Planning in research: from long-term strategy to a single experiment. Part 2: Tactics

Now that you’ve established what your high priority projects are, you should think about how to schedule the tasks within these projects to make the best of your time. Hopefully, you’ve come up with what the skeleton of your project is and how the tree of life is structured. These will be important in figuring out what is more and what is less urgent in terms of individual tasks. Once you have a decent idea of what must be done and in what order, you can start scheduling out your week. Here, I would strongly recommend using the “Big rocks” approach pioneered by Steve Covey (I highly recommend his “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book by the way). Continue reading

Academaze – the awesome new book by Xykademiqz

The road of an academic scientist is long and tortuous. Many pitfalls await the hapless young researcher, so any advice is always a great bonus. I have been relying on Twitter and a bunch of great blogs (see my blogroll) to get my fix of do’s and don’ts in academia, and it has served me well – I now have the coveted group leader position at a major university in Poland and I use the blogroll as a constant source of information and support in my ivory tower woes. One of my favorite blogs has always been xykademiqz, written by a successful mid-career group leader in the physical sciences. The blog is filled with great advice and down-to-earth musings on the “human” side of research. That’s why I was really excited when I heard that xykademiqz is coming out with a book, which, as I understand, is a collection of her most successful blog entries organized in a way that will make for an interesting narrative. The book is here, and I got a glimpse of it as an early access reader. Let me tell you this – it is pure gold! Continue reading

Psychopathy as adaptive strategy

Psychopaths are among us. No doubt about it. I’ve recently left a comment to that effect on @BioMickWatson’s blog which then lead a quick discussion on Twitter. Then a few days ago a friend of mine described her (luckily former) abusive boss who showed clear symptoms of the dark triad personality: psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. So I started wondering why a species (Homo sapiens) would maintain traits that seemingly decrease its overall fitness by sabotaging cooperativity and causing massive psychological stress. Continue reading

Looking for a good summer read?

Just found this gem browsing through reddit. If you’ve ever wondered what to read next in your spare time, I suggest you give it a look. In addition, this is a good resource as well. Incidentally, many titles overlap. I’ve read a bunch of the books listed and I can attest to them being excellent entertainment. Now stop loafing around on the Interwebs and go get some serious reading done…


Go check out Dan Ariely’s TED talk about how people are motivated and demotivated by seemingly trivial things their supervisors do. I think every manager, including all lab PIs, should watch this video. Also, on a similar note be sure to check out Daniel Pink’s “Drive”, which I’ve blogged on before, in a slightly different context.

Fun with Systems Biology

Systems biology is one of the most dynamically growing disciplines of biomedical sciences. I’ve always liked this approach to analyzing biological phenomena – using methods from engineering and mathematics to discover general principles on which biology is built. No wonder physicists, not biologists, are usually best at systems bio – they are trained in fishing the most important variables out of a see of potential less important ones. They also understand what it takes to build a rigorous mathematical model and to test it. One of their rank, Uri Alon from Weizmann Institute of Science, decided to publish his lectures on the subject online for the benefit of a larger public. The course is pretty comprehensive, but for those interested in a bit more detail, there is also the book, which can be used as companion for the lectures or as a standalone textbook. I really like his way of talking about systems biology – it’s not dry and mathematical, but rather gets to the bottom of the problem. He also answers a lot of students’ questions during the course, and so you get a glimpse of what is known and what issues are still unresolved. Obviously, there is no way to cover all of systems biology in a semester-long university course, but the lecture series and the book are enough to get you started exploring, by reading papers that he refers to and by perusing more advanced books on specific subjects.

Human – the moral animal

Recently, I came across a book that stimulated me to do a great deal of thinking. The book is “Primates and Philosophers” by Frans de Waal, a scientist working on primate psychology and ethics. The book is decidedly on the dry, scientific side when it comes to presentation, but I tend to prefer a more academic style to the “entertain at all costs” approach of many science books for the general public. It has a very interesting format, where the author presents a certain thesis, then several critics respond to his presentation, and then the author finally responds to the criticism. This format is very appealing to me as a scientist, because it has a definite flavor of the peer review I encounter in my daily life and gives both the author and his antagonists a chance to present their points of view. This is also why I enjoy reading Internet fora, but that’s not what I wanted to talk about.
Anyway, the reason why I liked the book so much was that it touched on a subject that is very dear to my heart – the origins of human morality. I have pondered this question ever since I ceased to find answers given by religion and old-school philosophy satisfying. The author argues that human ethical behavior stems from purely instinctive stimuli that are present to the same extent in many other species of social animals, and are particularly well developed in apes. Ergo, we are all, including apes, moral and unselfish deep down. He opposes this hypothesis to what he calls “veneer theory”, which asserts that human ethical behavior results from cynical rational calculation of costs and benefits and that deep inside we are all purely selfish. Continue reading

The predicament of developing nations

Just finished reading Ha-Joong Chan’s „Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism”. It’s an interesting argument for state protection of its industry by developing nations – an attitude strongly criticized by the developed world neo-liberal economists as embodied in the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. The author compares a developing nation to a child – in order for it to be competitive in the long run it needs some period of protection from the outside environment, when it is not exposed to competition and when the skills necessary for its later performance are developed. That’s why he advocates high tariffs, lax intellectual property laws, and subsidies for high-tech industries in developing countries. He also makes a strong argument against cultural determinism of a country’s economy, citing numerous examples of today’s highly prosperous nations, such as South Korea, Japan, or Germany, whose cultures were deemed incompatible with economic growth in the past by their richer neighbors. The book is an entertaining, albeit sometimes overly repetitive, read, by a clearly competent, but perhaps overly biased, author. I would give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Games (not only) people play

Pipetting is not too much fun. One of the ways I have been fighting off the boredom of mindless lab tasks has been to listen to audio books and podcasts. The most recent one is a podcast made out of a series of lectures for Yale undergraduates on game theory. The professor – Ben Polak – is a real genius when it comes to getting ideas across to students. His lectures are funny, full of entertaining examples, interactive, and really engaging. Game theory is pretty fascinating as a subject, and it is a great way to look at many phenomena ranging from evolution through economics, sports to politics. It explains, among other things, why societies settle for solutions that are not necessarily in their best interests. The best part – the lectures are available for free online. Highly recommended.


The art of inflating book size

Recently, I have read an interesting book “Drive” by Daniel Pink. I will probably write another post about the content of the book at some point, but what I want to get at here is something I’ve seen many non-fiction authors do – putting a very limited number of ideas into a book that is at least twice the size it should be. It really annoys me when the author tries to convey the same thought on every other page using increasingly refined language and desperately trying to hide the fact that they have nothing more to say. I mean, I get it – idea A, B, or C is important, you really don’t have to tell me 10 times for me to grasp it. I feel cheated out of my time even if the book is otherwise worth reading. I am not even sure what the point of it all is – I guess the author is bound by the contract to deliver x pages, and if they run out of things to say, they have to pad it somehow. But then, why do the editors put artificial lower limits on the number of pages? Maybe a smaller book looks less respectable, maybe it would have to cost less? What are your experiences with books that are too long for their substance?