Free project ideas in ecology & conservation


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I have a long list of projects I’d love to get to at some point (on top of the ones that I’ve already started…). Some are just neat ideas I’ve had, others are part of a long-term research agenda. And then there are the fleeting thoughts or reactions to other work that make me think: hey, it would be cool if someone did that (the important bit is that the someone doesn’t necessarily have to be me).

For a while, I’ve dispensed these on twitter with a non-sequential list of “free project ideas” so I thought I would collect them all here, and add a few others from my list that I genuinely don’t think I’ll have time for. Feel free to take these and run with them. Some are possibly dead ends. Some could be nice analyses in “Big Journals™”. But I will leave these outcomes as an exercise for the reader.

If you want, I could potentially help out (depending on what other projects I have on), but either way, I’d appreciate letting me know and hopefully being acknowledged. So without further ado…


Alex’s Non-sequential List of Free Project Ideas (last updated 07 March 2020)

free project idea #85: a survey of the 2019 issues of n journals in <field of study>. What proportion of figures were in colour, and what proportion of those are colour-blind and/or B&W printing friendly? How many journals have those suggestions in their authors instructions?

free project idea #18: geographic diversity of authors of the last 11 iterations of the annual conservation horizon scan that appears in TREE, with matching exercise from authors of unrepresented countries/regions

free project idea #43: frequency and causes of runt eggs in bird clutches.

free project idea #31: survival analysis of government ministers (within & among jurisdictions) in relation to progress in environmental & social policies. Does high ministerial turn-over correlate to stagnation of legislation?

free project idea #72: apply this paper to the entire British Isles seabird colony database, and overlay hydrocarbon development, shipping routes, offshore wind farms, and protected areas. See where the gaps & important areas are (or at least where to focus yet more tracking work).

free project idea #58: reanalyse seabird stable isotope data for a year (between 2006-2016) without ignoring model/data assumptions and see how the interpretation changes. We’ve learned a lot, but older papers still cited as gospel.

free project idea #29 – review of how we calculate, and then incorporate detection probability in bird population surveys, from the field collection through to the modelling side. Does this change conclusions (aka does it matter) and if so, can we retrospective account for it?

Free project idea #37: sentiment analysis of visual depictions in the media of global heating, as manifested in stories about heatwaves, or very above seasonal temperatures. They’re not happy events: Image

free project idea #6: look at the accuracy & recentness of data used in Key Biodiversity Areas (KBAs) and Important Bird and Biodiversity Areas (IBAs). Some are quite old (>30 years!) & in need of updated assessments.

free project idea #61: what drives intraspecific variation in breeding phenology among north Atlantic auks? Why do UK puffins hatch before Canadian puffins have even laid their egg?

free project idea #23: run sustainability models (e.g., potential biological removal) for species that are permitted to be culled/were covered under the former Natural England general license. How does this compare with other sources or mortality?

free project idea #78: how do seabird foraging metrics (max speed, distance, etc) from tracking data relate to incubation shift? A phylogenetically controlled study that makes predictions about untracked species could be useful for designating marine Important Bird Areas.

Rainbow crosswalk vandalism isn’t just an isolated local event, but a national problem

This is a joint blog post by Landon Getz and Alex Bond, appearing today on both their blogs. If you’re interested in reprinting it, get in touch.

From Grand Falls-Windsor, NL to Burnaby, BC, Pride is celebrated in Canada across the summer months. Towns and cities across the country raise the rainbow flag and celebrate with parades, concerts, and parties. Increasingly, many are following the lead of Sydney, Australia, which painted a giant rainbow crosswalk in 2013 to mark Sydney Mardi Gras. Local councils describe these as great ways to signal the welcoming and inclusive nature of the town, and celebrating its diversity.


Sadly, not everyone shares that view. Because also from Grand Falls-Windsor to Burnaby, there have been more than 40 incidents of deliberate vandalism of rainbow- or trans-flag-coloured crosswalks since 2015, with new vandalism occuring on an almost weekly basis. The damage ranges from tire burn-out marks, to paint, to actually trying to dig it up from the road. Further, this damage is often covered by local media, including an interview with someone from the LGBTQ2S+ community describing how disappointed they are, and someone from city council expressing surprise that someone in their town could do such a thing and vowing to have it repaired. That’s usually where the story ends.

The reality is that defacing rainbow crosswalks is quite obviously a nation-wide problem. Vandalism has been reported in 7 provinces (none that we could find in PEI, Quebec, or Manitoba), in big cities like Toronto and Vancouver, and small towns like Eastern Passage, NS and Coldstream, BC. In some places, there’s repeated vandalism following repairs, including a record six times in one summer in Miramichi, NB.The effects are more than a bit of soiled pavement.

These events portray a repeated and deliberate attempt to show LGBTQ2S+ people that they are still not welcome, at least not openly, in these communities. Although city councils are aiming to show LGBTQ+ folks that they are welcome and supported, vandalism of these crosswalks shows that members of these communities, nationwide, do not always agree. And although it is a minority, it’s a sizeable one, with 1 in 4 Canadians opposed to same-sex marriage 14 years after it became the law of the land.

This is further reflected in the repeated criticisms of rainbow crosswalks in commentaries from religious groups, so-called “concerned” citizens, and others. This opposition sometimes takes the form of direct frustration with LGBTQ2S+ people and their “sins”, and sometimes takes a shot at the use of taxpayer dollars for “ideological” symbols, even though many rainbow crosswalks are paid for by private organizations.

Vandalism and vocal criticism tell and show LGBTQ2S+ folks that they still need to be careful where and when they embrace and openly share their identities, and that they still need to “code switch”, changing the way they behave or talk based on who else is around. This burden, of constantly being aware and choosing when to express oneself, is a tiresome effort and one that is not always available to the more visible among the LGBTQ2S+ community.

In media stories covering these acts of vandalism, they are portrayed as being one-off, isolated, local incidents. In reality, though, it’s a much bigger, nation-wide problem. However, acknowledging that the surrounding community has Queer-supportive folk, and ensuring visible allyship in many forms (including rainbow crosswalks) can go a long way in pushing back against these acts of vandalism. Collectively, the message vandalism to these symbols sends is that we still have a long way to go,and a lot of work to do, before LGBTQ2S+ folk are not just tolerated, not just accepted, but included in Canadian society.

Thoughts on the process of co-authoring scientific publications



Well, so much for my idea to write more regularly…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the processes involved in co-authoring scientific publications, typically journal articles. I’ve had a wide variety of experiences, from exceptionally positive to not-that-brilliant, and everything in between so I thought I might put finger to keyboard and put together some of my own ethos.



There is now a plethora of programs, platforms, and methods for writing a paper. When I wrote my first paper 15+ years ago, nearly everyone used MS Word (or WordPerfect). Establishing what platform you use is important because it will filter down into some of the other aspects. This will largely be driven by the lead author, and linked to whatever reference management software they use, but there may be other considerations, too. I still prefer MS Word because I’m getting increasingly old & crotchety, but also because I still have a local copy that’s not reliant on an internet connection. I still (thankfully) spend a lot of time in the field, on remote islands or on ships where an internet connection isn’t a given. I also only have a (small, nearly full) free Dropbox account; don’t assume your coauthors have the same resources you do.

Whatever system you choose, make sure that all your co-authors are fine with it, as they might have restrictions you do not. When I worked for Environment Canada, for example, Google Drive and Dropbox were blocked. The ability for multiple authors to add comments and edits (ideally tracked) is an important aspect for me as well, so I tend to avoid systems where this isn’t an option.



The first rule of co-authorship is that not all co-authors will contribute to the same degree. Some contribute data, software, or samples, while others are much more involved in framing the publication, writing, and editing. Whatever your arrangement (which isn’t the topic of this post), make sure that you and everyone else is clear. There’s nothing worse that misunderstandings about who thought whom was doing what.

When it comes to writing, lots of tools, including Google Docs, and files in Microsoft OneDrive allow simultaneous editing/writing, which can be quite beneficial, but isn’t essential. Even if the method is to circulate drafts by email, there are tools like the Compare/Combine functions in Word that mean it’s easy to combine multiple versions. There’s nothing worse than a flurry of emails asking who’s got the most current version, or feeling like you have to start over if someone sends through their input halfway through. But fear not – these can all be combined later. It will be up to the group dynamic to decide whether everyone sees everyone else’s comments, or whether the lead author compiles all of these. Regardless, this brings us to one of the most important aspects of co-authorship – timing



How long should you give coauthors to add their input to a draft? Well, it varies. Early on, when there are likely to be a lot of comments, or if some coauthors are only seeing the draft for the first time, longer is better. I tend to default to a month, but I always make it clear that if folks have other commitments, the deadline can be flexible. I also make it clear when it can’t (for example, a journal special issue has a strict submission deadline).

If some co-authors are non-responsive, get in touch with them directly, and don’t be afraid to set more strict deadlines. But recognize that not everyone has time available to go through a 8000-word manuscript in a week; the time allocated for research, especially for folks who have high teaching responsibilities or are outside academia can be amazingly small (if I get 20% of my time in a given week these days, I’m lucky!).

When wrangling particularly large coauthor lists (I’ve done up to 22), all the above becomes more important. But it’s also important to make sure that regardless of time commitments, everyone who is a co-author has enough time to feel comfortable to “sign-off” on the paper, as it will have their name on it in the end, after all.



The hallmark to good collaboration is communication. Pick the tools that work for you. I dislike slack/teams/instant messaging for manuscripts because it implies that everyone is often around or can chime in in real time. Often decisions can get made, and then the conversation moves on before there’s consensus.

Forward the journal submission confirmation email (redacting any confidential sign-in details, of course), and a copy of the submitted paper around to everyone, and do the same with the reviews, and the response to reviews (see also above on timing), and the final decision. Not all journals alert all coauthors to decisions, or changes in status. I tend to not circulate journal page proofs unless I have a specific query, but that may be useful in some contexts. Always send around a copy of the paper (you should get an “author’s version” at most places, even if you lack a subscription and the paper isn’t Open Access).

If your data aren’t yet publicly available (and there are legitimate reasons not to, after all), it’s usually good for all co-authors to at least have the data, if not the code for analysis (if applicable), or know where to find these. It’s just redundancy in the system. If the lead author becomes uncontactable, leaves research, or loses access to their email address and there are queries, the other coauthors can (sometimes) help. This can either be done through private data repositories (figshare, which I use, has this and can provide a link and DOI even if the data aren’t public), or by email/shared folders. Again, pick a system that works for you and your team.


Anyway, just a few things that I’ve discovered over the years. Co-authorship can be thorny, prickly, and sometimes unpleasant, but if all coauthors work in an inclusive and understanding way (I can dream, right?!), it can also be much smoother. The bottom line is, have discussions, achieve consensus, be understanding, and communicate clearly at every stage.

2020 goals



In what is becoming an annual self-reflection (and what I think can be part of effective management!), a look back at the goals I set in 2019, and what I hope 2020 has in store. You can read previous versions here: 2018, 2019.


2019 goals

Get that languishing project off that was missed in 2018 off my desk. I mean honestly, it’s been forever. With a paper submitted in December, this is now my “oldest” active project. Sorry, postdoc supervisors & collaborators… it’s coming, I promise!

Yes! We’ve made progress! I now have a firm deadline of March 1st. Hooray! Though the 2018 languishing project also cam back from review (rejected), and has been submitted somewhere else, so it still looms like a metaphorical albatross.


Same goes for that grant application. But at least there was some logistical progress (and the granting agency ditched deadlines!).

Ooofffffff. Nope. But at least we have the specimens at the Museum now. This really needs to happen in the year ahead.


Build a local group of friends – it always (n = 4) takes me about 2 years to build a group of outside-work friends. A mix of not having kids, not living where I work, and moderate introversion. So far so good for 2019.

Getting there? It’s tough working and living in two different communities…


Provide better mentorship – I think “mentor” is a title best applied by others to someone who provides mentorship. But ultimately who mentors the mentors? Thoughts on this one gratefully received!

Yep. Still struggling with this one.


Make STEM (or at least my little corner of it) a better place for queer folk. Part of that is keeping up the same battles, but part of it is also looking to gear up for what’s next on the horizon. There’s some exciting stuff already planned for 2019, but I know I already operate in a very queer-friendly online bubble. Thoughts? Let me know what I might be able to help with.

Again, a tough one what with literal existential dread. Some days, in everything from emails to journal reviews to in-person interactions, it’s a real struggle, feeling Sisyphean at times.


2020 goals

Get. That. Grant. Application. Submitted. That means trying to carve out some thinking time.

Reboot research a little. I still feel like I’m playing catch-up, mostly trying to wrap up existing work (or work paused for various career changes), so haven’t felt like I’ve had time to focus on new work I’d like to do, even though I’ve been at the museum for just over 2 years. This might involve permanently shelving some projects that don’t have external pressures, at least for now. And grappling with how to accomplish research in the (poor, IMHO) research environment of the UK.

Sort out the house. We’ve never lived longer than 4 years in any single address, so the idea of boxes sitting in rooms feels totally normal, but it might be time to settle and invest in some (more) bookcases, shelves, and storage units.

Queer up science some more. Especially in the field.

Here’s to a happy, healthy 2020 everyone!

2019 by the numbers

Read previous years’ By the Numbers: 2018, 20172016201520142013


This year’s top 10 posts by views:

Personal academic websites for faculty & grad students: the why, what, and how (again!)

Amusing bird names explained: Fluffy-backed Tit-babbler

What’s in an affiliation?

The system of student research in the UK fundamentally broken

Some rambling thoughts on field work to wrap up Pride Month

How did we learn that birds migrate (and not to the moon)? A stab in the dark

Listing grants on one’s CV

The advantages of Google Scholar for early-career academics (also, again!)

Keeping track of projects and prioritising work

Reflection in science


18,500 (ish)

The number of visitors to The Lab and Field this year, an all-time low! Readership of The Lab and Field continues to fall, perhaps mirroring a broader trend in blogs. It’s increasingly hard to know what resonates, or what’s useful. Twitter is great for “in the moment” interactions, but anything that’s older than a couple of days gets lost and nearly impossible to find (and certainly not serendipitously). L&F has never been a traffic-driven project, so it will continue.

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The number of countries, according to WordPress’s stats, that these visitors came from. Shout to the single people who visited from Swaziland, Namibia, Albania, Côte d’Ivoire, Cambodia, British Virgin Islands, Montenegro, Falkland Islands, Jersey, Jamaica, Belize, Guyana, Mozambique, St. Kitts & Nevis, Benin, Afghanistan, Sudan, Bermuda, and Oman!



Trips to the Southern Hemisphere, for field work on Lord Howe Island, and Henderson Island, and my annual visit to the University of Tasmania. Hoping to bring that down to 2 this coming year because it’s getting more and more exhausting (especially coming back to the UK)



Days in the field this year, in bouts of 17 (Lord Howe Island) and 29 (Henderson). That’s the most field work I’ve done since I was outposted to Tristan da Cunha for 4 months in 2015. I used to absolutely LIVE for field work, but as I continue to get not-younger, less so which I find particularly sad.



New publications in 2019. Ack! How on earth did that happen? A conference proceedings was published, which accounts for 4, and about 4 appeared online in 2018 but ended up in 2019 issues. Some were massive consortium-type papers, and there were 2 Commentary pieces. Some were also massive collaborations, some (most!) were driven by coauthors and students, but some particular highlights include:

-The first paper by a student I supervised

-A paper we worked HARD on for YEARS, and seemingly couldn’t interest anyone else in

-The first paper from a PhD student in the Adrift Lab, and a cracker at that!

-Our paper with huge media coverage this year, on crabs trapped in plastic waste on beaches. Sad, but important.



The number of coauthors, not counting the two large consortium papers I was involved in (that would push this to nearly 140, I’d guess).



My Gender Gap – better than last year, but still not parity. Also excluding the two consortium papers. And still in a binary format, which I’m increasingly less pleased about because that’s not what gender is. I need to think more about how I use this metric and frame this discussion in the future.



The number of emails sent. Yikes. That’s back to 2016 levels, the first year I kept track. Especially yikes given the number of days I was in the field (and therefore not really emailing). I attribute this rise to some big projects at work (our building being re-clad), an increase in the number of PhD students I co-supervise from 2 to 4, and trying to coordinate a few professional initiatives.



The number of people who found The Lab and Field by searching for tits (as in the birds, of course). Including this gem: “why are burds called tits”



The number of years that I’ve been involved with LGBTQ+ STEM, which remains an absolute career highlight, and something I never imagined would happen.


Here’s to a happy & healthy 2020!

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Me, exhausted after running through the scrub/forest and catching a Henderson Petrel during field work in June 2019. Photo by Jon Slayer.


Lessons for the academy from non-academic research: on management


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I’ve never technically worked for a university. Two postdocs in government research centres, a stint at an NGO, and now at a museum mean the structures, pressures, and opportunities I’ve had in my professional research career of the last decade have been different to those of my academic (university-based) colleagues. It’s a useful comparison because, at least research-wise, we share many of the same goals. And whereas my friends at universities have teaching & admin, I have curation & admin (or more often, admin and more admin).

One area where I think universities can take a lesson from non-academic research environments is in management. As a rule, researchers make terrible managers, and managers make terrible researchers (exceptions do apply, of course), but when I compare the management I do/receive with that of academic colleagues, it strikes me as an easy win for universities.

By management, I mean the formal reporting, oversight, and support system in place for workers. This includes graduate students. Everything from taking leave to annual reviews and career progression to setting work plans and hiring in academia (as I’ve experienced it) could take something from outside and be improved.



Here, I’m mainly talking about graduate student recruitment. Often, it’s up to just the supervisor to deal with recruitment, resulting in a veritable mishmash of processes. Of course, the university will have a formal application/admissions procedure, but the steps before there (or in some cases where students are allocated after admission) is a bit of a mess. A few things to think about:

  • are adverts written in a way that minimizes gender bias?
  • what essential (required) and desirable (optional) criteria are there for the role? Are these assessed by the application, CV, or interview?
  • who else is short-listing applicants for an interview?
  • who else is sitting on the interview panel?
  • what set questions are being asked of every candidate?
  • how are criteria being scored & evaluated?

Daily management

Academics are used to a pretty loose reign and that flexibility is one of the incentives. The same goes for grad school. But there should be expectations of a standard set number of hours worked per week on an agreed schedule (allowing flexibility where possible) that takes into account other university-related tasks, such as courses, TAing, and professional development. I often say that students/staff I manage should work 36-40 hours/week, but I don’t have strong feelings on when those hours occur. Equally, there’s an expectation that once that agreed schedule is in place, deviations should be agreed or at least communicated (e.g., days working from home).

The same applies to annual leave. Staff and students do (should!) get a certain number of days off as annual leave, which should be taken with the approval of the manager. My take has always been that it’s up to each individual to manage their own time, and I will approve leave so long as there is leave remaining. But the key thing is that everyone knows how much annual leave there is, and when it’s occurring (which is particularly important when folks work remotely, and it’s not possible to easily tell on a given day whether they were working or on leave).

Annual reviews & work plans

One of the biggest differences I’ve noticed is in how annual work plans are set, agreed, and evaluated. At the museum, I spent about 2-3 hours with each person I manage setting out their plan for the coming year (they put the first draft together themselves). We then go over it, look at how realistic is, what resources they might need, balance it with other commitments, and then monitor it about half-way through the year. At the RSPB, we allocated defined percentages of time for specific projects; we don’t do that at the museum in part because we had more externally-funded work at RSPB, and at the museum many projects run together and separating time isn’t terribly efficient or useful. The key, though, is that both the staff member and manager agree on the plan, and when progress isn’t being made, it’s reevaluated and actions put in place to allow the person to succeed.

At the end of the year, we again sit down and look over the work plan, see where the successes and challenges were, and use that to inform our plan for the year ahead. This can be easier for permanent staff, where HR structures are in place to support them, and their managers, when goals aren’t met. For short-term/contract staff and graduate students, this is harder because the length of the period of employment is set by external funding.

And the same principles apply when doing one’s OWN review/work plan. Many academics are left to their own devices, except for a short chat with a head of department once a year. A friend of mine at a university has less than half an hour a year with their nominal boss. This is woefully inadequate and results in a plethora of requests for activities throughout the year, often at short notice. Granted, it’s also trickier in universities where one can be beholden to several functional managers — one person assigns teaching roles, another has more interest in the research & admin side, and they don’t always (ever?) talk to each other when setting annual workloads.


Now, I’m not advocating for micromanagement (which seldom works, and takes a LOT of time), but I think the pendulum needs to swing back somewhat in university environments. Structures to support managers, both in their own work and in managing the work of others, just aren’t there and this causes a great deal of frustration, anger, and chaos. The flexibility, freedom, and independence is why many pursue careers in academia, but in many places (certainly not all, but most that I’ve encountered/heard of) there needs to be better and appropriate support.

Few in research get any training in effective management; heck, I’ve picked it up along the way. But a combination of being sensible, compassionate, and understanding combined with structures to support both my staff and I have resulted in, I like to think, most successes, and dealt with any bumps along the road in an appropriate way. There’s always room for improvement in any organization, granted, but I’ve found it to be one of the areas where academia lags behind non-academic science institutions significantly (for a variety of reasons).

5 years of LGBTQ+ STEM


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For the last 4 years or so, I’ve helped run an organization called LGBTQ+ STEM, which seeks to promote and support LGBTQ+ folks in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. We achieve this mainly through two outlets right now – a blog with interview profiles, and an annual one-day free-to-attend fully-catered science conference, the LGBTQ+ STEMinar, which will have it’s 5th iteration in Birmingham in January.

Last week, I spent a day with Beth Montague-Hellen, the founder and other force behind the group, as we celebrated and reflected on 5 years of successes, and looked ahead to the next 5.

In 2014, there weren’t many other organizations dedicated to queer folks in STEM, and now there are quite a few, all over the world, and who rally together to celebrate LGBTSTEM Day each year. We certainly never would have guessed that there would be so much progress in the scientific community in such a short time.

Looking inward, the LGBTQ+ STEMinar went from about 40 people at the first one in Sheffield in 2016, to the first externally-organized one in York two years later, and now with >300 registered participants for the 2020 edition in Birmingham. Clearly, there was a gap that we were able to fill.

The website now boasts >115 profiles of LGBTQ+ folk in all areas of STEM subjects, from all career stages, and covering a huge swath of the world, and we continue to get new submissions regularly. The fine folks at 500 Queer Scientists have done something similar, with shorter paragraphs, but I’ve always favoured our longer form, which lets readers know a bit more about the interviewee, and lets them elaborate without space restrictions. And they’re still quite popular – we get about 2000-3000 visitors a month to the site.

So what do the next 5 years have in store?

First off, as an organization that is directed at queer folks in STEM, we want to hear from queer folk in STEM! We put together a short survey, which can be found here, and should only take a few minutes for anyone to fill in, and tell us what they’d like to see from us as an organization.

And secondly, we have our own thoughts – becoming an officially registered charity is top among them, and something we’re working on actively at the moment.

Personally speaking, it’s amazing to be even having that kind of discussion when I lamented only a few years ago that finding other LGBTQ+ scientists was nigh on impossible. There’s a fantastic community here, and one I’m proud to have played a roll, however small, in building.

Two’s company. Three’s a crowd. Breaking away from the ‘limited choice’ between emails or conference calls.

This is a guest post from Ed Morris, an ecologist practitioner for a large protected areas network in Canada.


I work for a large organization. I’m a public servant and an applied scientist. We have a main office, but many of us work in regional offices that are each separated by several hundred kilometres. Face to face meetings are increasingly rare, and you won’t see us attending conferences. So how do we stay in contact with one another? Mostly through email and conference calls. We’re addicted to Outlook.

It’s too easy to compose an email, add attachments and just keep adding names to the distribution list. Everyone does this, causing our in-boxes to balloon. Then the senders of emails are often disappointed with low response rates, and those few responses that do arrive are sometimes hastily thrown together at the eleventh hour. That’s not the outcome anyone wants.

As for conference calls, it’s easy to snoop into peoples’ calendars and schedule them into meetings. We’ve dropped the formality of using Robert’s Rules of Order. Yet, too few of us have the self-awareness to be a good participant, and fewer still have the skills to be a good moderator. We can all think of people who speak long and often, and others that never speak. Big booming voices that sit next to the phone, and quiet voices that sit beyond the microphones’ range. We’ve experienced people who have difficulty staying on topic. We’ve experienced people who derail the discussion with their alternate takes. Full disclosure: I am sometimes one of those people too.

I was about to make major revisions to a landscape ecology model, but wanted to discuss it with certain peers first. I loathed the prospect of writing a long-winded email, as it is a complicated subject. I also loathed scheduling a conference call with this particular combination of personalities. Neither communications tool was going to give a satisfactory outcome.

What did I do? After some thought I booked individual person-to-person phone calls. This decision will be obvious to some of you, but it was a lightbulb moment for me. It felt weird to break away from the ‘limited choice’ of email or a conference call. This is the unintentional corporate culture we’ve created.  

Those calls were fabulous. I set my phone to hands-free, and recorded them with a voice recorder. I posed questions, and did my best to be quiet while my peers spoke uninterrupted. Personality traits that would have been disruptive in a conference call never surfaced. We explored subjects in a way that we never could in a conference call. At one point I wondered if I should go to the trouble of editing the recordings into a podcast-like summary. Maybe. In any case, I have the information I need to proceed, and I know that my peers are more likely to endorse the final product.

Think about breaking away from the false, limited choice between email or conference call. A series of person-to-person phone calls can take more time, but it will be productive time. It is also more personal, which contributes to making you and your peers form a team in practice, not just in name. Maybe that too will help the next time you find yourselves in yet another conference call.


Giving feedback on graduate student writing



It doesn’t take long for any nascent scientist who (co/)supervises graduate students (hereafter “PI”) to realise that a significant part of the job is reviewing graduate student writing – paper drafts, thesis chapters, grant applications, and more. It’s often the students’ first time working in a collaborative environment where the concept of multiple iterations of the same document is expected and the norm, and where it can be very confronting to have a draft returned with the digital equivalent of red ink (track changes… and why is the default for the first editor always red?! Can you change it?).

And for PIs, it only take 3 students to realize that one finds oneself making the same suggestions rather frequently, which can feel annoying (even though it may be the first time the student has had that piece of feedback), and put the PI in a mental space that is less than perfect, perhaps even overly critical.

I asked on Twitter what I think is one of the biggest questions any PI-student relationship deals with – when and how often do students send their PI drafts. Ultimately, as with everything, it comes down to what works best for the relationship between the student and the PI.


There was a slight preference for piecemeal, section by section, but a higher proportion than I was expecting for “the whole thing at once”. My personal preference is somewhere in the middle – each section once, perhaps twice if there are significant changes, but no more until the whole thing is together. I think that after 2 rounds of back-and-forth, it becomes less about ideas and structure, and more about flow and connections, which I like to consider in a whole document.

There are all kinds of strategies out there for where to start (abstract! results! methods! outline! figures & tables!), and that ultimately comes down to the individual student and their writing style. If they are just starting out, I’ll usually ask for 5 bullet points for the intro, their hypotheses, objectives, and/or predictions to kick start the process.

But what about all those niggling things that come up nearly every time? When I was a MSc student, any complete drafts for review would be printed and placed in my PIs mailbox. But importantly, on top of each we had to put a coversheet that covered some of the common bits of feedback, like making sure all the references were cited in the text & listed in the reference list, all the tables & figures were referred to (and didn’t duplicate each other), and that another member of the lab had read it over first. It functioned as a checklist to supplement the post-it notes I had stuck above my desk with my own personal common blunders (“Adverbs follow verbs!” was a common one).

Now that I supervise my own students, and in particularly through the Adrift Lab, we decided to take the same idea and make it fit for our own lab.

You can download a PDF version of it here, with a second page that features some common writing advice for scientific papers.

One could argue that many of these are largely typographical or aesthetic, and indeed they are, but they also serve a function of ensuring that the text gets a thorough review, and save time downstream (both for us as PIs, and the student). The volume of graduate student writing is increasing (literature reviews, chapters, grants, and more) so even a modest saving of our time, across the entirety of the students in the lab, makes a real difference.

Now, every student-PI relationship is different, and some require more or less input to make them productive, healthy, and beneficial to both. But so far, this seems to be a system that’s worked reasonably well for us.


There’s lots of discussion in scientific fields that involve travel about the relative merits of going somewhere far away for field work, a conference, or seminar. This post is not about those things.

As a kid growing up in eastern Canada, I remember the first time I went to British Columbia (for a lawn bowling tournament. Yes, you read that right). I remember touching the Pacific Ocean for the first time. I recall my first international trip, to Jamaica in 2003, and landing at the airport in Kingston. I remember my first flight to Australia in 2009, with a long layover in Melbourne (and a very nice chap who complimented me on my watch while I was too clueless and jetlagged to realize he has likely hitting on me).

In my professional life, I’ve been lucky enough to visit some incredibly amazing places, some where few others have been, and places where I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that I was the first person to step in a particular spot. It’s awe-inspiring.

A Google Map of the places I’ve done field work, and from where I’ve analysed data

In the field, we always brought an atlas, and could spend hours (HOURS!) just browsing its pages, imagining the landscape, the people, and cultures, the foods, the weather, and more. So over the last several months, I’ve been starting another map, one of places, for one reason or another, I’d quite like to see some day. Some I have almost zero chance of visiting, others are quite likely. Some are for professional reasons, others are more personal, and a couple are a mix of both. And with today being the autumnal equinox, with the days getting progressively shorter, the dark evenings are an opportunity to daydream, to wonder, and to flip through the pages of an atlas.

A Google Map of some places I’d quite like to see some day


So here’s to that sense of wanderlust that takes so many of us to the field, and to exploring our world.