About Meghan Duffy

I am an ecologist at the University of Michigan. My research focuses on the ecology and evolution of infectious diseases, particularly in lake Daphnia populations.

On reaching one’s destination and realizing it’s a starting point

Last summer, I gave a talk at the Evolution meetings in a session focused on science communication. My main message was: there’s value in preaching to the choir. But, as I’ll explain in this post, that talk helped me realize something else: sometimes, what you think is your destination is really a starting point.

The idea of preaching to the choir is one I’ve been thinking about a lot, especially as a result of work I’ve been doing on student understandings of and views on climate change, in collaboration with Susan Cheng and JW Hammond. We started using that metaphor because we found that almost all students entered the course we studied already accepting that climate change is occurring: when asked “Do you think climate change is happening” at the beginning of the semester, 98% of students choose one of the “agree” options. (The paper is here and open access.) In the course we studied, one of the main messages of the lecture on climate change was that climate change is occurring. Given that most of the students already thought that prior to instruction, you could argue that this course was preaching to the choir. But one of the messages of our study was that there is value in that; as one indication that it had value, after instruction, students became more confident that climate change is occurring. There’s value in preaching to the choir! I thought that message applied to science communication more broadly, so decided to make this the theme of my Evolution talk.

Before writing a talk with that theme, though, I wanted to make sure that the way I use the metaphor is the way others use it, too. I googled it, which led to me finding this amazing piece by Rebecca Solnit. The focus of her essay is on political communication, but it is very applicable to science communication, too.

So, my Evolution talk ended up having several slides with quotes from Solnit’s piece, including this one:

Karen Haygood Stokes, a minister … explained …her aim is not so much to persuade people to believe as it is to encourage them to inquire into existing beliefs. “My task as a preacher is to find the places of agreement and then move someplace from there. Not to change anybody’s mind, but to deepen an understanding.” The common ground among her parishioners is not the destination; it’s the starting point: “Have we thought critically about why we agree?”

This quote really stood out when I was reading the Solnit piece, because it was so applicable to the work we’ve been doing on student views on climate change. When we look at their short answer responses, there is huge heterogeneity that is not captured by the statistic that 98% of them accept climate change coming into the course. When asked about what factors are contributing to climate change, some seem to understand things well enough that they might be able to teach the lecture, others have a partial understanding, others say they don’t really know, and still others seem to harbor misconceptions.

When I started the work, I viewed a student clicking “accept” as my destination. This work has made me realize it’s a starting point.

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Some things that helped me make it through a particularly busy semester

This past fall was quite busy for me, and I was worried at the start about whether I’d bitten off more than I could chew. The big things taking up time were teaching over 600 students in Intro Bio and chairing a university task force on graduate student mental health, but it was also important to me that people in my lab not have to go the whole semester without getting feedback on their manuscripts, and there were also a couple of grant deadlines that I really didn’t want to miss. I knew this would be a lot, so I did my best before the semester to set up a structure that would hopefully help me through my particularly busy semester. And it worked pretty well! Things weren’t perfect, but I did the things that needed to be done and think I did them reasonably well, and I came out of the semester with my mental health intact. I think a few things really helped with managing things, and I’m hoping that sharing them might be useful to other folks, hence this post.

I’ll expand on each of these below, but the short version of my strategy is:

  1. Block off time for everything
  2. Say no to lots of things
  3. Work with good people
  4. Celebrate the wins
  5. Remember that the bar is not perfection

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How much evidence is there that we should aim to write every day? And are their downsides to suggesting that people aim for that?

As a postdoc, I read Robert Boice’s Advice for New Faculty Members. I think it helped me a lot as I started my first faculty position: I blocked off time for writing, learned how to use short chunks of time productively, and tried to make sure I still got research done even while I was teaching new courses. Until fairly recently, I would have considered myself strongly on Team Boice. I have recommended his book and his approach to people over the years, including one of the ideas he’s best known for: That we should aim to write every day. Now, I’m less sure how strongly to recommend his books, and my advice on how to be a productive writer has changed.

So what changed?

First, I was on a panel with a colleague of mine who is very productive. The panel was for early career folks and there was a question about how to balance all the different demands on your time as an early career faculty member, including how to still maintain research productivity while doing all the other things new faculty need to do. I preached the Boice gospel: You have to learn how to work in small chunks of time, you have to block off time for writing regularly, you can’t wait until you have a full day to write, etc. My colleague was like “yeah, that doesn’t work for me. If I have a free half hour or even hour, I will waste it. I can’t write in that time.” Instead, he structures his weeks so that there’s at least one big chunk of time where he can write.

I was shocked – this was the wrong advice to be giving! He was leading them astray! This is not the way to get off to a strong start as an assistant professor!

Or maybe not? At that time, I would have said that I followed Boice’s advice, but, looking back, I realize I was only following parts of it. Most notably, I actually wasn’t really writing every day, and I’m not sure if I ever did that as a faculty member. I block off at least one morning a week for writing. Unlike my colleague, I do try to get some writing done in smaller blocks of time, too, though I am more likely these days to save up email for those small blocks of time and try to tackle as much of it then as I can. Overall, I do a lot of writing and editing by blocking off 2-4 hour blocks of time in my calendar.

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What are you looking forward to as a semester break treat?

I’ve had a really busy fall, and am very happy to be in the home stretch!* There are a lot of things I’m looking forward to about the break between semesters, one of them being:

Philip Pullman's The Secret Commonwealth

I loved Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (which I first listened to — in audiobook form — as a grad student) and the first book in the new trilogy, The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage was a highlight of my semester break two years ago. I know that I will not be able to put down the second book once I get into it, so I’m saving it as a post-semester reward! I also got a book by Martha Grimes. I haven’t read any of her stuff before, but I suspect I’ll like it. Since I’ve decided to reread The Book of Dust prior to reading The Secret Commonwealth, that means I have three books that I’m saving for the semester break that I’m really looking forward to.

In conversations with a few folks lately, they’ve talked about what they have in mind as a semester break treat — I’m definitely not the only one with reading plans! I’m curious to hear what others have planned. Please share in the comments!

*I mostly feel like “Home stretch! Finish strong!” but other times this is more accurate:

Update on recording office hours: It seems to be working!

Over the summer, I wrote a post thinking about how to make office hours more accessible, specifically wondering about whether I should be calling them “student hours” instead of “office hours” and whether I should record them. This post is an update on that. The short version is:

  • I decided to stick with “office hours”, but also explained on the first day of class and in the syllabus what office hours are and who they are for (everyone!)
  • I have been recording office hours and think this has worked well, though it was harder to set up than I anticipated.

The rest of this post will focus particularly on the recordings, since I’ve had a few people ask me for more information about that. As I wrote about in my earlier post, this idea came from my UMich colleague John Montgomery, who records his office hours (which he calls “Open Discussion”) and who reported that student feedback on it was really positive.

At first, it seemed like it would be easy to record them. My lectures are recorded through a university system, so I thought that I would just be able to do the same with office hours. But no rooms with lecture recording capability were available for me to reserve for office hours. “No problem,” I thought, “I’ll just figure out another way.” And I did…eventually. A couple of people have asked me for more info about how I’ve been doing this, so I figured I’d share it in a blog post. I’ll also talk about the response to the recordings & things that could be improved.

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Applications now open for the NextProf Science Future Faculty workshop at UMich!

NextProf Science is a workshop hosted by the University of Michigan that is aimed at folks who are interested in academia and who have a demonstrated commitment to diversity. Most attendees are senior graduate students or postdocs. The workshop runs May 4-May 7 2020 and includes panels related to the job search process, life in academia, diversity in science, and a variety of other topics. Attendees also get opportunities to workshop application materials, including getting feedback from faculty on those materials. It’s also a great opportunity to meet other folks at a similar career stage. Travel, lodging, and meals are covered for attendees. Attendees must be US citizens, permanent residents, or DACA recipients.

To find out more, visit this page. The deadline to apply is January 19 2020. And please forward information about it to other folks who might be interested!

An incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students

Early in the semester during an Intro Bio class, a student asked about whether it’s ever possible for individuals of two different species to breed. That led to discussion of zebroids and, at some point in the back and forth, I mentioned that Homo sapiens had successfully interbred with Neanderthals. At least a quarter of the students (maybe even half) were visibly surprised—and I didn’t even explain that the evidence is this happened repeatedly! (Don’t worry, we covered that in a later lecture.) That night, I was making lunch for my kids and thinking about that moment in class, and I thought “Just wait until I tell them how much of their genome is viral!”

There are parts of teaching Intro Bio that are hard or annoying or both. But there are some parts that I absolutely love, and one of those is routinely getting to introduce students to things that are literally jaw-dropping. It makes me think of this xkcd:

It is always a highlight of my day (week!) when we have one of those moments in class.

So, in that spirit, I present an incomplete list of things that blow the minds of Intro Bio students (many thanks to my colleague Cindee Giffen for helping me with this list!):

  1. (Almost) all of your cells contain all of your genes
  2. Humans interbred with Neanderthals (repeatedly)
  3. About 8% of the human genome is viral in origin
  4. Plants get infected by viruses. (This comes up because I show a thermal image of a plant leaf that has been infected by a virus when talking about respiration. Speaking of which…)
  5. Plants respire
  6. There are photosynthetic organisms that are not plants
  7. Male anglerfish fuse to the female
  8. Damselfly penises
  9. Gerboas
  10. Taxonomy, including humans are fish, whales are mammals not the things we generally mean by “fish”, and birds are dinosaurs. Or, to quote a former student, “So, sharks are fish, dolphins are mammals, whales are mammals too, and penguins are birds, and birds are dinosaurs, so penguins are dinosaurs?!?”
  11. Fecal transplants
  12. Judas goats

I sometimes think that, if we filmed students while introducing those things, we would get really, really good reaction gifs.

The above list are mostly factoid sorts of things, but there are some bigger conceptual things that are definitely mind-bending for some students. Three that immediately spring to mind are:

  1. The same thing can be an ancestral or derived trait, depending on your frame of reference
  2. The way you can zoom in through taxonomy, sort of like you’re zooming through Google Earth (for example, humans are eukaryotes and animals and deuterostomes and vertebrates and mammals and primates and apes and hominins)
  3. Food webs — that something happening way over here in a food web can influence something way over there, and also the differences between how energy flows and matter cycles

Another thing that definitely blows their minds is that ecology involves math. I address this head on now at the start of the population ecology class, and my sense is that helps, but it still really surprises many of them when equations start appearing.

I initially started compiling this list because I thought it might be interesting to others. But I’ve found it has helped me during a very busy, challenging semester — it’s ended up being a really nice way of noting the little things that are fun that I might otherwise just blow right by in a frenzy of trying to get things done. (It’s also led to me adding notes to the front of my lecture notes that say things like “damselfly sex”, in an attempt to remember to add that to the list.)

So, I’m curious:

  1. What things have you found blow your students’ minds (in a good way!) And
  2. Do you have any routines or other things that help you note the little, fun things that occur while teaching?

 

On getting a sense of perspective…or not

This summer, I unexpectedly spent 8 days in New York because my father was in the hospital. At first, things seemed pretty bad. I went to see him in the hospital, which was really emotional and hard. After sitting with him through dinner, I left the hospital and drove back to my parents’ house, feeling sad. When I got home, I checked my email and saw that a manuscript that I’ve been really excited about had been rejected.

I felt even worse. There was a part of my brain saying, “Come on! Dad is in the hospital! A rejected manuscript is not a big deal! You should be saying ‘Well, this gives perspective on what really matters!’” But, instead, I was feeling like I’d been kicked while I was down.

But, with other things or at other times, I do have that sense of perspective. Did I explain the Law of Segregation perfectly when a student asked about it in office hours this semester? Nope. Was it recorded? Yep. Was it a matter of life and death? Nope. I could make sure I explained it better in the next class and move on to other stuff.

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On overdetermining success, embracing messiness, getting ducks in a row, and changing course

I am chairing a task force for Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School that is focused on graduate student mental health. This is something that I care about a lot and that I really wanted to lead. But, at the same time, it was a very different sort of leadership role than I’d had before. So, as I prepared for this work, I read a variety of books about organizational change and leadership.* Some argued for overdetermining success, while others argued for embracing vulnerability and tough, messy work. I found both sets of arguments convincing.

On the day of the first meeting of the full task, I felt like it was my first day of school, with all the nervousness and excitement that comes along with that. Right before the meeting began, I was talking with Heather Fuchs, the wonderful person from the Rackham Dean’s Office who works with the task force. She asked if I felt ready for the meeting and my reply was something along the lines of, “I don’t know! Half the stuff I read said I need to overdetermine success and the other half said I need to embrace vulnerability and messiness! I’m not sure what I should do!” (Heather joked that maybe I should write a book in the future on meeting in the middle.)

I was joking with Heather, but I really had been feeling unsure of how much to try to come up with a clear, specific plan for the work of the task force versus how much to let things evolve organically. So often, when people set up a choice between A and B, my reaction is: “Why not both?”** But in this case, the suggestions—overdetermine success! embrace messiness!—felt pretty opposite. I definitely didn’t want a hybrid that overdetermined messiness! Still, I decided to try to do both, but had no idea how that was going to work out.

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Guest post: How to be an ally

Intro from Meghan: This is a guest post by Gina Baucom. It’s a great take on a topic that I’ve written about in the past.

Here’s Gina’s post:

He’s just a clueless dude.

A friend and colleague told me recently about how one of her advisors had written a grant on the topic she developed in his lab — he was awarded the grant, but she was not included as a co-PI, even though that was a feasible option. Understandably, she was upset to not be included in some form or another. She discussed it with a different male faculty, and his response was that her advisor was simply a clueless dude.

The definition of clueless, according to Merriam-Webster, is:

  1. having or providing no clue
  2. completely or hopelessly bewildered, unaware, ignorant, or foolish.

Although this definition includes ignorance, when we use the term clueless to describe situations like the one above, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re calling anyone an ignoramous. My sense of the use of clueless here is a soft landing. A whoopsie. A ‘he’s a good guy that made a regrettable decision.’

But let me re-frame the above scenario for what it was: a decision that slowed the progression of a woman’s career. Whatever the reasoning behind the decision not to include my colleague, the end result was that she was left out of money, positions, and publications. In addition to the career consequences, being left out of something that you have worked very hard to create can be psychologically damaging. ‘What’s wrong with me that I wouldn’t be included? Am I a terrible scientist and no one is being honest about it?’

Although I’m certain I have applied ‘clueless’ to similar scenarios, I no longer believe this is the right way to think about them. Willful ignorance is more appropriate. There are approximately a gazillion resources (summarized here) detailing why women’s careers lag behind men’s. A conscientious academic who cares about how this happens can (at the very least) pick up a few resources, get himself educated, and learn to think carefully about how his actions may impact the careers of the people around him. Specifically, how his actions may contribute to the slowed career progression of women scientists — and not just the careers of his trainees, but the careers of women who are across the table from him, behind him, and in front of him.

Because there are men who have a clue, I know that willful ignorance is a choice. And since it’s a choice, I thought that perhaps a list of characteristics of people who choose to be allies could be helpful on two fronts. First, it might help clarify when particular situations and people have been less than ideal, or even damaging. Second, it may help people grapple with the toxicity of their past actions (or that of their colleagues), or, it may help solidify the types of behaviors that can add up in the positive over time. So, here is what I have noticed about effective allies in science:

1. They are kind, considerate, and do their best to communicate well. Communication can be really difficult, but transparent, thoughtful communication is a necessity, and shows respect. Talking about hard topics and being willing to compromise is the essence of maturity. And, fyi: there are a shit-ton of books on how to develop communication skills, so no excuses for being a crappy communicator.

2. They are brave. Allies are willing to step up and explain, point out, or if needed, call out others who are behaving badly. Doing so may lead to a loss of status, but allies know that life is short, and when the opportunity to right a wrong arises, one should do so.

3. They create opportunities and give people space. Allies recognize that a strong field is one in which a variety of people are given the opportunity to be awesome. Allies use their power and status to create opportunities for a diverse group of scientists, not simply white men (or white women) who are already at the top. Allies don’t jump in front of junior scientists in the literature; they seek them out, collaborate, or coordinate publication.

4. They give credit where credit is due. This one is pretty self-explanatory. Allies recognize and credit people for their work.

5. They do not use people. Allies do not, for example, ask a woman academic for advice/background for an opportunity under the guise of collaboration, and then turn around and exclude her from said opportunity after getting useful information. And then turn around and fault her for being upset about it.

6. They do not constantly self-promote. Allies recognize they do not need to be the center of attention at all times.

7. They take care in how they center the narrative. If someone points out when a person’s actions have been harmful, they do not first and foremost feel sorry for the person who garnered him/herself some unflattering attention. Instead, allies center the conversation on how the actions might have harmed, and think about it from a historical and/or broader perspective.

8. They listen when being told they have done something problematic or hurtful. Effective allies recognize they will totally screw up at times, and are willing and capable of listening when it is time to listen.

9. They think deliberately about who they collaborate with. As a result, their publications do not look like a manel line-up.

10. They understand the importance of a real apology. Refusing to make an apology to someone who feels wronged by your actions is a clear indicator that you do not see that person as a person. If you have caused someone offense, apologize, even if you do not yet have the tools to understand the offense. Then do the work to develop your empathy.

Some of you reading this may be thinking, ‘Hold up. This blog post is very geared toward men behaving badly and there are definitely women who are jerks,’ and that is a super fair point. Further, although it is clear that sexism and misogyny are responsible for negative career outcomes for women, it is important to recognize that there are other groups–persons of color, LGBTQIA, disabled scientists–that also experience shitty behavior, and that these identities can intersect with gender, leading to even worse treatment and outcomes. I hope that the above characteristics of allies–or just super cool thoughtful humans–can work as guideposts as we think through how our actions can create both positive and negative experiences for others.

The above characteristics are non-exhaustive, and mostly stem from my observations of both supportive and shitty behaviors. I’m certain I am leaving important characteristics out, and if there is something that strikes you as particularly relevant, or something you’d like people to place a higher emphasis on, drop it in the comments.