The Effective Scientist

22 03 2018

final coverWhat is an effective scientist?

The more I have tried to answer this question, the more it has eluded me. Before I even venture an attempt, it is necessary to distinguish the more esoteric term ‘effective’ from the more pedestrian term ‘success’. Even ‘success’ can be defined and quantified in many different ways. Is the most successful scientist the one who publishes the most papers, gains the most citations, earns the most grant money, gives the most keynote addresses, lectures the most undergraduate students, supervises the most PhD students, appears on the most television shows, or the one whose results improves the most lives? The unfortunate and wholly unsatisfying answer to each of those components is ‘yes’, but neither is the answer restricted to the superlative of any one of those. What I mean here is that you need to do reasonably well (i.e., relative to your peers, at any rate) in most of these things if you want to be considered ‘successful’. The relative contribution of your performance in these components will vary from person to person, and from discipline to discipline, but most undeniably ‘successful’ scientists do well in many or most of these areas.

That’s the opening paragraph for my new book that has finally been release for sale today in the United Kingdom and Europe (the Australasian release is scheduled for 7 April, and 30 April for North America). Published by Cambridge University Press, The Effective ScientistA Handy Guide to a Successful Academic Career is the culmination of many years of work on all the things an academic scientist today needs to know, but was never taught formally.

Several people have asked me why I decided to write this book, so a little history of its genesis is in order. I suppose my over-arching drive was to create something that I sincerely wish had existed when I was a young scientist just starting out on the academic career path. I was focussed on learning my science, and didn’t necessarily have any formal instruction in all the other varied duties I’d eventually be expected to do well, from how to write papers efficiently, to how to review properly, how to manage my grant money, how to organise and store my data, how to run a lab smoothly, how to get the most out of a conference, how to deal with the media, to how to engage in social media effectively (even though the latter didn’t really exist yet at the time) — all of these so-called ‘extra-curricular’ activities associated with an academic career were things I would eventually just have to learn as I went along. I’m sure you’ll agree, there has to be a better way than just muddling through one’s career picking up haphazard experience. Read the rest of this entry »





Inexorable rise of human population pressures in Africa

31 08 2016
© Nick Brandt

© Nick Brandt

I’ve been a bit mad preparing for an upcoming conference, so I haven’t had a lot of time lately to blog about interesting developments in the conservation world. However, it struck me today that my preparations provide ideal material for a post about the future of Africa’s biodiversity.

I’ve been lucky enough to be invited to the University of Pretoria Mammal Research Unit‘s 50th Anniversary Celebration conference to be held from 12-16 September this year in Kruger National Park. Not only will this be my first time to Africa (I know — it has taken me far too long), the conference will itself be in one of the world’s best-known protected areas.

While decidedly fortunate to be invited, I am a bit intimidated by the line-up of big brains that will be attending, and of the fact that I know next to bugger all about African mammals (in a conservation science sense, of course). Still, apparently my insight as an outsider and ‘global’ thinker might be useful, so I’ve been hard at it the last few weeks planning my talk and doing some rather interesting analyses. I want to share some of these with you now beforehand, although I won’t likely give away the big prize until after I return to Australia.

I’ve been asked to talk about human population pressures on (southern) African mammal species, which might seem simple enough until you start to delve into the complexities of just how human populations affect wildlife. It’s simply from the perspective that human changes to the environment (e.g., deforestation, agricultural expansion, hunting, climate change, etc.) do cause species to dwindle and become extinct faster than they otherwise would (hence the entire field of conservation science). However, it’s another thing entirely to attempt to predict what might happen decades or centuries down the track. Read the rest of this entry »





Death of the question

17 12 2015
Zombie apocalypse

Zombie apocalypse

It’s something I’ve noticed over the years going to scientific conferences and seminars — the number of questions, and more importantly their quality, have declined.

Sure, it’s anecdotal and it might just be that my perspective has changed, but I’d bet my left testicle that it’s true.

But why? There are possibly many contributing factors, such as increasingly jam-packed conferences with multiple concurrent sessions, a massive and increasing number of participants and less time for each of us to present our work. However, I think the main reason is that we’re now all glued to our electronic devices.

Yes, I’m talking about the Twitteratti, but also the tablet-tossers, laptop-layabouts and the iPhone-idiots. We have a saying in our family when we spot a smartphone zombie oblivious to oncoming traffic that she/he looks like a “… spastic fingering a sandwich” (not my quote, but I am particularly fond of using it).

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Challenging the traditional conference model

28 08 2015

keeping-the-audience-awakeAn interesting take on conference culture by Diogo Veríssimo (mastermind behind I Fucking Love Biodiversity).

Just a few weeks back, more than 2000 conservationists got together in Montpellier, France, for the 27th International Congress on Conservation Biology (ICCB). I have been attending these conferences since 2008, and once again had a blast. Yet as I went through the usual talks, posters, work meetings, and this and that social, I could not help but feel that the traditional conference model was hindering, not helping me, maximise my benefits.

In my experience of conservation conferences, the content is largely delivered via a one-way channel, and attendees listen passively until the chance for a question or two comes up at the end. If time allows, that is, and it rarely does. Given the huge costs (and the footprint) of these events, how can we maximise the outcomes of these meetings?

Let’s look first at what is currently the backbone of most conferences anywhere: the oral presentation. Currently, the gold standard for the vast majority of ICCB presenters is the 15-min presentation, and those who are denied that chance often say they have been “downgraded”. I find this unfortunate.

My biggest criticisms of our current approach to content management during a conference is that it leaves the discussion to happen informally and without the benefit of the collective knowledge that comes together at these meetings. Many conservationists are keen to avoid long-winded lectures in their classrooms, but when we come together, those concerns seem to go out the window. The Q&A after a talk should be the most important part of a session for either the presenter (expert feedback can save a lot of time and resources) and the audience (who otherwise cannot focus on what they think is important).

Giving sessions enough Q&A time, which I argue would have to be as long as the time given to presentations, would imply having fewer presentations — unless we have shorter presentations. The ICCB already has the speed presentation, a format that lasts just 5 minutes. Why not make that the default? Yes, presenting your content effectively in 5 minutes is an acquired skill, but not much different in kind from writing an abstract to a paper. Having presented in both traditional and speed format, I am convinced presentations strongly suffer from the law of diminishing returns, meaning the difference from the audience point of view ends up being small. This is particularly true if fewer talks means more time for the audience to interact and ask about the things in which they are interested, rather than what the presenter thinks they should learn. Read the rest of this entry »





Write English well? Help get published someone who doesn’t

27 01 2015

imagesI’ve written before about how sometimes I can feel a little exasperated by what seems to be a constant barrage of bad English from some of my co-authors. No, I’m not focussing solely on students, or even native English speakers for that matter. In fact, one of the best (English) science writers with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working is a Spaniard (he also happens to write particularly well in Castellano). He was also fairly high up on the command-of-English ladder when he started out as my PhD student. So. There.

In other words, just because you grew up speaking the Queen’s doesn’t automatically guarantee that you’ll bust a phrase as easily as Shakespeare, Tolkien, Gould or Flannery; in fact, it might put you at a decided disadvantage compared to your English-as-a-second- (-third-, -fourth-, -fifth- …) language peers because they avoided learning all those terrible habits you picked up as you grunted your way through adolescence. Being forced to learn the grammar of another language often tends to make you grasp that of your mother tongue a little better.

So regardless of your background, if you’ve managed to beat the odds and know in your heart that you are in fact a good writer of science in English (you know who you are), I think you have a moral duty to help out those who still struggle with it. I’m not referring necessarily to the inevitable corrections you’ll make to your co-authors’ prose when drafting manuscripts1. I am instead talking about going out of your way to help someone who really, really needs it. Read the rest of this entry »





Australia should have a more vibrant ecological culture

13 10 2014
Another great social event bringing ecologists together

Another great social event bringing ecologists together

I’ve always had the gut feeling that Australia punched above its weight when it comes to ecology and conservation. For years I’ve been confidently bragging to whomever might listen (mostly at conference pub sessions) that Australians have a vibrant academic and professional community of ecologists who are internationally renowned and respected. However, my bragging was entirely anecdotal and I always qualified the boast with the caveat that I hadn’t actually looked at the numbers.

Well, I finally did look at the numbers – at least superficially. It seems that for the most part, my assertion was true. I will qualify the following results with another caveat – I’ve only looked at the smallest of samples to generate this rank, so take it with a few grains of salt. Looking at the 200 most-cited ecologists in Google Scholar (with some licence as to who qualifies as an ‘ecologist’ – for example, I ditched a few medicos), I calculated the number of ecologists in that range per 100,000 people for each country. Of course, even the country of designation is somewhat fluid and imprecise – I did not know where most had received the bulk of their training and in which country they had spent most of their time, so the numbers are (again) only indicative. Excluding countries with only one highly cited ecologist in the top 200, the sorted list comes out as: Read the rest of this entry »





We generally ignore the big issues

11 08 2014

I’ve had a good week at Stanford University with Paul Ehrlich where we’ve been putting the final touches1 on our book. It’s been taking a while to put together, but we’re both pretty happy with the result, which should be published by The University of Chicago Press within the first quarter of 2015.

It has indeed been a pleasure and a privilege to work with one of the greatest thinkers of our age, and let me tell you that at 82, he’s still a force with which to be reckoned. While I won’t divulge much of our discussions here given they’ll appear soon-ish in the book, I did want to raise one subject that I think we all need to think about a little more.

The issue is what we, as ecologists (I’m including conservation scientists here), choose to study and contemplate in our professional life.

I’m just as guilty as most of the rest of you, but I argue that our discipline is caught in a rut of irrelevancy on the grander scale. We spend a lot of time refining the basics of what we essentially already know pretty well. While there will be an eternity of processes to understand, species to describe, and relationships to measure, can our discipline really afford to avoid the biggest issues while biodiversity (and our society included) are flushed down the drain?

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