Managing people: Radical candor in academia.

As researchers, we are supposed to be good at a plethora of things. Managing people is one of those things that nobody teaches us, but that ends up being pivotal for the lab functioning. In fact, I would say that researchers, in general, don’t feel comfortable being a boss and see the time invested in managing people as a burden that prevents them to do more important things such as actual research. I’ve been there, and I think that it is pivotal that (we like it or not, we are good at it or not) we assume part of our job as IP is to be a boss, and we try to be a good one.

With this in mind, I have read several pieces on scrum and agile culture and tried to understand how to create an efficient and happy team. The last book I read was Radical Candor, by Kim Scott. It is focused on managing people at big companies, but I think a lot of stuff can be applied to academics.  The main message of the book is that you need to create a culture of caring for people (and for the science you are doing) and of giving clear and honest feedback.

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I think that in academia (in general) we are good at caring personally (small labs, with people passionate for science and mind alike, makes it easier), but we don’t always challenge directly. In my own experience, when things go well, it’s super easy for me to give honest feedback and improve the project even more, but when someone is under-performing I have a hard time making that clear, and this is bad for you, for him/her and for the team.

The following are basically notes for me and the lab, with no ambition to be comprehensive or detailed:

The book makes crystal clear that spending a morning listening to your team complain about personal stuff, or about an internal fight or celebrating their success is an integral part of your job. Not a distraction. Your job. This makes it easier to allocate time to that in your daily schedule.

It also encourages focusing not only on people writing the important papers, but on hard workers that make this possible. Having a “stable” lab technician who solves the day to day field and lab work is the best decision I toke as PI so far. Invest in core people. This is really hard in academia where positions depend on short term projects.

Do not personalize. People are not sloppy, they may have done a particular job in a sloppy way. Then, Its easier to fix specific actions. The “Situation-behaviour-impact” chain is the best to describe a problem. The best feedback is given often and in impromptu situations, is specific about the problem and offers solutions.

If you want feedback (or criticism as stated in the book) to be part of your team, cultivate it at all levels. Encourage criticism also towards yourself (or your ideas) and among your peers.  I like the following process to encourage criticisms, starting by listening (not by replying to criticism or cutting it or offering excuses). When you got criticism, ask to give details and strive to understand it. Do not react. (I’ll apply this also to my normal life).

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I was reinforced on running retrospectives after papers are published in the lab. The book also recommends blocking time for thinking and for working on personal projects, something I am also doing (albeit I should do more) so I don’t spend the day in meetings.

Finally, It made me think about the lab culture. It’s hard to judge internally, but I would like to think the lab culture is to be open and replicable (even if we often do not achieve it!), to put people first and to be risky in our ideas and approaches (even if this means we often go for the big picture, and miss some of the important details).

Teaching complex science to 8-year-old kids

Science is often taught as magic. You pour sodium bicarbonate and Booom, you rocket launches. Which for kids, it is not different from saying “Alohomora” and boom, the magician disappears. Both things are fundamentally different, but if you only see the result, they are hard to tell apart, especially for kids. This is why I became interested in teaching the process and not the result. In fact, the next two ideas I successfully ran at my daughter class focus on playing and experimenting, and not on learning concepts.

Evolution:

Objective: See at play the heritability and natural selection concepts.
Material: Paper and pencil
Time: 45 min

Don’t tell them this activity is about evolution. Start by drawing 4-5 animal shaped sketches. Ask the kids to draw their offspring. Look at the children’s drawings and reflect about inheritance. Are they equal? No. Are they very different? No. Lesson one: There is heritance, but with variability.

Now “kill” a few drawings. Only the ones with long-ish neck survived, or only the ones with thick fur. You are acting as the natural selection. Then ask again the kids to draw the next generation of the surviving animals. I bet some will try to emphasize the surviving characteristics. Repeat the process and kill again the unfitted drawings. If any kid draws a super long neck or a super furry animal (or an animal with newly grown wings), kill it too, as it’s impossible from such parents to create such offspring.

After 3-5 generations wrap up the best you can and compare the first generation with the last one. Are they from the same species? has the species evolved?

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Alternative: If the group is big, split it in two after the first generation. The second group will migrate to an island, where selective pressures are different. Now you can compare the original parents with the two evolving lines and see speciation.

Network Theory:

Objective: Understand that networks are everywhere and that network structure matters.
Material: cork, thumbtacks, and rubber bands
Time: 45 min

I started the activity by asking which type of networks they know (P2P, Facebook, trophic networks…). Then I took a well-connected web made out of yarn and knots and ask a volunteer to cut a link. The web was unaffected. Then I took a second web with few connections and ask again to cut a link. The web was easily broken.

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However, the main activity consists of running a “bingo” game on a network like the one in the photo above, which mimics a plant-pollinator network with thumbtacks (species) linked by rubber bands (interactions). You give one network to each group. When a plant is randomly selected, you remove the thumbtacks and all rubber bands attached to it. If a bee runs out of rubber bands, it dies. The game ends when a group loses 6 bees. The interesting thing is to see how some groups lose bees way faster than others? Why? Kids tend to say because some networks have more rubber bands, but no. All should have the same number. It only depends on the structure. Hence, you should give them contrasting structures.

Now you can make a nested network and explain this is the shape they have in nature. Next, you can ask half of the groups to start “killing” the smaller, less abundant plants, and the other the larger, more abundant plants. Start by asking the second group if this structure is robust. They will say no! Removing 2-3 plants kills rapidly 6-7 bees. Now ask the second group. They will say it is robust, as removing almost all plants didn’t kill a single bee (see attached presentation). Wrap up explaining that in nature rare plants are gone first, and abundant plants are unlikely to get locally extinct first.

As a final wrap up, I made a fake social network of themselves (again, see presentation). I started by adding nodes strongly connected (best friends), then add modules (gangs or groups of friends) and then connectors (kids that like to play with different groups) and stress that these roles are dynamic, and ALL are important to make a robust network.

Find here the presentation I used and the PDF of the bee drawings made by my friend Paula Pereletegui (Thanks!). Corks can be bought at IKEA.

Disclaimer: These are quick notes for scientists that already know about evolution or plant-pollinator networks and want inspiration to reach out. If you want to do this at your school, but you are not familiar with the basic concepts I am happy to help. Just email me.

Happy women and girls in science day!

Today we celebrate an important day. We celebrate equality in science! Hence, I want to make a post highlighting a few great researchers I have the privilege to work with. I was lucky enough to interact with lots of great female scientists and my stereotype of a scientist’s is not an old white man. I know this is not common, and this is why it’s important to show that there are plenty of awesome female researchers like the ones I met, specially to ensure young girls have a diversity of role models.

So here there are four great researchers in different career stages. First, my PhD Advisor, Montse Vilà. She investigates the impacts of invasive plants and was my first contact with a real scientist. Second, my PostDoc advisor, Rachael Winfree, from whom I learnt a million things. She investigates how bee diversity determines ecosystem functioning. Third, Romina Rader, who studies non bee pollinators. We met as postdocs and has become one of my usual collaborators. Finally, Ainhoa Magrach, which I hired as Postdoc last year and it was super-stimulating to work with. She is now studying the impact of global change on biodiversity. I could name many more because almost half of my coauthors are great female scientists, but I’ll stop here. Today several initiatives are highlighting the awesome work that women do in ecology, for example here (spanish) or here, so check it out and spread the word, specially among young girls and schools!

 

Bugs, kids and swimming pools

I accidentally found a great way to make kids into natural history/entomology during summer holidays.
All you need is a catch-net, Chinery’s Insect of European insects book (or any other general insect book for your region) and a swimming pool.
Kids catch drowned insects in the pool with the net (quite frequent drownings in our case*, I have to say, and I wonder how high are the death rates caused by swimming pools globally!). Collecting that way is already quite fun. Most bugs are still alive and we let them dry gently. It’s quite rewarding to see them fly away after a couple of minutes, which is wonderful because kids are now bug-rescuers, not bug-killers! Additionally, wet bugs are slow and let you see them and try to id them (i.e. at least to family or genus). So this is a kill free, easy way to see bugs
If you want the scientific bonus, we also recorded the frequency of each species, time of the day and if it was dead of alive. You can then explore the data. We found 52 specimens of 22 morphospecies. Of the several insect groups recorded (wasps, bees, ants, flies, beetles, moths, harvestmen (opiliones), heteropterans, milipids, …), the most numerous were wasps. Interestingly, among the two most common species, Polistes has higher mortality rates (4 out of 8 ;50%) than Vespula (3 out of 9; 33%). The coolest insect was probably the stick bug!
*If not much insects fall in the pool, open the filter and you should find dozens of mostly dead bodies.

Preferring a preference index II: null models

This is a guest post by my PhD student Miguel Ángel Collado. My last post on preferring a preference indexes was not satisfactory to us, so we have better options now. Read Miguel Ángel solution below.


We are working on the ecological value of various habitats or sites. In addition to different classical biodiversity indexes, we want to know if we have some sites that are not specially diverse, but they have some ecologically important species attached to them, we could measure this through preference analyses, using null models to compare with our data.

We can define “preference” for an species if the presence of this species on a given site is bigger than expected by random. A way to know this is comparing to null models and establishing an upper threshold for preference, and a lower one for avoidance, this way we would know whether some species of interest have affinity for some sites or just use them as expected.

To see an example of this

Ecoflor 2016

Ecoflor is an annual Spanish meeting on everything related to flowers (from evolution to pollinators). The level is amazingly high for being a small “unorganized” local meeting and the most important part is that is a fun forum to discuss crazy ideas, and not just finished work. Here there are some of the things I learnt this year in no particular order:

  • You can do biogeography using Arabidobsis taliana. Moreover, flowering time can be regulated by photoperiod or vernalization and you can map responsible gens across regions (by X. Picò).
  • Plants can cooperate or be selfish depending on its genotype (by R. Torices).
  • The coolest talk was on epigenetics, which can redirect the course of evolution. With experimental data on radish exposed to herbivory. (by M. Sobral).
  • Invasive Oxalis pes-caprae was thought to have only one morph in its invasive rage and hance reproduce vegetatively only, but the second morph has arrived (and its here to stay) (by S. Castro)
  • Plant-pollinator networks can be better plotted than with bipartite (by J. Galeano)
  • And it was the first time one of my students talked in public. Definitively a great talk by Miguel Angel Collado on pollinator habitat preferences.

Next year will be in Seville, join us*!

*You need probably to know some spanish, but some talks are always in english an all slides are english.