All my anxieties about my book, and how I’m dealing with them

I’m writing a book about ecology. It’s early days. So my enthusiasm for the project remains high, but so does my anxiety that I can pull it off. It’s not paralyzing anxiety–most days, I don’t worry about the book at all. I’m too absorbed in working on it, or on whatever other task commands my attention that day. But it’s there.

I’m dealing with that anxiety by identifying specific things I’m anxious about, and addressing them. So here’s a list of all my worries about my book, along with how I’m dealing with them. This is mostly for my own reference, but maybe it will help someone out there to know that even tenured full professors sometimes worry if they’re up to (some aspect of) the job.

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On finding errors in one’s published analyses

Dan Bolnick just had a really important – and, yes, brave – post on finding an error in a published study of his that has led him to retract that study. (The retraction isn’t official yet.) In his post, he does a great job of explaining how the mistake happened (a coding error in R), how he found it (someone tried to recreate his analysis and was unsuccessful), what it means for the analysis (what he thought was a weak trend is actually a nonexistent trend), and what he learned from it (among others, that it’s important to own up to one’s failures, and there are risks in using custom code to analyze data).

This is a topic I’ve thought about a lot, largely because I had to correct a paper. It was the most stressful episode of my academic career. During that period, my anxiety was as high as it has ever been. A few people have suggested I should write a blog post about it in the past, but it still felt too raw – just thinking about it was enough to cause an anxiety surge. So, I was a little surprised when my first reaction to reading Dan’s post was that maybe now is the time to write about my similar experience. When Brian wrote a post last year on corrections and retractions in ecology (noting that mistakes will inevitably happen because science is done by humans and humans make mistakes), I still felt like I couldn’t write about it. But now I think I can. Dan and Brian are correct that it’s important to own up to our failures, even though it’s hard. Even though correcting the record is exactly how science is supposed to work (and I did corrected the paper as soon as I discovered the error), it still is something that is very hard for me to talk about.

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The importance of saying yes

In July 2012, I received an email that has had a profound effect on my career and life. The email came from Jeremy. He had begun blogging as part of the editorial board of the journal Oikos, but had resigned from their editorial board, so it no longer made sense to blog there. Instead, he had the idea to start a blog written by a small group of ecologists. The blog was to be named Dynamic Ecology, and he wanted to know if I would be interested in writing for it.

I didn’t sleep that night. There were plenty of reasons to say no. I was preparing to move from my job at Georgia Tech to a new faculty position at Michigan, and would, for that year, have labs running in two places. I would be teaching Introductory Biology in my first semester at Michigan, to hundreds of students. I had a toddler and was pregnant with my second child. My first graduate student was working to write up her dissertation. We were setting up new field sites in Michigan. I planned on submitting my tenure dossier the following summer.

Yet, the reason I couldn’t sleep was that I knew I wanted – needed – to say yes, despite all those other things going on. In the months leading up to that, I had been finding myself increasingly interested in speaking out about science and topics related to the process of science, and this was a chance to do just that. I had a hunch that it would end up being an important blog in the ecology community, and that I would regret it if I turned down the opportunity.

So, I wrote back and said yes. I am so glad I did.

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Our greatest hits

Recently Meg asked if there was a way to get the all-time number of pageviews for a WordPress.com blog post. There is, but you have to dig for it. After I figured out this out, I got sidetracked looking at the list of our most popular posts ever. So just for fun, below the fold is the list of our 20 greatest hits, as decided by you, our readers. Followed by some brief remarks.

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The loneliness of the career microcosmologist

My first paper was from my undergraduate honors thesis; it was a protist microcosm experiment (Fox and Smith 1997). Almost 20 years later, protist microcosms are still my main study system, because they remain the system best suited for answering the questions I want to ask.

Which as best I can tell makes me almost the longest-tenured “microcosmologist” in the history of ecology, and one of a very few to spend my entire career using microcosms as my main study system.

Which is a bit surprising. After all, protist microcosms have some features that you’d think would make them broadly attractive to a lot of people. They’re cheap and easy to learn, set up, and run. You can get long-term data (hundreds of generations) in a single summer. Etc. And a decent number of people have dabbled in them. So why don’t more people make a career out of them?  More broadly, what makes for a “fruitful” study system in which lots of people will spend their entire careers?

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I’m speaking on science blogging at #SocialFish #AFS2016 today

Today at 10:20 am Central time I’m giving a keynote talk on science blogging at the 2016 American Fisheries Society meeting. It’s part of the #SocialFish symposium, which runs all day. Come on by if you’re at the meeting, or follow via Twitter if you’re not! It’ll be a mix of old thoughts and new thoughts. There will be zombie jokes. And I’ll be comparing myself to an alligator gar.

Alligator gar - Atractosteus spatula

Me. More or less.

(image source: Wikimedia Commons)

Life as an anxious scientist

Last year, I wrote a post entitled “Academics are humans with human emotions and human problems.” That post was motivated in part by the overwhelmingly positive response to my post on crying in science, and also by having read about a prominent philosopher, Peter Railton, who gave a talk at the American Philosophical Association meeting about his personal battles with depression. In my post, I said, “I very much agree with Railton and others that we need to be more open in these discussions. Being able to be a positive voice on these topics is a very important reason why I blog.” I then went on and talked about different things, including anxiety. But it was anxiety, with a little “a”, because, at that time, I wasn’t ready to be more open about having an anxiety disorder. But now I am. My goals with this post are two-fold: first, to state more openly and definitively that I have an anxiety disorder, and, second, to talk some about how I have managed that.

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