How Molecular Ecologists Work: Tracy Heath on TSA precheck, writing on your desk, and not having an alarm clock

Welcome to the next installment of How Molecular Ecologists Work! This entry is from Dr. Tracy Heath, assistant professor at Iowa State University. Tracy and her lab develop methods and models for inferring phylogenetic relationships. Some of these approaches have included using paleontological data to make better estimates of node ages in phylogenetic trees and being a part of the RevBayes team.

Location: Iowa State University, Ames, IA
Position: Assistant Professor, Department of Ecology, Evolution, & Organismal Biology
Current mobile device(s): iPhone, iPad
Current computer(s): MacBook Pro, ISU HPC clusters

What kind of research do you?

My research is in the field of computational/statistical phylogenetics and I am primarily motivated by questions that seek to uncover the evolutionary processes responsible for generating patterns of diversity that we see in the tree of life. Most of my work involves developing statistical models that are used as priors in Bayesian inference methods. I implement these priors in open-source software, primarily in the Bayesian phylogenetics program RevBayes (

Ficus costaricana
Ficus costaricana
Tracy quote

Members of my group are primarily involved in two research projects. One project aims  to advance Bayesian methods for integrating data from extant and fossil taxa for understanding phylogenetic relationships and patterns of diversification. For this project we work with excellent collaborators (Dan Ksepka, Rob Meredith, and Tanja Stadler) and will apply these methods to investigate macroevolution in penguins and crocodilians. Our other focus is on phylogenetic methods for investigating co-diversification. We are specifically interested in using these approaches to study co-evolution in Central American strangler figs (Ficus) and their pollinating (Pegoscapus) and non-pollinating (Idarnes) fig wasps. The empirical component of this project is led by John Nason (Iowa State) and other experts in the fig/fig-wasp system (Allen Herre, Carlos Machado,  Charlotte Jandér, and Robert Raguso). As a computational biologist, I have been extremely fortunate to collaborate with empiricists who work on exciting biological systems. Moreover, participating in the field work and data collection is really inspiring since understanding organismal biology is the primary motivator of my work (we just returned from working on Barro Colorado Island in Panama).

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

Shambolic. I am disorganized and this is an excellent word that my British friends always say. I generally think I am good at getting things done, but I do not have any particular system for doing so. I really like my work and the people I work with, so don’t have a problem with attending to things at home or on my “off time”. However, I usually feel like there is something I have forgotten or that there is some major looming deadline. This is both good and bad.

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

I am just starting my lab and have been lucky to recruit some very cool people. Over the last year, I have been using Slack to manage team communication [Molecular Ecologist contributors use this too!]. I think as my team grows, this tool will become more and more useful.

In fact, I have three new lab members joining my group this summer and I am starting to strategize how best to go from a group of three (me, one postdoc, one PhD student) to six (me, three postdocs, two PhD students). One thing that many of my friends have suggested is to schedule regular one-on-one meetings (every other week) with each person. This forces both of us to prepare and get up-to-speed on our collaborative projects, plus allows me to stay organized and works with my schedule.

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

C/C++, Python, Unix, Git (via GitHub, GitLab, or Bitbucket), LaTeX.

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

I do most of my work using my laptop (with an external monitor, keyboard, and mouse at my desk). I run analyses on remote HPC clusters on campus.

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

I like my mouse. It is a gaming mouse (Logitech G700s) with many programmable buttons that is only for right-handed people. I also very much like my desk which is a height-adjustable standing/sitting desk.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

I am traveling currently, so the first thing that comes to mind is TSA PreCheck. I have traveled a lot over the last several years, and getting expedited screening every time definitely saves time and makes the process of air travel much less irritating (to guarantee TSA PreCheck, you have to apply and pay through the TSA’s website for a known traveler ID or for Global Entry, both cost money). I also use a flight tracking app on my phone to keep on top of my flights while traveling.

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

I try to put everything in my calendar. Pretty much everything in the calendar has an alarm on it. If I want to keep on top of emails, I always leave them as “unread” and sort my inbox so that the unread emails are always on top. Sometimes I make to-do-lists, but I usually forget about them, so I don’t find these very useful. I also heavily use dry-erase boards. I have two, large glass boards on my office walls that I use for brainstorming theoretical problems or collaborating on projects with others (the glass boards are also quite nice looking). Additionally, I covered my desk in a dry-erase surface. This has eliminated the piles of scrap paper that used to clutter my workspace. If I want to save anything written on any of these surfaces, I just take a picture with my phone.

Tracy lecturing in what I’m assuming to be an exciting room for her: she can write on everything. Photo by Susan Perkins

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

In my office, or when there is background noise, I listen to a white-noise app that plays rain and/or waves.

Tracy's dog "Tony" doesn't appear in this interview, but she sent me this photo and I just thought I had to include it.
Tracy’s alarm clock, Tony.

What are you currently reading?

I rarely read for pleasure. When I do, I usually abandon the book after a few chapters or a long blog post after 10 paragraphs (I have a very short attention span). I love to cook, though, and I can read a cookbook from cover to cover (the last one I read was “Pure Pork Awesomeness” by Kevin Gillespie).

What is your sleep routine like?

I go to sleep between 10 PM and 1 AM each night and wake up at about 6:30 AM each morning. I don’t use an alarm clock unless I am traveling because my dog wakes me up at home.

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

Adam Leache (he doesn’t have a cell phone!) and Brian O’Meara

What career advice would you like to give to our readers?

Photo by David Hillis

Find people you like working with and foster those relationships so that you can have long and productive collaborations. Ultimately, these people will be friends as well as colleagues. I have 3-4 collaborators who I can see myself working with throughout my career. They are also very good friends and spending time with them is always great because we can talk about things going on in our personal lives as well as stochastic branching processes or proposal mechanisms for MCMC. When I see my collaborators at workshops, meetings, or when visit their institutions, I leave feeling energized and excited about my work.
Thanks Tracy! Next week: Aaron Shafer, (new) Assistant Professor at Trent University

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