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How Does Research Environment Shape Science and Life Outside of Science?

Jesse Miller collects field data to investigate how soil, habitat connectivity, and fire history influences plant communities in the Ozark Mountains. Photo courtesy of Jesse Miller.

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in the “Behind the Science” series by Laurel Haavik that peeks into the lives of scientists. See other posts in the series.

By Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

All scientists try — or should try — their best to adhere to the scientific method. They pose a curious and contemporarily relevant question about how something works, usually with a general idea of what they expect to find; they cleverly design a way to go about testing this question; they put in some hard work to carry out an experiment; and they examine the results to see if a preconceived idea about the question makes any sense.

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D.

Usually it doesn’t, and it’s back to step one. This seemingly ancient cyclical process is the foundation upon which scientists base their lifes’ work. Traditionally, this work took place either out in the natural world or in the laboratory. As we expand our knowledge base in an era of rapid growth in many scientific fields, people are also pushing the boundaries of where science takes place (click here for an interesting example). As scientists are specialists in their subject field, they also become specialists in their research environment. I wondered which aspects of working in different research environments are similar, and which are different? And how does dealing with these common and unique challenges transfer to life outside of science? To gather some insight, I interviewed a scientist working in each of four research environments: outdoors in the field, and indoors in the laboratory, the office, and the classroom.

Jesse Miller, Laura Sirot, Frank Koch, and Stefanie DeVito-Martin. Photos courtesy of Jesse Miller, the College of Wooster, he USDA USDA Forest Service, and Stefanie DeVito-Martin.

Jesse Miller, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California-Davis, is a field ecologist who studies plant communities. Laura Sirot, an associate professor at the College of Wooster, is a biologist who studies the evolutionary underpinnings of sexual behavior, using insects as model systems in her laboratory. Frank Koch, a research ecologist with the USDA Forest Service, works from his office to model and evaluate risks posed by invasive species. And Stefanie DeVito-Martin, a postdoctoral teaching fellow at the University of Kansas, is a biologist who studies the efficacy of alternative teaching methods in college classrooms.

Laurel: What is the biggest challenge that you face, and reward that you reap, in your chosen research environment?

Jesse: One challenge for me is being unsure if research topics I choose are useful, and whether anyone else will be interested. Field ecology research takes a tremendous amount of effort, and we all have doubts at times about whether it will pay off. But, I have become more confident in my ability to determine what is meaningful and worthwhile over time — having more experience in the field makes it a lot easier. One of the biggest rewards of my work is presenting my results to people who can use them to help make management decisions. It’s great to know that my work may actually benefit the ecosystems I am studying. And seeing people make use of my findings gives me a lot of confidence for future projects. I would also say that getting to be out doing fieldwork with cool plants in beautiful places is a great reward too (and one that comes earlier in the research process).

Laura: I am conducting research at a small liberal arts college. The biggest challenge that I face is that I don’t have as much time as I would like to think carefully and deeply about my research throughout the year. The biggest reward that I reap is two-fold: the joys of discovery and training undergraduates to become scientists.

Frank: The biggest challenge I face is balancing new work with existing projects. I’ve found that my particular skill set (statistical and geospatial modeling and analysis) is pretty different from other scientists who work in my area (invasive species, primarily insects and diseases that affect forests). This seems to bring lots of offers to collaborate on projects. A lot of these new projects are really exciting and have the potential to break new ground. I consider myself a problem solver, so I like it when people reach out to me because they think I can help solve a thorny research problem. However, I always have lots of ongoing projects that need to be finished! Maybe my biggest challenge is saying “no” sometimes. Part of my issue with saying “no” is that I get the biggest reward; in other words, I am most satisfied with my work when I can find solutions to these difficult problems. Often, this means that I tried something that no one else has tried before, and it turns out that it worked! If I said “no” to a lot of the aforementioned collaboration offers, then I fear I’d miss out on the subsequent rewards of success in these projects.

Stefanie: My biggest challenge is working with human subjects. My background is in molecular biology, where I worked exclusively at a lab bench, a place where it’s pretty easy to control for extraneous variables. In the classroom, it’s difficult to establish a good control for my research question that’s both fair to the students and to the results. And the control often has to be something that I’ve come up with on my own. Testing new, alternative teaching methods usually means there is no standard teaching method to use as a comparison. So, sometimes it’s not entirely clear how to evaluate how well students are learning. The rewards are immediate and exciting, though. I often sit in on classes where my experiments take place. I get to witness firsthand when new teaching tools improve student learning. Positive feedback from the students when they realize these new methods work is also very gratifying.

Laurel: What is the most important skill that you’ve developed while conducting research that also transfers to other aspects of your life?

Jesse: During graduate school, I became much better at focusing attentively. Many (most?) parts of science are pretty tedious. Over time, I’ve become less resistant to the parts of science that don’t seem ostensibly fun — I even came to enjoy a lot of things I used to be somewhat uncomfortable with (like manipulating and analyzing data). I frequently work with students who are very bright but seem to be most limited by their ability to focus. Actually, working with younger students is what has made me realize how much I have improved my own ability to focus. We live in a culture full of distractions and multitasking, and I think developing the ability to concentrate for significant periods is really valuable, for getting work done, and also for general health and sanity. From my research, I’ve learned to break down tasks or problems into approachable steps and then deal with them one-by-one. The ability to focus and solve problems has come in handy in many parts of my life.

Laura: Persistence.

Frank: Methodical persistence. As a researcher I’ve learned that scientific discovery is an incremental and sometimes very slow process. You have to trust that the process works, even if the interval between eureka moments isn’t always predictable or to your liking. For instance, even when your research appears to be stalled completely and going nowhere, you need to recognize that this represents progress of a sort, since at the very least this rules out some of the choices you could make going forward. I find that if I adopt this perspective, I’m a lot less frustrated on those days when, for example, my analytical results don’t turn out as expected, or if I can’t quite understand the analytical mess sitting in front of me.

I think the appropriate colloquial term for this is stick-to-it-iveness. Perhaps I’ve always had it to some degree, but research has certainly helped me to hone this skill. The methodical part I definitely picked up from research. Now, whenever I’m trying something unfamiliar to me (e.g., coaching a kids’ robotics team, learning to play beach volleyball), I’m comfortable with minor setbacks and slow progress. I’ve learned to focus on the fun aspects of the process, rather than worrying about reaching some supposed benchmarks that will indicate that I’ve succeeded.

Stefanie: Patience. Research takes so much time, especially when you’re working with human subjects. I’m expected to get publishable results in two years from studies that require at least five years to produce actually meaningful results. In teaching efficacy studies, three- to ten-year experiments are common. It’s difficult for me to publish regularly at this pace. Most people in my field have multiple multi-year projects operating at once. The interview process for students is also time consuming and requires a lot of patience. It often takes several iterations before I can extract useful data from an interview or survey.

Laurel: Conversely, what is the most important skill developed outside of research that enhances your ability to do research? Where did you learn this skill?

Jesse: I think one thing that has helped me with research is being able to relate to people from many different backgrounds. My work often involves interacting with rural community members, land managers who work for small and large government agencies (some of whom have no ecology training), and researchers from other regions or countries. All of these people come from somewhat different cultures, and I think the diversity of life experiences I had before coming to academia helps me have meaningful interactions with all of them. It’s easier to talk to someone if you have some idea about their background and worldview. When I was younger, I worked in the service industry. After I got out of college, I spent several years working for government agencies and private companies. I taught at a community college where most students were from poor, rural families. I got to know a lot of people from different backgrounds at all of these jobs. There are a lot of things I enjoy about being in the academic world, but developing and maintaining relationships with people outside of academia is very important to me, and I see it as a key responsibility for a scientist (especially one who is funded by public money).

Laura: Patience. I am not sure where I learned it, but, as the youngest of four children, I had to wait around a lot!

Frank: Creativity, especially in the sense of an open-ness to identify and apply unconventional things (methods, data sources, etc.) to my work. I was an art major as an undergraduate. I tell people that being an art major changed my way of seeing things; what this translates to is an ability to brainstorm, try something new (and often unconventional), and not worry about mistakes or failures along the way, since I can (almost) always revisit, revise, or start over. When you approach invasions from a modeling perspective like I do, the consequences of mistakes or failures are pretty minimal compared to researchers whose work has a large field or lab component. I’m usually working with data collected by other people — that’s its own kind of research constraint, to be sure — but if I make the wrong analytical choices and have to start over on a particular project, it costs me hours, or a day or two at most, not the months or weeks that some researchers have to invest in collecting and interpreting data.

Stefanie: I think my powers of persuasion and reasoning have been most helpful for my research. In order to implement my experiments in classrooms, I often have to convince reluctant faculty to agree to change class-time protocols to make room for my education research agenda. I explain that my work contributes to our understanding of how students learn; something we as scientists knew very little about until recently. If I can convince faculty that the methods I’m using have worked for others and there’s good reason they will be effective in their class, then I can usually get them on board. Still, some are more easily persuaded than others.

Laurel: What limitations does research place on your life? And how do you cope with the challenges that those limitations present?

Jesse: My research involves a lot of traveling for fieldwork. I’ll usually spend several months of the year working in remote places. There are generally limited social opportunities in the areas where I work, and I’m usually away from friends and family. But, the fun of being outdoors in beautiful places doing work I really like helps make up for these drawbacks. I usually make new friends wherever I go, and fieldwork has taken me on a lot of interesting adventures. During the times when I am not in the field, which is most of the year, I have a great deal of flexibility with my work. The flexibility is fantastic — one of the great perks of the job, I would say. And this helps make up for having field seasons that take over my life completely for a few months of the year.

Laura: I feel like I have to work year round to keep up with the pace of research that I would like to have. Therefore, it has limited the amount of time off I have taken to take care of myself, spend time with my family, and do other things. I am currently working towards the philosophy of “slow research,” where I try to feel less pressure to get my research done quickly, just consistently.

Frank: I’m not sure research places too many limitations on my life. The kind of research I do requires little more than fast computers and access to data. I have a lot of freedom in terms of my schedule and what I choose to prioritize at any given time. As long as I take the long view (and avoid arbitrary deadlines that artificially increase my stress level), there’s always time to get projects done, eventually. The bigger problem for me is making sure I’m in the best work setting. While I can do a lot of my work at home, I tend to be most productive (and most creative) when I’m in the office, where I have lots of potentially useful resources at my fingertips (including other researchers). So, I guess my coping strategy is to maximize the amount of time I’m working at the office! Because of my kids, this becomes more difficult during the school year, but I’ve always found it to be manageable.

I think a lot of researchers have problems with work-life balance; i.e., their work becomes their life! They’re always working on a manuscript or a funding proposal, or corresponding with collaborators, even when they’re supposedly on vacation. Some of my closest colleagues are like this, and it seems to work for them, but it doesn’t work for me. What has worked for me is to set aside time every week that is specifically reserved for non-work-related things: family activities, volunteer activities, and personal fitness/wellness activities (volleyball in my case). I’ve found it’s better to schedule these time blocks and stick to the schedule, otherwise you slide into the “work vortex” a little too easily (“Let me just check my work e-mail…”). This is a lot easier if I adopt the long view and ignore the temptation to treat all work-related tasks as if they’re urgent (because they usually aren’t).

Stefanie: There are very few logistical limitations with classroom research. Compared to lab-bench research, which tends to be very time-sensitive, research projects in the classroom are actually very flexible in terms of when the work gets done. I just have to stay one step ahead of the class, ready with surveys for the students at critical times (like after exams). For the most part, I have these queued up and ready to go on my computer, so I can easily keep up in real-time with my current work, while also focusing on tasks associated with other projects.

One major limitation is that it is difficult to find jobs that will allow me to do education research. Education research is a very small field right now and new positions that focus exclusively on this kind of research are rare. This has become a bigger problem for me lately, as I start to look for a permanent position. There are also geographic constraints in my job search, because my husband and I eventually want to live close to family as we plan a family of our own. I think it will be difficult for me to find my ideal job niche in a location that is acceptable for me. I get pressure from my family on the location aspect and pressure from my advisor on the job aspect. This is my current struggle, and I’m really not sure how it will work out in the end.

Laurel: In what ways does research enrich other aspects of your life?

Jesse: My research focuses on plants, and understanding why they grow where they do. I came to this work originally through an interest in ethnobotany, particularly the cultural uses of plants as food and medicine. I am personally interested in plants from many different perspectives. I am a gardener, and I am interested in sustainable agriculture and landscape design. I also make herbal medicines. And I am interested in restoring landscapes that have been degraded or converted to other uses. So I see plants through several different lenses. For me, community ecology is a fulfilling way I can make a living working with plants, and, I hope, doing work that helps us understand and restore biodiversity.

Laura: It has allowed me to form friendships and wonderful collaborations with amazing people. It has also taken me around the world to see many things I might not have seen otherwise.

Frank: I find that people (both kids and adults) are really interested in what I do as a scientist. I get asked lots of questions, and many times these questions are only tangentially related to my work; they’re just sort of science-related in a general sense. I think this may be because people figure that, since I’m a researcher, I’ll be analytical and will give them a thoughtful answer (which I will, whenever I can). Maybe most people trust scientists to be credible, and expect them to be an authority on all sorts of “scientific” things (not true, of course, but it’s nice to be appreciated). At any rate, I think being known as a researcher enriches my interactions with all sorts of people.

Stefanie: Conducting rigorous research has given me a better perspective on how science is portrayed in the media. It’s very clear to me when skewed results are reported, there is clear bias in a study, or data is over-exaggerated and conveyed to the public as fact. Understanding the scientific process and being a participant in it has greatly improved my ability to communicate it to others. I think there are so many ways that primary education in the United States could be improved so that more people can be appropriately skeptical of poorly-reported science. So, most simply put: doing science has made me a better citizen.

Each research environment has its unique challenges and benefits. Field work takes monumental effort in terms of time and energy, yet being outside in beautiful places makes the sacrifice of lonely and exhausting travel to remote places worth it. Lab work is time sensitive too, and because it can be completed around the year, pushes researchers to produce results quickly, though it is a great way to train young students in the research process. Working in the office as a modeler is extremely flexible in terms of when (and even where) the work gets done (because working at home is an option too), mistakes require little time to correct, and there are many opportunities to collaborate with other biologists — maybe too many! Classroom studies may take years to complete. Working with human subjects poses a larger challenge than with other animal or plant subjects in controlling for the influence of extraneous variables. Yet the rewards are immediate; watching students master the material more quickly and effectively in real time is extremely satisfying!

Aside from these differences, I heard mostly commonalities from the researchers. The rewards are in the applications of research. Who benefits from the work? Being able to see firsthand their work take effect in society is very important to the researchers. Along these lines, an ability to relate to other people is critical to successful research, no matter what the environment. Life in and out of science is full of human interactions, even though working with people may not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think of a career studying plants, insects, or diseases. Persistence and patience and focus, whether garnered from life or scientific experience and training, are integral to the scientific process. The researchers have learned to recognize that errors are part of the process, and even some enjoyment can come from making mistakes, redirecting efforts, and trying again a different way. This transfers amazingly to life. It helps us learn to appreciate the journey, the daily events, rather than over-focusing ahead to the destination, to deadlines and future goals, ultimately culminating in the end of our lives.

The researchers also mentioned that they have to put conscious effort into limiting their research time, otherwise it easily leaks into their personal time. Fortunately, all of the research environments offer some flexibility in work versus personal time, something that maybe we all need to take advantage of more often. Our best ideas may come to us when we are well-rested and de-stressed, perhaps even during a vacation. If we thought of vacation time as a time to unconsciously process our work time, then maybe we would be more motivated to make it a priority?

I am inspired by insights from others on how they approach their research and their lives outside of research. After all, that is how we as humans learn, from watching and listening to others.

To find out more about the researchers, check out their websites:

Jesse Miller

Laura Sirot

Frank Koch

Stefanie DeVito-Martin

Laurel Haavik, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Kansas, where she studies the interactions between insects and the trees that they eat. Follow her on Twitter at @ljhaavik, and check out her blog Science Shapes Lives.

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