That meeting could have been an email

Up until March 2020, a large proportion of the meetings one attended could have been an email or a phone call or could have been mandatory for only a part of the attendees leaving some freedom to choose if this hour was best spent in a meeting or doing some other type of work.

I have rarely felt like a certain meeting could have been an email, but I have often left a meeting thinking that either I had no clue why I was among the attendees or what was decided. Last weekend we had a daylong meeting for the students association of which I am a member. Time and again, I feel that these meetings are super productive and that the level of productivity cannot be achieved by email discussion or even online “zoom” meetings. Having everyone in the same room helps with reaching common ground by allowing for clarification of positions, helps with real-time (physical) reaction to some decisions/statements, stimulates creativity and sense of belonging.

However, we only managed to be productive because we had a clear idea of the topics to be discussed and we had 1 week to think about them, even having received some specific questions or points to take into consideration on our decisions. The day was divided into a logistics and practical component in the morning and a more creative session in the afternoon that has benefited from having people interacting and warming up to each other through the day. Importantly, for each of the sub-topics we had a clear goal to accomplish and a time frame to achieve it. When final decisions could not be made, the points that needed clarified were summarised and a person or team volunteered to find the information, allowing moving on to the next topic. What I particularly liked was the possibility for everyone to speak their mind (mostly) and the willingness to find a common ground.

In summary, these are the points that facilitate better meetings:

  • Have a clear agenda
  • Be prepared
  • Attribute a time stamp
  • Allow for discussion
  • Summarize decisions
  • Identify clear tasks to be followed up upon and attribute them to a specific person/team.

Time to find a PostDoc position

Faced with the need to find a job after my PhD, I turned to my friends and remaining authors of this blog for some guidance, as they have already gone through this same challenge. Together, we came up with a list of items that seem important for us to have into consideration when choosing a lab for postdoc.

Goals

What are your goals for 5 years from now? How can this topic and lab help you achieving it? Furthermore, would your new PI be able to help you getting there?

Topics

How excited do you feel about the current topics of research of the lab and what do you think of their published papers? You need to decide whether you like the topics enough and whether they fit into your own career plans. Moreover, you should check if their topic of research is significantly different from of their previous supervisor, as competition for funding could impair your chances and there is a higher probability of being scooped. Also, you should try to have a line of research independent from your own PhD supervisor as this can also impair your ability to apply for grants of your own.

Techniques

What sort of techniques can you learn in the new lab, and how do they fit into your long-term plan for your own career? Are you bringing some knowledge to this lab, or just another pair of hands?

Funding

It is important to know in advance the funding strategy: does the lab have current grants that can fund you? If so, for how long? Are you expected to apply for grants anytime after the start of your postdoc? What sort of funding are you eligible for? And what about your potential PI?

Team

How big is the team and how experienced is the PI? Do not forget that new(er) PIs will have more pressure on their selves for publishing and showing they are capable; hence, they will pressure you more and the pace of the lab will be faster. Therefore, make sure you clearly assess the sort of support you will need and check as much as you can whether you would be able to get it from the PI or from senior members of the team.

Options

What are your alternatives and plan Bs? You need to decide how long you can be unemployed as this defines how picky you can be.

Forty-four days later, I resumed my in vivo experiments

When at the end of February I took some days off to attend a swing dance workshop in Germany, I did not expect to spend half of my time second guessing whether I should have gone at all. By the end of the first day, news of the rising number of positive Covid 19 (corona virus disease 2019) cases in Italy made me wary of my environment.

Back in town, I initiated some experiments that should have lasted for 25 days. Two weeks in, it became obvious that an unfortunate timing meant that families who have spent the school break in north of Italy and Austria had highly contributed to the spread of the virus in Switzerland. The talks became very monothematic and rumors started circulating around the fact that research was going to be brought to minimal levels.

The reasons, although easy to understand, were not obvious: identifying key areas of research and experiments that for ethical reasons would have to be continued meant that resources could be managed efficiently. The main aims were

1) avoid spreading of the virus among entire teams, so that at least minimal services could continue running; specially in core facilities.

2) ensure that enough personal protective equipment was available in the clinics.

3) avoid compromising research quality due to lack of optimal reagents, as deliveries and transport across the borders were not certain to happen.

 

I cut short a couple of experiments, without consequences for the outcome of my research. I worked crazy hours the entire weekend, and on the 16th of March I started working in home-office. I analyzed the data I had just collected and took some time to do an extensive literature search on one of the main topics of my thesis. It was extremely useful but did not go without its ups and downs.
Finally, last week we were given green light for resuming research, under a lot of space and personal interaction restrictions. So, I went back in and started a particularly important experiment that was initially planned to start on the 16th of March. Unfortunately, it will take another 39 days to get the full data set, but I do not mind: I did my part, I learned a lot and now I get to go back to be a more hands-on biologist again.

A biologist in home-office

Being a biologist, it is quite odd to think that one can actually work from home. Laboratory work is not easy to adapt to times in which danger to public health speaks for staying at home. However, there are plenty of aspects in being a biologist and most of them do not involve fancy machines or pipetting samples around.

Research is about knowing what has been done before you, identifying what needs to be explored further and the best way to do it. So, in lock down and without access to the laboratory, one can always review the literature, either for one’s own benefit, for a paper, or even for one’s (bachelor, master, PhD) thesis. Furthermore, even without deadlines, one can start writing research proposals that would be ready to edit and revise before the next call.

Another important part of research is data analysis and interpretation. For PhD students, this is often seen as a minor task. Being so busy collecting as much data as possible, one forgets to display and cleverly look into it. Sometimes, completely not seeing some important features of the data. Data analysis is extremely important in guiding experiment planning. And experiment planning means making sure all resources are available when needed. This means ordering reagents, preparing calculations, coordinating with collaborators…

There is also a lot of emails to read and reply. Often these emails have hidden time consuming tasks: re-designing experiments, or graphics, or presentations.

Finally, some of us must teach and, when the entire world seems to be being run from home-office, classes need to be made online compatible.

If I think back to a normal week in the lab, perhaps up to 60% of my time is not spent on hands-on experiments. So, home-office is not ideal, but it is far from being a major drop in productivity.

Science Events – more questions than answers

 

Science events are like science communication: we often aim to target a general audience but end up talking exclusively to our colleagues. So, a question arises: how can we reach the people that are not already primed into coming to our events? Moreover, in a city like Zurich, where a large part of the population is foreigners, we always ask ourselves: should the event be held in the local language?

I have been involved in organising several types of science-based events, from career fairs, career chats to science film festivals and pint of science and I still don’t have answers for the questions above.

The language topic is quite complicated: in Switzerland there are four official languages and even more dialects. To target a wider geographical region, dialects shouldn’t be used, which can exclude some immigrants who have only learned this aspect of the language. However, most teams I am aware of are volunteer based and composed mostly by foreigner students, who also do not master the official languages. This creates the added issue of either restricting the staff to people who are fluent in several languages, or creating the basis of the event in a language and running it in another. Of course there’s a third and more popular option: just stick to English. When it comes to science communication, helding events in English automatically excludes the population that has the most time and possibly the most interest in STEM topics: children, young adults and pensioners.

So, if we are already targeting a very small part of the population, how can we make sure that at least our audience is aware of our events? Advertisement is very important, for long enough, repetitively but not boringly. Over the years, we found that word-of-mouth is the most effective way, targeting our friends and colleagues. To get out of this bubble, social media can be of advantage by the use (and abuse) of hashtags. However, this should not create a false sense of message spreading, as social media can as well reach someone on the other side of the world as completely miss the person next door. Therefore, a wide range of advertisement options, from billboards to press releases should be considered. On this note, these days I tend to get most of my information on “science-related” events through instagram stories.