One of the challenges of having a weekly blog is not knowing at what time or from where inspiration will come. Sometimes I have ideas in the queue for weeks at a time, other times I’m scrambling on a Tuesday night to come up with something for the next day. This week I’m leaning towards the latter approach, especially after returning from a long weekend/Easter holiday.
While I passed most of the weekend enjoying the sights, wine, and sunshine of central Spain, I realized that one of my favorite parts of travelling around Europe isn’t experiencing the modern-day cuisine and the culture, it’s the history and legacies that were left behind for us today that still inspire and motivate me. In particular, I love seeing the remnants of the Romans.
On our first day trip from Madrid we traveled to the walled city of Segovia, which has an in-tact Roman aqueduct that was in use up until the 19th century. The aqueduct is imposing and impressive, nearly 100 feet tall (or 28.5 m, since this is a science blog after all) and stretches 15 km from the city walls. Not only is the original design impressive in its own right, the antiquity of the construction—which was started sometime near 50 AD—adds to its magnificence. We took the time to wander along the aqueduct trail to and from the city, and while admiring the structure I couldn’t help but think of the other impressive works that the Romans left behind. From the awe-inspiring views along Hadrian’s wall as it stretches across the Northern English countryside to the first moment when you see the grandeur of the Coliseum, you can’t help but be impressed by what was accomplished nearly two thousand years ago in a time with no computers, phones, cars, and a multitude of technologies that seem integral to our lives today.
While I am certainly not an expert in Roman history, my trips to museums and my brief bits of reading about that period of history has given me an impression of how Rome functioned and thrived. As the saying goes, ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’, and the breadth of the empire also wasn’t won overnight. It was only through years of wars and also diplomacy that the empire became what it was at its height, stretching from Turkey and Northern Africa all the way to England. But holding that much land in a time without telecommunication of any form required more than just military might. Part of what makes Rome stand out, and makes their monuments still stand today, is the recognition that infrastructure was the key to keeping things in order, in making people happy, and in building an empire that would last beyond one person’s lifetime.
Say what you will of the finer details of how things were done in Rome, as it certainly had its fill of bad emperors, slave-based labor, and probable constant lead poisoning, but Rome as a whole was committed to keeping itself together. While other empires may have been held in tact by a single person, as with Alexander the Great whose empire fell apart at his death, Rome lasted and held itself strong for generations. Caesar Augustus commented on Alexander’s downfall in a quote by Plutarch: “He [Caesar Augustus] learned that Alexander, having completed nearly all his conquests by the time he was thirty-two years old, was at an utter loss to know what he should do during the rest of his life, whereat Augustus expressed his surprise that Alexander did not regard it as a greater task to set in order the empire which he had won than to win it.”
So where am I going with this, apart from sharing my love of Roman history? One of the reasons that I’m always inspired by the Romans is the fact that they built things to last, and built things for the Empire and not just for themselves. While emperors certainly had nice places to live and probably led better lives than most people in Rome, some emperors like Hadrian (whose wall in England still stands to this day) spent a lot of his time as ruler travelling around and decreeing construction projects for public buildings and infrastructure that everyone could use. While self-indulgence is always a part of being an emperor, king, or leader, the best leaders recognize that giving something back to the people that work for you is better than rewarding yourself for your own leadership achievements.
From the perspective of scientific research, Rome can provide us with a means by which to think about the type of work we do. We can make great achievements in knowledge and write the best papers ever, but if this work ends when we retire then what sort of legacy does it leave behind? If we focus only on conquering and not building an infrastructure, will things fall apart once we step away? Just as Rome wasn’t built in a day, great science also takes time to come to fruition, and the greatest scientific achievements were never done for self-indulgent purposes but instead were done while working towards a greater, longer-lasting good. As you think about your own research, envision a legacy and think of how your work can provide a framework of understanding for future researchers I mean, if the Romans could do all the things they did in the world that they lived in, how much could you achieve given the technology and the knowledge that we all have today?
Our first entry in the ‘Heroes of Science’ series was about Galileo, whose life and work I had been interested in for a while. The next post in the series will focus on someone whose fame is well-known, but whose life and work I didn’t know much about until this week. Even at the completion of International Women’s day last week, there is still a lot of discussion within science and engineering about getting women more involved and how to keep them in research positions. In the midst of hearing about the challenges women face in today’s research environment, I thought back on what the challenges might have looked like over a hundred years ago, when the number of women scientists was far fewer than now, and pondered what it meant to be one of the best scientists (not just one of the best women scientists but one of the best scientists, period) to emerge from that time.
*Disclaimer: As with our previous Heroes of Science post, this post is by no means an exhaustive biography, but is meant only as an overview of Marie Curie's life as a scientist and why she can be considered a Hero of Science. The information presented here comes from our favorite source of fun facts, and there are lots of other resources if you are interested in reading more about Marie Curie.
Even if you don’t know her history, you’ve seen Marie Curie’s name everywhere. Her name (as well as her husband’s) can be found on metro stations, airplanes, research institutions, fellowships, hospitals, and the list goes on and on. But before she was Marie Curie, she was Maria Salomea Skłodowska, born in Warsaw in 1867. Maria was part of a family of teachers who had an enthusiasm for science, but unfortunately who had also lost property and status in Russian-occupied Poland while she was growing up. Her father taught math and physics, and when his school had to stop doing lab experiments by order of the Russian government, he brought his chemistry lab equipment home instead.
Maria attended boarding school but found herself unable to enroll at a university in Poland because of to her status as a woman. She became involved with Poland’s ‘Flying University’, an underground nationalistic Polish university, but her older sister inspired her to earn enough money working as a governess in order to move to Paris and study there. It took a year and a half of work for Maria to make enough money to join her sister in Paris, meanwhile taking the initiative to educate herself with books and self-tutoring in her spare time.
Maria moved to Paris (and thus became Marie) while she was in her mid-20s and enrolled at the University of Paris to study physics, chemistry, and math. She spent her nights tutoring so she could earn money while studying and in 1893 got her degree in physics and soon started work at an industrial lab. She then earned her second degree and soon afterwards met Pierre Curie, who was an instructor in the school of physics and chemistry. Marie was looking for a bigger lab to work and was introduced by a colleague to Pierre. Pierre himself didn’t have a lab of his own, but he did help find a place for Marie. Their mutual love of chemistry and curiosity about the natural world led to a deeper friendship, and Pierre proposed to Marie. She turned him down, as at that time still intent on moving back to Poland. After going back to Poland to visit family, she soon realized that her dream wasn’t achievable: she was denied a place at Jagiellonian University in Krakow because of her status as a woman. Pierre sent her a letter asking her to come back to Paris to work on her Ph.D. and to marry him, and this time she obliged.
For her PhD thesis, Marie decided to study uranium rays, thanks to inspiration from recent discoveries about x-rays and uranium. Using an electrometer similar to the one from her father’s old lab equipment, she was able to determine that the amount of radiation from the uranium was proportional to the quantity of the material, so she hypothesized that the rays weren’t from chemical interactions but solely from the atoms themselves. This was a groundbreaking way of thinking about atoms and was just the start of the groundbreaking discoveries that would lead her to two Nobel prizes. During her dissertation work, she had her first daughter and worked as an instructor at the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). The school didn’t have a lab, so she did her work in a converted shed next to the chemistry department. Her school also didn’t sponsor her research, so she worked to get subsidies from mining companies and governments who were interested in her work. She soon became entrenched in a systematic search for substances that could emit radiation, and also inspired Pierre to join in her endeavors.
Pierre and Marie worked together and wrote numerous papers as they worked to discover the element that was responsible for higher activities than others. Through their work they discovered the element Radium and also coined the phrase ‘radioactivity’. They published 32 scientific papers in the time span of 4 years, including a ground-breaking medical paper demonstrating that exposure to radium destroyed tumor cells faster than healthier ones. In 1900, she became the first woman faculty member at ENS and later received her doctorate in 1903. She was invited to the Royal Institute in London to present her dissertation work, but due to her status as a woman Pierre had to speak on her behalf.
Thankfully, Marie wasn’t denied a Nobel prize due to being a woman, although it did almost happen that way. In 1903 she shared the prize with her husband and Henri Becquerel for their work on radiation. The award was almost only given to Pierre and Henri, but one member of the Nobel committee was an advocate for women scientists and made sure that she was on the list, too. Pierre and Marie used their prize money to fund their lab and to continue their great work. Unfortunately, in 1906 Marie had to continue their incredible work on her own after Pierre died in an accident. Marie was left devastated but still determined to keep working. Before his death, Pierre was ready to accept a new position as Chair of Physics at the University of Paris, a position which the university instead offered to Marie. She took up the role and was determined to use her work and her lab as a tribute to her husband.
While her work continued to flourish with the establishment of the Radium Institute, the successful isolation of radium in 1910, and working to define international standards for radioactive emissions, she still faced adversity. Marie was never admitted to the French Academy of Sciences, in part due to her status as a woman but also from strong xenophobic tensions, which also led to France occasionally shedding a poor light on her great work when receiving national awards. Despite both professional and personal adversity, her work was always on point, and she received a second Nobel prize, this time in Chemistry, in 1911—and to this day she is one of only two people to win Nobel prizes in two different fields.
At the start of World War I, she worked on developing equipment to help battlefield surgeons, and was the first director of the Red Cross radiology department. Wanting to give everything she had to the allies’ cause, she even offered up her Nobel prizes to support the war effort. While her direct efforts to support soldiers and doctors on the front lines was at the time left relatively unrecognized by the French government, she continued to be a leader both in wartimes and as the leader of an institute which churned out four more Nobel prize winners, including her own daughter.
While there are numerous legacies that Marie Curie left behind from her work, what stands out to me is her perseverance as a scientist. She was described as honest and modest, which seems to hold true when you see how she always invested prize money into her and Pierre’s work and worked to build others up in their institute instead of keeping it all for herself. She refrained from patenting her radium-labelling isotopes so that other scientists could more easily do the research they needed to. She also worked in a world that continually told her no, simply because she was a woman. The fact that she continued her research, which was both ground-breaking and Nobel prize-winning work, is proof of her dedication to her role in science and not to society’s expected role for her in the world.
Marie Curie wasn’t just amazing because she was the first woman to do so many things in science, but because she provides an example for all of us, man and woman alike, of how we can let our passions and our curiosities drive us instead of letting ourselves be limited by the expectations of the world around us. She goes to show all of us that where you end up isn’t determined by what gender or economical status you’re born into, it’s instead driven by your ambitions and your goals, and the dreams of what you want to achieve, learn, or accomplish. Marie and Pierre also illustrate a great relationship in science—having someone that is your teammate and collaborator, and a person that inspires you to do your best and that helps you accomplish amazing things. Whether it’s your life partner or your science best friend, being in an inspiring and supporting relationship can make all the difference in helping you succeed.
I have never been a very outspoken feminist, especially in the context of women in science, but I was really inspired by Marie’s story and the energy she put into working towards a goal, regardless of the obstacles in her way. Despite the challenges that women and other under-represented groups face in the sciences today, the world looks quite different than it did 100 years ago thanks to the pioneering efforts of early women in science. My PhD advisor told me about her days as a Masters student, when she would have lunch with the only other female in the graduate department. I see both her and Marie Curie not as pioneers for women in science but really as pioneers, period: people that go into a place that’s new and unfamiliar and that let themselves and their work shine, regardless of gender, nationality, or any other status. Maybe that’s why science is such a great place for everyone that works there, because it’s the merit of the work that’s the focus, not the person who does it.
If you have another scientist in mind that you’d like to see featured in our Heroes of Science series, email your suggestion to science.with.style.blog[at]gmail.com and we’d be happy to feature it in an upcoming post. Until then, we hope you have an enjoyable Easter holiday—whether you get time off from the lab or just enjoy some spare time while eating your weight in chocolate eggs!
The great philosopher Led Zeppelin has always has a way with words:
In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to do science,
Now I've got a degree, I've tried to learn important facts the best I can.
Memorized and synthesized and learned the entire Krebbs cycle too,
Good meetings, Bad meetings, we know you’ve had your share;
When my attention span wanes after 3 hours,
Do I really still need to care?
As a career scientist in the modern era, you have numerous jobs besides being a scientist: you’re a project leader, teacher, motivator, finance manager, accountant, PR manager, public speaker, fundraiser, and personal secretary. In an ideal world, you could concentrate on doing your science, writing papers on your own at your own pace, and spending most of your day in your office or in the lab thinking about new ideas and bringing them to life. In reality, you have to manage your own tasks while working with others on large multi-organization projects, engage with collaborators to write new grant proposals, and be ready to work as a team to get something finished that would take you ages to do on your own.
While we know the type of science needs to be done to make progress in our understanding of the universe, it’s not always clear how to do the necessary thing that will enable scientist to do this great work. One of the essentials is learning how to work in groups, and part of that is how to lead productive group work. Unfortunately we all know too well what a painful, unproductive meeting feels like: the project meetings where one person drones on endlessly, a conference call that was scheduled to last an hour but has already gone for an hour and a half with still three agenda items to go, or a club at your University that meets every month and always talk about the same thing with nothing getting done.
It may seem more productive (and enjoyable) to avoid meetings altogether, but disengaging from work groups will put you at a huge disadvantage. Part of being a scientist means collaborating, and part of collaborating means you engage in group discussions. If you avoid them now but then end up in a project leadership position down the line in your career, will you know how to make an agenda? If you miss out on key discussions with a group you’re involved in, will you know how to make the group’s activities more impactful for both the group and your own career? If you skip out on face-to-face meetings on your project, will you know how to respond in a work setting when your boss turns to you in a group and asks ‘So, how does your project fit in with our 10-year plan?’
Learning how to be involved in group activities, as well as how to deal with groups that may not be going in an ideal direction, can set you up for success in your future career. Knowing how to lead a small group of people effectively and efficiently is a huge skill for any type of research position with leadership or management responsibilities. Honing the art of finishing a conference call on time, while still covering all the key discussion points and doling out action items, can help lead you to more papers and more grants. Regardless of what sector you end up working in or at what stage of your career you find yourself, learning how to manage and work in groups can bolster your own project’s productivity—setting you up for future success on a wider scale.
What makes a group or meeting effective?
- Having an overall goal. Above everything else in this list, a clear and well-understood goal is the key to making any group effective and to make any meeting productive. Whether it’s a conference call about a draft manuscript or a graduate student society group at your university, there should be an understanding of the goals and objectives of your group’s activities. The goal doesn’t have to be complicated-it can be “To write a paper by May 2017” or “To organize events for graduate students at our University on a regular basis”, but doing anything without a goal in mind can lead to tangential discussions and unproductive meetings.
Having a goal doesn’t mean everyone in the group will simultaneously know the process to achieve the goal. If the goal is simple then the process is easily understood (e.g., if the goal is to write a paper then you get there by writing the damn paper), but for more nebulous events like lab meetings the goal or process can be unclear. Are you there to give an update to your PI on what you did each week? Or maybe to summarize a month’s worth of findings as part of a longer presentation? Or does your PI simply feel that your group ‘needs’ to have a lab meeting and you end up suffering each week through two hours of the same rambling comments as the week before? Identifying the overall goal and how to get there can alleviate the need for long, drawn-out discussions or just meeting ‘because we should’.
- Clear expectations of who is doing what task. As with having a goal and knowing how to get there, an important part of group work is actually doing the things you talked about in the meeting. It’s great to generate new ideas, but leaving these ideas on the table without a clear picture of who will take up what charges can lead to you coming around to the same table again in a month’s time with nothing new to discuss. In a formal meeting setting these are usually drawn up as ‘action items’, but if you are feeling less formal you can always just refer to them as a to do list.
Drawing up this to do list is usually the job of the group leader, but if your meeting is more informal you can help in productivity by offering to keep track of action items and who is responsible for which task. You can then link these tasks back to the goals of the group and see if what the tasks contribute to achieving the initial goal. If not, then the task can be considered less of a priority.
- An engaging leader who listens and directs. Leaders have to take charge and direct, but they should also be good listeners and people who get other members of the group to engage. At the same time, they should be people who keep tangential discussions to a minimum and will change or redirect the topic as needed. Depending on the type of group, this could be either an elected or an informal position, and most of the time you won’t get to pick who this person is.
If you feel like a group you’re working with is lacking in this type of leader and also doesn’t have a formal set-up for who directs the meeting, feel free to talk to the group members and give it a try. Offer to lead a conference call or a lab meeting and see how it feels to direct conversations and discussions. At some point you’ll have to do this kind of work anyways, so ‘practicing’ in a less make-or-break setting can help when you do have to take a lead on a project that directly belongs to you.
- Deadlines that aren’t arbitrary but can still be flexible (to a point). No one likes deadlines, but they are a part of working life and should be ascribed to whenever possible. That being said, a good way to motivate your group is to have deadlines that mean something. Instead of ‘Finish your part of the proposal this in by Friday because we need to finish it,’ spin it as ‘Please get this to me by Friday so we can send the proposal to the University Organizations committee for consideration next week’. This shows the group that what you’re doing has a reason for needing to be done when it should be done, and isn’t due to your own personal whims or schedule.
There will always be a task or two that falls behind schedule, whether someone forgot about what they were supposed to do or had an unexpected trip or other deadline turn up. If you’re active in the group, be ready to help out and get other tasks done that really need to be done, and if someone crucial is being slow then be ready to remind them a few more times before handing off the task to someone else.
- Participation from all the players, not just the leader or a select few. This is where both you, as a participant, and the leader of the group come into play. A good leader should not only listen, direct, but also ask for feedback and participation from other group members. People may not always volunteer opinions or offer to help with a task. If you know someone has something good to say or might offer some support for a task that needs to be done, asking that person directly is a good way to get them involved. That way it’s not just the outgoing ones that get involved with the work, but the quieter ones that may not want to speak up in a group setting. You can also follow up with them after a face-to-face meeting by email, where less outgoing people might be more comfortable expressing themselves.
- Celebrate successes and learn from mistakes. As with the rest of your scientific career, the success of groups you are involved with will be a mixed bag: some things will work fantastically, and others will fail miserably. A successful group is one that takes the good with the bad, and one that celebrates and thanks its participants for achieving good work, and looks back and tries to learn from the things that didn’t work out.
So now that you’ve got this list, every meeting you go to will be a good one, right? Right? Unfortunately bad meetings are a part of life, no matter what type of job you have. But you can make bad meetings better by putting this list to practice: by encouraging your group members to have goals, to think about leadership styles and engaging all members, and to help out when you can in getting ideas off the ground or moving on from a topic that’s been droned about. Even group members who aren’t leaders or organizers can have a huge impact on productivity, and actively participating and getting others engaged can help you get remembered by the folks in charge.
And with that we’ll close off our post with The Zep, who more than anyone knows you’ve had your share of good and bad. But yes, you do still have to care, and by caring you can help take a meeting from bad to good. Just think of all the times* you could listen to Stairway to Heaven if you help bring a meeting to a close in a reasonable amount of time and get an extra 30 minutes in your day?
You may have noticed the lack of a weekly post last week-thankfully it wasn't for more job applications, but for something I'd been working to make a reality since I was a graduate student. I spent last week attending the 5th SETAC Young Environmental Scientists (YES) meeting, located at my alma mater in beautiful (and sunny!) Gainesville, Florida. It was an intense week of behind-the-scenes running around, meeting students from around the world, and seeing the hard work of myself and many colleagues and friends come to fruition after two and a half years of working to make it all come together.
The YES meeting isn't your average scientific conference. It was started in 2009 by the SETAC Europe student advisory council, who wanted to put together a 'for students, by students' meeting concept. At SETAC YES, not only are all the participants students, but the meeting is also completely organized, fundraised, and advertised by SETAC student members. The meeting concept has since grown to include recent graduates as well, but the core concept of the meeting of providing soft skills and professional development training, as well as a non-intimidating, more intimate conference forum for developing presentation skills, is still intact.
I first became involved with the third YES meeting in Krakow back in 2013, while I was the leader of the SETAC North America student advisory council. I was inspired by the fantastic meeting that these SETAC Europe students had put on and knew that bringing this meeting to North America was a must. But it wasn't easy to get there: we had to develop meeting pre-proposals, business plans for fundraising, coordinate work with the SETAC office, and that was just the beginning, because then when all the details were sorted out we actually had to make it all happen! I'm thankful that with a bit of inspiration, a lot of patience, a great program committee, and only a few minor bumps on the road along the way, the YES meeting was a great success.
Being back at my PhD alma mater was also something of a nostalgic experience, especially with the conference located just a few minute's walk from where I did my graduate research. I had some time to talk with my previous professors, see all the changes in my old lab building, and went on more than a few culinary adventures to all my old favorite Gainesville restaurants. The nostalgia of last week was a mix of memories, from happy times spent with the friends, colleagues, and mentors who made grad school an enriching experience to the more stressful moments and the challenges that made me wonder if I was cut out for research at all.
My work through SETAC and through the past three YES meetings has not only been a great deal of fun, but has inspired me to work through the moments of stress and doubt that I have about my own scientific career. Seeing and enabling students and young researchers to come together and share their passions in science makes me believe that the future of scientific research has outstanding potential to make strides forward. At the same time, seeing my work and collaborations come to fruition in this way helps me believe in my own potential, especially in the times when things in the lab aren't going as well as I'd hoped. I come back from every SETAC event inspired, and this one is certainly no exception.
More than anything else, I'm also thankful that this meeting is finally done! My spare brain cells are already working on new ideas, research questions, and projects, things that I know I can bring to life thanks to the confidence I get from the work I do with such great people and such a great organization like SETAC. If you take anything from this week's short post, it should be this: There is a great benefit from being active in professional societies and in doing work outside the lab, because it can provide the inspiration and the impetus we need to go further in our own careers than we ever thought possible. Until then, I'll be enjoying some much-needed time away from planning meetings and am looking forward to bringing some new outreach ideas and blog post series in the coming months.
If you're an environmental science or toxicology student and are looking to get involved with a great professional organization (with lots of student-focused events, travel grants, awards, and social media profiles) then check out the SETAC website and join us at a future meeting. As an added bonus, it's the most friendly and fun group of scientists you'll meet!