How Molecular Ecologists Work: Sarah Hird on resenting Adobe, letting yourself off the hook, and starting with the hard work


Welcome to the next installment of How Molecular Ecologists Work! This entry is from Dr. Sarah Hird, postdoc at the University of California, Davis Genome Center and (new!) assistant professor at the University of Connecticut come this fall. Sarah has worked on phylogeography, microbial genomics, and the development of bioinformatics tools.

Sarah was the winner of the 2014 best presentation at the Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHFest), proving that you can be a productive scientist and a funny person at the same time.

Sarah quote

Location: Davis, CA, USA
Position: UC Davis Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow (aka – postdoc); starting as an Assistant Professor at the University of Connecticut in August
Current mobile device(s): iPhone4
Current computer(s): MacBook Air

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


What kind of research do you?

I’m an evolutionary biologist interested in how the microbiome has evolved – most specifically in bird guts, but I find all host-associated microbes and microbial communities fascinating. In practical terms, I spend a lot of my time at a computer, analyzing data and writing code.

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

I have an old version of Adobe Illustrator that I use to make figures – which are essential to how I think about science. Figures are the first thing I have to have a plan for when writing a manuscript or grant, or even for fleshing out an idea. I resent Adobe’s “new” subscription-based model but will probably have to just admit defeat and pay for it once I start at UConn. I use Dropbox everyday. I use Papers for PDF/reading management. I code (usually in Perl) in Text Wrangler and use Terminal to run code and command line analyses. I use the microbial ecology software package QIIME a lot and I also do some stuff in R (but I wouldn’t call myself fluent). I also feel like I’m stuck in a loveless marriage with the Microsoft suite and EndNote.

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

I mostly use my laptop because I’m not doing anything too data intensive right now. And I like to work in a variety of places: my campus office, my kitchen table, coffeeshops, restaurants, outside, etc. I have an iMac in my campus office that I use to run analyses and I’ve also used my mentor’s cluster for running bigger jobs on metagenomes.

Can you estimate what percentage of time you spend on the following categories in a given week?

I’m in kind of in a unique situation right now – we’re leaving CA in one week and I’m spending more time writing and thinking about grants than I have previously. So right now:

25%   Research-grant writing
40%   Research-manuscript writing
25%   Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field
0%    Teaching
10%   Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.)
0%    Outreach

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

My routine is to work hard while I’m working and to let myself “off the hook” when I know my brain isn’t with the program. Writing and thinking through ideas take the most effort for me – so I start the day with those. When I feel I’m finished doing those activities efficiently, I move on to data analysis or figure making or paper editing or reviewing, something that takes a little less brain power. It’s like a funnel of mental energy. Knowing when to cut my losses and do something totally “non-work” helps me get more done in the long term. If I find myself on Facebook when I thought I was reading a paper – it might be time to go grocery shopping or fold laundry or something.

Or did you mean like an Excel shortcut? It blew my mind when I learned you can double click the bottom right corner of a cell and it will autofill the rest of the column. That’s saved me at least several minutes in total.

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

I try really hard to keep my inbox at 0 by using a lot of filters, unsubscribing from useless junk, etc. Then, when something that needs a response comes in, I leave it as “unread” until I get to it. I think I have 7 things in my inbox right now – including pay my credit card, respond to a friends email, finish a review, and a to do list I sent myself for our move. Since it’s a gmail account, I also use Google Calendar to send me email reminders about important things that I would otherwise forget about (doctor’s appointments, research colloquium, reviews due, etc.). We also have a big whiteboard in our kitchen full of domestic/non-critical to do’s.

Do new offices have an analog to the "new car smell"?
Do new offices have an analog to the “new car smell”?

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

I like to move around when I work – I generally can’t stay in one location for more than 4-5 hours and frequently spend morning hours outside (thanks, California!) or at a coffeeshop. I listen to the ambient noise a lot but if there’s something irritating within earshot, I listen to my own music or Pandora.

I can’t/don’t try to work when my kids are home (and awake). If I want/need to work on the weekend, I usually go out for a couple of hours and leave the parenting to my husband.

What are you currently reading?

Advice for New Faculty Members by Robert Boice. It advocates that new faculty (or any academic, really) do everything in moderation. It’s changed how comfortable I am trying to write without a whole morning set aside – Boice says it’s counterproductive to expect yourself only to be writing when you have perfect conditions, large chunks of time or inspiration. I’d definitely recommend it – there are sections on teaching, writing and social interactions.

I’m also barely into The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck, so I’ll probably wrap that one up by 2020, or so.

What is your sleep routine like?

Oh boy. With a small baby in a small house, it’s been chaotic for awhile. I go to bed earlier than I used to and get up at nearly the same time everyday. I also get up one or more times in the middle of the night, depending on the little one’s teething status, digestive status, temperature status…or whatever his little baby brain feels like.

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

Kevin Kohl

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

I have two kids and I’m starting a tenure track position in August. AND – I’m not miserable! Career and family can be done – it’s hard and far from perfect but if you’re out there and worried that you have to choose one or the other, that’s not necessarily true. (I suppose this topic is a whole other post – or series of posts – but that’s my two cents.)

Thanks Sarah! Next week: Katerina Guschanski, Assistant Professor  at Uppsala University

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