Friday, February 28, 2014

Scenes from the OSU Museum of Biological Diversity Open House

Earlier this month, I was happy to again participate in the Ohio State Museum of Biological Diversity Open House, our department's biggest outreach event. We had more than 2,200 visitors from all parts of Ohio and elsewhere. This year, Matt Holding and I teamed with two fantastic undergraduates who work in our lab (Meghan Parsley and Paul Hudson) to go even bigger than we did last year. Since this year's theme was all about how scientists use technology to discover and classify biodiversity, we put together a booth that showed visitors how our lab uses technology across all aspects of our science, from catching animals to analyzing their DNA.

We had an absolute blast at this event. Apparently, so did a whole bunch of other people!

Here are some photos I took frantically between showing salamanders to (big and little) kids:

And here are some photos of our booth, some of our materials, and some of the great visitors we met!


At the end of the tables, we had a few animals on display that showcased some ways that DNA can reveal biological differences between organisms. Included among these animals was the eastern glass lizard that we brought back from Florida last year, and I was astounded at the number of kids that could immediately identify it! The little "flip quizzes" at the end of the booth sparked a lot of discussions with both adults and children.


This is a great event and I highly recommend it if you are a local. All the faculty, staff, and students are so excited to meet the citizens of Ohio and share their passion. For more pictures and information, I'd recommend the Museum of Biological Diversity Facebook page here.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Who Works 80 Hours a Week in Academia?

Part of being a graduate student is working hard. Whispers of disappearing faculty positions and decreases in funding percentages are heard at most social gatherings. You have to be in the lab 80 hours per week to stay at the front. Right? In this really good blog post, Dr. Meghan Duffy (follow her on twitter here!) presents her argument for why the myth of the 80 hours/week = success equation is pretty silly. 

When I read Dr. Duffy's post a few weeks ago, I had already been intensely thinking about the way I work for about a month. After reaching doctoral candidate status in the fall, I realized that I had a lot of irons in the fire. I also realized I had no real grip on how I spent my time. I knew I was working and I knew I felt like I was working hard, but I needed some more information about my habits. Ya know, data.

So how does a PhD student spend their time? Well, I've been diligently logging all of my work hours since January 14th. I'm no Steven Wolfram, but I put this app on my phone and set up six categories of my work: 
  • General Work: a catch-all for emailing, running small errands, generally finding journal articles, etc.
  • Meetings: anytime I was sitting in a meeting for the lab, the department, or other research activities went here
  • Thesis Research: any activity related to thesis research
  • Other Research: any research, including educational research, that doesn't directly apply to the ol' thesis
  • Outreach Activities: this included both things outside of the university (giving a public talk, preparing materials for outreach events, etc.) and things within our lab (running undergraduate lab meetings)
  • Teaching: any time spend preparing for teaching or preparing for teaching
There is definitely a lot of subjectivity involved when placing actions in one of these categories, but this is what I rolled with for better or worse. Bottom line: whenever I was really working (not surfing the internet) on one of these categories, I was "clocked-in".

How much am I working?
As of downloading the data on Sunday, I've averaged 45 hours/week of real work. I'm working an average of 6.43 hours per day (including weekends). If I look at when I'm working, I start my Monday-Friday work days on average at 9:04 am and head home at 6:40 pm on average. 

Here is a boxplot of the start times of different activities:

This makes pretty good sense compared to my general thoughts about my schedule. I usually have meetings during the morning or midday, handle little things and email first thing in the morning, and often use larger blocks of time in the afternoon for research in the lab or at my computer. I generally go to the gym early in the morning and take time for lunch with other grad students. 

What am I working on?
Since I am not teaching this semester and am being paid through a research assitantship, the data shows that I am (thankfully) working mostly on research projects. The teaching category isn't presented here for the same reason. 

Category: Duration (% of total across 33 days)
General Work: 47.46 hours (22.4% of total)
Meetings: 23.67 hours (11.2% of total)
Thesis Research: 81.28 hours (38.3% of total)
Other Research: 14.76 hours (7.0% of total)
Outreach Activities: 44.99 hours (21.2% of total)

Here is a bar chart showing how I spend each work day on different activities:

I love this view because it primarily demonstrates what I think is so great about being a graduate student: few days are ever the same. Sometimes I can spend the day devoted to a single project and some days I run from place to place doing very different things. For example, on January 30th I spent the whole morning getting some things in the lab organized, had a committee meeting late-morning, ate lunch with the departmental seminar speaker, went to the seminar in the afternoon, worked in the lab for the rest of the day, and then drove to Crawford County in the evening to give a public talk for the Parks District. The following Thursday I spend the majority of the day at my computer writing. Different days produce very different paces and styles of work.

Other observations:
I don't work that much on the weekends. I use the weekends as re-charge time and predominantly spend them with my wife and friends or working on hobbies. I think this is a good use of my time so that's what I do.

Some days are long days and some days are short days. Fridays are generally short days while Mondays/Thursdays are generally long days away from home. I'm not a robot that can work long hours day after day, so long days are usually followed by less work the next day. I can see the sense in this, but definitely see room for improvement. 

How efficient am I?
I wish I had better data to answer this question. Since I didn't log the amount of time I was "trying" to work, it is hard for me to know how many of those hours I was actually working on one of the above categories. 

One thing I was interested in is how long I spend doing each activity. For example, I am extremely fatigued by reading journal articles for more than an hour, but I feel like I can infinitely chip away at a seemingly endless "small things to do list".

Here is another boxplot showing the duration of each activity:

So, generally, I spend an average of about an hour on any given activity, but the duration is awfully variable. The extreme outliers shown here can be explained by the Museum of Biological Diversity Open House (Outreach) and the Ohio Biodiversity Conservation Partnership annual meeting (Meetings). 

But have these been a productive few weeks? I think so. I believe that I spent each of those ~45 hours to get things done. But my whole point here is to quantify what the daily life of a scientist is actually like without the posturing or the caricatures of overworked grad students pulling out their hair.

Haha, yep, there I am.

Besides the obvious benefit of having sweet, sweet data to play with, logging these hours had an entirely unpredicted psychological outcome. It turns out that taking the time to click on my phone and think "Ok, what am I actually going to do right now" is a great exercise in focusing my mind.

I'm now going to click "end outreach activity" and go watch Downton Abbey. See ya.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Cool stuff in science, unloading my browser bookmarks addition

I've started using the app Pocket to save all the neat things I see about science. It has been incredibly convenient, but has the negative effect of creating a huge backlog of stories I feel that I need to read. I'm dumping some of these interesting things here for your reading pleasure:

Do scientists need to "turn on the charm"?     

Here is a story that I heard on the radio about BioToasters, an organization that is helping scientists become better spoken communicators. Now, I'm a huge advocate of improving scientific communication, and I'm glad to hear about these types of initiatives. What really interests me about this article are the comments at the bottom of the page. It is worth a look to see the arguments that some make against scientists actively improving their communication skills. If you think that scientists being good communicators is a "duh", then you should hear the opposite side of that argument.

From WIRED science
Social tools for serious science

If you are a scientist or you like science, use Twitter. It is great. I will give two main reasons that echo the information in this news article from GEN. First, it is one of the best ways to interact with scientists. Find scientists who study things you are interested in, follow them, and you can get constantly updated on their publications, what they are reading, and links they share. The same goes for twitter accounts that summarize and share research as it is published, like Animal Conservation, BBC Nature, and Nature Magazine. Second, science is really slow. Publications take many months to years to be completed from idea to in-press. Twitter and the information shared on it is extremely current. I've seen posts about new methods, new results, and interesting observations long before they would appear in print. If you want to get started and don't know who to follow, go to my page and scroll through the accounts I keep up with for a starting place.

My Main Man Alfred Russel Wallace

Alfred Russel Wallace, the co-discoverer of evolution by natural selection, is one of my absolute favorite historical scientists. There are so many stories of his grace, humility, and courage during an incredible time in science. I found this excellent video from BBC Science and David Attenborough that quickly gives a little detail about Wallace's life. Do yourself a favor and go watch it. You can find more information about his life and his work at this website from the Discovery Institute.

Edit: It came to my attention that the Discovery Institute may not be the best link to insert here due to their position that Wallace was the founder of the intelligent design argument. I chose that page simply due to the good information and visuals concerning Wallace's early career. Other resources about Wallace's life, more in line with my personal interpretations of his writings, can be found from London's Natural History Museum. I'm going to leave the link above for a reason that I think it very important. Like Darwin, Wallace's work and opinions have been used to further a variety of opinions about evolution and even the origination of biological life. I think an excellent way to create your own conclusions is to regard the information presented by all parties and judge for yourself. The two resources I provide here are good places to start.

If anything, both of these resources serve to humanize these brilliant scientists. Their contributions to the study of evolution and biology in general were enormous, but the fact that they both struggled with the same social, familial, and political pressures that exist today makes them somehow relatable to me, even 100 years later.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A research lab that herps together, works together

Back in August before the semester began, a good portion of the Gibbs lab headed down to Florida for a week of science and reptiles/amphibians. We were visiting some colleagues/collaborators at Florida State University as well as helping Sarah Smiley catch pigmy rattlesnakes for her thesis research.

Believe it or not, I've just recently downloaded the photos from my camera. Here are some of the interesting things we did and interesting creatures we found:

I almost ordered two slices because I didn't believe that they were "as big as your head".
David and Lisle appreciating the alligators
Sarah took us swimming at Wakulla Springs. We were all brave enough to high dive. 
There I was, expecting a honky-tonk. What a disappointment.
A lifer for me: Pig Frog (Lithobates Grylio)

A handsome juvenile Cottonmouth (Agkistrodon piscivorus)

Matt demonstrating the art form of laying out "rock snakes" to trick other cars searching for snakes at night. Classic.
The snake we were after: The Pigmy Rattlesnake (Sistrurus miliarius)
Sarah studies how these snakes' venom is locally adapted to their prey

Pigmy is a good descriptor. Here are four adult snakes at the bottom of a 5 gallon bucket.
Another lifer for me: Little Grass Frog (Pseudacris ocularis). I thought the first one I saw was an insect jumping through the grass.
Sarah gets the royal treatment during the half of the year she spends in Florida at Stetson University.
It was hot and humid, but we found snakes. Left to right: David Salazar, Sarah Smiley, Terry Farrell, Lisle Gibbs, Matt Holding, Rob Denton

Sunday, October 27, 2013


As if he were making art just for my interests, Nate Milton presents this animated short film, "TANK"

This beauty is well worth nine minutes of your life, especially if you were anything like me growing up: chasing creepy crawly creatures and playing junior naturalist. I don't think I've ever seen anything that has so accurately tapped into the magical feelings that surround connecting with the natural world as a child, feelings that certainly still resonate with me as an adult.

This film was the results of a successful Kickstarter campaign and you can see more behind-the-scenes videos/photos on Mr. Milton's production blog. Go give his website some love for his awesome work.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Science links: Science Studio educates, entertains, and inspires

Whew, I've been away from the blog for a bit while I finished my PhD candidacy. Now that I've been deemed a competent scientist by my senior colleagues, I have a backlog of blog posts to get to.

I'm going to start by pointing you towards Science Studio, a collection of the best science multimedia on the web. This idea comes from Rose Eveleth and Ben Lillie, who are two people behind the equally excellent podcast Story Collider

So, why is Science Studio cool? Well, finding really good science media isn't easy. Unfortunately, the best and most effective science multimedia isn't easily accessible via traditional outlets like television anymore.
No no no, Discovery, what is this?
Wait, really? Awww dagnabbit

Fortunately, the internet is still a source of so much great science media. It is also the source of so much terrible, pseudo-scientific poo. So if you are a science-seeking human with a limited amount of time to scour the internet, what do you do? Sites and programs like Science Studio could be the answer: nominate really good science media, have people judge it for its quality, and display the results in an easily accessible way. 

So go check out Science Studio for yourself. Here are some of my favorites from the collection:

Some days I'm Jad, some days I'm Robert.

One of the first science podcasts I always mention to folks is WNYC's Radiolab. While this podcast might not always satisfy those who seek for hardcore science, the stories are always entertaining and Jad and Robert make one of the best radio teams you can listen to. Their episode "The Bad Show" displays prominently on top of the Science Studio collection.

Look at this video explaining DNA folding from the blog The Last Word On Nothing. I was so enamored by how simple and whimsical this video is while so accurately and clearly presenting a very complicated topic.

Here is a neat podcast that I had never heard of, One Species at a Time. This one is about an under-appreciated group of species: moths. This is delivered by Ari Daniel Shapiro, who you might have heard all over the radio talking about cool science.

Cutest organism alive

Next, an informative and concise video about Tardigrades from the YouTube channel SciShow. I told my students that the Tardigrade is my spirit animal and they seemed impressed.

Go check the rest of the collection out for yourself and support good science media!