Queer in STEM Ask Me Anything!

Continuing the Pride month series, a short announcement – I’m doing a “Queer in STEM” AMA (Ask Me Anything). If you have questions, queries, quandaries, conundrums or dilemmas around the topic of being an out gay/queer scientist, or just being gay/queer I will have a go at providing an answer.

You can submit your question using this (anonymous) Google form [the form’s now closed, but you can still ask questions anonymously in the comments], in the comments below, or by email (thelabandfield@gmail.com). The only data collected on the form are time/date (autofilled), and your question; there’s an optional field if you want to provide your name, but there’s absolutely no need to (or even indeed to provide your real name).

I’ll put a blog post up here on Sunday 24 June 2018 with my responses.


Why am I doing this? Because it’s something I wish I had seen/been able to do from the other side for ages. I didn’t have any other queer scientists to ask questions to until I went to the first LGBT STEMinar, really. And that event has created such a community, but is UK centric because that’s where the folks organizing it live. if I was still living in Canada, chances are I wouldn’t have made the connections I have with other out LGBTQ+ scientists. Making connections with other queer scientists has been personally rewarding (with several new friends), but also professionally fulfilling because it provides an outlet to ask questions and have discussions that I just can’t have with my straight colleagues (usually because it would take too long to get them up to speed on issues or topics that they haven’t really thought about).

So this is my go at providing a forum to help those who haven’t yet found a community, or who may not even be out (personally or professionally). Or those straight friends and colleagues who have their own questions but aren’t sure how to ask. No question is too basic, ridiculous, or even likely one I haven’t already been asked.


So ask away! I’ll leave the form up until noon UK time on Saturday 23 June.



Essential Pride month reading and viewing for straight friends & colleagues


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For this next in a series of Pride month posts, I’ll touch on a subject that I have often found frustrating, not only in terms of queerness, but many other complex ideas — how to quickly get a large volume of information, and convey the significance of that information, to someone new in a short time. In the context of this post, what would I like to instantly convey to straight colleagues so they could better understand me as a person and as a scientist.

In some alternate universe I would just have to wait until April 5th, 2063, and mind-meld (hopefully avoiding all that messiness about katra transference). But for the time being, I present a series of articles and other links that I’ve often found myself sharing with colleagues, along with a wee explanation of why I think it’s significant. Because these have a personal importance to me, they are just one slice of the diverse voices out there expressing similar feelings, emotions, or sentiments, and telling related stories from other perspectives.

All told, there’s about half an hour of video, and a couple links to short written pieces. I know it doesn’t seem like much, but I (and other bloggers) know how few people actually click on links, particularly in posts that are mostly links (thank you, WordPress stats page!). So if you want to file this post away for some evening after dinner, or that 30-minute commute, or the quiet early morning before the munchkins wake up, please do.



Second Class Citizen (cc)

A 7-minute compilation from 2012, and US-centric, but it captures the dominant history of LGBTQ+ rights in North America, particularly in the 2009-2011 period. Much of it based on news clips, if you’ve never really thought about how it feels to have your rights debated in the media, often by the majority, this is a good introduction. It’s also incredibly useful to see not only how far the US has come in the last 7 years, but also what those of us growing up with that cultural influence encountered regularly. Gotta give ’em hope.


It’s Time (no dialogue)

A shorter, 2-minute film from Australia, produced in 2011 as part of a campaign by Get Up! for equal marriage (which was finally achieved late last year – hooray!). I think what draws me to it is the mundane every-day that it depicts. Yes, we’re just like everyone else. Shocking. But what’s perhaps more shocking is the need to remind others of that every so often. This one always brings a smile to my face.


All The Little Things – Panti Bliss (cc)

Panti is an Irish drag queen, and this video is perhaps the SINGLE link that I absolutely implore you to watch if you haven’t already. “I am 45 years old, and I have never once, un-self-consciously, held hands with a lover in public”, she starts. “I don’t know how many of you can imagine what that might be like”. I certainly can.

It’s an 18-minute TEDxDublin talk from 2015, and it hits on so many points that straight folk don’t often think about. The micro-aggressions, the countless calculations we go through daily, the constant checking of the environments we find ourselves in (the plotting of escape routes in new spaces), being reduced from persons to merely sexual acts. She takes you on a journey through her talk that culminates in the sentiments that so many folk in the queer community feel (including yours truly).


Homophobia in 2018 – Time for Love (cc)

A short dramaticised spoken-word piece that begins “It’s Glasgow, March, and we walk hand-in-hand in the park. Now, it’s 3:13 and I’m late and it’s time to make a choice. We’re both boys, you see”. In much the same vein as Panti’s talk, it covers the calculations, the thought processes around what should just be a simple act of affection. Yes, even today. And even in a country where there’s marriage equality. Now, think of the same scenario playing out in a country where being gay is illegal.


In a Heartbeat (no dialogue)

Brightening the mood is this absolutely adorable animated short video. Again, the feelings resonate all too well. The fear, the desire, the feeling when the bottom drops out of your stomach, and more. But also powerful because of the (SPOILER ALERT) so very wonderful ending. Everyone should find that joy.



Make your Queer Science Manifesto

This one I have printed out in my office above my desk. I wrote previously about how to queer one’s science, and this manifesto I think sums it up well. A manifesto is inherently political, and so, too, is queer science. And before someone jumps into the comments to say that science should be apolitical, devoid of emotion and strictly driven by facts (a common rebuttal), what a silly notion. Scientists are people with agendas, emotions, and experiences that all influence their science. This manifesto not only acknowledges it, but embraces it. Even before I was sent this link earlier this year, I had already been following many of the points it covers, which strengthens my opinion that there is something different in the way queer scientists approach their craft, conscious or otherwise.


The “Silence=Death” poster

On the New York Public Library site, a blog post by Avran Finkelstein who was one of the six people who designed the iconic poster in the 1980s. I’ve always advocating knowing where one comes from, in a historical context, and for LGBTQ+ folk, this one is pretty up there. I’m a big fan of Finkelstein’s take on the popularity of the poster: In essence and intention, the political poster is a public thing. It comes to life in the public sphere, and is academic outside of it. Individuals design it, or agencies or governments, but it belongs to those who respond to its call.”


24 Coming Out Tips

An archived version of a website that featured these 24 tips for coming out, written ca. 2001, and also appearing in the rag XY at least twice during its initial run (oh, that bastion of white gay twinkness!) . I definitely read [online] these before I came out. #21 always hits me hard. Yes, we queers really did talk about this. And yes, I know kids booted out of their homes in the 2002-2008ish range. And yes, I’ve been someone’s escape route (thankfully not needed).


As I said, these are just a few of the links I find myself wishing I could quickly convey to friends & colleagues. I’m sure there are others that LGBTQ+ folk wish they could instantly transmit to someone straight, and equally I’m sure there are others that straight friends & colleagues found useful (add them in the comments!).

A collaborative effort to celebrate Pride month: the LGBTQ+ Rights Bot


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There are many topics that I often find myself explaining to my straight colleagues. Mostly it’s out of their desire to know more, or better understand my experiences as an out gay scientist. But in the 13 years or so since I’ve come out (and in fact for several years before then, too) the one thing that I’ve consistently had the most reactions of surprise from straight colleagues is that there are places in the world to which I simply refuse to travel because of anti-gay laws.

Professionally, this comes up in the context of field work, conferences, or other meetings. And each queer scientist I’ve met with and discussed this topic with has their own take (as well they should!) that balances their safety, personal take on the environment, and comfort. I know several out scientists who have extended field work (as in several months) in what I would term hostile countries, which works for them (or at least they make it work, for the time being).

But so far, every straight colleague to whom I’ve mentioned this had been entirely oblivious until we had the conversation. Some got it right away, others still think I’m being unnecessarily negative. “It’s not like you’re having sex”, one said. No, I’m not, but that’s because I’m married and my partner’s not there. What if I were single? What about the local collaborators, field techs, guides, and others one might be working with? We’d all be held to a different legal standard The presence of such laws, their enforcement, and public debate around them is often a litmus test for other things. I wear a wedding ring (and have for years, leaving a fairly unmistakable “dent”), and the most terrifying bit of conversation with folks I don’t know in a place where my safety isn’t guaranteed is “I see you’re married; what does your wife do?”


So as a public service, a combination of Twitter, R, and Wikipedia, and as an excuse to work on a project with my friend Dave Hemprich-Bennett, we present the LGBTQ+ Rights Twitter Bot!

This is a twitter bot (an automated account) that periodically samples data from this Wikipedia article on LGBTQ+ rights around the world, and tweets them out along with the countries’ flags. It’s entirely automated and selects the country and rights in random order, and sends it directly to your Twitter timeline. So perhaps an obvious question is, why?

It’s an attempt to make more broadly known the challenges that queer folk face around the world, which probably isn’t something many straight folk have thought about all that much. And it’s also a place to celebrate the victories where equality has been fought for, and won. The Wikipedia article is remarkably well referenced, and generally considered up-to-date, and is also easily incorporated into the code for the Twitter bot. More detail can be found the IGLA’s annual State Sponsored Homophobia report.

I’ve had the idea for this soon after I saw Dave’s other Twitter bot, The Bat-signal. And fortunately he was able to relatively easily adapt the code, and do the leg work. If you’re interested, you can see the code over on Github.

In a way, it’s quite fitting to roll this out during Pride, which itself is a simultaneous celebration of how far we’ve come, and a reminder of how far we have yet to go. The battle doesn’t stop with marriage equality in our home countries (if indeed we’re fortunate enough to have won that battle already).


With special thanks to Dave Hemprich-Bennett for his amazing bot-building skills, and suggestions for this post.

My journey


It’s Pride month, and this year there are some fantastic initiatives around like 500 Queer Scientists, and the International Day of LGBTQ+ People in STEM. Rainbow crosswalks are no longer relegated to the likes of Sydney, San Francisco, or London. Equal marriage is now the law in >25 countries. And yet challenges still remain.

Five years ago, I wrote the first LGBTQ+-themed post here on The Lab and Field, which was my attempt to articulate to straight colleagues the nature of the unique challenges faced by queer scientists. Since that time I’ve written many more, but there has always been one that I’ve never consigned to a single cohesive story, at least not in this forum – my own journey.

When I first came out in 2005 (and indeed before then, too), I latched on to these kinds of personal narratives for the pure, simple fact that it so closely echoed my own experiences, feelings, and anxieties. I’d religiously watch new videos from I’m From Driftwood, or read interviews on websites long since forgotten or expired. And I found them profoundly helpful, comforting, and affirming. But the one obvious gap, at least for me, was that none of them were by scientists, or mentioned that side of things.

So it’s with that target audience in mind that I share this, and hope that at least some of you find it useful, helpful, or at least entertaining. And if you’re one of those people, like me back then, know that there is an amazing community of LGBTQ+ folk in STEM; and you can always reach out, too. I’ve been there.


I grew up in peri-urban eastern Canada in a city of about 80,000 in the 1990s, and I was a profoundly uncool child. I’d much prefer to write computer programs in QBASIC, cycle around looking for out-of-province license plates (and enumerating them, proving summary statistics each week, though not accounting for survey effort)., and finding refuge in the theatre. Well, until I was awkwardly cast Motel in Fiddler on the Roof (the groom in the wedding). But hey ho there we go. From about spring break of 1995, I knew I wasn’t typical, but I didn’t label it until much later. Deeply closeted in high school (what a hellish, terrible, awful experience in which I used studying and grades and improv to keep up the facade of the wunderkind geek before it was cool, but more cool (and more safe) than being the gay kid), I can still recall a conversation with a good friend at the time. He’d asked what single piece of technology from Star Trek I would most covet. I replied asking if the female character Seven of Nine counted as technology, to which he exclaimed to our group “Hey guys, I just proved that Alex isn’t gay!”. I felt awful.

I also remember in about grade 8 or 9 taking a careers questionnaire which was discussed among the class. I was utterly mortified to find I’d scored the best match with “social worker” or “scientist”. Again, I felt awful.

It was around this time that the US version of the television show Queer as Folk came out, airing late at night on a cable network. I watched it, feeling guilty in undertaking what was essentially a clandestine mission each Friday. The finale to Season 1 featured one of the main characters, a high school student, getting beat in the head with a baseball bat, only about 3 years after Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder in Laramie, Wyoming. If the narrative of the 1980s and early 1990s was one of HIV, that of the late 1990s was violence and kids getting kicked out of their homes (not me, but I know of many others, none of which would’ve made the news). It didn’t exactly inspire confidence.

In undergrad, I continued to be profoundly uncool, not drinking, not partying, and spending time studying, in the lab, or the library, but again spending time in the theatre. Despite the generally welcoming nature of the town, the campus, and no doubt many of the faculty at this small liberal arts university, it took until the summer before my senior year (2004) before I finally said “Welp, I guess I’m gay?” to myself in the bathroom mirror, choking down a lump in my throat because I was at work.

This was the summer after Ontario had legalised same-sex marriage, and the debate was raging through the other provinces and territories of Canada. Unlike the horrendously acrimonious public vote in Australia in 2017, equal marriage in Canada was all debated in the courts or various legislatures. But the vitriol remained. And being in eastern Canada, a place with a fairly high concentration of “good ol’ boys”, it wasn’t the most positive and encouraging atmosphere. So the obvious next steps was to run away to a small offshore island!

The first summer of my masters research, on a small island in the Bay of Fundy, was one of incredible growth, professionally and personally. I learned so much about seabirds, conservation, ecology, wildlife management, and science more broadly, but I was also profoundly depressed (and undiagnosed) as I tried to figure out who (and occasionally, what) I was, and how others would interact with me. Remote offshore islands aren’t the greatest place when one’s mental health isn’t that great. But that summer, distracting myself with the hard work and desire to impress a new supervisor, I saw a faint hint of a crack in the closet door. And I was terrified.

That summer/autumn, I had a 20-30 minute walk to campus each day, and to make the journey more enjoyable, I’d pop in a CD to my discman (it was 2005 after all, and I wasn’t cool enough for an iPod). I’d play a single CD for a week or so, and then move on to another. One week I put on my recently-purchased Death Cab for Cutie CD “Plans”. Which in retrospect probably wasn’t the wisest thing for someone with some pretty not-fun depression and identity issues. But the music echoed my mood, and at the time I found it comforting. Now, I can’t listen to it at all.

On September 15th, 2005 after getting home from the lab, I realised I had to tell someone, so I called up one of my closest friends and came out for the first time. The genre of “coming out stories” was quite popular at the time (well, at least for me), so I had read/watched nearly every one I could find on the internet. The ones that went well, the ones that ended poorly. It was not uncommon for advice on coming out to include things like “keep a stash of cash for a couple of days” and “make sure you arrange with a friend beforehand to spend the night, or a couple of nights, if you need to”. Thankfully, I was financially independent and living on my own, but that’s the kind of pervasive environment that existed (or at least that I perceived).

She was, perhaps predictably, fine. Mum was the next day, and was fine in the end, though perhaps a bit surprised. Dad was the day after, and was fine, too. In fact, all the family — grandparents, sister, aunts, uncles — were totally fine once they got over the initial surprise. I was so incredibly lucky. I know others for whom it was not fine.

A few months later, my (future) husband and I went to watch Brokeback Mountain in the theatre, which was both the most exhilarating and terrifying public act of queerness I’d yet undertaken to date. For weeks after, my computer desktop picture was a still from the film of Ennis’ and Jack’s shirts hanging in a wardrobe. It was a way of signalling my gayness without having it be obvious. I felt like such a rebel.

And the thing about closet doors, is that once they open a little bit, they often fly off, splintering into a thousand pieces. For the first time in 23 years I began to feel more comfortable in my own skin, at least personally. I was still in the closet professionally. My supervisor had a bumper sticker that said “Families are Gay”, which I was never sure how to take (years later when I recounted this take, he told me his son had put it there, and it was intended to be indicative of support).

But before I was out in the ecology/ornithology community, I was certainly out on campus, heading up the university’s “Safe Space” project. This was a safe, controlled environment that I knew a priori would be supportive. People came to workshops to learn, essentially, Queer 101 – terminology, what to do when someone comes out to you, where to direct them for help locally if needed. In this time I also met my husband and we moved in together. And then we went off to Newfoundland for my PhD.

If the move to my MSc signalled by personal coming out, my PhD was my professional equivalent. My first meeting with my supervisor (in the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport on the way to field work in Alaska), he asked about my wife. “Partner”, I corrected him, and tried to suppress the butterflies.

During those four years in Newfoundland, I attended my first Pride (2011), got legally married (2010), binge-watched Queer as Folk one Christmas break for the first time since I saw it on TV a decade ago, and despite being out, I was constantly linked romantically by other staff and students to some of my (single) women fellow grad students (much to our collective amusement at the time).

I also came across my first LGBTQ+ scientist, Joan Roughgarden, and met my first actual honest-to-goodness queer scientist in real life, when a fellow grad student invited a former colleague of his who recently took up a faculty job in California. That lunch in the grad pub was a bit of an “aha!” moment, where I realised for the first time that being gay and a scientist were entirely compatible. Until then, I had always felt my life had at least two separate components that would never overlap. That year, they united to form a perfect circle.

Fast-forward to a postdoc in Saskatchewan, and the founding of The Lab and Field where I had an outlet, for the first time, for exploring life as a queer scientist. Moving to the UK in 2014, and a fairly vibrant Twitter community resulted in the LGBTSTEMinar in 2015, a one-day STEM conference for LGBTQ+ folk that I think is beyond amazing. I still remember when Beth first mentioned the idea, and I pleaded with her to wait until I returned from field work in December 2014 to hold it (so I’m at last partially to blame for the January timing… sorry everyone).

I now have the safety, confidence, and support to be out personally, as well as professionally, though challenges remain (and likely always will, at least during my lifetime). And looking back on my post from 5 years ago, some of the challenges have been overcome, some remain, and new ones have arisen, but those, dear reader, will be the subject of a future post.

Why is engaging with ecological & organismal professional societies on LGBTQ+ diversity so hard?


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It’s Pride month, which seems like as good a time as any to pose this puzzler that has been cartwheeling around my brain for the better part of a year now: why is it so difficult to get ecological or organismal professional societies to engage on LGBTQ+ diversity? And why is it when they do, they often muck it up?

For the last 3 years, I’ve been going to/organizing/hosting/thoroughly enjoying the LGBTQ+ STEMinar, a day-long all-STEM conference for LGBTQ+ scientists. It remains one of the absolute highlights of my year. At the most recent edition, a number of professional societies in the physical sciences announced they were banding together to look at diversity of and climate for their LGBTQ+ members, and knowledgeable sources have told me they had a fantastic response. This is a coordinated effort by the UK’s main professional bodies in physics, chemistry, and astronomy.

When July 5th was launched as the International Day for LGBTQ+ folk in STEM, even CERN got on board. CERN! Just look at the supporters on the Pride in STEM webpage… only the Society for Applied Microbiology to represent life sciences. Pathetic, I say. (And yes, I have sent this around to numerous ecology/organismal societies to encourage them to support it, and yet…)

And yet when I broach this subject with their equivalents in non-medical life sciences, it’s met with deafening crickets. On the surface, this seems counterintuitive. Life sciences is traditionally viewed as a more diverse field, particularly so for women, and so it should follow that it’s more likely to engage on other diversity & inclusion topics. But perhaps it’s because of this history of being more inclusive that the impetus to do more just isn’t there.

An equally plausible reason is the fragmentary nature of the professional landscape. There are of course the large bodies, like the British Ecological Society or the Ecological Society of America, but then each taxon has its own group, and even sub-groups (I know groups who focus just on one order of birds, for example). So there’s no overarching body to provide the leadership and demonstrate buy-in.

Or, the larger societies (*cough* ESA *cough*) tend to really get things wrong when they do try and do something. Rainbow “Ally” ribbons in Baltimore, anyone? Or the steps taken are mostly paying lip-service out of the desire to be seen to be doing something. Or they are putting all the labour on their LGBTQ+ members without support.

All is not rosy for LGBTQ+ scientists, dear reader. In a field in which many people spend time in the field, and with increased globalization of research I repeatedly have to explain that there are about 80 countries where being gay is illegal and I don’t exactly like going there. And neither do some other folks. Instead this is looked on as an annoying inconvenience (tell me about it!).

Compared to even 3 or 4 years ago, there has been an uptick in LGBTQ+ events at conferences (though as recently as 9 months ago, one ornithological society insisted that there was no need since everyone was welcome). Utter poppycock of the most foul variety. And it’s great to provide this social & networking opportunity, but a lunch, or evening social to “tick the box” of having done something isn’t sufficient.

So if you’re a member of a professional society in ecology or organismal biology, why not ask them what they’re doing for your LGBTQ+ colleagues? Why not encourage them to do more? And if they won’t, why not re-evaluate the idea of your membership in a professional body that values some members less than others?

MENSERC continues: men still dominate NSERC’s prestigious prizes



NSERC (the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council) is Canada’s funding council for, well, natural sciences and engineering. And each year they recognize the crème de la crème of Canadian scientific & engineering research. Sort of.

It really helps to be a guy.

I first got riled up about this issue in 2013 (which, shockingly, is 5 years ago), at a time when no woman had ever been awarded the Herzberg Medal, colloquially known as the prize for ’Canada’s Top Scientist’. This changed in 2015, but has since resumed it’s male pattern blindness.

In fact, in 2013, 2014, 2015, and 2016, women were recognizes with 0% (!!!), 13%, 17%, and 19% of the prizes awarded. Hey, a positive trend! </scarcasm>

And I want to highlight that these are not competitive grants for which there is an application, but a nomination process meant to recognize excellence in Canadian scientific & engineering research.

After the first year, NSERC reached out in the comments to highlight that they took diversity seriously, and pointed to several initiatives. But this has not yet manifested in the upper echelons, clearly. So much so that one could easily refer to the organization as MENSERC.

So where do we stand with the 2017 awards announced recently?

  • Herzberg Medal (“Canada’s top scientist”): man (only one woman has ever won this award, and it was in 2015)
  • Polyani Award: man
  • Brockhouse Canada Prize: 6 men
  • Synergy Award for Innovation: 4 men
  • E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowships: 3 men, 3 women
  • Gilles Brassard Doctoral Prize for Interdisciplinary Research: 1 man, 1 woman

For those keeping track at home, that’s 4/20 women winners, or 20%. The positive trend continues! </more sarcasm>

As the saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome. I have no idea what goes in behind the shrouded curtain of NSERC deliberations when it comes to these awards, but something is clearly not working.

Meg Duffy has kept tabs on the US NSFs Waterman Award, with similar results. The comments on that post are particularly good, including the response from NSF.

There is also this article in Nature on the under-representation of women in the worlds national science academies.

So while NSERC is by no means an outlier, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t do better.

Queering one’s science (and more languishing ideas)


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Last week I had a fantastic chat with the Queer Science discussion group based at Memorial University of Newfoundland, which is also where I happened to do my PhD. One of the perennial questions when I talk about being an out scientist is how the LGBTQ+ side influences the science side, and vice versa. As someone not particularly versed in sociology, queer theory, or feminist studies, I lack the terminology and background to put my experiences in a broader context, so I said that I didn’t think it did (because that’s genuinely what I thought).

But I think I was wrong.

As one of the group members pointed out, they felt that some of my writing certainly came from a queer science view of the world, and after a bit of discussion, I think I agree. And seeing as this is a blog for some rambling thoughts, I present some rambling thoughts.

I’ve long been interested in the how of science, whether it’s pointing out that gender and sex are different things (and try as we might, we can’t know a bird’s gender, at least not yet), or looking at the ways in which the current science apparatus tends to disadvantage those who aren’t white cishet men. I’ve even managed a paper or two in this line of work, though the process was fraught with push-back and watering down of statements.

When I started my career as a scientist (which I benchmark as the start of my MSc in 2005), I made a folder on my computer for what I called “Thought papers” (and early readers here will recognize that as a category, though a much neglected one, of posts). These were things that challenged the orthodoxy of the science how, and who, and where, and why. This was initially driven my the philosophy of science course I took as a grad student (and which I did not appreciate nearly enough at the time), but the more I progressed in science, the more I could see its faults.

And I suspect I might not have explored this realm of science (or at least, not with as much effort) had I been straight. I mean, we’ll never know, but somewhere out in the multiverse may lie an answer. Who knows.

One of the more challenging, or frustrating things, though, is the amount of time I’m able to dedicate to this line of thinking. Many journals dismiss the manuscripts on how science is done (yes, there are exceptions, but that’s what they are… exceptions. And my laundry list of rejections will do battle with any anecdata any day of the week). And so the manuscripts take longer, sit longer, go out of date faster, and exact a greater emotional toll. So for some, I’ve just stopped, which is sad.

I still have a few of these half-formed ideas, outlined papers, formatted (but empty) spreadsheets, but the emotional labour to bring them to fruition is often (perceived to be) too great. At least by myself.

This is where you come in.

I’m happy to share ideas. Heck, I’ve been trying (though largely unsuccessfully) to give away data for years. So here’s my attempt for the meta-science (science about science) bits & pieces of languishing projects.

If you’re interested in making science a better place, in pulling back the curtain to see its (often) old, white, male face, and looking for solutions, and you have some time, or need a project, get in touch. It might not work out, but then again it might.

A 3-click solution to improving the work/life balance of others


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I think it’s safe to say a good number of us struggle with the large amount considerable volume overwhelming flood of email.


And many of us have implemented solutions, and there’s been lots of discussion about how to stem the tide that washes over us almost daily (see this post & the comments over on Dynamic Ecology). But ultimately, the problem starts with each of us as individuals, and the volume of email we send, and when we send it. For those of us who have staff, students, or other trainees, the latter can often send a not-so-subtle message.

With near-constant connectivity comes an expectation of immediate responses. Many of us have email on our phones, or spend most of our working day sitting at a computer with our email client/web page open, where it bings and chimes with each incoming message. Two years ago, I started tracking the outgoing volume of email I generated, and it’s somewhere between 6500-7500 messages a year. And I don’t teach or have student queries.

I’ve also worked in places where I’ve received emails from managers (from my own boss right up to their boss’s boss’s boss) not just outside work hours, but at 10pm, or on weekends. In a sense, this is understandable: it’s quiet time when there are no expectations on them, so they catch up on email. I’ve done it, as I suspect most researchers and managers have. But the not-so-subtle implication is “I’m working this extra time, and so you should be, too”, or at least that work outside the paid contracted hours is necessary to do one’s job.

So to try and combat this, I’ve implemented two strategies, one for me, and one for the people I work with.

1. I don’t respond to work email outside typical work hours

Because I supervise students in different time zones, have managed field staff, and do have some other on-call responsibilities that require me to be contactable, I do have email on my phone, and do check it outside work hours, but unless it’s something that absolutely can’t wait until the next day (or Monday if on a weekend), I read it and deal with it later. Over time, this ingrains the expectation that I’m not instantly contactable outside work hours for work things.

2. I use the “Delay Delivery” function outside work hours

Like I said above, sometimes I do sit down on the weekend with my pot of tea and bash through a bunch of emails that have backed up over the last <period of time>. But there’s a fancy (and easy) tool in Outlook called Delay Delivery that makes sure I’m not creating unsustainable and unrealistic expectations on those I’m emailing.

This is the 3-click solution I mentioned in the title.

This is a feature of Microsoft Outlook, and so far I haven’t seen an equivalent solution for Apple’s Mail, or email sent from a phone. There is a Gmail extension called Boomerang, though. Here’s how it works.

First, write your email/response as usual:


Second, click on the Options tab (click #1), and near the right, click on “Delay Delivery” (click #2).


And lastly, in the Delivery Options section, you can set the time when Outlook delivers the email in the “Do not deliver before” field, by setting the date & time. Click Close (click #3) and you’re done.


The only downside I’ve found is that your computer has to be connected and Outlook open in order to send messages at the defined time, and as I said above, I’m not sure this functionality transfers to other email clients.

It might seem like a small thing, or maybe a giant pain, but it’s a simple solution to help us all walk the walk of improving work-life balance, particularly of those we supervise or manage.


UPDATE! Ben Britton pointed me to this VBA code & post of his that will automatically delay delivery!

Prioritizing the flood of ideas


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If you’ve been involved in research for more than a couple of years, chances are you quite quickly start to accumulate a list, even if only in your mind, of Things It Would Be Neat To Do. These could be things that you identify as gaps while pursuing your main research theme, or ideas that spark out of a paper you happened to leaf through while waiting for a meeting to start.

And typically starting around the later years of a PhD, and through postdocs and early career positions, the flood of ideas for things to do keeps, well, flooding. You see gaps, methods that need improving, sites that need investigating, and questions that need answering. And very quickly you realize that you do not have time to do it all.

And so it begins: the search for minions!

Or rather, students, collaborators, or others upon whom you can foist your ideas, your existing data, your passion, in the hopes that they will take the torch and run. At some stage, the list becomes too large for your head, and perhaps like me you make a nice text document on your desktop called “Project Ideas.txt”, and just keep adding to it as the ideas pop in, with the hopes that when a prospective minion comes along, you’ll have just the project for them.

But good heavens is that ever difficult. Perhaps I’ve had a skewed view, having never actually worked in a university, but I have tried several mechanisms to try and get homes for existing datasets, or convince others that the project ideas I’ve had are worth pursuing and met with exceptionally low success.

A few years ago, I tried setting up a page here called Languishing Projects, and every 6 months or so I would update it, send around some tweets or emails, and I might get one or two queries. Usually, though, the query didn’t go anywhere because the querier wasn’t at the right career stage (I had several emails from first or second year undergrads – and not to say that those cohorts aren’t suitable for research, but as they would have been in different cities than I, I couldn’t provide them with the mentorship and guidance needed for projects done at that career stage).

It seems ironic, but I just couldn’t give away data.

Now, some of you would surely suggest simply posting the data somewhere like figshare and someone, somewhere would use it. This wasn’t practical because I wasn’t the sole owner of these data, and in many cases, the data would have needed some significant attention before I would want them released into the wild.

A particular challenge I’ve found is funding and recruiting to studentships. I do marvel at PIs who seemingly receive countless emails asking about being a student in their lab – I can’t remember the last time I had one, let alone one that was in my field (again, though, I’m not at a degree-granting institution). And in the few cases where I’ve been able to find a partnering faculty member, the number of applicants, despite quite broad advertising, has been quite low. And university faculty also have their own flood of ideas, so why would they want to take on yet more?

And then there’s the funding. The way the UK funds postgraduate research is, in my view, quite silly. Students don’t apply to PIs, but to thematic or regional Doctoral Training Partnerships, and those admitted to these DTPs then must be wooed by PIs with projects in the hopes that the student will finally settle on theirs. There’s nothing wrong with a little competition, but it means that if a prospective student contacts me, and I think they might be a great fit for a project I have, they can be rejected by the DTP and that’s the end of that. The success rate, particularly for some (like the London DTP) is more akin to a major NERC or NSF grant, <7% last year.

To say nothing of funding for postdocs.

I think that part of the difficulty is that while I work on seabirds and islands, many of the project ideas are desk- or collections-based. This is advantageous on one hand because they involve very little cost, but at the same time, most students in ecology & conservation are in it (largely) for the field work. Which costs money. Sigh.

So as I often, too, I took to Twitter to ask folks how they dealt with the flood of project ideas. The response were basically to prioritize those that had either students or money associated with them. Not great for me, since mine had neither. And without either of those, partnering with a university PI becomes increasingly difficult (because, well, students and money are hard to find, it seems).

But rather than have this a whinging tirade, my question, dear reader, is what do you do with the projects for which you have no time? The bits of data that could be something if they just had some time put into them (time that none of us have)? Are you resigned to letting them slide off this mortal coil?

And lastly, many of my languishing projects or Ideas That Have Little Chance Of Being Realized are perfectly suitable for honours or UK/Australian MSc/MRes degrees, and some could be bundled up into a nice PhD. So if you fancy collaborating, or have a steady stream of students in need of projects, let’s chat!

2018 goals


Ive already done 2017 by the numbers, and inspired by Auriel Fournier, here are some goals for 2018, in no particular order…


Get two long-languishing papers submitted. One is from my postdoc (and formed a pretty bit part of it), and the other is a long-standing collaboration that just needs some dedicated attention. I’m reminded of this lovely cartoon.


Kick-start my own research again. This may sound silly, but when I worked for the RSPB, the research was driven by the organization, so lots of things I wanted to do get dropped, or I passed along to others.

Submit one grant application (in reference to the above).

Find funding for, and recruit, my first student as primary supervisor.

Acquire a typewriter.

Make serious inroads into digitizing the NHM collection. This is a big part of my job, and hopefully it will take off in 2018 in a major way.

Submit 2 natural history papers. I think I know what one of them might be, but to get #2 I’ll clearly need to get out and do some natural history-ing!

Learn what “genetic barcoding” means, and how to do it.

Get back into photography after a 4-year hiatus.

Write 18 new posts for The Lab and Field. This blog has really slowed in recent years, and I’d like to rejuvenate it a bit. It’s been a struggle lately to write things that aren’t making me cranky, or to find the time to write at all.


Whatever your goals, here’s to a happy and productive 2018 (defined however you want)!