How Molecular Ecologists Work: Hopi Hoekstra on hiring good people, setting the tone, and remembering sushi orders

Welcome to How Molecular Ecologist Work! Today I’m starting our bonus interviews with Dr. Hopi Hoekstra, Professor of Zoology at Harvard University. Hopi and her lab study the mechanisms of adaptation in the wild and in the laboratory, and she is one of the newest electees to the National Academy of Sciences. Lucky for us, she’s happy to share how she works.

Photo by Stephanie Hillsgrove
Photo by Stephanie Hillsgrove

Location: Harvard University / HHMI
Position: Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology / HHMI Investigator
Current mobile device(s): iPhone, iPad (more than one)
Current computer(s): MacBookPro

What kind of research do you do?

I am an evolutionary geneticist interested in the genetic basis of adaptation. While our first major work focused on the genetic basis of cryptic coloration in wild mice, more recently my lab is extending our approach to study the genetic and neural basis of behavioral evolution.

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

Hard (or at least that is the goal). I have an amazing family, with whom I love to spend time, so when I am at work, I work hard. Over the years, I have gotten much more efficient. For example, I am much better at delegating tasks, getting little tasks done in the 5-minutes between meetings, and saying ‘no’ (i.e. saying ‘yes’ only to things I feel that I can really contribute to and that I am passionate about).

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

One of the most important roles of a PI is to hire good people. For me that has been by trying to identify talent (which is not always easy to do), choose people who work well in our lab environment, and who are good communicators and collaborators. This is especially important when one is first establishing a lab because the first people in the lab will set the tone of the lab and will be the ones that are with you through tenure. While there is an urge to fill up the lab to get projects started or take someone who just had a flashy Nature paper, in my experience, it is worth waiting for the best fit. I always ask myself: is this someone that I really enjoying talking science with? If my career has been successful, it is in large part because of the talent and hard work of my technicians, graduate students and postdocs.

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

DropBox, Evernote, Google Calendar and Gmail. I use Skype (and lots of other videoconferencing programs) to meet regularly with collaborators. In fact, we just designed a new video-conferencing room for the lab. I have also come to appreciate Twitter, although I use it in moderation.

My favorite non-work apps are Dark Sky for minute-to-minute local weather forecasts (which is important in a climate like Cambridge); Star Chart for identifying constellations with my son; and Vivino to keep track of my favorite wines.

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

I almost exclusively work on my laptop (or iPad or iPhone), but that means I am mobile. I sometimes hide out in a library (we have some really nice ones at Harvard), cafe, or outside. Usually, however, I am in my office or on the road.

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

I really like my FitBit, and it seem inevitable that I will eventually purchase an Apple watch.

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

10%               Research-grant writing
20%              Research-manuscript writing
Very little    Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field
10%*            Teaching *Depends if I am teaching that term
35%              Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.)
5%                Outreach
20%             Other: Meeting with trainees, reading proposals, fellowship applications,                                              listening to practice talks

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

I use Evernote to make lists/notes of anything and everything that I am going to do/use more than once. For example, I have a list of things a new student needs to do when joining the lab, email responses to potential graduate students, list of postdoc grant fellowship opportunities, even a list what items we order from the sushi restaurant for lab parties!

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

I have to-do lists and a google calendar filled with deadlines and reminders (both work and personal). I also have a list for each member of my laboratory about ongoing projects and goals that we discuss at our weekly meetings (I used to do this electronically, but now I do it with sticky notes — not very high tech but it works well and sometimes simpler is better). Most importantly, however, I also have an amazing administrative assistant and lab manager, who I like, respect, and trust; they help me and the lab stay organized.

Photo by Lynn Johnson
Photo by Lynn Johnson

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

I usually like it completely quiet when I am working on grants or reading manuscripts. But, if I am replying to emails, for example, I like listening to French music and Bach cello suites.

What are you currently reading?

I just finished “Lab Girl” by Hope Jahren. She is a beautiful writer, and I actually even like plants a little more than I did before! The next book on my nightstand is “The Statue Within” an autobiography by Francois Jacob. I will also admit that I am completely and fully addicted to The New Yorker; my husband and I have TWO subscriptions to avoid fighting over who gets to read the latest issue first.

What is your sleep routine like?

I am pretty boring. I am usually asleep by midnight and up at 6:30am.

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

Young(er), hip faculty — Megan Duffy, Rob Dunn, Gina Baucom, Nitin Phadnis, Corrie Moreau, Nels Elde, Catherine Linnen, for example.

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

Choose people with whom you work wisely. Learn how to give a great talk. Attend seminars and meet with speakers. Act professionally. Be a good mentor to and advocate for your trainees. Err on the side of generosity. And, get advice from more than one person!
Thanks Hopi!

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