#NewPI chat: Headed for lockdown edition

We’re bringing back #NewPI chats, where Molecular Ecologist contributors who are in our junior years on faculty convene on Slack to talk about that #NewPI life for an hour. What follows is a transcript of our recent chat (3/16/2020), lightly edited for clarity and grammar and with the odd hyperlink added for context. Enjoy!

— Rob


Who’s here?

  • Stacy Krueger-Hadfield (SKH) – Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama Birmingham since 2016
  • Jeremy Yoder (JY) – Assistant Professor at California State University, Northridge since 2017
  • Rob Denton (RD) – Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota Morris since 2018

RD: While we are chatting right now, we are also in the midst of a national health crisis that is drastically influencing everyone’s work and personal life. In academia, that means campus closures, on-line learning, and research schedules that are suddenly up in the air. What’s your situation right now?

SKH: At UAB, we’ve had email updates modifying plans for the last week. As of last Thursday evening I think it was, we moved to online instruction most likely until the end of the semester (our finals week is the last week of April). As of yesterday, we were asked to not come to campus unless there is a critical need (i.e., live animals). I figured this was coming, so we began winding down research activities last week. Tidying up the lab to shut down for the foreseeable future today.

Research – I’ve instructed everyone in my lab to work from home (the chair sent out this request formally today following new UAB guidance). There isn’t anything that anyone needs to do, so we just need to weather this storm as a lab as best we can. Once I find my footing this week (it’s our spring break), I will start lab meetings. We, as a lab, are aiming to meet once per week and discuss a paper (we do that when things are as they should be) and then I’ll be meeting with my students and my post-doc individually about once a week to help them stay on some sort of track in the midst of pandemonium.

Teaching – luckily my ecological genetics course is at the point in the semester where we only had two lectures left and students spent most of class time analyzing real-live data. I have told all my students I will be available during regular class time for questions and we’ll make the best of what’s left of the semester.

RD: We are in spring break here and are not resuming in-person classes until at least April 1st. Campus will remain open, including dining services and residence halls.

JY: Yeah, we’re on break currently, and retooling to go online when we get back next week. Nonessential travel canceled, but officially campus is still open for the moment.

RD: Our research is really biased towards the summer this year, and I’m already starting to worry about what things will look like in May, on top of what my classes will look like next week.

JY: I’m at home for the day, and told my lab members to try to minimize time on campus, which is pretty straightforward for most of them.

AND I have a grad student up in Oregon to learn RADseq library prep, which was briefly awkward before I got the trip cleared by our Dean.

SKH: I was supposed to be in France until Wednesday (18 March) for a working group meeting – all international travel is cancelled. On a PhD thesis jury in Germany in April, but that might be cancelled. Waiting until closer to my flights to try to get them refunded.

Domestic travel for the UA system is strongly discouraged. I was also supposed to be launching a big experiment with colleagues in Europe and that is now on hold as they can’t travel to collect samples and I can’t get samples stateside.

So, my current strategy is to mitigate as much damage as possible.

RD: Yikes!

SKH: The Phycological Society of America meeting (I had to fit in seaweed just for you, Rob!) is cancelled along with the Northeastern Algal Society meeting … so managing disappointment for my students that were going to be presenting their thesis research and networking.

JY: I do have students who were planning fieldwork around this time, but I don’t think it’ll be restricted — a few people taking a department truck into the desert is pretty low-risk

Well, and Evolution 2020 is off

SKH: Our field work would not have been so isolated …

RD: As disruptive as all this is, I’ve been glad to see universities taking a (relatively) rapid lead on these measures and taking it seriously.

SKH: Agreed.

RD: All of my discussions with other faculty have been incredibly focused on students’ well-being too. I imagine we have less pressure on research programs here though.

SKH: That’s been one of my main concerns. Can I provide enough structure to help my students finish out their semester in my course? Can I help my grad students not be overwhelmed and make progress when they can, if they can?

The trips I was supposed to be on had direct implications for one MS student and my (fingers crossed) future post-doc so trying to find ways to still help them make progress and not be overwhelmed by the uncertainty.

RD: My mindset has shifted from “how do I capture my class in an online format?” to “how do I adjust my and my students’ expectations?” in a hot second.

JY: Yeah, I am not so much worried about delivering content in an online mode, as trying to figure out experiences that really can’t go online — labs and field trips, working with fresh plant material

We have a little bit of flexibility to do low-contact field trips, but I don’t think it’s really doable

RD: I know trips like those you both mention were essential for my original interest in science, so I feel awful for students who are going to get robbed of them.

SKH: Even in my class, the in-person time solving coding problems is valuable and there isn’t a way to really do that virtually, or I’ve yet to divine it.

RD: As an aside, “divine it” is a great typo there.

SKH: Haha

RD: This chat is supposed to be an update to our ongoing #NewPI chats, so maybe we could look back a few months and talk about how our day-to-day work habits have changed or endured since we started these jobs?

SKH: I think that the next few weeks will be a test of my time management skills. I feel like I lost the plot a bit in year 2-3 trying to manage all sorts of new responsibilities and the fact that my time didn’t seem my own. But, I was finally finding a groove in year 4 where I was mentoring, teaching, writing, actually doing bench work, etc. and feeling much less overwhelmed.

My time has evolved to be much more structured and I’ve finally learned how to write in 10-15 min chunks and make some progress.

JY: I’m still definitely struggling with keeping on top of everything, particularly finding time to move projects forward if I’m the major player. I have three papers’ worth of stuff in that category up in the air, and I maybe get time to work on one of them at some point in any given week.

I am doing a bit better, I think, at prioritizing things that I know are going to build long-term value over things I that I’m just doing because I feel like I ought to do them.

(One of my Spring Break to-do items is writing an e-mail to bail out of an obligation of the latter sort.)

One of the things I’ve been able to put more effort into, happily, is this very blog.

RD: Since I’m thick in the middle of year 2, sorting out the “long-term value” vs “I ought to do this” feels so difficult.

JY: Unfortunately some of that is hard to tell until you see what the actual payoffs are

SKH: I think it is really necessary to have further along faculty mentorship. We have a faculty mentor program in our department, and I’m very fortunate to have my mentor. He’s honest with me when I need to focus on this or that. Having someone else confirm your gut feeling or push you back in line has been super helpful. And that gets to your point, Jeremy, he knows what those payoffs are and what I should invest time in, which I can’t always see.

RD: My faculty mentor and I have offices right next to one another and I will admit we have done our fair share of yelling questions and answers back-and-forth without getting up from our desks.

JY: I have to admit I’ve formally met with my official faculty mentor maybe once a semester

But then I have unofficial ones within earshot on the hall, which may amount to the same thing

RD: Looking back, can you remember and advice that has rung precisely true (OR not helpful at all)?

SKH: Learn to say no … I am not good at this! But, in hindsight, I can see things I should have said no to in order to prioritize other things.

JY: Yeah, the general senior faculty attitude of evading any and all commitments that aren’t in your direct job description turns out to be pretty sound. The trickier thing is, like you say, figuring out what is and isn’t “your job”.

Delegating is great, too! We’re definitely now at a point where progress happens on multiple papers in my lab even on the days when I do nothing but answer student emails and teach.

RD: What a magical feeling that must be!

JY: All it takes is a couple years of careful recruitment and scrambling to answer questions and/or find resources for newly arrived students

SKH: I’d say the most magical feeling is when one of my students generates data and they get that sense of wonder. We were in a rush to get some data for my MS student and everything worked the first time despite the COVID-19. She was very excited! I was very proud!

JY: Also multiple rounds of disappointment when promising undergrads ask for letters of rec to graduate school without ever once discussing joining your own lab

RD: Yes Stacy! Inevitability, at some point when I’m cynical or overwhelmed, something works great in the classroom or lab and I walk out thinking “this is the greatest job ever!!”

SKH: And then you get the paper/grant rejection

RD: Well it isn’t a cycle unless it starts over again

SKH: Very true…I’m going to have to bow out and brave the super market on my way home after turning the lights out in my lab. The winding down research and putting things in the freezer has been harder than I thought. When we have our next chat maybe we’ll have better news!

JY: Yeah, I should get going with Zoom deployment for online lectures.

RD: Ok, stay safe out there colleagues!

About Rob Denton

I'm an Assistant Professor in the Division of Science and Math at the University of Minnesota Morris. 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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