Guest Post: Balancing academia and chronic illness

Today’s post is a guest post by Sue Baker, a Research Fellow at the University of Tasmania. Here’s the post:

In this post I will share my experience of being an ecologist while also being chronically ill. I was inspired by Meghan’s posts sharing her experiences of battling anxiety. I think chronic illness (CI) can be a bit like mental health problems in that people rarely talk about it and may feel rather isolated, but I’m guessing there are a bunch of us out there. I’m hoping that people can use the comments to share their own experiences and suggestions to others (note this can be anonymous). It would be great if ‘healthy’ people could also read and contribute, as having supportive colleagues and employers might make the difference between people continuing to work or not. I’ll start by explaining my health issues and how I adjusted my work and other aspects of my life. In my case it is (hopefully!) a good news story in that two years ago I got a diagnosis and am, very slowly, improving with treatment.

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Open discussion thread: field-based courses in the time of coronavirus

In the past, if we used the word “remote” when talking about field-based courses, we would have been referring to going to a far-off location. Now, during the pandemic, talking about teaching field-based courses remotely means teaching them with the instructor in one place and the students dispersed in many different places.

I know a few folks who are trying to figure out how to teach their summer field-based courses (e.g., field ecology courses) online. They definitely have some good ideas, such as taking advantage of Zooniverse, having students upload observations to iNaturalist, linking with Project Feederwatch or eBird, and using other publicly available data, such as data from NEON. There could even be some advantages to the students being spread out, including by asking students to compare and contrast what the class is finding in different regions or habitat types (as long as those activities are optional, to take into account different access to resources & different social/physical distancing realities).

It seemed like it could be helpful to have an open discussion thread where folks share what they’re thinking of doing, where they ask for suggestions for things they are trying to figure out, and where they share resources and ideas for how to teach this type of course as inclusively as possible. This will hopefully be similar to the open thread on the science of the coronavirus pandemic, with the goal of providing a place where the ecology community can have a discussion, in this case about how to teach field-based courses during the pandemic.

What are you planning doing in your field-based courses? What are you worried about? What would you like to find out more about? What do you hope people teaching this sort of course will think about?

Productivity, planning, and self-care: work-life balance requires planning ahead

As I’ve done work related to Michigan’s Grad Student Mental Health task force, and done my own “regular” work this semester, I’ve realized that discussions related to self-care and work/life balance often focus on things like making sure you get enough sleep or leaving time to go for a run or do yoga or things like that, but they leave out something important: if you want to do all those things (and I think they’re extremely important) and still submit manuscripts and proposals with deadlines, get feedback to lab folks in a timely manner, etc., you need to plan ahead. 

I’d been thinking about this for a while, but then had a really great conversation with a colleague about this that led to me coming up with this framework:

Top axis is "work-life balance/self care", right axis is "Plan ahead?" and left axis is "highly deadline motivated"

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When writing a grant proposal, do you first think of the topic? The experiments? The preliminary data? Something else?

Recently, a friend who was working on a grant proposal asked if I have the specific experiments in mind first and then come up with the framing from there, or if I have the big picture framing in mind and develop the specific experiments from there. I was a little stumped at first, then realized that was because I don’t really use either of those approaches. Instead, my initial motivation is usually preliminary data that I’m excited about and where it’s clear more work needs to be done to figure out what is really going on.

Here’s an example: As a graduate student, I carried out a study on a population where I tracked a parasite outbreak and host population dynamics and, at the same time, assayed the susceptibility of the population to that parasite at three time points. The results of the susceptibility assays were not at all what I expected at the start of the experiment:

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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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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.

Creating environments where it’s okay to make mistakes and ask questions

When I first started at Georgia Tech, I had the tremendously good fortune to hire a really, really, really good technician. (One of my first blog posts was on hiring a tech vs. a postdoc when starting a new lab.) Jessie was an amazing technician for a whole bunch of reasons, including that she was really good at working with undergrads in the lab.

At one point, I was in the lab while she was training a new student in the lab and I heard her say something like, “I’m not sure if I did a good job of explaining that. Can you tell me what you heard so I can try again if I didn’t explain it well?” I loved that approach. It made it so that, if the student got something wrong when they explained it back or tried it the first time, it wasn’t their fault – it was that it hadn’t been explained well enough.

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Why teaching Intro Bio makes me think we need to radically change qualifying exams

When I first arrived at Michigan and began teaching Intro Bio, the course had four exams. In that first semester, I added in clicker questions. Since then, we have added in frequent quizzing, so the students now have four exams, plus two quizzes a week (completed before coming to class), plus clicker questions in class. We have all of that because we know that frequent testing improves student learning. (Here’s one review, here’s another, and here’s a summary of the changes we made in Intro Bio and their impacts on student performance.) As a side bonus, when the testing is low stakes (as with the quizzes and clicker questions), students get those learning benefits without paying a cost in terms of increased anxiety. Given all that, I would never consider changing the format to one where we have just a single, pass/fail, high stakes assessment at the end of the semester.

Now, let’s consider graduate prelim/qualifying exams.

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