Five years as a new PI

Life as a new Principal Investigator (PI) in science is full of surprises. On any given day you’ll be dealing with the past (finishing off manuscripts from your postdoc), present (helping current students) and anticipating the future (working on the next grant). I’ve heard various people say that it’s both the most exciting, and the most stressful, time in someone’s scientific career. The excitement comes from having the opportunity to steer science the way you want to, having well-developed skills to work with the data, and some time to do the analyses. The stress comes from wanting to build a successful new lab, and learning to balance new roles such as teaching and admin while doing the science we all love. In compiling a list of things I’ve learnt I wanted to look beyond the woes of grant writing and rejection, and challenges of work-life balance, which seem to get the most coverage. So, five years in, here are five things that I’ve learnt:

Obsessing about efficiency is not efficient. Time as a new PI seems precious. There are many things to juggle, and there’s no one breathing down your back as to when to do them. So, it’s natural to want to be efficient. We’ve all read lists of 10 tips on managing your time, or lifestyle posts on how ‘successful’ people live. The reality of it though is that a routine of getting up at 5am, going for a run, checking emails once, blocking out time for writing, and generally saying ‘no’ to every request, is going to make you miserable and unpopular. I’ve learnt that most efficiency tips aren’t helpful and end up being a distraction. I make sure that I write most days, and I always have a pet project on the go so that I’m always handling data, but beyond that I go with the flow. Letting go of efficiency targets has made me more productive, and leads to the occasional guilt-free long-lunch with colleagues or coffee break with a student, which can only be a good thing. I also think that giving research time to evolve, rather than pressing to publish as soon as possible, leads to better manuscripts in the end.

The Darwin Dance Hall at the Ashworth Laboratories in Edinburgh. Home to long-lunches and welcome distractions. Photo reproduced with permission from Laurence Winram.

Oppose unwanted scientific drift. I’ve always been open-minded to expanding my research to tackle new questions and to work on new study systems. While my primary research interest is in the population biology of natural plant populations, I’ve dabbled in all sorts of topics including phylogenetics, QTL mapping, taxonomy and cytology. Early on as a PI, it became clear to me that a single collaborative grant on a topic of tangential interest, or the (co-)supervision of a student in a new topic, could draw you in new directions. While this can be a good thing to expand horizons, it can also distract from your main research interests, or require you to read large amounts of new literature and work overtime to get up-to-speed. This is exactly what happened to me early on. I think I’ve finally learnt that there’s no harm working on a few interesting topics outside your core interests, but only if this is not at the expense of what you’re really passionate about. In practice, this means always having at least one student and trying to secure funding for at least one grant on a favourite topic. 

Collaborate with your mentors. In the some grant applications, academic independence is measured by the number of publications not involving your PhD advisors. Even without this criterion, many PIs want to be seen to be doing their own thing, or seem stubborn about working with their mentors. While I might have felt this way at the start, in the last couple of years I’ve started new projects with my PhD and postdoc advisors and I’m pleased that I have. I’ve always got on well with them and value their expertise, and in many ways its easier now as I’m not working “for” them but collaborating with them as equals. 

Students are diverse. As a community I like to think that we celebrate the diversity of students. But most PIs I know treat all their students in the same or similar way, and to start with I followed this model. I met with each student for an hour a week (and did this back-to-back to be more efficient, see point 1, above). But it’s now clear to me that this weekly schedule doesn’t work for everyone. I have one student who likes to go away and come back with substantial new results without being interrupted (who I meet every other week but for longer) and another who wants to speak briefly most days. The frequency and duration of meetings also changes over time. I think it’s an important to have the conversation about the frequency and style of meetings to make sure everyone is happy.

Be bold and buy big equipment. There’s a real temptation to save your hard-earned start-up funds and avoid big purchases. But for me buying my own server has been the best single purchase I’ve made since starting my research group. I was so indecisive about buying it—deciding whether it was a good idea, whether I had the expertise to manage it, what specification to get. Various academics warned me off buying one as I could use time on the University super computer, or that in five years’ time everyone will use cloud compute. This is simply not true. Having an easy-access computer server gives you immediate on-demand compute that cannot be matched by other resources. I’ve seen other people agonise about similar large purchases like walk-in growth chambers. But I haven’t known anyone who regrets investing in something so important for their research.

For anyone interested in reading more about life as a new PI, this article in Science is a good start, and there’s lots of useful information on Twitter (#NewPI). And of course, The Molecular Ecologist has many relevant articles (like this one).

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Molecular ecologists — and molecular ecology — at Evolution 2019

The Providence skyline. (Flickr: Timothy Burling)

June means summer is well underway in the northern hemisphere, and those of us tied to the academic calendar are off to fieldwork, buckling down for summer teaching or grant-writing or just writing — and planning for conferences. Evolution, the joint annual meeting of the American Society of Naturalists, Society of Systematic Biologists, and Society for the Study of Evolution, is a big one for molecular ecology and molecular ecologists, and as in many years multiple contributors to this very blog will be present and presenting in Providence, Rhode Island. Here’s a quick rundown of which TME contributors and alumni will be speaking at Evolution 2019, and what events on the program schedule have us excited. Look for our coverage of the conference itself when we converge on the [checks Wikipedia] "Ocean State" on Friday, June 21.

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The state of coral: A mini-review

Coral reefs are one of the main harbingers of the climate crisis.  As such, there have been numerous studies, TED talks, Blue Planet episodes, podcasts, et cetera, about the state of corals. I’ve condensed a select few research findings for a mini-review to highlight some of the most recent results. This is by no means a comprehensive review of the coral literature, obviously.  I will, no doubt, egregiously fail to mention some rock stars who are making great strides in coral biology and conservation.  It’s a big group – both of scientists and of species.

A quick background on coral endosymbionts

Shallow water corals are considered holobionts, comprised of the host coral, endosymbiotic dinoflagellates (often referred to colloquially as zooxanthellae), bacterial and archaea communities. The endosymbionts provide the fixed carbon for the coral via photosynthesis.  When water temperature increases above average for a prolonged time, the endosymbionts are expelled from the coral polyps, leaving bleached coral behind. Corals can rely upon heterotrophy to get their nutrients and fixed carbon, but this is not sustainable over long stretches of time. They can reuptake endosymbionts and recover if temperatures return to normal in a short enough time span.  Most corals obtain their endosymbionts from the environment (horizontally) either during their larval stage in the water column or shortly after settling. Others inherit endosymbionts vertically from their parents. The most reported and studied coral endosymbionts historically have belonged to the genus Symbiodinium, but a recent revision has split the several clades within the genus into seven distinct genera.

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Hybridization in the depths of the last glacial period created a world-conquering clover

White clover, Trifolium repens, in a Los Angeles city park, a hemisphere away from the glacial refugia where it originated. (jby)

Plants’ flexibility with the structure of their genome — able to cope with proliferating transposons, whole-genome duplications, or even acquisition of complete sets of chromosomes from another species — is a big source of evolutionary novelty. Duplication of a single gene allows the duplicate and its template to evolve new functions; adding a whole additional genome provides that much more raw material. That may be the secret of the success of one worldwide weed we’ve seen featured on this blog before, Trifolium repens, or common white clover. A new paper in The Plant Cell delineates two fairly intact progenitor genomes within the T. repens genome, and reconstructs the history of an evolutionary mashup that created a wildflower you can very likely find by simply stepping outside and walking to the nearest well-watered lawn.

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Introducing Molecular Ecology Spotlight

Today, the Molecular Ecology journals are launching a new venue for highlights and behind-the-scenes looks at the research they publish. Molecular Ecology Spotlight fills a niche as the official blog of Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources, publishing author summaries and interviews linked to noteworthy new papers in the journals — and a Twitter feed that will broadcast all new papers as they’re published.

The new blog is a project of the Junior Editorial Board, formed last year with early-career researchers who were recognized in the Harry Smith Prize competition. The goal is that this will provide another way to follow research results from the journals, and context and background for papers of particular interest; where The Molecular Ecologist has always defined itself as a forum for the field of molecular ecology writ broadly, Molecular Ecology Spotlight will, as the name implies, shine a light on the best work in Molecular Ecology and Molecular Ecology Resources specifically.

You can find Molecular Ecology Spotlight at molecularecologyblog.com, and on Twitter at @molecology.

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Go north, young salamander

Plethodon shenandoah (Wikimedia Commons)

Shenandoah salamanders are a case study in restricted distributions, known only from three mountainsides in Shenandoah National Park, in the Appalachian Mountains of Virginia. What’s keeping them in such a restricted range? A new paper in the journal Ecology and Evolution aims to answer that question using population genetics.

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Bigger bees bumble by barriers, end up with lower population genetic differentiation

Look at the dispersal ability on that lad! What an absolute unit. (Flickr: Viv Lynch)

Population structure is the core of ecological genetics, as it’s practiced today. Genetic differentiation between populations in different places is our null hypothesis and one of our most widely used indirect signals that environmental factors are impacting the evolution of those different populations. Oh, and it’s also a first step to the origin of new species.

The huge body of published datasets testing for population structure is a great resource for synthetic work, that identifies broad general patterns about population genetic processes. Last year we saw one such study link locomotion mode and genetic differentiation — confirming that bird populations are less likely to differentiate, given a particular geographic distance, than populations of land-bound vertebrates. Now, freshly out in Molecular Ecology, we have a similar project in a more specific taxonomic scope: bees.

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Move or adapt to changing climate? These chipmunks have had to do both

Tamias alpinus (Flickr: Eric Sonstroem)

Climate change threatens to land many, many species in conditions for which they’re not adapted — too warm, too dry, too stormy, too flood-prone — and traditionally the ways that living things might respond to this are framed as a choice between moving to more suitable habitat elsewhere, adapting to the new conditions in the current habitat, or dying out. These are a false choice, of course; it’s possible to move and adapt, and it’s possible that even doing both won’t be enough to avoid extinction. A new study of one rare chipmunk in the Sierra Nevada mountains pinpoints exactly such a case.

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Scott Edwards awarded the 2019 Molecular Ecology Prize

The 2019 Molecular Ecology prize has been awarded to Scott Edwards for an illustrious career that has combined rigorous scientific achievement with a long and consistent record of mentoring and promoting early-career scientists. Proficient at both empirical and theoretical studies, Edwards has made important contributions to coalescent modeling, phylogeographic inference, immunogenetics and other connections between genotype and phenotype, and the often-misunderstood difference between gene trees and species trees in nature, as well as many more specialized contributions to ornithology. Countless people from around the world have benefited from his work over many decades to support junior scientists and to promote diversity at all levels of the scientific enterprise.

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Nominations open for the 2019 Harry Smith Prize

The editorial board of the journal Molecular Ecologyis seeking nominations for the Harry Smith Prize, which recognizes the best paper published in Molecular Ecologyin the previous year by graduate students or early career scholars with no more than five years of postdoctoral or fellowship experience. The prize comes with a cash award of US$1000 and an announcement in the journal and in the Molecular Ecologist.  The winner will also be asked to join a junior editorial board for the journal to offer advice on changing research needs and potentially serve as a guest editor. The winner of this annual prize is selected by the junior editorial board.

The prize is named after Professor Harry Smith FRS, who founded Molecular Ecology and served as both Chief and Managing Editor during the journal’s critical early years. He continued as the journal’s Managing Editor until 2008, and he went out of his way to encourage early career scholars. In addition to his editorial work, Harry was one of the world’s foremost researchers in photomorphogenesis, where he determined how plants respond to shading, leading to concepts such as “neighbour detection” and “shade avoidance,” which are fundamental to understanding plant responses to crowding and competition. More broadly his research provided an early example of how molecular data could inform ecology, and in 2008 he was awarded the Molecular Ecology Prize that recognized both his scientific and editorial contributions to the field.

Please send a PDF of the paper you are nominating, with a short supporting statement (no more than 250 words; longer submissions will not be accepted) directly to Nick Fountain Jones (nfountainjones@gmail.com) by Friday 31 May 2019. Self-nominations are accepted.

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