Sara Lil Middleton joins me to discuss her research in plant ecology, as well as a few of her outreach projects, including the Black British Biology Project. This episode's Paper in Focus is from Rebekah Oomen! We talk about her theory-driven study on genomic architecture and evolution... as well as an intriguing art project! Then, Sara and I are joined by Ellen Brandell and Amani Webber-Schultz to discuss work-life balance - what it means to us, what we do to try and achieve it, and whether it's possible during a pandemic.
Hosted, as always, by Kirsty MacLeod. Drop me a line anytime: hello[at]theweepodcast.org
Sara's "Bananageddon" film project - check out the trailer and consider donating here! Also - her Human Nature Stories photography project. Black British Biology Project website to come - in the meantime follow the project on Twitter. Ellen's website. Amani's Minorities In Shark Science organisation (@MISS_Elasmo on Twitter!) - smash that donate button!
Welcome to the Women in Ecology and Evolution Podcast! I'm your host, Kirsty MacLeod. It's been another weird month! This is coming to you a little later than planned, because not one but two interviews ,with the same person I should add, had had to be rescheduled because of separate hurricanes! Not the interview you’ll hear today but what a metaphor for October 2020. Nevertheless, I hope this finds you all safe and well and finding ways to cope with what certainly seems like never ending restrictions in Europe. Brilliant guests today, as always! Amani Webber-Schultz and Ellen Brandell are here to talk about work life balance, and I caught up with Rebekah Oomen to talk about her new paper on genetic architecture and evolution. But first I chat with Sarah Lil Middleton about invasive plants, bananas, and her Black British biology Project.
A quick erratum on the last episode: Dani Rabaiotti and I both mentioned a project management spreadsheet that we use to keep our work in order. We wrongly attributed this to Kevin Burgio, but it was originally created by Carrie Cizauskas and then publicised by Kevin on Twitter which is how we remembered it. Apologies to Carrie, and Thanks Kevin for pointing that out. We’ve updated the notes for last episode to reflect that. And the notes for last episode, also contain a link to that spreadsheet – check it out, it is super useful!
Interview with Sara Middleton
Today's guest is Sarah Lil Middleton, who's a PhD student at the University of Oxford, working on how different communities respond to global environmental change. And, in addition to research she has a jam-packed CV as a science communicator, managing several outreach projects that incorporate photography history and social science, and we'll get to all of that. First up, Sarah thank you so much for coming on the show!
So how has this summer/autumn been for you in Oxford?
SM: so far it's been pretty strange, with the pandemic but I've been very fortunate that I've been able to carry on my fieldwork at Wytham, which is west of Oxford, so yeah I've been managing to collect all the data that I need this year which has been good. It has been challenging but I'm grateful that I managed to go out in the field and not be stuck inside.
So, before we talk about your research, and your project at Oxford, it'd be great to go back to the start of your bio. And just as a general introductory question what first got you interested in ecology?
SM: If you go way, way back, I've always been interested in the outdoors.I was always curious child and looking at different plants and trees and so I've always had that kind of connection to nature. And then for A Levels I studied biology and geography and physics, so some sciences, and then I decided to do environmental sciences, because I was really drawn to that because it had all aspects of sort of the living world and the human dimension as well. Nowadays I consider myself a plant ecologist but my training and background was in environmental sciences.
You did your undergraduate degree at Oxford Brookes, and then you did a Master's at Imperial College London. Your master's research project was on invasive plants. Was that the start of your interest in invasives, and can you give us a bit of background about that project?
SM: Actually my interest in invasives started back in 2013 when I went to a trip to Iceland, doing some volunteer work maintaining hiking trails. And I noticed these purple pants, kind of covering this landscape. That's quite a barren landscape but they had some dense patches of these plants. And then after I came back from Iceland I did some research and found out that they were an invasive plant called lupins. They were affecting like the species composition, threatening some of the species.
There's a great picture on your website, they are a really pretty flower but it does almost look like a mono culture!
SM: Yeah, pretty much! So then I went back for my undergrad, to study them. So I was looking at how they affect different habitat types. Basically you get many less species, because they're legumes, so they deposit nitrogen fixing bacteria into the soil and that's not good for native plants that are used to having nutrient poor soils.
So can you give us a brief overview of your current PhD project work?
SM: yeah so um, I'm trying to understand basically the effect of an experimental drought treatment on the grassland community. It's a calcareous grasslandAnd I'm focusing on one of the dominant species which is a grass. The drought treatment itself, we started five years ago, with these metallic shelters which act like gutters. I'm interested in using three different approaches, which are rarely used together: so that's looking at the functional traits, the demography, and the spatial interactions around the target species. I'm looking at the community as a whole and then I'm going down to the population level in its target species. And I'm looking at the individual level when I measure these traits I'm trying to combine all those aspects together to get a better picture of how the drought affects this community.
So, what is a functional trait?
SM: That's quite a loaded question! The other part of my PhD actually looks at the definition of functional traits because there's so many different definitions and there's been work to try and get a unified definition, but there's many different terms used or sometimes misused.
So, I follow a definition from a paper in 2007, and he was saying that functional trait is a characteristic of an individual organism. And these are characteristics that will affect
reproduction and have an impact on fitness. Okay, so in plants that can be like, how tall you are. How thick leaves are, your leaf to shoot ratio.
So what does your day to day look like when you're doing field work? What are you what are you measuring?
SM: I started in 2019 So, last year. I was doing a lot of tagging to reference my individual species, so I've tagged 138 individuals to follow through time to look at demographic rates, how much they reproduce. I guess it’s split into two parts, so the first part which takes maybe two weeks, is doing a lot of measuring and counting. And then the second part which I do afterwards, is I look at some species interactions. I basically do some drawing! I draw around them, and then that’s my little plant community. It’s quite species rich! I’ve recorded like 25 different species? I like to call it the sort of rain forest in the UK.
What do you predict that you will find from these from this field work?
SM: next year is probably going to be the last year of data collection and that's when I measure the functional traits, because it's a bit destructive. So I don't want that to affect the survival of the plants. The functional traits are kind of seen as like a shortcut to trying to understand, basically how communities respond to climate change, but it’s not necessarily a silver bullet. Measuring the other things that I’m doing, which is rarely done, it's very very time consuming, I'm hoping that I'll get a better understanding somewhat good strong signals of how the drought is affecting them, looking at different levels of complexity.
So basically you're drying out a patch of land, and then measuring the plants through this time and then ultimately, the survivors will potentially have these traits that will let you look back and say, This is why they survived.
SM: Yep. And I'm also taking into account the neighbouring species.
As I mentioned in my introduction you've also been involved in lots of really interesting outreach projects but I've narrowed it down to a few that I wanted to ask you, particularly about. So I'll start with the one that potentially has the catchiest name Bananageddon! So this is a documentary film that you're the project coordinator for how did that get going and can you tell us a bit about that project?
SM: Yes, it's kind of really ballooned from how it started. So it's a group of seven of us. We met at Imperial during our masters in 2016, and I first had the conversation with Jackie but at the end of a yoga session. I was saying I was reading this book, which had bananas in the title. And she said, do you know there are massive issues with them, like monoculture stuff, and I had some idea about that because I’m interested in agriculture. And I was like oh yeah that's really interesting, and she said that Imperial has this really cool opportunity where you could apply for grants to do projects. And then somehow managed to get a team of us that were interested in this, and put a proposal together. And then we had some rounds of interviews and then we got the funding to basically go and start this project. So jackie had already done some, some work in Costa Rica where we did most of the filming. And she had some contacts already. Basically the film looks at the sort of social, political and ecological consequences of growing bananas. Currently, because it's a monoculture system, it is not very healthy for people or the planet, and we explore different ways of growing bananas, through agroforestry or intercropping, organic farming, and we talk to basically talk to people on the whole supply chain from people who've been on plantations to packing workers to different scientists that work there, and we're trying to get hold of people on the end of the supply chain.
Will people be able to see it soon?
SM: hopefully So COVID has kind of slowed things down a little bit. It’s still in post production, and there's still some pieces that we want to go back and film and add a bit more to complete the story. Because it could go on and on and on. Very, very interesting .I've learned so much from the people we've interviewed.
And a chunk of this project has been crowdfunded?
SM: We had like a major funding campaign. And then, that was successful, then we have like an ongoing one.
There's some stretch goals on the Kickstarter. So I I'll add that link in the Episode Notes, people can go and check it out and there's a really, there's a cool trailer on the website as well. Last Well, maybe second to last thing that I want to ask you about, this year you launched the Black British Biology Project, which I read about in a really great article that you did for the niche which is the British ecological society’s magazine. So tell us a bit about about that project and your motivations for starting that.
SM: I guess it's been kind of in the works for a while, kind of in my head. For two years I've been on a journey of sort of unlearning and decolonizing the way I think and the way I do science. I think it was sort of motivated to launch it this year with all the social unrest, the Black Lives Matter movement. And also, I guess part of me, sort of growing up never really kind of science role model, I was interested in science but there were never people I learned about in textbooks or school that look like me or had a similar background so part of it is trying to increase I guess representation, especially for younger people interested in science, seeing themselves sort of reflected also trying to provide a positive image of black people. So I'm looking at the historical contributions but I’m also thinking of moving into the more current contributions from black British biologists as well. So that's kind of the motivations, but we're still very much in the early stages. I’m about to launch a website. I'm very much keen to make it open access for educators.
So your website will go live at some point soon but people can find you on Twitter. Yeah, I thought it was a great article, there's a great example in there, of John Edmonstone, who was born into slavery in British Guiana in the 1700s and brought to Scotland where he was freed shortly after, and he taught Charles Darwin taxidermy when Charles Darwin was studying medicine in Scotland, and I'm sure was a huge influence on Darwin! so it's a great example of somebody that I've never heard of, and somebody that obviously had a huge influence on somebody that we obviously do read about in textbooks and so I'm really excited to hear more about that project and what you uncover. So lastly, I really liked your human nature stories project which is a photography social science project, asking people what does nature mean to you. What made you start that project?
SM: I guess I was just trying to understand this kind of strange dichotomy between like people and nature, versus nature, it’s very much like humans are not part of nature. To me, I feel very much a part of nature and had a strong connection to it so I’m trying to understand why we sort of have to o”vercome nature”. Yeah, something almost like to conquer these, these sort of Western sort of ideologies, which is very different from some of the native people, very much intertwined with nature. Increasingly we’re very urbanised, something like half the world’s population is in urban areas. We spend 90% of our time indoors, so much technology. So I'm just interested in, given the current state of climate change, how people connect to nature. So it's a very sort of simple question, I just kind of go up to strangers and just ask them that question. It's been really really interesting, I’ve gathered almost a hundred stories, so that was taking my whiteboard, my pens and my camera to about seven different countries these past few years.
I did wonder if it was the same whiteboard.
SM: Yes, it's the same one, it’s a blank canvas and you cannot express what that means to you on that blank canvas. Some people have done drawings, some people have written almost an essay, some have just written a few words. It’s been really interesting.
So in the years that you've been doing that. Have you considered what you would write on the whiteboard, if somebody approached you and asked you that question?
SM: Yeah I did it actually. Yeah, it was back in 2018, I think it's probably changed. I said, for me it’s very much like home, to me.
Paper in Focus with Dr Rebekah Oomen
Welcome back. It's great to be joined by Dr. Rebekah Oomen! Rebekah is a researcher at the Centre for ecological and evolutionary synthesis at the University of Oslo in Norway, and the Centre for coastal Research at the University of Agder. Rebekah Welcome to the podcast!
RO: Thank you. It's great to be here. So yeah, like I said, I'm Rebekah Oomen,I am a Canadian living in Norway, and I'm an evolutionary ecologist so I'm really broadly interested in understanding how organisms respond to environmental change. More particularly I'm interested in how adaptation to environments in the past influences contemporary plastic responses to the environment, and then shapes future adaptive potential, so kind of going from the past to the present and trying to understand what the future is mostly in the context of Atlantic cod, and trying to understand how they respond to climate change and harvest.
So, your most recent paper came out this summer in the Journal of heredity, and it's called consequences of single locus and tightly linked genomic architectures for evolutionary responses to environmental change. Would you mind by starting by just talking me through what you mean by genomic architecture?
RO: Absolutely. So, genomic architecture is basically just the way in which a trait is encoded in the genome. So, how many genes are involved. Are they on the same chromosome, are they close together, all these factors come into play and shape this, what we call genomic architecture. Processes at the molecular level, at the genome level, they actually are all connected and they affect population and ecosystem level processes. And so the idea that the way a trait is encoded in the genome could affect like whether a population goes extinct or not was really exciting to me, and I thought that, well, this could have important consequences for predicting how cod respond to climate change, how other fishes respond to fishing. And of course, anthropogenic stressors that we put on different species. My work on cod revealed this very strange genomic architecture that I had never even heard of called a chromosomal inversion. So basically what happens is a chunk of the genome can get flipped over accidentally during replication. A lot of the time, this wouldn't go anywhere it would just irreparably mess up the process, but every now and then it works. These inversions spread just like a large scale mutation throughout a population.
So, is that kind of inversion, what you refer to in the paper as a haploblock? Which is when several loci… Just to break it down even further, a locus is a single gene that can act on traits.
RO: Exactly, an inversion is one situation where the end result is that you have many genes that get tightly linked together, because these inversions, once they're flipped, they can't recombine again. So what you're left with is two divergent haplotypes, so that's just like a combination of genes. And if you block recombination, then those two sections, they just diverge and they evolve separately, and they can become really different. So the genes and the alleles they contain can be really different from each other. These also are sometimes called haploblocks, if you don't necessarily know that they are coming from an inversion. There's other ways these things can arise like you could simply have reduced recombination in a region, and they're all kind of collectively referred to as I say tightly linked genomic architectures.
How did these characteristics of genomic architecture affect evolutionary dynamics and responses to change?
RO: there was a previous paper that really inspired me by Ana Kuperenen and and Jeff Hutchings that show that if you had, hypothetically speaking, just a single gene that control, an important life history traits in this, in this case it was in salmon, then how would that affect their evolutionary response to fishing. And they found that it was basically because you're down to a single gene, instead of having effects spread across many different genes which we usually assume is true for complex traits, you have a lot more stochasticity, a lot more genetic drift, and the evolutionary trajectories that are simulated are much more variable and dynamic, and so we extended this model for like a hypothetical fish species, to see if we saw these chaotic dynamics, and we did. So what we see is if we assume this traditional multi locus view of architecture, or a trait called age at maturity, we see the response to fishing is quite consistent. So fishing lowers age at maturity. And then when you remove fishing pressure, it comes back up over time. So they recover. But when we did this with a single locus architecture which could represent a single gene or one of these tightly linked blocks like an inversion, what we saw is crazy dynamics that really just spread out more and more over time.
So if key traits are controlled by single genes, basically then the response to environmental changes just less…. I like, I like the word chaotic which comes up in the paper quite a lot. It just… big changes happen more stochastically and the evolutionary response is potentially less linear.
RO: Exactly, yeah. Ultimately, I'd like to transfer this knowledge to my main system, and understand what these inversions we have found in Atlantic cod mean for their evolution in response to future environmental change. So we've found these inversions are associated with different traits like migration, temperature adaptation, salinity adaptation, and we're still trying to tease them apart and it looks like the same inversion can be linking both behavioural and environmental traits. And that's a really important thing I think because especially when it comes to behaviour specific targets different types of behaviours. And if that behaviour is linked with a certain environmental adaptation, you risk selectively removing a certain environmental response and it could be the one that they need to survive climate change. So you really want to make sure you're not doing that. I don't have any fun fieldwork stories, this is a theoretical paper, but it was my first! So for me it was really an adventure in trying to wrap my head around the modelling and all the parameters and how that works and what's possible, so I work with Anna Kuparinen and is a mathematician, and it was a lot of me asking her, can we tweak this, Can we do this and what would happen if we did this and a lot of the times the answer was “everything would die, nothing would happen”. And so I had to kind of learn as we went along, how this works and now I'm hoping to get more into that side of things, it's been really fun to learn.
So I was also really intrigued by another more artistic project that you're currently working on. So, I'll try… Torsketromming, or cod drumming, did I say that even remotely right?
RO: Yeah You nailed it! So, cod drum during the mating ritual. They have sets of drumming muscles. That's the only purpose that we know of, and they run alongside the swim bladder, which is full of gas. So they contract and beat against the bladder like a drum, and the females use it to assess the male somehow and decide who to mate with, and so the drumming is perhaps a really important force shaping these populations. And so I really want to understand more about that how the drumming might vary between individuals, and also how the drumming varies between populations. And we've turned it into an art project as well so that we can share the music of the cod with the public and broader community!
Roundtable discussion with Sara Middleton, Ellen Brandell, and Amani Webber-Schultz
Welcome back to the women in ecology and evolution podcast and to our roundtable segment where I'm joined by three other researchers to discuss our experiences in and outside of science and research. I'm back with Sarah Middleton, botanist and science communicator, and we are joined by Ellen Brandell, a PhD student at Penn State University, and by Amani Webber Schultz, recent graduate from Rutgers University and a co founder of minorities in shark sciences. So, Amani and Ellen I deliberately went very light on your introduction so as to give you an opportunity to introduce yourselves! Ellen, do you want to go first. With the disclaimer that people may have may recognise you from your elevator pitch, a couple of episodes ago.
EB: Yeah. So, I'm a wildlife disease ecologist, and a PhD candidate at Penn State University, and I studied the infectious disease dynamics of carnivores, and most of my research has focused on the beach in Yellowstone National Park.
Yeah, Ellen has some amazing pictures of her in helicopters, next to wolves… Very cool.AWS: I couldn't get in a helicopter those things scare me!
Well I've seen pictures of you holding sharks so I think that's also cool! Do you want to introduce yourself Amani, now that I’ve given a little spoiler?
AWS: Yeah, I'm, I'm an early career shark scientist, I just finished my bachelor's at Rutgers in May of this year, I am currently applying to graduate programmes and I want to focus on
morphology, or physiology and conservation. And I just love sharks!
Do you want to tell us a bit about your minorities in shark sciences organisation?
AWS: So, we launched it in June of this year, I had only ever met one other black female scientist, Jasmine one of the co founders, and I got in touch with her because I was asking her about her advisor in grad school and if he was good advisor for a woman of colour, and I hadn't met Jade and Carly and I didn't even really know they existed. And then we met over the, I think it was the black in nature hashtag, or black birders week, and we kind of made like a Twitter group and we were like hey, wouldn’t it be great if we made a club. And then in like two weeks, we decided that we were going to make this thing and we built this whole thing around us wanting to create an inclusive space for women of colour and shark science, and show other younger women scientists that if they want to be shark scientists they can because look there's 140 plus other women who are interested in shark science or doing shark science right now, they do exist and they're doing super cool research.
I can't believe that you only set it up this year because it's it's turned into this big thing! Did you say you have 140 plus members?
AWS: Yeah, so when we first launched we hadn’t even thought about membership or anything like that and then with all the positive responses we thought it would be great to create a way for all these women to meet and talk to each other. And so far, I think the last time I checked, we have 160 women of colour from I think 13 different countries. And yeah I mean it's just been super rewarding to see all these women and we also are trying to provide opportunities for them. One of the things when we launched was we wanted to tackle the financial barrier into marine science because a lot of the opportunities you have to pay for, or you're not paid, they expect you to like relocate. So we did two things. The first one is the workshops that we're going to do where we are going to have 18 women of colour join us for two separate weekends and do shark research with us. And that's fully paid for so they don't have to pay for anything. And the second thing is we've worked with a couple of different labs like Bimini shark lab or oceans Research Institute in South Africa, and they're helping us create an internship, where we cover the plane cost of a MISS member going and they cover the cost of them being there, because both of those experiences are things you'd normally have to pay for and if you don't have the money or needs to relocate and pay for everything that that is a really big barrier to you.
EB: That's awesome.
And some of that comes from donations right, so people can donate on the website if they want to?
AWS: Yeah. Our website is misselasmo.org. And there's a Donate button, and there's also a a members page where you can see a bunch of our different members on it, including their research interests, where they live, and you can see more about the co founders too at the about tab.
We'll put a link to that in the notes, so you're able to go and donate to that, it’s very, very impressive that you've managed to do that in such a short time. Ellen, you've had a pretty good 2020.
EB: Yeah, I've had a weirdly good 2020!
You got married this summer…
EB: Yeah. And pending everything goes well, I will defend next month. And I have a postdoc lined up. So yeah, it's been a pretty good 2020 so far! I'm going to be working with Dr. Wendy Turner at University of Wisconsin, basically looking at Chronic Wasting Disease dynamics in deer in Wisconsin and the Midwest with a focus on how harvest and deer management might be able to help control outbreaks, or control the disease in some aspect. That's about all I can give you at the moment. It's going to be building, basically, building models to look at Chronic Wasting Disease and harvesting interactions.
So let's dive in to our main discussion topic for today, which is work life balance. So I wanted to talk about this now because I think this is something that we're probably thinking about with perhaps a little more urgency given that many of us are working and living in the same spaces with very little delineation between them. But when I was thinking about it, work life balance actually seemed like an abstract concept and something that probably differs quite a lot. So, I wanted to start by asking What does work life balance actually mean to you? So Sara How about you start and then we can all chime in.
SM: I must admit I've been pretty bad. With COVID and stuff it really has really affected my mental health. I’d say, it’s making sure that you take time away from your work and not feel guilty about and prioritise self care outside of your working hours and I found that actually, when I'm not on my desk or coding doing intense work, I actually get a lot of my ideas when I'm not at my desk or taking a walk somewhere. And actually that can be sort of productive.
EB: totally agree that it's, it's more of a mindset that it is this hard delineation of where you physically are or how many hours you worked in a week. So, I know for me, a balance is more when I just don't feel that pressure to be working when I'm not working. So removing that kind of pit in your stomach like you should be doing something, you shouldn't be enjoying yourself at a certain time when you're not working, for me that's more of the balance, like I could work, you know, I could work a tonne of hours that week but still feel a balance if I'm taking good breaks or I'm not focused on work at all.
Does that rely a little bit on the effectiveness of your work? Like how do you feel how do you not feel a pit in your stomach, asking for a friend who is me.
EB: I actually I feel like maybe I'm kind of the anomaly for what I hear from different people and see on Twitter and all these people struggling with work life balance like, I will just do it I'll just say, Okay, I'm done working, and something that helps me is I try to have a task that breaks up my work time from my personal time, so I'll work out or cook dinner or take the dog on a walk or do something, an activity that actually breaks up that time. And that kind of helps clear my headspace so I think I'm actually pretty good about being able to separate the time, even if maybe my workday wasn't as productive.
AWS: I was like having a pretty decent work life balance in college, and then when COVID happened, it was just like school was also in your home and professors seemed like they thought we all of a sudden had a tonne more time to do work and we could therefore be more productive because we're just sitting at home, we can't do anything. And then it was kind of, I had to essentially just tell myself, you are taking your break, even if you feel like you need to be doing these other assignments that you have, like, I just forced myself to take a break. And I also on weekends, now what I do is I just tell myself, I'm not doing work. For me, like most of the work I'm doing is for MISS, or I've been doing some remote work for a lab or I'm doing grad school applications and emailing potential advisors. So it's easier for me to just be like, on the weekends, you have to take a break. And if I can't do that, then I'll find time during the week like this last Tuesday, the GRFP was due for me. And over the week. Again, I did like work. Um, so I think I agree with both of them about your work life balance is kind of just whatever you make it as long as you're keeping your sanity at the same time, and also feel like you're being productive at other times.
Do you guys mostly work on weekends?
SM: I guess yeah, PhD would work I do Monday to Friday, and then my other projects I do during the weekend, the evenings, I guess it’s kind of work, but it's different work.
EB: So right now in the last month before I defend, like I'm working every day. So actually, my my balance is really bad right now. But normally it is decent. But yeah, the weekends, I kind of leave for either extra side projects that are unrelated to my dissertation, or kind of mindless tasks that I could do when the TV is on, like entering data, and stuff like that, I'll kind of leave all of that for the weekend. So it feels a little bit more relaxing.
And so if you were nailing work life balance, and you really had it figured out, what would your ideally balanced day look like?
SM: I think for me, not necessarily like the nine to five thing, I think that's a very strange, arbitrary kind of, that's when you must work kind of thing, I'd probably do more things earlier in the morning, I’m a morning person and then finish earlier, do some form of exercise, I really enjoy swimming, or go for a run or something. And then I really enjoy cooking, it’s like my sort of downtime, to cook a nice meal and watch a film in the evening. And then just kind of repeating through the days, maybe the weekend, go somewhere, go visit a place or go to nature, or something.
EB: I totally agree, nine to five, that is not my peak work time. I work best from eight until about one or two. And then I can do kind of the less cognitively challenging tasks in the afternoon. But I mean, I'm basically checked out from hard work deep work time by 2:30, 3pm. So I agree. And I've been able to kind of set my own schedule, that kind of stuff. So I do think that that has been good for me. I've actually really tried to do what you were saying, Sara, I tried to get outside and completely check out a couple times a month. So I will go camping, just an overnight like just Friday or just Saturday night and turn off my phone or not be checking my phone, or go for a long hike, a long bike ride, something outside and we're not checking anything. And I have to do that. I for sure have to do that a few times a month. To keep my head clear.
AWS: I'm the complete opposite. I'm most productive from like four to 12, like 4pm to 12am is when I get everything done. And I've been like that all four years in college and all my friends are like, why are you still working at 2am and somehow being productive and I really I can't tell you but that's just how it works for me! My downtime things are always rock climbing or watching movies. Those are like the two things that I especially in school like forced myself, I forced myself to go rock climbing three times a week so that I wouldn't stay stressed out. And I just started going back rock climbing during COVID because I was worried about like being inside and being around other people. So I recently started going back to that but during COVID I've just been like watching movies as my downtime, which I guess wasn't exactly removing myself from work since my computer is what I work on, I'm just staring at my computer more. But my ideal work life balance is definitely working the 4 to 12 which works for me. Um, but then finding and like making myself go do things that bring me joy and also de-stress me at the same time.
That's two interesting points. I think. I think there's maybe sort of an expectation that good work life balance means not working after 5pm or on the weekends. But like you were saying Amani that's not that's not your good work period. So do you think there's too much focus on work life balance having this sort of time constraint?
AWS: Um, I think that the time constraint is important depending on where you're at in your career, because if I was doing a PhD like me working from four to 12, would probably not be a good work life balance, given like needing to go in to do lab work, and things like that, or TA. But for me right now, and for me, in college, it worked. Because I could set my own schedule, I didn't have to have classes until 10am. Like I could make sure I still got the amount of sleep that I needed, but also work super late. I do think that the whole like nine to five thing is just like a very outdated construct that is like not necessary at all, because we're all not robots. And we all have different periods of time that we work well. And as long as you're productive, like, that's what's important. Yeah.
The only time I adhere to those sort of constructs about time, is I try not to email people on the weekend with work stuff. And I think Sara, you also had something in your email signature about, you might send emails during work hours, but you don't expect people to respond during that time.
SM: So something I think I said, I'm generally on the email 8am to 6pm, during weekdays, and I don't tend to check them on weekends. And I just put it there more for reminder for myself to like, Okay, I need to switch off at 6pm. So I said, more for myself than other people.
So something that also came up in almost everybody's answers was screentime, to some degree. And I think that's something I've struggled with a little bit in trying to find some work life balance during COVID. Because all I want to do when I stop working is watch trash on Netflix. But then that means that when I go to bed, I feel like I've just had constant screen time all day long! So Sara and Ellen, you both mentioned kind of unplugging a little bit is that is that just because you'd like to do those things or because you also actively try and get off the screen a bit?
SM: actively trying to get off the screen. Something I've implemented them recently is that I used to watch this trashy stuff on YouTube over breakfast. So now I do this thing where I don't check my phone for at least an hour after I wake up. And then I read a book for about 15, 20 minutes in the morning while I have my breakfast, and then I start my day. And that's really, it's a small thing, but it actually is really improved my start to the workday, it's just much more calm not having all these expectations for all these messages and things I have to answer. I can choose how I start my day.
EB: Yeah, that sounds great. I should probably not pick up my phone first thing in the morning. But I normally take my dog for like a half hour walk in the morning. And I don't check my phone at all. And there's a little nature trail right by my house. And so I can walk around for a half hour and there's a little pond and, and I don't see a lot of people normally and that's a really nice start to my morning, setting myself up for a nice day calmly walking by myself with the dog. I guess I don't really think much about my screen time I mostly do activities because I have to or I'm gonna go crazy. I have a lot of energy, I have to do some sort of activity almost every day or else I will be super distracted at work. Like when it was nicer weather, I would be mountain biking three times a week and running and all this, it's nice to get outside and get some sun. And so I don't do it specifically for the screen time. But a byproduct of that is Yeah, My head feels a little bit clearer and helps me go to sleep probably.
I wish I liked doing energetic activities. I just have the worst of all of that, that I'm super distracted when I'm working. And then after work, I'm just like a slug, just moving very slowly through the rest of the evening! I think a lot of it as well though is that I've been living all over the place this year because of COVID. And so it's hard to get into a routine of doing that kind of thing.
AWS: I relate to that. I after I finished school, I moved home to California, which had really high cases still and so I wasn't going outside. I was just staying at home with my six year old sister and my two moms. And we were kind of driving each other crazy a little bit.
And then I moved back here with my other mom…. I just dropped that I have like four moms but my parents, my parents split up and one of my moms lives in California and one lives in New York. And they both have partners so that makes more sense for people!! I've moved back to New York so I've been like driving, Going outside places, but I couldn't make a routine because I didn't know when I was going to leave California. And now I'm here and I I don't know when I'm starting the job that I had lined up after school, which would require me to move again. I get the not being able to figure out any sort of a routine for yourself.
I keep saying, when we when we move and get settled in all, go to the gym, and I'll have great work life balance! But I think I need to find ways of incorporating that more. I really like Sara's idea of not looking at my phone for the first hour, instead of reaching for that and lying in the dark, Looking at my emails. So what are some small things kind of in line with Sara’s not checking the phone for an hour?
EB: don't have those email notifications, like I don't have any of my notifications on. You guys are talking about checking email over the weekend. No! no, just don't, I just don't even during the work day, it makes me more productive. I don't have notifications on from anywhere that someone could reach me at work until I'm checking those things.
AWS: When we started minorities in shark sciences, that was the first time that my email was blowing up consistently. And I was like, I need to figure something out. Because I feel the need to reply to them like in the moment that I get them, even if it's on the weekend, even if it's late at night. So I just like don't get notifications on my phone, because it just eases the stress of constantly thinking about if I had an email that I needed to reply to.
So it's about sort of avoiding procrastination, so that you then feel like you deserve to take some time off. Quite often I'll finish work at five and just feel like I didn't actually do anything. And then I have the pit of guilt in the evening. So I think that would be something, trying to be more efficient during the workday would actually help my work life balance.
EB: I agree. I actually have I have two to do lists. I have a daily to do list and I have a weekly to do list. And so like my daily one I'll do in the morning and my weekly one I'll typically do Friday or Monday. And when you can check a bunch of things off, you're like great, I did a bunch of stuff today and I agree that that helps you kind of turn off for the day because you feel like you accomplished what you set out to accomplish for the day.
SM: Adding to that also, something I learned recently is to also add things that weren’t on your to do list But you've accomplished as well. So extra things, you might not have done maybe two things but you actually did these three other things, so you can see Okay, actually, I've actually been quite productive.
So, here's some tips from an article I found in The Guardian about work life balance, which is actually from 2014, but still relevant. And actually, I think we've covered a lot of this. So one was step away from email. And another was just say, No, I'm not sure how easy that actually is to do often, especially if you're a student and there's power dynamics. How often have you felt able to just say no, to doing something because you felt like it would negatively impact your work life balance.?
SM: I was so bad, I'm getting better. But I'm so bad at usually saying no, because I get really excited about things. I have ADHD, so I always have ideas bouncing around in my head. If someone presents like a really cool idea to me, I have to be like, Okay, that sounds really cool. I need maybe a day or two to think about and then I'll get back to you. And then often will be like, yes, it's a cool idea, but I don't have the time for that now, so rather than saying yes straight away I give myself like a day to think about it.
And another thing it said in this article was, don't be a martyr. And I think that's possibly also not just for you, but to try and create a culture of better work life balance. So if there's somebody at work, who's always like, Oh, I have to be here until 9pm, or I was working all weekend, it kind of creates an expectation that everybody should be doing that. Has anybody encountered people like that or Felt like your work life balance was off because of things that other people have said about their work?
EB: I think that is a huge problem with graduate students. And I actually feel the pressure comes more from the students themselves than it does necessarily from the PIs. Because exactly what you're saying there's this culture of staying in the lab super late at night. So actually, this year I just started leaving work when I'm actually not working anymore. So like 3/3:30, I just leave the office - well not I mean I don't go to the office anymore but back when I went to the office pre COVID - I would just leave at 3:30 and I was like, I'm not being productive. I'm just messing around right now, I'm not doing anything worthwhile and I think that probably people in my office thought it was weird. And then after I had been doing it for a few weeks I, we were talking about it in the office and I just said, Well, I'm not being productive and I'd rather go for a run and then do another hour of work before I make dinner at home. And people actually were quite impressed that I was doing it and I think that it was healthy for them to maybe see someone that had figured out when is the best time for them to be working and I know it certainly helps me, and I felt weird about it at first but continue doing it because it was better for me.
Do we appropriately value work life balance and science and academia? And by that I also mean, do we value it but also make space for it because it's all it's very well to say to students, As a PI For example, I definitely want you to work reasonable hours and have a good work life balance. But then you can also then expect them to be firing papers out perhaps as rapidly as the field makes us think we should be able to.
SM: So I think there's more recognition that it is important. And I think COVID has definitely changed the conversation. People are appreciating the importance of good mental health and doing things outside of work as well.
EB:Yeah, I think one of the big problems actually are all the unpaid expectations that come in academia. So, reviewing journals, if you're Teaching, holding office hours and study sessions before exams, being on committees, like all these commitments really add up and they kind of take away any work life balance you can have because they're all these work expectations that you're not getting paid for that aren't put into your work time budget. I don't know necessarily the solution because those things I think are good for students and good for community building, but either they need a monetary value or they need to be somehow put into people's work budget of time.
Yeah, I think that hits the nail on the head really for how I think about this, that work life balance is important for mental health - I mean, there's only so much I can do in a day before I crash and during the pandemic, like Sara was saying at the start, I've also really gotten very close to burnout just because I've really struggled with that balance. But it's also because I'm trying to apply for permanent jobs which is basically like a full time job. You know, I spent the whole day today reviewing a grant which is not factored into my work time at all. So I feel like there's an increasing appreciation of the importance of work life balance but the system itself doesn't really give you space for that.
SM: Yeah, I think because it has this sort of research culture, To have competition and like publish or perish, and I think we need to move away from that. And then sort of rebalance things. I think we can do better science when we're more balanced. You know human beings. To make sure that we're healthy and relatively happy, and then we'll have better output.
Is it possible to achieve good work life balance in a pandemic when we're mostly Stuck in our houses or neighbourhoods?
EB: really hard, I think it's very challenging. I don't think it's going to be as good right now as it would be if we were, you know, physically going into an office and then coming home. SM: Yeah, I think also being kind to ourselves and adjusting our expectations and not putting so much pressure on ourselves and being protectionist stuff that I'm working on. I'm guilty of those things. Um, I think can can go some ways I think to getting a better work life balance.
Yeah I think adjusting expectations for both the work and the life parts of the equation, because I think I actually sometimes feel a little bit guilty that I'm not… Doing downtime right? Like I'm just sitting watching trashy TV instead of… I'm quite creative so I used to do well I still do a lot of painting and, you know, linocuts and that kind of thing and I actually feel a little bit guilty when I’m Doing something that's not like instagramable downtime, you know, like baking cupcakes or going for a hike or something like that. Am I alone in putting pressure on myself for how I relax? Yes haha.
AWS: How you relax doesn't matter as long as it works for you. For me if watching four hours of movies on a Sunday is what relaxes me but for someone else not looking at a screen is what really relaxes them like there's nothing wrong with how either of us is doing and it's just what works for you as a person.
Assuming that Coronavirus does eventually go away and we return to slightly more normal times, what's the thing that you're most looking forward to doing either in your work time or your downtime?
AWS: work time for me would be starting the fellowship I was supposed to be doing from June to August this year. I was going to be doing a fellowship in Miami. Doing shark research for a year and learning more about it and hanging out on a boat and doing workups on sharks. That's what I what I was supposed to be doing! And I'm super sad that I haven't been so whenever COVID decides to go away, that's the work thing that I'm really looking forward to and the Life thing is like hugging friends and hanging out with friends less than six feet from them. It'll make me feel so much happier to be able to not worry about like, Oh, I'm going to see this person hanging out outside but are we actually far enough away from each other? Has this been person been taking COVID as seriously as I have been? you know like all these things you have to factor in now, when you want to go see someone that you didn't have to think about before and it just causes anxiety and makes making plans not as enjoyable.
EB: Since I'll be starting a new postdoc, I would like to go into an office just to be able to meet people and work more closely with people. I think I've actually missed the office environment of just like, Hey, I have this idea. Can we talk for 10 minutes, you know that I feel like especially for grad students. It that's a really important part of your development as a scientist is bouncing ideas off each other and communicating. It will be great to be back in that type of an environment. And personally, I was supposed to have a mini kind of honeymoon in December, going to New Zealand for two three weeks, which is cancelled obviously, So, hopefully December 2021 we will be able to go on that trip.
SM: I think for me workwise it would be nice to have less zoom meetings! do more meetings In person, I can get zoom fatigue. Um in terms of the personal i think i a bit more spontaneity, like going to dinner with friends. Not so much planning like oh do I need a mask for this or which venue Should we go to blah, blah, and then also do a little bit of travelling, maybe go see some more mountains. I really Enjoy hiking.
Well, fingers crossed, we will all be able to do those things soon! And thanks so much for hanging out.