Blog Archives

What have I said yes to?

As scholar-teachers, all professors at R1 universities are expected to devote time towards research, teaching, and service.  My expected ratio of 60-30-10 for my “40” hour workweek was described to me when I was hired.  It doesn’t really work out that way very well unless you are an expert at time management and saying no.  Most professors work way more than 40 hours a week to get everything accomplished.  I read recently it was more like 60-80 hours per week, including weekends (thank goodness I don’t work in Wisconsin).  Plus, saying no, when you stand in the shadow of the tenure monster, is difficult.  If I say no to this person or this project or this committee now, will it come back to haunt me later?  This is the question that keeps many an assistant professor up at night tossing and turning.  Read the blogs.

I didn’t do a good job saying no my first three years as an assistant professor.  Let’s just say that in Fall 2013, just before my mom died, I did a back of the envelope calculation and figured out that between classes, research, and advising I was interacting with roughly 220+ students.   Go ahead and laugh if you’re running a calculus program or managing introductory biology, chemistry or physics lab courses.  Get it over with.  It’s all relative.  In a small department like mine, you sit on multiple committees.  And with my interests in environmental change and sustainability, I was identified pretty early on and asked to participate in a couple of larger university initiatives focused on these topics.  Lastly, I was also trying to establish an international and interdisciplinary research program.  So lots of stuff to do, people to manage, projects to get up and running.

Now I am not complaining.  I love challenges, and took all of this head on.  However, as I head into my third year as an assistant professor I am seeing the need to slow down and change things up if I want to survive long-term and have some measure of success.  And as awful as it sounds, the deaths of both my parents last year put a lot of things about life and living into perspective for me.  A final lesson from parent to child.  So no is my new, old favorite – my mom told me once that no was the second word I learned to say.  My brother had to learn to say no last year at work when he was taking care of my dad.  He told me the other day he is still reaping the benefits and getting what he needs to get done.

Saying no to things though, I’m finding out means saying yes to others.  Options, in some cases, that I didn’t even know existed.  Now I have time to finish that manuscript that’s been languishing in my files, learn a new data analysis program that I’ve been wanting to test with an old dataset, and really network with other researchers in order to develop new projects.  It’s a bit bewildering.  Just what have I said yes to?

no yes

The Challenge of Being Science

One of my husband’s favorite reminders of his culture versus mine is that the Spanish work to live, while Americans live to work.  I cannot really argue the point with him.  It’s true.  We Americans are a culture of doers.  And in such a culture, that harmless Monday morning question between colleagues – “So, what did you do this weekend?” – takes on a slightly more competitive and sinister meaning.  As one old proverb states, idle hands are the Devil’s playthings.

loiter

But what about loafing?  Daydreaming?  Being lazy as my dad used to chide me?  It seems that recent studies are showing that downtime from doing boosts creativity.  And creativity is absolutely necessary for good science.  A group of researchers at Leiden University found that meditation helped people come up with creative solutions to experimental problems, even when people didn’t really have much experience meditating.  In the experiment, people meditated for just 25 minutes – practicing either open monitoring meditation, letting their minds wander and being receptive to thoughts and sensations in the moment, or focused attention meditation, where individuals concentrated on a particular thought or object.  Open monitoring meditation assisted with divergent thinking, or coming up with multiple solutions to a given problem; focused attention meditation had no effect.   Chilling out in the name of creativity backed by science.  Breathe in.. 2..3..4.. Breathe out.. 2.. 3.. 4..

Being bored has its creative upside too.  I could have told you that by age 10.  I spent a lot of boring snowy no-school days making artwork or writing stories after a couple hours sledding or skating.  Scientists at Penn State looking into why boredom is good for creativity found that people get creative because they’re bored.  In the study, people watched video clips that influenced them to feel relaxed, bored, elated, or distressed.  Then the researchers gave people three words and asked them to come up with a fourth that linked the first three words together.  The bored study participants did the best at this convergent thinking task to find a single, correct solution to a problem.

So why the focus on being?  It is a topic that came up in recent conversations with a friend of mine.  We were talking about how the mad rush to produce as a non-tenured assistant professor leaves me feeling empty and ultimately unmotivated.  However, over the holiday break I didn’t work.  Well, okay I did about 4 hours worth of work over a 2 week period in reviewing graduate applications for our department.  But back to the no-work.  I hung out with my husband.  I watched Spanish TV without subtitles – they have some very interesting talk shows that skewer politicians and make fun of dating.  Pequeño Nicolás!  I drank good wine and ate amazing bread and cheese.  I connected with real people in a non-work context – family members and new friends.  I enjoyed being.  For the first few days, I was chomping at the bit to do stuff.  Anything.  By the end, I was extremely reluctant to come back to the United States and jump back into work.  I was relaxed, maybe a little bored, and my creativity battery felt recharged.

This spring term, I have been given an opportunity.  A semester without classroom teaching.  In the past I’ve funneled my creativity into student learning but now I need to focus it into my research program – research, grant writing, and article publishing.  So now, as my friend reminded me, the challenge is to continue this relaxed feeling while forging ahead productively.

References:

Mid-Semester Slump

by Donald Warner

I’ve officially reached the point of semester that my life is being held on by a single string ready to collapse the balance I have been trying to make of school, work, sleep, food, extracurricular activities, and the occasional “fun” activity (I know, what a concept!) With the looming smell of stuffing and sweet potatoes in the near future, and lowering temperatures that are perfect for just sleeping all day, I thought I’d post some tips to help fellow researchers, as well as students on how to make it through the November drag.

1 . Schedule, schedule, schedule

What?!? Plan ahead?!? Don’t procrastinate?!? What is this?? The concept of actually sitting down and planning out when to balance all of your responsibilities has always seem foreign to me. In fact, the concepts of procrastination and improvisation should really be tattooed on my back in fancy Shakespearean lettering because they are such engrained concepts in my mind. However, as my improvisation turns into “hell, I’ll just lay in bed” I’ve realize that this already flawed strategy is definitely not going end well. Something as simple as just planning out homework, sleep, meals, and even fun can help tame the overwhelming feelings of distraught and doom that are likely arising at this time. If you are one of those people who already do this, and have been doing this for years: teach me your tricks, slash give me a bit of whatever elixir of motivation you’re drinking. If not, this false sense of control on your life will sure to help you manage to not crash and burn as you daydream of pie baking in the oven.

2. Think of the big picture

As much as I aspire to marry rich and simply live lavishly on Malta, with a baby hippo and a fancy cocktails, it’s helpful to stay realistic. The work we are all doing now is going to help our future, so that if the million dollars that Nigerian prince entrusted you with does not actually follow through, you have some experience and good grades under your belt. This is especially important with research. With our research, there are real world benefits, people will benefit from the work we’re doing now. This humbling thought can often jump start me to be productive and get moving.

baby hippo3. Stop making excuses

But my stomach hurts! Sirius Black is still dead! It’s too cold to function! I am famous for finding any sort of reason to halt all work, crawl into bed, and cuddle with my stuffed hippo until I lull into sleep. Excuses, as well as procrastination and improvisation, also may as well be tattooed on my skin in fancy letters. If you too are an excuse maker, don’t worry you are not alone. Taming the voices in your head that tell you to stop is a skill that is hard to master, but it is imperative that you learn as soon as possible. So much of life is mental, and if you can power through the head colds, the sadness, and the cold weather that is slowly freezing your innards, you will feel so much better about yourself, and life. Take the extra time to come into the lab and work, or make the trek to the library to do homework, and try to stop finding excuses!

4. It is okay, and imperative, to relax.

Relax! Please! Find some time! And this is coming from someone who’s anxiety resume is stronger than their academic one. If you get behind on your scheduling, or miss a homework assignment; it’s okay. The world is still spinning; the Simpsons are still on air; and the apocalypse has not yet begun. It’s healthy to be a bit stressed and to put some pressure on yourself to get work done, but within reason. Life is hard, my friend, and won’t get any easier any time soon. You’re allowed to sneak a quick TV episode or a power nap without having to feel guilty.

Owen (hippo) and Mzee (tortoise, "Grandfather" in KiSwahili). When Owen lost his family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the Kenyan villagers who found him took him to a park where he was adopted by Mzee.

Owen (hippo) and Mzee (tortoise, “Grandfather” in KiSwahili). When Owen lost his family in the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami the Kenyan villagers who found him took him to Haller Park Animal Sanctuary near Mombasa, where he was adopted by 130 year old Mzee.

5. We are social creatures! Never forget

Social interaction?! My super introverted self’s stomach is already churning just thinking about it. But no really, people can be okay. Find some time to study with friends, schedule some research with a buddy, or even go get coffee (or tea) with someone you think is cute. It can be easy to feel super alone in this world, especially when you get caught up in your work. Remember that everyone is struggling, and that having someone to talk to, even if it is just every now and then, can make life a little more enjoyable.

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In the thick of the mid-term, when we are all buried beneath an overwhelming amount of things (just things mind you!!) that must be done yesterday – heh! – Donald’s wise words gets to the heart of who we are above and beyond being mad, white-coated scientists slaving away over hot computers in the lab.  We’re people first.  People who have problems and hang ups and sadness and happiness.    To be human beings, not merely human doings, we do have to think of the bigger picture, relax (and stop making excuses not to do so), interact with our fellow Earthlings – human and otherwise, and schedule in our priorities.   *raises a fancy cocktail and gives a baby hippo a hug*  Here’s to all of us who’ve made it through the midterm, and all the best as the steam locomotive accelerates to the end.  ~JS

A Day Off In Mozambique

winter on the praia

Beach at Inhaca Is, Mozambique

Welcome to winter here in the Southern Hemisphere! It’s just cold enough to stay out of the water between the breeze and the cool water temperatures at 30C. Although if this were in northern NY, where I grew up, there’d be no question of sitting on the beach. This is bikini weather in NNY.

beachinhaca portuguese
Yesterday, 25 de Junho, was Mozambique’s 39th Dia de Independencia. The equivalent of the USA’s 4th of July, except their parties are accompanied by loud, danceable music not fireworks. The party started on Tuesday night and continued on through the following day. We heard the sound systems of the Baixa in our hostel up the hill all night long – loud enough for me to distinguish the lyrics. I’d have put in my ear plugs except that Jordan and I needed to catch the ferry boat to Inhaca Island at 7am, er 7:45am. African time.

I'm on a boat. :)

I’m on a boat. 🙂

working fishermen

Fishermen and dhow, Bahia de Maputo, Mozambique.

Most businesses and institutions are closed on Dia de Independencia. We did see women selling foods on the street, fishermen and sailors, police, and the bars (the World Cup isn’t over). Knowing that we would be FORCED into a day of rest, we decided to get out of the city. Inhaca Is. is about a 3.5 hour boat trip. The island is located just north of Maputo Special Reserve, and is home to about 6000 people – Mazingiri Ronga, other Mozambicans of Portuguese and other ethnic group descent, and visitors. In 1951, the first marine research station in southern Africa was established on the island due to its location and biodiversity – some of the southernmost coral reefs, dugongs, mangroves, many fish and invertebrate species, along the East African flyway for birds, beaches, etc. Many opportunities for research. There is also Portuguese Island to the north. If I recall correctly, that is the island where the Portuguese originally used to come in to trade with the locals for ivory. Although I’m not 100% sure and I don’t think any test pits have been tried.

classroom
We worked pretty steady all last week at the workshop, and as we had to wait a week to get the research car fixed, we’ve been taking field trips around the city and out. Dra. Helena and her husband Wilson drove us out to Pequenos Libombos Dam – which supplies the agricultural area of Boane/Massaka with water and regulates the Umbeluzi River flow. Nuria and Islatina took Jordan and I to Xipanene Market. You can buy anything there. Anything. We stuck to the clothing and food sections, but I know you can get the latest phone technology recently liberated from careless travelers, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you could purchase other things for a price. Jordan bought some extra clothes and I got 2 capulanas in lovely shades of orange.

inhaca mangrove

Mangroves and fishing boats, Inhaca Is.

Only the size of my thumb

Back to work today. It’s time to pick up field supplies for the research and food. And then spend time in quiet and alone. Once I get to the field, it will be people all the time with me and constant translation. I expect to be exhausted so I’ll store up on energy now.

proof we're alive

Proof we’re alive!

maputo skyline night

Maputo skyline at night from the Bahia

And Now For Some Happy News

We deal with lots of bad news in our field of research.  Natural disasters, ongoing drought, household economic loss, environmental destruction, political change, epidemics, etc.  Bah!  Sometimes I wonder why more folks in our field aren’t taking depression medication – or maybe they are and I just don’t know it.  So when we get happy news we should definitely bask in it’s sweet aura while we can.

Lately, we’ve had a run of good news in our lab – internships, graduations, honors, and awards.  So here’s a virtual HIP HIP HOORAY!! shout out to our lab.

Alyssa Nutter will be traveling to The Gambia this summer for her master’s internship with the PEACE Program out of St. Mary’s College of Maryland.  She will be serving as both a program and research assistant, aiding American and Gambian student participants, teaching stats, and working to develop a comprehensive assessment model for the study-abroad program based on ethnographic methodology.   Dr. Bill Roberts, an applied anthropologist, program director and founder of the field school, will be her supervisor this summer.

Rebecca Alberda landed a masters internship with START, a national consortium for the Study of Terrorism And Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland.  Her fieldwork will take her to Washington, DC – our nation’s capital and a place that experiences frequent disasters in the movies (and some would say in government).  While Rebecca can’t tell us a whole lot about her work this summer, it will involve improving risk communication to vulnerable populations for new technologies related to…  Hold on, someone is at the door.     Just kidding.  Effective risk communication surrounding new technology is extremely important – particularly in the area of natural disasters, epidemics, and other environmental change.

Jordan Tompkins‘ masters internship will take her to southern Mozambique where she will assist her supervisor, Dr. L. Jen Shaffer, with data collection on the Signals in the Noise research project.  conduct a small research project of her own mapping local mental models of the connections between ecological change and malaria.  In addition to her work as a research assistant, Jordan will be helping teach interdisciplinary research methods at a training workshop for Universidade Eduardo Mondlane students and faculty.

Katie Chen will graduate with honors this May from the anthropology department.   Her paid internship with the University Research Company, LLC. in the Human Resources/Business Development Department will continue through until early September.  Kate says that she really enjoys her work and hopes it develops into something full time, but if not she plans to look for another internship or job related to Human Resources.  She’s also interested in exploring issues of environmental health related to climate change at some point.  On a more personal note, she’s looking forward to her sister visiting from California this summer and knitting the Fourth Doctor’s scarf from Doctor Who in preparation for next winter.

After graduating with honors this May from the anthropology department, Raquel Fleskes will be heading to George Washington University in the fall to begin a masters in Anthropology.  She’s considering participating in their museum training certificate program.  Raquel also landed a paid internship with the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History for the summer.  She will be lab looking at animal bone samples from the Chesapeake Bay region in Dr. Doug Owsley’s lab.

Amanda Hathaway will also graduate this May.  She’s been working hard in the lab all term to complete our skull catalog.  We are down to 16 skulls that are either unidentified, unnumbered, or both.  I, and the ANTH 222 students, owe her MAJOR thanks for that tedious and long-suffering task!  After graduation, Amanda plans to head out to Colorado for work.

This summer Maria Sharova will be participating in SESYNC‘s Summer Internship Program.  She will be a paid intern working with Dr. Jennifer Hadden on an environmental policy project in UMD’s Department of Government & Politics.  Maria will return to the lab next fall to continue her visual research with historic African images as an honor’s thesis project.

Next Wednesday, 16 April, Jen Shaffer will receive the 2014 BSOS Teaching and Mentoring Award during the annual College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Faculty and Staff Recognition Reception.  I’d just like to say thank you to all my students, colleagues, teachers, mentors, and mentees over the years that have inspired me to do my best.  I also want to say thanks to my mom and dad, both teachers, for teaching me how to teach and inspiring me as well.