Live, work, be passionate

While eating my morning toast (with saskatoon jam!) and tea I ran into what seems to be a perennial conversation on science Twitter. Specifically: how much time should a student put into their research and related studies and how much into the rest of their lives? This is a good question, and there are at least as many answers are there are practitioners, so the best I can do is present my own answer as it relates to my life and, thus to some large extent, what I hope for my own students.

My situation as a graduate student was quite simple compared to some students, although I also expect fairly typical of many. I was single and also childless. I was living a substantial distance from my known support group of family and friends with whom I grew up. I had a great supervisor who cared about my life and my progress. I was generally living close to the poverty line (particularly living in the Vancouver area, which even then was not cheap). And I wanted to finish well and in a reasonably timely manner.

I certainly realize that the “single and also childless” part made, and makes, a huge difference. Speaking from that perspective, I fully know that it meant that I had way more time to devote to my studies as there was no one waiting for me back home or relying on me for a portion of income or for emotional or other support. That said, neither was there anyone built into my life who could act as a support – emotional, financial, etc. – when I needed it. And that latter fact amplified the situation of being quite suddenly thrust into a new context where my main contact with family and long-term friends was via the phone, email, or occasional visits back home when I could scrape up the money for a plane ticket.

There were a number of times in my graduate studies where I felt discouraged and alone. Science is like that; those times never really end for any of us. But even though I have somewhat introverted tendencies, I also knew that I would need support in my new home. Building a network of friends both at my university and beyond was vital. I cannot overemphasize how important those people were to me at the time, and remain to me today a decade-and-a-half later. I can’t imagine having made it through graduate school, with my passion and general sanity intact, without my network. I am forever grateful to them.

I’m also extremely grateful to my Ph.D. supervisor. He knew how to push me when I needed a push, but he also was cognizant of when I needed a break or a pep talk. He set a good example by being at school at a reasonable time in the morning and going home to his family around dinner hour most days. He took holidays with his wife during the summer. When field season came along he often worked longer hours when needed and expected the same from us, but those long days were not the year-round norm. He understood life and let me live it.

The cycle that he presented to me (and I assume other students in his lab from my observations of my “sisters and brothers”) was one that I attempt to emulate to this day in my work-life-passion balance. He loved what he did and worked hard at it when it was time to do so, but he also put a boundary around that work for other aspects of his life. In the same way I loved my studies then, as I do now, and put my nose to the proverbial grindstone with focus and care when it was time to work on my research, coursework, TA-ing, or thesis writing. And, with each of those, after I had accomplished what felt like a good solid chunk in a given day, I knew that I could step away for time alone or with friends.

Science is, I believe, best done in that slow and somewhat plodding way. Last-minute bursts often are disastrous because they do not give the burst-worker the time to contemplate and consolidate during and after each step.

My Ph.D. studies had a circannual rhythm that influenced a varied circadian rhythm. My year began just before Douglas-fir beetles began flying near to Lytton, BC, sometime around mid-April. This was followed up by moving those traps to capture spruce beetles and then western balsam bark beetles elsewhere in the province in May and June. Then the traps went to Princeton, BC, to capture mountain pine beetles from mid-July to about mid-August. And I ended the field season trapping pine engravers, usually in or near those mountain pine beetle stands, until about mid- to late-September. During that April-to-September period my life was consumed with my field work. I know that I missed out on a lot of the summer fun activities around Vancouver that many of my friends took part in. But I also saw some beautiful parts of the province and had many memorable days in the field enjoying the warmth and smell of a sunny summer forest. I still can close my eyes and put myself back into some of my field sites in mid-August form.

Once the traps were all back safely stored for the year, I began to sort trap catches. That, as anyone who does it knows, is no small task. I worked with five species of bark beetles and conducted two to five replicated (12 to 15 replicates of usually five or more treatments) experiments with each of them each year. This meant sorting through hundreds of trap catches under a microscope each “off season” with the goal of collecting and analyzing all of those data before field season began again the next spring. Sorting trap catches, as anyone who has done it knows, is not something done in a flurry of a last-minute overnighter. It is a contemplative process that requires a consistent effort over weeks and months. It is perhaps this practice in my sub-field of science that has helped to influence my overall life work patterns of slow-but-steady. Or perhaps my personality influenced my choice of sub-field. Or perhaps there’s a useful feedback between the two. I’m not sure how that works, but it does.

During the contemplative work of sorting, my mind would also wander to my upcoming plans. And my network of graduate student friends and my supervisor were there to talk about my ideas so that by about January of the following year I was able to start the process of planning field sites, ordering pheromone baits, fixing traps, and generally planning out the next year of field work. In April the process started again. During this entire yearly cycle my circadian rhythms would shift from necessarily rather long days in the field in the spring and summer to what one might consider an approximately normal eight-hour day in the autumn and winter. There is, after all, only so much time that a pair of eyes can stare into a microscope on a daily basis, both physiologically and mentally. I tried to do my best (with varying success) to listen what my body and mind were telling me.

Overall there was an ebb and flow to to my graduate studies, because of the field work, that I know from later experience can get lost if the research is all lab all the time. But is it possible to recognize, and perhaps amplify, the more subtle ebb and flow of purely lab-based research? Perhaps some of the circannual rhythmic aspects disappear, but certainly the circadian aspects can remain. Moving into the role of a PI over the past decade I certainly know that there are circannual rhythms and that those influence my daily rhythms across the year.

Ultimately this whole discussion really points to one undeniable fact:

Graduate school really doesn’t start with graduate school. And a career in science doesn’t begin they day that you walk into your first job post-graduation.

Unlike professional school (medicine, law, dentistry, etc.) or a number of undergraduate degrees (education, nursing, engineering, etc.), there is no likely predefined path awaiting a student at the end of graduate school. When (or if) you do land a job related to your field of study it will likely be reasonably well-compensated, but certainly not at the level of some of the professions mentioned in the previous sentence. In other words, the pay will be fine, but a large part of your “pay” also relates to the fact that you are doing something that you love. So you need to love it. You need to be passionate about it.

But you can’t start graduate school expecting to fall in love with science. You need to love it before you do it, and that means figuring out if you love it before you enroll. As an undergraduate I worked in a lab for a few years in a rather unrelated field to what I do today. I ended my degree by taking a field-based course to see what that was like. I attended as many departmental seminars at my undergraduate institution that I could fit into my study and exam schedule. By the time that I got to the stage of looking for a graduate school I had a reasonable idea of topics that I might like to study, and I knew that this was something that I was passionate about.

This gets me to my final point about how to balance time as a student (and, I would argue, as a PI). In the discussion on Twitter I tweeted that:

I stand by that statement. If you are not heading into STEM graduate school with a passion for science – instead merely merely “doing” graduate school as the next seemingly required step in life – your studies (or job) will be a disappointment even if you finish the task and cross the stage. But if during the course of your studies (or job) the passion is lost due to the pressure of a poor work-life balance, then the outcome is sure to be similarly disappointing.

My hope for students in my lab, and for myself, is that we enter our work with passion and we leave it to the next step with enhanced passion. I know that along the way there are dark periods. I have experienced them both during graduate school (ask me about the second year of my Ph.D. sometime) and during my subsequent career (the UNBC faculty strike last year was one such moment, and there have been others). I am thankful that during those times I have had a network of family, friends, and other social helps that have seen me through. As a PI I work to do my level best to help students to maintain their passion, to celebrate their success, and to be understanding and to provide help as possible during their dark times. (As a professor I hope for the similar treatment from my administration for my students and for me, although I suppose that’s a topic for another blog post some day.)

I am certainly thankful for the excitement of discovery that this career has given me, despite the more difficult times. Those moments of discovery, made by ourselves or others, should be why we ultimately headed down this path to research, teaching, and service to society in the first place. It is what continues to drive my passion and, I hope, yours.

Getting out

For various reasons, over this past summer I have had the opportunity to get out into the field much more than usual – rivaling the amount of time that I was in the field during my Ph.D. studies. While I generally do ensure that I go out several times in any given summer, the frequency and intensity of the field work this summer was beyond what I’ve been used to since I have become a faculty member.

One of the oddest things about being a faculty member, in fact, is the general trend that I’ve noticed (and keep in mind that for personal experience N=1) toward more desk work and less boots-on-the-ground work over the years of my employment. Some of the trend is necessary – when managing a number of graduate and undergraduate students and postdoctoral associates, the general red tape of research takes time and effort to cut through. Some of it is probably a time-management factor of letting some lower-priority items fill summer field work time. And there have been periods where research activities were more overtly lab-based than field-based. But, whatever the reasons, it’s hard to argue that for a biologist, less time in the field is a good thing.

Regular field work is a tonic against DOTS – Distilled Organism in a Tube Syndrome. With the shift of genomics, metabolomics, and other “-omics” methodologies toward easier and cheaper access by many research labs, field work can often mean a quick collecting trip or two – potentially done by someone else under contract – followed by rapid reduction of the study organism to some sort of solute in a water-filled tube. While this has been great for speeding along scientific discovery, it has had the side effect of reducing the amount of contact that investigators have with their organism(s) in nature. In fact, it is possible for many research projects to run off of the samples or data collected in years prior. For instance, in my lab I could simply have graduate students determine the function any number of mountain pine beetle enzymes in a long series of projects using material stored in our freezers. The students would never have to even see a forest or a live (or dead) insect. Those results would be useful and informative, but they would lack the connection to the larger system and would, potentially, be less than relevant in terms of the insect’s full ecological function

Of course, not every research lab “distills” creatures down to a tube of DNA, but it is still possible in other methodological contexts (e.g. DOPS – Dry Organism on a Pin Syndrome) to begin to lose sight of the natural history of the organism. And when that happens, the likelihood of pursuing irrelevance increases.

Regular field work takes you to the periphery of your study system. It is normal to focus on one or a few organisms, hypotheses, and/or systems. Scientists need a substantial level of focus to be successful. But what are the things that are happening around the edges of the system? What other organisms or environmental factors affect my study system? What is my organism doing during times of the season when I may not be normally collecting? These sorts of questions can only be answered by scouting around the edges of your system. And scouting the edges can only be done by taking the time to observe the natural context of your organism in the field.

Regular field work centers your thoughts and allows you to really observe your study system. My Ph.D. work was on the effect that volatile compounds from nonhost trees have on foraging bark beetles. The initial idea for the work came when my supervisor (prior to me working with him) was taking a break from field work and eating lunch in a stand of aspens surrounded by a mountain pine beetle infestation. All of the lodgepole pines surrounding the aspen stand had been mass attacked by beetles. The few lucky pines growing within the aspen stands were untouched. That initial observation was only possible because he was taking the time to contemplate what was going on around him. While such eureka moments cannot be planned per se, they occur best when the opportunity for them has been planned by intentionally spending time in the field. In other words, insight arrives seemingly unscheduled in centered moments. But some planning and scheduling is required to allow for those moments in the first place.

Summer is almost over now, and I am very glad to have been out as much as I have this year. I’m looking forward to a winter of preparing for another field season in 2015. I hope all of you have also had great seasons, wherever your research has taken you, and are already starting to plan for a new year ahead.

Should I pursue this major?

A few days ago one of the academic advisors here at my institution sent me a letter in which a student asked about the utility of a biology B.Sc. I mulled it over in my head for a few days and then responded with (edited a bit to preserve anonymity and for better clarity) the letter below.

In this day of increasing media hyperbole – or dare I call them “attacks” – regarding the value of a postsecondary education, I can understand this student’s worry. For instance, here’s a very recent piece from a big regional/national network that begins with the description:

According to a new study from Statistics Canada, there are some areas of study that you should avoid if you want to get good value out of your education.

This, unfortunately, is what we hear more and more these days. Unlike the pablum normally served to us from the media, I would never argue that someone should not pursue their passion. If their passion is in carpentry, then trade school is the way to go. If they happen to like building cutting-edge technology in their garage, then they should go for it; it turns out that can work out pretty well. And if they really like biology or history or literature or physics, a good place to learn more about those things happens to be a university. When it comes down to it, it’s all about passion. If something is not your passion, then you should not cave in to pressure to pursue it. If it is your passion, then find the best place to explore it further whether it’s technical school, university, or your garage.

One more quick aside: I am bumping into more and more of these queries lately. I suspect it has something to do with a much more difficult economy than has been the case even a few years ago. As something resembling an archetypal GenX-er, I suppose that I have had some experience in this area, as I too graduated into a recession. I’d bet that many of you have thoughts in that regard as well.

Rather than go on any further here, I’d like to present my edited and redacted version of the letter below. Your comments are welcome, of course.


Dear __________,

One of our academic advisors referred your question about whether or not you should pursue the biology B.Sc. major at UNBC to me. Thank you for asking, and I hope that I can be of some help.

Your question is not one that is completely easy to answer. If you are looking for a specific job – and if you know what that job is – then you should find a university degree or technical school certificate program that will lead you directly there. If you are not certain of where you see yourself in five or ten years (and who among us really has that kind of certainty anyhow?) then please keep on reading.

All degrees at universities – biology, chemistry, history, english, etc. – amount to what you make of them. Some university degrees – education, engineering, social work, nursing, etc. – will lead you almost directly to what might be regarded as one general job type. If you take a nursing degree, you end up being qualified to become a nurse. If you take an education degree, you end up being qualified to become a teacher. But, as you note in your question, if you take a biology or a history degree, your qualifications are not seemingly as clear.

So, it depends on what you want. Some degrees don’t lead to a specific career, but also give you lots of flexibility in life. Some degrees lead to – generally – a specific career, but you are mainly locked into that when you are done. No one is ever completely locked in, of course. But certain degrees prime you for quite specific careers.

In other words, the outcome of some degrees is riskier than for others. Perhaps it is appropriate to say that some degrees are more entrepreneurial than others in the sense of entrepreneurial risk.

Biology, of course, is in the no-necessarily-specified-outcome category for the most part. Yes, there are jobs for biologists after their degree. These range from environmental consulting to lab research to academic teaching and research (if you continue on with graduate school) to medicine (if you continue on in medical school) to grade-school teaching (if you complete a education certificate or graduate degree after your biology degree). But none of these is in any way “certain.” Each of them depends on how well you do in your biology degree and how much you embrace and enjoy the subject matter. Each of them also depends on the sort of job opportunities out there at the time that you graduate, and that is not something that anyone can predict (although some will try to convince you that they can).

In my own personal experience, my undergraduate degree was in zoology (animal biology) because I really loved biology and animals in general. I became fascinated with invertebrates and found insects to be particularly cool. I took the opportunities that were presented to me at my undergraduate institution to do lab research, even though it was not on animals. I really and truly enjoyed pretty much every course that I took because they all were showing me new things about the world. I also walked into courses that I thought that I might dislike with an attitude of trying to focus on finding aspects that were interesting to me. Since most of the information in the courses that I took was new, it was not hard to find really cool things about each and every course. For me, it was all about my attitude. Then, as now, I tried to always maintain an attitude of wonder. As a result – because I was engaged in the wonder of it all – my marks when I completed my B.Sc. were very high and I had all sorts of potential options to explore. So the attitude of wonderment served me well back then, and I think that it continues to serve me well today as it opens new doors in research, teaching, and general life.

Because I had developed such a life-long love for biology, and then found out that I also enjoyed the thrill of original research, I decided to go to graduate school. Even during my Ph.D. studies I was not 100% sure what I would “become.” I suspected at the time that perhaps I’d work toward becoming a professor, but I was fully aware that that is not the easiest profession to get into. So I knew that my work in graduate school might not take me to that end point – it did, and I am lucky and thankful that it did, but there were never any guarantees. However I knew that my efforts would prepare me for an interesting career one way or the other, and in the meantime I really, really enjoyed what I was doing.

It’s tempting to look at career opportunities in broad categories – nurse, firefighter, architect, physician, bank manager, accountant. These all exist, of course. But the reality is that most careers – even those on that list – don’t fit as neatly into those categories as guidance counsellors and others will tell you. Many people make very interesting careers for themselves in areas that you likely are not even considering.

I guess what I’m saying is this: when you head into your post-secondary education, take the time to explore the thing or things that interest you. Cultivate an attitude of wonderment. Talk to your professors. Talk to people you know who have careers that interest you and who seem to generally find interest in their daily work. Be willing to be flexible now, and throughout life. Work very hard. Be sure to find ways to enjoy each and every class that you take. And realize that there is no way that you can predict right now where the economy will be in four or five years and where your interests may lead you by then.

All the best in your decision, and feel free to email me with any other questions you may have.

Dezene Huber


So there you have it. I’d be interested to hear your ideas on improving this letter.

What are your experiences?

What is the value of a non-professional university degree?

Email paralysis?

Science can not operate in a vacuum for very long, and substantial scientific progress is only possible when communication between scientists is efficient and effective. This has always been the case – scientists have always communicated in person at conferences and across distances through letters. Recently, of course, the rate of information exchange has increased exponentially compared to our Victorian-era forebears. Years from now when our chapter of scientific history is written, I am positive that historians will attribute the current rate of scientific advance to exceptional communication technologies.

Email, of course, will play no small part in that explanation. Email has changed a great deal since the days of ELM and PINE when fewer people were using it and getting a message in our inbox was sometimes even a novelty. Today inboxes overflow and explode with messages ranging from annoying spam, to trivial updates and newsletters, to urgent messages that need rapid attention. Email is a great technology, but like any technology it’s a double-edged sword. You need to control it, or it will control you.

Over the years I have fought to avoid being controlled by email and I think that I have generally won that battle. I am by no means successful all the time, and what follows is no email panacea. But I thought that I’d share a few of my methods that ensure that lines of communication flow well through my office while keeping me from pulling my hair out and declaring email bankruptcy.

Consolidate – Remember when you had one email address and that was enough? These days many of us have several email addresses ranging from professional to personal to addresses associated with some of our professional or other tasks (e.g. if you’re a journal editor, you may have a journal-specific email address). I have found that by sending all of my email to one location – I use Gmail for this – I reduce time flipping between accounts and I catch important emails sent to my secondary accounts more rapidly.

Control the pace of the game – Email is like tennis or – for Canadians – like hockey. You need to take control of the game and keep it moving at a pace that suits you. If you find that you are being overwhelmed with a torrent of emails, you need to slow the game down. Three tricks that I use (and should use more often) when I start to feel buried are: (1) only looking at my email at set times in the day; (2) using a tool like Inbox Pause that keep you from seeing email until you want to see it; and (3) not necessarily replying immediately to a message if I think that by doing so it will just result in a volley of back-and-forths.

Don’t use your inbox as a to-do list – This is always a major temptation. But in the end it just makes for a huge list of messages and tasks lost in the shuffle. Instead, have an actual to-do list in a notebook on your desk (and then archive the email), or use a system like Baydin’s Boomerang that sends messages away and then returns them when you need to act on them.

Filter – If you get update emails from your organization, or newsletters from various entities, they can quickly clog of your inbox. They are generally not the sort of thing that you need to read immediately. So use your email program to apply a filter to them and get them out of your inbox, and then take a look at that folder every now and then as you see fit.

Destroy spam – Most universities and other organizations catch some spam on the way in. However, their nets are not always stringent enough for me. Gmail is great for ditching spam, catching all sorts of excess stuff. If you find you are getting too much spam in your inbox, talk to the IT folks at your organization and/or look for efficient spam filters that can be added on to your current system.

Unsubscribe – Speaking of filtering and spam, are all of those newsletters and other subscriptions coming into your inbox really necessary? How many of them to you actually read? How many of them did you really consent to in the first place? I have personally gone on major unsubscribe binges in the past, but ultimately things just begin to pile up again. Recently I have found a service called Unroll.Me that will capture mass emails and give you the options of keeping them coming to your inbox, unsubscribing, or putting them into a daily digest. This tool has, over the past few months, helped me to unsubscribe or “roll up” over 450 newsletters (etc.). Who knew that I had that much coming into my inbox? And I suspect that I’m pretty typical.

As scientists and educators we need to communicate with each other, with our students, and with many people and organizations. But the irony is that our tools can lead to a communicative paralysis that brings everything to a grinding halt. As I alluded to above, my suggestions are  no means a road map to utopia. But doing this has helped me to reduce my general email anxiety and has let me get tasks done when they need to be done. My hope is that some of these ideas might help you to continue to develop your own system and to allow for efficient and effective communication.

Searching for a promising scholar

  • Are you deeply interested in insect ecology?
  • Are you excited about exploring the intersection of plant defenses and insect overwintering survival using both traditional field work and cutting-edge molecular tools?
  • Would you like to do your graduate degree research at a small, research-intensive university in a great community surrounded in all directions by forests?
  • Are you looking for an opportunity to develop a network of collaborators from a variety of other institutions during your graduate studies?

Our lab is looking for a graduate student (M.Sc. or Ph.D. level) or a postdoc, and a promising scholar of natural history, to join us in studying how pine host defenses affect mountain pine beetle larval overwintering success in its normal hosts (e.g. lodgepole pine) and a novel host (jack pine) across its expanding range. What are the tree chemical defenses that larval mountain pine beetles experience in their early development? How long after a tree has been killed do those defenses remain in the tree tissues? How do those defenses affect larval growth, development, and physiological preparation for surviving the extreme cold of a northern winter? What are some of the specific genes that are instrumental in helping the larvae obtain enough nutrition from the toxic environment of their host tree to allow them to survive the winter? What are the effects of climate and a new host species in a new geographical range on larval survival? How might these affect the spread of this invasive insect?

Work on your project will take place wherever the beetles and the host trees live. That will mean extensive field work in the summers, including trips to other parts of British Columbia, into Alberta, and perhaps beyond. In addition, there will be plenty of lab work throughout the year using techniques ranging from analytical chemistry to RNAi.

This work is funded by a major grant and is an extension of five years of previous successful and highly collaborative work. That means a number of things…

First it means that there is secure funding for several years of your research. This includes funds for materials, travel, conferences, and publication fees. It also includes funds for student stipends. However I would strongly encourage applicants to look for their own funding as well. More on that in a moment.

Second, it means that there is a preexisting network of institutions and researchers who you will be able to work with during the course of your degree. The “network” grant ensures that we continue to maintain close collaborative relationships with other scientists at the University of British Columbia, the University of Alberta, the Natural Resources Canada Canadian Forest Service, and the University of Minnesota. A strong collaborative network, such as this one that we have developed over several years, is beneficial to you as a graduate student both by providing research opportunities and because it may lead to further career opportunities beyond your graduate studies.

Third, it means that you will be working on a solid foundation of results, data, and ideas. You will have the opportunity to push hard against the envelope of our current knowledge. You can find a fairly up-to-date list of papers that have come out of our collaborative research so far at this link. I would specifically recommend that you carefully read those papers that I linked a few paragraphs above – as well as this, this, this, and one more to appear here shortly – prior to considering whether this position might be for you.

Graduate studies are not easy by any stretch. Ask anyone who has done them, or fellow students who are in the midst of their work. But they can be the most richly challenging and rewarding time of your life. While doctoral degrees are awarded to successful candidates for their ability to develop and defend new ideas, explore hypotheses, and communicate findings to various audiences in a robust manner, those things are only an outworking of something deeper. A course of graduate studies is, more often than not, a journey of maturation as a scientist and a scholar. So I am looking for someone to join our research program who can demonstrate that they are ready to embark on that road. Specifically, I am looking for someone:

  • who has shown that they are capable of committed work over an extended period of time,
  • who can work equally well in the lab or in the field,
  • who has shown that they are capable of scholarly output (e.g., papers, presentations at conferences, etc.) even early in their scientific career,
  • who is able to develop novel hypotheses and pursue them with passion,
  • who has a sincere and scholarly interest in insect ecology, and
  • who wants to explore the very edges of what we know about the natural world.

While this project is well-funded, I will be looking for applicants who either have their own funding in hand, or who show the potential to pursue and receive their own funding. As noted above, our grant will allow for a suitable and livable graduate stipend. But finding your own funding is an important part of the graduate degree process, it looks great on your CV, and it provides you with one more layer of security during your time as a student. It also serves to free up some money that can then be used to support more experimentation, to hire valuable research assistants to help with your project, and to allow more trips to present your findings at conferences, etc. UNBC awards entrance scholarships for excellent students, maintains a number of other awards, has a tuition rebate for Ph.D. students, and provides a large number of TA-ships to supplement your income with pay for teaching experience.

If you come to work in our lab, you will find a pleasant group of people excited about their research. You will become a part of a close-knit group of researchers who are interested in many of the things that you are working on. You will also find UNBC to be a vibrant community with lots of great things going on. The surrounding city, Prince George, is a great place to live with many cultural opportunities in town and fantastic outdoor activities all around. And you can’t beat the reasonable rents or the five-minute commutes – or commute by bike in the summer and skis in the winter!.

If you are interested in this position, please email me at for further details or to ask the questions that you probably have.

Thank you for reading this, and I look forward to hearing from you.