Year one

Last year,

I decided to at least try to take stock every few months, in order to acknowledge instead of forget the ideas, hard work, high points and failures along the way.

OK, so that did’t happen. But here we are, one year later, and it’s about time.

2016 started off busily with joining my lab as PhD students. I received a large number of applications for the positions, and was very happy when Mireille van Berkel and Sander van Gurp accepted offers to do their PhD projects in the Social Rodent Lab. They started off with an intensive course on animal handling and care and proceeded to get familiar with their setups. Our first big training project together was a challenging in-vivo recording from three animals, from which we learned a lot.

We have visited the FENS Forum in Copenhagen, where new collaborations were forged, the NWG workshop on Social Neuroscience in Rodents organised by Dr. Markus Wöhr in Marburg where we presented our first data, the Society for Neuroeconomics meeting and the Psychology & Brain meeting, both in Berlin.

In the lab, we have found out how time-consuming the analysis of rat ultrasonic vocalisations and behavioural tracking can be. In both cases, there are controversies between labs trying to automate the analysis vs. those that swear by manual scoring. We committed to doing the sciency thing and run a formal comparison with both methods on a couple of our datasets (a BSc. project for one of our research assistants). Most things are running now, and we ended the year with a pretty intense 10h/day experiment running for a whole month. Most of the organisation at the detail level was carried out by my PhD students, who did a great job. Very proud supervisor. I am learning that I need to upgrade my planning to stay ahead of the planning skills of my students 🙂

When starting the lab, I thought a lot about how to structure supervision, meetings and evaluations so to be not too sparse/dense/tedious but rather hit that efficiency sweet spot where everyone is getting out as much as possible without taking up too much time. I decided on implementing the SCRUM meeting methodology for our fortnightly meetings: per project, the progress since the last meeting is discussed, with a focus on current roadblocks to further progress (if any) and concise plans for the next 2-week cycle. Trying to avoid the “and then this and then that happened” is a constant challenge. For the evaluations, we scheduled one at 4-months (go/no-go) and a second one after 12 months. I’ve used the 4-month meeting mainly to get a conversation going about the adjustment of the PhD-students to being full-time in the lab, to life in a new place and to fine-tune supervision and feedback preferences. The second meeting at 12 months served to outline the rough content of the papers required for the theses, and the timeline associated with them. An exciting but also somewhat frightening realisation 🙂

2016 has been an exciting year, and a good year. It was very rewarding to bring the ideas from paper to the lab. Though things generally took more time even then the adjusted expectations, there were no major setbacks and we got some exciting data. Can’t wait to see what 2017 will bring!

Mission Statement

Many institutions, mine included, require of their researchers some sort of accounting of time, money and effort such as teaching and supervision responsibilities. Though aggravating, especially if one postpones the accumulation of the relevant data to the period right before the deadline, I support such an accountability report. It provides a more process-oriented output overview than just focusing on published papers, and could be useful in highlighting the amount of time academics spend on their various assigned tasks.

That said, I do not mean that I endorse nitpicking about the behind-the-comma hours spent on one task or another, or detailing how much luggage you took on a conference to qualify for taxi reimbursement. Alas, no joke. This level of administrative scrutiny, in my opinion, detracts from the valuable time scholars could be devoting to guidance, transfer of knowledge and public outreach. After all, we are spending tax-payer money, so it should be spent as intended: on science, not on administration.

However, a quarterly evaluation, much like in the business world, could provide a valuable opportunity for taking stock of the achievements and failures of the past period. In science, the ultimate end product of a research project can be delayed so long that the original achievement can feel remote and surreal, especially if those involved have since moved on to other positions.

Thus, when starting my lab officially in 2016, I decided to at least try to take stock every few months, in order to acknowledge instead of forget the ideas, hard work, high points and failures along the way. This attitude towards failure, embracing rather than hiding away, was inspired by the amazing Dr. Bradley Voytek, an inspiration on outreach, communication and transparency. So here goes. I will post this thought on my website as a mission statement and reminder for the years to come.