Little things: small habits that help my science focus and productivity

Author: Brianna

Here’s another old post that was initially drafted some months ago. More thinking about work habits.

Focus is a fickle creature sometimes. Getting consistent, high-quality work done without burning out (or wasting too much time trying to optimize my ability to get that work done) is a challenge – and finding the right balance of routine and change is important, too.

As I switched from “work mode” to “browse the internet for 10 minutes before I meet my friends for lunch mode,” I did a couple things that made the shift more clean mentally. Then I decided I would share with you some of these little things I do, mostly without thinking about them, to help me work when I am working and relax when I am relaxing.

At work, I listen to music when I am working. When I start doing something else (email, chatting to friends who drop by, reading blog posts, tweeting) the music goes off.

After reading this Dynamic Ecology post about work hours in science, I started tracking my time. I do it in a very loose way, tracking only academic-related things (different science projects, email, fun science/academia reading, paper reading, etc) and not any other life activities. I use a free timer for Android called TimeSheet; it’s simple and has nice features. It’s been enlightening seeing how much work I am truly doing during the day. Knowing that it’s running reminds me to stay on task or read just one more paper even though I’m a bit bored. Also interesting: seeing how the peaks and troughs smooth out to a quite respectable average.

If I’m stuck in a procrastination loop or just really struggling with what I’m working on, I reset by going for a walk outside and often by making a cup of tea before I sit back down to the work at hand. Smaller version: close all programs and close my laptop, get up, stretch, sit back down and begin again.

I change my level of planning detail on a pretty regular basis. Right now, my outline for the week is very loose and vague (e.g., today’s list shows work on a phylogeny project in morning, lunch + walk, work on the postcrania project all afternoon plus some dissertation specimen planning, a Skype call, and a library book return task). You’ll notice that those aren’t very accomplishment-focused, other than returning the library book. Other times I work best if I map out very specific tasks to specific times of day. Other times I am motivated by setting discrete tasks and saying I’m done with work for the day when I am done with them. No one thing ever seems to work for me forever, so I’ve learned to just roll with whatever motivates me most at the time.

I use Chrome Nanny to block tempting websites like Twitter during specific times of day. Usually just in the morning; by afternoon, I tend to be in a working groove and capable of discipline.

On days when my focus seems totally shattered, I’ll do the “mental reboot” I mentioned earlier (walk, tea, or shut laptop) and then work in painfully tiny timed increments. When I’m really having a rough time, I start with 15 minutes. (You can type into Google, “Set timer for 15 minutes.” Magic.) I can do whatever I want after the 15 minutes, but for those 15 minutes I am not allowed to do anything but work. No bathroom break, no tea, no just-check-the-email-for-a-second. This bite-sized goal helps me work back up to more usual 50-minute chunks of focused work with short breaks in between.

If I am working on something and have distracting thoughts – about other research projects, about something I just remembered I need to do later, about a really great name for a cat, whatever – I write it down on scrap paper and leave it for after my work session.

Priorities in research doings (or: knitr, mammalogy labs, and motivation)

Author: Brianna

One of the nicest things about graduate school, for me, is the control over my schedule. I had that in undergrad too, but more constraints because of more classes. Also I was still riding horses almost every day, which cut out most evenings. Why is control over my schedule so great? Because I am obnoxious about my work habits and I think I can get better work out of myself when I follow my nose.

I drafted this post a few weeks ago in a fit of inspired work time. (I’m still just as excited about knitr, by the way. And the paper I mention is getting submitted in the next week or two, with full data and the code formatted all pleasantly thanks to knitr.)

You guys know the way I think about work habits all the time: I have detailed writing strategies, I enjoy settling into routines and then semi-frequently breaking them, I spend time thinking about nature of motivation. About the only thing that stays really constant is that I’m a morning person, so I don’t really do work past 7pm except in dire circumstances or…moments of pressing inspiration.

Which is to say: yesterday I was working on R code for a really neat project on horses from the Paisley Caves of Oregon, and as I was working I was pondering its eventual inclusion with the paper itself. So I was trying to be thorough, you know, including code to save the plots and commenting things nicely and such. And then I thought, what the hell, learning to use knitr and rmarkdown to make nice outputs has been on my to-do list for awhile, let’s learn it.

Which is more or less why I wound up working last night until about 8, when the grumbling of my stomach became too much to ignore. (You’ll note that the other half of Fossilosophy would snicker at this, as Kelsey sometimes doesn’t even warm up until around that time in the evening.)

Because I was having fun. So much fun. Do you guys REALIZE how cool knitr is??

Right, about priorities: yesterday I tasked myself with working on writing mammalogy labs. That is also a cool project that gets me really excited about science and teaching, because I get to design an entire semester’s worth of labs. And also I am feeling internal pressure to make forward progress on it because it has slipped down on the priorities list thanks to preparing two posters for SVP.

But I was really excited about knitr!

So you know what? I worked on my code and knitr. Because damned if I’m going to waste the kind of excitement that helps me learn important tools I’ll use in just about every research project ever, while also moving forward the project that is probably closest to submission of all my projects.

This is the glory of having few to no hard deadlines this semester, a luxury that I recognize is rare and thus will milk for all it is worth. I will still write all the mammalogy labs; a day or two will make zero difference. How silly it would have been to let the internal guilt meter decide what to work on when I was truly excited and motivated about something else that also offers me long-term research benefits.

Extra credit links:
A Beginner’s Tutorial for knitr
Knitr with R Markdown
Getting Started with R Markdown, knitr, and Rstudio 0.96
Drifting towards deadwood, or not: learning to use R (interesting thoughts on putting in the time to learn big new skills; same thought process I use to make myself put in the time to learn things like knitr)

Posts I have found useful that are about getting into and going to grad school

Author: Brianna

I had excellent mentoring as an undergraduate. Among the many wonderful things about being in the Hopkins-Davis lab was their attention, when the time came, to giving us good and detailed advice throughout the graduate school application/admissions process. Potential labs to apply to, yes you really do need to apply for that NSF GRFP (thanks Sam!), feedback on essay structure, sympathy + a kick of motivation when all the deadlines collided, a sounding board for the Actual Decision About Where To Go For Grad School needed to be made, and more.

Anyway, there’s a new crop of undergrads at the UO pondering grad school, and I promised to write up a collection of blog posts I’d found useful. They’re mostly focused on Biology-type or at least science programs, because that’s what I do. I post the list and my comments here in hopes that it may be useful to other readers too! Feel free to add your own suggestions, particularly more recent posts, in the comments.


Dynamic Ecology (a great blog to read in general!) with some thoughts on what to do before and while applying to graduate school.

Clear and concise advice on the whole thing (with a math/comp sci focus) from Matt Might, including book recommendations, what he looks for in grad students, what to do if you’re rejected, and lots more. Actually, his many posts on grad school/research/academia are well worth taking some time to read as a current or future grad student; you could start with the ‘related posts’ down at the bottom of that one.

Contacting professors

Writing to me” (about graduate school) from Female Science Professor. Discussion of levels of quality, and her likelihood of responding, from form letter to very well-considered.

Advice on choosing and applying, including emphasis on finding a potential advisor, in geology. From Mountain Beltway. (Listen to his advice about file-naming for your CV.)

More specific advice on contacting potential advisors, including some direct examples of emails, from Neurotypical?.

My general advice: be polite (use Dr. or Professor in the salutation, check that you haven’t left any copy/paste errors if you’re reusing parts of an email, don’t go on for paragraphs, show that you’ve done your homework), ask questions, definitely contact current students, try as hard as you can to actually meet professors of interest before applying to work with them, ask friends and colleagues for labs they know of that might be a good fit, and Google is your friend for finding potential labs you might not have otherwise heard of.


My grad school application essay” from Female Science Professor, including rules on not talking about how you have wanted to do X since you were 5 years old. And a really amusing shot at the Platonic ideal of a bad applications essay.

Things you should do and not do in your personal statement, from Prof-Like Substance.

Excellent advice on asking for letters of recommendation from Arthropod Ecology. (You know it’s a good post if I’m actually linking to a website THAT USES PICTURES OF SPIDERS IN ITS HEADER.)

Another note from me: start early. Submitting things at the last minute = mistakes, and almost certainly means you haven’t had enough people read and give thorough feedback on your application materials. Having good, critical editing is invaluable for the personal statement and research essays. Ask research mentors! Ask current grad students! This can be tough if you’re still taking classes, so plan ahead. (You will probably still end up scrambling at the last minute. If you do, try to take the brunt of the suffering yourself; don’t, for example, ask for a letter of rec with 3 days’ notice.)


Good questions to ask current (biomedical) grad students.

It’s not an interview,” pay attention to cost of living, and other advice on grad school interviews from Not the Lab.

If you’re wondering what to wear (which I certainly did), I’d say it’s about comparable to what grad students wear at conferences. Which doesn’t solve the problem if you haven’t been to conferences. Happily advice on conference-wear for my general area of science is much easier to find than on interview-wear. In short, something you’re comfortable in, and that is less casual than jeans but more casual than a suit, is probably fine (though I saw both jeans and suits when I interviewed). Be prepared for weather: cold places are cold, especially during interview season. When I interviewed at Harvard we got ~3ft of snow overnight and it took extra days to get home. Fun! If you want more detailed recommendations than that, here are a few more takes on the idea (mostly aimed at women): How to dress for a conference like a fashionable lady scientist, Women’s attire at AGU (geology meeting!), and a beautifully bitter/rebellious/uplifting “What can I wear to this conference?” poem from the kickass Meaghan at Mary Anning’s Revenge.

Choosing a program

Dr. Isis on two really important features to ponder: funding and placement.

Brief advice on several questions about choosing a program, from advisor choice to geographic preference to teaching opportunities, from Sociobiology.

Note that there are many differing opinions on going for a Masters degree before jumping into a PhD program. For example, this Dynamic Ecology post on choosing a program argues why doing a Masters can be a very good idea (and has other good advice besides). For what it’s worth, both halves of Fossilosophy came out of the same undergrad lab, and one of us is doing a MS first while the other went straight to PhD. We are both happy with our respective choices.

I will note that making the final decision was really tough for me. I think I could have been quite happy and successful in any of the three graduate programs that accepted me; in some ways that made the choice easier because it was probably hard to truly screw it up, but in other ways it made the choice very difficult indeed. Talk to people about it — I had many discussions with my undergrad advisors, my friends and labmates, and my family while mulling the choices over. There are many variables to consider and it’s a deeply personal decision. Don’t forget that, if you have more questions at this stage, you can still be in contact with your potential advisor and/or labmates to ask about more things you want to know.

That seems like a sufficient amount of material for now. Happy reading!

Google Glass and paleontology collections: keeping a level head

Author: Kelsey

Today we continue on our Google Glass adventure! Check in here and here to see what we’re doing and why.

Confession time: At this point in time I know only a rudimentary amount of programming. This only becomes a problem when I get a brilliant idea (my Morse Code App will exist… one day) or Google Glass doesn’t do something I want it to do. Well, short of taking a crash course in shoddy programming, I decided to create a “physical app” to address my predicament.

The quandary: To take a picture with Glass, you say “Ok, Glass, take a picture”. The computer then beeps happily to you as it takes a ‘screen grab’ of your life. Now, our version of glass did not get the update to aim Glass’ camera before a picture is taken (this is a common complaint among those wandering Google Explorers). So, every time I took a picture, I found I that I tilt my head about 30 degrees to the right.


Either that or we have a serious problem with our drawers

I’m not sure if this is because all the weight of Glass is on the right, or I naturally incline my head about 30 degrees, but I needed a way to keep my head level as I took pictures. When I was a kid, I used to play with my dad’s level, assessing the stability of my Barbie house and bunk bed (yep, I had a bunk bed/fort/space ship… on reflection I’ve significantly downgraded since then). So I decided to create a device to hold a small level in front of my left eye.

After a quick trip to JoAnne’s, I acquired a teeny level my kid-self would be jealous of. I raided the NPL supply closet and came away with tongue depressors, B-52 (an adhesive), and twisty ties. One hour later, it lived!


Behold! Our product shot

Notice how far out the level is compared to the glass. That’s because Glass uses refraction to make the image appear farther away than it actually is. The level uses good old-fashioned corneal focusing. That day I achieved two goals: I provided the entertainment for the day by strutting around and I also managed to take level pictures.


This represents a beautiful moment in my life

In the end, the device is more of a training tool than a permanent addition. Once I had the feel for what “level” was, I was able to remove the device and still take even shots with Glass. Then again, why would I want to take off such a classy addition?


NPL: they tolerate me so well

Special thanks to Angie and Cissy for the photoshoot.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part II

Author: Kelsey

Recap: One of my projects this summer was testing Google Glass for the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) here at the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences. We are interested in testing curation potential. After many rather artistic drawer shots and some casual photograph comparisons, I decided to suit up and get systematic. If you’re just joining us, check out Part I here!

Goals: My primary interest is in data preservation, so I’ll be focusing on the object and text resolution, including degree of pixelation, lighting conditions, and glare. I decided to compare Glass against another small, mobile device: the iPhone5.


Setting: The set of drawers I decided to photograph houses a set of preserved insects (sadly, no DNA here). The external dimensions of the bottom cabinet are 59.5 x 71.2 x 121 cm (w x l x h). The average drawer width and length is 54 x 66 cm. The only light sources are overhead fluorescent bulbs. The temperature was around 85 degrees F (29.5 C) with a humidity around 60%.


Not shown: cabinet of extra undergrads


Parameters: I am testing the “hands off” potential for Glass, so I only used voice commands and the touchpad when I had to. None of the pictures needed to be “shared,” just saved on the device, so no wi-fi or Bluetooth connection was necessary. I wore the glasses lanyard to prevent slippage (discussed in Part I). For comparison, I used the NPL’s iPhone5. Both tests weretimed and any label I removed from a bag to photograph for one trial, I would have to for the others as well. Both the outside (“Out”) and inside (“In”) were photographed.

Scoring System: The recording device with the the greatest object resolution and text resolution would be tallied for each drawer image. If there was no appreciable difference or both could work just as well, both were tallied for that picture.




Time: Glass 15 minutes 32 seconds, iPhone5 21 minutes 15 seconds



There you have it! Both the iPhone and Google Glass have good resolution to record object data (i.e. the fossils are recognizable). The iPhone outperforms Google Glass in text resolution, but Glass only takes about 75% of the time. This is only a pilot study with one trial (I know, but n = 1 sounds like a better and better plan as the temperature rises in the cages!), but it is very important in determining our next step. Mainly, we need a higher-resolution camera in Glass. At this point more information is lost to resolution, lighting, and glare than is made up for by the hands-free Glass experience…for now, anyway.

The pace of not only technology innovation, but technology adoption, is increasing. We could fear change and criticize the hiccups, or we can work to understand these emerging technologies and use them in novel ways no one ever thought possible. Personally, I love a bit of constructive criticism (it’s the only way I stopped being the “know-it-all” kid in high school), but too much negativity only highlights technology’s Orwellian uses. We expect Glass and similar devices will catch up with smartphones in no time. At that point we (NPL) plan to acquire a second Glass.

Our future projects include training volunteers, testing the screen projection capabilities, tagging images, linking images, app programming, and virtual field trips. Living on the bleeding edge definitely has its drawbacks, but this summer has been a fascinating experience and I can’t wait to see what is next.

Stay tuned for the next post in this series: how to deal with the dang drawer tilt.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below.

Google Glass and paleontology collections: what we learned, Part I


Author: Kelsey

Part I in the Google Glass series. Other posts: Part II.

The Lowdown: Google Glass has remarkable potential as a curation and documentation tool, but what it gains in efficiency it loses in picture resolution and lack of updates. Before we acquire our next one, we will wait for a newer version with a better camera, but we are stoked by this new piece of technology.

Background: This summer the Nonvertebrate Paleontology Laboratory (NPL) acquired Google Glass, version 2 of the explorer edition. NPL is part of the University of Texas Jackson School of Geosciences, where I go to grad school and study Australian agamid lizards in all their cranial kinetic glory. Full disclosure: I was working at NPL and had suggested to Ann (Curator and Collections Manager) earlier in the year that we try out this new technology. The idea of augmented reality or forehead cameras is not a new one—sci-fi writers have been heralding their coming for over half-a-century—but here was a chance to test a tangible piece of the future.

We had one “simple” goal at the beginning of our adventure: test the camera and video for curation potential. Ten to twenty thousand fossils are added to NPL every year. Only 1/8th of these are digitally recorded in our database. Inventory is a careful balance of speed and detail. Whole drawer contents and individual specimens are often recorded. Our fleet of staff and volunteers have begun using cameras, ipads, smart phones, and now Google Glass. In science (and, I suspect, academic institutions in general) simple goals often turn into reticulating fractals of fascinating sub-tests, sub-questions, and side studies. Fortunately, that’s why I got into this business.

Requirements: We are interested in devices that reliably and repeatedly capture images with a high enough resolution that all text in the field of view is readable and the fossils are individually recognizable. These photos would then be saved in our database for future research and inventory reviews

Stats: The Google Glass Explorer Edition comes with a 5MP fixed-focus CMOS camera capable of taking 2560 x 1888 resolution images. The fixed focus means the glass is set to capture as great a depth of field as possible and will not adjust, automatically or otherwise. Glass will tune the ISO (shutter and aperture controls) from as low as 60 to a high of at least 960. Videos are shot in 720p only. The aperture size of about f/2.5 with a focal length of 2.7 mm.

Start: I found taking pictures with glass is like switching from a go-cart to a normal car, you have to get used no longer aiming for the middle of the road. When you are wearing glass, the screen is above your right eye (NOT in front of it), and the camera lens is to the right of that, so you will have to aim your head at left side of the drawer while taking the picture. The camera app for our edition does not have an aiming feature, so getting the correct angle and resolution takes practice, patience, and intuition.

Observations: Hands-free is great! When I used the iphone to take pictures (more about that in a part II), I had to constantly put down the phone to move drawers or reposition specimen labels. It was incredibly handy to have both my hands free. Additionally, glass really is comfortable to wear.

OkGlassOk Glass, point the laser at…

However, I found I was never truly hands free. For every single picture you have to backtrack (the “swipe down” action) to the glass home screen (above) and ask it to take a picture. Glass saves all pictures, but immediately prompts you to share an image immediately after you capture it. This could be solved with a simple picture app that bypasses the social media features. Once I get my mad programming skills up to snuff, this is one of the first projects I’d like to tackle.

Pictures: I found the large depth of field meant I often underestimated how much of the drawer was in view, or I’d overcompensate and get WAY too close and personal with the fossils, which just resulted in close up shots of fuzzy fossils. Most of these can be solved with practice and the addition of aiming software.


Aiming Troubles

The camera is very sensitive to light levels and has no internal regulatory mechanism. Even a slight adjustment in head angle can make the difference between a dim or overexposed picture. Wearing a baseball hat or wide-brimmed hat does not help, only squishes the glass down to uncomfortable angles.


This analysis? Just right.

I also had a problem tilting my head to the right. I suspect most people to not hold their heads perfectly upright, which results in a tilt to the picture. More on how I dealt with this problem in an upcoming blog post, “Keeping Level-Headed.”

Looking down to photographs low drawers caused the glass to slip, so I added a lanyard in the back. This was easy for one side, but the battery on the right necessitated a duct tape solution. The addition does not compromise comfort too much and helps really secure the glass to my head. Fashion may also be compromised to a certain degree.


Google Glass: Nerd Edition

Overheating was also an issue. Our collections spaces (“the cages”) are, for the most part, not climate controlled and summertime Texas heat and humidity are high even early in the morning. However, even in the climate controlled areas, continuous use causes glass to flash a warning message after about 15 to 20 minutes. This is an oft-cited problem in the glass community, and comes as a consequence of clashing optimal operating temperatures.

Is the text readable? Sometimes. The smaller the text and the worse the lighting conditions, the more likely it is to lose data. Also, it’s impossible to check the pictures until they are loaded onto a larger screen. On the other hand, when I had to leave a project half-way through and wanted to pick up where I left off, I could simply review the most recent pictures or videos and quickly start where I left off.


 If I never see this label again…

So, is NPL a victim of the Gartner Cycle  or are we pushing the boundaries of museum science? Once I had a handle on the initial pros and cons (hands free, trouble aiming, trouble with light balance, overheating, and resolution) we decided to conduct a more formal study comparing the iPhone 5 to Google Glass. See “What we learned: Part II” for results and my preliminary conclusions!

Questions? Comments? Leave your reflections below.

My writing rituals

Author: Brianna

This post was inspired by the podcast on writing rituals over at James Hayton’s blog. He focuses especially on the beginning and end of the writing day, which I agree are critical times.

I spent considerable hours as an undergrad writing creatively. After taking the standard Intro to Fiction and Intermediate Fiction courses, I decided to apply to the Kidd Tutorial, an intensive (and intense) yearlong creative writing course. I was accepted! Hooray. I spent the next year juggling regular and serious creative writing output, plus scholarly analysis of the craft, with classes like Physics and Organic Chemistry. It was quite the experience. Just me, three other undergrads, our MFA-student instructor, and two hours twice a week of discussion, workshops, and pushing my limits. It made for some truly frazzled finals weeks.

At the end of the year I left with a far deeper understanding of and appreciation for writing, the knowledge that I did not in fact want to be a creative writer for a living, a mild-to-moderate sense of creative burnout, and—perhaps most important to my current occupation—much better-developed skills for saying what I wanted to say and for pushing my mind to continue creating when I felt like I was trying to draw water from a dry well.

Surprisingly useful skills for a scientist.

Over that year and the years since, as my writing output has become more focused on scientific papers, I developed some strategies and rituals. What it comes down to is, sometimes your brain is like a well-trained adult German Shepherd ready to focus on the task at hand, and sometimes your brain is like a little hyperactive Labrador puppy that’s as likely to pee on the floor from being so excited as it is to flop over with no warning and take a nap because it’s just done.

We should not yell at puppies for accidents or for napping (and really, THEY ARE SO CUTE if also aggravating), and we should not yell at ourselves if and when we struggle with writing. And sometimes even a grown-up German Shepherd needs a play break.

Just like there are ways to train your puppy, there are ways to train yourself to at least smooth the writing process along. Here are some things I have invented for myself, with an eye to the special weirdness of my own brain. Modify as you desire for your own weirdness. (Note that the only thing scientific about these ideas are that I tested them on myself and refined the ones that worked.)

1. Develop an “I’m writing now” situation that engages multiple senses.

The idea here is to build an association between the activity of writing and your ritual. A very strong association. Then, ideally, when the ritual starts, your brain gets into the writing “mode” much more efficiently.

For me, for whatever reason, the following seem to work:
- Sound: I usually associated about an album’s worth of songs with each story I worked on. Yes, I am one of those people that will happily listen to a handful of songs over and over and over again, at least for a short while. This builds up a strong connection between those songs and that story (or paper), and has the advantage that after awhile the music is so familiar it fades into the background, allowing your mind to focus on the words you’re making. I still get vivid memories of writing certain stories when I hear songs I used for them. Similarly, I strongly associate Goat Rodeo Sessions and the Imagine Dragons album with scientific productivity, because I’ve spent a lot of time listening to those albums while working.
- Touch: Easy. I write best when I am cozy. This usually involves wearing a sweatshirt with the hood up (also functions as blinders!) and/or wrapping a blanket around myself.
- Scent: I go the easy route and use a candle. It is my writing candle, and it smells like pleasantly cinnamon-y spicy things. You could use…I don’t know. Room spray, perfume, those cool little lavender satchet things, whatever.
- Taste: This one is less rigid. Basically it means I have a snack and/or tea while I write, because it keeps the resistant parts of my brain from being all “But we are HUNGRY and we want something to DRINK and this is BORING WE SHOULD STOP NOW.”
- Sight: Less important, because you’re staring at the damn computer screen (or notebook) most of the time. Perhaps we should interpret this more loosely as location. Writing always in the same place can certainly help trigger writing mode, although it’s important to remember that shifting locations can be important too.

2. Warm up with a free write.

I first learned about this from my high school English teacher when I took College Writing my senior year. It is not a new concept; see the Thesis Whisperer, most creative writing books, etc. The general idea is that you take a focusing idea (or not) and just…write. Type or longhand, doesn’t matter. Don’t think, don’t stop, even if you have to write “I am stuck on this and I hate writing and where am I going to go with this” over and over again. Just go.

I find it helps to start with a question and free write from there. What am I trying to say in this conclusion? Why should someone care about this paper? What do we know from this figure that we didn’t know before? Something like that.

It sounds silly, I know. It sounds like it will waste your time, because none of those sentences are likely to go into your paper. It sounds more like journaling than anything.

But seriously. It unlocks the writing brain; it gets words going from your mind to the paper or screen and that is often the hardest part about writing. It also subdues the editing, perfectionist tendencies. Even if you aren’t one of those people who can handle writing shitty first drafts (links to PDF) a la Anne Lamott and desires to craft high-quality sentences and organization as you go, you can benefit from settling down on the nitpicking early on.

I admit I don’t do this as often as I should. Usually it is a last resort when I am feeling stuck.

3. Draw pictures.

For organization, I like to draw visual representations of my argument. For creative writing, this can take all kinds of shapes–two stories I analyzed in detail had remarkably interesting structure, one with a sort of back-and-forth tidal pattern and the other a spiral that broke through the center at the end.

Less exciting usually for scientific papers. Generally I envision them taking the form of nested hourglasses, a concept I’m sure most of you are familiar with from high school essays.


You know the one. Start off broad, narrow in to your specific ideas, widen out again at the end. The trick is that it’s kind of a fractal hourglass: the paper as a whole should follow the pattern, but (more or less) so should each section within the paper, and each paragraph within the section. This is not a completely rigid concept, but as a ritual before writing a paper, I find it immensely useful to draw at least the hourglass for the paper itself. When sketching out the structure of a section, I’ll often locate topic sentences of paragraphs on the hourglass; the first sentence of the introduction is the widest part, the next is a little more focused, and so on.

For whatever reason, I find the writing process smoother when it involves actual drawings. It clarifies my thinking, and then the words come more easily.

4. If you’re stuck, put in a placeholder and keep going.

Yes, I used this in creative writing and I still use it when I am writing papers. If I’m trying to say something but the words aren’t coming, I’ll pause and think about it for a moment, maybe trying some different sentence constructions. After all, you want to put some thought into it and not just give up the second you meet mental resistance. But if no forward progress happens, try just putting in a placeholder. I use square brackets, [like so], to indicate unfinished thoughts so I can do a search for them before sending off drafts with accidental incomplete bits.

In the brackets you can put things like, [get that one Smith paper with the squiggly bits], [find way to politely disagree with Smith here], [squiggly things are only found in Oregon but I should double-check that], [potentially irrelevant point about extinct Californian squiggles], and so on.

5. Park facing downhill. 

I believe this idea (or at least the specific metaphor) comes from Writing Your Dissertation in 15 Minutes a Day, a book that I’ve skimmed enough to conclude it has some useful, kind advice in it and it is probably worth reading if you’re looking for writing advice. You’ll find this concept all over, though.

At the end of the day, do future-you a few favors. This is especially critical if you might not be coming back to it the very next day! Stop before you are completely exhausted and sick of the project. Roughly outline the next paragraph you will be working on rather than stopping at the end of a section. Picking up a half-finished paragraph is so much easier than beginning a completely new section.

Write a detailed note at the end of your document outlining what you have done and what you will start with next time. Did I mention how important this is if you’ll be setting the writing aside for awhile? “Today I tightened up my argument about why squiggles matter, but I haven’t yet managed to connect that with the importance of biogeographic distributions of all drawings in general and squiggles in particular. Next time, write the biogeography paragraphs and make sure to include that Jones reference about migratory squiggles, and maybe move some sentences from one of my earlier paragraphs to help tie the concepts together better.”

Clean up your writing area. Save everything. (You’ve been saving about every 15 minutes, right? Save early, save often. Ctrl+S isn’t that hard.) Maybe write something down about how excited you are about the insight you had today that squiggles might have persisted in glacial refugia.

You get the idea.

And that, my friends, is my writing advice for the day.

What I pack for paleontology field work

Author: Brianna

I’m about to take a weeklong trip to the high desert in eastern Oregon, where I get to hang out with the paleontology section of geology field camp. (See this post for why I love field work in the first place.) I remember the first time I went out to do this sort of thing I was all “INTERNET! What do I pack to go do paleontology field work?” but I didn’t find all that much. So here’s the post I wish I found, geared towards the kind of field work I have done, which is almost all in the high desert. Understand that you will probably want different things for different kinds of trips.

Pants! Some people wear shorts, but I really prefer pants. Cheat grass is nasty, nasty stuff (and sage, and rocks, and bitey little ants…). I usually wear Kuhl because they make stuff for men and women that is comfortable, quick-drying, and thick enough to not catch every little sharp thing that comes your way. Go look at some in the store, because I can’t tell which ones on their website are actually made for work and which are all thin and stretchy and will fail you in your quest to not get sharp plant bits embedded in your skin.

Shirts! I wear long sleeves because it’s easier than putting on lots of sunscreen, and also if you’re finding tiny fossil bits it’s easier to just crawl along on the ground; with long sleeves your elbows don’t get all scratched up. Light fabric good. Did I mention it’s the desert? Something like this or this (plaid optional but it makes you look more like a real paleontologist or something). Except don’t go buy one of those new, because that is way too much money for a shirt. REI garage sales or Goodwill is the way to go.

Socks! No cotton. Do not bring cotton socks. (Okay, I bring some for evenings or if someone drags me out on a run in the mornings.) Wool! Coolmax! Whatever your preference. Just not cotton. And they don’t have to be super thick, although that is better than cotton; SmartWool, at least, makes some pretty sweet super-thin hiking height socks. They won’t have padding on the bottom but it will be less hot.

Underwear! Do you know how awesome it is to have quick-drying underwear when you’re in the field? Because it’s awesome. Examples: synthetic stuff, more synthetic stuff, really thin merino wool stuff, etc. Men, I cannot advise, except that there probably exist quick-dry versions of whatever you normally wear too. And that is all I will say on the matter of underwear, because you can figure your own underwear out.

A hat! Keep that sun off your face. And neck. You can go all Indiana Jones if you want (I know people who do…) but I prefer lightweight and vented. Something basic like these women’s hats or this men’s hat. I myself got a nifty fly-fishing hat on clearance at the Columbia outlets or something. It has plaid on it!

I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.
I am the one in the middle. With the sweet, sweet plaid hat.

Also pictured: the taller half of Fossilosophy adjusting my pack, and Win supervising like a good grad student. Note that we are all wearing pants. Different shirt choices, though.

And then whatever other clothing you feel like. Swimsuit of some sort if there’s water anywhere, warm coat because the desert gets damn cold at night, shorts for chilling in camp after a day of hard work, pajamas, whatever else you’re convinced you can’t live without. Probably a rain coat, just in case. Also a towel.

Sunglasses! Necessity. All fancy and UV-blocking and stuff.

Hiking boots! Make sure they fit and are broken in, etc. Your toes shouldn’t hit the front when you’re walking downhill. I got a pair of very light, vented Keens because I knew I was going to be in a dry desert and Keens fit my feet. Your mileage may vary.

Also sandals or something for wandering around in camp.

Equipment! Water bottles and/or water pack (like a Camelbak), field pack of some sort to carry fossils and lunch and water and pin flags etc (I use my Camelbak pack), rock hammer (I like the chisel-edge ones because it makes digging trenches easier when you’re measuring section), a belt of some sort on which to hang your hammer holster, a waterproof field notebook, knee pads, work gloves, a pocket knife and/or multitool of some kind, a watch, a head lamp, and perhaps a scratch awl.

The usual toiletries, except find some biodegradable products if you’ll be washing yourself anywhere outside. Baby wipes are useful too, and you definitely want sunscreen.

Camping gear depends on your situation. We camp in tents, so I make sure I have a sleeping bag, sleeping pad, pillow, and either a tent or a promise from someone else to share their tent.

Foooood! Usually when you’re going in the field as someone else’s crew, you get fed. I tend to bring some of those awesome foil packets of tuna and a hard salami or something, because when I’m in the field I am a salt- and protein-craving fiend. So if you have any strange food preferences, maybe bring some of your own to supplement the communal fare.

Finally, miscellaneous things: a book, phone charger, any necessary medications, a travel mug for your morning coffee, pencils, pens, cards, music device, belt, chocolate, rope/string, repair kit for sleeping pad/tent. Perhaps a small first-aid kit, though whoever is running the field crew should have a good one.

Did I miss anything? If I did, better bring it up quick, because we’re driving off to the fossiliferous wilds in an hour or so!

Research projects are like cats

Author: Brianna

I have come to an important analogy-realization. This is great because I spent the four years of my undergraduate research career being spoken to in elaborate analogy (see: Edward Davis’s use of 7 football maxims for basically any mentorship discussion). And that means that I, too, must develop my stable of eye-rolly but ultimately enlightening metaphors!

So here’s my new favorite.

Research projects are like cats.


Adorable, cuddly, wonderful cats.

Everyone wants one. (If you do not like cats, feel free to substitute dog/bird/child/expensive car/whatever.) It is good to have a cat. Especially if cats are something you want in your life, it is kind of sad to be hanging around not having a cat and looking at all the adorable cat pictures being posted by people who do have cats.

So you get your first cat and it’s really really exciting. Maybe you even soon get another one! That’s great. You spend much of your free time snuggling with this cat and thinking about how awesome it is that your cat is the best, most loving, cutest cat in the whole world.

Louise 2

And life is good.

But cats take up time and attention. You generally know where they are in the house, more or less, and if you have multiple cats then you might get really nervous if they are off in some other room and things suddenly go mysteriously quiet. Your energy and focus is divided.

At some point, you have Too Many Cats. Just keeping track of them is a chore, let alone doing anything fun with them. They keep you up at night, meowing and knocking things over and clawing the furniture. Your feline carrying capacity (catpacity?) probably increases throughout your career, especially if you have collaborators helping you take care of some of them, but early on that number may be limited.

So you have to…get rid of some cats? By publishing. (This is where the metaphor breaks down a bit if you are too literal-minded, as all eye-rolly metaphors do. Maybe you are a foster home for cats, and you need to find them loving journals – er, homes…)

Therefore it is important to not wind up juggling too many cats, lest you lose the focus that lets you help them along into happy home/journals.

I have a few too many cats prowling the halls right now. They are all totally great projects and I love them! But some of them need to go out the door. They’ve been lingering a little longer than I’d really like. Happily one should get submitted, if not next week, then by the end of July; it’s about 95% there. Another is clicking along fairly rapidly, and two more are sitting in the corner waiting for me to stop being annoyed about having to rewrite semi-substantial sections. Then there’s the shiny new one I started as a first-year project at Harvard, and the even shinier plans I have for my dissertation…

Too many cats. Good thing I really like them.

Thoughts on motivation

Author: Brianna

Sometimes motivation is hard to come by and that is okay.

For me, the trick is in being calm when motivation is gone; in being a grownup about keeping up my responsibilities even when I don’t have it; in finding it when it is hidden; in knowing and trying to learn more causes of its ebb and flow; in making choices that will nurture it in the long and short term; in spending time around and talking to interesting people; and in consciously aiming for more intense productivity when it is close at hand.

This all involves paying close attention to what excites me. The good news: my dissertation plans excite me! Right now, though, I am working on remembering my excitement for a few papers that need to get finished and out the door. It was there once, and I can still kind of feel it, but we’re in that last 10% of the publication process that always takes up about as much time and energy as the first 90% did. I will be pleased when these papers are off my plate. They are good projects and I like them.

Also, it is good to be home for a little while. I missed Oregon and my animals.

Communing with McKinna before my first ride in about 6 months.