Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Tips for being a more effective scientist

After 13 years as some form of scientist at The Nature Conservancy (TNC), I’ve learned a lot. Here are a few of my top lessons learned that are easy to miss when you’re focused on your core responsibilities. There are many ways to be a successful applied scientist; please share your own advice in the comments about what you have learned that I left out. Also, I recognize that these all take time and can add work. So don't be afraid to say no to requests to free up time to do things like this that you may not get asked to do! 

1. Always make time to learn
Knowledge is the primary currency of scientists. If you don’t make time for learning, you’re withdrawing on an account that won’t replenish. Dedicating even a small amount of time to learning is essential to staying effective. I spend ~1-2% of my time reading scientific literature: enough to get through several papers each month and summarize them. I also spend a few percent working on diversity & inclusion issues at TNC, which has helped me learn on completely different topics. Hate reading papers? Call trusted colleagues to pick their brains, attend a webinar, or take a training on something you’re bad at. I was terrible at written and spoken communications, as well as conflict management, when I started at TNC. I’ve improved a lot by putting in effort. Don’t have time? Read papers on planes, trains, and buses (I do this on a tablet synced to Box), while eating breakfast, or when you need a break from email and talking to people. Pick a couple of your least productive standing meetings, switch from 60 to 30 minutes (or cancel), and use the time saved for learning.

      2. Don’t be afraid to speak up for science and rigor
Scientists need to advocate for the use of evidence in making decisions. That can at times mean pushing for measures, providing internal critique and suggestions to statements by colleagues who aren’t as current with the science, and in general helping to ensure your organization is well aligned with good science. That can be uncomfortable, and many of us are reluctant to speak up. But I find that most of the time, when I raise concerns thoughtfully and back them up with science, people I work with have appreciated it (even when I disagree with them). I’ve even had senior managers complain to me that people are too reluctant to push back on them sometimes!

      3. Step up to solve problems when you can
You likely sometimes run into a problem that you know has a relatively simple fix but which is not your job. Consider stepping up to fix it anyway. There have been several times when I’ve been annoyed by (and affected by) a problem and realized that I could make a big dent in it with just a few days of work. People see this as leadership, and it pays off. Examples could include working with a colleague in IT to rapidly put together a simple information system or web page; helping to organize or connect scientists on a topic who are currently not talking to each other; engaging with Employee Resource Groups on projects to improve diversity, equity or inclusion; or doing whatever else inspires you. Always thank the people who go out of their way to help you on these projects – a little recognition and appreciation goes a long way.

      4. Network (internally and externally)
At a big NGO like TNC, there are guaranteed to be several staff who can help you learn and grow in your job (as well as be fun to work with). But, especially for field scientists, it can be hard to connect with others. Find out who works on your topic in other programs, and build a network of people you can ask to collaborate on papers, review your work, help brainstorm, etc. You can do it via Connect or Workplace, or via email and phone. 

This applies outside of your organization too, especially if you’re at a smaller one. Mentoring students at universities (e.g. via NatureNet) is one great way to do this – you build connections with both the student and their academic mentor. I’ve also found that authors of scientific papers are almost always thrilled to be contacted with questions or feedback. I also have a policy of making time (15-30 minutes) for anyone who wants to connect with me; you never know how you can help them and vice versa. That includes folks in non-scientific roles (e.g. admin or operations) – they play a critical role in getting things done and are sometimes brushed off by busy scientists when they have questions. It also means being an ally for people who need it. Finally, look for ways to get to know decision-makers! Sometimes I’ve been invited to a non-scientific event to represent TNC, gone resentfully, and walked away with invaluable contacts I didn’t expect.

      5. Learn your biases and reflect on them often
We all have bias and a perspective that informs how we do science. Many of us have strong opinions backed up by considerable reading and thought, so it can be hard to acknowledge that we almost always have bias, and that there’s a lot we don’t know. Pretending you can 'cure' bias means you'll likely be blind to it - focus on understanding it and mitigating it instead. 

I try very hard to follow advice from Ray Bradbury, which is that whenever I notice myself having an emotional reaction to something I’m reading, I pause and think about why I’m reacting. For example, if I’m reading a paper that contradicts what I think I know, I work extra hard to ask “How could this be right? What assumptions am I making? How could I reconcile conflicts between this information and other information I have?” Sometimes careful science lands you in the same place as your gut. But take the time to be sure, and disclose your leanings to colleagues so they can help to bring other perspectives that balance yours. 

Talk to people in other scientific camps, and listen to them in order to gather data, understand, and reflect (not to win an argument). Seek collaborators who disagree with you. This also includes listening to non-scientists who push back on recommendations by scientists about how much time and data we need to answer a challenging question! Most scientists prefer to answer questions with “it depends,” and sometimes we need to be pushed to provide actionable information or risk missing a chance to impact a decision.

      6. Pay attention to your colleagues’ style
While it’s obvious, the fact that others think and feel very differently from you is surprisingly non-intuitive to me. I remember working with a colleague years ago who was consistently making mistakes on a process, and I added more and more detail to the guidance to try and fix it. But for him (and many others), as guidance gets longer, they read less of it. I had to understand his style and adjust accordingly. Similarly, I like to resolve issues through rapid back and forth discussion, but others don’t think that way, and instead need materials in advance and then time to think before responding. The “interaction styles” training is very helpful for this, as is the Enneagram. Learning the styles of some key colleagues who I don’t intuitively understand has been critical for me to build relationships and work effectively. 

One final note - I found the photo in this post hilarious and used it for years at work (it was taken mid-dance at my wedding). But I learned that a couple of colleagues took it as a lack of seriousness or credibility, and once I learned it undermined my work with some people, I changed it. So pay attention to how some of your non-work choices impact your work, and reflect on when to bend (e.g. pick a more professional photo or username), and when to stick to your guns (I still haven't cut my hair).

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

How many trees make a forest?

It seems bizarre, but it's surprisingly hard to agree on what should count as a forest, or deforestation. If we can't agree on what deforestation is and how to measure it, we can't stop it. I wrote a blog post about this surprising problem for Mongabay:
How many trees make a forest?

It explains the issue, and why The Accountability Framework (a coalition of NGOs providing guidance on how companies can set and implement credible deforestation-free commitments) is so critical to solve it.

Friday, February 1, 2019

February 2019 science journal article summary

Needle ice

Here are some articles focused on genomics, but with a few others on deforestation, ecosystem services, and sustainable agriculture. The photo above of needle ice in my backyard is totally unrelated, but I'd never seen or even heard of it, and I found it super cool. Read about it on wikipedia!

Let me know if you need a copy of any of these articles. If you know someone who wants to sign up to receive these summaries, they can do so at http://bit.ly/sciencejon

Jokpe & Schoneveld 2018 is a close look at zero-deforestation commitments (ZDC) by 50 influential  corporate "power brokers."  They identify several problems with implementation gaps and externalities. In particular they note that a lack of traceability and transparency about where commodities are sourced from makes verification difficult (and most companies rely on asking their suppliers to honestly self-report deforestation). They also report that 3/4 of companies with ZDC don't require company wide commitments from suppliers (so those suppliers can just sell deforestation linked products to other companies who don't care). This one is long but worth reading for breakouts by sector and other useful info. Note that TNC in this article refers to transnational companies and not The Nature Conservancy. The problems and gaps identified are things we're hoping to address with the Accountability Framework (https://accountability-framework.org/), which should be formally launched this spring.

There are many methods and tools to assess ecosystem services. Neugarten et al. 2018 is a report reviewing 9 assessment tools (EST, PA-BAT, TESSA, ARIES, C$N, InVEST, MIMES, SolVES, and WW) and providing decision trees on how to pick the right one for a given need. This is a fantastic reference for anyone working with ecosystem services, and it covers both written guidance documents and modeling tools. They recommend you identify the analysis question or need and think hard about expertise and resources you have to do the analysis before selecting a tool.

Photosynthesis in plants relies on an enzyme called RuBisCO, sometimes called 'the most incompetent enzyme in the world' due to its inefficiency and energy loss during respiration. South et al. 2019 present a new transgenic GMO tobacco plant which improves the efficiency of respiration. As a result, their best modified tobacco plants had 41% higher biomass (including 33% more leaf biomass but also larger stems). It's not clear how much of the biomass gain could be translated to improved yields for grains or other crops, but that's still a potentially huge step forward which should be further explored. Eisenhut & Weber 2019 is a nice very short (1.5 page) summary of the article, and you can also read a blog about it here which includes some nice diagrams: https://phys.org/news/2019-01-scientists-shortcut-photosynthetic-glitch-boost.html

Kofler et al. 2018 is an editorial on benefits and risks of altering the DNA of wild organisms via gene editing. They call for collective oversight to ensure careful thought is given to environmental, social, and ethical concerns, and especially to local community involvement in each decision to potentially release an edited organism (as well as international bodies like IUCN). They stress that "using this technology irresponsibly or not using it at all could prove damaging" - and give good examples of each.

Sprink et al. 2016 looks at regulation of gene editing, and the difference between a process based approach (where the key factor is how an organism was modified) vs a product based approach (where the outcome is the key factor regardless of the process used). They argue that the European approach is outdated and doesn't reflect the continuum of modern technology (including several different applications of gene editing). They also dive into a legal argument of why it should be changed, and how it compares to the US and other countries. They make a good argument that regulation should be based on a genetic trait and product rather than the process used to develop it. This one is complex and wonky but a good reference, especially box 1 with definitions of several gene editing approaches.

Halewood et al. 2018 is an overview of how CGIAR is looking to use crop genome sequencing to drive more crop diversity and find crop traits that can deliver better outcomes for people and nature. Most readers can safely skip information on specific molecular markers (e.g. Table 1) but should read page 372 which lists several applications of gene editing technology and genotyping.

Zhong 2019 looks at how soy genotype and rhizobium inoculation (of seed or soil) impact plant growth, soy nodulation (the nodules help them fix nitrogen via bacteria), and microbiome. They found that the microbiome of soy varies depending on the genotype of soy. In particular whether the genotype forms high or low numbers of root nodules. Low-nodulation soy had more co-occurrence of the taxonomic groups (a more connected network) than the high-nodulation soy (figure 4). Both genotypes had their microbiome network connections increased by inoculation. The efficacy of the inoculant  varies depending on plant genotype. See figure 1c / 1d for details. Low-nodule soy got a significant boost in nodulation from inoculation, but still had fewer nodules than high-nodule soy (for which nodulation was unaffected by inoculation). Both genotypes of soy got a roughly similar growth boost from inoculation. This means that to evaluate biological seed treatments / inoculation we have to look at the intersection of the inoculant, plant genetics, and baseline soil microbiome.

Eichler Inwood et al. 2018 is a thoughtful review of several different frameworks to assess agricultural sustainability (in different contexts and scales). Table 4 is a nice summary of the 9 frameworks they cover, with Table 5 providing more details on how and where they work. None are ideal in every context. Thy conclude with recommendations about how to select a framework (see Table 6 for properties they should have), choose indicators, collect data etc.

Eichler Inwood, S. E., López-Ridaura, S., Kline, K. L., Gérard, B., Monsalue, A. G., Govaerts, B., & Dale, V. H. (2018). Assessing sustainability in agricultural landscapes: a review of approaches. Environmental Reviews, 26(3), 299–315. https://doi.org/10.1139/er-2017-0058

Eisenhut, M., & Weber, A. P. M. (2019). Improving crop yield. Science, 363(6422), 32–33. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aav8979

Halewood, M., Lopez Noriega, I., Ellis, D., Roa, C., Rouard, M., & Sackville Hamilton, R. (2018). Using Genomic Sequence Information to Increase Conservation and Sustainable Use of Crop Diversity and Benefit-Sharing. Biopreservation and Biobanking, 16(5), 368–376. https://doi.org/10.1089/bio.2018.0043

Jopke, P., & Schoneveld, G. C. (2018). Corporate commitments to zero deforestation: An evaluation of externality problems and implementation gaps. Occasional Paper 181. Bogor, Indonesia: CIFOR.

Kofler, N., Collins, J. P., Kuzma, J., Marris, E., Esvelt, K., Nelson, M. P., … Schmitz, O. J. (2018). Editing nature: Local roots of global governance: Science, 362(6414), 527–529. https://doi.org/10.1126/science.aat4612

Neugarten, R. A., Langhammer, P. F., Osipova, E., Bagstad, K. J., Bhagabati, N., Butchart, S. H. M., … Willcock, S. (2018). Tools for measuring, modelling, and valuing ecosystem services: guidance for Key Biodiversity Areas, natural World Heritage sites, and protected areas. (C. Groves, Ed.). Gland, Switzerland: IUCN. https://doi.org/10.2305/IUCN.CH.2018.PAG.28.en

South, P. F., Cavanagh, A. P., Liu, H. W., & Ort, D. R. (2019). Synthetic glycolate metabolism pathways stimulate crop growth and productivity in the field. Science, 363(6422), eaat9077. https://doi.org/10.1126/SCIENCE.AAT9077

Sprink, T., Eriksson, D., Schiemann, J., & Hartung, F. (2016). Regulatory hurdles for genome editing: process- vs. product-based approaches in different regulatory contexts. Plant Cell Reports, 35(7), 1493–1506. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00299-016-1990-2

Zhong, Y., Yang, Y., Liu, P., Xu, R., Rensing, C., Fu, X., & Liao, H. (2019). Genotype and rhizobium inoculation modulate the assembly of soybean rhizobacterial communities. Plant, Cell & Environment. https://doi.org/10.1111/pce.13519



p.s. as a reminder, you can search all of the science articles written by TNC staff (that we know of) here http://www.conservationgateway.org/ConservationPlanning/ToolsData/sitepages/article-list.aspx
(as you publish please email science_pubs@tnc.org to help keep this resource current).
If you'd like to keep track of what I write as well as what I read, I always link to both my informal blog posts and my formal publications (plus these summaries) at http://sciencejon.blogspot.com/