Failure. Eep!

Failure.
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It sucks, but everyone successful has failed at some point, so it’s useful to talk about how to “fail well”. I was recently asked to share my thoughts on failure with a mentee, and how to avoid/overcome it. This is what I mean by “failing well”. To “fail well”, I mean to fail at something a minimal number of times and with minimal severity such that you learn enough to succeed (or at least break even) in the future.
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Learning to fail well is going to be really important, because when/if you go into academia, it is one of the disciplines with the most opportunities for criticism and rejection. Every paper and grant proposal—and even you in yearly reports and all presentations– will be judged in some way. It can SUCK. It can get into your head and lead to impostor syndrome feelings (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome) if you don’t watch out. So, even though dealing with rejection gets easier over time, you can do yourself some favors to buffer yourself from some of the effects now.
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Here are my top 5 tips for failing well and keeping your sanity:
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  • First: You may put all of yourself into your work, but you are not your work. When a grant isn’t funded or a paper rejected, they aren’t criticizing you, just the work. You are still the same worthwhile person before and after review.
  • Second: Learn what people are trying to tell you. When you fail, it’s feedback, and reflecting on the feedback can improve your work in the future. If you don’t understand what someone means, ask for clarification. If they are needlessly cruel (which sadly happens too often in in many disciplines), try to read through the negativity and see the message. I tell myself (excuse the language): “Ok, this reviewer’s an a**hole. But does the a**hole have a point?” The feedback will improve your work, and as a side-effect reduce the amount of further rejections and the negative emotions that come with them.
  • Third: Learn the difference between big comments and little comments, and pet peeves vs. legitimate issues. If you get multiple reviews, look for patterns, and if you don’t, show the work and reviews to straight-shooting colleagues, and they can help you focus on what needs to happen. Over time, this step will get easier, and you’ll notice patterns (ex. From what I’ve seen, pet peeve comments tend to come from people who have worked in that one small thing and they will suggest their own work for you to review. This typically comes in a giant paragraph or two response much longer than for any other point. However, the comment won’t appear in other reviews at all and won’t show up later in the review, but will show up if they summarize the review).
  • Fourth: Nothing is perfect. Even if you did well, there is likely feedback you can ask for to improve things. Don’t be afraid to ask for additional feedback, even if it is what someone liked best. You may be misattributing successes, and feedback helps you understand which factors are helpful, harmful, or neutral with respect to reviewers.
  • Fifth: Proactively avoid failure, if you can. Form friendly peer review groups, or have a partner who you trust well to tell you straight when things suck (and you do the same in return). It can help you spot errors before you are on the chopping block. Consider, too, asking for successful past grants or assistance from the people running the program. This can be as simple as following examples or asking if your pitch sounds like it aligns with the goals of the group to which you’re submitting. This can save you a ton of time and really improve your work, without having to go through the step of not succeeding beforehand.
I’ve tried to summarize above what has worked for me from advice I’ve been given. I’m failing less often now, but not avoiding it totally. And that’s ok. I am not my work. So in that spirit, I ask, what do you think?

A Broad Abroad: Why International Experiences Help

I was recently asked to serve on a panel for recent alumni from the International Plan (IP) at Georgia Tech. Essentially, the IP is an add-on to your degree that requires more substantial international experience and knowledge that simply going abroad for a bit or taking international affairs courses.

I’m in science, and yes, it’s global. It’s definitely easier on me being in the US and being a native English speaker, but I think it’s valid to point out gains to these potential IP students.

International Experience: Anyone who knows me has probably heard me say at least once, “When I was in Germany…”. It’s probably a bit annoying, but when you spend 1.5 years in a foreign country by yourself as a 20-something, coming-of-age female, it’s probably a wee-bit impressionable. A wee bit.

For me, going abroad saved money. I was able to use scholarships to cover my schooling and living expenses while abroad, and I was able to take a ton of biology courses Tech didn’t offer. I also got a reprieve from working multiple jobs, which did allow me to focus on what I was learning, vs. trying to balance a million things at once. Perhaps most importantly, I was able to explore several different research labs and discern that research was right for me (and not feel like I was wasting time/money trying to find my way). Academically it was great.

Personally, I grew a lot from the experience, too. I had been taking German since I was a kid, but I never had to rely on it. Talk about scary when suddenly you’re signing legal documents (visa, rental agreements, X-ray safety notices) not in your native language! The experience helped me see all of the little things I take for granted, and it helped me build independence and self-confidence. I learned when I need help, and when I should tough it out, and how to recognize when not knowing is actually beneficial. I learned much more how to go-with-the-flow and be less of a control-freak, both in my personal and professional aspirations. I can’t say I wouldn’t have gained this perspective eventually, but I think being in Germany hastened the process.

Courses: Yes, I took a lot of German courses to fulfill requirements, and yes, I did have to take other courses for IP while at Tech, too. I learned I had a passion for the history of science and how that interacts with culture. I also learned a bit about managing diverse teams. These skills have come in handy when examining the history of ideas within behavioral biology (helping to answer, “Why is this what we know? Would we have come to this knowledge another way if society and scientists were more diverse?”). They’ve also helped me to understand the privilege I have in conducting science (and society broadly), to recognize when I’m likely to face barriers, and importantly, how to influence open access to science for everyone.

Life since the IP: Random things have come up which have drawn from my experiences in the IP. Most notably, when I work with a German scientist, we can communicate on two levels, which often means the writing we produce is clearer and captures ideas better than if we were to pick one language for all parts of the conversation. Also, as an RA in an on-campus dorm, I was able to make some of the students feel more at home and welcome by saying hi and explaining differences between ‘home’ and MSU in ways that made sense; this was particularly valuable when explaining US open container laws and football obsession. I’ve also remained in contact with colleagues who have since collaborated with me in publishing papers and giving presentations, and who are generally some of the best friends I have.

If you ever have the opportunity to go abroad, do it, but not just for your CV. Your perspective will be broadened and you’ll learn a lot about yourself and others. And hey, if it is something you want to do, stop reading this post right now and start googling your options!

TEDxMSU: Hot or Not? Just Try.

tedxphoto

Shouting “Sex!” in front of nearly 2,000 people can be scary, but it proved to be a pretty effective way to grab an audience’s attention. On March 4th, 2015, I delivered a TED talk on my evolution research at TEDxMSU, an independently organized TED event held at Michigan State University.

The process to getting selected was an interesting one. One of the TEDxMSU coordinators had apparently run across my profile on Twitter, and after seeing my website, invited me to apply. Since giving a TED talk was a bucket list item of mine, I decided to give it a shot. The competition was stiff (nearly 200 applicants!), and I was one of the lucky 12 who found out, just about a month before the event, that I’d be presenting. Cue scrambling.

To prepare, there were lots of on-campus practices for speakers. However, since I’m finishing up my dissertation from afar, I was challenged to find listeners who didn’t know my work, but would be willing to give me feedback about the ideas. From the input of both strangers on public transit and my friends and family, I was able to craft a talk that captured people’s attention, and which expanded my view of how the public thinks about evolution and sex. In particular, I was encouraged to describe evolution without saying the word, and to include as much humor as possible to get those less accustomed to thinking about sex (at least in public) to engage with the material. This feedback was hard to hear (why not say evolution?!), so it meant I needed to change my general approach if I was going to get ideas across without hitting barriers.

The event’s theme was “The Will,” mirroring the campaign at MSU “Spartans Will”. In every talk at the event, the theme “The Will” manifested itself, from solutions to mass incarceration, to recovering from traumas, to understanding the will to survive. My talk focused on an extremely variable population of sticklebacks, in which we found courtship vigor, or “trying” in mating, appeared to best predict whom females chose as mates. In the talk, I pointed out that investments in different traits, including behavior, have been under study since Darwin, and that which individuals are getting lucky can shape the evolution of many species.

Now that things are calming down from the talk, I’ve been able to reflect on the feedback. I’m still a bit scared to see the official talk appear on the TED website, but the feedback from friends and faculty who attended has put my worries at ease. I was able to speak to several students afterward who were interested in the same types of questions which originally grabbed my attention, and I was moved by the students who said they were now considering evolutionary biology as a career.

Talking about science to a general audience can be scary, particularly when your topics are those which aren’t always easily discussed. But it is important that we have the will to do it, learn from each experience, and keep trying.

See my talk here (session 1, about 25 min in): http://new.livestream.com/msualumni/TEDxMSU2015

Crows are smart… like, really smart

This week in Animal Behavior, we’re talking about learning and cognition. One of my favorite things at this point is to shatter the misconceptions about what ‘smart’ is, and let students compete in similar tasks to test species. This helps to point out many species are incredibly good at solving puzzles– sometimes even better than us.

Great videos exist to show animal brain power, including that of a recent study that has shown crows are capable of thinking analytically. Here, crows were given pairs of symbols (and other like objects) with certain relationships to one another, and then required to pick the solution with the same relationship. The crows solved these problems rapidly. And, perhaps it was sleepiness or overthinking on my part, but the crows solved the problems initially faster than me. Play and pause the video and see how you do (…and whether you want to use my excuses).

So, in a lot of ways, being bird-brained might actually be a good thing. Many birds, including starlings and bowerbirds, have been shown to do incredibly smart tasks beneficial in foraging and mating. I’m always amazed by what they can do!

Because I feel like crows have somewhat a bad reputation (maybe Poe or Hitchcock is to blame), I’m posting two more videos of crows doing awesome things right here. Enjoy!

General video (3 min.) of crows solving other tasks:

Shorter (1min) solving 8 puzzles!:

Single-Sex Environments Can Be Great for (Discussing) Sex

Through a series of (fortunate) events, I’m teaching Animal Behavior this semester at Spelman. It’s a very good school and a different environment from Michigan State and Georgia Tech, which has been enlightening and reinvigorating (Writing… and only writing… all day, every day gets old. Trust me). In particular, it has been fun to work with a new population of students studying behavior, particularly as the classes are all female. This is a new experience for me, and it has been extremely interesting to see the differences in perspectives on sexual selection that are expressed in a single- vs. multiple-sex environment.

When students begin to think about behavior, they often think about it in the terms of “If I were you, I would…”. With both males and females in the classroom, it can be hard for students to articulate what might be the best evolutionary strategy, for fear of judgment by classmates. It can be difficult to bluntly tell a bunch of your fellow early-20-something classmates that sometimes, males and females will have an advantage if they mate indiscriminately. Classes may laugh at you. At worst, they label you a harlot or a sleezeball (or whatever kids might be calling the things these days). So, it becomes better to stay silent or let (antiquated) social norms in humans dictate what organisms should do, and anyone who deviates… well gosh, their just darn impure!

I wouldn’t have noticed the degree to which restriction on discussing animal sexuality happens without the comparative experience I’m getting now at Spelman. Even though strategies differ across animal species (including our own), vocalizing the differences and navigating the logic behind favorable strategies can prove difficult when it abuts what we have (intimately) experienced within our own lives. Even still, our culture doesn’t necessarily always reflect what is evolutionarily most advantageous in terms of reproductive behavior. So how do you go about avoiding adding complication by imposing human values, but tap into the intuition of putting yourself in another’s shoes?

Anthropomorphizing (basically, viewing other species from a too-human lens) is damaging to uncovering what behaviors actually are, versus inferring from human experience what we assume them to be. As we teach the next generation of behavioral ecologists (or even behavior enthusiasts), we are tasked to develop those behavioral observation skills in our students, while supporting the development of both mechanistic and evolutionary thinking as to how behaviors function and came to be. Whether our questions be proximate or ultimate, it can be a challenge to get our students to ask questions about and express the realities of how a sexual system works. Removing the human bias from our observations is a good first step, but using logic to generate hypotheses and predictions for experiments must follow.

I feel we must encourage students to take the position of a male bed bug, or female mantis, for example, and ask, “How will I be most successful in surviving and leaving the most healthy offspring I can? What can my mate do to help or hurt this process?”. I have seen that my Spelman students are much more willing to throw strategies out there from this perspective, particularly when they are tasked with coming up with what males should do, despite not have a human experience as a male to influence their response. In contrast, my Michigan State co-ed classes are often able to more easily debunk human-biased reasoning, as each sex revels in retorting back to the other why a strategy may be favored, particularly when we discuss reproductive conflicts between the sexes. Already, I have had Spelman students echo my MSU students in saying that they understand human sexual strategies a bit better when they view them from an animal lens. At their core, they have realized viewing humans from a evolutionary perspective, as the animals we are, helps to explain what makes us, us.

Animals have an enjoyably diverse array of reproductive behaviors, far more shocking and wonderful than the variation we see within humans alone. In addition to various levels of hierarchy who mates (or who is chemically or physically suppressed not to), you’ve got systems where sperm gift-giving and mate cannibalism are the norm, where animals shed their sex cells into the seas to travel thousands of miles to meet a mate. You’ve got systems where the sperm can dwarf the male in size, or where ‘cloning’ for millions of years is interrupted, just for a day, for sex. Their are tons of cool things going on with sexual behavior and reproductive investment, and I encourage you to explore animal sexuality further.  You never know what you’ll learn about them, and us.

Mate Guarding: EPC’s and Side Pieces

We’ve begun another semester, and it never fails to see how interested students can be in the behavioral dynamics of sex. To start this semester, we’re looking at a few case studies from primary literature on mate guarding.

In short, my students might say that mate guarding is ‘stalking’ or ‘blocking’ other mates from screwing around with your partner. They wouldn’t be wrong, as generally, there are tons of strategies partners can use to be sure they are the only one to ‘do the deed’ with their partner. My students, astute as they are, picked up on this as being a behavior males typically do to protect females, but they were somewhat surprised to find out that mating with multiple males (a.k.a. ‘side pieces’) behind the back of a social partner (a.k.a. ‘hubby’ or ‘main man’) can have advantages for females, ranging from increased fertility to increased genetic diversity (and thereby survival) of offspring. These outside-the-social-partnership matings are called extra-pair copulations (EPC’s), which may result in extra-pair fertilizations (EPFs’) and cuckolding.

Where’s Maury when you need him?

You are NOT the father. Nope. From knowyourmeme.com

We then examined the conflict between males, who want to be the only daddy (but often to several females), and females, who often profit from several dads. This brought up questions on reproductive investment, and how changes in mate availability might influence male and female behavior. As one student put it, “Well, if he is the ONLY guy around, better to have a mate than not. He just needs to get off my back”. True words indeed, as overzealous guarding by male ducks has been known to kill females. Guys, if you’re listening, back off, particularly when there isn’t a threat.

She’s mine. ALLLL mine. Quack. From therattlingcrow.blogspot.com

 

In the end, the strategies used in nature sparked more questions as to how species evolve and change through sexual conflict and sexual selection. The students began to hypothesize and design experiments to do in and around campus to see what the levels of mate guarding are among guy friends, and what factors (whether long-distance, length of the relationship, or ‘hotness’ of the partner) makes a difference to the level of mate guarding observed.

I’m hoping they will share their data, but I won’t be too upset if they’re guarded about it :)