How Molecular Ecologists Work: Katy Heath on being an expert sleeper and not over-analyzing

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

This week’s interview is from Dr. Katy Heath from the Department of Plant Biology and the University of Illinois. Katy and her team study the evolutionary ecology of mutualisms using plant, fungal, and bacterial systems.

Location: Urbana-Champaign IL

Current Position: Associate Professor, Plant Biology

Current mobile device(s): iPhone 7

Current computer(s): MacBook Air

What kind of research do you?

Evolutionary ecology and evolutionary genomics focused on legume-rhizobium mutualisms

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

Scattershot?

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

Follow your gut because it’s probably right, but be open-minded so you don’t just hire people like yourself. Reflect often on how things are working. Don’t be afraid to give tough love when it’s needed (this is hard for me).

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

Totally Python. No, not really, I’m lying about that – but I’m trying to get better. Papers for Mac definitely changed my life for the better.

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

A bit of all of these, mostly my laptop.

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

I don’t really do gadgets, but I rather like these new wireless headphones. They are worth remembering to plug in.

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?

It feels like email right now, but I’m teaching a large class, so we triage a lot of messages. Also when I think about what happens over email thse days, for me that’s where a lot of thinking happens. I’m a verbal processor, so sometimes I realize really important stuff when I’m putting together the words in an email to a collaborator – stuff I wouldn’t realize if I were just sitting by myself thinking. There are lots of things I wish I had more time for: 1) reading literature that isn’t directly related to the dataset/papers/grant I’m working on at the moment. 2) running my own experiments from beginning to end like I used to. Students and postdocs might think this sounds crazy, since we get to be all “big picture” and ignore the day-to-day problems that make science hard, but in reality we miss it. 3) Focusing really intently on one paper/project for more than a few hours at a time.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

For me, the less I meta-analyze how I spend my time the better since I naturally run around like a chicken with my head cut off. And worrying about how to get more done in less time can be a great source of anxiety for me. For me right now, the challenge is the opposite: how do we slow down, be mindful, and get fewer things done but with more care?

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

Google calendar (I reference this like 50 times a day), sticky notes. Leaving emails unread unless I deal with thm right away has helped me recently (to not feel like I have to deal with them right away, yet not forget them), but I’m not convinced it’s the best system so I’m not recommending it.

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

Ornette Coleman is my thinking/reading music. My kids are so consistently loud, I can’t even hear the yelling anymore.

What do you do to recharge outside of science?

Kids are good for keeping work in perspective. Otherwise, cooking and hanging with friends, reading novels, running/HIIT/yoga.

What are you currently reading?

The Goldfinch. Just whoah.

What is your sleep routine like?

I am an expert sleeper and I do it a lot. I tend to be an evening thinker and a slow morning person. Most parents I know with this job either get up before the kids or stay up after them to round out their workday just enough to keep it together. My kids are 9 and 6, but they are still asleep by 8:30 or 9pm, so I tend to get a bit more work done after they are down. I almost never work on the weekend, and I love to sleep in. OK, I realize that you asked about sleep, and I started talking about work hours. Not sure what that means about me. But I probably go to sleep around 11 and get up at 7 or even 7:30 am. I am not sleep-deprived in the least.

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

Jennifer Lau (Michigan State), David Moeller (Minnesota), Alex Harmon-Threatt (Illinois)

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

Paraphrasing some quotes from mentors in grad school:

“It’s a good idea – don’t walk away if it gets rejected a few times.”

“People say it’s hard to have kids when you have this job – but I don’t know how people who don’t have this job have kids” (it’s true! the flexibility is amazing)

Thanks Katy! Next week: Dr. Chris Jiggins from the University of Cambridge…

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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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