How Molecular Ecologists Work: Chris Jiggins on organic collaboration and family gardening

Welcome to “How Molecular Ecologists Work”, the interview series that asks scientists how they get stuff done.

This week’s interview is with Dr. Chris Jiggins from the University of Cambridge. Chris and his colleagues broadly study the adaptation and speciation of butterflies and moths. However, I’ve heard that if you look in a mirror and say “Heliconius” three times, he appears with a manuscript in hand.

Location: University of Cambridge, UK

Current Position: Professor of Evolutionary Biology, University of Cambridge

Current mobile device(s): Iphone 7 (just upgraded!) and an iPad

Current computer(s): Macbook Pro (13 inch Retina 2013)

What kind of research do you?

I study the evolutionary biology of Heliconius butterflies. Projects range from studies of wing pattern evolution and diversification, through to speciation genomics and the genetic basis for species differences. We are currently working on pheromone signalling and differences between closely related species in their chemical signals.

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

Enthusiastic

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

The key is to recruit the right people and treat them well. When I first started my lab, I often tried to direct different people in to working together on joint projects, but I have discovered that it works much better when this happens organically. So now I try to ensure everyone has ownership of their own project, but I am often encouraging or looking for ways in which different people in the lab can help one another out. It helps if you have recruited people with different and complementary skills and interests. I have been hugely privileged to work with some amazing people over the years – it’s the best thing about this job.

I also think it is very important to allow postdocs to develop their own projects that they can take away with them when they leave the lab. This is very important for career development and has the added benefit of building up a network of future collaborators! Also, I always keep my office door open, so people feel they can drop by and ask me questions any time.

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

Dropbox, The Cambridge High performance compute cluster, Keynote for presentations

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

Personal Computer and on the Cambridge cluster

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

None really, but I do love my Canon camera – it’s a 500D but the real gadget is the 100mm macro lens with image stabiliser and ring flash

What part of your job do you spend the most time on in a week? What part do you wish you had more time for?

Outside term, I am mostly talking with members of my lab discussing projects, working on manuscripts and occasionally intense periods of grant writing. During term time, I also have a lot of admin meetings, 4-5 hours per week of small group supervisions (which is the Cambridge name for tutorials), and lectures. Nowadays I don’t often get to work on my own experiments or data collection. I wish I had more time for working on data, learning to code and fieldwork in the tropics.

What is your best time-saving shortcut/lifehack?

Delegate things that others can do better. Deal with email quickly wherever possible

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

My apple calendar, and occasional scribbled to-do lists

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

I prefer silence. Nowadays its more likely to be my daughter’s Spotify playlist.

What do you do to recharge outside of science?

Mainly spending time with my children – reading and walking. I have a big allotment that I share with my brother (also an evolutionary biologist in Cambridge), where we grow fruit and vegetables for the family. This takes up a lot of time. In the summer I row with the Fellows eight in my College.

What are you currently reading?

Vermeer’s Hat by Timothy Brook
I bought this on a recent trip to Holland because I became fascinated by Vermeer and wanted to learn more about him – but in fact it’s not really about the painter at all, but still an interesting book.

What is your sleep routine like?

I tend to wake up early and if I have urgent work to do 5-8am can be the most productive time of day. Nowadays I rarely do much productive work in the evening. When I was younger I could sleep anywhere (such as overnight Ecuadorean buses), but nowadays I need a lot less sleep and sometimes struggle to sleep well.

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

Ole Seehausen, Judith Mank

What’s the best career advice you’ve received?

I was looking to move back to the UK (from STRI in Panama). I had been invited to apply for a lectureship in Edinburgh by Andrew Read, and was so flattered that of course I did so. However, then several people told me I would be better applying for research fellowships instead of a lectureship. In the end I didn’t get offered the lectureship, but ended up in Edinburgh anyway on a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, so it all worked out rather well.

More broadly however, I didn’t worry all that much about my ‘career’– I think we were generally more relaxed about these things a few years ago. The advice I always give to Early Career Researchers nowadays is to focus enough during postdoc years such that you can become known for a coherent body of work, rather than just lots of papers on different
topics.

Thanks Chris! Next Week: Dr. Carlos Daniel Cadena…

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About Rob Denton

I'm a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UConn. I'm most interested in understanding the evolutionary/ecological consequences of strange reproduction in salamanders (unisexual Ambystoma). Topics I'm likely to write about: population and landscape genetics, mitonuclear interactions, polyploidy, and reptiles/amphibians.
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