How Molecular Ecologists Work: Hanna Kokko on tending her literature garden and learning by reviewing

Location: University of Zurich

Current Position: professor of evolutionary ecology

What kind of research do you?

Evolutionary ecology

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

Multitaskingly. Is that a word?

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

Remember that the people you’re training are not clones of you; nor are they clones of each other. One may start 17 projects before one is finished, another may suffer from the Concorde fallacy and not be able to leave that first idea I gave them even though by now it’s clear it won’t fly. They’ll need “personalized medicine”; also remember, their ultimate career goals might differ from yours.

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

haha… I call it my SuperAwesomeLiteratureDatabase. I built a simple database back (approx during mid-pleistocene) when I was a PhD student. I’ve kept adding papers to it ever since, using those moments when the brain is too tired to do anything more strenuous or nothing useful can be done in the remaining 7min before I have to go to another committee meeting; I call this “tending my literature garden”. What it is: Copy-pasting citation info + abstracts, speed reading the content, and tagging each paper with keywords that I keep a personal list of – e.g. “sexex” if it has something to do with sexual reproduction and/or sex differences AND extinction, “evorate” if the paper discusses the rate of adaptation or other speed stuff.

Over time this has become a database that works so much better, for me, than any Web of Science search: makes me, in a split second, able to check whether someone might have worked on a paper where local adaptation and anthropogenic causes of evolution are simultaneously considered. All students laugh at me when they see me avoid the efficient (so they think) automated softwares, but think of this: the now-and-then gardening effort I do also leaves a trace in my own brain of something having been written by someone on topic X. Gold!

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

Twice I’ve tried to start using e-readers, and twice I’ve failed.

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?

There’s an intriguing thing about how one’s career progresses. We tend to begin spending time finding solutions to logical problems, at least I did – and I was quite happy with days involving a lot of “me and my laptop” time. By now, the vast majority of my work hours are spent doing some form of verbal communication, either uni- or bidirectional. Simultaneously, the emphasis has shifted from producing science to evaluating others doing science; first one evaluates individual MSs as a reviewer, later also grants, then entire careers, institutions, structures… sooner or later commenting on others’ work, when broadly interpreted, takes by far the biggest chunk of one’s time. I’m not sure if I really complain about this – giving feedback about ever bigger things can, after all, achieve more good than proving to myself that I can write one more publishable MS. But as to what comes naturally & would feel good, the diminishing quiet time where I can be solving scientific problems is of course something to miss. I’m sure I’m not alone there, that’s why people have sabbaticals.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Right now I am experimenting with a ready-to-send file where I explain to a person inviting me to their event why s/he shouldn’t take it personally that I have to say no. I use it almost daily (if one happens to have two X chromosomes then today’s gender balanced requirements for committees and so on really create mayhem in senior STEM women’s lives). Maybe this file will have the same effect as when I begun explaining to journal editors that I really, really get invited approx once/day to review a manuscript. That one really worked, i.e. reduced the inflow of review invites to a tolerable level, so maybe this one will do the same for travel (the “it doesn’t always have to be me even if you liked my contribution last time” principle: invite younger ones instead, their CV benefits from it!).

The biggest problem here is that reviewing MSs or scientific travel is actually intrinsically rewarding – I don’t agree at all with those who think reviewing is a public good in the sense of “you’d be selfishly better off if you didn’t contribute” – come on, you learn so much, it’s just like going to a conference, you hear about unpublished stuff! But learning when to say yes and when no, without agonizing every time, is something where I’m still on the learning curve.

Another mental sanity thing is ‘temporal compartmentalization’: decide beforehand when is the time slot when you’ll think about problem X, and schedule only a finite amount of time for it. Once multitasking demands become super-crazy (PhD students, I hope I don’t sound condescending here, but you really have no idea…), you won’t get anything done if you’re trying to mull about every work-related dilemma simultaneously.

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

Yes I do have a to-do list. When I enter things there, it says e.g. “evaluations: person X by 21.9., the relevant email is in folder CH [stands for Switzerland], sent by N.N. on 17.8.; person Y by 25.9., the email is…”

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

When in the countryside: cow bells and birdsong. When not, ideally nothing.

What do you do to recharge outside of science?

(a) Cooking. Because it is so thorougly different from work: chopping an onion is a tactile experience, and the reward is immediate (tonight, as opposed to months later when a paper might be accepted, or years later when the student fledges)

(b) Hiking – I’ve got a theory about the human body: the brain is there to create problems, the legs exist for solving them

(c) My within-myself competition if I see more bird species in Finland (where I don’t live but know the best sites perfectly targetedly) or in Switzerland (where I live) in a year.

What are you currently reading?

Nick Lane’s The Vital Question. And I allow myself novels ad libitum, as long as they’re in German.

What is your sleep routine like?

I have many talents, but sleeping has never been one of them… might as well stop fretting about that one, as it’s unlikely to change.

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

Angela Merkel (she was a scientist too…) but maybe unrealistic/by now irrelevant.

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

“If you want to make good decisions, you cannot hope to please everyone at all times.” By a senior female scientist.

Thanks Hanna! Next week, the last installment of this season: Sean Hoban…..

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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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