Pastoral care in science


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I work at an NGO, and largely outside the academy, in what could be termed an alt-ac job. One of the biggest differences is that there aren’t (m)any students around. Sure, there’s the occasional PhD researcher, but they’re more treated like the other staff (which can be both good and bad), but in the last 3 years, I’ve found that the lack of students is what I miss the most about not being affiliated with a university.

In addition to the discovery of knowledge and education of students, I think that universities have a significant role to play in pastoral care. Deriving from the religious origins of the university as a societal institution, pastoral care is the assistance in personal wellbeing of students. There is a whole corpus of research and literature on the role of universities in modern society, and of their faculty and staff in student development and wellbeing; I remember some of it from my liberal arts undergrad aeons ago, but I am wholly unqualified to summarize or discuss it here. This is more of a personal reflection.

When I went off to university 15+ years ago, I was only the second in my family to do so, and the first to move away for university (both my parents did 1-2 years in various programs, but always based at home). I was 18, still in the closet (and in oblivious denial), and realizing for the first time that there was a great big world outside my small/suburban upbringing. I had 9/11, the invasion of Iraq, the Columbia space shuttle disaster, and my first introduction to the studies of globalisation, religion, colonialism, gender, and philosophy. I loved (nearly) every minute, but I was very much a fish out of water. Socially awkward, didn’t drink or party, and figuring out for the first time in my life who I was and who I wanted to be. In retrospect, I likely showed signs of depression, and anxiety, and I had at least one experience in 2002 that I still find discomforting and troubling (though that is for another day).

And in my four years of undergrad, I was fortunate enough to know two faculty members who made my life and experience so much better. One of them did so consciously (and we’ve since discussed it), while the other might not have, and we lost touch years ago. And though I said I was fortunate, I know in speaking with others in my cohort of students, years later, that this was the norm at Mount Allison. These were people I could call at 11pm on a Sunday if I had to, who helped me, and many others, far beyond our academic studies, and were invested in the success of the whole person. (How well this tradition is continued with increasing university corporatization remains to be seen).

And after I graduated, and became more comfortable in my own skin, I began to notice that others around me were going through tough times – whether that was related to science, academia, or their personal lives. I helped where I could. As a PhD student and postdoc, I knew the system and resources better, and could start to point people in appropriate directions. I was also often one of the few people talking about how we do science, and about scientists as people, which I hypothesize might have made me more approachable.*

When I was involved with the Canadian Improv Games (which I maintain is one of the absolute best organizations in the world for young adults – seriously, just check out this video), it was our mission to maximize each individuals’ success. And in many of the students that I coached, or adjudicated over the years, I saw glimpses of myself, which only made me want to foster that success even more. Their successes brought me ever greater joy that has, to date, been unparalleled by any other professional experience.

But now that I find myself outside the university, and in the UK (without a comparable improv program for students), I find myself thinking more and more about pastoral care in science more broadly, and the culture of research and wellbeing of scientists outside university environments. Some of the challenges I had in undergrad persist (I still tend to be quite anxious, for example), but unlike the university, I feel much more like I’m flying solo. Sure, part of that is the progression from an 18-year-old student to a 30-something research scientist, but occasionally, the support that I would like seems to be missing. And equally, the opportunities to support others in a meaningful way are much more difficult to cultivate. Why is this?

I think part of it relates to the general workplace culture. Here, we’ve all got a job to do, and not enough time to do it. Interactions are either entirely spontaneous or involve coordinating Outlook calendars of >3 people. I have an open-plan office, which doesn’t encourage pastoral interactions. But perhaps most critically, there’s no culture of support or mentorship, and a sense that asking anyone to do anything must be predicated by the phrase “I know you’re incredibly busy, but…”.

I think that the culture of mentorship is incredibly important (and I’ve argued before how this applies specifically to the LGBTQ scientific community). Many of the same arguments apply far more broadly, too. Mentors don’t have all the answers, but they’re (hopefully) invested in the success of their mentees, whether this relationship is formalized or not. And as a friend recently put it, sometimes we’re helpers, and sometimes we need help – pastoral activities aren’t something we do OR receive, it’s both.

Maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic and have an undue rosy expectation based on my own experiences. Pastoral care doesn’t get added to a tenure dossier, or used in annual job evaluations. We are too busy, and have enough problems of our own to deal with without having to deal with someone else’s on top of that. But, no one’s epitaph reads “they wish they’d spent more time at the office”, and very few of us are remembered for the reports we reviewed or strategy sessions we chaired. What matters are people and relationships. And non-university research organizations (and increasingly corporatized universities) need to do a better job looking after, and nurturing them.


With thanks to Terry Wheeler for fruitful discussions

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*I’m not trying to blow my own horn here. I’m sure (and I hope!) that many others fulfilled this/these role(s); this is just my own perception. YMMV.

Writing retreats



One of the things I certainly struggle with now that I’m in a job that involves managing people and programs as much as doing Actual Science™ is finding time to write. About 18 months ago, a colleague forwarded this post from Thesis Whisperer on how to write 10,000 words a day. The secret: turning off distractions, working in a mutually supportive group, and editing later. It’s called Shut Up And Write (or SUAW), because that’s what you do. We’ve merged it with the Pomodoro Technique, and do 25 minutes of writing, with a 5-10 minute break, and repeat 4 times in a morning or afternoon about once every 3 weeks.

But sometimes, that’s just not enough.

In 2015, we had a 6-month expedition to Henderson Island which generated a metric boatload of data. Now, 6 months after the expedition ended, we’d had a preliminary look through the data, and outlined what we thought were the sensible papers that would come out of the trip. We just needed to crunch some data and write some papers.

So I went hiking in Switzerland.

Well, I actually went to a friend’s house, where he, I, and another colleague spent about 2 weeks crunch data, writing papers, and hiking in the Alps and the countryside. We’d get up at about 0630, work for a bit, have breakfast, work for a bit more, and then head outside for 3 or 4 hours, work a bit before supper, and a bit after supper. We still put in at least 8 hours each day on “work”, recharge mid-day (often discussing results, angles for papers, strategies for analysis, and implications of findings along the way). And it was amazingly productive. The last time I had so many related papers in such an advanced stage of preparation (all are now just about complete first drafts for coauthors, if not further along) was in the heady days of my Ph.D.

Now, I realize that I was very lucky in that the only cost of doing this was a train ticket (along with the mental anguish of Paris’s Gare du Nord, and the occasional overly vocal football/soccer fan on the Eurostar), and my boss and workplace was also highly supportive of me basically putting my other work responsibilities largely on hold for 2 weeks (we had only intermittent email, and weren’t checking phones for messages). During my Ph.D. in Newfoundland, especially towards the end, I lamented that there wasn’t a nice saltbox in Trepassey where grad students could go and write up their theses.

So if you’re a PI or department head or anyone else who manages people who need concerted time to write, try Shut Up And Write, and throw in the occasional writing retreat. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

On energy & reflection

Hello faithful readers (if, indeed, there are many of you left). As might be deduced by scrolling through the blog archives, my frequency of posting has waned significantly of late. Believe me, this is not a reflection of any lack of ideas, topics, or Things I Think Are Important, but rather a lack of energy, and a re-evaluation of what I see as the purpose of The Lab and Field.

When I started blogging back in 2013, I was about 18 months into my first postdoc, and the only person in the lab, aside from the PI. We were the only ecologists in an entire building of hydrologists and meteorologists, and I saw blogging as an outlet for looking at neat papers, expressing ideas and opinions, and sharing personal anecdotes from my professional journey.

In the intervening 3+ years, I did a second postdoc, went to faculty interviews (got rejected from by of them), ended up working for a massive environmental NGO, moved continents, lost family, gained friends, and visited some of the most remote and spectacular places on Earth. And the whole time I’ve questioned decisions, second-guessed all the what-ifs imaginable, struggled, worked far too much, and been exhausted. I’ve fought what I see as a few good fights, and lost a number of them (or at least that’s how it sometimes feels).

I’m not normally one for too much navel-gazing, but rather a few people have asked recently when I would blog next, or mentioned that they missed seeing new posts. And while that’s deeply gratifying, I think I’ll be taking a break. Not indefinite, but of uncertain length.

A very dear friend and I discussed at some length recently how working in conservation, whether as a solo researcher or as part of a massive machine, is emotionally exhausting, how we often compromise to fit funding requirements, and put ourselves in less-than-ideal places, all while struggling to make ends meet at home. Conservation work, like most things I see as Very Important, tends to not pay well, can involve significant time away from home, and huge emotional investment (and a good dose of tilting at windmills, with often predictable consequences).

Years ago (and despite extensive searching, I can’t re-find it), I heard a public talk on a podcast where the speaker would set aside 4 weeks each year, in two chunks, to simply disappear, usually to a Buddhist monastery or equally quiet, contemplative place, free from phones, clutter, jumble, and what I’ll call “ancillary crap” (the associated un-fun things about daily life). I always found that appealing, if financially unattainable.

I sense an increasingly rant-y wave of posts in my drafts folder, and we all have enough negativity in our personal and professional lives. But it’s often this negativity that makes being positive and encouraging so energetically expensive – a feeling I knew all too well before coming out, and, well, am starting to see again from time to time.

So time to take a break (though without the monastic setting, jokes about Bedfordshire aside). You can still find me on Twitter, if you’re so inclined.

Volunteer field techs are bad for wildlife ecology: the response


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This is a joint post by Auriel Fournier and Alex Bond

Over the last several years, we’ve both been advocates for eliminating unpaid field technician positions (see here, here, and here for our previous posts on the topic, and this piece from Nature News). About a year ago, we were both quite frustrated, and decided to make the same arguments we had made on our blogs to a different audience – to those who read the peer-reviewed literature.

So we crafted our best arguments, found appropriate references, and had some wonderful colleagues read it over before submitting it. When the reviews came back, they were more startling than we had expected. In essence, we were asked to prove our assertion that diversity is a Good Thing. Nevertheless, two rounds of revisions (and $150 in page charges from our own pockets) later, our peer-reviewed article entitled “Volunteer Field Technicians Are Bad for Wildlife Ecology” appeared in the Wildlife Society Bulletin in mid-November, and was also posted on ResearchGate.

The reaction has been beyond anything either of us could have imagined.

On ResearchGate, the article had (as of 9 March 2016) 11,724 reads, and an Altmetric score of 173 (the highest for any paper in the Wildlife Society Bulletin). To say we were surprised at the amount of interest would be an understatement.

We also received several emails or comments that we will share here (anonymized, of course). The overwhelming majority have been positive or constructive, but we’ll start with the negative comments, including the one that was the most hurtful.

To paraphrase the anonymous emailer who created a new email address just to send this one message:

Your career is over. No one will hire you because of this.

Well, thank you, anonymous emailer. You are an utter ass-hat of the most contemptible kind. Now kindly sod off.

One of us also had one potential collaborator who pulled out because of our position on unpaid technicians. Which is annoying and it means some very interesting and potentially important science won’t get done. But chances are we would have found something else to disagree on, so we’re not that put out.

And really, those were the only negative comments we’ve received so far. No doubt there have been those muttering in disagreement, but they’ve not yet muttered to us.

The positive feedback has, however, been rather abundant.

A field technician wrote:


This was just one of several similar notes, each of which brought (and continues to bring) smiles to our faces.

A scientist at a non-profit wrote:

Hope you are well! I just came across your JWM opinion paper on volunteers and want to say how great I think it is!! I totally agree that it presents challenges to those doing full-time work worthy of pay, and are not getting paid. Even young people doing tough fieldwork getting paid more than $300/month often struggle with feeling grossly under-appreciated. I shared it with my coworkers and we reflected on how to treat our interns better. Thanks for taking the leap to write this!

This was one of our goals – getting people to talk about the issue of unpaid/underpaid technicians in their own institutions.

From another research technician:

Interesting article and I agree wholeheartedly. Although I think these volunteer positions will continue (even the pay to work ones) because they are often sought after. The organizations offering them probably don’t struggle with applicants because people are willing to volunteer just to visit remote nature reserves. Along the same line as your article, there is also a larger issue in that jobs in the wildlife ecology sector generally are not well paid, which essentially causes the same issues as volunteer positions (undermines professionalism, excludes certain groups if people etc.).

Indeed, we see no end in sight for volunteer and pay-to-work positions. Though we’ve started tracking them monthly, and you can see the results over at our Github repository.

Some comments were less clear

The unpaid/underpaid intern situation has bothered me for many years, and someone had call “us” out. One thing I would add is that money is soooo tight that often the PI can’t afford to include the unpaid/underpaid intern’s name in the acknowledgement section of the resulting peer review paper. “We” may also have some issues with acknowledgement.

We are not sure how this comment was intended since neither of us is aware of any monetary limitation from any angle in including anyone, even one’s dog or one’s beard (PDF), in the acknowledgements of a paper.

We also received one long email giving a clear example of how paying technicians to be part of a project does not mean the science is being done well, which was not the argument we were making.

The following came from a professor at a U.S. small liberal arts college:

I have wondered occasionally if a two-pronged approach to this issue would be effective. Writing an editorial to suggest that PIs should incorporate funding for technician seems like a good start. It also seems like it would be worthwhile to write something from the student perspective, suggesting guidelines for when they should consider taking a low-paying (or non-paying) temporary position, how to identify good opportunities, etc.

This is, indeed, an interesting proposition. Auriel has written a bit about applying for field jobs, but as we emphasized in our WSB piece, the decision to accept a position at any salary level is very much an individual decision, and the continued existence of unpaid work and pay-to-work positions is a testament to this (and the number of people willing to accept such positions). The benefits (and costs) vary considerably among individual circumstances, so we’re hesitant to be prescriptive. The most important factor for potential employees (regardless of the level of compensation) is to know your rights, and to make sure the expectations of employer and employee are compatible.

The feedback provided by this person was reflective of several comments we received, and discussions we’ve had:

My take on internships/volunteer jobs. Their role should only be reserved for undergraduates that are still working on a degree. I had no compunctions taking an internship for such low pay. I had very little experience at that point, so the internship was a way for me to learn many different skills to work as a field biologist. I’ve had a few people ask how I got such good experience, and as such good paying field jobs, right after college. working the right internship, that offers lots of learning opportunity, is a good way to help in that regard.

While we’re quite glad that it worked out for this particular person, such experiences and benefits are not exclusive to unpaid jobs. The implicit argument, we think, is that there simply aren’t enough paid positions for everyone, but this is the case in nearly every profession but we don’t see volunteer teachers, for example. In some places, like the UK, trainees have a lower minimum wage. But while many undergraduate students are fresh out of high school with few other obligations (financial, family, or otherwise), this is nowhere near universal, particularly for groups that are under-represented in science (as we argued in our paper).

An African-American faculty member wrote:

But look at undergraduate wildlife classes. You will see already that there are very few of us present. At [research university], I was the only AA (even just minority, I believe) in wildlife for my year (a year later, another AA woman came in). What’s filtering minorities out comes before college, probably before high school. If we want to increase the diversity of our field, outreach efforts need to be concentrated towards childhood and the early teen years, and ideally, we’d have some sort of mentorship program to keep people on a track towards declaring a wildlife/related major once they enter college.

This is, indeed, a very good point. Unpaid positions are just one barrier to diversity in science, and eliminating them won’t solve the problem, but it will help those who’ve made it through to the point where they are looking for such positions. As Simphiwe Dana tweeted recently, “Just because one individual succeeded against all odds doesn’t make the odds acceptable”. Eliminating unpaid positions will help even the odds.

We also received a lengthy message from a female tenured professor at a US research (R1) university:

1) I suspect that many (most?) of your dataset probably consists of technicians recruited to help graduate students. If you make providing not only room and board but also wages sufficient to pay off student loans or supporting sick relatives a requirement, what you are saying is that the only grad students who are allowed to benefit from help in the field are students from well-funded labs and/or working on a project funded by their advisor. Many graduate students do not have access to the types of funding that permit this, yet are doing great science and being highly productive members of our scientific community, precisely because they are able to make things happen on a shoe-string. I firmly believe that PhD students should have a major role in shaping their intellectual development, designing their project, and taking ownership of the direction of their project. This is fundamentally incompatible with a funding model of PI getting a big grant and essentially hiring a PhD student to run it with the help of well-paid technicians. I think your statements that “Unpaid technician positions are bad for science. They are bad for the conservation of our natural world. They are bad for society.” …are wrong because they can make possible a degree of intellectual freedom that is crucial to inventive, original, student-driven research that con contribute substantially to the conservation of our natural world.

Here, we think there are two issues at play. While it’s true that many (though not most) unpaid positions are from academic institutions, we’re not arguing that they should be paid extravagant salaries, but at a minimum, those in line with minimum wage requirements in the jurisdiction of their employer. That is, the minimum legal wage for a set amount of work. We feel this is an ethical issue, which could impede intellectual freedom, but just like other ethical dilemmas within science should not be ignored because of that.

We could also do more research if we didn’t have to pay overhead/incidental costs, pay for fuel or travel, or field station fees or to run PCRs. Field technician salary is no different and should be included in budgets and planning. Even things like applying for and reviewing grants costs money, which could be spent on conservation. But we, as a scientific society, have prioritized this (either consciously or unconsciously) over other uses.

It continues:

For PIs providing minimal compensation, there are undoubtedly fewer justifications. But there are some! You acknowledge that everyone has tight funding and is always looking for the way to maximize data/$. That is not going to change, ever. In a hypothetical situation where you had $3000 allocated for technician support. Let’s image that could pay 1 person well for a field season or 3 at rate where they are able to live and eat but not do such things as pay off student loans. If you chose 1 person, you’d be crazy not to ONLY accept the most skilled, experienced people for the job. If you have the freedom to take 3, you can afford to pick people with ZERO experience, and provide a lot more training. People pay through the nose for formal classroom education. Why should they not “pay” in effect, for training?

This really depends on the situation. Alex, for example, hired completely fresh inexperienced field staff for 3 of his 4 PhD field seasons because they were engaged, excited, and would get on well in the field. Skills and experience aren’t the only factors when hiring. But there is a general trend in closing field stations and fewer offerings of field courses at universities, which is concerning. Indeed, some are even claiming that “We have already lost a generation of field biologists”. But this again comes down to priorities and one’s frame of mind. If you have $3000, and a field technician costs $3000, you hire one field technician. We also feel that part of hiring a field technician is to mentor them as a scientist, and to train them, not just give them $X and get back X data. All projects should include time to train technicians in their schedules, even if they hire experienced staff, to ensure the consistency and validity of the entire project.

This commenter concludes:

3) The people who get the most funding are the old white guys. If only old white guys can have technicians, then we hurt the ability to creative, smart, less-advantaged people of doing science and inspiring others to make things happen for them, even if they work on a shoe-string.

Don’t get me wrong… I do understand the logic of trying to make things easier for less-advantaged students. But I think some of your arguments are a little over-stated. Take this: “How is someone—often with student debt, no outside financial support, a child, a sick parent, an expensive medical condition, any kind of regular life expense, or no family to buy a plane ticket for them—supposed to take these positions?” First, if the potential technician has a small child, a sick parent that requires their assistance, or a serious medical condition, then it is not a good idea to fly off to a remote field site, regardless of the compensation. Like it or not, remote field camps are bad places to bring infants and to be sick. It would be irresponsible of the person hiring to put a sick person or child into situations that put them at risk. What are they to do? Only ever study things within an easy drive of medical attention within North America? I also would like to see data on how much biologists are selecting from the privileged for such positions? That data probably doesn’t exist, but it is crucial to your arguments, and without data, I think it might be premature to state your conclusions so forcefully. I can’t speak for others, but I have actively sought to promote diversity from grad-student days onwards. I also can’t see how these policies affect gender or sexual orientation issues.

The issue of diversity in funding outcomes is, of course, important. And it will take a long time for change to trickle down because those in charge often benefit disproportionately in biased systems.

Field camps also need not be remote, either.  Many field positions occur within range of a hospital that someone who needs regular medical tests or even just access to a pharmacy for expensive medications can do that. Yes there are situations where some will be too sick or otherwise unable to participate in field work, but that is certainly not the rule.

This commenter is correct that we have no data on the affluence of field technicians (nor are we aware of any such data collected). But what we do have is information on diversity at later stages of scientific careers, and where women and people of colour tend to be under-represented. Like one of the previous commenters stated, fostering diversity must begin at an early stage.

There are several references in our paper on the effects of unpaid positions on women (and therefore gender composition). And LGBT folk comprise a vastly disproportionate number of homeless. This is, of course, a very extreme example, but LGBT folk are often less likely to have the support of family who could bankroll their time spent on an unpaid job. While the peer reviewed literature we cited in our editorial is not collected from within the scientific field we do not see a reason that the disproportionate impact had on gender diversity in other fields because of unpaid work would be different in science.

Ultimately we are glad that this article is being read and discussed and we hope that it will continue to be so that in another 12 years another editorial will not need to be written that cites ours and Whitaker 2003. If we value diversity in science we need to stop making excuses and start letting our actions match our priorities.

And lastly, from a tenured professor in Canada:

PS: I am just back from a meeting where we kicked off an international research network that will involve massive amounts of field work.  We used your editorial as a justification to write “no unpaid jobs” in the bylaws. I know it’s usually the angry people that are the more vocal, so I wanted to let you know.

One small change along the road to improving how we do science.

When we first floated this idea about a year ago, we had no idea it would strike such a chord with so many people (both positively and negatively). After all, we don’t think that the suggestion that people should be paid for the work they do was so radical.

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler



When I taught ornithology labs, we usually included a free-form answer on the lab exam asking students for their favourite bird(s). Students would usually write “snowy owl” or “Blackburnian Warbler” – actual species – but invariably, and despite not being covered in the course (as they were outside the local collection of avifauna), we would get tits, boobies, and shags. And the prof and I would chuckle, point it out to the other, and move on.

The history of common English names for birds is rife with double (or even single) entendre, and the sort of names that make non-ornithologists question whether we’ve really completely lost it.

Therefore, as a public service, I shall present an irregular series describing some of the more “colourful” common English bird names. Steve Heard has done something similar for Latin scientific names. And as our first subject, I will take what I find to be, perhaps, one of the most amusing common English bird names: the Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, Maconus ptilosus.

The first thing to understand is that common English names were given to species by, well, the English, mostly. It’s therefore not surprising that the same names crop up in a wide array of species, many of them unrelated (e.g., the American Robin, European Robin, and North Island Robin). And it was quite common to see a bird in a foreign land, and think that it looked like a cross between two different species/groups. Such was the case with the tit-babblers.

The Old-world Babblers (family Timaliidae) are a group of passerines (perching birds) found in Eurasia (and not to be confused with the Australo-Papuan babblers found in Australia, which are unrelated and in the family Pomatostomidae. See what I mean?). For the sake of simplicity (and minimizing repetitive strain), I’ll just call them babblers. This group has the somewhat annoying feature of being a taxonomic dumping ground. Not sure where to put a new species? Babbler! Something no quite fit in with another family? Babbler! Thankfully, we’re getting most of this sorted now (though the family may not even be monophyletic (Sigh. There’s always something, isn’t there?)). The term was first used for this group of birds in 1832/3 by William Swainson in his wonderfully-titled tome “Zoological Illustrations, or original figures and descriptions of new, rare, or interesting Animals, selected chiefly from the classes of Ornithology, Entomology, and Conchology, &c” (which you can read here). Sadly, Swainson doesn’t give any explanation as to why he chose the name. Perhaps because the birds tend to be quite vocal, babbling along?

Tits, of course (hey – stop that) are part of the family Paridae, which includes chickadees in North America, and the well-known garden tits of Europe. But it was, ultimately, Alfred Newton who first used “tit-babbler” in his 1890s A Dictionary of Birds (read it here), though the name may have existed previously. Likely, the birds were babblers that reminded someone of the tits they knew from back home in Europe. And thus the tit-babblers (Macronus spp.) were born.

All of the tit-babblers (snicker) are, thankfully, in one genus, Macronus, likely referring to their large-ish size compared to other babblers (from the Greek macro for large), and coined by William Jardine and Prideaux Selby in their 1835 Illustrations of Ornithology (read it here). Jardine & Selby also first described Macronus ptilosus, the Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, in the same volume. The species epithet, ptilosus, likely comes from the Greek ptilon for feather or wing and refers to the fluffy feathers on the aptly-named bird.


Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler by Mervin Quah on (educational use permitted)

Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, then called Timalia trichorrhos, from Nicolas Huet le Jeune - Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d'oiseaux. (public domain)

Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler, then called Timalia trichorrhos, from Nicolas Huet le Jeune’s 1838 volume “Nouveau recueil de planches coloriées d’oiseaux”  (public domain). Note the fluffy back.

The Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler is classified by the IUCN as Near Threatened, owing to the loss of lowland forests in its native range (Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei).

It is also an excellent Shakespearean-esque insult (though calling someone a lowland forest bird from SE Asia isn’t that insulting).

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If there’s there a common English (or even scientific) bird name you’d like explained, leave it in the comments!

First woman wins Herzberg medal as “Canada’s top scientist”


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It’s become somewhat of a tradition these last few years for me to look at the gender (im)balance of the major prizes and awards dished out by NSERC in Canada, because they don’t have a great track record of recognizing women (see my original post here, and update on the 2014 awards here).

It is therefore with mixed feelings that I present below the 2015 results.

For the FIRST TIME in 25 years, a woman was awarded the Gerhard Herzberg Medal (colloquially known as the prize for “Canada’s top scientist”) – Dr Victoria Kaspi from McGill.

And for only the second time, a woman was awarded the John Polyani Award – Dr Barbara Sherwood Lollar from the University of Toronto. A hearty congratulations to both!

But, sadly, the exuberant news ends there…

  • Brockhouse Canada Prize: 1 of 2 recipients a woman
  • Steacie Fellowships: 1/6
  • Brassard Prize: 0/1
  • Synergy Awards: 0/12

That gives an overall total of 4/23 recipients being women (or 17%). The long-term average is now 39 women of 239 recipients, or 17% (which I will sadly point out is still higher than last year’s 13%), and unchanged from where it was when I did the original analysis in 2013.

So while this is a huge day for Canadian science (regardless of gender), we still have work to do.


Footnote: see the 2013 post for more background and discussion on the issue

I am not an academic (for now)


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I’m a bit of a pedant when it comes to some things. I detest dangling participles, I become annoyed at misuse of the semi-colon, and I find words used as “shorthand” for much larger, broader concepts are irksome. One of the most personally egregious examples of this is the binning of anyone doing scientific research into the category of “academic”. It’s very meaning – an adjective describing those things pertaining to the academy – betrays its exclusion of those who are not part of the academy, sensu stricto. Like me.

I work for an NGO, a charity, an organization that by its very definition is non-academic. Some have dubbed this “alt-ac” (short for alternative academic), but even this moniker posits, implicitly, that one could reasonably be called an academic, rather than a researcher, scholar, scientist, or artist. I think many people are scientists, and many in science (and more narrowly the scientific academy) often forget that those non-academic, non-professorial positions exist, particularly when they opine on the challenges of grant writing, student supervision, collaborative work, or scientific (not academic!!) publishing. As a non-academic scientist, I do all these things, too.

Stephen Heard, on Scientist Sees Squirrel, recently wrote about what he dubbed “Academic Inclusive Fitness” – those aspects of his job that ultimately contribute to his professional legacy (akin to the survival of his genetic diversity in others, such as nieces, nephews, or siblings), but appear altruistic on the surface. Reviewing papers, being an editor at a journal, serving on graduate student committees (mine included!), serving in organizational administrative positions, and publishing his much anticipated book on scientific writing* are all activities that have the potential to decrease direct research output (the metric, deeply flawed, that is often used to measure scientific “production”)

In his post, Steve related an anecdote about a non-academic asking who his boss was, which is not a straightforward question for an academic to answer. Herein lies one of the biggest differences between academic and non-academic science. I have a boss. And she has a boss, and so does he. I can draw a solid line from the staff I supervise right up to the Chief Executive with ease. It was the same when I worked at Environment Canada, in the Canadian federal government. I am, ultimately, responsible to someone else in the organization for certain projects, and my research is guided, or even dictated by the organization’s research needs, agenda, and priorities.

While this might rub some the wrong way, it’s how just about every job outside academic research operates. Organizations have a mandate, and its employees work toward the goals within that remit. Academics, however, have a tenuous balancing act between the demands of their organization (teaching, administration), and their own requirements (research), though there can obviously be varying degrees of overlap.

So my first suggestion is, rather than talk about “Academic Inclusive Fitness”, consider “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” as a broader term that encompasses the entire research community.

This raises, though, some particular challenges for those of us “on the outside”, so to speak. While I’m pretty lucky, and can undertake some of these seemingly altruistic tasks, others may not be in the same situation. The result is that much of this ends up being done outside “normal work”, which often means weekends, evenings, or early mornings. This poses several problems for those who can’t (or chose not to) do this “non-work work” on, essentially, their own time. I’m under no illusion that many academics don’t face the same pressures, but when one already has a 40-hour work week, yet is still expected by the broader scientific community to chip in, it can be trying.

Which brings me to Amy Parachnowitsch’s post on Small Pond Science about how we define “work”, and the problems of “carry-over” from one position to the next. Like the activities that contribute to Scientific Inclusive Fitness, it can be challenging for non-academics (and indeed academics!) to find time to wrap up projects from their previous positions. As Amy put it on Twitter, the system works (relatively well) when everyone is in the system, but when someone leaves, it becomes very hard. This could be a student leaving research after their degree, or someone getting off at a different stop along the career subway, including leaving academic while remaining a scientist. Often it’s this past work, and activities that might contribute to “Scientific Inclusive Fitness” that get dropped.

In the end, it all comes down to expectations – both our own, and those we have of our colleagues, applicants, students, collaborators, and friends. And recognizing that non-academic scientists face many of the same challenges as our academic brethren, but also some challenges that academics may not necessarily think of. Which can be problematic when we are all assessed, judged, or evaluated against criteria driven by academia.

One day, I may end up in a university, being an academic, but that’s just a job title, not a career.


*I received no commission for this mention, though am open to negotiation when the royalties start piling in. What about financial inclusive fitness? Steve, you know where to find me.

Why the #LGBTSTEMinar succeeded & was needed



I’ve just returned from a conference, but it was unlike any other conference I’ve attended. The attendees weren’t drawn together because we share similar research interests, or work in similar places, or are from similar institutions. We had physical chemists, medical physicists, medical geneticists, engineers, mathematicians, and conservation biologists from academia, industry, and NGOs. What drew us together was that we were all (or >90% of us were) LGBT* scientists attending the LGBT STEMinar

I’ve written before about the need for LGBT scientists to make links, the challenges we share, regardless of discipline, and how conferences can help that. Which is why, when Beth Montague-Hellen raised the idea of a conference targeted specifically at LGBT scientists, I was quite keen to see how it would turn out.

The actual event in Sheffield on Friday blew me away.

There were more than 80 LGBT scientists attending from all over the UK (and one from Sweden!), plus a few expats living in the UK, such as myself. In addition to amazing high-quality science, it was a chance for us to, frankly, be ourselves. Never have I been to a conference with such a wonderful sense of humour, camaraderie, and palpable excitement among those attending. We didn’t have to worry about awkward coffee break small talk about partners, reactions of colleagues, or be guarded about which pronouns to use. All of these coping mechanisms that hide our true selves are exhausting, and the sense of liberation around the room was infectious.

We opened with Dave Smith’s talk ’No Sexuality Please, We’re Scientists’, based on some of the research he did (and that I highlighted) a few years ago, on the lack of visible LGBT science role models. It was an excellent primer for the day to come, and a video will be up on Youtube in the near future is on Youtube.

What followed were around 15 oral presentations from other scientists, ample time to socialize during long coffee breaks / lunch, and an opportunity to view about a dozen posters.

The day wrapped with an inspiring talk by Elena Rodriguez-Falcon, who highlighted the challenges many LGBT folk in STEM still face – the feeling that by being ’out’, it might impede career progression. But the message that I took away was much bigger. A number of surveys have revealed that even though departments of workplaces may be accepting, though not overtly so, LGBT staff and students still feel a lack of support. It’s not good enough to be accepting, we have to be encouraging.

I’m of the belief that by being an out visible LGBT scientist, it will, in however small a way, be useful for others to see. Not everyone is necessarily comfortable with this role, but I’ve chosen to own in a bit. And since I started blogging about being an out gay academic back in 2013 (though I’ve been out in my personal and professional life for more than a decade), several other LGBT scientists have gotten in touch to discuss the challenges we face as a group, or their own personal journey. I don’t necessarily have all the answers, but the starting point for the conversation is further ahead than many, or all of their straight mentors.

So bringing together all these LGBT scientists who would otherwise not encounter each other (or at least not in nearly so large a number) is a Good Thing.

One of the other most amazing things about this conference is how Twitter-driven it was. Many of us knew each other via Twitter, though had never met in real life. Before Friday, I had only met 3 or 4 other out LGBT scientists. I can now add so many more. More than a few people commented at the end of the day how many new Twitter followers they’d received simply though other attendees. I’ve added as many as I could recall to the QueerSTEM Twitter list, so follow along if you’re interested (or let me know if you’d like to be added!). The conference hashtag apparent trended during the day, and there were more than 500 tweets (which will eventually be organized into a Storify).

There were also many other LGBT scientists (both in the UK and elsewhere) following along on Twitter, and many expressed a wish to attend such a conference. My advice is to just do it. It’s a non-trivial amount of work to pull off, and is likely more challenging in Canada or the US owing to distances between universities, but it is so, so worthwhile. And Beth (and her wife Kate, and all other other helpers from Sheffield) pulled off an amazing day.

Following the official wrap-up function, several of us headed out for a drink and bite to eat. Now, everyone has their own journey when dealing with their sexuality, and had the conference happened during my MSc 10 years ago, I likely wouldn’t have been too $%!&-scared to attend. And many folks live or go to university or work in places where there aren’t that many other queer folk around so the idea of or ability to go out socially with other out LGBT people isn’t possible. So this was clearly a case where the non-science part of a conference could be equally important, and highlights, at least in my mind, the importance of being out and visible.

Lack of diversity in science is a hugely important issue, and our conference was by no means an exception. The vast majority of attendees were white, most were male. I have no idea how this reflects the population of LGBT scientists in the UK, or UK scientists in general, but as we move forward to discussing both visible and invisible diversity, it’s something that we need to keep in mind.

It looks like this might become an annual-ish thing, so I hope to see more of you at the 2017 LGBT STEMinar.


*A shorthand, I admit, for any non-straight person

Landing an academic job is like an albatross


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No, really.

This post over at EcoEvoEvoEco, which stated “Anyone with a decent record can get a faculty position”, made the rounds on Twitter last night. In it, Andrew Hendry posits that, based on his experience (in 2001), if one is not picky (i.e., has minimal selection criteria), and ’sticks with it’, one will end up a tenured professor somewhere, and voila, problem solved.

Unsurprisingly, this elicited a rather fierce reaction by some readers. The academic job market has changed since 2001. ’Not being picky’ amounts to moving anywhere regardless of family, or other constraints. And what I think is perhaps the most germane (here, and in many of these advice posts to academic job seekers): this is the experience of one individual in one set of circumstances in a process that, as someone described it, has high variance and and multiple confounding covariates.

Now, instead of throwing gas on the fire of this perennial topic, I want you, dear reader, to consider the albatross.

Adult Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross. They are endemic to the Tristan group, and the largest population is on the main island.

An albatross (of the Atlantic Yellow-nosed variety). Consider it, please.

Because ultimately, this whole discussion is one of demographics, and if there’s one thing I now a bit about (aside from tea, improv, puns, and naan bread), it’s demography. It’s a significant part of my research, and I think the whole ’I can academic job AND SO CAN YOU!!1!’ can learn something from it. But first, some basics.

Albatross lay a single egg each year (or every 2 or 3 years in some cases). Chicks fledge (usually about 70% of the time), and spend the next 5-18 years at sea before returning to land to breed for the first time, and recruit into the breeding population. They then breed (at some interval) for many, many years, and then perish. Albatross’s annual survival can be grouped, broadly, into 4 categories:

  • S1 – the survival of chicks in the first year
  • S2 – the survival of immature birds at sea
  • S3 – the survival of birds recruited into the breeding population
  • S4 – the survival of old birds nearing the end of their natural lives

S1 and S2 are always lower than S3. Those years at sea are tough. Birds have to find enough food, figure out migration, avoid getting caught in fishing gear, learn that eating plastic is bad, and make it to breeding age, court and find a mate.

Breeding adults tend to have high survival. They know what they’re doing, know how to find food for them, and for their chicks, and are pretty adept at avoiding longlines. But as they get older (in some cases, 40, 50, 60+ years old), their reproductive success can drop, and so does survival, and they disappear.

How do we know this?

Scientists have, collectively, put millions of small metal rings/bands on birds, and looked for these individuals year after year, or had bands from dead birds sent in from fishing vessels. And we know that these survival rates, S1 through S4, depend on a plethora of covariates: species, site, year, climate, individual quality, introduced predators, fishing effort, sea temperatures, food availability, … We also have to consider those albatross for whom we don’t know the ultimate fate… they simply didn’t show up in year x, but may show up again in the future.

Consider the case of Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross on Midway Atoll. At 64, she’s the oldest bird of known age, and is showing no signs of stopping. But also consider the case of the much lesser-known J22503. J22503 was a Tristan Albatross chick that our team banded on Gough Island in September 2014. S/he was found dead 2 months later, the victim of predation, mice, starvation, or some other factor.

Now, let’s swap ’albatross’ for ’academic’ (leaving aside, for the moment, that this also applies to some non-academic scientists, too).

Academics can apply to many jobs in a year, but the survival rate of those applications is low (at the population level; S2). After enough years of zero job application survival, the academic perishes (stops looking for academic work). And there are many factors that influence academic survival during this ’immature’ phase, while ’at sea’: gender, location, field, sub-field, individual quality, … And some proportion of academics survive this period (find a job), and thereafter have high annual survival (S3) until they approach retirement (S4).

Any scientist worth their salt would tell you it’s pointless to extrapolate from Wisdom, or J22503, to all albatross worldwide. Or even all Laysan (or Tristan) Albatross. Or even all albatross of the same species in the same site in the same year. We simply need a bigger sample. The same is true of academics. A good mark-recapture (or demographic) study needs a minimum of 200 ’marked individuals’ to estimate annual survival (and that applies to each strata we want to potentially consider!). Extrapolating from 1, or 2, or even 10 isn’t sound.

In 2013, I solicited some data on the number of job applications & interviews, and got a decent response. But even this is far too low a sample size (n = 63) to be of much use. What we need is, ultimately, a study that follows the job applications of quite literally thousands of hopeful academics from graduation to their exit from the job market (for whatever reason), along with all the covariates that we know influence job application success. I certainly lack the time (and IRB approval) for such a study. But in the meantime, remember that ’your mileage may vary’, and extrapolating from one person’s (or even 10 people’s) experience is perilous.

Note that I’ve also not said anything about density dependence and carrying capacity of the academic population. Or about how both of those parameters change over time (and have likely changed since 2001). Or about luck and stochasticity. You get this idea.

Yes, there are things one can do to try and improve the probability of a successful job application, but these are by no means a guarantee, and criteria vary by field, location, institution, department, moon phase, …

And I get that these posts are trying to be helpful in some way – showing that success is indeed possible. But they often gloss over many of the finer details (much like How To Draw An Owl).

UPDATE: Katie Burke pointed out on Twitter that a better analogy would be one where leaving the academic job search is a transition to another state, or permanent emigration, rather than death. I, myself, have done such a transition. The model then becomes a multi-state mark-recapture, with all the joys that entails.

2015 by the numbers


It’s time once again for my annual round-up of science, and science blogging by the numbers. You can also read the 2013 and 2014 editions.



The number of posts, which by all accounts isn’t that bad since I was away for 4 months on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island, and away for most of May.

The most popular posts this year were:

Like most writers, I think some my favourite bits are missing from this list, like tips for applying for field jobs,or how to be an LGBTQ ally at conferences, or the continued under-representation of women in NSERC major awards.



The number of page views this year. I continue to be amazed that there are people out there who are interested in the ramblings of a wayward Canuck navigating the world as best he can. My deepest thanks.



The number of countries/autonomous regions represented by those readers. Wow.



Days I spent in the field, on Tristan da Cunha and Gough Island. I hope to have a post on time spent in the field sometime in the new year. Suffice it to say, it’s a long time, and filled with rewards and challenges.



The number of new papers published this year, up from 10 last year thanks to some exceptionally productive co-authors! Many of them were also a glut from postdoc work that have finally seen the light of day. I think this reflects more my career stage than productivity: I suddenly have staff, and a glut of collaborative projects.



The number of co-authors I had in 2015.



My Gender Gap for co-authors in 2015 (the ratio of female:male coauthors). Not particularly happy about this one, but I will take some solace in the fact that I inherited several projects that had a large number of male collaborators. Need to do better next year.



The number of posts I have started this year, but not finished for various reasons. Not happy about that one, either, since I think they’re all important things to write about, and I think I have some thoughts to contribute.



The number of keyboards that died on me this year. Was it something I said typed?



The size, in ml, of the average Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross egg, which has remained unchanged since at least 1854. Just one of the highlights of a paper I’m working on at the moment.


and lastly…



The number of family members lost this year who told me I could do anything.


Here’s to a happy, productive, and successful 2016!


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