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Obi wan Kenobi

Readers may have noted my absence for a week- I was out of town for a workshop last weekend, and when I returned there was a big pile of reports to grade, plus a number of pressing deadlines. I had to hunker down and plow through them- not yet done, but feeling better now.

Most people, and particularly academics, are familiar with this ebb and flow of work load. How many times we shake our heads and mutter, “Why am I doing this to myself?” Answers are of course manyfold, and luckily most of us do enjoy what we do. Then of course, there are some bonuses.

Yesterday was one of those days that my brain did not seem to work right. I overslept, causing some stress in the morning heading to a meeting, and as the day advanced, I was aware that my mental processes were sluggish.

On the other hand…

  • I was in a meeting discussing the possibility to host a Small World Initiative training at our campus. It was a pure logistics meeting (cost of lodging, catering, possible dates, transportation). I was stuck in the model of previous training workshops. The facilities director asked: “Can we make it a regional workshop to cater to instructors who live close-by and can drive?” Funnily enough, this was an option that had come up before, but somehow got lost in later email threads. As an option, it would be for sure simpler to arrange.
  • Another colleague and I are going through some serious number crunching to look at the effect of an intervention in a non-majors biology class. As it was my original idea, I had a set of parameters I wanted to look at. She suggested to look also at the number of W students (withdrawals) as a proxy of retention.
  • Thanks to a small internal grant, I am now in practice the administrator of resources, a fact that makes me nervous. Have been looking at ways to make it as transparent and clear as possible to prevent any doubts of what is the $ used for. As the project involves the use of a consultant, I have been thinking of some kind of document to reflect expectations, deliverables, and deadlines. My faculty mentor, whom I jokingly call Obi wan Kenobi, pointed out to me that there is indeed an official form for contracts at the university and explained the instructions to its use.

The common denominator of these three examples was my reaction: “Genius!” I exclaimed all three times, as the simple solutions just moved the process along. And yes, I may have arrived to the same solution by myself…but on a day like yesterday, it was wonderful to feel the power of teamwork.

Happy weekend to you all!

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Accelerated learning, living a la Tim Ferriss, and the delight of tea.

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Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

Picture taken at a quaint Victorian tea place my women colleagues go for holiday tea every December. Love the tea, but not the cup- I drink from large ceramic mugs!

In a previous post I recounted how I came across Tim Ferriss’ 4-hour approaches, and how it influenced the design of my lectures. For the record, I have not read any of Tim’s books 100%, and I do not think that is his goal anyway. I got “The 4-hour chef” from the library and managed to try out 2 recipes (which worked fine), learned a way to chop onions without chopping my fingers, and again shook my head at his lambasting statements about being able to learn anything in a very short time.

On the other hand, as I mentioned before, the whole issue of accelerated learning is important for me. My university’s approach and niche is accelerated learning, with courses 4 and 8 weeks long. For somebody in the semester system, that sounds crazy. However, our students take only one class at a time, which means all their attention is focused on that class.

And then it comes, of course, the issue of “simpler is harder, less is more” mantra, which has been my leading light for the past years. In 2012 I attended at ASCB 2012 an education symposium, where an integrated science curriculum at Princeton was presented. I order to make it work, the course was streamlined- students spent a lot of time on mathematics and physics principles essential for quantitative analysis, and learned even some coding early on. What was taken out the curriculum? Descriptions of the classic molecular biology experiments of the 1950s. I remember nodding. Why do we teach those historical milestones? Because we were taught that way. Of course they were relevant and elegant, and they teach students about the scientific process, but would not be more relevant to let students figure out how science works while actually doing it?

Currently I am in a phase of thinking a lot about teaching and learning. In “educationese,” I am in a metacognitive phase (chuckle). Reasons are manyfold: such as embarking with a colleague on an ambitious flipped classroom project for a majors biology class, or the need to write a number of reflection essays for different proposals. And as tighten my mental reins and try to be more focused and more productive (while not losing completely the ability to spot attractive unexpected possibilities), I am also more open to suggestions of how to do it.

This posting was inspired by a recent posting by Tim about productivity tricks. I was pleased to see some approaches I already use, and even more about the change from coffee to tea! Yes, me. As long as I remember I have been an inveterate coffee drinker of multiple cups just to get started in the morning. Recently and following doctor’s orders I cut down to one cup in the morning, after which I switch to tea. To make the transition more palatable I decided to go for finer loose-leaf tea, and in the past weeks I have assembled a nice collection (still growing) . What is mind-boggling for me how easy the transition has been, and how much clearer my mind is. In fact, if by habit I pour myself a second cup of coffee it does not feel good at all.

Bottom line of this slightly rambling post? Inspiration can come from many sources, some quite unorthodox. Tools can be adapted from other contexts very effectively. And sometimes small changes (like switching to tea) may have large effects.

The Post-It approach

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2015-01-05 06.51.51

My morning desk with last night’s Post-its.

Another of my goals this time is to blog more continuously. Yesterday I followed a Twitter chat tagged #blogchat and the resounding advice I got was that the more you blog the easier it gets (as everything in life). And a bit like mentioned in my previous post, there are days for deep reflections and there are days for quickies. And today is a quickie day.

The first job I held after my postdoc was with a small biotech company in San Diego. The culture shock took place at many levels, but what affected me most from a practical point of view was the limitation of time to work. There was no way to do labwork during the weekends, and lab data had to be stored and processed in the company computers as well as input in a traditional countersigned lab notebook. Even evening work was discouraged!

At one level that was quite liberating- I could not work from home, so I actually worked Monday to Friday only. On the other hand, I had to be very organized and very efficient- if I blew my early week experiment that was it: a whole week was lost.

Enter the Post-it method.

Fridays became the “scrapbooking day,” e.g. the day when we would work on the lab notebook, analyzing the data, and then printing, cutting out, and glueing the graphs for the coming week’s dreaded lab meeting. That was also the day of preparation for next week’s experiments. I prepared all reagents that I could make in advance, and made detailed lists of fresh reagents I had to make on the spot. I actually calculated the exact volumes or weights I had to use, step by step.

Before leaving on Friday afternoon, I made a set of Post-its with the first tasks for Monday morning. Again, it was quite detailed: put the trypsin in the incubator, take 400 ul of the XYZ stock and add to 600 ul of whatever, turn on the instrument.

Silly as it might have seemed on a Friday afternoon, they were life-savers on Monday mornings after the hiatus of a complete weekend.

I still use Post-its a lot. In the evening, or whenever I am finished for the day with my tasks, I prepare my set of Post-its with specific directions on what to do next morning. It saves me the time of thinking through the tasks.

Do you have any other little tricks that help your productivity? Please share in the comments!

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