Time to write!

Truly. It’s been a while since my last entry here, and the title is more than appropriate.

I came across a wonderful resource for webinars centered on “Thriving in Academia”, provided by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity. I started with a 3-part webinar by Josh Schimel with the promising title “How to Write Papers That Get Cited and Proposals That Get Funded”. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars which is similar to the overall rating of his book on Amazon.

Even better are parts of the core curriculum, a set of 12 webinars you can watch whenever it fits your own schedule. They claim to aim at:

  • Explosive Productivity
  • Work-Life Balance
  • Healthy Relationships
  • Strategic Planning

So far, I only took 2 webinars out of this series (“Developing a Daily Writing Practice”, and “Mastering Academic Time Management”) but these have been FANTASTIC. They change my life.

Core messages that surprisingly surprised me but couldn’t be any truer:

  • No matter how much we organize, manage and try to catch up with everything: There is just not enough time to manage everything.
  • We spend far too much time on things with imminent deadlines or satisfaction (teaching, service, emails…) and far too little on what matters long-term (scientific writing).
  • Forcing yourself to acquire a daily writing habit, optimally with a set goal per week, will boost the amount of scientific writing (far more so than waiting for big chunks of time to occur).

My message for today:

  • If you have access, take some NCFDD webinars, you won’t regret it.
  • Daily write for 30-60 minutes. No excuses. Right away in the morning. No excuses (really)! – It works for me, I already drafted half a method paper in just over a week.

Here some personal background for this entry:

I’ve struggled a bit in the last couple months with frustration and was even more behind with everything than usual. Not surprising, considering that I have been the senior postdoc in two labs at once (in one the only one beside my PI and undergraduate assistants) without having technical assistants in either. So I kind of manage everything – labs, orders, people, experiments, data, analysis, lab meetings. AND go to seminars (occasionally). AND am in that busy state of job hunting. AND have two little kids (thank goodness for daycare and a great husband).

So I came to a point, where I needed things to change. Badly.

I could condense everything to few facts:

  • I LOVE my job.
  • I NEED to get to the next stage (as PI) to realize my own projects.
  • I want to go back to Germany (for personal and academic reasons).

So I now focus my energy to make it work (which means even more applications, grant proposals, and a prospective international move, next to my daily research).

I also invest some time again in professional and personal development which I actually really like doing.

The ups and downs of earphones in the lab – it’s about being focused and social

Every now and then, this blog is the perfect place to get my thoughts out. It helps me not to dwell on particular thoughts and kind of frees them up (and me). Right now, it’s time for me to share my view on music, audiobooks and earphones in the lab, and I am curious about your opinions.

I found only one other blog on the topic (The silence of the labs, by Stella Hill). The blog already had some valuable thoughts I strongly agree with: About the good old times of having just an old-fashioned radio in the lab, and on the communication and collaboration needed for tuning it – on or off, Rock or Classic? We had one of those in my Ph.D lab in Germany, and mainly two radio stations were running – dependent on whether a young graduate student was in first and switched it on, or whether a senior lab technician did. There was sometimes a bit of grumpiness involved, but a very helpful rule was that whenever somebody wanted it off, that had priority. And of course, general politeness required you to ask anybody present for approval when turning the radio on. There were times when you had to concentrate, or just couldn’t cope with listening to some particular music style.

So using earphones would solve that, right?

Yes, but for the cost of safety, social interactions, and lab productivity! Okay, you have objections to the last? Accepted – I do agree that music can motivate, and helps especially to persist with some rather boring and time-consuming tasks! But those are usually somewhere secluded, like in a microscope room or a sterile bench, without a lot of need to move around. And that – to me – is the key. I spent a lot of times with pretty simple, repetitive and loooooong-lasting tasks at the microscope (counting blue sectors on plants or collecting meiotic cells) and was glad to have music or even audiobooks to keep me company and keep me engaged.

So earphones are totally fine in the lab?

Uhhh – let’s get back to safety and social interactions:  I would NEVER EVER consider to wear my earphones at the lab bench, with other researchers close, or me moving between benches and rooms. Why? Because whatever you listen to distracts, isolates, and makes you prone for lab accidents. I probably don’t cover all possibilities for lab accidents, but let’s just mention the slightly weird noise a centrifuge makes seconds before it jumps of the bench (or you luckily could stop it from doing so), or the sound of an unexpected reaction of chemicals when mixing solutions (followed by shattering glass or burning you), or somebody else bumping into you because you didn’t hear, or somebody needing help and you not noticing… and the little things like the warning beep of a malfunctioning freezer. And here we come back to social interactions and lab productivity…

Why should you not even consider (or being allowed) to wear your earphones during usual lab work?

You wouldn’t care about the warning beep of the malfunctioning freezer? Well, then I feel sorry for your lab mates and PI. Everyone in the lab needs to take responsibility, deal with those annoying things to keep the lab running. Imagine all the samples in the freezer that might get lost! And even without anything bad happening, having earphones on deprives you of tons of valuable moments connecting with your fellow lab mates and getting quick advice that otherwise would cost you a couple weeks to figure out on your own. Not giving advice to others would undoubtedly safe time, but I do not want to miss those moments of delight that save the other person time and give renewed motivation. I wholeheartedly encourage all those little conversations on “What are you working on right now?”, “What are you doing there?”, “Can I use the PCR machine afterwards?”, “This *** PCR is just not working”, “Hey, do you have problems growing plants as well?”…

Is there more to it than the earphone issue?

You got me! Yes. Definitely. I experienced all the advantages of those little conversations (as well as daily joint lunch conversations in the cafeteria) and am truly sad that they are becoming less and less. Sometimes due to earphones, but far more times because younger generations feel more connected with their social media on the phone, or because we think it easier to google something instead of directly communicating about it with lab mates. This way one person might resolve an issue, but others would not know about it (you can’t communicate everything in lab meetings), losing time and effort on it as well.

In a nutshell: Un-plug and let your lab mates enjoy the pleasure of your actual presence, but keep your earphones close for those countless hours of simple work in a safe secluded corner.

Making communicating science a priority

Frédéric Bouché, a postdoc at the University of Wisconsin, has some beautiful examples and instructions of how to spend a day (or admittedly more than one) on upgrading scientific articles or parts for a presentation by summing up the key messages in a neat and simple infographics.

Plant Science Infographics

I could not agree more with the message and the content!
I love using Inkscape, though it might take quite some time to do such a graph, it is truly worthwhile! With the addition of a graphic tablet (pen to draw lines instead of mouse) it goes even smoother…

Why I love working in a lab – and sometimes not…

… for one thing, I never run out of challenges but always out of time – and due to this, this particularly blog entry had to wait quite a while but finally, here are some of my thoughts:

My favorite aspects of life say it all – I am addicted! Addicted to those precious moments of success for which I worked hard and long (an accepted publication, or sometimes something as small as a PCR that finally worked). Addicted also to neatness, productivity & creativity which are needed to accomplish these milestones of success. And luckily also addicted to life-long learning, though sometimes I shake my head about it and think of how much easier life could be without science.

But I sooooo need that challenge! That constant challenge, with frequent surprises, good or bad… And the joy when a complete new opportunity, direction, question or answer occurs! But let me say a couple words to the few items I listed as my favorite aspects of life:

  • Tidyness/ Neatness: It’s amazing how abundant messy labs are – and how some people really thrive in it, but mostly it can slow down everyone’s progress. Organizing the lab, materials, inventories, protocols and properly introducing and reprimanding new (and sometimes old) lab members can take quite some time, but is – in my experience – truly worth the effort.
  • Productivity: Smooth transition – exactly that can be gained by having an immaculate lab, stocked with all necessary supplies, dedicated work areas and equipment, and detailed protocols! Science is hard enough, why make it even harder? A completely different aspect I experienced related to productivity is the right amount of people in a lab, optimally loving to work together – it is so helpful AND motivating to have somebody else spending late hours at the lab or achieving speedy progress thanks to perfect teamwork.
  • Creativity: Even in the most perfect, super-organized, hyper-funded lab, there is the need for an arts&crafts session every now and then, making unique equipment (stretched-out glass needles, disposable pestles anyone?) or coming up with a complete new technique or use of equipment. Since I always loved arts&crafts, especially with no instructions or template whatsoever, I feel delighted at those occasions. And then, science also wants us to build new circuits in our brain, coming up with new approaches and solutions and connections, never getting boring…
  • Family: Now it’s getting a bit difficult. Work-life-balance naaaahh. I try to at least focus the weekends completely on family, and with two very young children, that requires a lot of energy, so Monday is not totally un-welcome once it arrives. I adore my kids and could not be more fortunate with my dear hubby, but being a stay-at-home-mom would drive me crazy. I am still very grateful to the few female scientist I met whom convinced me to give the whole family-thing a try. Life is so much richer when marveling at your child’s curiousness, cuteness, growth and developing intelligence.
  • Traveling & reading: I definitely DO that at the moment – a lot. I sometimes just wish the reading would pertain more to novels and less to the never-ending flood of related scientific literature. I am still energized whenever I think about our beautiful vacations (before the kids), but I know we will get back to that at some point, and for now I enjoy traveling to conferences to get the adrenaline out of scientific networking.

To sum it up: Working in a lab (or more general: in science) IS a challenge, but a worthy one, at least for me.

How to better succeed in academia – what I wish I had known before

This is something I am burning to share, and thus I will write about it in this very first blog entry. I wished I had had that knowledge (or even just the wit to research it) even before I started my PhD. So far, I was lucky with all my steps on the academic career ladder, but at the moment I struggle to succeed in making the next big leap, and an accelerated and better equipped career path – an escalator, figuratively speaking – would have helped a lot.

So here in brief my advice which I would give myself, 10 years ago:

1.) Choose a promising topic and lab! Thus, get high-impact publications (really. Science. Or Nature.)
2.) Apply for awards and scholarships early on.

That. Is. It!

How can you judge the first and achieve the second?

Applying for awards and scholarships is just a matter of intense online research, finding opportunities and applying. Some fellowships are very specific and hard to find, but start by looking at CVs of famous people in your field and what they got! I missed out on that because most fellowships require less than 2 years past your Ph.D defense, so get right at it!

Well, with the topic it’s more difficult, you probably need some luck too (I had it – tons of future research directions which are novel, interesting, funding-attractive, and set apart from my current PI’s main interests so I can take them with me). You want a research area which is not over-saturated and well-funded (not sure if mine meets these criteria though, but I got into a promising photomorphogenesis project as well) – so be prepared to set out to find this needle in the haystack, YOUR particular niche.

But how do you find a lab that propels you forward in your career? A famous lab? Likely helpful, but not necessarily. A big lab? Maybe yes, maybe not – you could get on a lot of publications, or not and be just one of many worker bees.

So what is it, to look out for? Your best bet is to look at former lab members – where are they now, what do they do, did they get many and/or high-impact publications? This is the simple formula to find a PI that pushes and coaches you optimally.


Disclaimer: I had luck with my postdoc position at the University of Minnesota. There were no former group members I could research (and would not have thought of it at that time), but the topic was the perfect fit, and I felt good about the PI, Changbin Chen. And he really proved to be the best in terms of caring for my personal and professional welfare and promotion, very grateful about that. The only things I am missing are high-impact publications and acquired fellowships.

Setting up my homepage

Finally getting around to that – love to think about and create content, and having a steep learning curve on something new. WordPress, here I come! Goal: Finish till the end of June (2016) ;-)!