shine with the public, pretending to be smarter than their colleagues knew them to be. Now I’ve written more, from articles to books, initiated several documentaries, participated in several others, given conferences in front of many different audiences, including about every age of school children, and interviews to radio, tv channels and written press. And apart from one or two exceptions, every single one has been a great experience.

In some countries, like my own, the public tends to think that researchers are at best immature parasite society who work on useless questions just because they can. In others, like the USA, they tend to have a better reputation, sometimes up to selfless saviors of the society. Regardless of the general view of our profession, communicating with the public is profitable for the public, is profitable for us and is profitable for our profession.

Of course, when  I say communicate to the public, don’t go telling them all everything. We want to keep all our global conspiracies safely concealed, otherwise our secret plot to take over all the governments of Earth might be delayed…

Communication

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

 

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?

 

StupidQuestion

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