How Molecular Ecologists Work: Catherine Peichel on being the earliest bird and scheduling to take out the trash

Welcome to “How Molecular Ecologists Work”, the interview series that asks scientists how they get stuff done.

This week’s interview is from Dr. Catherine Peichel. Katie and her lab have used genomic data from three spine stickleback to make big discoveries about the process of speciation and sex chromosome evolution (among many, many others).

Location: Institute of Ecology and Evolution, University of Bern, Switzerland

Current Position: Professor

Current mobile device(s): iPhone 6s

Current computer(s): MacBook Pro

What kind of research do you?

I am an evolutionary geneticist. My lab uses stickleback fish as a model system to identify the genetic changes that underlie morphological and behavioral adaptation, as well as speciation. We are also interested in how the evolution of the genome, particularly sex chromosomes, affects the processes of adaptation and speciation.

Can you use one word to describe the way you work? 

Organized.

What specific strategies do you recommend for running (or establishing) a lab? 

Hire good people and then let them pursue their ideas. The best work in my lab has come from the great ideas of my postdocs and grad students. In turn, I give them resources, and as much support and guidance as they need along the way.

What apps/software/language/tools can’t you work without (Python, Dropbox, Geneious, etc.)?

I have tried to learn to do bioinformatics analysis myself, and I can kind of use R. But, I rarely have time to my own analyses and am therefore not very good. So, I can’t live without my collaborator Dolph Schluter, who will write me R code sometimes when I really need it

In daily life, I can’t live without an app with schedules for the amazing Swiss public transportation system, and an app to design my own running and hiking routes on super-detailed topo maps, which I can then download to my phone.

Where do you work with data (personal computer, lab computers, cluster, etc.)?

I do everything on my personal computer, but I need to learn how to send jobs to our University of Bern UBELIX cluster!

Besides your phone and computer, what gadget can’t you live without and why?

I am kind of a Luddite and don’t really have any gadgets, unless you count my two coffee machines. When I moved to Switzerland, I bought myself an awesome Jura coffee machine for home and a Nespresso coffee maker for the lab. I probably drink too much coffee, but along with chocolate, it makes me happy.

What part of your job do you spend the most time on in a week? What part do you wish you had more time for?

Currently, I am teaching two classes, so I am not doing much else! But, in general, I spend most of my time meeting with people in my group, going to seminars and lab meetings, writing and reviewing manuscripts, and doing administrative stuff to keep the lab running smoothly. I love working with the people in my group and helping them move their research forward. But, I wish I had more time to do my own research – I miss working in the lab, and I would love to be able to be able to do my own bioinformatics analyses. I am learning, but it’s slow.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Realize that you can’t do everything! Then, don’t waste time doing things that are not important to you personally or for your lab. It takes some self-reflection to realize what is most important to you, and then some discipline to say no to things that are not.

How do you stay organized (to-do lists, digital reminders, etc.)?

My iCal. If it’s not in my iCal, I am not going to do it. Seriously, I even put things like “take out the garbage” in there.

What do you listen to while you’re working (music, kids yelling, the hum of a supercomputer)?

Usually, I don’t listen to anything during the day. But, if I really need to focus on writing, I will listen to classical music (Bach cello suites and classical guitar are my favorites). And, if I really need to motivate to do something I don’t want to do, I crank up the 80s alternative or 90s grunge.

What do you do to recharge outside of science?

I have been a long-distance runner for nearly 30 years. Running frees my mind, and I have solved most of my scientific and personal problems while running. Besides running, I recharge by hiking or backcountry skiing in the beautiful Swiss Alps with my husband, and hanging out with my dogs. There’s nothing like watching dogs play to make you forget bad reviews on a paper!

What are you currently reading?

I can’t remember the last time I read a book for pleasure! But, I want to read Jonathan Losos new book Improbable Destinies, and then go back and re-read Wonderful Life by Stephan J. Gould to compare their views on the outcome of “replaying the tape of life”. I also want to read How to Tame a Fox by Lee Alan Dugatkin and Lyudmila Trut on the amazing farm fox experiments, in which selection only on a behavior (“tameness”) also resulted in a host of morphological changes. And, finally, I have had a long-standing battle with James Joyce’s book Ulysses – someday I am going to finally finish it!

What is your sleep routine like?

I am an early bird, and my brain works best in the morning. So, I like to get up at 4am – this is aided by my dogs, who are now entrained to have their breakfast at 4am. I have some coffee, then work for a couple of hours before going for my run. Then, I can still get into my office by 8am before most people arrive to have some quiet time to work. I am in bed around 10pm, and I fall asleep as soon as (or before) my head hits the pillow!

Fill in the blank: I’d like to see _______ answer these questions.

Sally Otto and Mohammed Noor are two people who amaze me with their ability to do everything well and with their boundless optimism. I want to know how they do it!!!

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

When I first started my lab, I really doubted that we would ever get anything done. My postdoctoral advisor David Kingsley told me “Just keep putting one foot in front of the other, like you have always done and you will be fine.” He was absolutely right, and I still follow his advice.

Thanks Katie! Next week: Dr. Tatiana Giraud!

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About Rob Denton

I’m a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UConn. I’m most interested in understanding the evolutionary/ecological consequences of strange reproduction in salamanders (unisexual Ambystoma). Topics I’m likely to write about: population and landscape genetics, mitonuclear interactions, polyploidy, and reptiles/amphibians.

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