Archive | March, 2013

New video on slavemaking ants

27 Mar

As I announced a few weeks ago, I have been working on a new video on my work on slavemaking ants. It is now ready and online!

In this video, we talk about our research on slavemaking ants and their hosts (slaves). The slavemakers are of one species (P. americanus) and the hosts of another species (T. longispinosus). Host ants can be captured by the slavemaker ants, and these captured ants (slaves) normally work for the slavemaker queen. But recently, it was found that they sometimes kill slavemakers (Achenbach and Foitzik 2009 and Pamminger et al. 2013). It is unclear why the slaves do this, because they probably cannot reproduce.

The video is based on the paper: “Oh sister, where art thou? Indirect fitness benefit could maintain a host defense trait” by Tobias Pamminger, Susanne Foitzik, Dirk Metzler and myself, which can be found here: http://arxiv.org/abs/1212.0790. Earlier, I wrote a blog-post about this paper for Haldane’s Sieve.

Susanne Foitzik, who is a professor in Mainz (and previously in Munich) and her students and colleagues have been working on this slavemaker-host system for many years. Another video of our work is here: Raiders from the sky.

The music for the video was taken from the Free Music Archive.

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Final update 4.5 hour workday experiment

26 Mar

Last week I carried out a little work-efficiency experiment. Following the suggestion of a New York Times article (and after some encouragement from friend and life coach Saskia Stehouwer), I decided to work only 4.5 hours per day for one week. Here are my conclusions:

1. My main conclusion is that it is possible to get a decent amount of work done in 4.5 hours per day, but it requires effort and discipline. In order to be efficient in 4.5 hours per day, all distractions need to be removed (telephone, email, Facebook, etc.) during work hours. In my one-week experiment, I got a lot of work done, while spending less time on the internet and more time outside. Whether I got more or less done than in a normal week, I am not sure.

2. In order to be highly efficient in 4.5 hours per day, it is necessary to take breaks very seriously. A real break means leaving your computer and your office for at least half an hour. It doesn’t mean trying to read a paper while sipping a coffee. It also doesn’t mean checking if there are new updates on Facebook or being distracted by a colleague for a short conversation.

I found it quite hard to take such real breaks consistently, and I think I am not the only one. For example, someone wrote the following comment on my website: “I have to check that article (in my next break … or actually after I get my first thing done for the day).” I understood immediately how the commenter felt. The commenter and I, we feel that we only deserve a break when we have accomplished something. But what if we need to take a break in order to accomplish something?

If breaks are needed so that we’ll accomplish something after the break, then our intuition of taking a break (weekend, holidays) only after we’ve accomplished something is entirely counterproductive. But to allow ourselves to take a break before anything important is accomplished, we need to have great trust in our future self. We need to feel confident that we will finish the task, we will see the solution or find the bug later this day or week. We need to let go of the task, let our brain relax while we’re at the gym or enjoying a stroll, and come back to the task at a later stage, when we are fresh and concentrated again.

Unfortunately, the approach of taking breaks even if we haven’t yet “accomplished anything”, can only work only if we give ourselves enough time for our tasks. If I am working against a deadline (as I was a few weeks ago), I may have no choice but to work as many hours as I can in order to finish the task in time. So, if we want to work fewer hours and be highly efficient, we should start our tasks early enough before their deadline.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t feel guilty for working few hours. Every time we take a real break and every minute away from the computer is an investment in the discoveries we’ll make tomorrow.

I don’t think I’ll stick with exactly 4.5 hours a day, but I will try to take my breaks as seriously as I take my work.

Update on 4.5-hours-workday-experiment

20 Mar

This is the beginning of the third day of my 4.5-hours-workday-experiment.

The goal is to try and work just 4.5 hours a day, so that I have time to recover after every block of work and after every day of work, so that even on Friday afternoon I’ll get some serious work done and have the energy to go to the happy hour.

So how did it go on day 1 and 2?

First of all, I enjoyed these two days. I had time to go to the gym, and to cook, and go out for dinner, and to read a book, and to eat frozen yoghurt with my colleagues! Now each of these things could also happen on one of my normal workdays, but I did more of them than I usually do. Also, I felt that I could take more time for each of the activities. At the gym, for example, I didn’t mind waiting for a machine, because I was not in a hurry to get back to work.

Second, I did get quite a bit of work done. But also that is no exception. I am usually productive on Mondays and Tuesdays. In fact, I am pretty sure that I could have been more productive with more hours of work. But, of course, I am hoping that I will be rewarded by an amazingly productive end of the week!

So is it all good? Well, I am not yet sure about actually sticking to a precise schedule. On a few occasions I felt somewhat stressed by the knowledge that a clock was ticking and I only had 10 minutes left before I was supposed to take a break. I’ll have to see whether I get more used to that during the week.

I’ll tell you more later!

The 4.5 hour workday

18 Mar

Does it ever happen to you that on Thursday afternoon you are so tired that you don’t get any work done? And you’re also too tired to realize that you are not getting any work done and it would be better to get up from your desk and go home, or to the gym or somewhere else? Instead, you sit at your desk and you stare at the screen and you open Facebook.

It happens to me. Not every day, but more often than I like. I have nothing against Facebook, but don’t like the state of being so tired that I can’t do anything but scroll through Facebook.

Last week I read an article in the New York Times about working much less than we usually do and getting just as much done. I decided to try it out. So this week I am going to try to work only 4.5 hours per day and the goal is to see whether that works for me. “Works” would be defined as

1. I get a substantial amount of work done.

2. I will be fit and concentrated during all my working hours.

Different schedules

The article suggests to work 3 x 1.5 hours per day. I am going to try a few different schedules. Today, for example, I will work 3 x 1 hour (1 hour on a paper I promised to review, 1 hour on submitting a manuscript, 1 hour on some important e-mails to collaborators), plus two meetings of 45 minutes each to work with others.

I’ll update this post later this week to let you know how it is going!

Setting goals for a conference

11 Mar

I am on my way home from an interesting meeting: the viral evolution workshop at Penn State, organized by Marilyn Roossinck. The meeting was smaller than I expected, yet much less “inbred” than I had feared. It was fun and useful, and the best outcome is that I am excited to go back to a project that I had started a while ago.

My goals for the meeting

Whenever I go to a conference or workshop, I think about my goals before I go. This helps me to be focused during the meeting and to get the highest “return on investment.” After all, a meeting costs hundreds of dollars and a lot of time. It better be useful!

My goals for this meeting looked something like this:
1. Talk to person X about a certain topic.
2. Talk to person Y about a job I consider applying for.
3. Get to know person Z.
4. Learn from the talks.

The fourth item on the list may seem obvious, but I don’t think it is. At some meetings my main goal is really to network, and learning from the talks is only secondary. In this case I made an effort to learn from the talks and I took a lot of notes.

Of course, I also did other things than the four on my list. I met quite a few people who I didn’t even know existed. I gave a talk and explained to several people what a soft sweep is (see here for a schematic). Finally, I contributed to the discussions by asking questions.

Read the program

For my next conference, one of my goals will be to read the conference program more carefully. This time, I thought my talk was on the second day and I was quite surprised to find out that it was on the first! I was so happy that I had my slides ready, though I would have liked to do another practice run in my hotel room.

All in all, it was a well-spent four days.

More science communication

2 Mar

If you have read my blog before you know that each month I choose a topic on which I focus for one month. In february I decided to focus on science communication.

I had a few different things on my list for February.

1. I planned to tweet more science things (which I did).

2. I planned to write about science: I wrote a blogpost for Haldane’s Sieve about a new paper on the rate of evolution in HIV. This was fun to do and led to some interesting conversations through email and in real life. If you ever thought of doing some science communication, but don’t want it to become a huge project, I highly recommend writing a blogpost for an existing blog.

3. I wanted to add a new page on to my website about books on HIV/AIDS. The new page is now here. I recommend three books and a movie on HIV/AIDS. Each of them is great, but if you are a scientist, you may enjoy “Impure Science” by Steven Epstein most. Unfortunately, the books and movie I recommend are all relatively old (well, the movie is new, but it is about AIDS activism in the 80s and 90s). I added a link to a 2012 special issue in Science on HIV in the USA, but if anyone has a tip for what book to read about HIV/AIDS in more recent years I’d love to hear from you.

4. My last plan for February was to create two new video’s for two recent papers (one on HIV and one on ants). However, I haven’t even finished one of them! Video’s are much like papers, when you think they are almost finished, you are probably only half way. Therefore, March will also be for communication, just like February was. If things go well, there will two new videos here next month.