How Molecular Ecologists Work: Katerina Guschanski on running shoes and the boost of a closed door


Welcome to the next installment of How Molecular Ecologists Work! This entry is from Dr. Katerina Guschanski, assistant professor at Uppsala University. Katerina is a widely-trained molecular ecologist who most often works with non-human primates. I’ve learned that it often involves poop.

Katerina quote

Location: Uppsala
Position: Time limited assistant professor position. 1 year in, 3 years to go.
Current mobile device(s): iPhone 4S, the really old one, from 2012 or so
Current computer(s): MacBook Pro from 2011

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


What kind of research do you do?

I study wild animal populations, primarily primates, with molecular tools. My research topics are quite broad and range from population genetics to phylogenetic, speciation, and landscape genetics. Because many of the species I work with are endangered, conservation thinking is a constant companion of my work. A common theme that runs through my research is bad samples. I always seem to choose the worst source of samples imaginable: feces, museum specimens, old vials with some bits of tissues stored on somebody’s bookshelf for the last 40 years… What’s wrong with a nice fresh blood or tissue sample, you may ask? Nothing, really. It’s just that I never get to work with them. Maybe it comes with tenure?!

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

Make sure you ask for a start-up. If things don’t work out with grant applications the first time around, you’ll need funds to cover your expenses for more than one year. Molecular work is expensive and you’ll need to be productive, otherwise there will be no grants in the future either.

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

Skype: I skype with most of my collaborators and it’s a really great way to stay up to date. Much more efficient than writing long emails… Now it’s even possible to have “conference calls”, connecting people from multiple locations. I also interview students on skype and stay in touch with my family.

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

I work on the desktop in my office and on my laptop at home, although the latter is overloaded by now, making work less efficient. Time to get a new one, I guess… Sometimes I use both at the same time.

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

Running shoes. I do not manage to go jogging more than twice a week, but without it I would not be able to stay focused.

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

That’s a hard one, because these tasks usually come in blocks. For instance, field work is a dedicated trip, teaching happens in full-day blocks for a few weeks in a row, grant writing is defined by the date of the calls, etc. Here’s my best try.

15%   Research-grant writing
15%   Research-manuscript writing (I include reading and commenting on student       research reports here)
15%   Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field
5%    Teaching
45%  Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.)
1%    Outreach
4%    Other: There is tons of other tasks: organising meetings and symposia, coordinating teaching courses, going to conferences and networking, hosting guest speakers, etc. 

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Closing the door to my office. I do it very rarely, as I feel that being available is extremely important. My PhD supervisor was this way and I really appreciated it as a student. However, an open door is always an invitation to come in (with a question, for a friendly chat, to say hello, etc.) and I get distracted really easily.

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

Google Calendar: It sends me notifications before each event. Without it I would have been lost many, many times by now. I also write to-do lists and send them to myself by email. Nothing gets my attention more than an unread email!


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

I prefer silence or natural sounds coming in from the outside if my window is open.

What are you currently reading?

Just read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men on the plane from Heathrow. Am still digesting it.

What is your sleep routine like?

If I could, I’d be sleeping 9 hours a day. Seriously! I really need that much sleep and am super jealous of several of my colleagues who can go with 5 hours on weeknights and 6-7 hours on weekends. My natural instinct would be to go to bed late and sleep in until late morning. However, the reality of having a young child is that I rarely get more than 7 hours uninterrupted sleep per night and have to wake up early. On weekends, my husband and I take turns, so that each of us can sleep in one morning.

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

I’d like to see Johannes Krause answer these questions.

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

Build up your collaborative network! That’s what keeps me afloat for now.

Don’t compromise when recruiting students: it’s better to re-advertise than to settle for somebody you feel unsure about.

If you can, stay in the same country where you did your last postdoc (or a country you know well, academically speaking). It takes time to learn how the system works every time you move countries (figuring out the funding landscape, research topics that are likely to be funded, understanding whom to ask about what, having a feel about the administrative structure, finding a mentor who knows the system, etc.) and saving this time in the beginning of your tenure track, when the clock is ticking, is precious!
Thanks Katerina! Up next: John McCormack, Assistant Professor at Occidental College

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