How Molecular Ecologists Work: Joel McGlothlin on self critique and the whereabouts of elusive emails

Welcome to the next installment in the How Molecular Ecologists Work series! This entry is from Dr. Joel McGlothlin, assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Virginia Tech. Joel’s work spans across several areas of evolutionary biology, but you might know him best for his research on the evolution of toxin resistance in snakes that eat newts or quantifying/explaining genetic correlations between Caribbean anole species. Whether it is toxin resistance, social behavior, or quantitative genetics, here is how it gets done.

Location: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, VA
Position: Assistant Professor
Current mobile device(s):
Surface Pro
Current computer(s):
Dell Latitude E6530
Dell OptiPlex 990

What kind of research do you?

I am a generalist evolutionary biologist. I am interested in a lot of different things, and consequently my research has been all over the place. I used to spend long summers in the field chasing birds around to get hormone samples, but my research has become increasingly lab-based in recent years. Right now, I am doing both quantitative genetics using a large colony of lizards and molecular evolutionary genetics using any DNA I can get my hands on. Sometimes I do a little theory.

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


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

Find good people and the rest will follow. I am pretty picky about who joins my lab, and I have been fortunate to recruit some excellent grad students, postdocs, and techs over the years. The main things I look for are energy, independence, and collegiality. I want people who will do their thing without me having to look over their shoulder all the time and who will play nicely with others.

I have been lucky enough to be able to hire a tech/lab manager for a few years, which has been extremely helpful for keeping things running smoothly. When you have someone you can trust with the day-to-day operations, it frees you up to think about the big picture.

This photo was title “Lizard Room”

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

The most essential apps for me are Geneious for molecular stuff and ASReml for quantitative genetics. I use JMP for most stats, and I (shamefully) use R only when I have to. When I’m doing theory, I use Mathematica to find mistakes in my algebra.

Since I use both a desktop and a laptop, I am constantly saving things on cloud storage services like Dropbox and OneDrive.

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

Most often on my office desktop, second most often on my laptop.

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

Something that produces hot caffeinated beverages.

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

The correct answer to this question is no. All of these vary so much over time that it’s hard to give an answer that approaches any degree of accuracy. But I’ll try.

5%       Research-grant writing 
Right now I’m funded so I’m in a grant-writing lull, although I am working on one for a collaboration. This might approach 95% depending on funding status and the time of year.
20%     Research-manuscript writing 
I have never managed to find a way to devote a steady percentage of my time to manuscript writing. I occasionally get into a writing groove where I become completely obsessed with a paper and writing takes up all my time.
20%      Research-in the Lab, analyzing data, in the field 
Unfortunately, much more data analysis than lab work and field work these days.
30%      Teaching 
I get every fourth semester and summers off from teaching, so this varies a lot too. I finally have prepping for new classes behind me for a while. The first time I taught each of my courses, they ate my life.
150%     Meetings/Email (committees, project meetings, etc.) 
Obviously a joke, but that’s what it seems like. (The real answer is probably closer to 20%.) And here’s what I don’t get: sometimes I feel I am spending every waking moment responding to email, but I still manage to miss responding to a bunch of them. I have tried the Inbox Zero strategy, but it only seems to work for a few days before my inbox gets out of control again. If you have any hints for managing this better, please send me an email. Just don’t take it personally if I don’t write back quickly.
1 %         Outreach 
I would like to find the time to make this higher. Does Twitter count as outreach?
5%          Other: Manuscript reviewing and editing 

Papers come in in fits and starts, but this is a decent estimate of the average.

You can see by my answers to this that I’m not very good at time management. I tried one of those time budgeting programs where you write down every single thing you do for a little while but I didn’t have the patience for it.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

I wish I had some of these. I hope to pick up some by reading the other installments in this series.

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

I keep a little to-do list in a text file, and I try to put all important deadlines and meetings into my Outlook calendar. Far too often, I finish a task in response to an email informing me that I’ve missed a deadline.

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

I often listen to music if I’m working at home. Occasionally I’ll use headphones in my office to help drown out the undergrads having cell phone conversations outside my door or the construction outside my window.

What are you currently reading?

I rarely get to read anything that isn’t for work or for my kids. My five-year-old and I are about to finish The House at Pooh Corner. I recently started Mike Wade’s new book Adaptation in Metapopulations.

What is your sleep routine like?

I stay up 1-2 hours longer than I probably should and get up about 1-2 hours before I want to.

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

Graham Coop

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

It is good practice to be extremely self-critical. That way, you won’t get too down when others criticize you because you’ll have already thought of much worse on your own.

Seriously, though, try not to get too bogged down with minutiae and remember to have a little fun and to maintain your excitement. After all, your job is to unlock the secrets of nature, and that’s a pretty sweet gig.

Thanks Joel!

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