When procastination can mean more creativity

This morning on my bus ride to work I was kicking back admiring the view of  Auckland city and as I always do, was listening to a podcast. Being the start of yet another month in a year that is flying by I had that familiar feeling of panic that I haven’t completed even a quarter of the tasks I had hoped to by this time*. So it was a happy coincidence that I tuned into this TED radio hour podcast, which addressed the things we can learn from slowing down and procrastinating (yes, that’s right, procrastinating!).

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about how much time I spend doing productive/active tasks like field work, analysing data, or writing a manuscript. Most of my days are made up of these tasks in addition to all the other little things that make up an academic’s life, like replying to emails, reviewing manuscripts and sitting on committees (and let’s face it, extended tea breaks). While one day is never the same by the end of the week I feel like I’ve been going from one task to another, always in a bit of a hurry and never really taking the time to step back and think about where my research is going. Most weeks could be considered productive because I am usually moving projects forward (even just a little), but I’m not really allowing myself to think about the bigger picture and make longer term plans for new projects. The largest part of my anxiety at work comes from the fear of not having the biggest and best ideas to develop into large-scale projects. It could be that I’m just not a very creative person, but perhaps (hopefully) this could be greatly improved by setting aside time to develop those little inklings into big ideas.

What I’ve slowly started to recognise, and what was driven home in the TED podcast, was that we can’t always be moving forward all the time. Although this problem applies across the board in academia, not allowing time to think and plan can be particularly costly for early career researchers. For those of us without permanent positions there is a lot of pressure to come up with a real zinger of an idea that we can write-up into the next big winning grant application. This hopefully gives us a couple more years of salary, and may even give leverage towards getting the elusive permanent position. We are also under a lot of pressure to publish profusely and I can’t help but think that if I’m not producing my peers will be, and I don’t want to fall behind when it comes to being competitive for jobs.

For the really good ideas to come, the ones that aren’t immediately obvious, we need time to reflect and think deeply. Although it’s quite possible that these big ideas may show themselves through fortuitous discovery while working on a current project, or through a stroke of genius, we still need lots of time to fully develop these ideas.  It’s pretty much impossible to do this if you are always in a rush to get the next job done.

So how does procrastination fit into all of this? In Adam Grant’s TED talk and in a New York Times column he discusses the attributes of original thinkers and why a moderate amount of procrastination can be helpful. He argues that very organised people, the ‘pre-crastinators‘, tend to rush in to new tasks and want to finish them quickly to reduce their anxiety for an impending deadline. These people tend to be highly productive but not necessarily creative, because they often grasp the first and most obvious idea that comes to mind and run with it. Pre-crastinators are less likely to sit back and think about alternatives or new ways to approach a problem.

I think I could be classified to be a pre-crastinator. I like to reply to emails immediately to get them out of my mind, I always pay bills as soon as they come in rather than waiting for the due date, and I finished my Honours dissertation 3 weeks before the due date while my friends were pulling all-nighters. Little did I realise that I shouldn’t feel quite so smug about being organised because this may be coming at the cost of creativity.

On the other hand, it may not pay to be a chronic procrastinator either, because  completing a task in a last minute rush may also lead to you grabbing hold of the most simple and not very well thought out idea. Grant argues that finding a happy medium between rushing in head first and putting things off until you have to pull an all-nighter may be a useful way to become more creative.

Start something but then put it back down. Don’t finish it straight away.

Instead, if you keep the idea mulling over in the back of your mind you may find that you come up with creative insights about how to make it better. People who are quick to start but slow to finish a project may have the creative edge over the rest of us.

I would also argue that as well as letting things bubble away in the background, it is also important to actively put aside time to think. By this I mean turn off the computer, put down the pipette, and move into another mental (and maybe physical) space altogether. I’m sure everyone finds that they have a lot of good ideas when lying in bed just before sleep, probably because this is the first time in the day when we’ve slowed down. I think it is therefore important to find the right setting to allow deep thought and creativity.

I’m not sure how true the below quote is, but this is one of my favourites that I first saw pinned to the door of Dr Margaret Stanley’s office:

A student in Rutherford’s lab was very hard-working. Rutherford had noticed it and asked one evening – “Do you work in the mornings too?”. “Yes” proudly answered the student sure he would be commended. “But when do you think”? amazed Rutherford.

Instead of feeling the pressure to always be doing something with instant, recognisable outputs, I’m trying to put aside more time to think. In the same podcast, Lakshimi Pratury talks about the art of hand writing letters and how they can give you time to consider a deeper response than may be achieved in a quickly fired-off email. This got me thinking about when I have my best ideas. I feel like I’m able to think clearer when I’m cozied up with a good pot of tea and a notebook, rather than staring at my laptop.

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Although I usually write papers directly into Word now (I was still doing this by hand until my Honours year!), I still plan out critical ideas and manuscript structures in my notebook first. I also like to print off a few recent papers and read these away from my computer so that I can absorb them slowly and jot down ideas that may spring to mind as I go along. These ideas are then transferred into a word document later on so that I have current and future project ideas in one place, meaning I can shelve them and stew on them to return to at a later point. I often find that once I’ve made these ideas ‘live’ (i.e. made a rough plan or jotted it down in my notebook) they stay in the back of my mind and sometimes listening to a colleague give or talk or reading a new paper can trigger a new direction for that idea. It can be useful to skim over that list of ideas occasionally too and remind yourself of what’s there – I’m sometimes surprised that with time I will be able to add new thoughts to an idea and have a better understanding of how to move it forward.

So, instead of thinking that procrastination is the same as laziness, I’m trying to be ok with being less productive in the hope that it may bring some creativity.  I’ve also started knitting and hoping that, once I can do it without having to ferociously concentrate, this hobby might be a nice way to actively relax and have some good thinking time.

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You can just about see the stress in those tight stitches!

*In a classic twist on a post on procrastination, you’ll notice that I started writing this on the first of the month and it is now almost October!

Beyond museum displays: Making use of natural history collections

I recently spent a week in the Otago Museum arthropod collection in Dunedin where I had  a wonderful time picking through the myriad of harvestmen. The sheer abundance and diversity of harvestmen in the collection, and the joy I get from being among all this history made me think – not for the first time – just how important biological collections are.

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One of the many harvestmen in the Forster collection at Otago Museum

In my short career I have made use of numerous natural history collections around the world, from my academic roots at the impressive Lincoln University Entomology Research Collection, the secret corridors and quirky displays at the Museo di Storia Naturale in Florence, to the great halls of the British Natural History Museum.

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Beautiful ceilings in the Tribute to Galileo in the Museo di Storia Naturale ‘La Specola’ in Florence

While taking a break to look through the public displays is great fun, the main point of these missions is to delve into the arthropod collections kept behind the scenes. Phenomenal amounts of information are stored in never-ending stacks of drawers, filled with insects, bird skins, jars of pickled snakes…pretty much anything you can imagine! If you want to get an idea of the immense amount of objects stored in a museum’s collection, check out this amazing photo essay from the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC.

One highlight for me was coming across some of Alfred Wallace’s 19th century collection when I was sorting through some brentine weevils in the British Natural History Museum. I’ll never forget that feeling of wonder that I was (carefully) holding the very specimens that Wallace mentions in his famous book The Malay Archipelago:

“I once saw two males fighting together; each had a fore-leg laid across the neck of the other, and the rostrum bent quite in an attitude of defiance, and looking most ridiculous” (p276-277)

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Two brentid weevils fighting as illustrated in Wallace’s classic text “The Malay Archipelago” (Drawing by E.W. Robinson)

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Exciting discoveries in the Natural History Museum

These collections represent a snapshot in time and can tell a story about the community of organisms that were present at the place they were found. The possible contributions that collections can make to society are countless. This paper by Andrew Suarez and Neil Tsutsui describes some of the scientific applications from biological collections housed in museums. Museum collections have been used to understand the spread of Argentine ants across the USA, track the effect of climate change on species distributions, and even learn about the transmission of infectious diseases like influenza. What’s apparent from my own experience using collections, and those studies mentioned in the Suarez and Tsutsui paper, is that being able to use museums saves researchers an enormous amount of time and money. Imagine the cost involved in personally travelling to all of the places around the world to try to find the specimens you are interested in, and this would be impossible anyway if you want to look at historic patterns.

 

Visiting the natural history museums where the best collections are kept can also allow you to get to know the experts who also work on your study organisms. Natural history museums often hire scientists who as well as maintaining the collections usually have their own research specialty. These are the people who painstakingly describe new species and who build our understanding of the relationships between groups of species. Given the importance of describing the diversity of species we have in the world, taxonomists are an incredibly valuable group of scientists. If you are lucky, your new taxonomist friends might even invite you to stay at their Tuscan villa where you spend your evenings entertaining puppies and watching the sunset over the olive orchards.

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Puppies, olive orchards, and Tuscan sunsets….

During my latest visit at the Otago Museum I had a couple of goals. Firstly I wanted to get my head around the taxonomy of the long-legged harvestmen (Opiliones: Neopilionidae) in New Zealand. Otago Museum was a perfect place to do this because it houses an enormous number of harvestmen that were largely collected by the Dunedin-based arachnologist Raymond Forster, who was director of the museum from 1957 to 1987. Forster and others deposited specimens into the Otago Museum from all over New Zealand, with a particular focus on the South Island. The collection is therefore very useful when trying to figure out what species are where, and at what time of the year I should be looking. This will help me plan subsequent field trips around New Zealand to observe the mating and fighting behaviour of various long-legged harvestmen species, with the larger goal to try to figure out why males have such varying jaw shape and size.

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Incredibly long jaws (chelicerae) on a male Forsteropsalis harvestmen from Waitomo

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Tools of the trade

While I was there I also started collecting data on the morphology of as many specimens as I could get through (which was probably 0.0001% of the available collection). As I’m interested in jaw shape and size and how this relates to body size and the sex of the harvestmen, I took lots of photos that I will later use to take various measurements.

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Taking photos of harvestmen body parts using the microscope camera at Otago Museum

So once again I’ve been thankful that natural history museums exist and hope that we can continue funding these valuable institutions. Scientific progress would be greatly hindered if we lost museums and the experts who continue the tradition of describing and understanding our natural world.

If you are interested you can listen to this Our Changing World podcast by Alison Ballance which was made after the recent Royal Society report on National Taxonomic Collections in New Zealand. You can also learn more about the importance of taxonomy and biological collections in New Zealand here.

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A drawer of brentid weevils at the Museum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris

 

 

 

Teatime tips on how to get a postdoc

This week I’ve been cosied up in the grand old Carrington Hotel in the Blue Mountains of NSW for the annual meeting of the Australasian Society for the Study of Animal Behaviour (ASSAB). On the last day of the conference we had a bunch of ‘taking your career to the next level’ discussions over breakfast, during which Luke Holman and I chatted about some strategies to getting a postdoc position. Obviously there are many ways to knit a sweater, but we strung together a few ideas that we think may have helped us get jobs after our PhDs (or for me, things I wished I had done better). I thought I’d post some of our discussion points here – so here, in no particular order, are some of our musings:

Papers, papers, papers. Are you sick of hearing how important papers are yet? You probably don’t need anyone telling you that publishing as early as possible during and straight after your PhD is important. But don’t despair! It’s normal to not have a very strong track record coming out of your PhD. I was lucky to jump straight into a 1 year faculty postdoc that was awarded to my PhD supervisor to help us get stronger pilot data towards a big grant we were applying for. This extra year with my PhD boss allowed me plenty of time to publish all my thesis chapters as well as starting a new project, which meant I was a much stronger candidate when I applied for my next postdoc. So, my suggestion is to talk to lots of academics that you know and see if they can help get together some short-term funding to hire you at this stage of your career and also look for your own short-term pots of money (e.g. Endeavour fund, Kate Edger postdoc award etc.). I also know of lots of people who have had luck getting postdocs straight out of their PhD with very few publications by applying for advertised projects (like on EvolDir etc.). You can use the cover letter to emphasise your future potential and point out how awesome you are, even though you’ve only just finished the PhD.

On that note, don’t be too disillusioned if you can’t find something straight after the PhD. I know some brilliant people who cleaned office buildings or did odd jobs around the university for a while after they finished before anything in their field cropped up. Luke even mentioned that he was on the dole for a while and look at him now (a Senior Lecturer at the University of Melbourne). If you do find yourself without an academic position try to keep writing during this period to prevent a lull in publications in your CV.

Build networks. Again you have probably heard this many times but both Luke and I talked about how this has been a huge benefit to our careers so far. The easiest way to do this is to go to conferences and chat to the people who you may like to work with. If you are a very introverted person it can help to make a little list of the most important couple of people that you would like to make connections with and then aim to approach them during tea breaks. You could even email them in advance to set up meeting times and give them a heads up if you feel particularly awkward about approaching them without prior contact.

In addition to conferences a visit to a research lab that you may like to start a collaboration with can be really beneficial. There are small grants available for this kind of thing like the Company of Biologists travel fellowships, Smithsonian Short-term fellowships or the Ernst Mayr Travel Grants. Even if these visits don’t result in a job, they still help build independence away from the PhD lab and you may be able to hone a new skill that you couldn’t have learned at your home university.

If you do contact people via email, make sure you show them that you know what they do and have read their work. A sure way to be ignored is to make it obvious you are cold calling a whole bunch of random people without putting any thought into your emails. If you can propose a project that would appeal to the interests of both parties you will look awesome and if you have already plotted some ideas for where to apply for funding that would be even better. Also, academics are a vain bunch and it is nice if you can call them by their correct name and title….I get kind of annoyed by regular Hey You emails.

If you are applying for an advertised position make sure to really carefully follow the instructions. If they ask you to combine everything into one pdf then do that! Failure to follow instructions shows a lack of attention to detail and can put you immediately into the ‘no pile’, regardless of your stellar CV. Make sure to also think really carefully about your cover letter as this is the hook that reels your potential future employer in and may result in them looking more closely at your CV. Tell them what specific skills you can bring to the job that fits nicely with what they require. Alex Bond has some other great tips for applying for field jobs that are equally relevant to answering postdoc ads.

Being visible online is becoming increasingly important. If you don’t already have a Google Scholar profile then set one up – it is super easy to do and allows people to quickly assess your publication record and impact. There are loads of other ways to have an online profile: ResearchGate, Linkedin, Twitter, etc. I don’t think there is a best social media platform to be on so just pick a couple and keep them up to date. I would highly recommend making a personal website too. Think of it like an online CV and a way to show off your creativity if you are so inclined. There are lots of platforms that will host your website for free or for pretty cheap like WordPress, Weebly, Squarespace and GoogleSites. For inspiration check out some of my favourite websites by fellow ecologists – Mike Kasumovic, Kate Umbers, and James O’Hanlon. And don’t worry, you don’t need to be able to code or do anything too tricky – just choose a free template and away you go.

Luke and I also discussed the pros and cons of going off on wee jaunts to new labs after our PhDs vs sticking around and continuing existing projects. Luke made a good point that if you have a good thing going with your experiments in the PhD lab it could be quite useful to run with this momentum and continue on these projects to get bigger and better publications. On the other hand it can be great to build independence by doing short-term collaborations that may end up in a publication without your PhD supervisor. The latter is a lot of fun but can be risky, especially because it takes time to learn a new study system and things inevitably go wrong with new experiments.

Finally, my last tip is to build an interesting and varied CV. Sure, papers are most important but it is also great to mix things up with a bit of teaching, outreach and service. You could offer to do a couple of guest lectures, give talks at schools or amateur societies, promote your research in the media, join societies and get yourself on boards and committees. I found being on boards a great way to meet new people and extend my academic network. Plus you get better at being able to talk to people from other departments/universities which helps hone your communication skills. If you are still early on in your career and not getting asked to do manuscript reviews yet you could sign up for a mentoring system like the one offered at the New Zealand Journal of Ecology where ECRs get papers to review with support from more senior academics. All this may not be super important for getting a research focussed postdoc, but will certainly help you later with getting faculty jobs and jobs outside of academia.

A couple of other little thoughts:

  • When big grants get announced (e.g. ARC, Marsden, NSF, etc.) you could check out the list of winners and then directly approach people who you might like to work with to see if they have any $ for postdocs.
  • I’ve been told many times to apply for anything and everything but this is not a strategy that I’ve taken on board myself. Applying for jobs takes a lot of time and I only apply for things I realistically would consider taking up. Opinions vary on this one though a lot and I have been told several times that you don’t want your first big interview to be for your dream job as it is good to get practice.
  • Some of the best skills that you gain during your PhD are those that are less tangible*, like being a friggen awesome project manager, handling large datasets, and being a creative problem solver. These skills can be especially useful to promote if applying for non-academic jobs or even those outside of the science sector where they may not care about your sweet list of publications in Nature & Science.
  • Ask your colleagues for copies of their winning grant applications to help you prepare for your own applications (thanks Fonti for reminding me of this one!)

With all of this in mind I think it is still important to acknowledge that this is all really hard and even if you tick all the boxes the right job may not come along at the right time. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have things fall into place fairly seamlessly over the last few years and a lot of this has come down to chance – seriously! However, even a lot of the lucky breaks wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t already have good relationships with a bunch of really great people, and if I didn’t show that I could put all this stuff onto paper in reputable journals.

For a list of postdoc funds and other tips, check out my earlier blog post here.

Thanks very much to Luke Holman for the chat, to Kate Umbers for asking me to contribute to the ASSAB brekkie discussions, and to the students for their interest & great questions.

*Thanks to Kate Lomas for discussion about some of these ideas

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Taking a misty trot along the clifftops after the ASSAB conference in Katoomba, NSW

Fiddlers on the mudflats

As I’ve mentioned before, I spent a little time on the mudflats of Darwin a while back with Pat Backwell and her team of postdocs and PhD students. Pat invited me to complete a project that had already been started in a previous field season, looking at coercive mating in a very charismatic fiddler crab, Uca mjoebergi, sometimes called a banana crab.

If you’ve spent much time hanging out on beaches or estuaries in the tropics, you may have noticed hundreds of tiny little crabs with one oversized claw waving like mad – a rather peculiar sight. These are the aforementioned fiddler crab, a group of around 100 species that are united by their possession of one tiny claw and one giant Popeye-esque claw.

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A male Uca mjoebergi fiddler crab with his HUGE yellow claw (right) coupled with tiny feedling claw (left)

Males produce these huge claws and wave them around for two reasons: to  ward off male competitors and attract females.

Banana crabs dig burrows across the mudflats which they use as shelter when not out foraging and when the tide rises each day to inundate the area. It’s a lot of work digging a burrow so the crabs will defend them from cheeky neighboring crabs that may want to kick them out and take over their sweet pad. Males stop burrow takeovers by first waving at any potential rivals to stay away using their big claw as a signal of strength and willingness to inflict injury if necessary. If rivals do try to enter a male’s burrow, they will use their big claws as weapons and grapple until the eventual loser decides to retreat.

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Two male crabs fight for the resident male’s burrow (left), using their claws as weapons

Male burrows are also important real estate because this is where female fiddler crabs hang out after they have mated. Deep inside the burrow they extrude their eggs and wait for the embryos to develop on the underside of their abdomen before they pop up onto the mud flat and release their larval brood on the next spring tide.

Females are fussy about the burrows that they choose to rear their young. Because the burrows are only covered in water for a couple of nights each fortnight it is essential that her babies develop at the right speed so they don’t miss the chance to disperse into the ocean. Burrow width and depth directly influence temperature inside the shaft, such that narrow burrows are warmer and will speed up rate of embryo development in contrast to wider, cooler burrows.

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A female banana crab loaded with eggs. Photo credit: Tanya Detto, used with permission from Pat Backwell

So, just as a male waves to keep rival males away, he also waves to attract females as they wander over the mudflat in search of a mate. If the female likes the look of the male she’ll come in closer for a better look at his burrow by placing her feet at the entrance and checking out it’s suitability for raising her young. Often the female is not satisfied with the burrow conditions and will wander on in search of a better male and a better burrow, sometimes visiting up to 20 males before she finds one she likes.

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A male Uca mjoebergi fiddler crab (left) waves at an approaching female (right) to entice her to visit his burrow. Photo credit: Tanya Detto, used with permission from Pat Backwell

Normally as the female approaches, the male will go down his burrow and wait for the female to follow him down. If she does enter this is usually a sign that she has given him the go-ahead to mate and will move in for the next couple of weeks.

However, sometimes the male will hang back and awkwardly continue waving at the female next to his burrow while she waits for him to go down the burrow shaft. Usually the female gives up and moves on if the male doesn’t go down the shaft first – but sometimes she will enter the burrow anyway.

At this point, the male will dash down the burrow after the female and trap her inside the narrow shaft. If the female does get trapped below the male, there is a much higher chance that she will stay down, presumably mate with the male, and remain in the burrow to hatch her eggs. In a paper that we published this week in PlosOne, we argue that the alternative male behaviour of entering the burrow after the female has gone down is a form of coercion.

To figure out whether males that trap females had a higher chance of mating success than those that used the more traditional behaviour of going down the burrow first, we tracked females as they went in search of mates on the mud flat. Pat Backwell has been working on a population of fiddler crabs at East Point Reserve in Darwin for a number of years now, and knows just about everything there is to know about them.

When I was visiting in September 2014, Pat had two PhD students and two other postdocs working on fiddler crab behaviour. During the neap tides we would spend our days under umbrellas in the baking heat, armed with binoculars and notebooks as we watched the crabs running around the mud flat.

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Fiddler crab biologist Kecia Kerr watching her population of fiddler crabs

As females approached waving male crabs, I would observe whether the male entered the burrow before or after the female, and then checked whether the female stayed down with the male to mate. If the female did stay down for a few minutes – a pretty sure sign she would mate – I marked burrows with a little flag and covered it with a plastic enclosure so that after a few days I could dig up the female and see if she had extruded eggs.

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Lots of little yellow-clawed crabs with a few burrows marked out on the mudflat

We don’t yet know why females would take the risk of entering the burrow first if there was the possibility of getting trapped, but we found a convincing benefit for males: females that entered first were 3 times more likely to stay down and mate with the male, making it a pretty successful strategy for tricky males. 90% of the females we checked later had extruded eggs, suggesting that they did indeed mate after being trapped inside.

So who are these coercive males? We thought that males that “step aside” and wait for a female to enter the burrow first would be of poorer quality, because they may use coercion to mate with females that may not otherwise have chosen them. However, we found no relationship between male body size and the mating tactic he used, nor did we find that small (and perhaps naive females) were those that were ‘fooled’ by these coercive males. One thing we did not check was whether males that step aside have crappier burrows, making coercive mating a way of getting around the problem of not providing the female with a great home to develop her embryos. This is something to look at in future.

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It takes a while to get your eye in to watch fiddler crabs & it’s particularly hard to locate females, who lack the distinctive yellow claw of males

Coercive mating has been observed in a number of other animals including insects and birds. Male camel crickets in the USA, for example, use big spines on their hind legs to pin a female down and force her to mate. Check out this video to see how they do it. Although it would be logical to assume that large males with the longest leg spines are best able to restrain females, coercion is actually a small-male behaviour. In this species, like what we predicted for the fiddler crabs, coercion is only done by males that probably wouldn’t have had much hope in attracting females anyway.

Male hihi (stichbirds) in New Zealand also appear to sometimes forcefully copulate with females, during which they pin the female to the ground and mate face-to-face, a unique behaviour among birds.

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A male hihi on Tirtiri Matangi Island, NZ. Photo by Duncan Wright (Wikipedia Commons)

It’s really, really tricky to actually test the difference between female choice (i.e. she actually wants to stay down in the burrow) versus coercion (she is trapped and would leave if the male didn’t block her passage) in fiddler crabs. Given that mating happens underground we can’t witness any potential struggle between the pair, or if the female may even be using the struggle to test something about the male (like his strength or vigour). So, we may never know for sure if this alternative male mating tactic is truly coercion. What this study has shown is that male fiddler crabs will get up to all sorts of tricks to better their sex lives!

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One of the many amazing sunsets in Darwin

Better science writing

How many times do you read a journal article and feel like you are wading through a thick swamp of jargon and abstract concepts? I know I’ve been guilty of writing some pretty stodgy prose myself, so lately I’ve been working on how to make my writing a little more lively.

Science writing shouldn’t have to bore you to death to convince you that the science presented in the article is sound. Unfortunately it’s often easier to write lethargic, heavy text than it is to write creatively using active and concrete language. Writing well requires a lot of effort but I think it is well worth it. Not only is great writing more likely to get your point across more clearly to your scientist peers, but you are also more likely to make your work readable to a non-specialist audience.

There are lots of great texts available for those wanting to improve their writing. On one weekend away last year I lounged about in a hammock on a tropical island reading Helen Sword‘s fantastic “Stylish Academic Writing“. With a cocktail in one hand and book in the other, Helen took me on a surprisingly fun journey from arresting abstracts to zombie nouns.

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I can highly recommend a beach-side cabin next time you need to brush up on your academic writing skills

The main points I took away were that, to communicate the often abstract ideas we are talking about in science, we should aim to use concrete examples and active language. This takes a lot of practice but luckily for us, Helen has a fabulous online test to accompany the new edition of her other book “The Writers Diet“.  This test works best if you have read the book so that you have some clue of what to do next if you find you have some problem areas you need to work on. The Writers Diet is a tiny little gem of a book, and takes very little time to read and absorb the basics.

In the online test you can plug in pieces of your own writing, and find out where your writing is most flabby – or if you are unlucky, in heart-attack zone. As you can see from a piece of my own (published) writing, I am in serious need of a makeover.

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An embarrassingly obese bit of writing that I’ve put through the writersdiet.com test

Most importantly, I’m on the way to cardiac arrest with the way I use verbs and nouns. My abuse of boring, abstract “to be” verbs plagues much of my writing, and is something that I need to work on most. It is so much easier to say “my writing is boring” rather than constructing a sentence around an active verb that makes the reader visualise what you are trying to say. Helen recommends appealing to the human senses with your verb usage – make your readers taste, smell or see your ideas.

All those blue highlighted words in the picture above are nasty nominalizations, or the aforementioned zombie nouns. Funnily enough, the word “nominalization” is a nominalization in itself! These are abstract nouns that have suffixes ending in -ion, -ism, -ment, etc. They are words that once were verbs or adjectives, that have been morphed into long-winded nouns. They may sound clever, but as Helen says, they suck the life out of your sentence and are best avoided. Check out this great TED animation on zombie nouns if you want to laugh and learn at the same time.

I think that perhaps one of the best benefits of reading Helen’s work is to gain the confidence to write creatively and with humour, without feeling like the science itself shouldn’t be taken seriously. I’m encouraged to see that quite a few of my peers are embracing creative writing in formal publications. A recent (open access) review paper by Robert Jackson and Fiona Cross in the Journal of Arachnology is an elegant example of how to write informatively AND with style. From the very first sentence, the authors grab the reader: “As arachnologists, we like spiders, but we are all too familiar with people who enjoy telling us, often with considerable pride, about their fear and loathing for our favorite animals”. They don’t disappoint throughout the rest of the paper either, taking us on a journey to learn about mosquito-terminator spiders using vivid metaphors and simple but enjoyable sentences.

In today’s world where we are bombarded with a never ending stack of papers to read,  being able to really enjoy the writing style of a paper ensures that we stick around for the whole story, rather than giving up before the end of the first paragraph. In Stephen Heard’s (@StephenBHeard) very recently published guide book on writing for scientists, he mentions* that spending all this time learning to write well is not just to make your readers life more enjoyable. From a purely selfish point of view, you don’t want  your paper to be one of those that gets set aside because it is too hard-going. You are doing yourself a favour by writing prose that an editor, reviewers and peers enjoy, because then you are helping them see the point of your work without having to trudge through tedious text.

It’s all very well to want to learn to write better stories, but a fairly important part of this is actually sitting down and committing to doing the writing.  One of the biggest impediments to writing is having a quiet space to think. Given that so many of us – particularly students –  now work in large open plan offices – getting into the writing zone is becoming increasingly difficult. The constant buzz of activity around me and the poorly timed interruptions is certainly one of the reasons I ended up writing most of my PhD thesis from home.

So how then to find time and space to write?

For me, starting early in the morning is key to success, and usually from a very quiet space like my dining room table. Sometimes even a bustling cafe can be a great writing space, as long as you can zone out white noise. Sometimes I NEED to have music playing to relax and other times I need total silence. Just be open to exploring the best avenue for you and then once you figure it out, make sure you actually set aside writing time every day/week where you create that perfect environment. There’s always something more urgent to do, like sending off that email or making that new cake recipe you found**, but if you factor in writing time into your diary and stick with it, you are much more likely to have success!

If being confronted by a blank white page is what frightens you, try making a mind map or the figures for your paper first, as this may help to make a plan for your story. This was advice I heard in a talk by Gavin Lear a couple of years ago***. I sometimes follow the figures with an abstract, as a kind of elevator pitch that hits home what I want my main take-home message to be. Other times I simply start with a whole bunch of randomly placed bullet-points that I flesh out over time (this can be good if you have 20 minutes spare, here and there).

I also find spending a few days on writing retreats a great way to clear the head and focus on a piece of writing. A few of us from the ecology group at UoA recently spent a couple of days writing from the Forest & Bird lodge at Piha Beach, as a break from the city office. A lack of internet access is great for avoiding email and other commitments, and having a set amount of time to get something on paper can be a great way to be productive. Setting some ground rules for when it is ok to chat might be a good idea, and I’ve found a small number of similarly stressed people who need the quiet time as much as you do works well. A beach setting to provide much needed long walks to clear the head is imperative, as are several bottles of good wine or a well-placed pub.

Writing a blog (or some other form of creative outlet) is also really great for exercising the brain. My hope is that over time better writing will become natural, so that I eventually have to make less effort to make my scientific manuscripts more captivating. Today I submitted a manuscript that I worked really hard to shape into a nice piece of prose using Helen’s tips. I put it through the writers diet test with great results (it was fit & lean!) – fingers crossed the editor likes it.

Happy writing!

writing retreat piha

Blissful evening walk to stretch the legs & brains after a day writing at Piha Beach (Photo taken by Megan Friesen)

*I must confess here that I am yet to get a hold of Stephen’s book. I have, however, had a cheeky read of the first chapter available on the publisher’s website, where I picked up the point made here about writing to improve your own chances of being read.

**Procastibaking became my favourite hobby during the final stages of my PhD. It was great to feel like I was doing something productive (like providing my lab mates with cake) while also avoiding the tortuous beast that was my thesis.

*** Gavin’s talk was based on this piece by Corey Bradshaw, not to be confused with Carrie Bradshaw from Sex & the City who I’m sure would also have lots of tips for doing good writing.

The end of a year abroad

Last week, after a year of doing science in Singapore, we packed our bags and headed back to our home town of Auckland, New Zealand. In a few weeks I’ll start back at the University of Auckland to kick off our project on the evolution of weaponry in harvestmen. In the meantime I’m enjoying taking time to catch up with friends and family, and even managed to find a few of my old pals, NZ giraffe weevils, on our first weekend back.

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Reuniting with friends!

Omanawa Falls

Paradise! Omanawa Falls near Tauranga

The last month in Singapore was hectic as I was trying to wrap up the project as best I could and make sure my undergraduate students were all sorted for carrying on their research. We also spent lots of time out in the jungle in a last ditch attempt to try and find my study species in Singapore (we found 1 male, 1 female and 1 juvenile!) and to try and glimpse some of the missing animals from our wish list.

These last few weeks happily coincided with a visit by Ummat Somjee, a PhD student from Dr Christine Miller’s lab at the University of Florida. Ummat is working on sexually selected traits in coreid bugs and was keen to find some nice candidates with exaggerated hind legs to work on. We found a fantastic species, Anoplocnemis phasiana, which has extraordinarily huge hind legs. Ummat spent his time in Singapore looking at how males and females invest into these huge hind legs and other body parts, and how males use these as weapons during fights with other males to secure females.

Bug

The incredible hind legs of a male Anoplocnemis phasiana

 

Ummat’s visit was a great excuse to revisit some of our favourite haunts too, including a final cycle around Palau Ubin, a little island off the east coast of Singapore. We were lucky to spot the flock of Oriental Pied Hornbills (Anthracoceros albirostris) that tend to hang around Jelutong Campground. However, we also noticed a completely black hornbill hanging around and realised it was a female Black Hornbill (A. malayanus), perhaps dispersed across from Peninsula Malaysia or an escaped pet.

Hornbills

A male oriental pied hornbill (left) and a female black hornbill (right)

Back on the mainland we were also lucky to come across some great finds including a Wagler’s pit viper (Tropidolaemus wagleri), a paradise gliding snake (Chrysopelea paradisi), and several colugos or flying lemurs (Galeopterus variegatus).

Waglers Viper

A juvenile or male Wagler’s pit viper at Bukit Timah Reserve

Paradise gliding snake

Paradise gliding snake at Dairy Farm Reserve

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A curious colugo checking out Caleb with his camera

One of the most interesting finds was this Portia labiata jumping spider feeding on a huge Argiope spider. Portia are araneophagic (spider-eating) spiders that have incredible cognitive ability, leading to fascinating strategies for hunting different species. Portia are able to sneak up on their prey using very slow stalking behaviour combined with their leaf litter-like appearance. They are also known to pluck a spider’s web, imitating a struggling insect, to lure the resident spider towards them. When stalking venomous spitting spiders, Portia will approach from behind to avoid being perceived and attacked.

PorvsStAndrew

A female Portia hanging from a silk thread and munching on a huge Argiope spider

As well as all these fun trips around the island, I’ve also been reflecting on my year abroad and what is has offered me in terms of both professional and personal experience. Despite the challenges of adjusting to a very different culture and way of life in Singapore I am so happy I took the plunge. I was lucky to be able to go at a time in my life where I had few responsibilities (i.e. no kids or mortgage) and had the financial means to move both myself and my husband across the world to live off one income. This is important to recognise because I think there is an enormous amount of pressure on postdocs (actually all academics) to be super flexible and travel anywhere in the world to take up a job. Sophie Lewis wrote an excellent article about the expectation of academics to spread their career across multiple institutes and countries, and why she believes this is no longer necessary. I largely agree with Sophie and would have to say that a lot of the benefits to working abroad that I discuss below could have also been achieved via shorter-term research visits, conferences, and online networking.

The major benefits that I took away from my year in Singapore:

  • Research experience: The most obvious and biggest benefit to working at NUS was working in a very different lab, working on a new study system in a different area of behavioural ecology. Although I’m keen to get stuck back in to my main research interest, I have come away with a new set of skills and lots of new knowledge about spiders and visual ecology that I didn’t have before. This has the potential to lead to all sorts of future opportunities and collaborations! Importantly this has also helped me to be better at problem solving, has stretched my brain to move into a field I knew little about and has helped me cross paths with a different group of researchers that I hadn’t interacted with before.
  • Networking: There’s nothing like arriving in a new place with no friends to force one to get out there and make new contacts! NZ is far away from just about anywhere, so it has been a great to be somewhere a little more central to meet scientists based at NUS or travelling through Singapore.
  • Tropical biodiversity: My knowledge of biodiversity is much richer than when I first arrived in Singapore. Working in the tropics was so different to temperate NZ and I found it incredible that I saw numerous new species every time I went out to the forest. I like to think this will be a source of inspiration for future project ideas, and help me to make comparisons to the temperate regions I’ve worked in. I have loads of great photographs (mostly taken by Caleb) that can be used as examples in teaching.
  • Travel opportunities: Related to the point above, working in SE Asia led to so many amazing trips abroad to collect spiders or go on mini-vacations. Whether mucking around in the central catchment of Singapore or wandering the jungles & highlands of Malaysia it was exciting every time. Field work is the best part of my job and doing it across multiple countries in tropical Asia was just so fun.
  • Learning to work with new people: Any new job requires learning to fit in with new people, but for me, working in a region of the world with a very different culture to my own has been a novel challenge. Our lab was made up of students from Singapore, China, Taiwan and Malaysia which has been so great for learning about cultural and religious practices from countries other than my own. I think it will help me to be better at supervising a diverse range of students in the future.
  • My relationship: My husband didn’t work while in Singapore but spent a lot of time helping me in the lab and the field. We lived without a TV and had really great discussions each night over dinner or on evening walks. Having lots of days and every evening together was a big change for us after many years of shift work for Caleb. So, bizarrely given the strain that this job could have put on our relationship had we decided to do it long distance, Caleb’s unemployed “sabbatical” turned out to be a really great move for us.

The biggest challenges:

  • Culture shock: It took a lot longer to settle in than I thought it would and despite Singapore being a rather westernized part of Asia, we still experienced culture shock. We got around this by really trying to learn as much as possible about our new country, going to festivals and eating/shopping where locals did. 2015 turned out to be a fascinating time to be in Singapore with the huge celebrations of 50 years of independence and the death of the beloved founding father Mr Lee Kuan Yew. It took ages to learn the basics though and sometimes tasks that would take me half an hour in NZ took me all day. One day it took me about 6 hours and 4 expensive taxi rides to source a piece of sandpaper that ended up costing me 40 cents!
  • Pressure to hit the ground running: Largely driven by my own anxieties and self-expectations, I really struggled to get the project underway and feel like I was being a good postdoc. I guess it could be said that I was suffering from imposter syndrome, although at the time it just felt like I was a terrible scientist and about to waste a whole bunch of time and money doing something that a better qualified person should be doing. The first 5 months or so were pretty tough and I felt ungrateful for being given such a neat opportunity to live and work in a new place. Things got a lot better once we did a couple of lengthy field trips to Malaysia & China where we came “home”to our apartment in Singapore.
  • Finding friends: I always thought I was good at making friends but I struggled a lot in Singapore. I found that just getting through a work day in a new environment was enough of a challenge without adding the extra pressure of going out and networking with expats or joining clubs. It got better with time but in hindsight I wish that I had tried harder early on because I’m sure it would have helped with those anxious first few months. Other friends who’ve moved abroad have had success using Meetups.com which is a online notice board with a whole bunch of different groups that you can join from tennis to conversational language to philosophy.
  • Project achievements: One year just isn’t really long enough to really sink your teeth into a project and get a lot out of it. If I could recommend a time period I would say a postdoc of at least 2 years would be a smart choice, especially if you have to make major changes to the project after a few months like I did. Getting outputs in a short period of time would be less risky, however, if slotting into a lab where you are taking up one part of a larger project, or working on a very well-established system.

Overall, for me the year away ended up as one rolling adventure from start to finish. I think we knew early on that we weren’t going to settle in to Singapore easily or want to stay for the long term, so by using the year as a big learning opportunity we were able to keep enthusiasm up throughout. I’m definitely going to miss the food culture in Singapore too…

cendol

The best Nonya cendol in Malacca!