How Molecular Ecologists Work: John McCormack on luck, not closing doors, and just a touch of hustle-and-bustle

Welcome to the next installment in the How Molecular Ecologists Work series! This entry is from Dr. John McCormack, assistant professor at Occidental College. John is a member of the team that pioneered the use of ultraconserved elements, and his lab at Occidental combines museum-based data with modern molecular methods to ask questions about biological diversity and evolution.

John quote

Location: Occidental College
Position: Assistant Professor, Biology Department
Director/Curator, Moore Laboratory of Zoology Bird and Mammal Collection
Current mobile device(s): iPhone 6
Current computer(s): MacBook Air

What kind of research do you do?
Systematics, phylogeography, and speciation

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

Sufficiency (The act of being “good enough”)

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

Every path is unique, and I don’t think there is any one way to do anything, be it graduate school or a full academic career. For me, as an Assistant Professor, it’s been important to let go of many of the details, trust in the people I’ve hired (who are fabulous), and focus my efforts where they can have the biggest impact. A big part of that is accepting I can’t do it all.

It does seem important these days to establish oneself as an expert in a sub-field early on in the postdoc or early professor years. I was helped a lot by sort of accidentally finding myself in the middle of the effort to find ways to use next-generation sequencing for the kinds of projects systematists and phylogeographers are interested in, which was still in a lot of flux when I was a postdoc from 2007-2011. So there was a huge opportunity there, in the sense that the field was wide open. I was lucky to work with a very talented and productive collaborative team developing ultraconserved elements as phylogenomic markers. A lot of that was just luck, getting the right people in the room together at the right time, but part of it was seeing where the exciting possibilities were (and PIs encouraging their postdocs to pursue these tangential, but potentially high-reward projects) and then diving in.

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


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

I do most of my work on a personal computer these days. Lab analyses run on a 12-core Puget System Linux computer.

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

I’m not a gadget guy. My phone is pretty much everything.

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

0%      Research-grant writing
10%    Research-manuscript writing
5%      Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field
40%   Teaching
20%   Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.)
5%      Outreach
20%   Other: Curator administrative duties, college service, academic society service

John assured me that he didn't move a single thing in his office before taking this photo.
John assured me that he didn’t move a single thing in his office before taking this photo.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Saying no to unnecessary meetings. Ok, it’s not a lifehack, but it is an essential skill.

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

My to-do list is e-mail messages marked as unread. If I have something important I absolutely need to remember, I send an e-mail to myself. I’ve tried various apps to better organize my life, but nothing ever sticks. For scheduling (both academic and family life), the Google Calendar shared with my wife (who is also a TT professor) and other family members is key.

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

While working, I prefer silence, with just a touch of hustle-and-bustle of things happening in the office and lab.

What are you currently reading?

The Invention Of Nature: Alexander Von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
(Been reading it since Christmas)

What is your sleep routine like?

11pm to 6am

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

Charles Darwin [Rob: I sent him an email but haven’t heard back]

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

I’ve never been much of an advice-giver because I think everyone and every path is so different and there are multiple paths to the same endpoint, some more scenic than others. Plus I’ve found most “career advice” to be thinly disguised self-justification. “Personality advice” is another thing, and applies to most careers. If there is an important trait to foster, in my opinion, it is being adaptable and keeping one’s eyes open for possibility. Avoid closing doors of opportunity, with ideas as well as with people. Every person you meet, no matter what career stage they are in, give them your time and treat them with respect. It’s the right thing to do, and it is very likely they will be a peer one day.

Thanks John! Up next: Dr. Hopi Hoekstra

This entry was posted in career, interview and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.