An anxiety-free Monday

Regular readers will know that I hate Mondays more than any other day of the week. Somehow the relaxation over the weekend pretty reliably convinces my brain that it’s completely stupid, and doesn’t know shit. On Sunday evenings, I already feel the nerves for starting up again on Monday… What if I fuck it all up this week. You never know, right. It might just happen this week… One week’s gotta be the first, no?

With this in mind, it may not be such a surprise that I don’t like emails on Monday morning either. Some Mondays people have been busy on the weekend, shoving stuff on my plate. (Can’t y’all do this on Wednesdays or whatever?) This morning, however, I started up with an email from the editors at Basic and Applied Ecology. ‘We’re happy to inform you that your manuscript has been accepted for publication.’ Now, that’s the kind of stuff I need on Monday mornings. Well, certainly not every Monday morning, but on a few Monday mornings distributed evenly over the year would do me good.

This manuscript has been particularly interesting for me. In fact, it’s one of the reasons that this blog exists. The manuscript is a piece I was invited to write by the journal’s Editor-in-Chief somewhere in the summer of 2020. I still don’t fully understand why this happened, but it happened. I was kind of overwhelmed by the question, to be honest. Me? Write a solo author piece? Forget it. I’m the kind of jackass that benefits greatly from having many co-authors to get my thinking straight. I seriously considered declining the invitation, but then someone said that if this person believed I could write this, I probably really could, and should.

The last two months of 2020 I regularly used an early or late hour to create a framework, and fill the gaps. I was running a light pollution experiment at the time, and will likely continue to do so in the future, so it only made sense to write something about light pollution, and something that related to my work on plant-mediated interactions. A story was born, and the manuscript quickly took shape.

Over the Christmas holidays, I finished the piece, and I asked my boss if he would do a friendly review, which he happily agreed to. His words were positive, but he also had quite some critical remarks on the structure, and some suggestions on how to make it better. In January this year I was struggling to find the time to work on it, I had anyway struggled over the months prior to that. This made me think I should do something about that. If I wanted to practice writing, I should work on perfecting the art. Words don’t write themselves, and without doing, there’s no learning. Not in writing…

There was another aspect I was struggling with on this particular manuscript. Submitting was horrible. I always feel horrible about things I submit. I guess this is part of who I am, but my average manuscript gets checked by six to ten co-authors. They may not iron out all the silliness, but at least they will improve most of it. With this particular solo piece, I’m not so sure. Did my boss, a professor that is notorious for having very little time, seriously read everything word for word? Would he iron out my dumbest of mistakes? I wasn’t sure, and I really did not like submitting the piece one bit. Anxiety struck again and again. I felt that I needed to do something about this too…

And so it was that roughly a week before submission, I started this daily blog. I had two main purposes. First, improving my writing skills, and keeping them trained. Second, learning how to deal with submission every single day. I promised myself I would post it to Twitter, for others to read. This version of public self-shaming on Twitter (or that’s what submissions feel like to me at least) would hopefully help me get over the fear of submission.

So here I am. About 270 posts in, I haven’t missed a day (on two days I had sketchy internet, and had to post a day late, a double-post). I still feel anxious about submitting sometimes. I notice that it’s worse with more controversial topics, although I think my words are generally not poking the hornets’ nest. But I certainly believe the anxiety has mellowed a little, and may not come as a surprise that I recommend everyone to start a blog.

And for my manuscript, well, I still don’t know. Two reviewers were really positive, and so was the editor. It can’t be that bad right? I’m still not sure if it was worth all the anxiety and imposter syndrome acting up. In any case, I’m happy it is now accepted as my first solo authorship manuscript. I’m happy I had a Monday morning without anxiety. We’ll see how this manuscript does. I’ll share it once is out. Feel free to let me know you like it (and feel free to zip it if you don’t).

At least he liked the ladybirds

The day started off pretty good this morning. We were a happy bunch. After breakfast and a slow start, we decided to go to Wartenberg, a nice little town a couple of kms from here, surrounded by hills and forests. Forested hills, I guess.

We started on our hike, but less than a kilometer in it was quite clear that Rafa wasn’t going to walk. His eyes were a bit off. Like if he was really tired. It wasn’t even that late, but we figured he had gotten used to his afternoon nap again since that was reintroduced to him at the daycare two weeks ago. Luckily we brought the stroller, so we put him in, and he was asleep the moment he touched the seat. That was quick? We didn’t think much about it, and continued our walk. After about an hour, he woke up and seemed to be a bit more vital than before. We took a break to eat some snacks and enjoy the autumn sun. Rafa was particularly happy about the tonnes of ladybirds he saw. When we continued our walk, he didn’t want to. Every time I would put him down, he would ask me to pick him up and carry him. Rafa is lazy, but this was quite a bit more extreme than normal. I carried him for most of the walk, and once home, Heike noticed that he’s super warm. Turns out he has quite a fever now. He asked me to bring him to bed (a first), and fell a sleep in 5 minutes (a first). And now he’s twisting and turning in his sleeping bag as if something is not feeling right… Poor kiddo. This might be a long night for both of us.

He went through the entire week at daycare without catching anything. It was almost too good to be true.

Green, yellow, orange, red, and a bit of grey

We didn’t really make plans for this weekend. So, this morning we were contemplating about what we would do today. We considered going to Munich today, but somehow, every time we do this, we decide to go somewhere else instead. The same happened today, and in the end we decided to go to Landshut, a medium-sized city about 40km away from here, and its most noteworthy feat is a brick church tower that is not only pretty, but also the tallest (?) In the world. I’m too lazy to look it up, but I think that was it.

I had forgotten how pretty the provincial roads towards the east are. The majority of this stretch is lined with sycamores, and to be honest, the sunny weather and timing of autumn were perfect, and the colors were certainly more spectacular than those of the sycamores in the Ahornboden, which we visited last week. Unfortunately, I had my hands on the wheel, so no pictures. Use your imagination. Road, pretty trees, beautiful colors, green, yellow, orange and red, and the bright sunshine, to bring out the best.

Landshut is a nice town, with a size that makes it slightly more interesting than Freising. However, as with most towns in Bavaria, it more or less closes down on Saturday afternoon. Many places close at 2pm and even though there’s still enough going on, this gives a strange vibe, as if the shops don’t want people there. We used the opportunity to also visit a larger clothing store, where I could finally get myself a suit for the multiple weddings we got lined up for the coming year. I hate suits, and may hate shopping even more. Nonetheless, we managed to get everything done, and I hope I succeeded in finding a grey suit that doesn’t make me look too ridiculous. It’s not as colorful as the autumn trees, but I’m fine with being the boring inconspicuous person on parties. I’m not a party person anyway.

After this couple of hours filled with stressful shopping and suit fitting with young kids, it was time to drive back. Luckily, the beautiful trees were still there, to lift the mood a bit. Autumn can be pretty beautiful. I may not have appreciated this season’s beauty enough in the past.

Old

Parenting makes me feel old! I used to be a bit of a night owl. Going to bed around 1am would be more or less the norm. These days I fall asleep while watching Netflix at 9pm. Even now that it’s weekend, my son will still wake us up at 6am. All day, every day I am exhausted. And for that reason, I should probably just go to sleep. Goodnight!

Write, rest, edit, rest, edit, (…), submit!

I ended this rather productive day today with a supervision meeting. In this case, it concerned a PhD candidate I co-supervise, together with a colleague in the UK. This particular project is almost coming to an end. Around the new year, the three-year contract will run out. Having said that, the candidate is in a good position. Two very successful experiments were performed over the past two years, led by her, and in collaboration with another PhD candidate at another institute. A third chapter will involve some form of meta-analysis, and that should make for three good chapters, to complete a PhD Dissertation. Overall, the experimental data look very good, and we are confident that we can publish them in decent journals.

Of course, not even the best experimental data in the world will publish themselves! And therefore, we are now firmly in the write-up phase. A write-up phase is tough in any PhD, but coming from the luxurious four-year PhDs that are common in the Netherlands, I can personally understand that the German three-year programs are a bit tight on time. In fact, hardly anyone ever submits or defends within the three years. Three years are not enough. But hey, we’re trying the best we can to help the candidates reach their goal within three years. To this end, we are organizing regular meetings, in which we discuss the data, analyses, and at this stage, the writing.

These meetings are difficult. It doesn’t matter how you bend it, giving feedback on other people’s work – especially when you are critical – can feel like giving a slap in the face. I generally adopt a friendly but critical approach. I try to point out the good things in paragraphs that flow well, so that the candidate can use similar structure and flow in others that do not work so well. It’s hard sometimes to do this without creating a sense of overwhelm. For instance, today we discussed the introduction for the candidate’s first experimental chapter. It was clear from the refencing and much of the writing that the candidate knew what they were talking about. All information was there, and many relevant references were used to support the story. For me, that is already a great place to start, because this lays a solid base for a good introduction (and generally easy editing). However, something was off. It needed polishing. A good round of edits would be needed to solve the issue.

Editing is a concept that most PhD candidates, I believe, are not familiar with. They want to write things, and be done with it. But that is hardly ever how it works. For me the process goes write, rest, edit, rest, edit, rest, edit. I often go through several iterations of the manuscript, before I even send it to co-authors. It is never done in one sitting. Writing, perhaps, could be. But the editing? Hell no! Editing is vital. It is vital to edit your own work structurally. It will help you clear your brain, separate clutter from clarity, and structure your writing properly. If all the information is there, editing can be fairly quick. Structuring the arrangement and order of paragraphs is the quickest and easiest, but quite often changes when I edit in my first round. More detailed, often second round editing involves looking at every single sentence individually. Does the sentence introduce something that is important for my study? Is it really needed? Can I shorten it? Or delete it entirely? At the very last stage of the editing, maybe in a round three or four, I try to look for flow. Does each sentence flow naturally into the next? How can I improve that? By editing, and I truly believe that this is only possible by editing in various rounds, you polish up your rough diamond draft into a shiny manuscript that is ready for submission.

Today’s meeting was all about editing. I tried to explain the difference between starting from a blank sheet of paper, and editing a piece of written text that has all the info needed to build the story (or likely more than that). It is an important distinction to make, and I think an important paradigm shift to try to make in your brain, especially as an early-career researcher. A shift towards taking in feedback as a series of editorial suggestions that may guide your editing process, rather than as a series of ALL CAPS COMMENTS by supervisors screaming at you how much they hate your work.

You are probably doing a fine job, but all you need to do is edit! And then submit!

I’m almost back to normal

I swear this afternoon I had a great idea for a blog post for today. I realize now that I really should’ve written it down. I promise that one day, when it comes back to me, I’ll write it up. It’s gonna be great.

So what can I say? I got nothing! My head is a blank sheet…

However, I can share a little something, that might interest some. Or not. Also fine. Here it is. Today, we kicked off our biodiversity course with a brief introduction, in the safe space provided by Zoom. We got a nice group of about 30 students that we will teach all about drivers and functions of, and the threats to biodiversity. From next week though, we will start with workshops and paper discussions. It’s the second year for me, and last year was a lot of fun. I hope that this year, in presence form, will be as much fun. It’s gonna be strange, but in a way I look forward to it. We included some brand new papers to discuss, and we even got a couple more new aspects to the course, to have the student do some more hands-on work. It’ll be fun.

So, this also means that academic life, for me, is in full swing again. A wonderful source of blog writing inspiration, so it’ll only be a matter of time, before I find something to rant about again. Just. Be. Patient!

Until then – good night!

My entomologist’s office

Aphids on the right. Plant rearing in the windowsill.

My office got a bit of a makeover. It was born out of necessity, but I may actually like it better this way.

As I wrote a few days back, one of my team members has been working really hard over the past few weeks to establish a healthy culture of two aphid species. They had some hurdles to take, but I think they managed well. In fact, so much so, that for both species we now have two healthy main cultures, and for one of them, we even have two backup cultures.

As this week is also the harvest week of our big field experiment, which is located a couple hundred kilometers away, someone had to mind the aphids. I gladly volunteered to do so. Aphid-sitting is one of my skills. Growing plants happens to be another (and my rather limited and peculiar skill set may end right about there).

I’m the type of guy that mostly runs on memory. In my daily routine, I rarely write things down (and when I do, I forget to look at the notes I made). I am working on my calendar use, but I have never been very good at sticking with the practice. I memorize things. And I do a reasonable job at doing it without help. It somehow works for me, but it also sometimes happens that I forget silly things as a result. As it has never led to any major fuck-ups, I stick with it. On this particular aphid-sitting job, though, I don’t want to risk a screw-up. These aphids are important, and so are the plants.

And so I decided to prepare space to grow them in optimal conditions. A place that I could not forget, even if I had a streak of bad days. It had to be my office. Plants under daylight growth lights in my office windowsill. Aphids under growth lights on my old desk. Both connected to timers that consistently run in a long-day regime. I figured that by doing it this way, I would be reminded of the task every day, regardless of my schedule. Previously, the plants and aphids were placed in various places in our department, but none of them were places I would regularly walk by.

This was a recipe for fuck-uppery.

Nope.

They needed to be in my office.

And I like it, too. First off, the bright daylights are not bad for feeling good, I think. But more importantly, it makes me feel like a proper entomologist again. For the past two years, a technician has been meticulously running our department cereal aphid cultures, and I only touched the colonies when I needed aphids for experiments. Sometimes I felt more like a typist than an actual entomologist. I never signed up for being a typist… I want to look at insects. And so I like my new office layout. I prefer it this way. After this experiment is over, I may actually start my own rearing of something six-legged for use in future experiments… I’ve missed it. Not sure what yet, but I’ll figure something out.

Admit it – it’s a good office, eh?! I recommend aphid cages!

Bye bye old friend

Today was just a fucking shit day. I have no better words for it.

Today, I brought my cat to the vet, and I asked them to end her life.

It’s not easy taking the life or death decision for an animal that has been your loyal companion for 15 years. When I was 20, I thought it was funny to name my cat Loser, because of the L shaped mark on her face. I kinda liked the name. It certainly brought a more positive twist to the term Loser.

Loser was with me longer than I’ve been together with my wife. I picked her up from a farm when she was six weeks old, early in 2007, and we shared my student room from the first year I spent in university. Fifteen years is a long time. She got pregnant when she was about 1.5 years old, and gave birth to four beautiful babies. We moved places together seven times. She’s one of the very few things that always stayed, wherever we went.

Over the years, Loser developed signs of getting older. She also had an unstoppable appetite, and regardless of a strict diet, she somehow always seemed to be able to steal food from her daughter’s tray, no matter how hard we tried to avoid it. Being old and slightly obese is not a great combination. The last six to twelve months were difficult. She started using the litter box more often than was healthy, and would regularly leave her liquids in other places. About four months ago, the behavior reached a point where we had her fully checked by the vet. X-rays and Ct scans, as well as blood tests pointed out that she was obese, but otherwise good. The bladder was a bit enlarged, but nothing worrisome. Her urine came back clean as well. The vet gave us a load of medications, all of which we tried. None of them worked. Sometimes things were stable for a week or so, but then the symptoms came back and sometimes worsened. Our vet determined that this was a psychosomatic condition, probably triggered by the stress of having a young kid around. We decided we would give it another month, or take it as far as we would find acceptable without heavy-duty medication.

Then we got a second baby.

For a while, remarkably, things seemed to stabilize. Maybe it helped that our toddler went to day care. During my parental leave we also spent a lot of time away, so Loser had a lot of alone time with her daughter. When we returned, she seemed alright. But the week we were back home, she immediately developed very strange behaviors again. Visiting the litter box 10 times an hour would be no exception, often running from one to the other. Almost every day we would find her poop somewhere, a development that was new and not to our liking. She clearly was suffering from something, because she would drag her bottom across the floor, leaving shit stains pretty much wherever she went. She just couldn’t hold it in, and her poop looked more like large rabbit droppings than like turds. She was also vomiting, more than she ever did before. Finally, she had stopped cleaning herself properly. She smelled quite bad, and just felt bad to touch, especially her bottom half. Greasy, and covered in particles from the litter box.

Last week we decided that this was no longer fun. She was clearly suffering from something, and it was not nice to see, or be around. To be frank, many of the behaviors were getting quite disgusting. Loser had a good life, and almost fifteen years of it, but we decided to put an end to it.

I didn’t expect that it would be this tough. Loser just knew her tune had come. When she was in her cage, she was trembling. She would cry out, but different than the usual complaints. She didn’t like to be caged. When the vet took her, she gave in. She seemed to have accepted her fate. When they gave her the injection, tears streamed down my face. I thought back to my darkest days of anxiety, when I would rarely leave my student room, and her presence made my day just a tiny bit better. I thought of the babies she had, and the joy and mess they brought. Of all the times she didn’t do much, but was simply there. I haven’t cried like this in a long long time. I will miss her.

Even though I named her Loser, she didn’t give in easily. After the first injection, she wouldn’t even close her eyes. She was calm, but didn’t fall asleep. The second dose closed her eyes, but she didn’t go. Instead, she started snoring like crazy. The third dose did not change that. At the fourth dose, I was asked to leave the room, as it would go straight in the heart, and this would be not pleasant to watch. I would have stayed, but the vet didn’t let me. When I returned, she was still breathing. I took her in my arms and I felt the life drain out of her. A minute later she was no more. The vet confirmed that her heart was no longer beating. Loser never lived up to her name. She was winning until her final breath. Stubborn as hell, and high as a kite.

I brought her dead body home. I couldn’t leave her there. I’ll give her a proper burial tomorrow. That’s the least I could give her. I’ll miss her, but part of her lives on in her daughter that’s still with us.

Bye bye old friend. Sleep well.

The horror of ecological experiments

Lately, me and a PhD researcher in our team were having some struggles in our project. As is often the case when you’re working with live organisms (Ecology, Yay!), things can go wrong, due unexpected organismal misbehavior. And if things CAN go wrong, they DO go wrong. Murphy’s law is the only universal truth in ecology. Plants need care. Insects need care. Everything needs care. If you don’t care, they die. And even if you do care, they sometimes don’t care, and still just decide to die on you. (Although arguably, good care is a good place to start, and to minimize such sudden horror.)

Aphids can be particularly horrible. For an insect group that is generally so abundant, mostly reproduces clonally, and very fast, it is also very (VERY) easy to kill. Sometimes you really can’t tell why. Again, good care can avoid colony collapse, and open the doors to many great new experiments and a whole lot of insight. And generally, good care is what we try to provide. And sometimes, well sometimes they die because we don’t care enough. We’re all learning, aren’t we…

Before I went on parental leave in August, the PhD researcher and I had collected some leftover tansy plants, prepared for past experiments, plants that had gotten old, and, without future plans, would meet a certain death. However, our open-sided greenhouses welcomed a large number of two specialized aphid species to this small group of plants. Given that we were already loosely planning a new experiment in winter, that felt like a golden opportunity. Two species, ready to start new colonies. Let’s save them, and rear them! We brought a plant that contained both species in to our lab, and I personally saved the remaining eleven from death by greenhouse facility employee. I told my colleague I would keep the plants in my garden, just to keep them alive. She could then use them any time for starting her colonies, whenever she would need them. Over the following days, we talked about how to best approach this, while I was on leave.

A couple of days later, I went on leave. To be honest, I hardly thought of aphids at all. My colleague would start her colonies, and we would talk about experimental approaches upon my return. In the meantime, I was busy changing diapers in the French, and/or Italian sun….

Unfortunately, after two months, my leave came to an end.

It turned out that while I was away, the aphids had struggled slightly. The colonies did not look good. It turned out that our aphid-infested plants were also visited by parasitoid wasps, which drastically reduced the numbers of the first species, and in fact, still were hiding inside the aphids, where they would become apparent once the aphid hosts mummified. The second species was turning into black droplets – probably a bacterial or viral entomopathogen. Not good. My colleague, being rather inexperienced, had not recognized the symptoms in time to act accordingly, and during a week of their absence, things had not gotten any better. With substantial input from the professor, they had started growing new colonies from individual adult aphids in petri dishes with detached leaves. Parasitoid and pathogen-free cultures would be started from the nymphs.

This was approximately around the time I returned from my leave. I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On the one hand, I was slightly disappointed, because I thought I had given the instructions – albeit they may have been inadequate, and therefore I was mostly disappointed in myself. On the other hand, I was understanding about the situation. You cannot teach experience. You can only get experience by doing. By doing things right, but most certainly also by doing things wrong. What made me very happy is that it had clearly been a wake-up call, and the new colonies were cared for with much care and love now. The first aphid species was already doing much much better, but the second still had the pathogen. I had a closer look and then suggested to remove the dead aphid bodies with a brush dipped in ethanol, over the coming days. This appeared to be a successful approach. Within a matter of days, the aphids matured normal-looking, and the colony was finally growing again. It seems that we would manage to get both species back up and running in time for the experiments.

Of course it would not be experimental ecology if it would be that easy! The aphids may have been fine, but the plants, on the other hand, did not like the days becoming shorter, and more importantly, the light becoming weaker. Under lower-light conditions, plants become a bit flimsy. Their defenses are no longer optimized. As a result, some of our plants developed symptoms of mildew. Quickly, we placed all plants in the highest-light conditions we could provide, and a plant-savvy colleague even brought her vegetable growth lights in for us. At least this would make it possible to regulate day length better than using only natural lights, but it wasn’t enough.

Therefore, last week, I decided to rebuild my own light installation, which I had used in the past to grow carnivorous plants. Carnivorous plants need a lot of light, and not to brag, but the sundews and pitcher plants in my care did pretty well. I quickly ordered all the light tubes and fixtures needed to get the high-output tubes glowing. This weekend, I assembled the whole kit, and what can I say. The lights are bright. Tomorrow, I will install the whole deal over our backup plants, and the aphid colonies. I’m confident that they will be much happier, and I think we were still in time to save the plants and the colonies. I hope that by next week we will have enough adult aphids to start cohorts for our climate chamber experiment that is – in fact – currently up and running. We will see soon enough how things pan out! If the colonies are slow, we’ll wait another week. We’ll get there eventually!

In the end, the whole situation, however horrible it felt at its worst point (and I wasn’t even there then!), has been a good learning experience. I think this is true for my colleague, but also for me. I think they now more fully appreciate the great care that is required to rear something seemingly so simple as an aphid. I think they have picked up a couple of lessons about the life history of the aphids, and as I told them last week, I think that makes the whole ordeal of doing a PhD more interesting. For me, it was also a great teaching experience as a supervisor. I’m still rather inexperienced in that regard. Supervision – I suppose – is more than just giving instructions, and assuming everything will sort out by itself. Instead, instructions also require some verification, a check whether you transferred the knowledge appropriately. I will certainly keep this in mind in the future!

Lessons were learned, nothing was damaged beyond repair, which means it was probably totally worth it.

Autumn, sycamores, and mountains

Last year around this time we agreed with friends from Freising that we should go to the mountains in autumn. In particular, we wanted to see the wonderful coloration of the sycamore trees that are about to drop their leaves in preparation for winter. Then the covid situation took a turn for the worse, and we did not meet up with anyone after mid October 2020 for a very long time. And so our mountain autumn tree adventure was more or less forgotten.

This year, conveniently, it turned autumn again! And even better, with great weather. (About time.) And still better, we were all vaccinated. What better conditions to go to mountains to look at trees. We forget the fact that we now have a little baby, and that the other couple are pregnant and exhausted. Today we went to see the sycamores. We went to the Ahornboden, in the Karwendel national park, just across the border with Austria.

The gro├čer Ahornboden is a large meadow situated at the end of a dead-end mountain valley, about two hours away from where we live. On this meadow, roughly 2000 very old sycamores are growing quite far apart, creating a somewhat eerie atmosphere. It’s a collection of trees, but it’s not a forest. Or is it? Although the trees have grown there for hundreds of years (300-600 years for many of them), it is perhaps not a fully natural phenomenon. Instead, it is quite likely that human activities through the centuries have led to removal of coniferous trees, leaving only the sycamores and grass meadows for the cattle to graze. It makes a quite unique forest for sure. The backdrop of steep mountain cliffs, today with a tiny layer of snow on the highest peaks, made for picturesque scenery. And as they say, a picture says more than a thousand words, so I guess I’ll end it here and drop some pictures below.

A sign that you’re in a tourist place at altitude in Austria: Alpine choughs feasting on leftover Kaiserschmarrn…